The Points Don’t Matter– Wait, Yes They Do– Wait, No–

I linked Eric Swain’s “A Reader’s Manifesto and why it could be a Gamer’s Manifesto” a few hours ago and, in true fashion of the sorts of behaviors he describes, I kinda skimmed… And didn’t notice till after I’d posted that he has a whole paragraph about me in there, which I perhaps should have been more openly humble about, had I known about its existence in order to even mention it… er.

At any rate, it’s sort of a funny reference because Eric and I are on fairly casual terms, as our mutual acquaintances know. Hell, he bought me a ginger ale in an authentic Jersey pub not even a week ago. Which is why I sorta feel he’s being a little too generous in his assessment of my Dragon Age II review– ironic, considering he’s criticizing this exact practice.

Again these use the full spectrum of the 10-point scale and are backed up arguments. Even if they flounder like their recent Dragon Age 2 review with regards to support of their score, Kris Ligman defends it in the text. She liked the game despite the flaws it presented even if she is not entirely sure why, but says so. She admits she may not be exactly sure why, but she says so and gives her best estimation. You may not agree with it, but that is the act of an honest reviewer on an honest site.

Actually, I do have very precise reasons for why I gave Dragon Age II the score that I did (a 7/10, to be exact). Perhaps it wasn’t adequately articulated, but it was a number I mulled over for some time and preemptively defended in my notes to the senior editor upon submission, knowing that it might cause some comment. And it has, subsequently. Some of my colleagues have found it too generous; others have found it too harsh. Even if I don’t believe in the underlying principles of game scoring, as long as PopMatters requires them, I aim to treat them seriously.

The thing is that where Eric Swain gets it exactly right is in saying that scores are as much a subjective representation of the reviewer’s impressions as the rest of his or her review. So, yes, my score is my interpretation of PopMatters’s 1-10 system, where 5 is average, 10 is near-unattainable perfection and 7 is, in their own language, “Damn Good.”

Dragon Age II is, for me, a damn good game. It would be a 10 if it’d had a few more years of dev time. But treating my reactions at the top of my review –it’s brilliant, it’s horrible, it’s the best thing I’ve ever played, I want my money back– as critical assessments and not involuntary reflexes as they in fact were misses the potential for the review to be a proper distillation of, and meditation on, the whole cataclysmic range of emotions a work can evoke in a person. (Or maybe I just wrote it poorly.)

I won’t spend an entire rant defending the messy wording of my review, however. Perhaps I did do one wrong for PopMatters. It definitely has a disorganized air about it; Eric’s right there. But I do appreciate that he acknowledged my forthrightness, which has always been my aim, if I can provide nothing else to my readers. As someone who doesn’t habitually read consumerist reviews, I’m often hard-pressed to put myself in the mindset of how to write one, when fiscal rationalization often fails me but simple philosophical analyses of systems, as I’ve seen elsewhere employed, tend to let all those moral quibbles slide.

Ultimately I have never found it in me to get exceptionally petty over the finer aspects of looks and noises when there are texts to dissect. Yet I know these things matter to a great many gamers, if not necessarily the ones I wind up most closely associating with. But you can’t completely isolate yourself from others’ perspectives, even if they don’t make sense to you in the same nativized way as you’ve habitually looked at games. So in the end I feel like I wind up in conflict: I know, consciously, that I should care about pretty graphics and epic dragon-slayings and sweeping scores and all of that, and in general I attend to those concerns in my reviews because I can recognize why they would matter to people. But when it really gets right down to it, Dragon Age II had me slavering over it because its writing (supported by the great and subtle character animation which I have seen written about far less) played exactly into my biases –personal, political and intellectual– and that made it damn good, to the extent that virtually everything else fell away.

I find it worth noting that I also awarded a 7 to the Fable III DLC “Traitor’s Keep”, which my review also described as playing with big ideas but –in ways different from and yet resonant with Dragon Age II— also fell quite short. But in the end, what the hell did I play it for? (I mean, aside from the fact it was assigned to me.) Was it for the fun of a good challenge, or for perks, or was it to get my brain tickled? Fable III is not and will never be an exceptionally challenging game from a ludic standpoint, and journalists rarely concern themselves with difficulty before a rhetoric of auteurism which Peter Molyneux brings to the table, so that really left me with two things to talk about: storytelling and ideas. Ultimately I felt while the storytelling was only average, the DLC had some juicy enough ideas which stuck with me such that the actual ludic qualities of it were a distant secondary concern to my desire to unpack Molyneux’s remixing of Walt Disney as a fictionalized propagandist for a wartime tyrannical monarch (especially given that he… y’know, actually did create wartime propaganda for the Allies).

Is it essentially non-gamic of me to think like this, or is it a failure of semantics that we should always be looking to “ergodic” to mean “challenging” instead of, quite simply, participatory? Playing “Traitor’s Keep” was like exploring an amusement park for me. Diversionary, a little edutaining, and over with in an afternoon. Dragon Age II, by contrast, was like attending a gay rights rally and a Renaissance Faire and some kind of amazing fandom LARP moderated by Gary Gygax over the course of a week. I had as many internal objections to the narrative as I might with any of those three taken individually, but in the end, I recognized that even my upset and my discomfort were of the specific variety that I’m not used to seeing in games. And that was what I would not mind seeing more of. Even in its imperfection, it was new and fresh and exciting.

