Are Critics Gamers?: I think Not Edition

Yes, I am still ranting about critics. The tension between creators and critics is as old as narrative itself. I'm confident Plato's critics were late comers to the process. But as we enter the season for release of highly anticipated, high production value, very expensive games the critics seem to be in a bad mood - or, the industry is releasing a string of the worst games in history. I don't think it's the latter because the games seem to be selling very well. Brothers in Arms is getting an equal number of scores 50s and 60s to its 90s. Fracture and Mercenaries 2 are faring even less well and I already talked about The Force Unleashed. The first reaction is to grab the critics by the lapels and scream "Have you ever tried to make a game?" I guess it's a common refrain across all creative media. Even though it would feel really good, let's take a look at the issue. There seems be a growing divide between what the critics are looking for and what the game business is building.

Ironically, unlike critics in any other industry who scorn pop oriented content, game critics embrace it. Film critics look down their noses upon the multi hundred million dollar grossing summer tentpoles in favor of the black and white story of the mentally challenged lesbian in a world of men. Literary critics scoff and James Patterson's tens of million unit sellers in favor of the starving, under-appreciated literary marvel who drafted his manuscript on leaves while living under a bridge in central park. And, multimillion unit selling, chart topping music is derisively called "pop." "Pop" in all media is easily accessible. It garners huge audiences because it entertains and does not challenge. Sometimes, like Shakespeare, it endures, others, like music of anyone's generation other than your own, does not. Our critics, unlike the rest, seem to be embracing the quick fix, pick up and play "pop" games and rejecting the game equivalents of the latest Pynchon novel.

In looking at recent scores, I developed a few hypotheses. Some may be rectified, one, sadly not. The first, I call "The Passover Theory." According to the Torah, and Cecille B DeMille's Easter perennial film, The Ten Commandments, when G-d led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt he led them through the desert for two generations because the former slaves did not know how to live as free men. The console cycle has moved so quickly, the critics do not know how to migrate between platforms.

I believe people are hardwired when it comes to entertainment. Our earliest experiences imprint upon us. The leading edge on the gaming age plane grew up in a world where we could not control the CRT. There were a limited number of television channels and we watched what was on when it was fed to us. Cartoons were only on Saturday. Time shifting happened with the VCR, but there was still no real control, no home computers with any sort of video to replace the CRT and games were crude graphics. My soon to be thirteen year old son, only knows a world where the CRT is completely under his control. Where our suspension of disbelief is broken when we move from passive to active, my son moves seamlessly, and even expects a level of interactivity in his linear entertainment. Not multitasking bullshit, but the ability to focus on things he wants. Whether it is pushing the rewind button the DVR to replay an explosion in Mythbusters, or button mashing in a game, he expects to be in control. His entertainment exists on a continuum of interactivity. Ours is broken into passive television watching, and interactive gaming. We can even see the difference when it comes to cut scenes. He watches them and gains from the seamless migration from cut scene to game play. We button through them. His ability to move from lean forward to lean back without breaking the suspension of disbelief drives him to look for content tailored to the skill. He wants a game where the story and characters are compelling and make sense. The game play should be fun, but it does not have to be a pop hook. Just something fun and logically integrated to advance the story. Asking him to play anything less is like asking us to listen to serials on the radio after we grew up watching television. We, like him with a single hook game, will be entertained for a short time, but then put it down. We may pick it up again, but the interaction is dramatically different than with an epic.

The critics have been playing games for years and years. Many have been through at least two consoles cycles, and some many more than that. They love retro games and wax nostalgic about the greatness of the Amiga. They cut their teeth on the single hook game. They are hardwired to the "pick up and playability" of the great old games. The games had to have a hook, because the technology would not support story, depth or compelling graphics. None of these can replace great game hooks, but they can work together to meld a number of hooks into a single deeper game. These games meld what used to be multiple genres into a single title. We can tell a story, fight, shoot and drive, all in the same game. The cost is emotional commitment. There is a time commitment and learning curve as well, but this investment bonds the person within the game. It is definitely possible to make a game too hard for the audience, and as Raph Koster and Nolan Bushnell tell us, games have been getting harder for years. But you know what, so is every other form of media. Have you looked at CNN lately? There are people talking, screen crawls on the bottom of the screen, graphics on the top, words on the side. . . If you broadcast this screen in the sixties people would have thrown up and gone into epileptic seizures. Like people willing to read a Neil Stephenson book -the ones after Diamond Age- there is an audience, who want to invest and be challenged. Sure these games are not going to reach into mass, and my wife is never going to pick it up, but my wife is not the target audience. These are games for gamers.

These games strive to engage and make you care about the characters, and it works, at least according to this gamedaily review:

Few World War II video games are as gripping and brutal as Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway. Expert storytelling merged with bloody and intense first person shooting keeps you pushing through the narrative and empathizing with its grizzled soldiers, who repeatedly trudge through the Nazi war machine armed with such weapons as the M1 Garand and M9 Bazooka. Commanding squads adds depth to the action, and the impressive graphics, which include gorgeous fire effects, sprawling environments and an action cam that highlights the gore, further immerses you within the game's war torn world. . . .
Simply put, this game succeeds because its developer, Gearbox Software, went where no video game company has gone, delivering a horrific slice of WWII usually reserved for movies and documentaries. A character plunges his combat knife through an enemy's throat, blood splatters against walls, charred bodies sail through the air and victims get torn apart. Meanwhile, Americans and Germans scream in their native tongues, planes crash into buildings and ceilings collapse. You'll score nasty looking headshots, watch rockets rip through buildings and strap explosive charges on tanks.

