How To Read A Video Game Review

By Gus Mastrapa in Pretension +1
Friday, June 17, 2011 at 9:00 am
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I went to public school. I know what its like to be well ahead of the class and have to sit through boring rehashes of lessons I learned two years ago. Those who find the forthcoming instruction redundant have my permission to go catch up on their self-guided readings -- I suggest Tom Bissell's thorough and thoughtful unpacking of L.A. Noire

The rest of you sit up straight and take notes, because I'm not going to repeat myself. Most of you are reading video game reviews wrong. You're coming at them from the wrong angle and leaving them with bizarre take-aways. That's why you're posting irate comments, griping about the state of games journalism and working yourself into a lather. I may say mean things about you all the time, gamers. But that's because I want to help you. I was just like you once. And I'd like to pass some of my wisdom on to you so that you don't have to figure things out the hard way. 

So lets start with the most basic premise: video game reviews are opinions.

I know this may come as a shock to you. It is impossible to review a video game, or any other creative work, objectively. Because you've first got to process that book, movie or game through a human brain. And the human brain is full of pesky emotions, prejudices and quirks. That's cool though. Because though you think you'd love the idea of a video game inspector that ferrets every bug and flaw out of a game the result would be incredibly boring.

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Since video game reviews can't be objective you should give up on the idea of using them to decide whether you should buy a game or not. Instead use my easy method that requires zero reading. Are you interested in a game? If your answer is "yes" then you should buy it. How long you wait, how much you pay and all those other details are up to you. You don't need a critic to tell you that stuff. If $60 dollars is the difference between your owning a launch day copy of Duke Nuke 'Em Forever and the poorhouse you should probably be talking to a financial manager.

Video game reviews are criticism. Some of them are great criticism. Some are pretty pedestrian. But maybe one of the best lessons I learned in college was about the role of this kind of writing. "Criticism's job," my professor said, "is to illuminate the text." 

Take a moment to digest that idea a second, because it can change your life. The text refers to the creative work in question, be it a novel, a poem or a video game. The critic doesn't tell you if you're stupid for liking that poem or that you have good taste because you like a certain video game. The good critic sheds light on that video game -- allowing you to look at it from a different angle, see it in a new light. 

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Recently, Roger Ebert republished his review of Jackie Brown -- a movie I haven't seen since it came out in theaters. I read his review not to re-affirm my opinion that it was a good movie, but to see what old Ebert had to say about the movie. I don't always agree with Roger, especially when it comes to matters of art, but I do understand that the man has great insights. He has probably seen a hundred times more movies than I have.

The first paragraph of Ebert's review is dynamite. It describes a particular scene in the movie in such a way that you can't watch the movie without thinking about Ebert's point. I like watching movies this way, because it engages my brain while I'm watching. After reading his review I watched the movie again. And when the moment pops up where Ordell has to think hard about who swiped his dough I had to mull Ebert's review in my mind and decide whether I agreed with him or not. I did. That's stimulating.

So here's a couple new ways to think about video game reviews. A sharp review shouldn't tell you whether you should play a game or not. You're interested enough in a game to read about it. Of course you should play it. Instead a review can tell you how to play a game. And I don't mean by giving you tips or cheats, but by telling you what kind of mindset to go into the game with. That's why I love reading the game diaries that Tom Chick and the other fine writers at Quarter to Three produce. They're excellent at setting the tone and preparing you to get your mind right for approaching a game. 

A great review can tell you what bits of the game to savor and which flawed areas to skip, forgive or ignore.

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There's one last bit of information I'd like to impart and you ought to be ready for the state test. Ignore review scores. Pretend they're not there. They don't mean anything. And they distract from the most important thing in a review -- the actual review. You'll be much more enriched by reading a review closely than you will by gazing at a number that some writer pulled out of their ass and trying to make sense of it. 

Review scores are a form of shorthand that seem tantalizingly efficient. It is comforting to believe that numbers can help us sort out the reams of creative output that man brings into the world every day. But in their purported boiling down of criticism review scores burn away all meaning and insight, leaving only hot air. Too many smart people spent way to much time chasing the alchemic gold of the perfect review scale. Legions of dumb people spend inordinate amounts of their meager intelligence arguing the difference between a 7.9 and 8.1. I may have asked you to stay after for tutoring, but even you are better than all this.

So lets review: video games reviews are opinions. They're a form of criticism that can serve to shed new light on a game you've already played or offer a way to approach a game you haven't. The words are the most important part of them and the numbers (or stars or letter grades) are the least important. 

Now, for extra credit go read that Bissell piece I mentioned at the beginning of class. Or go to the Kill Screen website or pick up a copy of Edge. Heck, read any review you want. With these lessons digested you're much less likely to bust a blood vessel in your head and much more prone to actually enrich yourself when reading about games. 

Because, and here's the last remedial lesson: it is possible and maybe even preferable to learn from people you disagree with, think you know more than or just plain don't like. 

Class dismissed. Please no running in the halls.

Pretension +1 is a weekly column by Gus Mastrapa that examines the ways that video games fit into our culture. It only occasionally this condescending.


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