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.
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?
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.