Jun 302010

Today The Escapist published an issue that’s all about games journalism, and there are a number of fascinating articles. I particularly liked “1984 out of 10”, a piece by Peter Parrish that examined the current game-reviewing scene through the lens of George Orwell’s 1936 essay “In Defence of the Novel”. It’s a sharp take, and shows how the inflation of praise (not just scores) results in the apotheosis of mediocrity, and thousands of crummy games walking around with Metascores in the high 70s.

Most of the commenters and linkers have focused on the idea of score inflation, which is ironic since the article is critical of readers’ obsession with and passionate screaming about scores. When I write a review, of course, I generally think about the score for a little less than a minute, and with few exceptions this has served me well. It’s almost amusing to see how obsessed people can be with the 5 I gave Shattered Memories or the 4 I gave Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, without devoting a moment’s concern to the actual content of the review. Fortunately, the comment policy at GameCritics.com allows me to give these kinds of comments a much-deserved summary deletion.

Seeing as Parrish’s article concludes with his hope that intelligent writers can rescue game reviews from the dustbin of advertorial content, I thought it might be time to look back over my own stuff and ask how I’ve been doing. So, I went back to GameCritics.com and reviewed my reviews. I’m intelligent, and I’m a writer, but am I writing intelligently about games? And how inflated are those scores I don’t think about?

I feel like this was generally a success. Nostalgia was out to mine older games and stories to produce a familiar-feeling RPG and it succeeded at that, which I think I conveyed. I also managed to get across that I didn’t think this was a particularly interesting or memorable thing for a game to be doing. I got bogged down discussing the uneven difficulty, though. That’s important information that needs to be in the review, but it needed some lens so it would fit in with the discussion of the bland story elements. This is a pretty good effort.
My score: 6.0 / 10
Metascore: 72 / 100
Review grade: B

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories
This is a passable review. I think I got a bit too caught up in particular shortcomings, when my real problem with the game was that the exploration was too boring and the nightmares were too frenetic. I failed to adequately convey my feeling that Climax had really strong and worthwhile ideas for the gameplay and the story, but that their execution was too far off the mark. I also didn’t really get enough into what the game was about.
My score: 5.0
Metascore: 79
Review grade: C+

Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days
Well, this game isn’t really about anything, so it’s no sin that I didn’t get into that. I’m pretty successful here at conveying my core problem with the story, which is that it feels like it’s just filling up time (the title is very appropriate). I simply failed to explain that the game always feels like it’s about to start going somewhere interesting, and then lets you down. The paragraph about the panel system feels like a digression. I needed to do more with the lens about how this game isn’t really something that will appeal to anyone.
My score: 4.0
Metascore: 75
Review grade: B-

The Saboteur
Well, The Saboteur is a game about blowing up Nazis, which I think I managed to get across. I should have done more to emphasize that the game is more about play than about immersivity. I got a touch too bogged down in details and didn’t sufficiently convey how the game felt in the process of play. This is the only game where my score is significantly higher than the Metascore, but I feel secure that I’m right about this.
My score: 8.5
Metascore: 73
Review grade: B

No More Heroes 2
This was not one of my better efforts, on any level. I clearly got hung up on comparing this game to its predecessor. That may have been unavoidable, given how much I loved No More Heroes, but the end result speaks for itself. I didn’t discuss this game enough on its own merits, and I forgave it too much for its difficulty and execution issues. This is one case where, in retrospect, I scored a game too highly. Were I to try again it would probably land in the 6-7 range.
My score: 8.0
Metascore: 85
Review grade: D

BioShock 2
I think I nailed it. Either this or my Fable II review from this blog is the best review I’ve written. I got hold of everything the game made me think of, what the game seems to be about, what it’s really about, and why it succeeded at the latter. I wish every review I wrote was this good.
My score: 9.0
Metascore: 88
Review grade: A

