"Game Criticism: Why We Need It"

There’s an interesting blog post I found via BoingBoing titled “Game Criticism, Why We Need It, and Why Reviews Aren’t It.”

I promise I’m not trying to re-start the old games-as-art debate (because clearly they can be :) ), but the post, whose author, “costik,” I’m not familiar with, makes the valid point that there should be more writing about games that treat them seriously. Instead, mostly we get reviews, mere buyers’ guides with a numerical score.

I think one reason we don’t see more “criticism” as opposed to “reviews” is that any hack (myself included) can become a game reviewer if there’s a startup web site desperate enough for the copy, but game criticism requires writers with a perspective that’s long and broad.

Of course, then there’s the question of whether there’s much of an audience for this kind of writing. I suspect there would be, but it would probably consist mostly of developers and other critics. The kids who wait in line for the midnight launch of Halo 3 probably don’t give a rat’s ass about Ultima IV and the "influence of tabletop roleplaying on the development of the early western CRPG, and of the place of this title in the overall shape of Richard Garriot’s ouevre."

And I’m sure I’m about to be embarrassed to discover “costik” is a regular poster here. :)

It’s Greg Kostikyan, of Manifesto Games fame.

That would be Greg Costikyan, author of Paranoia 2nd Ed, the Star Wars RPG (West End, not WotC), and others. Fairly well known in p&p gaming circles, I believe.

Which one is it?

It’s the same Costikyan.


And author of the “famous” scratchware manifesto

Also, I am now imagining the overall shape of Richard Garriot’s ouevre to be a pair of pale white hemispheres, almost moon-like, separated by a narrow canyon within which can be found the earthen pit of despair.

There’s that great article on Metal Gear Solid 2 and why it’s so fucking brilliant


I imagine there’s also similar stuff for 3 and probably Killer7. It’s mostly restricted to those sorts of games I think though.

This was actually brought up at the GDC this week; in one of the panels someone asked why flOw didn’t get better reviews when it turned out to be so popular and the game’s designer (I think) said that perhaps innovative games are always one step ahead of game players and so the reviewers simply weren’t open and receptive to new gameplay. One suggestion was made that, just as colleges now offer courses and degrees in movie criticism, perhaps we need a game criticism program as well.

Now personally, I think any writer can potentially be a good reviewer. So I wouldn’t want to see game reviews become limited to those with the proper degree any more than I think all game journalists should have to have a journalism degree.

Yes, there are ways to evaluate the artistic value of a piece of media and recommend it to others on the basis of that. But that’s not necessarily an indicator that such a media will be broadly popular. There are plenty of critics who give 5 stars to obscure subtitled foreign films which I would never enjoy watching, but we’ve also seen in recent years a backlash against that and the rise of the movie reviewers who can reflect more mainstream tastes.

Ultimately, although reviews are subjective, and I think it’s okay for a reviewer to include whether or not they personally liked something in their reviewer, I don’t just want reviewers who give their own opinions, leaving me to try to find the reviewers with tastes closest to mine to listen to. I want reviewers who can not only explain the game in open enough terms to enable me to evaluate it with some information for and make an independent judgement myself (knowing that any such judgement is going to be suspect anyway since I haven’t actually played the game), but also reviewers who as part of their job have a sense of what the broader gaming public likes and whether or not such a title is likely to be appealing to others.


It is interesting that Costikyan points toward (Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Defenses) is basically the mother of literary trolls.

And criticism is not a part of game publications because it doesn’t sell. Advertisers don’t want review scores to go away, readers like review scores, and from the ancedotal evidence of various web properties, page views are not derived from commentary like the type mentioned in the blog post.

And criticism as described doesn’t sell anywhere. Papers are currently slashing their book coverage. Movie coverage in most papers is simply stared reviews. University presses, the usual places where people publish works of criticism, are also rolling back how much they will print.

Overall, why pay for punditry, even if informed, when people are more than willing to give it away for free on the Internet? People write long, incredibly detailed deconstructions of games all the time, on blogs and message forums.

I think it’s trying to do that which leads to cautious scores for brave games like Flow. The reviewers I’ve talked to about Portal loved it just as much as I did, but they scored it 10% lower than me. Consciously or not, I suspect some of them were thinking the broader gaming public wouldn’t embrace its weirdness so readily, or find its length more of an issue than they did.

To be honest, if I could reliably predict how everyone was going to feel about a game, I probably would let it influence the scores I give. But it’s pretty obvious that I can’t, so I score from the gut.

