Agoners Game Reviews

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ReviewsWhen I started writing this site, one of my strongest visions was what it should not be – and that was a review site. There are already a mass of places you can get game reviews on the internet and I was much more interested in writing the kind of in-depth discussions about games that I really enjoy reading myself but I rarely find.

However in the discussion that followed on from Navan’s detailed post about potential videogame classifications, I got quite interested in this avenue as a way of discussing the merits of a game and actually attempting to review games for the first time against a sensible criteria. In some ways I feel this is the evolution of a lot of the thoughts written here at Agoners over the past few years. As I pointed out in the comments on The Beautiful Game, and previously before that, the way all traditional game reviews work is a complete mess. Quite apart from the duplicitous nature of the games “journalism” industry, there’s the problem I hit upon there –

“It’s like asking the same person to comparatively review chess, soccer, F1 race driving, and monopoly all on the same scale. As well as at the same time also reviewing lego bricks, rubiks cubes, an office job (similar experience to many MMOs) and an action man toy against them also.”

User reviews and even really ‘hardcore’ websites & forums with fantastic reviews by real gaming critics still don’t make the distinction of what criteria they are reviewing against – and I’ve been guilty of this too in the past. So I’ve come to believe that a clearly defined way of reviewing I think will prove extremely valuable, and can actually help enable the kind of thinking and writing about games that I enjoy. Make no mistake though, even within my definitions every review is and can only be a personal viewpoint on a title, a large part of any critique is simply a question of taste, however I will always attempt to explain my personal opinions and bias as well, and explain the distinction between a title that’s fundamentally flawed in a particular category, or one that’s simply not to my taste. To understand why we review games the way we do, you’re almost certainly going to be an Agoner of some description. Also the closer you are in taste to me, you are likely to get even more value out of these reviews. If you have played a lot of entertainment software then one great way to compare your taste is with the Brainhex test and compare to my results, where I scored highly on Conqueror, Mastermind, and Socialiser.

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Here are the only two categories that I am interested in and how I will review entertainment software:

1. Puzzle / Challenge

As per Navan’s definition of “Computer puzzle” this will be everything to do with the game mechanics in a title that is part of a single-player experience, or co-operative experience against the AI – or against the game itself. This is the game against the ‘opponent’ of the game itself as Chris Bateman expands here (in the piece that inspired the naming of this website):

“But those that have capabilities in a particular type of game frequently then enter the state of wishing to test themselves against a degree of challenge. This could be against other opponents – which is quite obviously a fit to Caillois’ agon – or it could be against pre-set challenges, such as the main gameplay of a single player game.” (emphasis added)

This part of the review is all about what skills does the title test in the vs-AI/environment modes of play and why do I or don’t I enjoy those skill tests or why I do or don’t find them interesting. Critical Gaming Network has compiled the best and most detailed breakdown of how videogame skill tests actually work that I am aware of, however I fear that they get too technical and detailed to be able to use in brief, and also miss a few key areas of skill tests that interest me the most like communication and teamwork – so I will still use more familiar broader terms regarding skill tests in my reviews. As noted earlier, as with all parts of any review, even within this structure this will be an intensely personal viewpoint. A challenge I find incredibly interesting or perfectly balanced against my own personal level of skill in a game at the time may be dull or uninteresting to others, or just too difficult, too frustrating, or too easy. Naturally the concept of flow plays a big part in this, as will the relative levels of challenge and punishment. Comparing to Roger Caillois’ Patterns of Play we can see Agon (competition) and Alea (chance) both could fall the within this criteria, however this category will always by it’s nature be bound by clear Ludus (rules).

2. Competitive Game

Again, this is exactly as per Navan’s definition. Everything I’ve said above for the Puzzle/Challenge category applies again, but here I’m looking solely at the multiplayer competition nature of a game. ie: the “true game”! As discussed many times here on agoners, the competitive game itself is a much wider aspect than just the actual game code – the controller, hardware, the way the leaderboards work, matchmaking systems, ranking methods, balance, maps, game community, netcode, offline modes, the long-term incentives – everything must be considered here as well as the actual base mechanics and skills involved with the game mechanics, and again, whether I find them interesting or not. Often it takes an enormous amount of play to really judge how good a game is, so many times when I review a title I will simply make comments about this rather than attempt to give a full review as I don’t feel qualified to truly judge with the limited personal time I have available. There are probably only one or two titles I can really play as true games at any given period. However on the other hand, one very easy way to personally judge a title under this category is simply how much I play it as a game! If I do play it a lot I am clearly getting a lot out of it as a game to want to go back to it, after weeks, months, years of even decades of play; if I don’t go back to it, or don’t even want to try a title out as an actual game, then the question becomes, why not? Note that the game aspect doesn’t have to be only in direct one vs one or many vs many competition – any title with some method of scoring can become a game, or some method of making it a competition could be devised. Competitive Rubik’s Cube Solving World Championship perhaps? But the point is, as with Rubik’s Cubes, in many video games this aspect is so limited that it’s barely important. In these cases I will either score a game poorly or more likely not at all.

