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Thursday Rantoid: Game reviews need innovation, too

Disclaimer: this is long and you probably shouldn't read it. I didn't have enough time for pictures.

N'Gai Croal's Newsweek column "Level Up" is always worth reading. Today guest writer Bill Harris tackles the Wii and its place in gaming in today's article How the Videogame Industry Shot Itself In the Joystick--and Why the Wii Has Stopped the Bleeding.

Let's get something straight: I own a Wii, and I do not consider it to be the salvation of the videogame industry. That's because the industry was not particularly in need of saving. I think that many companies would have been perfectly successful developing products along a predictable line of evolution. We'd probably have seen more studio consolidation, but games would still get made and people would get paid to make them.

Instead, I'd like to draw your attention to the end of the article:

Reviewers, meanwhile, are just adrift when it comes to certain Wii games. Gaming has a canon that extends back over three decades. It�s well-defined, and it�s well-known. When I play a game, I can usually tell you where it fits in the canon. Most of my friends who play games can, too... Some games on the Wii, though, are almost entirely outside the canon. For reviewers who are used to "getting through" a game, playing a Wii party game, for example, must drive them mad. There�s no completion in a game like that, really--it�s just play.

There are two gripes I have about conventional videogame reviews; one of them seems to be changing, but the other is firmly stuck in the past. And I think both of these are rooted in the idea that a game review is also a review of the developer talent behind the game.

First is the idea that rating a game according to its constituent components is at all meaningful. When is the last time you stopped playing a game because it didn't have DTS support? "Yeah, Beyond Good and Evil was fun, but I quit halfway through because the antialiasing was subpar." I'll admit that sometimes it's hard to enjoy old games with the same vigor I once mustered because I've become used to new technology. If graphics and sound are detrimental to the game experience, by all means give it a mention.

But the gameplay/graphics/sound/replay divisions are artificial, and aren't designed to serve the reader. These divisions provide narrative structure to a reviewer, who wonders how exactly he/she is supposed to summarize and transmute a game experience into text. They also allow the reviewer to evaluate how technically proficient the sound team, design team, art team, and story team are. As you may have guessed, I don't think this reliably adds up to a meaningful value. It seems that most reviewers agree with this, but can't wean themselves from the teat of a neat seven-paragraph structure that allows them to focus on technical details. Hence the ubiquitous "Not an average" disclaimer.

Second is the idea that the audience approaches every game free of preconceptions. Even if Mario Party 17 were the greatest party game ever, the reviewer community would feel guilty giving it the same score as Halo 6. They feel that equal scores in some way translate into equal assessments of the craftsmanship, expertise, and attention to detail on the part of the game maker.

I can completely understand this sentiment, but it is not the place of a game review to be an indicator of how hard it is to make a particular game. Trust me: many consumers understand that The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion is more complicated and expensive to make than Cooking Mama. But guess what? Customers read reviews to make purchasing decisions. What I want to learn from a review is this: given that I'm already inclined to check out this type of game, is it a good specimen of its type? Comparing Carnival Games to Assassin's Creed is like comparing a yo-yo to a parakeet.

Many reviewers do, I think, try to take this approach. It's just that they're not entirely successful. Review writers are core gamers after all, i.e., they realize that no Gameboy played in a TV show has ever produced the noises attributed to it. How can one of us look at BioShock and consider giving it the same score as TextTwist? That would be an insult to the tastes of the community of core gamers, and a double insult to the design team that spent two years and long hours on creating the Bioshock universe.

That's why I think reviews should be written by people who are huge fans of the particular genre they are reviewing. You might think this would lead to even more rampant score inflation than we currently have (8.2? Maybe I'll rent), but I think the reverse would occur. Do you think Jim Sterling would give a high mark to a Dynasty Warriors installment that brings shame to the series? No chance. If reviewers were merely seeking to place a game within the hierarchy of its type, ordering them into a buying priority would become easier. And that would help me, the consumer, more.

This would make theoretically make two things more difficult: GOTY and the situation of a person who can only buy one game, and will only choose the highest-rated option. These are two situations in which people attempt to survey the vast and diverse field of games and declare a winner. But those are silly games, and you deserve whatever you get for playing them instead of playing videogames.
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About MaxVestone of us since 9:23 PM on 06.03.2007

It's only a model...

Uncommon, some wear on the edges.

First game: TI Invaders (Space Invaders knock-off) for the TI-99 "home computer". Either that or the Pac-Man built into the glass-top tables at Mr. Gatti's Pizza.
First console: NES
First world-altering game secret: JUSTIN BAILEY
First Arcade: Aladdin's Palace
First "mature" game: Leisure Suit Larry
First PC: 386SX 16 mHz w/40 MB HDD, Win 3.0, & 640x480 VGA baby!
First FPS: Wolfenstein 3D
First game mastered: Street Fighter II Turbo - Hyper Fighting (SNES)
First LAN deathmatch: Duke Nukem 3D
Great Game Reawakening: Living in an apartment with all sixth generation consoles and 3 gaming rigs.

New Systems: Wii, DS.
Somehow now owns: PS3
Randomly owns: SEGA Nomad, Game Gear, Genesis II, Sega CD
Cannot afford but is thinking about intercepting return RROD coffin: Xbox 360.
Currently playing: Rock Band, Zack & Wiki, Unreal Tournament III