Thursday, May 27, 2010

Perfection in Interactive Media Entertainment

Author's note: Originally slated to be content for a podcast, this is mainly a script for narration. While not conforming to textual nettiquette, it should serve as a compelling thought narrative nontheless.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 is getting a lot of high scores. Specifically, scores that are 10/10. As a video game player, I don’t generally care what reviews say about games – I love my games and if the professional game reviewer who bases his/her views on societal norms doesn’t agree with me, then so be it. But high scores generally mean a higher potential in sales; so if a game that is actually AAA material gets markedly low review scores, I consider it a crime. Not only to the game developers who worked arduously on the game, but to the video game industry in general. If shareholders see their money being put into resources that are less than ideal, such as not so-well-received games, then it is more than likely we, the general gaming public, won’t see a sequel. It is a shame and I wish I could change it, but I can’t.

MGS4, GTA4, and now Super Mario Galaxy 2 have all received perfect 10 scores from both game review juggernauts, IGN and Gamespot. Once again, I really don’t care what scores are allotted to games except in an extrinsic manner. I played through MGS4, thought it was a mere shadow of MGS3. GTA lost my interest after Spiderman 2, a movie-tie-in game that shouldn’t have succeeded, but because of its marriage of web-swinging and sandbox gameplay, the game became a fortunate mistake, a pleasant accident that decimated any opportunities for regressions back to the gimmicky sandbox world promised by the GTA universe. Super Mario Galaxy was the spiritual successor to Super Mario 64 and as such delivered a wonderful experience if not a bit tired. SMG2 proposes to do the same as its predecessor, but simply better, in which I can’t find a single reason its designation of 10/10 by IGN or Gamespot seems worthy.

So I am not going to rant about any injustices in this process of reviewing highly-advertised hyped games. Instead, I will try to extrapolate what I think is a perfect 10 in a video game and go over some examples that I think deserve that score. Then, I will try to unravel the mysteries of professional game journalism, specifically in lieu of reviewing the medium and how its purpose has been bastardized for reasons that, even after serious contemplation, I cannot explain.

First, I’d like to try to explain the numeric value applied to the review process. It is a common aspect to see in any media review – a grade or number to mark value on something that arguably only has subjective value. Yet the professional reviewer claims to be an expert on the material he/she is assessing, in which consumers are left to trust the critic as a more informed opinion than even an educated peer. This trust lends us to believe that the professional reviewer is qualified for the seemingly arduous process of evaluating a video game. While I have never worked for a Video Game news source, I can only attempt to replicate the processes that occur in the reviewer’s mind as he/she does her job, in which perhaps we can gain a better understanding of how a number is assigned to a qualitative work.

When a reviewer plays a video game, they develop an impression of the game, either close to or at the end of the game experience. If the reviewer is close-minded, they may form that impression in the beginning and simply play the rest of the game waiting for justifications of that impression. That impression then is argued through a rational basis – you simply can’t write “I liked it” and call it a day. But rational basis is usually far from rational; instead, it is merely a framework in which the reviewer’s ideas make sense and create a logical argument for why the game is as good or bad as it is. From a single review you can dissect a lot from the reviewer – what his favorite games are, what he looks for in games, what he considers impressive or not, how much he values story in video games, etc. The rational basis is merely a defense of the argument, not the argument defending the rational basis. The reason for this is because we cannot argue with someone’s value systems. I can’t tell you are wrong for believing in God the same way you can’t tell me my belief that narrative in gaming is potentially stronger than film is wrong. In this way, the reviewer builds a perfect defense for his case because you can’t attack him for it. You can only look for logical holes and hope he elaborates or fixes it. Sometimes, there is a mistake of fact – like there actually is a smart camera in the game when the reviewer said there wasn’t – but most of the time the reviewer is infallible due to his scripted universe he has concocted to defend his opinion.

With this opinion, the reviewer has to make the call as to whether or not the game in question is good or bad. We think that generally this is easy to do, that our impressions lead us easily to our opinion of good and bad. We also, as the general gaming public, believe that we live in a bipolar world, one where dichotomies rule and ambiguity is for the lost and confused. Recognizing something as good or bad lends to being intelligent and be able to make decisions on things. Our society loves to categorize things into dual qualitative opinions. It is our way of summarizing what we are trying to say in merely one word.

