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Thought Processing: The Role of the Critic

Welcome to "Thought Processing", a new feature here at GameCritics.com. The goal of this series is to raise issues, start discussion and hopefully get you thinking in new ways about topics relevant to today’s gamers. It will also give you, the reader, a glimpse of insight into the mental processes and (occasionally) logical working s of the mysterious animal known as the "Game Critic." If you have an opinion or comment on our discussion, join the conversation. This month's subject:

The Role of the Critic

Once in a while, a game comes along that gathers good reviews from the general public but leaves critics and experienced game players wondering what all the hubbub is about. On the flip side, many newer gamers are often left puzzled why a game they love got the cold shoulder from the press when it seemed like a clear winner.

Thought Processing - ICO (PS2) (top), Rez (PS2) (middle), Super Mario Sunshine (GCN) (bottom)

One of these split-reaction titles was recently released and led to a discussion about the role and responsibility of being a game critic. It also made us ponder how we should be viewing ourselves in the larger context of criticism and culture.

In essence, the first side of the argument seems to be whether or not it makes sense to critique using a body of experience that very few other people share, and if so, does that lead to becoming an out-of-touch site writing to a hardcore audience? Given the fact that games don’t stay in print like other mediums do, should critics take points away from a developer who reinvents the wheel if the wheel disappeared before most people got to use it?

The opposing viewpoint feels that people need to do at least a little homework with games just like they should with films, music or other arts. It’s not unreasonable to expect them to know or learn about a few basic precedents that have been set. If people aren’t willing to do so, how will it possible to build and expand on those precedents?

Brad Gallaway: You know guys, I strongly suspect that after playing for a large amount of time there comes a point when you reach this undefined level, and the things you enjoy in games take a radical shift. I don't want to sound like I'm posturing or trying to come off as the 'gaming elite,’ but it just seems like a natural fact. As a result, when a critic rates a "good" game lower than some think it deserves, I get the impression that a lot of people don’t understand why we can seem so harsh or stilted.

Occurrences like the one I just mentioned make me step back for a minute and realize that we (and probably many of you reading this) are so deep into games that we're on a whole different level as far as our impressions, critiques and thoughts go. For example, if one of us were to allude to something fairly recent like "Mario Sunshine’s level X pales compared to Super Mario 64’s level Y," how many people reading would actually know what we were talking about? Going even further back in the halls of game history, how many people would have any clue what was meant if something like Clash At Demonhead, Flicky, or Life Force was referenced?

Mike Doolittle: I don't know that I expect people to know the precedents, but I hope they know them after reading a review where I point them out. I saw a funny thing that relates to this in a piece I read from one of our competitors.

Thought Processing - Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty (PS2)

In this article, the writer mentions how many gamers would be thrilled to have a regular Expansion Pack instead of an all-new game when it comes to a certain wildly popular franchise. To me, that’s scary. If game companies think they can get away with simple add-ons instead of substantially new content, then you're going to see lots of rehash in the future. This alone goes a long way towards justifying criticism that considers the widest possible spectrum of gaming since I think it's our duty to call the industry on these things rather than letting them constantly reprocess the same game over and over. If we don't do it, who will? Not the average gamer, that's for sure.

Chi Kong Lui: I don't know if there's a right answer, but I've put a lot of thought into this. To step outside of games for a moment, do you tell Roger Ebert to forget about all the movies he's ever seen before each new review? Of course not. The reason people turn to us is because we are the so-called experts. The nature of being a critic is to have a body of experience that exceeds the average reader. That experience is what allows the critics to have a context for discerning between what is good or bad. Most people want to know the relative quality of something, but don't have the time to wade through the Thought Processing - Halo (Xbox) mountain of content out there. In essence, we are doing their homework for them and saving them time and money.

Mike Bracken: I think we’re in agreement. The backlash against critics as a profession in recent years may be due to many coming across as elitist, especially in cinema, but I still believe the role of critic to be a valuable one.

Personally, with regard to games as well as Horror cinema, I write criticism that should appeal to a very limited audience. Despite this, I've come to learn that a more than a few people who read my work regularly have never seen or even heard of half the things I discuss and probably never will. My content appeals to them and keeps them coming back because they learn something they wouldn't have known otherwise. Because we've seen the amount of content we have, people in our position are able to give readers a peek at a bigger picture than they would probably see on their own. Getting back to our field of videogames in particular, the only downside to criticism is that so many new gamers are young and haven't learned to appreciate different opinions yet. As a result, you get a lot of knee-jerk reactions to anything that goes against their own view. Luckily, most of them eventually grow out of that.

Chi: Well said, Mike. It would also help if gamers didn’t take reviews so personally. Contrary to popular belief, it isn't our job to validate one’s opinion or tell someone how much enjoyment they'll get out of any given game. Both of these things are entirely subjective. A critic’s job is to illustrate to the reader why a certain title may or may not measure up. We attempt to weigh games by their culture, form, and intellectual content while striving for as much objectivity as humanly possible. Once we've communicated our ideas, the reader will make the determination whether or not this is something they want to experience for themselves.

Thought Processing - Grand Theft Auto 3 (PS2)

There will always be those who say that critics are 'out of touch,’ but these are the same people who already know exactly what they like and aren’t very open to viewpoints that disagree with their own internal decision-making. These readers aren’t the target audience of the critic. Our audience will be those who are value diverse opinions, who are interested in the history of games, and really want to know how new releases measure up from a broader perspective.

Having said that, it remains vital to our site and to progressive reviews in general to find angles and ideas in reviews that will speak to a broader audience. The trick is to avoid dumbing down our experience and thoughts, but at the same time making sure that our rationales are clear to practically anyone. In short, a critic should embrace their experience and use it to present a new perspective on videogames. That's all anyone can ask of those in this position.

Brad: If I can take things to a different level for a moment, with the exception of the people who actually created these games from scratch out of supercomputers and garage-soldered kits, the current group of adult gameplayers, critics and developers are pioneers. We're the first generation to get this far with a medium that basically did not exist before our time. In the face of such a realization, I sometimes find myself wanting Thought Processing - The Legend Of Zelda (GCN) (top), Final Fantasy X (PS2) (bottom) direction or guidance on how to address certain issues, yet realistically I know that there is none. We are it, and it sort of puts being a critic in a different light.

Mike B.: I think we do have some responsibility to blaze a trail. If games are ever going to be taken as serious art, then someone has to start writing about them outside of a vacuum. This ties directly into the issues raised about people being familiar with the history and precedents already achieved. To reiterate, Ebert doesn’t forget every film he’s ever seen before doing a review, so why should games be held up to a lesser standard?

The ability to look at a game not only on its own merits, but also in relation to how it fits into the whole of gaming is nothing but a positive as far as I'm concerned.

Chi: There’s absolutely no question about that.

Brad: It looks like we’re in agreement. Despite the videogame audience receiving a continual influx of new players, I don’t think there are any good reasons to be content with the industry and art remaining in a constant state of amnesia. With developers perpetually recreating past efforts, it’s going to take people like critics and similar people to educate gamers as well as continually prod the industry into breaking new ground and taking games to a higher level.

This brings us to the end of the second installment to Thought Processing. We hope you’ve read a few things to think about, and perhaps your opinion is different now than it was before you read this article.

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