Culture is only true when implicitly critical, and the mind which forgets this revenges itself in the critics it breeds. Criticism is an indispensable element of culture.
-Theodor W. Adorno
Alright, so it’s been a while since our last Anatomy of a Review entry. I suppose I’ve just been increasingly busy but alongside that, I’ve also wanted to take some time to get my thoughts together, as well as decide what it is I really want to do with this series.
Why do I want to write these?
I think a definition of terms is never un-useful.
I’ve been asked how I arrive at certain scores for some of our graded categories, by writers and readers.
I’m interested in developing each of these ideas for the sake of the future of games writing that goes beyond statements like “it’s just good” or “I liked it”, provided there will even be a taste for in-depth games writing beyond immediate impressions in the future ahead of us.
Bernard Berenson, art historian.
In the past, I mentioned I wanted to take some time to visit the grading categories that we use here in our critiques, talk about what Accessibility means, how to measure the value of replay value, or discuss how to pursue placing a score on visuals in a pop culture that has lost sight of theories of beauty or the philosophy of beauty. Each of those could be the foundation for a massive conversation, so I plan to tackle each category with a single, dedicated article, ideally once a month.
This bears some explanation of our grading system. Note that I’ve written on it elsewhere in numerous places, but I do believe that critics should be transparent about their metrics; if a grading system is used then people must understand how it works, how it is to be used honestly and without abuse, what the baseline is, and so on. This creates a context to interpret each score by, to help us avoid discussions in the comments that degrade into “Well I would’ve given it an average score of 8/10” or “I should think 7 would have been more appropriate than 6.5”. Debates will of course always exist, as well they should for these are how we communicate with and learn from each other, but an interpretive context saying what a critic means by their words and numbers is important.
Therefore, in short, TWRM uses a 10-point scale that treats the immediate center score (5/10) as middling average by its nature. The higher a score, the more the critic (on this site) expresses the quality of the game, with 10/10 representing the highest possible score (interpreted either as a masterpiece in its class or as actual perfection). The lower the score, conversely, the more a critic expresses a subject’s lack of quality. In both instances, whatever the numerical result, the score represents the criticism in a nutshell. It is a placeholder, an easily identifiable inscription meant to immediately render the critic’s impression at a glance, but (and it’s a big “but”) the critic will have broken down their impression previous to that numerical value through the analysis and skill of their written piece preceding, with the ultimate goal of striking a balance between subjective opinion and objective observation to describe with accuracy a subject’s merits and flaws.
Part of this process is the 8-bit Review, a section toward the end of the critique which encompasses 8 elements of the subject each individually graded on the same 10-point scale. The purpose of the 8-bit Review is to force the critic to be exhaustive, that is to discuss more aspects of the subject rather than fewer, especially aspects which they may not have naturally mentioned. An aggregated score of all 8 individual scores concludes the review.
The critic chooses 8 elements to grade from a pool of elements we have at hand. These categories and their concerns are as follows. Emphasis is always on functionality and interpretation, foremost.
Five things should be said here before I begin:
First, this is how I perceive criticism is best done and what areas I think are most appropriate to focus on for each category, though in a different interpretive context other categories may be appropriate or otherwise approached differently, so long as the critic is again clear on their express purpose and intent (in a first impressions-style review based much more on immediate feelings about the game, these sensibilities below won’t figure very much).
Second, the boundaries and overlap between objectivity and subjectivity in art interpretation and criticism is something we as the human race will continue to debate and argue about for generations, it seems. What I am not interested in are systems which hold that only objectivity or subjectivity is possible in games criticism; I firmly hold that observations can be made about the real properties of objects and subjects to be agreed upon or debated (objective) while also firmly holding that individual experiences with those properties, especially where emotions are involved, vary (subjective). With the kind of criticism I write, I always try to look for the objective first and then defer to subjectivity where the former seems absent, unreasonable, or impossible. If all is objective, what is emotion? If all is subjective, what is debate?