Deadly Premonition
I think I did a pretty good job here, too, although I didn’t really succeed in conveying what the game is about or how empty it felt. I should have done more to discuss the tension problem this game had, which was much like the problem for Shattered Memories. I think I succeeded, though, in explaining what didn’t work in this game on a level more fundamental than just saying that the shooting wasn’t any fun.
My score: 4.0
Metascore: 66
Review grade: B+

Infinite Space
I’m not satisfied with this one. I mention a whole host of different problems and successes, but I never really build them into a coherent picture of the game’s ideas or themes. Of course, the game itself is somewhat incoherent in this regard. In particular I failed to really deal with whether and how the gameplay related to the narrative. I recall that the early drafts of this essay were really bogged down in details. The final form still has too many, and is a bit lost in the weeds as a result.
My score: 7.5
Metascore: 75
Review grade: C-

Metro 2033
This game is about desperation and privation, and I managed to get that across. I got bogged down in some details about the plot and the mechanics, and I didn’t talk enough about the strange transition from FPS to first-person platformer in the last parts of the game. A stronger lens around the Artyom-as-ghost idea could have really tied this review together strongly.
My score: 6.5
Metascore: 77
Review grade:B-

Resonance of Fate
This is a lame, workaday review for a lame game. I probably scored this one too high. There’s not much else to say, except maybe that I didn’t fully capture my loathing for these characters.
My score: 3.5
Metascore: 72
Review grade: C-

Red Dead Redemption
I’m slightly ambivalent about this one. I feel like I nailed what the game was about at its core. I’m a bit less certain that I properly conveyed the experience of playing the game. The information is in there, but I think it might be pushed a bit too much into the background. If I’m going to miss the mark, though, I’d much rather miss in this direction, swinging too far towards conceptual contemplation, than by clinging too close to detail-oriented reviewing.
My score: 8.5
Metascore: 95
Review grade: A-

ModNation Racers
This is not my best. It feels very close to traditional software review where I take various features and just examine them in isolation. I really should have lensed this whole thing around the question of the game’s identity crisis and examined its competence from that angle.
My score: 6.5
Metascore: 82
Review grade: D+

Alpha Protocol
I feel like I did a good job on this one, because I really thought the game was a failure in every way, and “every” involves a lot in a game this complex. So the criticism comes in pretty densely, but I needed to address that this was a bad idea that Obsidian did a crummy job of turning into an poorly-designed game. Still, late in the review it starts to turn into a bit of a hit list, which it probably shouldn’t have done.
My score: 1.0
Metascore: 63
Review grade: B-

Converting the scales so they match, my reviews come to an average score of 60 (median of 65) with a standard deviation of 24. That’s a pretty decent spread. For the same group of games, the average Metascore was 77 (median 75) and the standard deviation was 8.8, which makes the point about score inflation better than I could hope to. The games I’ve reviewed vary wildly in every aspect of quality, from narrative to design to basic coding, and they simply should not have landed so closely together on any scale. That these games averaged nearly an 80 is also a sign of trouble, to my mind.

From my perspective, the thing I need to work on most in the writing is formulating a high-level view of the games I’m reviewing, rather than getting caught up in their details. I’m tending to miss the mark on the side of getting too far into the details. Like I said above, if I have to miss, I’d rather screw up by being too concept-oriented, rather than the other way around. There are about 8000 sites on the internet where you can learn about a game’s graphics or mechanics in the review. What’s needed, and what I want to provide, is discussion of a game’s ideas and how its design informs, develops, and supports those ideas. The goal is to convey in a review what a game is about and how it is about it.

Mar 192008
It’s a sad day for lovers of science fiction, as Sir Arthur C. Clarke has passed away. Clarke has always been one of my favorite authors, mostly on the strength of Rendezvous with Rama. Of course, I’m also a huge fan of his more famous work, 2001: A Space Odyssey. More than Asimov’s misbehaving robots, Clarke and Kubrick’s HAL with its baleful red eye fixed in the public imagination the dangers of creating machines that can think for themselves. Clarke is also credited with popularizing the idea of placing telecommunications satellites in geosynchronous orbit (often called “Clarke orbits”) in order to allow rapid global communication worldwide. Clarke was a man full of visions of the future. Some of them, like the satellites and a visit to the moon, have come to fruition already. Others, like the space elevator, functioning colony ships, or Pan-Am jets in space are somewhat further from reality.

