Video Game Reviews: Wong Kar-Wai, Emotional Algebra, and Boredom

My first video game review for G4 went up earlier this week. I wrote about Band Hero for Nintendo DS. You can read my professional summation of that experience here. It’s been several years since I had to approach video games as a reviewer. While I was toiling away in the lightless rooms of QA testing after returning from Peace Corps, I started writing for a website called Nintendo World Report.

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I initially found it a very easy thing to do. Video game reviews write themselves in many ways. The scale on which games are evaluated has been so formulaic, so heavily skewing towards a small set of technical and creative prejudices, that it was an act of simple algebra applying a 7.0 to a children’s platformer or a 3.5 to an arcade revival about shooting syphilitic aliens.

The more I did it, the more I wondered about the lasting value of it. The same ten or twenty adjectives could be swapped out irrespective of genre or concept. Games with technically advanced graphics could never rank below a certain level of commendation. And the audience played along in a kind of call-and-response way, anticipating the formula and arguing vehemently when it turned out to be inconsistent in any small way.

In the short time that I spent reviewing records for IGN, I found this constraint to be non-existent. The scoring system was the same (1-10) but the medium was explicitly subjective. When I attached a 6.5 to Merriweather Post Pavilion, a record which I like quite a lot, I didn’t feel any trepidation. It was my experience with the record, and it was as honest and thorough as it could be after ten listens. The challenge of coming up with a numeric score in music reviewing was more about interrogating my own experience, not predicting what the average consumer’s experience would be (though, to my discredit, I made mention of this mythic creature on more than one occasion).

There is pressure to always have an opinion in our culture; to choose a side, wear a team color, to have an answer coming out of the movie theater when someone asks you what you thought. Over the weekend I watched Days of Being Wild, one of Wong Kar Wai’s first movies, about a man stringing along two women then going on a trip to find his long-lost birth mother.

I watched it late at night and, like a lot of Kar-Wai’s movies, it bored me. He makes movies I like rewatching, movies that I like thinking about in hindsight. But the process of taking in everything on a first-run is an exercise in extreme patience, a bored supplication. Is that a good experience? Is it bad? Is entertainment the first front on which creative works establish their enduring value? If so, is it really a reviewer’s job to evaluate whether or not the work entertains effectively?

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I think reviews are, by definition, worthless. You can review a car or a brand of super glue, because they have specific functions that can be broken down and ranked in efficacy and convenience. Art has no corollary function, its only defining characteristic is abstraction. Sometimes that takes the form of a brain-baiting plot, and sometimes it takes the form of totemic deliberation. When I read criticism, I don’t want to hear about whether or not the thing worked, I want to know what it meant to you, the reviewer, the human being watching, playing, reading, hopefully, feeling.

I found that almost impossible to do in trying to account for my experiences with Band Hero. So instead I just wrote about whether or not it works.

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3 thoughts on “Video Game Reviews: Wong Kar-Wai, Emotional Algebra, and Boredom

  1. I am torn on this issue. I tend to like game reviews a lot. I read them to find out others opinions on games, and if that reviewer can convince me there is something in the package worth experiencing, for whatever reason, then I try to get my hands on the game.

    I occasionally write game reviews as well, and I follow the same old formula.

    You are right that there are almost no reviews in which the focus is on the meaning, impact or resonance over the mechanics. It is a hole that needs to be filled.

    Those reviews would be read by few and far between, unfortunately. Largely because that the covered elements would be so subjective. The logic behind why something speaks to me only really applies to me.

    Mechanics are easy to describe, and can be considered “useful” when determining if a game has a certain kind of quality or not.

    Ironically, both mechanical reviews and meaning-driven reviews cannot truly speak about how anyone “should view a game. Neither serve the audience in the supposed function of labeling “good games” as such.

