Here’s the thing about reviews…

by Scott Nichols

Over the past five years of covering the videogame industry (holy crap, has it really been that long?) I’ve noticed many shifting opinions about the purpose of reviews and their role as it relates to critical writing.

To me, first and foremost a review is an informative piece. That is my way of making up jargon that fits both the critical and consumer-facing roles of a review. Because really, it does serve both of those roles, and to disregard or discount the importance of one of those sides seems to me to be missing the point.

So on the one hand you have the consumer-facing aspect of a review. This includes elements to help make a review more accessible to its audience. A score that becomes interpreted as a “buyer’s guide,” references and comparisons to other similar works, and general background info about the work to set up its premise.

But, at least in a good review, these consumer-facing elements are backed up with critical analysis. In the realm of games, this can include digging into the game’s overarching themes, a deconstruction of its mechanics, an investigation of level design and pacing, really any and all critical perspectives can apply.

The idea, to me at least, is to provide readers with some critical perspective that makes them look at a game in a new way. It could be as simple as highlighting a game’s save/checkpoint system and how it increases tension. And after reading a review someone playing the game is suddenly highly aware of this element, gaining a greater appreciation for the game because the review opened the door for them to look at it more critically.

Now, “true critical writing” usually follows a few weeks or months after the reviews hit. These pieces look much deeper into a game’s themes, mechanics, and what have you to provide more specific, and usually more insightful, criticism. That’s awesome, and a highly valuable part of critical writing.

But I feel like the critical element of reviews often gets lost in all of that. People only see the consumer-facing side of reviews, and ignore their greater purpose: to open the doors of critical dialog with their readers. Yes, commenters are by in large a steaming pile of shitbags, but I don’t think that should deter us from offering those critical voices in reviews.

It is a writing philosophy that I think can be applied to any medium, not just games. I read film and television show reviews not to find out if something is worth watching, but to get that “aha!” moment that illuminates some new a critical perspective. I recently read a Breaking Bad episode review (which I now can’t find) that focused entirely on the use of lighting, and it was brilliant. It still discussed the episode in broader strokes as one would expect of a review, but all through the lens of how lighting and shadow was used in each shot. It made me want to watch the episode again and see it all with this new perspective.

That is what a good review should accomplish. Obviously this is harder to achieve in games since to replay a game can be a huge time commitment, but a review should have the capacity to make someone at least want to go back, even if they actually don’t.

To 100% toot my own horn, this is the way I approach my own reviews. I hope that from reading my reviews the audience is able to gain some new perspective or insight that they might have missed. In The Wonderful 101, I tried to offer context for the game as a pivot point between Platinum Games’ past and what could lead to the studio’s future. For Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, I tried to highlight how the game uses and disregards the tropes of horror, and used the analogy of a haunted house to convey how the static sense of artifice undermines its atmosphere. For Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse I tried convey the balance between nostalgia and innovation, and how it modern techniques to reinvigorate classic platforming elements that have gone out of style since the 32-bit era.

You’ll notice by reading those reviews that they all still include the consumer-facing buyer’s guide, telling readers whether I think the game is worth their time/money or not. But it is my greater hope that people who read my reviews later notice the aspects that I point out, and, having been given some critical tools in the review, are able to continue the discussion of whether the game is successful or not in accomplishing something.

Apologies that this piece kind of rambles and jumps around, I wrote it pretty quickly in between other assignments just to get it off my chest. This is the beauty of having a personal blog and posting my random thoughts (or gamerly musings) through stream of consciousness rather than through an editor. Hopefully it makes sense to those few out there reading it, and hopefully it will help spark new discussions.