Yet, it isn’t easy or natural to judge a game on whether it is good or bad. In fact, to do such a thing betrays the impression you have of the game. The reviewer’s impression consists of texture and qualitative assessments that require context and thought. Video Games, regardless of whether or not one believes they are viable candidates for “art,” are vessels for experiences. You cannot review the physical game disc, all its data, or the code as a well-designed piece of architecture. Instead, the reviewer looks at the game’s ability to bring forth human or reader response. The conflict or mingling of reader response with the actual product is what the experience is composed of. If there is confusion on the reviewers end – perhaps the experience he/she is having isn’t as described by the developer – then the reviewer must look for a supposed implied author of the game. The implied author, which is a term first coined by Wayne C. Booth of literary criticism, is the voice the reader/reviewer sees in the text/game, the vision we have of the actual creator of the game/text without actually meeting or discussing with the physical author/creator. In this sense, there are two authors – one who we never meet or know who physically created the game/text and one whom we can infer from the text/game that we believe is the uniform scribe of the experience – and it is only through one of them we can associate ourselves with.

If the reviewer can find a discrepancy between his experience and the implied author, then one can assume the experience being had is not accurate to what the implied author is trying to create. This is different from intentionality, as that never matters when looking at the work. Instead, the constructs built by the implied author in juxtaposition with the reviewer’s experience is what is in conflict. It is at this point that the reviewer should attempt, rather exhaustively, to reframe himself to meet the experiential framework of the implied author. If he/she does not do this, the reviewer is subjecting his constructs as dominant over the game developer’s. The reason why this is faulty is because a game developer has to spend 18-36 months developing an experience that it believes is worthwhile of a consumer’s money and time; obviously the developer should be given the benefit of the doubt towards experiential frameworks, as it has spent more time devoted to creating the experience than any reviewer will spend playing and writing about the game.

If after a significant amount of time trying to find the implied author’s framework and is unable to experience the game as such, the reviewer then has to note this discrepancy and move on with the review. Based on this discrepancy, most reviewers simply state that the game is bad, write about its merits, then give it a low score. Very few, and almost no reviewer of a large syndicated magazine or website, state “they don’t know” or “are unsure” of how to experience the game. Such a statement would indicate they can’t make a decision or are inadequate to review the experience. No reviewer wants that said of them, so they will make the claim that they are very qualified and lay the blame of the discrepancy of the experience on the video game. There are cases when this discrepancy is due completely to an inadequate implied author, but the investigation of this matter is most often ill executed for such a conclusion to be made. Most of the time, the reviewer will begin his clause by stating he/she understands the framework created by the developer, but go to explain why that framework fails or is wrong. One has to question how one can completely understand a construct yet say it is wrong on an arbitrary scale, but that is how reviewers do their job. They defend their beliefs as infallible, with the video game in the hot seat.

After the review is written, they have to give the game a score. This score is a number, sometimes out of five, but mostly out of ten. The reason the games are given scores is based on consumer’s inability to sift through the complex narrative of the reviewer. The consumer wants a yes or no answer, or at the very least an answer that has quantitative value, not qualitative. This gives the review its ultimate concession to polarity – giving the game an absolute number with its weight tied to arbitrary values. Game reviewers believe it is justifiable to make comparisons to all other similar pieces of work of the same medium on a universal level. The consumer then looks for scores in the 8s and 9s, and eager to pick up any game allotted the masterful 10. 10 is, self-explanatorily the zenith or perfection, something everyone should strive to experience. A 10 is, the best video gaming has to offer by definition, so surely 10 is only given to games that are perfect in its rendering of experience compliant to the majority of video game consumers. This was the case for Gamespot in 1998 when The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released, when it was given a 10 for its “Flawlessness.” A marked 10/10 changed sometime afterward to just meaning “Masterful” with IGN following soon after. Since then, as noted in the beginning of this write-up lots of games have gotten that perfect score in a short period of time. It seems these reviews represent a generational gap, as each generation has a different video game canon to base its opinions on. As video games become more cinematic and engaging, future generations will dismiss those games that are iconoclasts to that growing tradition. Sure, Pac-Man is still a classic, but you have to be a moron to not argue that. But any new games that try to be as simple as the first video gaming mascot will be ripped to shreds. Not enough ambition, they will say. Graphics are simple. Mechanics aren’t deep enough. No incentive to keep playing.

So what does perfection entail? I have no idea. The idea of anything being perfect is an idyllic dream that should have gotten snuffed out a long time ago. I can only give my thoughts on what I think perfection in a video game SHOULD mean and how game reviewers deviate from it. Ironically, unlike the criteria established by IGN or Gamespot, my “checklist” is simple and only has three proponents. Hopefully this is easier to understand than the grading rubric of either IGN or Gamespot.

