Articles | The Review (2016)
I had a rather frightening interaction the other day. Some individuals of the Starcraft 2 community approached me with some rather toxic opinions during a short conversation about my review process. I realized with utter horror I had trespassed into SJW territory and was locking meaty internet horns with Hipsters.
Though the discourse was short, with the other parties ragequitting out of the conversation in a hurry, two major opinions of theirs stuck with me and made me realize what a dark time we live in.
The first, and really the leading point of this article, was "Reviews can't be objective". I stated that I review objectively, and the individual in question immediately bottled up behind "you can't review objectively" and "I am not having this conversation".
(of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.
Never mind the fact that virtually anything tangible can be reviewed objectively and not all expression is equal, it highlighted a tremendous misunderstanding of the process involved in a hipster's mindset when it comes to critically reviewing media. One that we've all been aware of for quite some time, but I've rarely had the displeasure of actually personally interacting with. He wasn't challenging my personal ability to objectively review, which may have been honest criticsm were it the case. He was stating that any review can never be objective.
I think to really get to the bottom of why this mindset is toxic to media industries and their consumers I should first step back and discuss my review process in general, and how both objective and subjective observations help me build my review for any given title.
Admittedly, when I first started doing LP's, I had no process. But as the years passed and I learned more and more and expanded both my viewer's demand for comprehensive analysis and my own desire to understand deeper the thought processes of developers behind title, I began psychoanalyzing game content and building an understanding of developer mentalities behind that content. It is easy enough to determine that incomplete content is a result of something like feature creep or budget mismanagement, but what leads to those things happening and how can we identify it in a game we're playing?
To critically assess a game I look at the technical aspects first and foremost. This is the realm I have the most knowledge in and, although I must paint an incomplete picture due to my inexperience in things like animation and texturing, I have a deep enough understanding of the involved processes to get a grasp of workloads, time consumption, and costs of almost all layers of art production and technical implementation of assets. Unfortunately, programming is still something of a mystery, although I understand basic concepts and application of those concepts, like client-server behavior, actors, and high level scripts. I can always ask professionals if I need a second opinion (and they've oft times come to correct statements made in my LP's for me).
A game is entirely a technical construct start to finish, just like a film or a novel. All technical stuff such as models, textures, music, etc. have a right and wrong way of doing them. From style to construction to implementation to QA, every single element behind a game's assets, engine and presentation can be critically and objectively assessed. Quality is objective, and every element can be studied to a fine point to quantify their quality. Not simply the content itself, but the intent behind it, can be questioned. The problem here is that hipsters have deluded themselves into believing these are subjective elements so they can claim all expression is equal and absolve themselves of responsibility to self-improve. Once an individual no longer feels responsible in delivering a quality product, and when no one expects them to do so, it becomes much easier to mass produce and mass consume. As the vast majority of America has viewed most forms of entertainment as little more than toys being marketed to youths it is unsuprising that they can't detach themselves from a mindset that empowers a continued lack of self-improvement. That many people have never been introduced to the concept of criticism, and that criticism in itself is frowned upon, compounds this issue further.
My review process isn't merely critically assessing content but it is also a critical assessment of oneself, ones experiences with that content, and ones ability to objectively review that content. It could be easy to see why a bad title might incur a spiteful review, or why a good title might incur a positive review. Taste reviews in all shapes and forms tend to come out as subjective. While that may not necessarily make them bad reviews, it does mean that all of their elements become intangible. This is an issue with commercial reviewers - their reviews are based on the contract they made with a publisher and not their own opinions, so you can't even trust them to provide an honest opinion of an individual much less something objective. Equally harmful are those who hide behind a motto of "games are art" to ensure that they can continue to cling to buyer's remorse and poor taste and justify it to themselves. While I would like to think my subjective points are "good", they are subjective, and someone is always going to disagree with something. That's the nature of an opinion. Whatever. But many things I discuss are not subjective and I try to draw that line as clear as I can. An interpretation might be subjective, like brainstorming why a certain bug happens, but actual elements are always objective, like that the bug happened at all. Take, for example, the showstopping bugs in God of War: Ascension. Two major issues, with the latter being 100% reproducable for so much as reloading the game or chapter selecting, were released with that title. You can't tell me that it's a subjective criticism to say this is malicious. It was either maliciousness behind willfully publishing an untested title or testing it, knowing about the issues, and publishing it anyways. Either way no one responsible gave a fuck.
