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Review Criticism: “A Dead Space 3 review reignites the games-as-art debate.”

mammon-machine:

I don’t think it does and I don’t think that the very nature of what a review should do is at stake either. I think a legitimate critique of a review is derailed by high level discussion that masks a pretty big problem in games journalism which is: never actually saying anything ever.

Here is what happened: Bennett Foddy called out Arthur Gies of Polygon for a poorly chosen sentence in his Dead Space 3 review and Arthur Gies told Foddy to read the rest of the article. Then they debated the nature of what a review “means” and what games get to be art. It isn’t a bad discussion (though it might be a useless one) but what I’m going to do instead is forget the rest of the debate and instead read those 1800 other words in the article apart from the sentence Foddy criticized, and see if, they contain the meaning the sentence “but the new crafting system and bigger, more open level structure join co-op to make Dead Space 3 one of the best action games in years” lacks. Gies told Foddy “put bluntly, if you’re saying i didn’t back up my opinion, i’m saying you’re wrong.” I think Gies in fact does not back up most of his statements about the game and the review suffers for it. I am going to spend this essay picking apart the article and I’m pretty sure that Arthur Gies will now hate me forever and I’ll be banned from the games industry, but here it goes.

Foddy said he rejected the “fundamentally mechanistic” criteria of Gies’s review. I’m not exactly sure what “mechanistic” means, but I think criteria based on mechanics are just fine. I don’t think Gies’s review adheres to a mechanistic criteria (link to the article there, but I’ll be quoting it a lot), if mechanistic means talking about the game mechanics and, more importantly, how they work and why they are in the game and how they elicit reactions from the players, what those reactions are, and how successful and original they are at doing that. Oh, just replace “reactions” with “fun” if you’re the sort who tends to not think of games in other terms, but I think Dead Space is a rare exception of a game that we can pretty clearly say is at least somewhat also about eliciting fear responses from the player. Though Gies says that most games are about nothing more than fun, and though I completely agree, not all fun looks or feels exactly the same. His review certainly reflects this sensibility as well, and I’m sure he wouldn’t say that crafting and shooting limbs elicits the same “fun” response. If it did, no video game would be different than any other. Anyways, I’m going to pull apart this article because I don’t think that it actually fulfills his criteria for a review of a game, as expressed in the tweets quoted in that buzzfeed article, because he never ends up saying why the mechanics are fun or anything specific about them, other than that they are “better” or “improved” in never stated ways from Dead Space 2 and other titles.

When the discussion devolved into what the purpose of a “review” or “criticism” is, the reason I think that it was a useless discussion was because the goals of any form of writing are fairly case by case and any all encompassing definition of either will fail as completely as a similar treatment of art. However, writers can make their case by case goals clear and then adhere to or fail at them. Gies is helpful in clearly stating what his goals are at the beginning of his article:

“Surprisingly, instead of watering the series down, Visceral has instead strengthened Dead Space’s single-player roots with some of the strongest combat design the series has seen. It’s also the biggest, most ambitious game Visceral has ever made.

But Visceral’s biggest accomplishment is attaining what I thought was impossible — Dead Space 3 avoids the traps of poorly implemented co-op, while capitalizing on all of its strengths.”

Over the course of the article I expect to see these claims supported. They’re meaningless statements by themselves, just words attached to value judgements without an indication of what, for example, poor or strong co-op is or what it means for combat design to be strong, or why it would be surprising for Visceral to not water down the series, but in the opening paragraphs the author doesn’t need to make these clear (though it wouldn’t hurt). I’m mentioning this just because I want you to know that Foddy’s point is right on— a sentence like “But the new crafting system and bigger, more open level structure join co-op to make Dead Space 3 one of the best action games in years.” is as meaningless as “Game X offers 143 hours of unique fetch quests and displays 143,000 colors on screen at once, making it the best action game this year!” These facts need to be attached to their results or they are devoid of meaning. 

Good writing tells you why those raw facts matter. Your game can have 2 billion guns and every one of them is boring; the role of the writer is to specifically detail how and why the specific facts of the game function to create an experience and what that experience is. Maybe it’s almost always “fun” but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the writing showing us how we get from flashing lights and number to fun, and if that fun is a right fit for me, the person looking to maybe buy a video game.

