Friday, April 6, 2012

The Dialogue of a Games Review


The entirety of this blog has been dedicated to gaming. Some of it is dedicated to the industry, some of it is dedicated to criticism, and the majority of it has been dedicated to game review. However, this most dominant of things is actually the thing that I loathe and love the most.

Games review is inherently subjective. It’s also largely used as a compass, and in this sense it is viewed as an objective tool with which one can guide him or herself to their desired gaming destination. In this light it’s easy to see why the ambivalence exists, and so strongly: who really knows where they want to end up, and how many of those people actually know how to get there? And yet therein is my implied task: to guide and direct the flow of fulfillment.

What I’ve discovered to be helpful in this effort then is to establish an internal dialogue with myself whenever I’m faced with the task of reviewing a game. This doesn’t reduce its loathsomeness, but it does make the process smoother. Unfortunately, it’s become increasingly apparent to me (and my readers) that properly receiving the information presented in one of these reviews is difficult without knowing the process and purpose behind it…

SO THIS IS HOW IT GOES

Someone asks, Is this game worth playing?

This is a valid question, but it isn’t a good one. Most people confuse the idea of “validity” with “quality”. Just because a question is valid doesn’t mean it’s worth answering. It could just be that the question makes sense but that its answer is completely worthless. And a worthless answer to a valid question makes that question a reasonably worthless question. And yet, this is the question most often used as the propellant for the creation of a review.

And so I respond, Before I answer that, let me ask you a question.

One should never answer a bad question with a straight answer. In fact, doing so only perpetuates the act of asking bad (but valid) questions. So I instead initiate a conversation, a dialogue, that ends in the formulation of a better question.

They say, Fine.

Only unreasonable people would say NO. Don’t be unreasonable.

I say, Why do you want to play this game?

Now, the answer to this question is the key to the formulation of the better question. Most people need to be led to this point because they can’t be bothered to ask themselves this question more seriously. And with good cause: the answer to this particular question is never a complex sentence. It’s usually not even a compound sentence. A possible answer:

I’m bored.

Unfortunately this disyllabic phrase doesn’t inspire many to deep, meditative self-reflection, but within its depths lies that better question. It just requires a bit more dialogue to draw it out.

Why are you bored?

The power of the question “why” lies in its tedium. It can always be asked, again and again, digging deeper and deeper into the core of its target. But, like any act of digging, it is a means and not an end in itself, and overzealous application of the word “why” may dig one past the stratum of interest. As interesting as it sounds to reach the core of a target, that isn’t the purpose of this line of questioning. The purpose is to provide an answer to the question “Is this game worth playing?”

Don’t get distracted now.

SPANNING THE DIVIDE

So I’ll stop here and for a moment elaborate on the danger of getting distracted from that purpose of asking why, because the truth is that once we set ourselves on a course of “why” it’s often hard to know when to stop and get off. The inertia of “why” is tremendous due to its promises of uncovering cores and essences and other cool catchwords. But the intent here is not catchwords. It’s information.

As a result, I’ve come to understand that my job when I review games is not to speculate, criticize, or destabilize some kind of core or essential argument, it’s to elucidate it. My job is to report facts both qualitatively and quantitatively, to the best of my ability and the extent which the game lends itself to be measured in these two modes. The process of elucidation then is by means of this dialogue. By asking and answering the question “why” in varying degrees and with increasing precision I can dutifully sift out the dross from the gold, not unlike the pioneering gold pioneers of the pioneering era of gold pioneering as they pioneered for gold with their…pioneering materials.

The question of “why” beyond the point of boredom is as far as I find myself needing to go in order to clarify the intent of a game and in turn relay it to a reader. This means that anything outside and beyond the scope of that stratum of interest is totally and utterly outside the scope of my responsibility as a reviewer. This means a lot. This is where things go wrong.

THIS IS WHERE YOU COME IN

This means that the burden of significance in evaluating the quality of a game largely falls upon you, the reader and ultimately the player. But this is an unpopular contention because readers (rightfully, in some measure) assume that the bulk of the responsibility in a review falls upon the reviewer. The reason this isn’t true and this assumption is so completely unrightful is because no one ever seems to ask what exactly that responsibility is.

Just because 90% of the word “reviewer” is comprised of the word “review” does not mean that the “reviewer” shoulders 110% of the burden. In fact the relationship, and hence the responsibility, is purely and literally nominal. The rest of the responsibility, the philosophical responsibility, falls upon the reader. This is because the philosophical argument for “Is this game worth playing?” is in fact “Why should I play this game?” which is in fact a question that no one can answer except yourself. And the correct answer to this question is contingent not upon a concise and well-argued presentation, but on clear and unadulterated facts. And that is the part that the reviewer is responsible for.

The answer to the question “I’m bored” is the answer that the reviewer needs in order to present the cornucopia of experiences and facts contained within a given game in such a way that you, the reader, can compile and categorize them so as to make the best possible decision when it comes to spending the various forms of time that have on your hands.

THE MORAL OF THE STORY

Reviewing games is about facts, which is why it falls under the realm of journalism. But reviewing has fallen out of its element mostly because it’s gotten confused about its purpose and has been tempted by the glory and attention garnered by humor, wit, and greed.

Publishers leverage the fact that people aren’t introspective; that they don’t find and build these necessary foundations for making reasonable time-consumption decisions. Those foundations must be built in order for the decision to be made, but they don’t need to be good ones. This is what publishers exploit with hype, marketspeak, and catchwords. And this is what reviewers are beginning to understand as well. Reviewers have begun to leverage the void in their audience, implanting expectations, ideas, and arguments and then simply fulfilling them. They simply do it with a bit more flash and much fancier words.

This is what I hate. The pressure to create “readable” material is in fact the pressure to fabricate a desire in the consumer to play the game. It isn’t about transmitting or distilling or extrication, it’s about making people feel good. And when I succumb to this pressure, this increasingly enormous pressure, I falter. I fail because I can’t suppress the feeling that I’m being disingenuous or telling people what they ought to think and not to think for themselves. And what really ought to be happening is that reviewers should be expected to report 2 things: what the game is, and what the reviewer thinks about what that is. In turn, the greatest pressure that a reviewer should feel isn’t the pressure to produce something readable.

It should be the pressure to keep their opinions and their facts separate.