This is what a gamer who never knew a world without a game console is looking for. Someone born post 1985, or most of the hardcore gamers. Metacritic decided the review quoted above equated to a 70 based on the rest of the analysis. The critics are hardwired for the short arcady experience and the world is passing them by. This truth is played out in the most recent ratings. If we look at the most recent scores, everything above an 80 on Metacrtic (yes I know I said it sucks, but what else do I have to support my point?) is a "pick up and play. 80 plus titles include full priced FIFA, NHL Live, Pure, Rock Band 2, Viva Pinata, Tiger Woods and Madden. Each is a single hook game, to be enjoyed without emotional connection. The higher echelon of the charts is dominated by XBLA games, including Braid, Bionic Commando, Geometry Wars, Castle Crashers, Duke Nukem and Mega Man. The common underlying factors are fun, superficial game play and no emotional engagement. Fellas, aren't those the very thing you were complaining about in the last gen? I agree, a great game is a great game, is a great game, and Duke Nukem is just as fun to play on the 360 as it was on my Pentium 1, 133, but new games have a lot to offer as well. Is it possible the critics hard wiring is precluding them from seeing the quality in the new games? Is it possible it is putting them out of touch with the consumers whose purchasing is closing in on 2 million copies of The Force Unleashed, a title the critics collectively gave a "C."

The other possibility is the critics don't have enough time. I won't dwell on this one because I've talked about it a number of times before. Maybe the critics are not hardwired and do have the best of intentions, but don't have enough time to get into a game. Another common element of those high scoring games is the ability to play for 15 minutes to half an hour, in some cases significantly less, and no exactly what you will be doing for the rest of the game. Other games like Brothers in Arms, Mercenaries, Dark Sector, or just about any RPG start slowly and develop over time. The consumer is expecting a deep experience for their USD 60 and don't want it to be over in the first 20 minutes. The critics on the other hand do want to get a handle on the game in 20 minutes so they can make a dent in the pile on their desks. Wait you say, Oblivion scored a ninety. Yes it did, but how many games were on the market at the time? The more crowded the market become, the lower the scores of the deeper games. This is odd since the second gen games of the cycle should be getting better. Movie and television critics are not necessarily any more aligned with their audiences than game critics, but at least they can experience the entire product before providing an "expert opinion." Very few critics, if any, play through an entire game, as it is meant to be played, before writing about it.

Finally, there may just be unrealistic expectations. After spending so much time in multiplayer Halo, Call of Duty, Guitar Hero, Rock Band and others, the critics forget the shortcomings of computer AI. Let me fill you guys in on a secret, the singularity is not here. Computers are not as smart as people. Especially computers using most of their power to throw lots of polygons on the screen while reloading the next set of polygons and calculating the trajectory of your shot. The critics seem to be so conditioned to real people's reactions, they forget how NPC's really behave, leading to comments like this for Brothers in Arms from IGN:

Unfortunately, your teams are sometimes stupid when it comes to responding to commands maneuvering them to safety, which is one of the core gameplay mechanics. For example, you'll tell soldiers to run over in cover and dig in behind a low rock wall, intentionally placing the command ring behind the middle of the structure to ensure the safety of your troops. Unfortunately, instead of running under cover and crouching, your soldiers will sometimes run directly in front of enemy positions and leap over the wall, frequently getting turned into Swiss cheese. Even worse are the moments where you clearly direct them behind a wall and instead of digging in behind the wall, they dig in on the side of the wall, again leaving themselves open to fire. This is a problem that has always existed within previous Brothers In Arms games, but you'd think that it would have been fixed by now.

They gave the game a 76, or a C, where I went to school. But when they encountered the same issues in Halo 3, before the multiplayer callous formed, this comment from the same publication led to a 95 review score?

The enemy AI is generally solid, but the same can't be said for your teammates. It's been said that the world would be doomed without Master Chief. After seeing the other marines in action, that makes a lot of sense. The AI drivers are less like marines and more like Mr. Magoo; support troops are just fodder for the Brutes; and the Arbiter makes me question why the Elites were ever feared in the original Halo. Let's get the Arbiter clear. He's the bad ass "Chief" of the Elites. He should be able to handle his own. In the campaign, the Arbiter and Master Chief are BFF. If you play alone, the AI takes control of the Arbiter and allows him to tag along. Enjoy watching your supposed equal getting shot in the face repeatedly and generally making himself utterly useless. What is the point of sticking you with an AI compatriot if all he's good at is respawning?

This is not an attempt to say Brothers is Halo 3. I am saying it is more fun to play with other people than with yourself. Read whatever you want into the previous sentence. Other players think better, respond better and collaborate better than the CPU in the console. But Mr. Critic, please don't let it color your review. Cleanse your palate with a little bit of alone time in your favorite game before diving into your test run of these new games.

