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An Open Letter to Game Critics

Stop talking about “value”. I don’t care if you paid $50 for the game or picked it up for $5 in the bargain bin. The idea that you are going to factor in some kind of “units of fun per dollar spent” ratio into your analysis of the game just makes you sound like an idiot.

Games are not pistachio nuts. Fun is not a commodity. The actual cost of a game is the time, attention, and effort necessary to learn it, become proficient at it, and navigate through it. This cost far outweighs any monetary consideration. If you haven’t noticed there is an infinite supply of free games. I’m not looking for inexpensive ways to keep myself occupied while waiting for death, I’m looking for games that don’t steal 50 hours of my life and then leave me feeling like I’ve just woken up from a shit sauna.

In general, games are too expensive. A few games are exorbitantly expensive and may not be worth the price. But no game is worth playing because it’s a bargain. I have heard several game-of-the-year wrap-ups in which the Orange Box, for example, has been praised for being a great value. Really? This information is relevant when considering which games were the best games of the year? What if you were deciding which games to send out into space as the ultimate example of human intelligence and creative expression? Would you give the nod to the game that left you with enough extra cash to buy a Big Mac and a pair of socks? No? Well then, please extend to me the same courtesy you would show to a fucking alien whose only interest in humanity is cheap labor and a delicious source of protein. Tell me which games are good, and why, I’ll decide whether or not to buy them. Thanks!

10 Comments

  1. Charley wrote:

    I like your rant but have to disagree. When I think about value, I’m weighing the quality of an experience versus the price of admission and loss of time. If the experience was worthless — one that I define by having consumed the text and am left empty, thoughtless — then that’s a terrible value for both my time and my wallet. I think you have to consider both when the work is not free and being presented as a product rather than art… and most games are. When you have to go to a museum to play a new game (and I say that metaphorically), then perhaps I’ll see it your way… but I haven’t played that game yet. By asking players to disregard the monetary value of a game is asking them to consider it solely as a work of art and not also as commercial entertainment. Do you really think the video game industry has reached this point? I mean, it’s an “industry”…

    Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 6:00 pm | Permalink
  2. Charles wrote:

    Godard once said that the problem with American movie culture was that we had lots of ‘reviewers’ and almost no ‘critics’. The difference being that when a reviewer looks at something, either a movie or a play or a game, they judge whether it’s worth the price of admission. When a critic talks about a game they are actually talking about the entire field.

    For instance, a reviewer would say that you should buy the Orange Box because you get several great (and by this they usually mean ‘popular’) games for the price of one. A critic would say that you should play Portal because it tells you something about how story-telling works in games.

    I think what Frank’s calling for is that some of our game reviewers step and become actual critics.

    Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 11:20 pm | Permalink
  3. Frank wrote:

    Yeah, that’s about right.

    I’m not saying *players* shouldn’t care about price, btw. Obviously, everyone considers price, whether they’re buying books, CDs, DVDs, or Picassos. But literary, music, film, and art criticism doesn’t normally mention that stuff, because its hard enough just to make, and articulate, coherent value judgements between works. In the case of games, where the cost of user attention is far higher than any of these other types of works, it’s even harder.

    Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 2:12 am | Permalink
  4. Charley wrote:

    I’m familiar with the Godard quote, but Charles: you are making a huge leap in assuming games are comparative with film. Film is an art form. While games can express something, (for the most part) they are works made by a committee, responding to commercial needs, and not a singular vision written and/or directed by someone. Games often have nothing to express other than an experience… sort of like roller coaster. I have a hard time understanding why this industry needs critics and not still reviewers. A few critics are good and can handle the half-dozen load of games published yearly that are worthy of discussion. In fact, here’s my stance: until games mention their director AND writer on their covers, then they hardly deserve criticism. I’m playing devil’s advocate but I’m half serious.

    Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 4:24 pm | Permalink
  5. Frank wrote:

    Charley, this argument has been argued by so many people, on so many corners of the internet, that it’s hard to tell anymore which position is the windmill and which is the dragon. Suffice it say, you’re tilting.

    1. “made by committee”. Not necessarily true, when true, not relevant. Can be said of many other forms of culture considered artforms.

    2. “responding to commercial needs”. Ditto.

    3. “not a singular vision”. Ditto.

    4. “often have nothing to express”. Expression is ill-defined. This argument begs the question, ie. art = expression, games aren’t expression, ergo, games != art.

    5. “sort of like a rollercoaster”. You know what else is sort of like a rollercoaster? The movie ‘Rollercoaster’. Is film not an artform now?

    6. “a few critics…can handle…the half-dozen…games worthy of discussion”. So now its a human resource issue? A little pre-emptive right-sizing of the game criticism industry?

    7. “until games mention their director AND writer on their covers, then they hardly deserver criticsm.” First of all, why ‘cover’? Do movies have covers? Does Desktop Tower Defense have a cover? Does Nethack have a cover? Secondly, writer? Seriously? That’s you’re litmus test? Things with writers are artforms?

    Friday, January 25, 2008 at 2:55 am | Permalink
  6. Bob wrote:

    Authors of any kind– artist, writer, director, designer– deserve credit right up front. Whether that be in the opening titles, on a poster, in an advertisement or on a cover is irrelevant. If the only legible credit you’re affording is to the company behind a creation (I’m looking at YOU Valve) then it really feels wrong.

    By the way, everybody: It’s GODARD. Not GODDARD. I’m glad nobody tried to quote Truffaut…

    Sunday, January 27, 2008 at 9:29 pm | Permalink
  7. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Valve actually lists everyone who was involved in the production of a game equally in the credits.

    I think that credit is pretty well handled in video games. I can easily find out who was involved in what projects most of the time, and usually in what capacity.

    What people seem to really be anxious about is STATUS.

    Monday, January 28, 2008 at 5:47 pm | Permalink
  8. Bob wrote:

    I find Portal’s method of crediting to be very troubling, frankly. I would have preferred for Valve to single out which individuals were responsible for which specific components of the game’s development. Listening to the in-game commentary helps you find those individuals, but I really think that the people behind such an outstanding game deserve better than being upstanded by a song, its lyrics and ascii doodles.

    Collective-credit in general disturbs me, really. That’s just me.

    Tuesday, January 29, 2008 at 12:04 am | Permalink
  9. Frank wrote:

    “Upstaged”.

    I agree with you that Valve’s undifferentiated collective credit system is kind of weak. From what I know, the brilliance of Portal is mostly due to Erik Wolpaw and the Narbacular Drop crew.

    Btw, here are examples of the kind of game criticism I enjoy:

    http://polybius.org/2008/01/17/the-official-ffx-2-drinking-game/
    http://www.doublefine.com/news.php/site/half_tuck_is_the_new_mullett/

    Wednesday, January 30, 2008 at 5:53 pm | Permalink
  10. Bob wrote:

    Damn! I thought I could get away with that one. I guess you can’t force wordplay as much as you can gameplay…

    Wednesday, January 30, 2008 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

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