“In keeping with the last two games, Dead Space 3 is a third-person action-horror game with a specific mechanical twist. The undead necromorphs don’t have traditional anatomical weaknesses — instead, Isaac must cut off their limbs to take them down. Each enemy type is vulnerable in a different way, and Dead Space 3 introduces new wrinkles to that equation over the course of its 18- to 20-hour campaign. The dismemberment-oriented combat is paired with stasis, which slows enemies and environmental hazards, and kinesis, which allows Isaac to grab objects and fling them at enemies with deadly force.

Dead Space 3 further refines this combat trio with more responsive controls and better shooting than the last two games. Combat is more immediately satisfying than it’s ever been because of this, which is good, since managing multiple on-screen enemies is more important than it’s ever been. Visceral frequently gives in to the kitchen sink approach, throwing what feels like everything in its repertoire at the player.”

The first paragraph is a dry list of the features of Dead Space’s combat but not how they function. Since it is more difficult to list games in which you do not shoot enemies or parts of them, this writer has a lot of work to do he wants to distinguish how this particular form of combat is different from any other game’s. Gies does not detail why shooting limbs is interesting or fun or scary or even different from any other game which involves move a reticle over something and pressing the trigger button. Nine out of ten games I grab off a shelf at Gamestop will have this exact same format of gameplay and maybe 2/10 will do it in a way that’s fun enough that I would consider paying $60 for it. What makes Dead Space different? I would argue that it is having to shoot multiple points on a single enemy(rather than just the head) is harder and it emphasizes the unstoppable inhuman power of the alien nemesis in Dead Space, and that the action and horror compliment each other in kind of a neat way that few other games do, but Gies doesn’t say anything about that. This is the bare minimum of a mechanical analysis: this factual component of the game results in this result for the player. Instead I get the facts that I can slow down or fling around objects but not why that is a fun thing to do or if dead space implements it well. Are the puzzles as fun as Portal? As frustrating as Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Why?

The bolded sentences in those paragraphs are meant to highlight the words that don’t actually mean anything. He says the game has been refined with “more responsive” controls and “better” shooting. Okay, better how? More responsive how? Does the autoaim let me hit things more often? Are Isaac’s attack animations faster with shorter startup? What specifically has changed? What feels different? What salient feature can you point out and describe that would explain this change to a reader? Articulating this specifically is not just the role of a game reviewer but the role of any writer writing about anything at all. Better doesn’t mean a thing unless we can point to something specific.

On the plus side, Gies’s critique of Visceral’s “kitchen sink” approach is a good one; it’s specific because it says “okay well the weakness of Dead Space is that it has so many buttons I never know which one to press,” but again he doesn’t detail the problem very much outside of that and he also doesn’t tell me any specific change that has fixed this weakness. Those features are all there: is the circumstance of their use more clear? Do I have to worry about them less?

“There’s a new aesthetic sensibility, sure — most of the necromorphs Isaac faces throughout Dead Space 3 are based on creatures that have been dead for more than two centuries, rather than fresh corpses. They’re less gooey.”

 I like this part a lot actually because it clearly describes what the game looks like. What it doesn’t answer is why it matters. Does the aesthetic make the game scarier? Scarier in a different way? Emphasize the time that’s passed and presumably why that matters for some reason? Especially since he criticizes the enemies for being the same as their previous incarnations, does it do something new and is it enough?

“These stories, told via text and audio logs throughout each area, tend to feature specific characters repeatedly in a successful effort in developing these long-dead people enough to want to know what happened to them.”

A “successful” effort, but no indication why it’s successful. Specific characters is our keyword, but does the game do a good job of getting us to care about them? A lot of games have specific characters that I couldn’t care less about. Especially if they’re dead and in audio logs—I can barely bring myself to care about video game characters that are paraded in front of the screen for hours by their fawning creators, so I really need more than just that the audio logs have specific characters if I want to be convinced that Dead Space is going to make me care.

Important detail: I don’t necessarily have to agree with the evidence the writer gives me, you know. I can vehemently disagree with reviews that are ultra specific—I feel this way about ActionButton.net reviews more than I agree with them—but I understand any game they talk about a billion times better because they can talk about their games with specific words that mean things. I understand why they hate games even if I love them. There is no such thing as an objective review, remember? So the only way to write a good one is to be as detailed as possible, to punch down your reaction so specifically that someone can read it and decide whether they agree with your reasons or if they don’t, and even if they don’t, they’ll still understand better how the game works and probably even why they like it in the first place. I have instantly bought games because of bad reviews because the author was specific enough for me to be like, “you may hate that, but I know for a fact I would LOVE it.”

