Category Archives: criticism
Ever since I can remember being conscious of videogame reviewing as something to think about rather than something that simply existed, there has always been a general unease about scores and scoring. And possibly rightly so: often, a review can live and die on a score in the minds of some readers (need I mention a GameSpot review whose fame has now far outstripped the title whose ire it was directed?). As the author of Metacritic’s equal third lowest Brawl review, I know how those little numbers at the end of a review can dictate your readers’ response. Recently, I was also particularly amused by the first reader comment on our Gears of War 2 review:
8.5? So it’s a flop?
The author of that comment later confessed to be joking, but the sheer believability that such a statement could be made seriously is telling enough.
We all know the problems with scores, and how they are treated by readers, by reviewers, by the industry. That’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to talk about the response that journalists have taken to this.
More specifically, I want to talk about Edge Magazine. I’m going to go ahead and assume that most – if not all – who would stumble across this blog have picked up a copy of Edge in the past. If not, I don’t know what you are doing here; despite the fact that I’m free, I assure you, their writing really is much better.
Despite the fact that you’ll find many gamers willing to swear on a copy of Edge in court instead of a Bible, I think they are mistaken in their approach to scoring. In an Edge review, the score is a tiny little blip down the very end of a review, like an afterthought, a number pretending it isn’t really there.
This is what I’d like to call ‘provincialising’ the score, after Dipesh Chakrabarty. Chakrabarty, in his project of Provincialising Europe, says that he wants to undo the situation where Europe serves as a “silent referent in historical knowledge … Third-world historians feel a need to refer to works in European history; historians of Europe do not feel any need to reciprocate.” One of the problems that Chakrabarty runs into and engages with in his project is that to ignore Europe in writing histories of ‘Third World’ countries is to only turn them into highly visible other places. To completely erase Europe from theory is to ignore the 400 pound Gorrila in the room: the reader is constantly wondering when Europe will be brought into events, or wonders where it has gone.
It seems to me, then, that this idea can be interestingly applied to scoring videogames. Edge intentionally make their scores tiny in order to trump small minded, ‘typical’ readers who might be foolish enough to think that a score equals a review and leave it at that. In a sense, it forces the reader to look at the text first; or at least be very dedicated in their attempt to bypass the evil forces of sentence structure. I infer this; I have never read a rationale of the scoring system, so correct me if I’m mistaken here, but it does seem like a deliberate statement of sorts. In one way, at least, it’s effective. I know that in my weaker moments, I’ve searched an Edge review high and low before noticing the score, hidden away at the bottom.
But this is precisely the problem. In hiding the score away like this, Edge does just about the opposite of what it presumably intends to do. Placing the score as an afterthought makes it the 400 pound Gorilla in the room. It makes the score highly visible, as if the great critical videogame journalists of our period have felt obliged to descend to the masses and join in with the scoring, but are so repulsed by the distasteful nature of the number that they’ve hidden it away.
So what to do with the score? I don’t presume to tell Edge how to do journalism (as they’re obviously much more accomplished than me), and I don’t think there is any clear answer here at all. But it does seem to me that it’s about time that games journalists stopped being offended by the trappings of their jobs. If you are going to have a score in a review, embrace it. If you don’t like the way scores are treated, think of a better way to do it: maybe change the scale, maybe change the signifiers. But don’t ignore the reason you are giving a score in the first place.
A review score should be like an abstract, a quickfire way of gauging the reviewer’s opinion on the subject matter. We all know that it isn’t about consumer advice anymore, and that nine times out of ten, the reader has reached a decision long before the reviewer has even played the game. So if it’s still a review and not a piece of critical reflection, then the score should sum up the reviewer’s thoughts and frame the discussion. Scores in reviews of all types existed prior to the invention of the internet and metacritic. Maybe we should go back and look at their evolution and others uses before we do away with them altogether.
I think that by this point, it’s probably safe to say that Yahtzee, and his Zero Punctuation series is not only the most viewed videogame commentary on the internet, but also probably one of the most highly viewed video series going around. By all reports, he gets about 5 million hits per video, which by anyone’s estimation is a fair few. As Not Quite Art pointed out, that’s more than the last few AFL or NRL grand final TV viewerships every week.
I am a huge fan of Yahztee. I think he is funnier than I could ever hope to be, and in large swathes more insightful. His biggest contribution to gaming has been to point out the basic things that games get wrong time and time again and to say, “that’s actually not good enough – why have we been ignoring this?”. Essentially, he’s just been a terrific antidote to the many overhyped reviewers we’ve been reading over the last decade.
But I do have problems with his approach, which I really think need to be voiced. I actually suspect that his popularity is somewhat on the decline now, or, at least has started to level out. Nonetheless, his huge influence means that it’s important to make criticisms now, rather than ignoring them as we have the flaws in games he so often points out.
I was at a live talk given by Yahtzee at ACMI earlier this year. It was an illuminating session in more ways than one. The most interesting point which I hope to challenge is that during this talk, Yahtzee made it clear that first, what he is doing is criticism, and second, he’s pretty much the only one doing it.
Obviously the second point is completely erroneous, but it does make you wonder whether he has actually tried to find genuine criticism lately. There are hundreds of blogs out there that do just as much insightful work as he does, not to mention a growing amount of academic work on videogames. Mr Crowshaw, if you ever stumble across this blog, I’d be more than happy to give you hundreds of links to people who I think are doing criticism. I think Yahztee is right in that there still isn’t much mainstream criticism going on: not at the IGNs, not at the GameSpots. But that doesn’t mean that he’s somehow the only one doing videogame criticism on the internet.
The first point, however, is one that I feel strongest about. I agree that Yahtzee is doing criticism, however, I’m not sure if it is, in many respects good criticism. In fact, about the only way I believe you could really find solace in Yahtzee’s criticism is if you mistook ‘criticism’ for ‘critical’. People now expect certain things when they watch his videos, or even hear him talk in person. The first thing that they expect is that he’ll be funny. The second thing they expect is that he’ll be funny while beating the living daylights out of some innocent game. It works: even if you love a videogame he reviews, you’ll still laugh at the jokes. But does this make for good criticism? I don’t think so. It means that – and I suspect that he’s almost now trapped in a situation of his own making here – he simply can’t praise a game for very long without his audience getting bored.
It’s easier to be funny and appear insightful if all you are doing is being negative. It’s not so easy to be entertaining and insightful while praising a game.
The biggest problem I have here is that really, in this sense, Yahtzee just becomes the loudest and most sophisticated troll in the gaming community. Our online community is nothing if not combative; flame wars occur on gaming forums at the drop of a hat. It’s therefore unsurprising that our most lauded critic is loudly negative and combative (not to mention that whole ludology v. narratology thing that went on, like our own great academic deathmatch). People watch his videos to hear him ridicule and criticise; they do not watch them, I believe, for insightful criticism.
The internet loves Yahtzee. I love Yahtzee. But the internet does not need more people like Yahztee. The gaming community needs more commentators who can criticise a game to breaking point, but who also find nothing more pleasurable than recommending a great game out of obscurity to people who listen. We need more NGai Croals, more Brainy Gamers. Skepticism and praise in equal doses.
As a closing point, I actually hope to raise some of these points with Yahtzee at the upcoming eGames expo in Melbourne. I’ll report back if I manage to wrangle a response.