    Take Halo. The mechanics have been said to be very good, excellent, even. But people still revile it. Why? Because Halo doesn’t mean anything to them, or it doesn’t speak to them. They reject it based on the same criteria that is addressed in truly critical reviews. People think in terms of “what the game means to me” already, but this is so subjective that it renders reading such reviews as pointless for these people to read. They have formed their opinion. they have reviewed the game based on their criteria, and then they find reviews that don’t deal in the same currency and shit on them because those mechanical reviews label a game as “good” which the reader calls “bad” for different reasons.

    Here, I’ve just talked about game reviews as being so subjective, and tomorrow I’ll go read another one from IGN or Game Informer or somewhere else. *shrug*

    I’ve been lucky, I feel, to like a very wide spectrum of games for a very wide number of reasons. It has allowed me to enjoy vastly different games on their own merits. Whether this means I have discerning tastes or not, I really couldn’t care less.

    I like what I like, for my own reasons. Those are good enough for me, and I don’t care when someone tells me that what I like isn’t good enough.

    Ultimately I suppose I like to read reviews because of the reason most people disagree with them. I like their subjectivity. I like finding out why people like the games they like, so that when I play that game I’ll have that perspective, so that maybe I’ll find yet another reason to like it too.
    This might be why I tend to skip reviews that are negative? I’m not sure.

    So I pour over mechanical reviews for the glimmers of subjectivity sprinkled throughout. Knowing that the gun shoots correctly when I pull the trigger button is good to know, but I want to know what crawling out of a downed helicopter in a nuclear wasteland made them feel.

    So I love game reviews, for all the right (and wrong) reasons.

    Sorry for the rambling incoherency of all this. I just wrote what I thought as I thought it, hoping to come to a conclusion…

  2. I think the reason reviews of videogames in particular are so heavily depended on and scrutinized is due to the ludicrous cost of games, namely those released on home consoles.

    Most people can easily afford a movie ticket or DVD rental fee, an album or book (both of which are often freely available at public libraries), and at the very least, a high resolution picture of a favorite painting. The same can’t be said of disc-based games, where two will run you +$120 new.

    When this barrier to entry drops as we move to digital distribution-only consoles, there will be nowhere near the level of financial handwringing. Who will pour over reviews that largely just recount the mechanics when new console games are in the $0.99-$20 or $30 range and most have demos?

    Being a longtime reader of IGN, only now with this blog post of yours, Mike, did I realize IGN treats videogame reviews completely different from all the other artistic mediums they cover: music, movies, and TV shows. With the latter mediums, they separate their movie and TV episode reviews from DVD/Blu-ray reviews! Not only that, there’s no box at the end that breaks down the score into technical categories, as is the case with videogames reviews that end with micro scores for sound, graphics, gameplay, etc. Only one other channel of IGN uses this mechanics-heavy format: the Gear channel, for hardware reviews.

    So IGN is essentially scoring games the same way they do electronics, rather than as art. Hopefully this will finally change with the redesign that’s supposedly coming this winter. Just getting rid of that categorical mini-review could break the current mindset that places production values and ‘fun factor’ over the aspect that separates this medium from all other mediums that it incorporates: interactivity.

    Thanks for making me think. This is one of the lingering reasons I read reviews, which I include your Contrarian Corners among—a good review forces the reader to reflect on a game, it’s contribution to the medium, and question their personal judgement of it.

  3. *Addendum*

    The conclusion I came to above was a substitute for the one I couldn’t remember. While I do want all the above from a review, the worth of review relates to a point you brought up (perhaps multiple times) in To Catch An Editor podcasts: SPOILERS.

    By laying out the plot of a plot-driven game, the player (or book reader, movie watcher, et al.) is able to focus on what they’re doing, rather than having to perform what I think you described as “mental arithmetic,” i.e., trying to keep the plot and characters straight in one’s mind.

    I would have also added that videogame reviewers tend to have extensive experience with videogames in general, but then, most people ‘savvy’ enough to check game reviews often have just as much experience with videogames, if not more so. Then again, being a game reviewer does require the playing of games that the person might otherwise not play, in contrast to players who don’t play/review games for a living.

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