Not Another Games Criticism Rant!!!

12 Sep

For a while now I’ve been ranting about games criticism. (If you’ve been paying attention, you’re probably sick of me ranting about games criticism!)

As much as I’ve ranted, I’ve found a few signs that maybe – just maybe – some writers, websites and print publications are making some progress toward legitimate games criticism. One of the signs is the increasing seriousness with which the New York Times covers game news and offers useful game reviews.

Mostly, I appreciate what the NY Times does with games (when they do anything at all). But today the Times ran a review of “Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs” (no, I’m not making that up) – a review that left me shaking my head in confusion and dismay.

Here’s a link. Go to this link. Go directly to the Amnesia review. Read it and come on back.

http://nyti.ms/14MpGQP

Sounds good, right? I kinda want to play the game. I marvelled at the writer’s tantalizing hints at what the story might be. I enjoyed the author’s clear case for the game’s emotional impact and lingering resonance.

Then I noticed that there’s NOT ONE WORD ABOUT WHAT PLAYERS DO IN THE GAME in the review!

Not… one… word…

Seriously? Can anyone reading this review tell me what the game is about from a play/verbs standpoint?

That seems like a critical oversight (pun not intended but very much enjoyed). The piece reads like something an editor got hold of – an editor who knew nothing about games but had to save some column inches so he or she hacked out the bits that would have made the review make sense to a potential consumer. Honestly, I HOPE that’s the case because the alternative is far worse!

However it happened, it happened. We have here possibly the first game review I can remember that doesn’t actually discuss the game under discussion.

Look, if this review had mentioned the game’s genre (however the reviewer chose to define that word in the context of games), if he or she had talked a little about the play patterns and then wrapped up with a paragraph talking about how the play and the story work together to create the powerful, resonant emotional impact the game clearly delivers… Well, I’d be cheering.

As it is, I’m left shaking my head in confused wonderment.

If the author of the review reads this (fat chance, I know!), I’d love to know the backstory on the review. But even more, I’d like to know something about the game so I could decide whether to play it or not.

(Oh, and can we all vow right here, right now, never to make another game that starts with a player character who awakens in a strange place suffering from amnesia? Thanks. I appreciate it.)

8 Responses to “Not Another Games Criticism Rant!!!”

  1. Chris Warner (@ChrisExistenz) September 12, 2013 at 8:08 pm #

    I believe those are reprinted Kotaku reviews so you should ask Stephen Totilo.

  2. Kirk September 12, 2013 at 11:07 pm #

    Hi Warren!

    Kirk Hamilton here, I wrote the review you’re talking about. Or.. well, it’s not quite that simple.

    As it happens, the version of my review that you’re critiquing here is a shortened version of my full Kotaku review. It’s been significantly abridged for print in the NYT. It ran in today’s print edition on page C4. (I didn’t do the abridging this time around; it was my boss Stephen Totilo and our editors at the NYT.)

    My full, unabridged review is here:

    http://kotaku.com/amnesia-a-machine-for-pigs-the-kotaku-review-1274112886

    I’m actually quite proud of it, and think I managed to illuminate a lot about the game’s design and gameplay. I also got down some worthwhile comparisons with its predecessor Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and why I thought that game was so interestingly designed.

    It occurs to me that there’s a longer conversation here, related to your earlier thoughts about games criticism and what you described as a lack of good games criticism, particularly in mainstream print publications. 

    http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2013-07-09-warren-spector-wheres-gamings-roger-ebert

    It bears mention that a lot of the devices I’m using in my full review—annotated images, the internet’s limitless wordcount, and in the past I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of animated gifs and supplemental videos—made it possible for me to write the definitive version of my review online, rather than print.

    As for the NYT review as a standalone entity, I agree with you, to a point – it can be quite hard to get a complete game review knocked down to fit such a strict wordcount. We hope we’re providing a service to Times readers by providing snapshots of a number of interesting games, but it’s not a perfect solution. This is something the Times wanted, though— to have Kotaku contributing monthly capsule reviews to their Arts section, an approach that has increased the number of games in the NYT from one or two a month to more than a half-dozen.

    Also, if Times readers do want more lengthy versions of the reviews, they can always read Kotaku! There’s a note on each of our review sections notifying readers that the reviews are abridged from our site and directing them to kotaku.com/nytselects, where they can read the full reviews. While I’ll admit it seems unlikely that many readers will “click through,” as it were, from print to digital, at least they have the option.

    Last thought: Not for nothing, but on top of our capsule reviews, Stephen and Chris Suellentrop are both writing terrific, lengthy criticism for the Times, and both are afforded more generous wordcounts of which they can, and do, take advantage. The NYT’s full gaming coverage, ranging from features to criticism to capsule reviews, is here:

    http://www.nytimes.com/pages/arts/video-games/index.html

    At any rate, I hope you have a chance to read my full review. I’d love to know what you think of it.

  3. wspector September 13, 2013 at 1:59 am #

    Kirk – thanks for responding. I honestly didn’t expect to hear anything from the writer of the review. Sometimes fat chances come true. Or something like that…

    Let me start by saying, I was really happy to read that your review was edited for space (which seemed pretty obvious to me). Cutting to the chase, your full review over at Kotaku was swell and did everything I would want a review to do. Kudos for that.

