The Trouble with Reviewing Games

One of my resolutions for 2017 is to write and play 52 “new” games, in an effort to dig into what makes games tick in order to become a better game designer myself.

It was inspired by Design Explosions.  The goal is not to rate or review games but to understand how they work, what they do and why.  Note when I say the word “new”, I’m speaking about new for myself, not necessarily new to the greater gaming community.  I chose to do this because I believe that good design (while not necessarily timeless) can come from multiple different avenues and must be explored and understood in each.

What types of games will I review?

  • All genres
    • computer games
    • console games
    • iOS games
    • yes even Board games)
  • games that do something interesting
    • I’m not necessarily interested in the most refined shooter or RPG, though occasionally I will review them.  I’m interested in a game that does something unique, unusual, and most important successfully.
  • games that have beautiful art
    • this is a personal conceit, I like pretty games
  • Beyond that, I’m not sure, this list will probably be added to as the year goes along

The Problem with Reviewing Games

For today, though, I don’t want to talk about a specific game, but about the challenges of reviewing/understanding any game in general.  Games have unique challenges that reviews of products don’t present.

1. Not Outcome Driven

Like works of art, games don’t have a specific outcome they are driving towards.  Unlike, say, Google Maps, which has a stated user goal, a game like Risk (though also map based), doesn’t drive a player towards the outcome in quite the same way.  While (most, not all) games are trying to navigate a player towards the end of the game, either through failure or success, they are responsible for other player actions in ways that software products are not.  If a player can get into a strange state, most of the time the game accounts for it in a way that moves the player forward towards the end state.  A product can simply tell the user to back up and go the way they came.

This presents a challenge as a reviewer because every state has to be understood in both the context of “how does this get me to the end?” in addition to, “what experience am I generating in the interim?”.  A good reviewer will approach each of these states and seek to understand them in the broader experience of the game.  For example, the potential to discover “shiny” type Pokemon in Pokemon Sun/Moon doesn’t really impact a players progression through the game, but might enrich a player’s experience.

2. Multi-branching

There are multiple ways to skin a cat, especially when users are involved.  This is definitely present in software based experience as well.  However, with a game, going down a different pathway can create an entirely different experience (which is the ultimate reason to play a game).  It’s important to consider questions like “who goes down that pathway?”, “how does that pathway differ?”, “why might a player choose that pathway?”.

3. Oppositional

Games actively try to prevent their players from accomplishing their goal. (weirdly they also try to help them at the same time).  This is a unique feature of games that not all types of media/software/content tries to approach.  If I play Super Mario Run, I’m going to find it difficult to collect all the coins on every level, but the way I find it difficult is an important facet of the game.  For example, finding all of the purple coins (the first type of coin you see) is relatively easy and not part of the challenge, but finding all of the black coins (the final coin type) can be incredibly difficult, that says something important about the game.

4. Narrative

Games have narrative.  Even non-narrative games have narrative.  For the purposes of this experiment I’m going to assume that’s true and move forward, there are plenty of resources that you can find to debate that fact.  In order to properly review/critique a game I will have to know what part of the narrative I am in, how that impacts my experience, and consider other possible narratives that could have been generated, to compare against.  At the same time, I must also consider the consequences of previous actions and respect the fact that I am not experiencing the “only” version of the game.  There might be other versions of that game that I have completely missed that would significantly change my understanding of the game.

I do not expect to be successful in all or any of these at a given time, but these are the types of challenges I’ll be considering during each game I play.

Key Questions

These are some things I’m going to try to keep at the top of my head as I play the games, in no particular order:

  • What is the core player action/game loop?
  • What makes this game fun/interesting?
  • How does the art style of the game impact how I play it?
  • How does the platform this game is on impact the style of play?

With all things, I expect this list to grow/change as I write.

Not Trying

I’m not trying to do these things:

  • Relitigate the cultural position or definition of games.
    • If you’re on the site you probably have bought in.  Welcome to the club!
  • Not to define “critical” game elements.
    • I’m not trying to find the perfect game or determine what makes one game better than the other.  I want to understand the why/how of a specific game.

In Conclusion

My main goal here is to learn and understand.  This is supposed to be a challenge, especially with the rather grandiose goals I’ve set for myself.  I’m excited to see what I learn and I hope you enjoy the journey with me.

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