I find it funny how people equate something devoid of subjectivity or personality to read like a food ingredients label. I find it funny how one would think that objectivity necessarily segregates expression of personality from objectivity. For example, the Animator’s Survival Kit. It was written in a very personality-driven way, but the things it describes are accurate. They correspond to a truth about how animation works. That’s the place where I come from in artistic criticism.
I had a long conversation about this in a twitch chat recently. There’s an objective truth about what media objects are. You can’t say that Hotline Miami is a first person adventure game or real-time strategy game. You can’t say it doesn’t have a lock-on function. You can’t say the cursor doesn’t move relative to the character’s position. You can say that in the first game that holding down shift would make the screen move further at a ratio directly proportional to the cursor’s distance from the character and in the second game it adjusts itself out a fixed distance in the direction the cursor is relative to the character which is then modulated further by a weaker linear increase based on distance out from the character. There are a large number of factors about games we can objectively identify, they’re there. We have all these guides on how to play competitive games or how to speedrun non-competitive games competitively because these guides represent a truth about the system. The system objectively functions in a certain way, this is defined by its code. We can come closer to understanding how it functions through observation and experimentation.
You need to have a clear picture and understanding of the entire system and be able to extrapolate it into how people actually play through experience and experimentation and determine if the different parts of the system create depth/variation, a large number of possible differentiated scenarios, which requires a balance between the elements so that none overshadow the others, and an integration of them, because when rules interact with each other, it multiplies or exponentiates the number of possible states. If game journos knew about wavedashing day 1 in smash bros, if they knew about every other exploit their reviews would still suck because they couldn’t extrapolate that information into a simulation of what is going on in the player’s heads and all the possible different ways the game can turn out, all the factors pressing on each other.
Large depth means there is a lot to learn about the game, which means it can continue to keep the player inconsistent at the game and thwart their mastery. What games are supposed to do is keep us challenged, if there is always something new for us to work on then we can continually be kept in that state between frustration and boredom. We keep the consistency from being too high or two low, and furthermore games with a larger amount of depth require the player to understand the game better and it makes it more about decision-making assuming all the elements are in balance with one another.
Lot of people think it’s all about reviewers being experienced in the genre and aware of the average buyer of the game, but that’s avoiding the problem. What if the game doesn’t exist in a conventional genre and there is no game really comparable to it? Like Katamari Damacy? What if an entire genre is trash and someone who was mired in the genre couldn’t see it for that?
For example, turn based RPGs. Turn Based RPGs are basically PSPACE-complete problems, they only use levelups and RNG to modulate that so they aren’t trivially easy to solve. Imagine your character had a set amount of stats and abilities and those never changed, imagine if all the enemies in the game were adjusted to fit the character’s new stats proportionally so the same number of attacks fell the character/boss as at the intended level. Imagine if all RNG were removed from the system. Character level is a stronger determiner of success than any decisions the player actually makes. The only reason choices don’t pay off 100% of the time. Only reason correct strategies are not always successful is because there’s something there forcing them to fail a set percentage of the time. It borders on slot machine design.
Reminds me of Harry Potter’s issue with Quidditch in the Methods of Rationality Fan-fiction. The only reason we have RPGs the way they are is because they arose in such a fashion that their ass-backwards nature isn’t obvious to us because we’ve all come to accept it.
The other thing is, to have any sort of practicality or accountability, game reviews need to extend into games criticism. You need to be able to identify what elements of a game are good or bad. Except that’s stupid, game reviews already do that, and it doesn’t work, because it ends up just being the reviewer saying generically what elements they disliked rather than trying to put it into perspective or compare to any type of baseline or using any sort of criteria.
More practically, game reviews need to not only identify what’s wrong about a game, they need to figure out how to mediate the rules to prevent them from overshadowing each other and create balance between the elements. Sure, this goes into games criticism a bit, but I think the practice should be implemented so that game reviews can be kept just a bit honest, because doing this would require them to actually conceptualize how the game is put together and other ways it could have been put together that work better. That and if we had more people trying to spread around their interpretations of game design in terms of what should actually be changed to make a better game, then we might end up with a bunch of shit, but it would push us somewhere in the right direction by having people at least consider it.
They need to not just identify what the good elements are, but be able to extrapolate them into lessons we can learn for future games, to be able to see them as a generic version of that particular construct, meaning think about the different ways the developer could have laid the same general mechanics out, maybe with new level designs. They should present this in a way so it’s clear why that construct works for that game in particular and why it connects to an underlying tool common to game designers.
Game Reviewers would have the tendency to think ledge hogging in Melee is bad, because they don’t like getting shammed out of recovering. Game Critics realize it creates a timing based mixup game between recovering high and recovering low, sooner versus later, but ledge occupancy time on the roll animation needs to be reduced so there is more potential to delay as a mixup in going for the low position instead of it being all kinds of safe and occupying the ledge forever.
And what of people who think these objective reviews are dull? They have no imagination or love of games as an art form and craft.
Even the people in favor of objective game reviews have no idea what such a thing looks like. Culturally, we don’t really know what criticism looks like, because most of us haven’t had experience being in a culture of criticism, like communities for conceptual art. Culturally, we don’t know much about the structure of games, because nobody has seriously considered the structure of games very hard, and there has been a lot of pushback and other factors blocking such investigation. Most people reviewing games aren’t familiar with computational complexity, they aren’t familiar with psychological conditioning or reward structures beyond a pop psychology conception of it, they aren’t familiar with how reaction time, learning cycles, or other basic human faculties work, they don’t have a background experience in game systems, they don’t have a background experience in animation principles or familiarity with the concept of Game Feel, they aren’t actually good at any games, let alone the number required to have the experience necessary to extrapolate the game experience.
To sum up, it boils down to these factors:
- Ability to identify how the game all works and functions through observation and experimentation. (and ability to describe that succinctly)
- Ability to describe the functioning of the controls/control apparatus and their relationship to how the mechanics function.
- Ability to extrapolate this into the range of strategies players use and describe this in a way that makes sense and isn’t literally a guide on how to play the whole game.
- Ability to identify structures in the game that create or destroy relative depth or where there is a potential for depth.
- Ability to conceptualize alternate rules that amend issues with the game or bring out uncultivated aspects of the game.
- Ability to recognize structures that successfully create depth and conceptualize a generic form of them that can be applied as a template to future games.
I think these are the components of a good game review/criticism. In addition to this you need to be a non-shit writer because in order to exploit the blue ocean of people who hate current game reviews and who don’t listen to game reviews at all, you need to be able to express ALL OF THIS in terms they can understand and relate to. You’re not allowed to use fancy obfuscating academic language. If your work cannot be understood by the masses, then you’re useless and dead in the water.
People who think this method is dry or dull are people who think games are dry and dull and do everything in their power to get away from talking about games, typically because they’re more interested in the “human element,” the “narrative,” “Immersion,” or a similar ideal.