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Why "Games" Isn't A Specialization

For much of the game industry's history, "games" has been enough to suffice for a specialty. In the most specialized instances, there might be "the RPG guy" or "the FPS girl." These distinctions make no sense.

Hi. This is Vince. He reviews mystery novels.

Hello there Vince. This is Laurence. He reviews psychology-oriented nonfiction.

Greetings, you two. Meet James. He's an expert of mid-20th century American literature.

What these three people have in common is that they all review writing and review it in very different ways.

Now meet my friend. He's actually real. His name is Thomas. On game reviewing, he writes: "it's like turning to the New York Review of Books and expecting the same writer to give two wildly different genre books (literary non-fiction and harlequin, say) the same level of critique, including "is it relevant?" and "it is what it is," both contained within a number, and anything lower than 8 sucks."

In the game industry, "writing" is considered a subfactor of "story". Not a factor, a subfactor. The type of writing would be considered a subsubfactor, or a factor of a factor of a factor. If I have the criteria "graphics, sound, story, gameplay" and am expected to weight each accordingly, and games are indeed art, how can I possibly expect to say a game has "good writing" when a critic's entire specialty could be devoted to a factor of a factor of a factor?

Earlier this year I wrote about how games are not toys, calling for a new review methodology in light of the fact that games are art. The most frequent point of disagreement I heard was that a good reviewer will take into account the artistic nuances of a game. I am here to say that a "good game reviewer" is far too unspecific.

A person who reviews Mario Party 8 is no more qualified to write about the narrative merits of Grand Theft Auto IV than a person who writes your local sports column. Yet that is what often happens. Writing about games leads you to become an expert on the aspects of games that are unique to games, but no more. You can comment more knowledgeably about the gameplay and the graphics, but can you really comment on "good voice acting" in the same way a movie critic can? What about a theater critic?

To some extent, game critics realize this. For all of the '90s and much of the 2000s, "gameplay" and "graphics" have ruled review criteria. To an extent, "story" was also a factor, yet because so many games contained little to no story most reviewers kept their rubrics for evaluating stories firmly chucked in a desk drawer, brought out only when absolutely necessary. They'd rather load their holsters with the double G.

There's a problem with that: many of the games we love are loved because of their story. In fact, most of the games we see as classics have stayed classics because of their story. Gameplay and graphics can be surpassed and refined; stories are fundamentally human and don't change in their degree of emotional realism.

And in evaluating stories, you need to be aware of how it's being told.

Games use cameras to tell stories. There is an inherent element of cinematography in games, but to the extent that cameras are talked about in games, it's with reference to how cumbersome they are. The best camera is an unobtrusive one.

Games use acting to tell stories. To analyze acting you need to have a more nuanced understanding of body language than the average person and how that relates to believability, as well as a good understanding of vocal tones and the ability to explicate those tones. "Good voice acting"? Get out of here.

Games use narrative devices to tell stories. When Star Ocean III came out -- spoiler alert -- its story was criticized for being too similar to the Matrix. Which is so not the point. Stories are not properly evaluated by how well they are described by (or avoid) tropes. A novice reviewer may write "the story is a rip-off of the Matric." A nuanced reviewer may write "the immersion caused by spending dozens of hours on one planet, then dozens of hours in a galactic setting, then dozens of hours in a trans-galactic setting compels the player to distrust every aspect of his or her surroundings and reconsider their own universe in a who-guards-the-guardians scenario."

I don't think I am pompous in saying that the example assessment I gave of a nuanced, story-focused reviewer is better than the guy who complains primarily about the time it takes to advance the story while punctuating it with "by the way it rips off the Matrix." Because here's the thing: I suck at reviewing stories. I am decent at Nonfiction, not fiction. Yet even here I can recognize that there is a serious deficit.

Why does the industry treat "game reviews" as a still-unified thing? Why does metacritic even exist? I'm all for composites, but you need to distinguish between reviewers who focus on aesthetics, who focus on story, and who focus on gameplay.

For the reviewer of the 2010s, I will ask: What is your specialty? Are you particularly adept at assessing the narrative aspects of the game, or do you focus on gameplay? What type of narrative? What type of gameplay? And if you say "both", I will be immediately skeptical. Are you really so experienced that you can handle assessing high fantasy narratives as well as you can psychological thrillers?

It would be wise for a game magazine to start snatching up some young literary critics, training them in the ways of video games, and giving them an entirely different division of critical analysis independent of the obnoxious 1-10 system and journalese like "latest salvo." I'm sure some reviewers who have crossed worlds already exist.

In any case, the appraisal of 'games' as a unified field has got to go. It's antiquated, it's far too broad, and acting like it's a specialty doesn't advance this area of criticism.

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