Third, I’m not including in this project some of the more specific categories we’ve come up with. Sorry, Family Friendliness, Scariness, Binge Worthiness, Cast, Linguistics, and Collection! We love you but now’s not your time to shine. You’re a little too niche, and some of you weren’t even included for video game criticism at all.
Fourth, context, context, context. The more context, the better. This includes the context of history, of culture, and of technological limitation taken into consideration to grade a game. To ensure that grades do not deteriorate by the minute, these contexts prove important.
Fifthly, finally, I’m not an expert in either all or any of these categories listed below. I’m merely fascinated by them. I have not and could never be trained at an academic level in art criticism, photography criticism, cinematography criticism, music criticism, literary criticism, and so on with many of the historical studies that play into any of the features in video games. I find that these categories provide a useful frame for analyzing video games, that’s all.
Grading the game’s use of graphics, including both aesthetics (theories of beauty, choice of color, contrast, support of authorial intent and expression, presentation and interpretation) and architecture (camera controls, brightness/contrast, visual legibility, presence of visual glitches, UI/UX design). Priority should be given to considering those visual components which promote or prevent player interaction with the subject’s world.
Grading the game’s use of sound, including music (score, composition, use of harmony and dissonance, use of leitmotif and themes, performance), sound design (ambiance, use of silence, sound effects), and vocal performances, if any. Since appreciation of music varies between individuals, the emphasis of the criticism should be placed on what the music is communicating, and whether the sound design overall matches with the intention of the creator(s) and with the general tone of the game.
Grading the game’s gameplay, a word which encapsulates the interactive aspects of the game, including control schemes, demands, player agency, menus, UI, loops, goals, processes, systems, structure, architecture, and composition. I think of gameplay as considering the basic elements of the game: its fundamental pieces, its electrons and molecules, its placement of oil on canvas. As such, gameplay is a broader category which can take into consideration things like difficulty, accessibility, or replay value.
Grading the game’s storytelling capabilities, this category most closely resembles literary criticism. This category should consider cultural, social, and genre context, ludonarrative dissonance, clarity and interpretation, the adherence to the rules of grammar, and considering the various literary elements of action, pacing, character development, conflict, dialogue, mood, plotting, POV, setting, style, tone, as well as uses of cliché or stock characters and ideas.
Grading the game’s thematic ideas involves consideration of the presentation, development, and conclusions of its themes and messages. Thematic criticism is communication criticism (if communication skills can be taught, communication can be critiqued). Note the danger of critiquing a game’s themes based on the critic’s own agreement or disagreement with those themes; that is outside of the consideration of the presentation and “performance” of the themes in question.
Grading the game’s multiplayer involves examining how well it supports cooperative or competitive play between two or more human (non-AI controlled) individuals. Not all games feature multiplayer modes but those that do make themselves open to evaluation of systems which encourage or discourage co-op or competitive play.
Grading the game’s online play includes examining its systems and modes that involve internet connectivity, stability, infrastructure, matching, communication between systems and players. This category prioritizes functionality and access.
Grading the game’s accessibility takes two things into consideration: both ease of access for rules (does the game teach the player how to play it well?) and ease of access for equality (does the game include additional features for accessibility for the disabled, color-blind, very young, etc.). Consideration goes to efficient use of tutorials, avoidance of over-tutorializing, conciseness of rules, control mapping, complexity, difficulty, etc.
Grading the game’s difficulty or challenge involves more than just describing how hard or how easy a game is to play with higher scores being given to more difficult. Rather, grading difficulty evaluates how well a game implements difficulty or ease by taking into consideration difficulty curves, player agency, loses attributable to player mistakes, and gameplay elements which provoke statements from the player such as “fair” or “unfair”.
Grading the game’s replayability, that is replay value, includes consideration of multiple modes of play, multiple difficulties, multiple endings, multiple rounds with varied outcomes, and multiple inter-related in-game systems such as collectathons or side quests. Fairly straightforward, describing a game’s replayability counts up the features of the subject that bring the player back to it.
