Jan 8, 2013

The Difference Between Critique and Review in Relation to Video Games

     This is something that has been on my mind as of late: It seems like few people actually understand the difference between "Critique" and "Review" and end up believing the two are synonymous and interchangeable. While it's certainly true that critique and review are similar, their differences and purposes are actually pretty significant; this is especially true in the world of video games. There are plenty of people out there who do game reviews and are called critics, when the truth of the matter is that very few of them are doing any sort of critical analysis that is at the heart of what being a critic is. This isn't to say that these individuals are doing something wrong; most of the time they are very competent at reviewing a game. However, few people actually break a game down and analyze it piece by piece and consider why the developers made the design choices they did.

Reviews let you know what is present


    The purpose of a review is to let you know what you are getting before you make a purchase. In the world of video games you can usually expect the the reviewer to talk about any or all of the following:
  • Synopsis of the plot (if any)
  • Graphics/Aesthetics
  • Music
  • Development History
  • Glitches/issues
  • Multiplayer (if any)
  • Length of game
  • Their opinion of quality
  • Similarities/differences to another game

     For the most part, all video game reviews read the same. Again, this isn't a bad thing, in fact, it's a very good thing. If you are on the fence about whether or not to purchase a certain game, then the consistency in which reviews are written can be beneficial to your decision making. Let's face it, gaming is an expensive hobby, and you can't buy a game and return it just because you don't like it. Video rental stores are quickly becoming extinct, so renting isn't always an option (unless you have Gamefly, but that's not for everybody), so dropping $60 on a game can be a big risk. While I wouldn't recommend buying or not buying a game solely on one review (or even two or three), it's always nice to have as much information as possible when making any decision. Plus, I don't know about you but I'd like to know ahead of time if the game I'm interested in has any major, game-breaking problems. A good example here would be when I was looking into buying Bayonetta. Normally I prefer to buy the PS3 version of a game if there isn't a PC version available and only buy a game for my 360 if it's an exclusive. Thankfully, a few of the reviews I read prior to my purchase warned readers of the PS3 version which was, and still is, plagued by low framerate issues, while the 360 version ran smoothly throughout.

     Like anything though, reviews do have their limits and downsides. For one, people often take reviews and review scores as law: there's some kind of psychology involved in hearing that something is good or bad. Seemingly, people can hear how good something is from a wide variety of sources and still be on the fence, but reading a single review on how bad something is, regardless of how creditable the source is, can often make up a persons mind; you know you've been guilty of this before, and I fully admit that I have. This issue is made even more problematic when review scores are added in. I don't know how many times I've heard people on the internet and in real life say how good or bad a game is simply based on an abstract numerical representation.

     There's also the problem of what I'm going to call "Reviewing Within a Genre". This would be reviewing a game in relation to a previously released game in the same genre, oftentimes using the older game as a gauge of how good the new one is. Wouldn't it be more beneficial to judge the game based on it's own merits? This problem was made very clear this past summer when Spec Ops: The Line was released; many reviewers spoke of how outdated the gunplay felt in comparison to Call of Duty or Battlefield, or how lackluster the multiplayer was, not realizing this "outdated" shooting style was a design choice made by the developer (Yager) to reinforce the message that they wanted to convey, or that Yager was forced to include multiplayer at the behest of its publisher, 2K. Sometimes reviewers even manage to compare the game they are reviewing with a game in an entirely different genre. I read one review earlier this year that frowned on Borderlands 2 because it didn't feel like an FPS. The problem is, Borderlands 2 is more of an RPG than an FPS, so why review it as such?

Critiques go indepth


     Critiques are just what they sound like, a "critical analysis" of something that goes much further than just telling you what is present. This is an area of expertise that the video game industry is sorely lacking and is what I believe to be one of the biggest reasons our medium hasn't yet earned the social respect it deserves. So what does a critique do/have that a review doesn't? A good critique will:

  • Look for a deeper meaning or purpose
  • Ask questions like:
    • Why was this game made?
    • Who developed/funded this project and what is their motivation/background?
    • Why did they choose to design the levels the way they did?
    • Does placement of object X solidify idea Y?
  • Talk about how the gameplay/mechanics affect the narrative, or if they do at all
  • Talk about how similar mechanics are utilized better/worse in another game (note that this is different from comparing two games. For example Mass Effect is an RPG at heart, but it also relies heavily on third-person shooting mechanics. Comparing Mass Effect and Gears of War would pretty dumb, but comparing the similar mechanics would allow for a greater understanding of each game. Would a game like Gears of War benefit if RPG elements were added? Or would it detract from what the game already has?)
  • Look at the good and the bad realizing that just because something works/doesn't work in one game doesn't mean it will/won't work in another
  • Realize that every game, no matter how esteemed, has its flaws

     Often times a critique and a review will draw very different conclusions about what is being presented. As with the aforementioned Spec Ops: The Line, a lot of reviewers missed its point entirely and simply focused on the game's surface. Most were quick to point out its unique narrative, sure, but very few of them mentioned or realized that the "mediocre gunplay" was an intentional design choice meant to drive how the idea that war is not fun, and should not be treated as such.

