Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Critiques, Reviews, And The Brothers Mario

The difference between critiques and reviews, how the games industry fails at both, and how New Super Mario Brothers 2 just might be the worst best game I've ever played.

  A teacher once asked me what the difference between craft and art was, and at the time I had no reference to consider the answer. To me, they had always been the same. It's called Arts and Crafts, right? The answer was something that stuck with me, and it's where I find the difference between reviews and critiques. And Nintendo's recent return to 2D platforming, New Super Mario Bros. 2, teeters in this nebulous place that makes it hard to determine just how "good" the game is.

  Crafts are something you do as a profession. It is your job to do them. You do them to make money. That's not to say you can't put your heart into a craft, or that your craft can't also be an art. But the idea is that it's something you hone, and something you can do to make an incredible product that others can then take and consume. To me, you review a crafted product. Now certainly, you can critique a craft to an extent, but even then you're doing it from a mechanical perspective. To me that's more of a learning experience than a proper review. To that extent, New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a perfectly crafted game. There is not a single part of that game that was not meticulously looked over to ensure that everything was just right. Each level feels relatively unique, and overall the packaged game was presented in a vibrant way that was easy for anybody to pick up and enjoy.

  Art is something you do for the sake of passing something along. Perhaps it's a message, a feeling, or an emotion, but it's something you do for yourself, and then maybe you share it with others to get that idea out there. In this regard, it's not that New Super Mario Bros. 2 is bad, but it's mostly devoid of anything special and personal. Sure, I still get a chuckle out of the pantomimed opening and closing videos, I still possess a lust for coins and 1-Ups, and I still just love the feeling of finding a hidden place in a level, but these are the result of their finely tuned craft. From an artistic side, and even a critical game design side, there's not much hear that screams "magic." I'm aware that not every Mario game has been in search of that magic, and certainly there's nothing wrong with simply making a finely tuned game; that's how the series started after all. But when you look back at Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, Yoshi's Island, Mario 64, Mario Galaxy, and even Mario Sunshine, there was a clear attempt at passing curiosity in the well-crafted games. They had these unique mechanics designed to help you explore these hand-crafted worlds. Those games are the culmination of brilliant craftsmanship and artistic credibility melding together into unforgettable experiences that are regarded as the best in the industry for a reason. New Super Mario Bros. 2 doesn't have that feeling, and is perhaps the Mario game most devoid of any spark. So how do you convey this, and what's the best method of doing so? Do you review NSMB2 for it's brilliantly executed gameplay, or do you acknowledge that it's a great game and time-passer, but critique it for the lack anything that makes it special beyond that? I think you need to do both, and you need to do them separately.

  The words critique and review are synonymous in most dictionaries and thesauruses, and on the surface level they basically mean the same thing. From a technical standpoint, however, a review is about the "what." What worked, what didn't, what is this game, what does it have, and what does it do. The purpose of a review is to tell people whether or not something is worth their time and money based on what it is. I have always been of the opinion that reviews should be less of an opinionated piece, and more of an objective examination of something. If I wanted a review of a product, I would go to Consumer Reports. They try out a product and tell you what's good, what's bad, and whether you should have one, and it's done from a very tested and mechanical standpoint.

  A great example of how to do a review wrong can be seen on IGN's review of Double Dragon: Neon. In the very first paragraph the reviewer makes a bold, obviously personal claim that the era of beat-'em-up's is dead, and that Double Dragon: Neon is a failure out of the gate for adhering to that. That's not a review, it's not even a critique, it's an opinion piece. And a bad one at that. He's allowed to hate beat-'em-up's as much as I hate real time strategy games (because I suck at them), and you're totally cool to agree with the statement, but saying it like it's the truth is like saying Tomatoes are a dead fruit because you don't like them. They're dead to you, sure, but you are not everyone. This article does absolutely no service to the consumer that is trying to decide if this project is worth their time. The fact is, Double Dragon: Neon does exactly what it sets out to do by paying homage to the arcade games of old, and it does it damn well. That's what a review bi-line should look like for that game, because that really cannot be argued. Now, it can be argued how well it does it and whether it could have been done better or worst, but in the end it was made exactly the way it was meant to be made. The hardest thing to remember is that you disliking a game does not mean it is a bad game. It means you don't like it; nothing more and nothing less. Not realizing that fact is what makes this a bad review.