Much modern science fiction is pessimistic, suffused with the idea that technology will always be misused, will always turn on its creators. Clarke certainly was not free of this idea: HAL is a cultural icon of advancement gone awry. Yet Clarke was always fundamentally optimistic about the possibilities that science opened for human beings. His worlds were ones in which imperfect people using imperfect technologies nonetheless managed to do great, amazing things. That’s a possibility we ought to keep in mind for ourselves, too.
Mar 022008
That last post was actually extremely difficult to write. I had the ideas for it quite a long time ago, and I think I did a pretty good job of explaining how the various aspects of the presentation and gameplay produced a gestalt related to the Prince’s maturation process. But when I wrote a draft of that post yesterday morning, it sucked. It may have been the worst thing I ever wrote. For one thing, it had a completely awful structure. Also, it was about three times as long as what I eventually published. I ended up excising a lot of points that I really liked because they didn’t add to the critique. I’m not going to print any of those here, but I want to make a few points about game critiques in general, and about games themselves. Your responses are of course welcome; indeed I eagerly request them.

1. “Critique” versus “Review” posts

This was really the hardest thing to nail down. I had all sorts of points about the crispness of controls, character and enemy design, navigability, sound balance, and so on, and I ultimately excised almost all of them. Essentially technical items like these would have been really great to discuss in a review, but they didn’t belong in the piece I was writing, which I wanted to be something different. A review is just a piece of writing that tells you what it’s like to play the game, and that’s important. But what I was after was not technical aspects but rather an exploration of theme and meaning, and an analysis of how the various features of the game—from writing to presentation to mechanics—served that meaning. I felt this tension when writing the FFXII post too, and because I didn’t resolve it, that one didn’t turn out as well as I would have liked. It would be nifty to do both at the same time, but especially when handling a trilogy like the Prince of Persia games that produces a piece that’s simply too long, and it interferes with structure.

So I probably will never write anything that’s both a review and an artistic critique. My Persona 3, Phantom Hourglass, Revenant Wings, and Professor Layton posts fall in the former category, while the posts on Silent Hill 2, Final Fantasy XII, and Prince of Persia better fit the latter. And, I think, since there are a ton of game sites writing reviews, I’m probably not going to put any more straight reviews up here, though I will probably write a few on accessible games for Love Camel. What I put up here, though, I want to be focused on artistic criticism. So expect more posts like that last one and less that are like the Revenant Wings one.

2. “Stuff” versus “People” stories

One thought that occurred to me as I was writing the Prince of Persia post was that there are two main ways to think about stories, both of which showed up in that trilogy. The most common way to encounter a story in a video game is as a recounting of stuff that happens (this is the approach of Warrior Within). There are characters in the story, but very little about them matters to it, and seemingly little about it matters to them. The characters are just part of the stuff that’s happening. Alternately, the story can be viewed as people that happen. Stuff happens as well, but what the story is really about is not the stuff, but the way the characters interpret and respond to the stuff. Moreover, the people “happen” not just in that they are, but in that they become. The strength of Sands of Time and The Two Thrones is not just that the characters are fully realized and interact charmingly, but that the Prince changes and grows. I think that this sort of transition is a critical part of successful stories, especially in games where the player can be brought along for the change.

3. Expressive versus Narrative games

Thinking about games strictly as narratives is obviously too constricting. The approach I used in the critiques I’ve already written clearly relies on this mode of understanding, which may be an intrinsic limitation. One thing I think I need to try is to do one of these critiques for a purely (or nearly so) expressive game, that is, one that tries to induce an emotion rather than convey a story. I’m leaning towards trying a critique of Katamari Damacy, just to see if I can do it.