     Critiques and, by extension, critics delve beneath the surface and seek out the the fine subtleties of a game that the vast majority of people won't pick up on, or don't care about. That isn't to say that they never mention the billeted items that reviews do; they just talk about these aspects in a more analytical way rather than just giving an opinion. They'll talk about areas of great design choices, as well as areas of poor ones, and explain why something does or does not work. Also, the vast majority of reviewers, developers, and publishers tend to see gameplay and narrative as separate entities meant to complement each other. This is seen very often nowadays with most games following a "cutscene-gameplay-cutscene" pattern. Critics, on the other hand, know that, ideally, a game's narrative should be reinforced through its gameplay, and that gameplay alone can convey a narrative without the need for cutscenes or text based explanations. A perfect example of this would be Loneliness.<=See how that is a hyperlink? Click on it, and play the game before before you continue reading (it only takes a minute or two to beat).

     See what I'm talking about? The game is about squares and that's basically it. There are no cutscenes and no text explanations (save for the very end, but you can ignore that part; it's kind of preachy), just squares. Sure, the game is called Loneliness so right away it puts that idea in your head, but even without the title the game mechanics alone would be sufficient enough to convey that feeling of being alone, even while others are near (the music helps a lot too); it can also be seen as how the square you play as desires to be with others, but for one reason or another keeps pushing them away.

     The biggest problem with critiques is that not everyone wants to read/watch them. Lets face it, not everybody sees video games as the next artistic medium; most people just want to be entertained and don't look for or desire a deeper meaning. Not everybody is going to care that Katamari Damacy is an allegory to mass consumption brought on by capitalism, or that Braid alludes to the never ending cycle of obsession. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with just playing for fun, but things can get problematic when there aren't enough people around that realize how the game industry changes, for better or worse, by how and what the majority group plays. I have no problem with the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series. From a reviewing lens I can see that they are well made games that can be a lot of fun and can take quite a bit of skill to be good at. However, look at COD through a critiquing lens and you quickly realize how shallow an experience the series really is; an experiance that will in all likelihood be nothing but a fond memory ten years from now, and one that certainly won't stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Super Mario Bros. or Shadow of the Colossus. Of course, not every game needs to strive to change the course of gaming as we know it or try to become an artistic masterpiece; sometimes you just want to have fun, and I'm a firm believer that we need both types of games; but that's beside the point.

     Another problem critiques have that is prevalent in all forms of narrative media is that to properly explain why a narrative is good or bad, you have to actually talk about it (i.e. spoil it). For the most part people don't like spoilers. I for one get majorly irked when something I'm interested in is spoiled. Imagine the reaction people must have had the first time they heard Darth Vader say "No, I am your father." I remember it not being that big of a deal for me because already I knew about Vader's connection with Luke before I saw The Empire Strikes Back: that shit would have blown my mind otherwise. After reading/watching a critique people may feel as though the thing they were interested in no longer has any surprises left, lose interest, and buy something else. This is probably why most developers and publishers take criticism so harshly and try to bury a good critique under a pile of stellar reviews.

 The ideal blend?

     Critiques and reviews both have their place, and I'm sure I'll be talking about them both in the future, but for now I want to leave you with this question: What is the ideal blend of review with critique? After all, you can't do a review without at least some critique. Likewise you can't write a critique without some amount of review. Can one provide what the other is lacking? I think so. Like I said earlier, the biggest problems with reviews are that they don't go deep enough, they don't usually judge a game on its own merits, and often talk about game mechanics and narrative as two separate entities. Critiques don't appeal to most people, and usually have to spoil the plot to really get at the heart of why something is good or bad.

     Over the years I've found that the best and most interesting reviews/critiques were the ones that found the perfect balance between the two. So what is the perfect balance? It depends on the game in question. Not every game is going to need an equal blend of critique and review. It would be rather foolish to use 70% critique and 30% review for a game like Pac-Man, there just isn't enough to analyze. In this case using review as your primary lens would probably be your best option, since you couldn't really critique games like this beyond how good/bad the level design is; you'd come off sounding like a pretentious moron if you did that. With game like Spec Ops: The Line (last time I use this as an example I promise...well, for this article anyway) you'd need to use your critiquing lens much more than your review lens, if you don't, you might end up drawing the wrong conclusions about a game.

     Critique and review both have their pros and cons and can work well on their own, but they are best utilized in conjunction with one another. This style of critical review is what I strive for whenever I discuss a game, and I'm not the only one who does. Hopefully this method will catch on more and more so we can have the best of both worlds and continue to see the our medium grow into the artistic medium it's destined to be.

Credit must be given to Extra Credits for bringing Loneliness to my attention, as well as discussing the subject of narrative mechanics in much greater depth than I have. You guys are great, don't ever stop.

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