  Conversely, a critique is about dissecting a game; they're about the How. How well are a games mechanics implemented and operating, and how does the critic feel they could be improved upon or avoided in future productions. How well does the developer pass along the desired emotions or feelings. (Remember: fun is a feeling!) Overall, it's about how the game did at it's mission statement, and how it can be improved. This type of writing is meant more for the developer, as well as other developers looking to improve their own games, than it is the general public. A critique isn't necessarily black and white as far as "well this could have been better with X," but it's based on reasoning and theory, not just mindless assumptions. This is an area that I feel like the industry lacks. There's not enough critiquing of the work of developers designed for developers. Instead, what happens is sites like IGN and Kotaku are trying to critique games to the people who buy them, which creates a mismatched environment. Reviewers put too much of themselves in a review, but they don't put enough thought into how things can be improved either. What you have lies between a critique and a review, and isn't terribly useful to the consumer or the developer. So if it's not for either of them, who is it for?

  The reason I don't tend to read reviews in their current form on major sites is that they don't have any value to me as a consumer, or as a budding developer. Sure, a lot of reviews will tell me if a game is straight broken or not, but for example, I don't care what Jeff Gerstmann thought about Borderlands 2. I appreciate that he has an opinion, and admittedly I always love discussing thoughts on games. However, these are 1-directional monologues with no room for diatribe. Whether or not he's burnt out on the franchise shouldn't matter in a review. Maybe I am, too, or maybe I'm still hungry for more. So knowing that he's full of Borderlands doesn't help me decide whether or not to buy it. Now, saying that Borderlands 2 is "more of the same" is a valid review point, how that affects him is irrelevant because he's not the one purchasing the game. I am. And like anybody else reading that review, there's no reason the way he felt about a game should have any influence over the way I will feel over it. So what is the economical value of him including it in a review?

  Let's go back to New Super Mario Bros. 2.  This game is technically and mechanically flawless on every level. It works beautifully, it runs at a solid 60 frames per second, your objectives are clear and the gameplay is varied. There's nothing wrong with this game, from a strictly technical and gameplay perspective. However, if we want to work at the deeper side of the game, there are questions to be raised. How does the "collect a bajillion coins" mechanic really add to the experience? Making coin-lust the center focus on a Mario game is a great idea, and it's executed fairly well, but there's no end point to it. Also, you still have the life counter, which still grants 1-Ups based on collecting 100 coins at a time. In a game where you are literally getting showered with hundreds of coins per level, that life count makes even less sense than it ever has. Losing all of your lives hasn't been more punishing than it was back in the original Super Mario Bros., and yet the mechanic lumbers forward into the present without purpose. Overall, this is the type of thing where the game could improve upon, but doesn't subtract anything from the otherwise perfect experience either.

  The conundrum here is how do you attach a number value to a game like this? I totally enjoyed my time with it, and it was an excellently crafted product, but I notice that it feels more hollow than previous installments. It doesn't have that spark. How do you decide whether or not this game is 'fun,' and with what confidence do you believe others will feel exactly the way you do? What is the numerical value of fun, and how much fun is too much? How high does the fun score have to be before your own fun is validated? How the fuck do you answer these questions and not sound like a totally crazy person?

  These are questions that I think "games journalists" and "critics" need to stop trying to answer. The only person who can decide how fun a game is or how good a game is, is you. Results may very, but in the end, the quality of the title published shouldn't be viewed terribly differently from person to person f they're looking at it objectively. Until we get to that point, current "games reviews," are no different than reading somebody's forum post; they're just much more competently written. Usually.

  What do you think, reader? Is there a difference between craft and art in video games? Do you think Reviews and Critiques are fine blended together in their current form on most sites? Do you have a better way of the whole system that even I haven't thought of? Please, feel free to discuss in the comments below.

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