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Games Are Not Toys: review models and artistic merit in game evaluation

Proceeding with the assumption that games are art, we need to adopt a new model of game reviewing that puts artistic merit as its primary focus.

Reviewers hate justifying their methodology. The subject matter is irrelevant -- it can be food or it can be movies. I have never seen a critic accept criticism of their work graciously.

When prompted, they treat a question about their methods like someone is standing in front of their television or hovering over their bubble of personal space, emotions typical of those situations included in the reaction. Your concern is something to be swatted away so they can immediately forget that such a concern exists. They snarkily redirect you to their page of "What makes [x] good?" and that's the final word on the subject.

But we don't need a final word on the subject. We need the subject to change fundamentally.

Right now, the page they redirect you to begins with "is it fun?", obnoxiously italicized in the "hey guys remember this simple thing we're losing sight of by making things so complicated?" way you've seen enough times to vomit from overconsumption. (No, I am not about to say that fun is irrelevant, so keep your hands off the keyboard for a few more minutes.)

By making fun the commander-in-chief of your review criteria, you trivialize the thing you're reviewing in your appeal to simplicity. You cannot have Fun Is Ultimate and Games Are Art in the same room. Fun is what you have with a laser pointer, or bubble wrap, or your friend's facebook status after a few drinks. Art is post- and trans- toy.

I'm doing this definitional dance just so we're on the same page. Truly, the people who would ask "is it fun?" know that they're being opaque, and only someone who has been forced into taking positions they only half-believed would glorify the word 'fun' in that way. When you are moved, it is beyond fun.

When you reflect on your life's most passionate sex, or most moving concert, or most memorable meal, you are hopefully not thinking "that was fun." It's more than that. It's an experience. It's what makes your life worth living and your country worth protecting.

So yeah, fun matters, but only because it's a mild version of what we really want: to be changed for the better. The games that do this are games that couldn't have been anything else. An "art game" is an aesthetic experience, or interactive literature. But even using the tired label "interactive literature" demeans what I'm saying, because the 'interactive' part only half-reveals why these experiences are meaningful.

Final Fantasy VII was interactive literature. It fails as a movie. It would fail as a novel, too. Hell, it would fail as an FPS. The fact that the game is in third-person and that there is another person to identify with matters. The fact that this person is vacuous at the start matters.

Through your progress in the game, you piece together various elements of your identity from having the details of your life and origins excluded from you. You are forced to think about, even if on an unconscious level, what happens when a corporation is able to have so much dominance over a small town, a la Union Carbide. You are forced to wage war against an individualist Ubermensch. What makes it art and consequently a game I would want to play is these elements -- not the goddamned Materia system.

Star Ocean III was interactive literature. The critics who reviewed it harped on its battle system, or its tediousness, or the presence of the Blue Haired RPG Protagonist, or even the similarity of its twist to The Matrix. All of that is missing the point. It should be tedious. By being tedious you develop a connection to the world around you, and once that connection is severed you're forced to think about how interpersonal relations would work on a galactic scale.

The Matrix-like twist serves not to copy the concepts of the Matrix, but to paint a picture of what "10,000 people dead" really means in terms of scale and what really entails from "everything you've known is false." Suddenly, you re-think every detail around you, and that re-thinking is what makes Star Ocean III great. This is a concept that could only have been done by a game. Not a TV series, not a movie, and not a novel. 

Breath of Fire III was an aesthetic experience. Critics thrust their knives into its "lack of innovation" or whatever other buzzphrase they could muster to fit their deadlines, and that was the end of it. But what Breath of Fire III did was the same as a work of postmodern architecture: it took contexts that you've grown familiar with and built new associations upon them. "Sound" was just a 1-5 scale, but it was what made the game.

If you had never played it and heard some of the compositions from its soundtrack, you'd have thought of the Full House intro. You'd have never associated the emotions you've felt from familiar RPG territory with contemporary jazz.

But by wading through its waters for 20 or 30 hours, you have a variety of contexts for contemporary jazz that you'd never have otherwise. I can listen to my city's jazz station during their scheduled contemporary hour and feel emotions I don't have words for, in part because of a game. That's what I look for in a game -- not a twist on random encounters.

If games are art (and they are) we need to look at games this way -- as interactive literature and aesthetic experiences -- and review accordingly. You can still review using gamesarefunandnothingelse-ism, but that's something else entirely. I've heard someone say that the idealized Good Critic can pick up on these factors and consider them in the review, but I don't think so.

The vast majority of critics writing about games do so under the Games Are Toys methodology. They are simply not trained to write using a fundamentally different, 'trans-fun' premise. But since games are art, we need to write about what moves us and to adopt a trans-fun model of reviewing.

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