Grading the game’s uniqueness aims to represent the subject’s sense of innovation. Context is vital here. Individual gameplay features can be traced back to their first appearances and new ideas rather than old are cherished by this category, which highlights the development and evolution of gaming as an art form.
My Personal Grade
There is one final category set aside specifically for a critic’s emotions, feelings, and individual subjective experiences with the game. TWRM takes into consideration that every writer will be unique and while there may be things we can agree on as players, there are things we will never be able to do: experience exactly how anyone else beside ourselves experiences. The personal grade allows for personal reflection on the observations made above. Fun factor is very difficult to pin down but it gets its time to shine here.
Critic by Lajos Tihanyi, 1916.
My understanding of these I expect will continue to evolve but these are mostly how I’d describe them for now, without being exhaustive.
As mentioned, all of this is wrapped up in one final score. If one of the commonalities between beautiful objects is harmony, that is the function of all of the parts of the object working and co-existing together in unison, then the final score reflects the harmony or dissonance of the previous graded segments. Grading each separately then bringing them together at the end ensures that the segments aren’t studied to the exclusion of the whole.
Why do we even use categories at all? That question formed the concept for this article.
I’ve heard it said before numerous times essentially how surprising and unusual it is for game reviews to take as different a form as they do from film or music reviews (generally speaking). At TWRM, we use that heavily structured categorical approach to critiquing games which may be more toward the detailed end of the review spectrum, though I’m not interested in turning these Anatomy articles into mere defenses of our own methodologies at this site. So I’ll say that of course it’s not uncommon to encounter written or video reviews that will describe a game in familiar sections such as visuals, music, story, and gameplay. Yet as my 3-year-old would say: “But, why?”
Why disassemble games into categories when reviewing them, at all? The (earnest) assumption seems to be that over-categorizing portions of games ignores the natural relationships and overlap between these sections, that isolating segments of gameplay and presentation does a disservice to the entire system. Worst of all, it seems to be widely held that over-categorization, if not downright over-critique and over-thinking, disregards the fact that games are as the late Iwata said: “…just one thing: fun for everyone.”
Now I do hold that there is a special joy for critics, and I don’t mean a special perverse kind of pleasure in simply being critical or mean-spirited as the internet would have us believe, but a unique kind of enjoyment that comes from working through one’s complicated thoughts on a piece of entertainment, laying it all down on a blank space and when it’s done feeling that sense of accomplishment over having expressed oneself: that fundamental mirth of art as communication. While I believe in this special joy, having experienced it myself, I likewise empathize with those who posit that over-analysis risks alienating the fun from the game. It’s sort of like having to explain the joke, or someone telling you how a magic trick works; we want to be shocked and awed by entertainment, not necessarily told how and where it does or does not function properly, unless you’re the sort of person who enjoys reading technical manuals over poetry. For those, I suppose reviews as “consumer reports” or “first impressions” are the most in-depth that they’ll ever want or need to get into a game, but variety is the spice of life.
This, too, is perhaps yet another reason why long-form writing and critique has been on the decline, yet another nail in that coffin, simply because the power of explanation risks eliminating the potency of fun. That doesn’t sway me from our mission of resurrecting long-form content, so to speak, and being a part of that trend, as I imagine that if I enjoy reading and writing in long-form than so must others who are like myself. While the snippet is snappier and more digestible than the essay, the essay is going to leave a much larger impact on a person beyond the decision of “buy or do not buy”, provided the essay is allowed its time to gestate in the reader’s mind.
If the purpose of a game is to be played, the purpose of a critic is to express how playable a game is. This includes “buy or do not buy” but it is not the only consideration of the critic.
Mine is not the only approach to games criticism, but I hope it is at least a sound one. It’s served me well for coming on three years now.
What’s the last thing I could say about games criticism for now? Criticism is not about tearing a game to pieces. It’s not just describing the negative.
Or… be a critic without being a heckler.
Statler and Waldorf, muppets.
-The Well-Red Mage
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Categories: Anatomy of a Review