So, yes. I think Eric Swain’s more or less on the mark when he says reviewers are far too uncritical and/or too generous toward particular devs or publishers… But I’m not sure that’s the end of the story. Speaking from the perspective of a writer and editor –I won’t bore you with my creative writing credentials, but suffice to say it’s way longer than my seven year tenure as an editor– finding a genuinely good idea half-buried beneath dreck can be worth all the flawless prose in the world, and if I had to choose between schlock which moved me and an exquisite literary ballet which didn’t, fill my cart up with genre fiction and fanfic every time. I know what I care about. Call it Azuma’s animalization or Jenkins’s participatory culture or simply the condition of being an introverted girl who is used to fixing stories to her preferences in the safe confines of her own head or the consensus realities of her trusted friends, but Dragon Age II was more uplifting, energizing, and inspiring to me than Heavy Rain, Limbo, Braid or most of the other aesthetic/philosophical heavy hitters of this generation. And I’m happy about that.

But it did get points off for recycled environments and clipping issues, which I guess I didn’t really get into enough to make clear about.

Bottom line, I suppose: as a reviewer who’s not even a year into this shindig and who, admittedly, somewhat reveled in her obscurity up until a few months ago, I’m still discovering what I want to be as a reviewer– which I think is the sort of existential inquiry more reviewers should engage in, if they’re serious about this as a profession or a hobby. Starting with my LittleBigPlanet 2 review, but very much galvanized with my Dragon Age 2 piece, I think I’ve more or less sorted out what kind of reviewer it is I need to be given the background, perspective and talents that I have– and how I should best interpret a score rubric from here on out if I’m required to use one. I’ll never agree with its use fundamentally, but I think it’s exciting as an idea, thinking of how to rate games based on how much they make you think afterwards, not simply how they confound you at the time.

Or: emotional scoring. Emotional intelligence is, after all, just one more way of interpreting the world, and for as much as games are logarithmic, they are also relational objects– systems of signs which evoke emotions and associations. This seems to me as equally valid a way to study games as to rate their appearance and their difficulty. Obviously, Eric Swain’s right when he says we shouldn’t get so caught up in emotions that we suspend procedural analysis, but I feel that’s really where my review fumbles– not in confessing to my emotions, but in regarding my emotional reaction as something not capable of structural coherence or worth expressing as much as an “objective” analysis of visible, aesthetic characteristics. On the contrary, the emotion I got from Dragon Age II is exactly the point– and what makes it damn good. I may have found my new benchmark.

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  • Jack Porter  On 04.17.11 at 11:36 am

    I think this is an important step in the process of forcing games reviews to grow up. It was fun going about the technical craft of the game for a while, but ultimately that’s a shallow endeavor which is ALSO subjective. We should be entering an age of rhetorical reviews that aren’t “objective” but in one way or another manage to express something important (this is what the best music reviews are like). Hopefully this kind of approach catches on!

  • Alex Fleck  On 04.26.11 at 8:46 pm

    The future you’ve started me thinking towards, one of mainstream reviews that embrace emotional scoring of games, is what made me want to comment. — First ever comment on anything on the Internet ever. So, kudos!

    It would be quite exciting to see more focused theses in mainstream reviews. If a game’s characters felt nuanced and three-dimensional and that emotional connection overshadowed or minimized what might have been glaring technical issues, then I think it would be a shame to call that game a failure or to minimize its triumphs (as the reviewer experienced them) in the name of objectivity. I do not rely on a review for that reviewer’s ability to imagine how other people might experience the game. And I had never thought that a reviewer might be adjusting their scores to account for the potential opinions of others. Although I understood it was a possibility, it seemed more likely to me, somehow, that saying things like “single player is intense and compelling, but many won’t like it,” was parenthetical and not a factor in calculating score. It is ironic that an objective review could be so subjective in its calculation of score. A person trying to be objective reviewer would claim to know or approximate the hearts and minds of others (“I think these short story vignette type deals are awesome, but others definitely won’t. A half point off?!”), while the subjective one just explains as specifically as possible why they liked or disliked or kind of liked or kind of disliked the game — provided that people actually do or think in the ways of described (and for way more gradients). Oh god, I’m trying to be objective. Crap, I’m looping again.

    Anyway, I think that a more narrow, thesis-focused review would pave the way for emotional scoring or the use of other parameters in the mainstream review of games. Essays and other thesis-based kinds of writing pick and choose what evidence is best suited to supporting their thesis hopefully stating an opinion as to the merit of the game, while more encyclopaedic type articles (for lack of a better example), seem to try and assert a thing as it is from various perspectives (graphics, story, controls, difficulty) without a clear direction or opinion about merit. It’s no wonder that at the end of some reviews the reader wonders where the score came from. I’m tired and unsure what if anything I’ve added to the conversation. Keep up the great work! And I apologize for the long post.


  • […] as a direct response to Eric Swain’s “Manifesto” post, arguing for reviewers to embrace their subjectivity and regard games as relational objects, a point not so coincidentally raised in Albor’s post at PopMatters as […]

  • […] as a direct response to Eric Swain’s “Manifesto” post, arguing for reviewers to embrace their subjectivity and regard games as relational objects, a point not so coincidentally raised in Albor’s post at PopMatters as […]

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