The proximate cause for this rant is one of the few sessions I attended at GDC, run by N'gai Croal, about game journalism. I won't discuss the session (which was moderately interesting), but instead the conflation by the panelists, from sources as diverse as Kotaku, 1 Up, Game Informer, and MTV of "reviews" and "criticism."
Surely these are people who should know better.
There's virtually nothing we can point to today as "game criticism." And we badly need it.
During the panel, the participants mentioned both Pauline Kael and John Simon, historically important critics of film; neither seemed to understand that neither were reviewers, let alone journalists.
A review is a buyer's guide. It exists to tell you about some new product that you can buy, and whether you should or should not buy it. A good review goes beyond that, and suggests who should buy it, since not everyone enjoys everything. (E.g., A romance novel may be very fine of its kind, but is quite unlikely to appeal to me, since it is not a genre I enjoy.)
Thus, Ebert is, ultimately, a reviewer; the net result of his discussion of a work is a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Mind you, he is also an informed and intelligent watcher of film, and his discussion of a movie frequently veers in the direction of criticism; but he is not being paid to write critical works. Pauline Kael was.
Criticism is an informed discussion, by an intelligent and knowledgeable observer of a medium, of the merits and importance (or lack thereof) of a particular work. Criticism isn't intended to help the reader decide whether or not to plunk down money on something; some readers' purchase decisions may be influenced, but guiding their decisions is not the purpose of the critical work. Criticism is, in a sense merely "writing about" -- about art, about dance, about theater, about writing, about a game--about any particular work of art. How a critical piece addresses a work, and what approach it takes, may vary widely from critic to critic, and from work to work. There are, in fact, many valid critical approaches to a work, and at any given time, a critique may adopt only one, or several of them.
Some valid critical approaches? Where does this work fall, in terms of the historical evolution of its medium. How does this work fit into the creator's previous ouevres, and what does it say about his or her continuing evolution as an artist. What novel techniques does this work introduce, or how does it use previously known techniques to create a novel and impactful effect. How does it compare to other works with similar ambitions or themes. What was the creator attempting to do, and how well or poorly did he achieve his ambitions. What emotions or thoughts does it induce in those exposed to the work, and is the net effect enlightening or incoherent. What is the political subtext of the work, and what does it say about gender relationships/current political issues/the nature-nurture debate, or about any other particular intellectual question (whether that question is a particular hobby-horse of the reviewer, or inherently raised by the work in question).
If I'm not clear on this, the set of questions in the previous paragraph are not intended to be an exhaustive list of all possible questions that criticism can address; criticism can, in fact, address any set of questions of interest to the writer (and ideally, to the reader) that are centered on a particular work of art.
The most important word in the last sentence is "art." Criticism is about art. Reviews are not about art; you can review anything. You can compare brands of butter, you can review detergent, you can review the hand-jobs given you by different whores. Reviews are simply about whether something is worth the money, nothing more and nothing less.
And you can, in fact, write criticism on these self-same subjects, as strange as that may seem. Criticism on the subject of butter might go into the techniques used in butter-making, and the effects produced thereby, and the passion brought to their craft by particular small-batch artisanal butter makers. Criticism about hand-jobs might begin with interviews of the whores involved, and their motivations, and to what degree they enjoy giving pleasure and to what degree they simply want their clients to come so they can move to the next one, and the effects of specific finger placements at different times in the process. Criticism about detergent -- well, you've got me on that one, but I'm sure a writer that was passionate about the subject would find something more to say than "Brand X is better than Brand Y, for the price."
The point is that a critic has to take his subject seriously, as an example of art, or at least of craft; and take seriously as well the intentionality of the creator, and the importance to those who experience the results of the results, and the impact on how they think and feel. Reviews don't go there; they give you three stars. Good or bad, that's all that reviews are concerned about.
Criticism understands that "good" and "bad" are just the surface. What's more important is why, and how, and to what end.
Have I made it clear now? Reviews are the inevitable epiphenomenon of our consumer society, writing to help consumers navigate the innumerable options available to them. They can be well or poorly done, but they are nothing more than ephemera. I'm sure the newspapers of early 19th century America ran reviews of the novels of James Fenimore Cooper; they are utterly forgotten, and should be, because by nature they were of interest only to the readers of the newspapers of the time. Contrariwise, Mark Twain's Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses is still considered an examplar of literary criticism.
(To divert by the way, it is an utterly unfair critique, and ignores Cooper's manifold literary virtues; one may point out that in Samuel Clemens's era, Cooper was widely considered America's greatest novelist to date, a position Mark Twain later supplanted. The essay can also be read--as it rarely is--as a calculated, and highly effective, attack on a literary rival, and as such, should be treated with far less respect, and far more skepticism, than it normally is. There: In the space of a paragraph, I've written an effective critique of a work of criticism.)
Similarly, there would be no point today in writing a review of Ultima IV, since it is long out of print. A useful work of criticism, however, is entirely conceivable: discussing, perhaps, its role as one of the first games to consider the moral implications of a player's acts, and to use tactical combat as a minigame within the context of a larger, more strategic title. Such an article, well-written, ideally with an understanding of the influence of tabletop roleplaying on the development of the early western CRPG, and of the place of this title in the overall shape of Richard Garriot's ouevre would be of interest to readers today, even if they'd be hard put to find a way to buy the damn game. And it might find a place in anthologies and studies of the 20th century origins of the popular medium of the game, going forward into the indefinite future.
The truth is that, for the most part, we don't have anything like game criticism, and we need it -- to inform gamers, to hold developers to task, and to inform our broader cultural understanding of games and their importance and impact on our culture.
We need our own Pauline Kaels and John Simons -- and we need to ensure that when they appear, no one insists that they attach a damn numerical score to their writing, because that is wholly irrelevant to the undertaking of writing seriously about games.
And even in a more proximate matter, we need those drudges called reviewers, despite the meager pay they receive, to think more seriously about critical issues, too. Why should a review of an RTS which doesn't understand the historical evolution of that genre and the place a particular work holds in the spectrum of previously published RTS be considered of the slightest interest?
Now here at Play This Thing!, we do not view ourselves as "game critics," at least in the high sense I've ascribed to the notion here. Our remit for writers is simply "find a game you like, and write something interesting about it." At the same time, we also don't view ourselves as reviewers; we're here to point to games we think are interesting, not to tell you what's good and what's not. And yet that very approach frees us from the jejune constraints of "reviewers;" we need to tell you that something is interesting, and why, not give it a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. As a result, our writers do, I think, get closer to real criticism than the writers on most sites -- each in our own individual way. Thus I tend to take a pedantic approach, with references to the history of the form and the place of works in that evolution; the99th tends to talk about theoretical design ideas and indulge in hip-intellectual verbal pyrotechnics; and EmilyShort tends to talk very much about design intentionality.
Even if we do not, in general, produce true criticism--which is almost always in essay form--we are still viewing the works under question from an inherently critical stance.
Would that anyfuckingone else in gaming did so. And would that other publications thought it important, or even interesting, to foster the critical analysis of games, rather than yet another scored review.
And that, I think, brings us to our close; but I cannot stop myself from pointing out a few things, which are inherent but may not be immediately obvious.
This post is an essay. It is an essay in the form of a criticism; the critique is that of the failure of our writers about games to take a critical and analytical view of the works they write about, and of their failure to make a clear distinction between "review" and "criticism," which are, in fact, very different beasts. It is, if you will, a critique of game criticism.
And a thought in conclusion: Would either Pauline Kael or John Simon have ever allowed their criticism to suffer the indignity of having a numerical score attached?
And would their work have been improved if they had?