If a game is ever to be truly considered art then all individuals in question must irrevocably assume the principles of art critique. This would be a great place to be, though, because only games produced with the intent of surpassing the past would even be eligable to be considered successful, and dumbed down refuse would be treated as such. Instead, hipsters have created an echo chamber to cyclically goade themselves into believing they are gamers and game developers. They want to identify as part of that mythical crowd that has standards. Rather, they've become that crowd, forcing out others by opening a new market to those keen for coin and naught else. Of course, marketing to this crowd and attracting them is cheap - if no one wants you to improve your product, why would you? Improvement costs time and energy, and you can make a lot of money off of no energy if you just pander to the lowest denominator. Ergo, QTE's, walking simulators, and rubbish like the HoMM3 and Baldur's Gate HD editions. So long as a hipster believes he's playing a game, it doesn't matter if he is. You're financially successful and quite secure at no cost. If you want to create art, real art, you've got a hard road ahead of you. And no one wants to work hard if they can avoid it. It's smart business ethics and was lethal to creativity.
It is important right away to assume independence from all audiences in a review, trendy or otherwise. I do consider other people's opinions and conduct an amount of research regarding any subject I am genuinely curious about, but I treat my objective assessment as an island. It makes sense to compare a game's assets, design, and overall presentation to a similar title release earlier to it. If the newer title does not tangibly improve on the old title then it is a failure. It is a failure as art and as a game. Since our review process doesn't take into account financial success of a title and looks only at the product itself it is unsurprising that very few games in the modern era make the cut in this comparison alone.
My review process comes in two passes - my actual playthrough of the game and then the verification process. Verification involves watching the videos I produced when playing and then studying the game and my interactions with it. I may conduct research or tests to challenge certain ideas or learn more about subjects I may have had trouble with during the playthrough, but the majority of games are pretty clear cut by the time I set them down on the amount of effort the developer put into them and how honest they were about production.
Malleating objective elements like asset construction, gameflow, writing, performance, and presentation into a viewpoint that constructs the developer's time with a product is usually easy. The product speaks for itself as a single entity and every element of that entity can be torn apart and analyzed. But the end result of that product, the game itself, is already fully experienced by the time you set it down. The verification process mostly challenges my experiences with the game as a player. For example, in various Shmups or Metal Slug I perform absolutely terribly as a player but the games garner extremely positive reviews because they are inarguably of a high quality and it really isn't questionable that the developers had at least some form of honesty and effort placed into their work.
When a developer puts effort into their project it shows. When a budget is managed well it shows. It shows in the content and how well it comes together. The synergy of all the elements and the final presentation will exude love from those who created them. Those who treated their job as a chore or poorly managed their budget will be inclined to succumb to making shortcuts, cutting content, feature creeping, and just being plain lazy. Most developers are only fresh out of college, if even, and have no experience or true education in programming or developing games. When placed into building content for something as challenging as an ARPG to hopefully challenge established masterpieces like DMC3, it is not surprising they will fail the task. Furthermore, they are not challenged to research and improve because they live in a comparatively care-free environment where their only objective is to make the cut for their lead - usually someone equally inexperienced in related subjects - so they get paid. It can be hard to pinpoint the blame of a game's failure, but a team is only as good as its leader in the end, and how the leader makes the most out of his responsibilities is just as important as how each member of that team performs. No wonder why big teams always churn out shit, and not even necessarily just because they were big.