Polish – A game with perfect presentation values, including stellar art style and music, along with a story that motivates the player to move forward. The polish has to enhance the game, be true to the game and not attempt to go beyond the game’s scope. If you are playing a Batman game and you hear happy whimsical music themes, no matter how well composed or orchestrated, it won’t fit the narrative of the game. The keyword is that everything has to fit in place in order for the gameplay to shine through. By itself, the music or art may be less than stellar, but in the continuity of the game it flawlessly depicts the experience so that the implied author and the gamer meet at a common junction. Lazy presentation is unacceptable, along with superfluous presentation that seems far removed from the game.

Gameplay – Possibly the most important aspect of the game, the interactive component. This is where the gamer is involved in the narrative and is demanded to accomplish certain tasks in order to move forward. The tasks can’t be busy work – making the gamer pull levers just for the sake of it – nor can there be no tasks – otherwise it is a movie. The game should define the rules of interaction explicitly, give examples for the types of interaction required, then encourage the gamer to creatively find ways to bend the rule of that interactivity. In the example of a platformer, the game would begin with simple levels that exemplify the basic platforming requirements the player would have to be acquainted with before moving on, in which later levels would require clever thinking from the player to advance. But even this isn’t enough – the player should have to think and break the “puzzle” of how to advance the next platforming segment, then he must be able to execute it. If he can’t execute it, not matter how well thought out the plan is, he/she must be punished.

Revolution – I lied. This is the most important aspect to game wishing to achieve a perfect 10. In order to compete among its peers, it must change the way games are played forever. Lots of great games don’t have revolutionary components in its gameplay, which is completely satisfactory, but they aren’t perfect games. While I wouldn’t agree that Ocarina of Time is or was the perfect video game of 1998, it did fit the above criteria with substantial backing. It was polished, its gameplay was stellar by 1998 standards, and it changed 3D gaming with its z-targeting system.

Ikaruga – A solid shooter with great mechanics, presentation, and execution. What keeps this hound ahead of the pack is its revolutionary polarity gameplay mechanic – having to dodge every bullet on screen has been around since Galaga, but having to weave between two different colors in order to progress not only revitalized the SHMUP genre but brought inspiration to gaming in general. This game deserves a 10/10.

Street Fighter II’ Champion Edition – While World Warrior revolutionized fighting games and Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo arguably perfected the balance and depth, it was Champion Edition that revolutionized fighting games on a second level and gave way to the great Super Turbo. Just a seemingly meager update to its predecessor, Champion Edition allowed former boss characters to join the cast of 8 characters in the game. It also allowed players to be the same character as one another in a versus battle, something WW didn’t allow. The game also updated the speed ever so slightly as well as made some balance changes. Champion Edition is revolutionary in that it new it could make an update to attempt to perfect a fighting game formula: in Korea, CE is still a wildly popular fighting, even after Super Street Fighter 4’s release. Some consider it the perfect fighting game, this deserves a 10/10.

Prince of Persia Sands of Time – The critically acclaimed yet commercially poor game is one of the greatest crimes in video game history. What turned into an attempt to best Prince of Persia 3D became a labor of love that embraced rich conceited story-telling, advanced platforming, and a rewind feature that allowed a player the ability to undo his/her mistakes, a concept first adopted by Microsoft Office. Every aspect of the game was flawless, including the much criticized combat. The combat, which many seem to not understand, is merely a tool to progress the story forward and offer breaks between platforming segments. It is this that gave the game its sublime sense of pacing. The true last boss is the long climb up the tower in search of Farah; very few gamers realized that. This game is a perfect 10/10.

You’ll note that I have established my criteria and that every game I have listed above fits according to my composed system. The keypoint to realize here is that each game is revolutionary and that without that revolution, the game can’t succeed as being perfect. Perfect as an investment of time and money. Perfect as a branded symbol of the video game canon. You will also notice that none of the above games have any extended replay value – that is because the replay value in each of these games are intrinsic, rather than extrinsic. Extending a game’s length through unlockables is fine, but a perfect game doesn’t need that in order to create the desire to replay through the experience.

