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As a follow up to my previous piece, it's time to talk about what it means to professionally review a videogame, and why there should be changes.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

April 22, 2020

13 Min Read


The game industry has come a long way from the days where only companies with teams in the dozens could ever hope to make a finished videogame. So has the understanding and appreciation of game design and being a game designer as a viable craft. With that said, why haven’t we had formal talks about reviewing videogames? Being a videogame reviewer is something that many people claim to be, but very few understand the challenges of reviewing both an art piece and a product.

Reviewing Art

One of the biggest changes to how game development has morphed over the previous decade has been the growth and expansion of free/public engines in the game space. Today, the idea that a team of 10 or less can make an amazing game is not some crazy underdog story. And that game can sit on a store shelve right next to the latest AAA title with millions of dollars into advertising and development.

Unfortunately, this has really shown in my opinion the fallacy of how a lot of people review videogames. Videogames are a combination of many different aspects and crafts, and you cannot focus only on just one point. One of my previous podcast guests said it the best: “videogames are a combination of entertainment and programming.” The former is something that is highly subjective, while the latter can be very black and white.

Aesthetics, polish, story, and the gameplay loop itself, must be considered. If we only judge videogames on the graphical power on display, then that leaves only the AAA titles who would be considered viable.

In my previous post on reviewing indie games, I mentioned the romanticism surrounding videogames and their development, and that could also be said of how people view the quality of a game. I have seen streamers and youtubers flip out over finding a bug, like discovering a fly in their soup. Other times, reviewers will completely ignore blatant and obvious design problems and only focus on the story as their only metric.

As a reviewer, you need to be able to balance your thoughts and analysis on story and design. There are people who only focus on the story without examining gameplay just as there are those who only think in terms of mechanics. Before we dive into this, we are only focusing on the idea of professional reviews. For smaller sites and bloggers who specifically cater to specific focuses — genre examinations, accessibility, for parents, and so on, they have their own metrics when covering games.

The Extremes of Game Reviews

Story-driven games have become a major part of the indie scene — thanks to developers making the stories they want that AAA developers would never risk a title’s success on. Just as there are AAA games that have garnered huge fandoms where discussions of the gameplay are kept at a minimum to avoid angering them. The problem is when the story itself dominates the discussion with no talks about the interaction itself. Examining a game is more than just talking about a moving story, and oftentimes story-focused titles tend to slip up when it comes to playability and the core gameplay loop.

A review that only focuses on the story is just a story review, and that should be paired with something that talks about gameplay. I have spoken about this before, the reason why many reviewers will focus on the story is that it is the part that resonates with them the most. However, a videogame is an interactive medium, and you are doing a disservice for a professional review by choosing to ignore the interactivity.

The other side is reviewers who are too focused on the objective elements of a game. People who try to quantify mechanics—like having a “jumping scale” for reviewing platformers, or measuring the “hours to dollars of a game.” Videogames are more than the raw sum of their mechanics and gameplay loops.

Take the platformer genre as an example—how would you objectively compare the platforming of Celeste vs. Super Meat Boy vs. Thomas Was Alone? The answer is you cannot because each game focused on a different form of platforming and level design.

It takes an even hand to be able to talk critically about a videogame, and I feel is an underappreciated skill, but being able to do it allows you to talk about something vital about games.

The Experience of the Game

One aspect that I feel is important in someone who reviews videogames professionally is being able to see beyond their own opinion on gameplay. Before we talk about that, it is important to clarify that every reviewer; every person who talks about videogames, has their own biases and opinions about what they are looking for. The concept of the “completely objective” review of a game is a fallacy like “infinite replayability.”

What separates them from a good reviewer is being able to understand and explain the intended experience the designer was aiming for and if they succeeded or not. Videogames no matter how big or small their reach becomes are meant for intended markets. Sometimes you are a part of that market, and other times you are not.

I have played many games of many genres that do not interest me in the slightest — the second my stream or video spotlight is done; I am never going to play that game again. During that time, I look at how the core gameplay loop and playability of that title are. When I am finished playing it, I can talk about what this game does for fans of the genre and inform them on whether it would work for them. By analyzing the experience, I can also talk about if a newcomer can get some enjoyment out of this title, or if it is strictly for established fans.

While there are games that I do not like, I can at least respect them for how they handled their gameplay and reaching to their specific fanbase. By focusing on the experience, it allows a reviewer to examine both the objective and subjective aspects of a game.

For example, a game that is trying to be a hardcore platformer but achieves its difficulty due to cumbersome controls and poor design would not be a success in my opinion. Likewise, a story-driven game whose gameplay actively distracts from the story is also a problem. This kind of style would also downplay one of the most annoying aspects of reviewing games: directly comparing it to another title.

There is a difference between calling out a game for making mistakes that other games did not make and attacking a game because someone else did it differently. Games are built on the DNA of others, but unless someone is actively copying another game, it is unhelpful to judge what is missing from a game based off another.

