In response to my post “‘Your Story Sucks’ Sucks“, which was itself a response to his post “Your Story Sucks“, Jason Schreier says the following, in an article called “RE: ‘”Your Story Sucks” Sucks’“:
I’m advocating…the analysis of narrative using more critical language. Goodness claims that I’m veering too far into the land of optimism, calling my piece “a masterpiece of complacency,” but I would argue quite the opposite. My point is that we should be fighting for harsher criticism than “this is good” or “this is bad.” Those are not the questions we should be asking.
Schreier then goes on to suggest some possible questions–such as how the setting and theme reflect each other, how the game integrates interactivity into its story sequences, how well character motivations are drawn–that critics and reviewers can ask when evaluating a game’s narrative. These questions, and others like them, offer a good starting point for how to begin to develop deeper criticism of games.
Schreier is calling, ultimately, for a more qualified criticism, and I agree with him. The purpose of reviews vs. criticism is too complex of a subject to get into here, but I often get the sense that reviews lean towards absolutes. That’s what readers seem to want–on some sites, any opinion the reader disagrees with gets called out as bias, along with an exhortation for the writer to be more “objective”. The very concept of scoring games is itself a problem. We may want deeper and more insightful criticism, but we’re only paying lip service to that concept if we then distill the review into a number at the end.
Because that evaluative number ends up becoming the focal point. It–and maybe two representative sentences–becomes what people see on Metacritic. It–and not the reasons behind it–becomes the insult discussed on forums. Score numbers imply objectivity, that you can make that blanket statement about whether or not a game sucks–after all, a game that’s scored a 5 sucks compared to a perfect 10, does it not?
I hated The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, but I was more dismayed by the fact that most of the reviews I read of the game were so content-free. They spoke in absolutes–praised the game without saying much more than, “Welp, it’s a Zelda game, and those are always awesome.” That they were praising the game–and its storyline–as unqualifiedly Good was alienating–instead of pointing out something I missed, the reviews simply made me feel like I was missing some kind of in-joke. Michael Abbot’s post, “To dream again” was a much more interesting take–he evalutated the game’s appeal to a die-hard Zelda fan. While it didn’t change my opinion of the game, it helped me to at least understand why someone would enjoy playing it.
And his piece does not score the game. What kind of score could you even give? He explicitly states that the game is “Not the best game and certainly not the most innovative, but nevertheless the game that delighted me more than any other.” If you’re looking at the game in isolation, you almost have to give it a low score–but that ignores the Zelda fan who’s playing the newest installment of a series which never fails to speak to them. If you talk about the game as one which soothes your “yearn[ing] for the next great adventure,” then you might give it a perfect score–but that ignores those who simply don’t enjoy the Zelda experience. And so we can only engage with the critique–and that critique is able to be much more nuanced than it would if it were looking at a game as if it were–in Schreier’s terms–”a phone or a set of steak knives”.
So in that regard I agree–as critics, we can’t just go for a simple thumbs up or thumbs down. We should strive towards a more nuanced analysis. At the same time, criticism should have an evaluative element to it. As long as we’re able to explain our opinion, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a critic to say that a game’s story sucks.
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