    Let me continue by apologizing to the editor who had the unfortunate task of editing a web review to fit on a printed page. Stephen Totilo is a terrific game writer, not the know-nothing I thought we were dealing with. Yeah, definitely have to apologize for that one!

    Unfortunately, the fact that Stephen is so good at what he does just makes the whole situation more confusing – he knows better than to cut the stuff he cut and leave only the stuff he left.

    For example, there was one paragraph in your Kotaku review that just COULDN’T be cut without denying that there was a game being reviewed:

    “At its heart, this is a point-and-click adventure game dressed up in survival-horror clothes. But, it plays the two genres against one another in interesting ways. The puzzles don’t have to ramp up difficulty by relying on illogical convolutions because the sneaking and the screaming keep things plenty interesting on their own. That said, as I progressed through the story, I found A Machine for Pigs’ puzzles to be a bit too straightforward. Most obstacles are very much of the “Find the thing over there and then turn the wheel” variety, and for the most part the game doesn’t require much lateral thought or creativity. It’s less that their simplicity detracted from the overall experience and more that they simply didn’t add much.”

    Here you addressed the gameplay, the game style and the ways in which gameplay works and doesn’t, in the context of the rest of the game. Even just a portion of this paragraph would have told me what I needed to know. Seems like a weird thing to cut.

    Having said all of this, let me be clear that I think Stephen Totilo and Chris Suellentrop are two of the best game writers around right now. I’ve called them out as role models more than once recently. They give me hope that games might someday be accorded the respect they’re due. (Still, I really will have to give Stephen a hard time about the editing thing…)

    Anyway, one more thing: You say, with some justification, that the full-length reviews are on Kotaku for anyone who wants to read them. The fact that I didn’t notice this – and I’m a gamer who reads the Times every day – says that not many people are going to follow that virtual link.

    But more than that, one of the key points I’ve been trying to make in my recent critiques of games criticism is that we need to expose mainstream readers to the joys our medium delivers. The fact is, my mother, my sisters, my brother-in-law, my uncles… none of them know what Kotaku is. They read the Times. That’s where we need longer form criticism.

    And, yes, I know and appreciate that the Times runs such criticism now and then – we need more. But, more to the point, the Times needs to be running all of reviews like yours – that was a really nice piece you wrote (without credit in the Times…). Sadly, most of the people who could benefit from reading it the most will never see it.

  4. wspector September 13, 2013 at 2:02 am #

    Oh, yeah, Kirk – forgot to mention that, after reading your full-length review, I totally want to play the game (even if it IS called “A Machine for Pigs”).

  5. Kirk September 13, 2013 at 2:18 am #

    Ha, I agree with you there – I’d love to see even more long game stuff in the Times! And hey, I’m glad you enjoyed the full review. I’ll be curious to know what you think of the game if you do find the time to play it. It’s an interesting one, in that there’s not a ton of “game” to it, as has tended to be the case for a lot of interesting games lately. But I enjoyed it quite a bit despite the complaints I listed in my review.

    As for the editing thing, I can’t speak for Stephen, but maybe he’ll weigh in if he has a moment. Having chopped down plenty of my own reviews for the Times over the last year or so, I’ll say that it can be a real trial figuring out what to cut when you’ve only got 200 words. What will be most interesting and helpful for Times readers? Do I cut my gameplay synopsis? My narrative explanation? Something I liked? Something I disliked? Do I trim my verdict?

    My words, my beautiful words! How they cry out when I erase them!

    So yeah, it’s a challenge. Though of course that’s not to say that it can’t always be done better, because it certainly can.

  6. wspector September 13, 2013 at 3:44 am #

    200 words? 200 WORDS?! I can’t say “hello” in 200 words! Wow. I still wish, like, 20 of those words had described the actual game but I withdraw a large percentage of my complaints.

    (Shakes his head ruefully at the thought of a 200 word summary of a solid, appropriately-lengthed review… Wow.)

    See, I just used up a quarter of my available word count and haven’t even mentioned the name of a game let alone said if it was any good or not. 200 words. Man. Hope you’re not getting paid by the word…

  7. The Chinese Room (@ChineseRoom) September 13, 2013 at 6:39 am #

    Hi Warren, I’m Dan, Creative Director for TCR and the writer/designer on Machine for Pigs. Big longtime fans of your work and wanted to say we’d love to hear your thoughts on it if you had time to play. Drop me a mail (dan@thechineseroom.co.uk) or a twitter msg and we’ll send you a code! We loved Kirk’s review, when the game came out there were lots of critics who only really focused on gameplay shifts and didn’t engage with the wider picture (the immersive storytelling, ironic given it was really this which defined the first game they compared Pigs to, not the mechanic). I felt like Kirk didn’t shy away from the issues with the game mechanically but really grasped the contexts for those decisions. Anyway, still slightly bemused and adrift in the fact that designers we are in awe of are even discussing something we made, so will stop now before I start uncontrollably fanboying at you. Cheers!

  8. Sunny Kalsi (@thesunnyk) September 16, 2013 at 12:46 am #

    haha this just turned into a love fest! I was quite surprised that Warren hadn’t even heard of the Amnesia series. I thought AMFP was actually quite anticipated. Yahtzee Croshaw gave a pretty good review for the predecessor – Amnesia: the dark descent.

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