Budget mismanagement is a critical fundamental problem in many games. Although large studios tend to have an army of producers, marketers, analysts and leaders for their divisions, they always seem to rack up tremendous bills and waste colossal amounts of time doing things that aren't developing - like fudging around with poor tools, like Blizzard did for Diablo 2. The leads and developers for Diablo 2 forged on ahead recreating content with poor tools and, by their own admission, wasted colossal amounts of time instead of just stepping back and making better software. For some reason this problem was allowed to fester and plague the game, and a huge chunk of the game ended up getting cut.
Diablo 2 would continue to be plagued with poor management in its expansion, Lord of Destruction, with haphazard music direction, incomplete AI, and a severe number of bugs that were only increased during their patching process. The excuse for not doing mission-critical jobs like Lead Programing was drivel like "everyone has their own style", completely blanketing over the fact that, as a lead, it was their responsibility to make those styles come together. Not to mention that those styles largely consisted of copy pasting the same chunk of code over and over just to change a single line, if even. Code that was bugged as it was. Unsurprisingly, Diablo 2 has problems like every projectile being desynced on spawn, horrific performance, their entire service being vulnerable to merely sending them 512 byte packets, and rampant botting/hacking.
You are not reviewing art, but you should review it like art.
One of the statements of the other individual was that because a product has a multi-million dollar budget it is somehow impossible to manage that money well. I just can't wrap my head around that kind of a statement. Isn't that what a Producer does? Isn't that why teams have meetings, communicate, and have staff and offices dedicated to finances? To say that a project cannot possibly manage its budget is to imply that the staff are entirely incompetent and should be allowed to languish and mismanage resources solely because "working is hard". It is true that things happen and situations change, but the context of the discussion is a product's incomplete and half-assed state upon release. A finished product should never exude total lack of interest from its staff and never can such a result be pinned only on funding. If a team can't handle a big budget why not get out of an industry they have no business in and stop publishing drivel? Why don't investors ask more questions about how a team is using their resources and why they aren't using them like they set out to? Commercial content isn't a hobby, it's a job. If people don't love their job they will produce results that do not reflect their skill level. Maybe you should remove them before it becomes as big of an issue as the end user seeing a remarkably low quality product?
Identifying the content of those who gave a shit about their job and those who don't is not really difficult. Much of this becomes evident by playing a game and taking a moment to think about it. How it feels, looks, and sounds to play. How the content comes together. It is impossible for me to become immersed in a game anymore, but my eye for detail isn't quite precise enough to pick out all of the fine elements during actual playtime. Interpretations of elements can be subjective, so I tend to focus my objective angle on what I understand technically. Performance is an easy one - my hardware hasn't changed forever, and consoles are static. If something performs worse than something else that is more expensive content-wise then someone wasn't doing their job correctly. For example, Alice 1 is a terrible port and performs like trash on modern hardware, looks like shit compared to other titles on the Xbox, and the gameplay is nothing short of an untested clusterfuck. Anyone can see that just by watching or playing it, it's not something that needs to be looked at in-depth. Comparing Devil May Cry to God of War can be taken to a deeper level, though, like comparing the combat systems and seeing that God of War sacrificed depth and skill for quick time events and gimmicks. Why?
DMC is a Japanese title and God of War is an American clone of that title. God of War wanted to appeal to a larger audience, and DMC was criticized for being too difficult. To keep the game simple enough to catch the audience that criticized DMC (Hipsters prefer "Accessible") they avoided elements that required thinking and personal improvement where it felt necessary, and made the game about Simon Says instead. To appear "innovative" they "added gameplay" through systems like the wall climbing which, once we actually take a look at them, are nothing more than grind. GoW upped the levels of violence and attempted to appear gritty and dark, a theme that has worked well with Western marketing in the past (re: Angry Kirby, Kid Icarus). These kinds of conclusions are very easy to make because the end product is basically speaking for itself.