4. Art versus Entertainment

I made this point in my previous rant, too. There are games that really aren’t intended to mean anything, that exist purely to be entertainment. They are the potato chips of gaming: tasty, filling, and fun to consume, but without lasting nutrition for body or mind. And there are also games that have nutritional value, but aren’t expressive or narrative (i.e. Brain Age). I don’t think this is a problem for games as art: nobody denies that Citizen Kane is art on the basis that Predator and classroom film reels aren’t. I am, however, not certain of the value of trying, as film critics do, to interpret the pure entertainments in the same way as I do the meatier fare. I’m just one guy, after all, and the internet has plenty of sites that can tell you that dual-wielding is awesome.

Feb 262008
I recently read Arieh Ben-Naim’s book Entropy Demystified, a book I feel would have benefitted greatly from being more somewhat more focused on the task of explaining entropy than it actually was. While Ben-Naim, as promised, does a good job of reducing the second law of thermodynamics to “plain common sense”, he makes confusing decisions to include arguments better meant for experts and diatribes that serve nobody. As a result I feel the book, though largely useful, may ill-serve the lay audience for which it is apparently intended, especially as regards the areas where non-scientists are most likely to encounter the concept of entropy.

In my view, the purpose of a popular book on a scientific subject is twofold. First, it should provide readers with enough good science to understand the subject as it appears (if it appears) in their lives. Second, it should provide the lay reader with a framework that allows him to interpret the words of experts. That is, the reader should come away with an understanding of what scientists mean by (in this case) entropy. Thus, popular books on any subject are not a reasonable platform to argue for paradigm shifts. First of all, you’re not talking to your target audience (i.e. experts) when you do this. Second of all, the lay readers that agree with you will now be thinking of the subject in a very different way than most of the scientists they will encounter. So not only do you fail at what you’re intending to do in terms of serving your new paradigm, you also fail at one basic task of the popular science book. The unfortunate thing with Ben-Naim’s book is that it fails at the second task and ends up with mixed results on the first, for no real reason. He could have done just as good a job explaining entropy without introducing the new paradigm at all.

Entropy, despite its importance, is not a topic that lay people encounter very often. The transfer of heat from warmer to cooler bodies is a common example, as is the diffusion of dye in a liquid, or the mixing of two liquids or gases. Ben-Naim does an excellent job of explaining the role of entropy in these processes, building up from relatively simple dice games to complex discussions about temperature and gaseous mixtures. However, he does not do any job at all of explaining the role of entropy in reactions. Consequently, he fails to explain how apparent counteractions to entropy occur. A layman reading this book will understand why a gas expands, but not why it was possible to compress it in the first place. Also, Ben-Naim’s approach and focus on mixtures and the like will also leave the reader utterly unprepared to encounter discussions of entropy in connection to the hydrophobic effect. Could the framework here introduced be extended to explain micelle formation and protein folding? I don’t doubt that this is so, but Ben-Naim doesn’t do it, to the detriment of the book and its readers.

What’s Ben-Naim doing with all this space that he’s not using on talking about the role of entropy in chemical reactions? Well, he’s arguing for a view of entropy based on information, specifically defining entropy in terms of “missing information”. Although this position has some merits, this book is an entirely inappropriate place to make the case for it. Why? The most pervasive popular misuse of the second law of thermodynamics is in creationist canards about the thermodynamic impossibility of evolution. These misinterpretations often rest on ideas related to information (as colloquially used) or distortions of information theory. Although Ben-Naim repeatedly states (correctly) that information has a precise scientific meaning, he never graces his readers with it. I fear this leaves them more vulnerable to creationist distortions than before they started reading. That Ben-Naim says little to emphasize the meaning of “closed system” or the other parts of thermodynamics exacerbates the problem. The discussion of information was not strictly necessary to his overall point—his excellent introduction of probability would have sufficed—and it is easily misread and misused. In my opinion, he should have held his tongue here and allowed his book targeted at the academic audience (A Farewell to Entropy: Statistical Thermodynamics Based on Information) to make the case.

