Game Criticism by André Conti
Last month, Nintendo Power magazine published its last edition, after 222 numbers. Since at least 10 years ago, videogame magazines completely lost their importance, but that is still a landmark of sorts. Before the internet, they were the only source of information regarding new releases and rumors, and a treasure trove of tips, tricks and guides. Those of you that remember the good old Ação Games [an extinct Brazilian magazine] know what I'm talking about.
After specialized websites started to cover news with unmatched speed, some magazines placed their bets on longer analyses in order to survive. Because of that, it was still worthwhile to subscribe, for instance, to PC Gamer UK, which dedicated many pages to a single game in their in-depth reviews.
In the end, some niche publications survived (such as the excellent Retro Gamer), but most of the criticism migrated to websites and blogs.
"Criticism" is a way of speaking. What we find is a lot of incoherent opinion, badly disguised press releases and a strong dose of teenage hysteria. No one accepts and reproduces so well a marketing campaign like the big gaming websites, like Gamespot and IGN.
The problem is that game criticism, in the classic sense, is relatively recent (for instance, the great book Extra Lives, by Tom Bissell, is from 2010). There are few criteria, only hordes of gamers with a degree in journalism and plenty of opinions to offer.
The thing is, unlike literary criticism, for instance, game criticism is still a determining factor for a publisher's sales. Blogs and websites created by friends 10 years ago today have huge sway over the market. Only very rarely did this increase in importance mean an increase in quality.
Game reviews became a specialist job, always under a technical veneer. IGN, for instance, until recently rated their games based on average between sound quality, graphics, gameplay, etc.
The fact that games are rated already tells us much about the quality of reviews. To divide them in technical aspects is the same thing as evaluating a movie based on its camera movements and sound engineering, as if there was some scientific knowledge that was better than "lay" analysis, in general terms.
Of course, games aren't movies. The reader must be told not only what the game is about, but also how it is played. Unlike movies, each genre has specific mechanics that will also vary from game to game in the same genre.
Perhaps the website that got the closest to reviews free of the technical stuffiness is Rock Paper Shotgun, a blog that specializes in computer games. RPS' critics treat games like a single thing: graphics, mechanics, formal issues and technological pomp have little interest by themselves and are mentioned only in the context of the gaming experience.
But the perspective isn't that terrible. The indie invasion of recent years has forced reviewers to face games with rudimentary graphics and short duration (one of the great crimes in the cost/benefit mentality). As the scene gets less homogeneous, criticism should improve. Or, at least, stop rating games.