Video games are a truly rare breed and a testament to humanity’s creativity—they are both an art form and a technical achievement. To dismiss one or the other is the height of bias.
In the field of Linguistics, semantics is defined as the study of linguistic development by classifying and examining changes in both meaning and form. In a broader sense, it's simply the study of meaning. Language, by nature, is arbitrary and malleable. We assign meaning because meaning needs to be assigned to things; otherwise we would be calling a table a flattoppostlegs, or a chair a brownsticks. Why not? In fact, those are now words that can be used to describe both a table and a chair because their usage is now written. Thus is semantics, the study of meaning, the interpretation of language, and how words and their meanings can ebb and shift with the tides of technology. Some stuff I’ll never understand, like folks not grasping the difference between “lose” and “loose”. But that’s just the way she goes!
Semantics Separate Subjective from Objective
Hand-in-hand with the interpretation of meaning is the application of meaning. In other words, you can direct others to feel a certain way or help them to foster a particular opinion based on the language you use to state your case or critique something; in other words, bias. This is why it’s so important to make the effort and write a coherent sentence when posting online, or to preface a rant with personal disclaimers like “I feel” or “Because of my [experience] with [thing]…” but not something redundant like “In my opinion” (everything is your opinion unless you open with a cited fact or someone else’s opinion, which you should also note and give credit for). The latter is important because it fortifies your comments—you cannot be wrong when it’s a clearly subjective reaction about your feelings or something based on your personal prior knowledge/experience. But when you open with “this IS a bad game,” that is indefensible; nothing “is” anything. That’s the purpose of semantics. Things are what we define them as, and that definition varies from person to person, day to day. As soon as you open your mouth (or slap your keyboard with your parts), it’s subjective.
How, then, can one create an objective critique of another’s work? Here are two methods that come to mind for me:
You don’t. Your write a subjective piece and avoid creating any “factual” statements, erring instead on reporting about your experience and things you felt one way or another about.
Study the process, the design, and report on facts alone. This is a more technical approach that demands fairly in-depth knowledge on what you are reporting/reviewing.
That second method is the crux of contention between game “journalists” and their assumed reader base. Some bloggers may state there is no such thing as an “objective” review or article; everything is colored one shade or another because of the inherent subjectivity present within semantics, and that isn’t wrong. But to me, it speaks volumes about the qualifications of those who make that claim.
The easiest way to illustrate what I mean is to take an existing game review and transform it into an objective evaluation. But before that, we’ll need to outline what elements in a game are able to be graded on a fixed scale that does not move based on personal feelings or experiences. Needless to say (and yet I am), these are what I’ve come up with. There could be more and better metrics, so feel free to weigh in!
1. Length:Value Ratio. A game’s length is a good measure of its value. The average length of a JRPG, based on all the titles I’ve played and worked on in the past, is 40 hours. Therefore, games that cost $60 USD and last 60 hours have a good Length:Value ratio, while a game that costs $60 USD and lasts 45 minutes does not—this is irrespective of genre. Some may argue “it’s not about the length, it’s about how awesome the experience is.” Not in this case, it isn’t. That turns it into a subjective evaluation. We aren’t grading “fun” here; we’re grading the cost of the product against the average time spent with it. For instance, going to a movie in the theater has a set L:V ratio, too. ~$18 USD for ~90 minutes is a fair average cost and length analysis (but these averages change constantly, so whatever. Men in Black, when it first came out, was a very short film compared to something like Interstellar).
2. Input Requirements. This is in reference to a game’s internal mechanics—how much effort must be made to accomplish tasks or navigate the game’s User Interface (UI). This is easily measured by something like the number of button presses. In a game like Bloodborne, you need only press one button to heal your character. In a game like Dragon Quest, you must enter a main menu, access a sub-menu, select a skill, and apply it to a character (yes, alternative ways exist, but bear with it as an example). Bloodborne has a much simpler requirement in their UI, in this particular comparison (try not to compare two games, though; this is just to illustrate what I’m trying to define). Basically, 1 is less than 4. Some may argue “but I like going into menus and/or having more technical control”… Again, that turns it into a subjective evaluation. That doesn’t matter in an objective review because you are relaying factual values for readers to take in and draw their own conclusions from.
3. Genre. This isn’t a grading metric, per se, but it’s an easy way to tell others what it is you’re reviewing. The more knowledge of gaming you possess, the more in-depth this genre classification can become, but there is a finite number/type of genres.
4. Design Consistency. A much more difficult and technical requirement for true reviewers and journalists, this aspect deals with understanding the targets and goals of the product’s developer. You may have to even find out their intentions prior to reviewing the game—actual journalism!—so that this can be graded in an effective and objective manner. Assume the developer says, “We wanted to create a classic fantasy RPG with limitless customization options in a cel-shaded open world.” Claiming a cel-shaded visual style requires knowledge of what this actually means. Is the art 2D, hand-drawn? 3D, using simple Edge Detection? In other words, “cel-shaded visual style” is too broad to be graded for its accuracy, but you can still see if this style is consistent in all game elements. Does the UI look like it was drawn, or is it clearly a standard font against a beige UI box? Like I said, this is a tough one; however, with proper experience and knowledge “behind the curtain,” you are able to determine whether or not this target has been achieved.
5. Claims:Reality Correlation. In other words, if a developer or publisher makes certain claims and the final product lives up to them, this denotes a positive correlation. If not, there will be a negative correlation. That’s not a good thing here. Take the quote from Design Consistency, for instance. They’ve already screwed themselves by saying “limitless,” as this has never been accomplished. An “open world” is also misleading; does that mean there are no load times after the game’s primary instantiation? That you can literally go anywhere, any time? Does the game world loop, or are there borders? Answering “yes,” “yes,” and “loop” are probably the closest to a truly open world experience. Does it ruin the pacing or make the game feel unfocused? Those don’t matter; those are subjective. Several game publishers (often not the developers) like to send out a press release to journalists and gaming news sites with a handful of bullet points that describe key aspects of a game; these are then regurgitated as a news post, sometimes verbatim. These can be used as another source, but often, those bullet points are so filled with flowery language, false claims, and marketing rhetoric that they should be tossed into a fire and used to warm your loins instead. I’ll dissect one of those next time, when we dig into turning a subjective review into an objective one.
An objective review may not be the most exciting thing to read, I understand, but it does something that a number of game reviews do not—it offers the reader a chance to form their own conclusion based on the facts and evidence presented, rather than being subtly nudged one way or another due to the reviewer’s personal thoughts or veiled bias delivered via semantics. These types of reviews exist in a variety of other mediums; why not games? Let the readers get up out of their brownsticks, flip a flattoppostlegs in ecstasy, and buy the game because they have concluded that they will enjoy it!
Next time, on Triggered Fingers: Transforming the rhetoric of reviews, arguing the necessity of skill for evaluating a product’s quality, and who should be critiquing what.