Whatever the reason, these guys are out of touch with the consumer. Hopefully the consumer starts to see it as well.

I was looking around for a pithy quote about critics to lead into this post, but instead, I found this from Jean de la Bruyere who lived from 1645 to 1696 and it sums up the thought better than I could:

Criticism is often not a science; it is a craft, requiring more good health than wit, more hard work than talent, more habit than native genius. In the hands of a man who has read widely but lacks judgment, applied to certain subjects it can corrupt both its readers and the writer himself.


Mike said…
I think a lot of what you're talking about is the growing distinction between critics and reviewers. Until now, gaming has never had any serious critics that spoke to an audience at large. It's been a horde of enthusiasts reviewing games as entertainment products. N'Gai Croal, Stephen Totilo, Shawn Elliot (before he jumped into development), Seth Schiesel, among many others, have begun to carve out that mythical turf of a genuine critic who articulates the meaning of a gaming experience, rather than it's purely functional capacity as a piece of entertainment. For those gamers that just want entertainment (the vast majority) criticism is besides the point, but there are millions of gamers out there that do want a Janet Maslin to tell them what it was they experienced in BioShock, rather than whether or not it was "fun."
Jamie said…
I like to think it shows our reviewers are "maturing" - if we take metacritic, average scores for movies are around 50 whereas average scores for games are around 70 - I think this means our reviewers have been tending to overvalue. So now that they're getting jaded...with Yahtzee Croshaw leading the charge...
maybe we'll start to see a wider range of expression in review scores.

Also, with the reviews of "Braid" being so high, we're starting to see exactly what you're talking about - the reviewers are sick of blockbuster "pop" games and are now falling in love with games that I imagine the Average Gamer couldn't care less about.

The end result being metacritic scores will become even less meaningful to publishers...
Gryf said…
Since you're quoting about critics, here's the one I use to understand the relationship between the game critic and the creator of his subject:

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

Theodore Roosevelt
"Citizenship in a Republic,"
Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910

Conversely it also applies to my criticism of the critics work. I guess I can't knock them because they take a cut at the pitch and don't give me what I want.
Anonymous said…
A very thoughtful article! Criticism these days seems to be a mishmash of jargon tossed with the oil of fandom and/or the vinegar of vitriol...written at the level of a 6th grader.

It seems like you can only guarantee a great score by making a FPS or 2D platformer, and doing a helluva lot of PR.
Frank said…
From what the reviewers say Braid does have some "emotional engagement". I wonder how your little theory will explain the sky-high scores for Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2. It's a densely packed release schedule this fall so they should be the bottom of the heap, right? We'll see!
Complex games are hard to make; it's even harder to ensure that they stay fun. If fun is the reviewer's criterion (as it should be), we can expect ambitious games to get middling scores. Unfortunately, sites like IGN still stick to the Graphics 2, Gameplay 11, Sound 4, Tactility 1, Replayability 9, Overall 6 method. Now THAT is a terrible way to review (let's not flatter it by calling it criticism, eh?).
beylita said…
who really plays games back to front unless they are enthused about the game? It seems dishonest to demand that a critic play through all twenty plus hours of a campign before deciding they don't like it. If a game doesn't make me want to play it within a couple of hours it's going back to gamefly. That's just how things are for me.
(Note - this is Christian from

Mike makes a fine point about the difference between reviewer and critic. Most people want the quick, timely review of a game, written in a consumer reports style, in order to make their purchases. I understand this is an important section of game writing, I wish it wasn't so much demanded, to the point where writers do not benefit from slow, thought out criticism, or do not have time for it.

When it comes to my own attempts to review and critique the emotionally challenging games out there, I will admit I am often a bit too critical. It all depends on the delivery - if a game delivers powerful themes and a gripping tale through a lot of in-game behavior, I will warm up to it, regardless of its story quality. If a game instead tries to tell a complex story through lots of cutscenes, I find myself comparing it to other non interactive media (as mentioned in this blog post). When that happens, a game will rarely stack up favorably to good films in the cinematics department.

I think this is also accounts for why the "challenging" games have such wide review scores, while pick up and play games don't. While reviewers can and will argue about whether controls or sound quality in a game are good, they are a bit easier to gauge than trying to determine whether something like Hell's Highway actually conveys a good story. For example, everyone agreed on Halo 2's quality when it released. At the same time, there was much debate about Half Life 2, depending on whether or not each player was sucked into the game's world, or whether they were trying to poke behind each setpiece and deconstruct the levels. Trying to judge whether Halo has good multiplayer seems a bit easier for people to agree on than whether HL2 is an engaging dystopia.

One solution is for reviewers to put each game into a proper perspective. Not every game needs to be innovative, and some will fare much better if they lack a bit of polish. To look at Hell's Highway, I don't expect my World War 2 shooters to play differently. With that context in mind, the addition of a genuinely moving story (rather than a cast of soldier cliches) will stand out to me. For someone who loathes WW2 shooters, their dislike may cloud their whole experience.

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