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Reviewing games

January 03, 2006 ・ Blog

If there’s anything that the whole ‘new games journalism’ thing was good for highlighting it was the crappy state of games criticism. Most of it is by the numbers graphics/sound/longevity bullshit, mere product guides for consumers instead of useful and constructive critical investigations into what games mean.

That game reviews can be something more has become nearly common currency now, a fact confirmed by the appearance of new games journalism on a study module on games reviewing (via Infovore) at the University of Bolton, part of its (I think) games design course. It includes (week 9) a whole lecture on NGJ, along with readings on Gamespot reviews and writing reviews of games like Uplink. All very trendy stuff.

I kind of think it misses the point, though. It’s laudable to want to teach written English skills to prospective game designers (the tutor’s introductory lecture mentions that during its validation process for the Games Design course they were told that “many young people simply cannot write English properly”, and that “reviewing games is a good way practise!” (er, sic)). But the outline of the course is too inward-looking, only examining videogames and nothing outside them.

It’s such introversion that is making games reviewing so limited. Reviews fail to look at references outside of videogames’ narrow confines, treating them as seperate from the rest of the cultural world. It means that games are being shortchanged – reviews aren’t challenging them to become richer by engaging more fully with other areas of culture and experience.

It’s an area that I’m currently trying to do something (small) in. I’m the games editor for a graphic design website called Pixelsurgeon, commissioning reviews for an audience that’s informed about and interested in videogames but that doesn’t necessarily play them. I hardly have time to write many myself, but my two reviewers, Andy and Tom, have been doing some great work. By way of comparison, read these reviews of Half-Life 2, one before we started and one by Tom. The former takes the standard approach, focusing on the technicalities – the graphics, the sound, the AI. Tom’s is much more interesting:

“When writing a review, you can’t just dive into the heart of the game, dissecting subtext left, right, and centre. Obligations have to be filled: you need to talk about the graphics, the quality of the textures, the polygon counts, the frame rates… …By now you’re bogged down in such a mire of technicalities that you’ve run out of room to talk about the interesting aspects of the game, let alone whether it’s fun or not.

Great stuff. All I’ve got to do now is find time to write some reviews myself…