One of my standard observations is that, on average, sequels score higher than non-sequels, regardless of relative merit. There’s no need to be cautious when someone knows people like the game.

Pretty much the bravest thing a reviewer can do is give a 90% score to a game that hasn’t been seriously hyped and - even worse - everyone else is scoring lower.


Yeah, watch Portal 2 get nineties across the board.

Of course, sequels usually are better, because the team tends to learn a lot making the first one.

Or give a horribly low score to a game that is very hyped. forgetting the commercial pressures and ad spend pressures for a minute, how many reviewers would actually consider giving Bioshock 2, Half Life 3 or Spore a sub 60% review?

I think another concern about games journalism is the weighting given to games in terms of media coverage. If un-hyped budget game A scores 80%, and huge budget well known game sequel B scores 45%, should not game A get more coverage and magazine / web space?
Arguably you should give space to A because people excited about he game want to read about it, but is there not an argument that journalists should help steer people towards good games, rather than just calling out scorecards for the usual suspects?

Its all much easier when every game is easily demoed at launch. If a magazine gave a short 1 page review of a game I was excited about, I could always download the demo and see what I thought myself, but what really adds value is when a reviewer makes me consider buying or demo-ing a game that I would not have even noticed otherwise

That one’s arguable, to be honest. But I’d say even if they’re not - or if they’re just identically good - it remains true.


Depends how interesting the game is to the readers, really. It’s not as if many Film mags put really brilliant art films on the cover either, despite reviewing them favourably. Space of coverage is never just related to quality, mores the pity.

(Obviously, it’s somewhat different on RPS. We do those long interviews with indie guys, as much as we do with the more mainstream people. That’s partially because we’re our own masters and partially because we really believe in the idea of the point of culture journalism writing is telling people about stuff they don’t already know about.)


I read something like this every year, and I always wonder where the author is looking, because there is no shortage of game criticism out there; you just won’t find it in the usual magazine or website outlets. Blogs, academic stuff like Game Studies, middlebrow reading like The Escapist, etc. If you aren’t absorbed by the front page of Gamespot or top stories at Kotaku you’ll find lots of serious thinking and writing about games new and old.

Has there been a major release in recent years as endlessly critiqued as Bioshock? Or Portal?

I also disagree with Costikyan that there is such a dichotomy between reviews and criticism. Many of the best reviewers are, to some extent, critics, since they situate the work in some sort of meaningful context. And many of the best critics are, to some extent, reviewers since they encourage the reader to appreciate works in new ways.

The big difference, I think, between a reviewer and a critic is that the critic is usually working from some sort of common experience with the reader; both have seen/read/heard the work in question. There is an assumption of knowledge. Reviewers generally assume the reader is coming in fresh with only passing knowledge of the work.

But considering how pervasive entertainment promotion is these days, not to mention the fact that as many people read reviews of stuff they know as read stuff they are unfamiliar with, this difference is also variable and probably more theoretical than practical.


A very timely thread! :) Here is a solid example.

At GDC this year in Jon Blows Nuances session Chris Hecker compared Cursor 10 and TimeBot.

What he did was very simple, as we played them he pointed out the different ways they handled time then carefully build up an argument until reaching conclusions.

At the end of it he had walked me through his argument and I appreciated both games much more, in Timebots case he had reversed my opinion of the game.

This is a pretty simple technique that seems under used in my opinion. Not only can it uncover great games but it also raises the dialogue in general.

I would love to see for example a comparison in the player story arc’s of COD4 and BioShock.

Heck you dont even have to drop some art in this technique if you dont want to, a comparison between two 4x games and the emphasis on each X would also be interesting.

In the same session Jon Blow remade a hard game “FlyWrench” with an easier version, this was awesome to see what happens when you actually follow through with the comment “damn it this game does THIS wrong” and see what happens to the game. Now I dont expect game critics to remake games but it can certainly be done as a thought experiment and the results were surprising.

As a session it was the most interesting piece of game criticism I have heard in a very long time. I would hope some of you here would steal the techniques.

Unfortunately, when pundits talk about “game critique” they usually don’t refer to detailed analyses of the actual games as in your examples (because that would require some actual insight and effort) but instead to airy monocled mumblings about social implications, art styles, and story structures. Maybe throw in something about romantic relationships in MMOs. Anything as long as it doesn’t touch the concrete specifics of gameplay and technology that make games different from movies or chatrooms.