Thursday, February 6, 2014

Reviews with references - spreading knowledge about the medium

at 7:30 PM
I wrote some of what were essentially album reviews yesterday and it got me thinking about reviews in general. It's funny because this is primarily a video game-devoted website, yet I only ever bother to review music or movies. Mostly that's because I have more specific things to say about games, while reviews are the bread-and-butter of existing video game "journalism", so I don't feel any need to contribute to that end of the spectrum. There's also simply that I don't like reviews and think they're a pretty stupid approach to criticism that adds extremely little to the medium's body of theory. It's important to look at individual games precisely and in depth, but simply summarizing one's experience is just... I dunno. Book report shit. Just skip the review, go play the fucking game, and if you want to write about it, come back with a thesis. But I'm not that serious about writing about music and movies so I mostly review those as guideposts to future me (and other travelers) to remember my thoughts.

So of course in writing album reviews, I heavily reference other albums. I know I do this. I know there are people who strongly object to this or find it impenetrable or pretentious or self-absorbed. I make a conscious effort to throw in at least a few adjectives and phrases with each reference and never simply to namedrop. The thing is, I'm really terrible at describing music - I don't read much about it and I've only barely studied it formally, so the best vocabulary I have is comparison. And as with video games, I feel that references - as long as they're contextualized - are one of the most valuable tools for parsing an experience. They're limiting in that they assume the reader has some similar foundation to the author (or is willing to do further research), but all written descriptions of an artistic work are inherently limited - at the end of the day, if the reader wants to know what the album sounds like, the reader needs to listen to the album. There's no means by which a review can ever replicate that, no matter how articulate it may aspire to be.

Therefore at some point I have to choose how I want to limit my vocabulary, and frankly I'd rather be confined in expressive power to other concrete works the reader can look up (other records/games) than to proclamations about life experiences, emotional revelations, and philosophical insight. Greg L. pointed me to some dude's lengthy opine* that the video game community is in critical need of a wider diversity of voices, more anything-but-30-year-old-white-male-career-video-game-reviewers, to bring their unique perspectives to reviews. I certainly don't contend that'd be a bad thing, but I don't think it really addresses the problem. The fact is, there's as good a chance that a personal narrative ("How BioShock made me feel") will ring just as false or be just as redundant (no matter how "unique" the reviewer) as a historical diatribe littered with references ("Games BioShock plays like") - even if "anyone" can write the latter - and the benefit of the historically-oriented piece is that at least you learn something about games and take away a wider perspective of the medium. I imagine the aforelinked author would contend that a review by the former title might expand my knowledge of how a game can honestly affect a person and how persons different from myself experience games, but that to me reads as a sociological or psychological end. There's nothing wrong with that... it's just not why I read or write about games (to clarify: I'm more interested in how different games affect the same person: the idea of encouraging people to try everything in attempt to connect with the creators and the medium - versus how one game affects different people, which to me suggests that players should be looking for the "right" game for them, as if they can find a like-minded person who can prescribe their opinions - a mentality I feel discourages actually playing).

This is NOT by any means a subjectivity vs. objectivity debate - a false dichotomy if ever there was one - it's a matter of establishing that different kinds of reviews can present different kinds of information in different ways. Every piece is subjective and driven by some original creative initiative or insight, no matter how heavily it's tied to reference points. And grounding an analysis in comparison rather than raw responses doesn't inherently wring it of its character or individuality. In both cases the value of the piece is still determined by the novelty, veracity, and evidence of the presented insight. How could we possibly conclude that a reference-free account charged with opinion and reflection is the only way to make a review unique? Providing an original, well-researched analysis (that doesn't just recite the same three reference points as everything else - "this game is Grand Theft Auto with chickens") might take a little more work, but has equally as much potential to define its own identity. For example, I got just as tired of hearing people talk about how BioShock affected their ideals of freewill (reflection-based) as I did hearing them say that it was a rehash of System Shock 2 (reference-based). But if someone talked about how the mini-labyrinth/hub structure is indebted to Dark Forces and compared the mixture of melee and ranged first-person combat with those old Raven games, hey, that would be an original analysis based on references that is much more interesting to read than another personal rant about Ayn Rand. And thus a preferable review. Again, to me.

That's why - as far as I'm concerned - there's no reason a good review can't heavily reference other works. I like reading stuff like that. I want to walk away from a review with ten more things to look up. It's how I expand my knowledge of these art forms. And I want to be a stepping stone in expanding my readers' knowledge. Not that I'm going to start writing game reviews - just generally speaking. I think it's fair to say that it's impossible to completely describe an experience without context. The easier it is to make the reader understand my context, the easier it is for the reader to understand my experience. My personal context is defined by the other media echoing through my brain, and the best way I can express a new work is to relate it as thoroughly as possible to other works, the great benefit being that you too may share knowledge of those others or can at least look them up. Or may be inspired to look them up, and learn that much more yourself.

The way I switched from albums to games makes this confusing to read. But as I said, I don't read or write much about music so I was more interested in tying the point to Tevis Thompson's criticism of game reviews.

*that wasn't exactly the hard sell, but that's a highly recommended read (or at least skim - very long). Thompson's criticism isn't particularly refreshing to like-minded individuals, but's it's well-articulated, even if he definitely loses me once he moves on to proposed solutions. Personally I believe that the salvation of video game criticism lies in the abandonment of the "review" altogether (we need design-focused past/present comparative criticism), but that's a different subject for a different day. 

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