“These puzzles are a great palate cleanser from the more frequent firefights, and they make Isaac a more believable, relatable character.”

How does solving puzzles make him believeable or relatable? Is there dialogue during these scenes or what? The author also says the puzzles are more “organic” but what does that mean? They make more sense, sure, but what changed to make them understandable?

“No weapon upgrade is irreversible, so every piece of loot you find can be reconfigured for maximum potential. There’s an almost playful attitude present with gear that makes it easy to get caught up in its systems in a meaningful way.”

I’m a fan of this part; he gives an example and then shows you how that specific game mechanic makes him feel. It doesn’t take much to show how the game works at giving the player an experience. Since the game lets you pull apart and put together weapons at will, it encourages experimentation rather than punishes you for decisions that you may not understand.  This is a good analysis and I wish it was applied to more things other than the crafting system. 

“Dead Space 3 doesn’t fall prey to the trap of co-op design. It doesn’t feel like something is missing when you’re playing by yourself — there’s no computer-controlled partner with you all the time to make sure the game functions properly. The only time you’d even notice that you could play the game with a partner is when you come across one of a few co-op-only side missions that can’t otherwise be accessed.”

What’s a little strange here is that from what he says it feels like something actually is missing when you play single player, though that something is minor. More importantly though, it seems as if a much bigger deal is being made about co-op than I understand the context for. I guess I never would have assumed that co-op would ruin a game entirely. If this was a fear the author had when Visceral announced co-op in Dead Space 3 (maybe fearing something along the lines of Resident Evil 5) he might have started the article out by contextualizing it. Even if most gamers are probably having a similar thought process, the article should articulate their fears specifically.

Finally, we reach a 9.5 score for the game. It comes as a surprise to me. Certainly the game was described as solid, and an improvement, but for a game whose enemies are described as being almost exactly like the last game’s, I’m wondering if, wow, the second highest possible score is really what an incremental advancement of an established AAA franchise deserves but hey, numbers aren’t objective either. I guess what concerns me is that I don’t really see the correlation between the mild but firm praise and the wild enthusiasm expressed by a near perfect score. I know—editors and all that (Skullgirls would have gotten a 9/10 from me if I’d had my way)—but still, I like to hope my unrepentant love for it came through in the review copy. 

So why should you care about specificity. Well reviews aren’t objective, remember? So if I say something is “better” or “worse” I’m really not saying anything at all. You can disagree with me all you want. But if I say why, you can still disagree with my interpretation, but you at least can see how I got there. Maybe you can then understand for yourself if that sounds like a reason to buy or not buy a game. When someone hates a game I love I like to ask them why, not to prove them wrong, but to understand better how the game works. Many of my friends hate how slow DotA2 is compared to the speed and responsiveness of League of Legends, but for me, that slowness makes all of my movement decisions crucially important because I can’t escape them after I’ve made a mistake. I have to not make a mistake in the first place, which is hard but it also lets me punish my opponents rather than seeing them slip away at the last second. I hope that does a good job of articulating a specific moment in a video game and how it works and why it’s fun. 

Specificity is so important that without it you are literally saying nothing at all. Here, listen to George Orwell if you don’t believe me because he is literally ten billion times smarter than I am. 

Surely Arthur Gies will now hate me forever, but I don’t think this review is especially bad, just symptomatic of how a lot of games writing and writing in general goes. I’m not innocent of this sort of thing at all but I do think it’s something that all of us should be working on. I think about this every time an argument on twitter explodes into a high level discussion of what the “true meaning” of criticism or reviews or any other specific term means, when I kind of think the real problem is some basic sentence by sentence level work that most writing simply doesn’t do. This sort of writing is hard but it’s what we should aspire to.

kick-ass

remember, kids: ‘talk about games with specific words that mean things’

also the bit about buying games games people didn’t like because the review was good enough to show that it was the sort of thing I WOULD like is absolute gold and should be etched on things

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    I feel like I just learned something really important having read this. Going to be reading more of these articles after...
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    kick-ass remember, kids: ‘talk about games with specific words that mean things’ also the bit about buying games games...
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