Judging games also takes us to one aspect that has always frustrated me.

The Perfect Art

Every year there will always be one game that people will describe as perfect, and will often use phrases like “anyone who is a gamer must play this game.” After playing so many games over the last 30 years, I have come to realize this salient point: There is no such thing as a perfect game.

There is the perfect game for you, just as there are perfect games for me. As I said further up, it takes a skilled writer and reviewer to be able to talk about games they dislike just as passionately about the ones they do not. This is often why for me; my reviews tend to strike a neutral to slightly positive tone for the games I have played. Even the games that I hate or do not work for me will still be discussed analytically.

In previous articles, I have talked about the dangers of pursuing “the perfect game” as a developer.

For a game to truly work, it must come from having a focalized core gameplay loop. There is something to be said of titles that manage to attract nonfans simply because the quality of the design was so amazing. There are plenty of widely received, highly praised games that did not work for me at all, just as there are for you reading this.

Just as it is difficult to review a game you do not like; it is also important to give a measured look at the games you do. To be honest, I do think I am a little too neutral when I cover games. It has become a running meme on my channel when I talk about games that my first impression, no matter how much I like or dislike it, is “it’s not bad.”

It is important to be able to talk about the good and bad of a title, as painting an unrealistic view of a game can hurt it and your credibility as a reviewer. While you do not have to nitpick every aspect of a game to find something bad to say, you do not want to leave out major issues that impacted your experience.

With that, it is time to talk about an argument reviewers have been having for what seems like forever in the game industry.

Down with Numbers

If you want to drive a game reviewer crazy, ask them their thoughts on numerical scoring for reviews. I have long since put my foot down on saying that videogame reviews should not have a numbered score to them.

This system has been flawed since day one, but there is more to it in the modern market. For the reader, how would you numerically rate the graphics of Doom Eternal next to Disco Elysium? Can someone tell me how a 1 to 10 scale works with rating the fun of a game?

In my previous post about indie game reviews, I talked about how indie games should not be compared to the AAA market; no matter how good they are. Any kind of numerical analysis goes out the window when we start comparing indie and AAA games together, and one of the reasons why we do not see more mainstream coverage of indie games. I talked about major sites covering the indie games that break-through to mainstream success. There are indie games out there that have the production values and quality to compete with AAA and AA studios. It is far easier to review them alongside major game releases as they fit the scoring of sites easier.

However, these indie games are few and far between, and there are plenty of amazing indie games that will never come close to being confused as a major title. For these games, trying to objectively rate them next to powerhouses like Nintendo, Blizzard, Sony, etc., is impossible.

Keeping with our discussion today, numerical scoring also fails when it comes to the aspects of a videogame. In the past, we have spoken about how videogames are a combination of entertainment and programming to create art. There are mechanical elements of a game that someone could review — how optimized the game engine was, did the walk cycles of characters stayed consistent, and so on. A review that is 100% focused on objective logic is just as bad as one that is only focused on your own feelings about a game.

You cannot numerically rate a game objectively for level design just as you cannot rate a story on a scale of did it make you remember your childhood.

Videogames occupy a rare place between art and a product. You can have a game that is mechanically well done but is derivative, as you can have a beautiful work that the experience could fall apart at any moment.

Just as making a videogame is about combining programming and entertainment, reviewing a videogame is about understanding how a game should function and whether that experience works as intended. I have come to realize that for me, this has become as natural as breathing, but it is a very specialized analysis. When I started talking about games, I tended to focus on the logic side, but speaking to so many developers and understanding their thought processes and feelings made me realize that there is more to talk about.

A great game is about delivering an amazing experience to the player. You can have something that is mechanically simple, but has an exceptional premise like Return of the Obra Dinn, or a game like Dwarf Fortress that is deep but made for a niche audience.

If I am playing an emotionally charged game like Senua’s Sacrifice, focusing on just the mechanics leaves out a huge portion of what that game did differently in terms of conveying trauma.

A videogame cannot be judged as either 100% art or 100% objective logic. Everything that I have talked about today can be boiled down to one question: Did the developer achieve what they said out to make? If someone’s goal is to tell an amazing story, and the gameplay was there to simply service that story, then I would say that game succeeded; it may not be for me, but it could be for you.

Play Them All

Lastly, I want to talk about one important trait for reviewers, and to some extent, game developers. You should try to play as many games as you can; especially those that are not aimed at the usual markets or genres.

The only way to broaden your knowledge of game design, and see just how varied implementation of mechanics can be, is to play plenty of games. If there is a genre that you do not like, when possible, try to find and play what people consider to be the best takes of it.

By examining games like this, it will improve your ability to spot good and bad design regardless of your own personal biases. No matter the genre or the design, there are always going to be takes of it that people like or dislike.

It is a running theme this year for me with wanting to raise awareness on the professional aspects of game development and reviewing them. The game industry is not young anymore, or a fad that is going away. We are well past the time to start setting up actual metrics and formal examinations.

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About the Author(s)

Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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