Ben-Naim also devotes pages and pages to complaints about other authors’ (Atkins particularly comes in for criticism) presentations of entropy. These sections contain a few good ideas, but on the whole read like petulant complaints about more popular writers. That these pages serve any real purpose at all is debatable; that they weaken Ben-Naim’s case is certain. No matter how much he disagrees with these authors it would be better for him to disregard them and focus on constructing his own case than deconstructing their books. I agree with him that science writers are too eager to portray entropy as mysterious, but clearing up the mystery is sufficient. His detailed rebuttals of their language are unnecessary.

It’s a pity, because Ben-Naim really does pack in some useful and important concepts. Strip away the unnecessary information theory, and his book does an excellent job of reducing the law of entropy to common sense. Entropy Demystified explains what entropy actually means for certain physical systems, and excels at building this picture up from very simple games that anyone can intuitively understand and model. That said, Ben-Naim does not tie entropy into real processes nearly as well as he could, and his insistence on representing entropy in a way that has not yet gained mainstream acceptance may mitigate his readers’ ability to apprehend what scientists are saying about the subject. Moreover, the fact that this alternative presentation is “entropy as missing information” is more likely to perpetuate misunderstandings about entropy (especially with regard to evolution) among the lay audience than to clear those misunderstandings up. As such, I cannot recommend this book, despite its virtues.

Dec 082007
As Tin Man, the Sci-Fi Channel’s “re-imagining” of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz entered its fifth hour, I found myself wishing that I was watching The Wiz instead. I don’t mean that The Wiz was a better piece of cinema than the new mini-series, though arguably it was more visually inventive. However, it shared an important virtue with the book and the original movie musical that the present adaptation lacks: it knew what it was. The Oz story is not a sophisticated adult story about contemporary morality, it is a child’s story about wonder and adventure. It can be turned into something more sophisticated, with enough effort, but that’s a task at which Tin Man manifestly failed.

The presentation looked more sophisticated, I grant. But dressing people up in black leather does not, in fact, make for a sophisticated story. All this dark, steampunk set-dressing looks pretty cool, but it doesn’t really fit with the theme of magical little girls who save their world with the power of love. The more adult visuals simply didn’t mesh with the story that was presented. As a result, I felt a certain dissonance, as if I were seeing Strawberry Shortcake depicted as a dominatrix.

And while the story was unsatisfying on its own merits—a tale of a counterproductive MacGuffin fetch quest that heavily involves amnesia, of all damn things—it was even less satisfying as a re-imagining of Baum’s original. When you re-imagine something, you ought to say something new, otherwise you’re just making fan fiction. But Tin Man is essentially childish in its presentation of good and evil, and the only adaptations it makes to Baum’s world are to insert stock elements from other sci-fi worlds and movies, as well as importing Nurse Ratched’s hair. You can read Wizard of Oz crossovers at fanfiction.net if that’s what you want; there’s no reason to make a movie out of them.

Don’t misunderstand me, Tin Man isn’t bad. It looks nice, and the actors largely do a good job (although the child who plays little DG was not very good). The music leaves something to be desired, but doesn’t offend. But Tin Man just feels unnecessary, a superfluous bit of fluff trying to staple a grown-up look onto a childish and irrelevant story.

The Sci-Fi channel is a curious contradiction. Most of its original series (at present, anyway) are actually pretty good, and their re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica may be the best scripted show on television. Their original movies, however, are largely pathetic drivel starring actors that have washed up on this shore after fading from better careers. And then there are the mini-series, which are typically of very high quality, probably because many of them are adapted from books. In this case, it seems, the movie quality bled into the mini-series. Although the production values of Tin Man were high, the writing was poor, and in the end, you’d be better off watching the original, rather than this fanfic.