Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Do you have to play video games well to be a good reviewer?

I ask this question because it randomly popped in my head today while perusing this weeks Gamasutra video game criticism bundle.

There are a lot of people in the internet that write, review, discuss, and involved themselves in video games. So many that it can be difficult to tell who is from a paying publication versus the forum trolls. Quite a few write quite well. They compose their thesis in a manner that best sums up their argument and present their position about said game to the online masses that are interested, or at least willing, to lend their eyes. A number of them spout crap for the sake of being noticed. I mean, how many times can someone make fun of Final Fantasy XIII before it gets boring? But there are a growing number that are able to provide insight into games that you don’t typically see from magazines and online articles.

Take for example the comments on this recent Brainy Gamer article to counter Taylor Clark’s essay in The Atlantic about dumb games.

Yes you have the random crap, but there are quite a few thoughtful responses both in support of Clark and Michael Abbot’s article. In particular I’m calling out this guy’s submission to the smart-games catalogue:

Final Fantasy XI
Square Enix 2002
PS2, PC, Xbox360
FFXI is an MMORPG that, until recently, was very unforgiving to casual gamers and as a result had a very limited fan base. The mechanics in the game were almost entirely hidden, to become a better player you had to experiment and discover things yourself. This was not only evident within the core mechanics, but even basic equipment in the game often had hidden stats and effects that the player had to discover themselves; oftentimes these hidden effects had something to do with the name of the item, or where you got the item from. To that extent, the game's world was riddled with historical Easter eggs and the like... oftentimes you could find npcs from ancient greek mythology and items from similar backgrounds. Indeed, just browsing the wiki pages for this game is full of cool and fun history related to the items you might find, and understanding their background will sometimes help you understand the item's hidden effects.

On a continuous basis the game promoted and rewarded an atmosphere of players that were constantly trying to push limits and think critically. Not because they were elitists, but because it was necessary. Vana'diel is, indeed, a world where nothing is exactly as it seems, very little is handed to you, and there is always some complex little mystery to be unraveled alongside your travels... if you're keen enough to notice it, that is. Chris Guardiola

I know I’m an FF fan-girl, but I didn’t pick this one because of my love for all things Final Fantasy. This is by far one of the best, comprehensive summaries of why FFXI works as an MMO and how it pushes gamers to think and fend for themselves. And he’s not a professional reviewer! Just a random person on the internet. That man needs to be given a job with a gaming magazine, online or other.

So how do we know that these reviewers, both professional and bloggers such as myself, are playing the game correctly? Is there a right or wrong way to play a game? Should we trust someone’s opinion if they played a game differently from the intended manner? Or should we listen to their thoughts at all if they are “bad” at playing video games?

Those are all loaded questions.

Let’s start with the obvious; is there a right or wrong way to play a game?

I’m going to argue both sides of this.

Yes there is a right way to play if the developer has an intended story-line, path, and system that forces the player to follow. While they don’t have full control over the player’s actions, they can influence where and when the players do what they should be doing.

No, there isn’t one “right way” to play a game. Take Grand Theft Auto for example. The developers created the game to allow people more options in order to complete the predetermined missions. They didn’t program the hooker cheat (i.e. regain your health via hooker, then beat them down to get your money back) with that intent. Nor did they expect people to treat it like a driving simulator. Or a hack and slash. Or, my favorite, car pole vaulting. These modes of play were not the intent of the original game. They are aspects that gamers figured out for themselves. It doesn’t mean that they are playing the game incorrectly. Rather, they are taking the mechanics of the game to create their own experience.

A wonderful example of this is from a comment on a Kotaku article many years ago. So long ago I’ve lost the link and have yet to find it. But I’ve talked about it on the blog before. A father letting his child, younger than 10, play GTA. How? He turns on the language and blood filter (I believe this was for Vice City) and turned it into a driving game. His son was required to follow the rules of the road. He couldn’t speed past cars, swerve into oncoming traffic, run over pedestrians, or hit other things. If he nudged a cop car, he had to wait to be arrested. And he had fun! They took the open-world of GTA and turned it into a driving game for kids!

Whether you follow the game’s path with the dev’s forcing it upon you, or take that open road and run like a mad man, shooting pigeons (I’m looking at you Nikko and Raiden) and not falling to the main plot line, you are playing the game in your own way.

This is why I will side more with “no there isn’t a right way to play a game”. In the end, once the product is in your hands, you determine how you want to play. Do you spend those 99 hours, 99 minutes, and 99 seconds grinding in an RPG to reach level 99 on everything, or run through the game in less then 5 hours, get the ending cut scene and move to the next title? It’s up to you. And who’s to tell us otherwise? Unless it’s a dev getting pissy that we’re not doing it right. Those guys need to get a grip.

Another example: pick an MMO. Any of them. Ignoring the money farmers, think about how you approach that game. Are you the grinder trying to get to level 50/70/80/99 before everyone else? Or are you the crafter, focusing on making the best gear for your character? Or are you the explorer, wanting to see every edge of the map before moving forward to the next quest? Just because you’re a grinder doesn’t mean that the crafter or the explorer are incorrectly playing the game. It happens to be their style.

A perfect time to lead into the next question I proposed: Should we trust someone’s opinion if they played a game differently from the intended manner?

This is assuming that there is only one right way to play a game, but roll with it for a moment. Ask yourself honestly if you are willing to read and consider another person’s point of view about a game if they didn’t play the same way as you? You’re an MMO grinder, but you’re reading a review from the perspective of an MMO crafter. They don’t discuss the best areas to level up, where to get the cheapest gear, or the epic bosses. They talk about the delicate nature of the economy, where to pick up your tools, and crafting moon phases.

You probably tuned out after I said “You’re a grinder and you’re reading a review from a crafter.”

If you stuck with it, good for you!

I don’t feel that it makes a person’s opinion any less valid if they played the game differently from how you would have approached it. But be honest. You probably wouldn’t give them as much credit. It’s our nature to focus on the aspects that we want to see and hear and look over the ones that we’re not as interested it. Take your favorite video game. How many times have you read a review or opinion and either argued to the bitter end against the writer that you disagree with their point of view or didn’t pay attention to their “negative points?” Whether intentional or not, you’ve done it. I have. The writers at Kotaku, Gamasutra, and Game Informer have. We all do it.

Ultimately it boils down to you and if you choose to read the opinions of others. Support keeping an open mind. Just because you may not agree with it doesn’t mean it’s incorrect or wrong. If we focus too much on “this is right, this is wrong” then we lose the aspect of gaming that brings us all together: fun.

So, should we continue to listen to them if they play a game badly?

Well, what is considered good or bad? Is it bad that they play an RPG and don’t get past level 50 when they beat the game? Or is it bad that they play an FPS and don’t pick up the ultra-extra rare weapon that is really difficult to find? What makes a gamer a bad player?

When you define “bad” we can better argue this point. But really it all ties in with my previous points that there is no right or wrong. What I think is a “bad gamer” and what you think of can be completely different. And who’s to say either one of us are right? It doesn’t make us wrong for thinking that way, but it also doesn’t give us the right to trump each others play style.

Writing a review for any genre isn’t easy. Games in particular are much more open to interpretation. Unlike a book or a movie that has a linear path, a video game can allow the user to go anywhere and do anything (within the context of the game's design, of course). Just because you may play and review a game differently then how I would, it doesn’t discredit your point of view. There is no one perfect way to review a game, and no great reviewer who gets it all. It’s you and your opinions. If we can start with that basic understanding, then we will all be able to grow as game aficionados.


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