There’s a reason why games aren’t taken seriously.
Recently, a professor of mine wanted to class to write a blog post. It could be about anything, she said, as long as it was pertinent to your intended industry. But she made one sort of post off-limits: game reviews. At first, this annoyed me. What makes game reviews off limits, while book, film, or other entertainment reviews are fair game? We all know that games can be serious works of art with depth meeting that of books or films, so it must have been her ignorance of that fact that led her to prohibit game reviews. It’s her fault, right?
Maybe not. While games can be magnificent works of art, the mainstream game press rarely treats them as such. Large game news outlets such as Game Informer and IGN like to say that games are art, but then refuse to actually take them seriously. They have created a game review culture which is comparable to large-scale Amazon reviews of children’s toys. It’s no wonder that anyone would get the impression that a game review would lack substance of good professional writing, or that games themselves should not be taken seriously. The following is the review summary for Game Informer’s review of Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea Pt. 2:
The full review can be found here. I’m afraid it’s no better than the summary. Reviews like this, which unfortunately make up the vast majority of game reviews, are little more than buyers guides. They approach games like children’s toys: how pretty are they? Does it sound good? does it work right? Is it easy to use? Will I want to use it for a long time? Game reviews today lack the substance and depth required to portray games as anything more than children’s toys. Imagine if films were reviewed like video games. The absurdity seems to be far clearer when the common game review format is pasted into a film review.
It’s time game reviewers grapple with the art of games, with their themes, subtleties, plots, character development, art style, and how they all contribute to the whole. Game writing needs something more than “This game has a good story, but it could use some work. The graphics look great. The sound effects are satisfying. The controls work. There are very few glitches. 9/10”.
If you were to read the aforementioned Burial at Sea review, or this Bioshock 2 review, might notice something: they don’t tell you anything at all about the meat of the game. Bioshock games are famous for having in-depth, striking political commentaries, attacking extremism, american exceptionalism, capitalism and communism (kind of), all the while mixing that in with imaginative science concepts and the projected impacts of inter-dimensional travel between the multiverse (admittedly that sounds ridiculous on the surface, but the game presents these themes thoughtfully and with careful precision).
These issues are incredibly complex and the Bioshock series makes some seriously impactful commentary and crafts a wonderful plot that far outshines it’s traditional gameplay mechanics. However, traditional gameplay mechanics and basic game functionality seem to be all Game Informer, the largest videogame magazine in the world, wants to talk about. It’s no wonder that such a huge number of people treat games as children’s toys, incapable of reaching the level of artistic expression of novels and films.
I want to see game reviewers discussing the real substance that today’s games bring to the table. I want to see reviewers grapple with games’ underlying themes and their implications. I want games art styles to be analyzed against those themes. Really, I just want to see critics dissect games as literature and art. I’m not saying every game assessment needs to be such a terribly deep analysis, especially reviews by everyday consumers and non-professionals. But it’s time for game critics to be just that: critics.