A piece of media is like a tapestry. It speaks not simply of itself but of the person behind it. A game is a collection of a variety of content and the content can be assessed as individuals and as a body - and they should be. Taking into account outside factors like publishers, producers, hardware, era, and everything related, and one eventually ends up with a mass of information - all of it objective. You can't assess the elements of media without it being objective. If you are looking at it from a subjective view you are no longer assessing or reviewing something, you are expressing a statement about your feelings regarding it. In many cases I have to do this - for example, when reviewing a genre I have no experience with like Metal Slug, while I can comment about technical aspects like the sprite work I can't really tell you objectively if the games stand well amidst competing arcade titles. I can tell you that no Western "retro" game to come afterwards has comparable artwork, but I can't tell you how the gameplay compares. I just don't have the experience to do that.
I can tell by looking at the art work in Metal Slug that not simply did the developers possess an extremely deep understanding of their tools, the hardware they were working with, and the final product they wanted to achieve, but they also loved their work. They were really into bringing this world to life. I always reserve a bit of disgust when it comes to recycling assets from older games, but given how small the budget was for most of these devs and how their focus was largely on improving on old work, I am willing to let small grievances slide. Much is also the case for games like Starcraft: Brood War who have some objectively poor elements in them, like writing and over dependence on commercial assets, but the overall product is still of an extremely high quality.
When building a review for a commercial product I consider the geography of the industry and the culture surrounding the game during its era. Forgiving minor greivances made during a culture's early entry into the industry is more logical because there is growing pains everyone feels when first becoming accustomed to new things. But when a firm has twenty years of development behind one platform and billions of dollars at their disposal with an army of developers working crunch hours, with the ability to literally hire anyone they could possibly need to solve a problem, the room for excuses quickly dwindles until you start asking serious questions about management.
That is what a review about technical elements, objective observations, seeks to expose - questions and, hopefully, some kind of reasoning that can answer those questions. My review's purpose is to search a titles for its strengths and weaknesses, even if it's not within my ability to fully comprehend what that title presents. Often times the review itself is not necessary; the video speaks enough about most games to see what is wrong or right about them. But sitting back and looking at the title myself with a fresh pair of eyes and a more complete idea of the whole picture lets me scrutinize to a needlepoint and begin asking those questions.
It's one thing to have a negative or positive experience, it's another to try to assess how and why that experience was the way it was. What drove that experience? The elements that comprise the product. What defined those elements, and what drove those definitions to be what they became? Seperate your experience from the cogs that gave life to that experience, isolate why the experience was as it was, and then isolate the cogs from conjecture and focus on their contribution to that experience rather than the experience itself. Some things are plain as day - busted UV's, broken lights or shadows, wooden voice acting. Some are more complex, like veiled grind cycles ported from other genres, the number 3, and focus marketed user engagement trends. For each subject of interest I break them down in my gameplay and my review to what extent I feel necessary to draw my conclusion, even though most often times the conclusion is plain as day by extent of video demonstration. Technical elements are inescapably objective no matter their storied history, and all expression is ultimately a technical construct. It is usually not necessary to granulate to such a level, but being able to do so is a necessary skill to humble and better oneself.
With every release I seek to improve my abilities as an analyst and an observer, and seek ever further to push my ability to comprehend and break down the things that comprise media. My goal with those skills is to provide the most objective review possible, something that is entirely obtainable by possessing an understanding of the associated elements and the story surrounding their creation. In doing so I hope to elevate the expectations of the end user in regards to those elements and promote education about the development of media and the tactics used by apologists to absolve responsibility for quality content. That makes me an individual with standards, ergo, an Elitist, a title I hold proudly. Sometimes I am wrong or have inaccurate information, upon which case I seek to correct myself in a future publication. We aren't all perfect, no matter how chiselled our asses are, but we should never stop striving for self-improvement just because we grew misty-eyed looking at our own backside. The belief that we shouldn't be critical, that we shouldn't ask questions, is an attack on self-improvement and rationality.