Reviews as a Lens

Recently, I had a conversation with Ryan Kuo of Kill Screen on the question of whether or not it made sense for KS to review games that are less than timely. Would it make sense, for instance, to review something like Angry Birds? The game has been around a while, and is hugely popular, but it’s easy to see why a review would be less than fruitful. Everybody already knows what Angry Birds is, and whether it’s worth buying.

The more I think about it, though, the more I feel like reviews are more valuable to us than recommendations. For me, the importance of reviews isn’t rooted in whether or not to buy the game in question. It’s the value reviews offer as a genre of writing, as unique as the essay or the letter, that serves as a lens for looking toward a game. What reviews offer is a chance to change our stance toward the games we play, to think about them in a new and different way, and to draw conclusions about what the game means..

We think about genre all the time. Genre awareness is a necessary skill for the 21st century participant in culture. This has been true for a long time—Duchamp’s Fountain was first showed almost a century ago—but it is especially true for us today. Seriously, look at this list of examples of lampshading, the process of a creator calling attention to the ways in which her creation adheres to the rules of genre. Some of the most successful games on the market today rely on this. I’m thinking in particular about Limbo, Super Meat Boy, and especially Comic Jumper. These games are successful because of our awareness of and expectations about the platform genre, and they use that familiarity and understanding to accomplish new, exciting things.

So: shouldn’t we use this same genre awareness when we approach writing about gaming? What are the features/conventions of the genres in which we are writing? How does genre affect the ways in which meaning is made and communicated in our conversations about gaming? These may seem like big, abstract questions, but we grasp them intuitively when we laugh at Zoe’s complaints about the speed of the zombies in Left 4 Dead. And we understand them just as intuitively in writing; we just don’t usually foreground the knowledge in the same way.

For instance, consider the interview. KS publishes interviews with game makers, but we accept certain things about the interview as genre: for instance, we acknowledge that

  1. the interviewee is probably biased,
  2. the interviewee probably has something insightful and valuable to say about the process behind the game, including tensions between developers and publishers, within dev teams, deadlines, and other constraints that affected the finished product,
  3. the interviewee can probably articulate the philosophy that informs the game, and
  4. the interviewee’s statements don’t necessarily reflect the finished product, and are authorial but not necessarily authoritative.

Authorial commentary is valuable because it allows us to see behind the making of a game, not because it changes the way we view the game as text. This is rather highfalutin, I admit, but it is also the case that this is exactly what we do when we read interviews, even if gamers don’t approach interviews as rhetorical constructs. We’re intuitively genre-aware.

Contrast this with previews, which may also include the same kinds of questions and answers with developers. We accept that the preview is fundamentally a sales pitch, and the first thing we usually see is a tech demo. These kinds of texts tend to focus on what’s new about the game, how it iterates within its genre or series. What is new is more important than the product as a whole, and philosophy signifies only so much as it is new and exciting.

We should be similarly genre-aware when we approach reviews, both as writers and readers. The general function of the review—or at least, the way these texts are used by most readers—is as a sort of buying guide. But we also recognize that critical reviews differer from player reviews—cf. the difference between critical and player scores for Dragon Age 2. It’s easy to look at MetaCritic as a buy/don’t buy engine, and that is I think the purpose of MetaCritic. Their about page says as much—let’s take all the critical conversation (“so complicated…”) and reduce it to one single number. But there is a lot of thinking behind the numbers that are so cavalierly averaged into a Metascore. It’s obvious that critics are doing something different from what gamers are doing when they review, and it’s obvious that reviews are more than just ratings—otherwise nobody would write them.

What reviews really offer is the chance to look at the game summatively, from the perspective of an evaluator (or at least assessor) examining a completed text. It’s tempting to use this as a buying guide, and that’s a vaulable purpose that reviews serve. But it’s just as valuable to use our genre-awareness to accept that reviews offer us a different perspective on gaming, a chance to approach a game not as a player moving through an experience, but as an evaluator reflecting on the whole of the product, looking back and drawing conclusions.

It’s this stance that makes reviews valuable to me, and something we should write and KS should publish. If we think of reviews as valuable because they tell gamers what to buy, then we can’t really do anything new with them, and all we can do is cover the same ground other magazines are covering. KS is smarter than that. If, instead, we look at reviews as a chance to approach the world differently, as a chance to evaluate an experience, and draw conclusions about the relationship of that experience to the world of other games, then we can do something new with them. If we take this approach to reviews, when a game was published doesn’t matter. What matters is what we have to say about it.