Video game criticism has always been tricky mainly because there are so many variables to consider. Some variables would be story focus, artistic vision, reviewer’s playstyle, atmosphere, mechanics, and the list goes on. With so many different variables that make up a game, how do we effectively judge this form of entertainment? This is the question that TruePCGaming was designed to account for and why I write for them, but I’m not going to talk about our mission statement. I won’t be talking about how people should critique video games or about more effective methods to go about it. This is about how critique is done by everyone, regardless of the format whether it be written or recorded.
Every criticism stems from experience; these experiences are largely influenced by their own preferences and playstyle. Now, this comes off as common sense but there’s something very important in that idea. When I attended IndieCade East a little over a month ago, I listened to Tevis Thompson’s talk called “Indie Criticism” and he had some really good points about criticizing games in general. Early into his talk, he had said that everyone has different opinions and different games that they like. Those different games that people like are a result of that person’s opinions and preferences. One might prefer Fallout to The Elder Scrolls because they like the post apocalyptic atmosphere over the fantasy medieval setting.
This preference will then be a part of how a reviewer might review another. For example, the same reviewer who preferred Fallout may praise Metro Last Light for its atmosphere, but could react negatively to the linearity of the Metro as opposed to the open world experience that Fallout provides. That doesn’t mean that Metro Last Light is a bad game, it just means that there are a lot of factors which are impacted by a critic’s personal preferences.
TotalBiscuit goes over this idea in detail in his video titled, “Stop liking things I don’t like – Relativism in games critique.” He points out that part of his criticism of small environments in Thief is based on previous experiences with small levels. He criticizes that element of design as well as many others, but there was no way he could have covered every aspect because not every aspect is relevant to him. Since there are so many variables in a game, a critic won’t spend a ton of time hammering out his opinion on everything from whether the player can see his legs to what a particular game contributes to the rest of the video game industry. Instead, every critic will use their preferences and opinions to know what parts of their experience to focus on throughout a review.
However, there is this call for objectivity amongst readers and video game fans that Thompson says would be impossible. There’s going to be an inherent bias because the review will be heavily influenced by personal preferences and opinions, no matter what. It’s possible to try and stay close to being objective, but the inclusion of those objective remarks are a byproduct of the critic’s preferences and opinions. Our own TPG Cast Episode 32 included The Pixel Pirate, Rockleesmile, and Northernlion last year on the topic of indie criticism.
When asked about how to approach indie game critique, Rockleesmile had said,
“I’m not going to say, ‘Oh this isn’t a finished product, but I’m going to be overly critical about this one particular issue that I might have.’ Maybe there’s a tree placed slightly at the wrong angle or something. But like I said, I try to take each individual game on a basis of what exactly is the position that they’re focusing on; what are they trying to accomplish and there’s always that disconnect a little bit because you don’t always know what exactly the developer wants to accomplish.”
On the other hand, Northernlion had a different response on the same topic:
“By and large, I feel like I do kind of critique indie games different than AAA games. But I don’t necessarily give games more slack if they’re being indie for things like being poorly optimized or really buggy because those things have a huge effect on the gameplay experience. But I do take into account things like price, so if a game is $5 or $10 versus a $50 or $60 game then I can forgive being narrow in scope.”
These are two different critics with different opinions on how to effectively critique indie games. If they had reviewed the same game would their reviews be similar? Of course not, Rockleesmile would focus on the developer’s vision while Northernlion might keep the price in mind within his review. I’m not saying that Northernlion would exclude the developer’s vision, or that Rockleesmile would exclude the price. What I want to point out is that they have different points they want to hit, so they pick and choose what they want to talk about since there’s not enough time to fully analyze a game. Since they choose what to mention, they purposely exclude other things which says something about their opinion on what’s important in a game. On the topic of objectivity in reviews, how can someone be objective when they purposely leave out certain things? Truth is, no one can be completely objective within a review because critics will always push the points they think are important.
Since all reviews are opinions, it might be helpful to clarify which ones are worth looking at. TotalBiscuit would argue that almost every criticism is valid because of all the different perspectives one could have on the same game mechanic. While it’s true that everyone’s opinion is valid, it’s not black and white. I realize that this claim is questionable where one might say that validity of an opinion is dependent on one’s exposure to the subject. However, I must point out that this type of validity is perceived based on values of the person determining the validity of the opinion. One’s perceived value directly affects the validity of an opinion for that individual. While an opinion may not be valuable to one person, it is definitely valuable for someone somewhere in the world.
For example, someone plays two hours of Dark Souls and has developed an opinion. This opinion may not be relevant to one who avidly play games and can easily play up to ten hours a week, but it is definitely relevant to someone who works 16 hour shifts and has virtually no time to play video games. Validity in this sense is clearly subjective; but as long as an opinion is valid in some way, it is considered valid. With so many opinions floating around, which ones are the best to look at? Thompson echoes this concern in his talk and poses the question, “What are you looking for?” To which he answers, people are looking for someone to connect with. As a reader, it’s important to know what kind of criticism that best fits your tastes and perspectives. That way, it’s more likely that you’ll find the information you need on a game. Critics are presenting opinions based on their personal preferences and their readers should share those sentiments.
Let’s use the Fallout example again; if a reader shared the preferences and opinions of that critic, the information from the critique is more valuable than another reviewer who enjoyed Fallout but didn’t share the same concerns as the reader. This second reviewer doesn’t have the same values as the first critic or the reader and may not emphasize the atmosphere or the open-world setting of Fallout.
That doesn’t mean that the second reviewer’s opinion is totally invalid, it’s just less relevant to that reader. It’s still a valid piece of criticism, but it’s not as valuable as the first critic’s review to that same reader. Of course, reading other reviews never hurts and it’ll usually bring new perspectives into play that may give a reader a better understanding of a game. Fresh perspectives are always good because they bring new ideas to the industry. New perspectives bring new ideas from game designers to address those criticisms.
In the end, there are no bad, invalid or objective opinions, just different ones. Valuable opinions for the reader are based on their relevance to the player’s preference. The most valuable are the ones which become most relevant and I encourage everyone to find a critic that best fits them.