Saturday, June 20, 2009

What's the Purpose of a Game Review?

I recently had a discussion with a colleague of mine about the purpose of a videogame review. While this is something I've though a lot about, I'd never really taken the time to articulate exactly what that was... until now.

My colleague, as I understand it, believes that the purpose of a videogame review is to inform. To list the cold, hard facts about a game, make judgments about them, then let the readers themselves decide if the game sounds like something they'd enjoy or not.

The problem I have with this philosophy is that sometimes we don't know what we like until someone gives us a compelling argument to like it. For example, one of the best reviews I can think of lately was Keza MacDonald's wonderful review of Demon's Souls over at Eurogamer. Here's a game that I ordinarily would not have paid any attention to. I would have seen that it's a dungeon-crawling action-RPG, figured it wasn't my cup of tea (in spite of however high the review score manages to be), then moved on. Instead, Keza's enthusiasm for the game was so infectious that it convinced me to fork out $71 in order to import the game from Hong Kong. How did she do this, exactly?

She convinced me the goal of the game designers was different than I would have originally expected. One of my biggest pet peeves in game design is when games have poor checkpointing and you have to retrace a large portion of your steps to get to where you were at when you last died. Demon's Souls is absolutely guilty of that. Furthermore, it's one of the most fiendishly difficult games ever created. Hearing both those things in and of themselves is nearly enough to make me run for the hills. But Keza convinced me that this sadistic game design actually enhances what the game is about, which is, "facing up to the impossible, and winning."

In most games, being too difficult is a flaw. A game like Devil May Cry 3 was heavily criticized for this. There's a reason for that, I believe. The purpose of Devil May Cry 3 was to have fun. It's a fast-paced, fluid action game. So when you're prevented from having fun due to a high barrier of entry- that's a problem. Demon's Souls, however, is about you playing as one of the last surviving humans in a world filled with demons. It's supposed to feel soul-crushingly impossible. It only adds to the flavor that the odds are stacked so heavily against you. Ordinarily, I would have gone into a game like Demon's Souls expecting it to be fun right out of the box, played it for a couple hours, then cried, "it's too hard!" and put it away never to be played again. This brilliant review, however, convinced me that that's an intentional artistic choice that suits the feeling of oppressiveness that the game is trying to convey. I feel like I "get it" now and am tempted to want to try my darnedest to get the most out of it.

Of course a good positive review can make you appreciate a game in a whole new light, but what about a negative review? I negative review, I believe, should focus on where the game fails at its goals, and offer constructive criticism on what it could do better, so that developers can learn from its follies. For example, take Dan Whitehead's review of Dead Space (also at Eurogamer). He compliments the many design choices that work well, but doesn't gloss over the fact that the protagonist doesn't feel like a real person, and the game is horribly repetitive, something sure to turn many gamers off.

Of course, you could argue that that's just one guy's opinion, and it is. A lot of people liked Dead Space, just as I'm sure a lot of people won't like Demon's Souls (Keza even mention in the comments thread that if you're on the fence, maybe you should rent before you buy). If a reader's tastes are clearly divergent to the reviewers, they'll be able to detect that "Dan didn't like Dead Space because it was too repetitive and had a boring main character, but I those things tend not to bother me," and could go on and enjoy the game anyway. As long as a reviewer is honest with their audience about whatever personal biases they bring to the table, there's nothing wrong with straying from the fact sheet in order to convey a more holistic view of what the experience playing the game was like. No game is for everyone, and while it's true that people who aren't interested in a particular genre of gaming simply won't read a review of a game in that genre, I believe that a review should accurately convey what the writer saw in that particular title that made it so special, or disappointing, or boring, or pretty good but not anything to write home about. Readers, nay, gamers, like to be turned on to new things. That's not going to happen unless we, as reviewers, let our personalities shine through, so that the reader will want to see what we see as well. That, or agree to disagree with us if we pan something they like. Either way invites a healthier exchange of discourse in the greater gaming community. And that, to me, is a very important thing.
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