YouTuber Nerd Cubed received an e-mail from Australian indie developer ODD Games last week that just… astounds me with its sheer stupidity, but also made me realise that some people just plain don’t understand how video game reviews work (or at least pretend not to), and made me want to clear up what separates video games from other art forms.
The email “asks” the prominent YouTuber to take down his first impressions video — what the developers call a review — of their game Monster Truck Destruction. They claim that they have fixed the problems he had with the game, and because they’ve done this, the “incorrect facts” he lists can now be interpreted as defamatory. ODD Games ends the email by claiming that if the video is not removed within 48 hours, they will contact “the relevant authorities”.
So I think it’s clear that ODD Games are out of line here. Nerd Cubed did not lie in any way, shape or form and is under no obligation to constantly keep an eye on the games he talks about. Sure many YouTubers use annotations to kind of update their videos, but they aren’t required to do this. Video games change and evolve constantly, and it’s important to remember that when reading a video game review.
This entire thing made me think about video game critique and why it’s different from critique of other art forms, and this eventually led me to thinking about why video games are different from other art forms. So here it is.
Video games can be updated
When you’re critiquing a painting, you don’t have the artist running to touch it up after it’s put out there. The same can be said of books and films — once the work is put out there, there’s no changing it. Sure, there are things like special editions, but those are clearly labelled as such; the point is that the original work cannot be changed. But with video games and the advent of the internet, games are patched all the time. I’m hard pressed to think of a game that isn’t updated once released. So are reviewers obligated to amend their reviews once a game is updated? Of course not! A review is supposed to reflect the writer’s opinions on the game at the time of release, and they do just that! Heck, I go even further out of my way and give the days I started and finished playing, in case something is fixed or the developer breaks something with a patch!
I remember getting into an argument with some random guy years back, in high school, where he demanded that a reviewer re-review Brink because it had gotten better since release, and the review was “tainting” people’s perception of the game that deserved. And I still think this idea is still stupid! Seriously, what happens if reviews are required to be amended? The aforementioned advent of the internet and patches has already led to games like Assassin’s Creed Unity, something released in such a broken state because it could be fixed with a Day 1 patch. Amending reviews would only encourage the trend for releasing broken games and fixing them afterwards, a trend that I’m glad is fading.
However, video games — and video game reviews, more than any other kind of review — are not timeless. Heck, I even recall talks about the preservation of a specific version of World of Warcraft because that game changes so often. Sure, video games and their reviews will always be reflective of their times — the hate for early walking simulators makes that clear — but video games more than anything else are open to changes and that distinguishes them from other art forms.
There is no defined “experience” with a video game
Video games, being an interactive medium, have no defined experience. An enemy encounter for one person may be a glorious test of their arsenal of skills, while for another it may be a chore of learning a skill necessary to defeating that enemy because they never attained certain abilities.
With PC gaming in particular, graphics settings means that what the developer intended to be a stunning, visual moment can be a muddled, jaggy mess. Maybe the developer just wanted to give PC gamers as prettiest a game they could, but all those advanced settings are not really part of their artistic vision (I know that phrase gets shat on by lots of gamers, but how can you expect video games to be taken seriously as an art form and still dismiss it?). Or maybe they wanted heavy fog effects to give a scene more ambience, but you turn the fog off for a higher framerate. Is your experience any less valid?
Interpreting a work and critiquing it is simpler with other mediums because there is a set work that everybody interprets differently. With video games, the files are the same, but what people are actually interpreting, what they see on screen and are playing varies.
What role does gameplay actually play?
This is a question that became more important with the advent of so-called “walking simulators” and is still something I find myself asking. Is it supposed to make a game more immersive or is it supposed to be fun and challenging? Is it supposed to add to a game’s story or give players a break from it? Is gameplay separate from story? Heck, how much gameplay is even necessary?
Right now, it depends on the genre. Journey used its gameplay to further immerse the player in its story. At the same time, it had traditional “game-y” elements like platforming. But everything was used to compliment the story: the sand-surfing evoked a sense of wonder that also immersed the player in the role of the main character. But something like the gameplay in Final Fantasy XIII seems to do the opposite. It doesn’t really contribute anything to the story, and if anything seems to take place in a separate world, where a hail of bullets is mildly irritating. But at the same time, it has depth (okay, kind of), and is undoubtedly more challenging than the aforementioned sand-surfing. Is one use of gameplay more valid than the other?
Every reviewer has a different opinion on what role gameplay should play. While this is similar to debates regarding story vs. spectacle, that is already a debate in video games. So gameplay in and of itself adds a new element to criticism of a visual medium.
All of these things that differentiate video games from other media are important to note when not only viewing video games as an art form, but also when viewing any review. It’s important to remember that video games are constantly evolving and shifting, and this inherently means that reviews will not always be accurate after they are published.