It is obvious that the approach game reviewers take towards their craft is absolute pessimism. They treat the game as a blank slate and require the game to prove them wrong by offering a great experience. That doesn’t sound like an inaccurate way of reviewing media, but the end result, especially in congruence with numeric scoring, is that some games, which are completely fine, wonderful games, will get low scores because of their inability to impress a specific game reviewer. Likewise, games that get 10s are a result of a resounding impression that may be stronger than the actually framework created by the game itself. What game reviewers seem to either ignore or forget is the general attitude of the general gamer. As gamers, we enjoy playing games – we are eager to try any new game or genre or media to get our satisfaction. We go to Gamestop or Best Buy playing what games are available because we want to play them all. It is only through limited funds and time do we find ourselves having to choose our pleasures in which game reviewers are supposed to help us, not coddle us and mitigate any contrary opinions we may have.

When we finally make our purchase, we are already optimistic over the game in question for two reasons: One, as previously mentioned, we enjoy playing video games by default and experiencing new ones; Two, we just invested a significant chunk of our allowance on a product and we are more inclined to want to enjoy something we have invested in than treat it like an interviewee. Game reviewers combat this by claiming they are given a review-copy of the game in question, eliminating that sense of buyer-optimism. Yet often times games will get lower or higher scores based on their value as a $50 package. Regardless of this contradictory defense, game reviewers are pessimists and believe consumers in general should be as well.

From here we get a huge logical problem that has no solution. If the paid corporate game reviewer is a pessimist and either demands or assumes its audience also be wary about every game they play, then the general gamer must demand excellence from every game he/she purchases. Fine. But if you review a game, giving a perfect 10, all the while admitting no true Revolution (there is that word again) or that a game just like it exists for a much cheaper price, why should that gamer believe that game is actually 10? More importantly, why should the gamer spend his/her hard earned money on that perfect 10 game? The same reviewers who treat every game like a 0 until proven wrong through impression is asking its audience to forgo any qualms of spending another $50 for the same experience available elsewhere simply because it is the same but better? This is no longer pessimistic game evaluation, but rather some weird hybrid of optimistic-remorseful shopping that the game reviewer expects its audience to participate in. But unlike most frameworks, there is no standard rule set or defined line for anyone to follow – the mantra being spread here is “you are a gamer, I am a gamer, agree with me.” If that is the argument – that gamers are all alike and have the same opinions, I wouldn’t be discussing this issue right now and every reviewer would have the same opinion about everything. We know this is not the case, however, as single single-player campaigns dominate the vast library games available today and as a result, gaming is mostly an intrapersonal affair. How can one expect a contemporary or consumer to have the same opinion as someone else? This is the most relished problem of reviewing media period, but it stands especially true of video game reviews. As a still new market and genre of entertainment, even game developers are unsure of any universalities in gaming, with some being quick to question if the term “video game” should be changed to the broader designation of “Interactive Media Entertainment.”

You may be asking what the solution is, but it should already be obvious – reviews can only be an assessment on individual enjoyment and be used as tools for others of like-minds to forecast how their own experiences with the game might become. IGN has come close to realizing this reality, as almost all of their reviews use “I” and acknowledge irrational preferences and biases. This would be an example of excellent reviewing and journalism, but IGN’s stubborn reluctance to drop its numeric grading prevents it from embracing this more accurate review style. Worse off is Metacritic, which averages all the syndicated review sites and magazines into an authoritative score that developers and consumers use to assess quantitative value. Because IGN is one of those sites regularly updated on Metacritic, IGN’s step forward in reviewing games qualitatively is lost completely. Kotaku is innocent of using the numeric number system, but still devises its reviews into Pros and Cons, which is dualistic and lends one to quantitatively measure the pros against the cons, instead of treating them as co-existing attributes. Judgment is made and passed, with no retroactive editing or adjustments in accordance with times, change of staff or norms. The number is branded onto a golden calve that, ironically, was put into action by a person that could have a doctorate in statistics or a BS degree in BS.

So the immediate and final question presents itself – What do we, as consumers, do about this problem? My answer would be nothing, just like most buyers of consumer America. But if nothing isn’t enough for you, then let me suggest something for the curious or the enraged; the less attention paid to those corporate giants that seek dominance over you, the less authority they have. If you decide IGN, Gamespot, 1UP, Gamepro don’t affect your gaming purchases, then perhaps they will be forced to change so you give them credence. Often times gamers conform their opinions to the popular mold set by major review sites, which gives these conglomerates power where it isn’t deserved. It should be the consumer controlling the industry, not the reviewer. Moviegoers have already done this, as the major blockbusters have been critical flops. Either the critics live in an elysian realm of purity and the general population is wrong or critics have decided to form elitist opinions on works inapplicable to the genre, betraying the people’s wants and desires of the medium. In either case, the movie industry has conformed to its consumers who neglect critical “standards.” Maybe someday the same can be said of Video games or Interactive media entertainment.

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