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The Rest:

Now in the case of my reviews, & in general, these are the other categories that I could dismiss as “fluff”. This is the graphics, sound, flavour, humour, story, representation etc. Now whilst I agree all of these are critically important to the appeal of a game, and can certainly be valid criteria to review against, I don’t find they personally interest me enough when writing my own critical review. Also I believe that to review well in the above categories a game has to pass what I’ve come to refer to as the “Jonathan Blow Test”. As discussed towards the end of his lecture here – if you strip out all the “good game design” – that means graphics, sound, addictive grinds, storyline, extrinsic rewards etc, are you left with something that’s actually interesting to play? So everything below is things that you must strip out if you want to consider a title on it’s merits of Challenge/Puzzle or as a Game alone.

Interactive Story

Exactly as Navan describes it, if a title is to be strong in this category, unfortunately it is likely to be to the detriment to the puzzle/challenge aspect. One thing that often really breaks the story immersion in a title is a player getting stuck or failing repeatedly, and so, to improve the story elements this kind of software generally has to involve very little challenge. This is widely the direction that most single-player videogames are moving in, but it’s not one that particularly interests me, nor do I feel very qualified to review it on it’s own merits. I will sometimes choose to make commentary about this aspect, especially if it does manage to enhance the overall appeal of a title to me – which it sometimes can. I do feel that the way an interactive story is told matters a lot – ie: the way it actually involves the player within it & manages to capture the interactive part. This is why, although neither appeal personally to me, I can see that Half Life 2 delivers its story in a much more satisfactory way for a videogame than the cutscene fests of a Metal Gear Solid (or just about any modern JRPG). I’ve written some quite in-depth discussion about this in the past, when I’ve discussed the good and bad parts of the storytelling aspects of Gears of War and Lost Odyssey for example; but I consider these discussions an aside to the main appeal of the actual challenge or actual game for me. The ridiculous plot-hole ridden storyline of Gears of War certainly doesn’t reflect in my review score for it; on the contrary the game’s strength in characterisation immersing the player in the action sequences actually adds to the fun of the challenges & the emotional reward for defeating them. Left 4 Dead is another example that does an excellent job of having an interesting background story delivered in a smart way for a game designed to be re-played many times over as a challenge or a competitive game. If interactive stories are what you want from a videogame, then I’d posit my reviews will probably be relatively useless to you, and you should seek out other sources. To be honest though, if you are really after good stories, videogames are still not the best place for it at this time – I’d look to books or movies if I were you, or interactive fiction. When it does come to videogames though the direct correlation to Roger Caillois’ Patterns of Play here is Mimicry.

Toy / Experience

This is mainly how the game enables “play” in the basic childlike sense, likely in extremely paidia-based forms of play on Caillois’ continuum. This form of play would also take the pattern of Mimicry, Illinx and/or possibly Alea too.

“These games are almost invariably drawing upon a mix of play elements, diluting agon with either alea, mimicry or ilinx in varying degrees. Some players may consider there to be little of interest in play when it has been made so unchallenging (perhaps reflecting the importance of fiero to such a person). I personally find nothing problematic in exploring such child-like escapism against virtual opponents. Such play is amusing and entertaining, and far more suitable for stress release than the tension of fiero.” (Chris Bateman)

I am exactly the kind of player that finds an unchallenging environment uninteresting very quickly, which is again why I won’t generally be considering this in my reviews except in passing commentary. However do enjoy a game that gives room for this kind of play, also often also associated with easy agon, however I enjoy it only when offered alongside and in addition to a solid game or challenge. Often this is the situation of a game with a well designed difficulty curve which is actually more like a difficulty wave – allowing the player moments of relaxation and easy agon to ‘feel powerful’ and enjoy the skills they have mastered before being pushed to the next real challenge. This category is also applicable to any game where there’s some ‘sheer joy’ of playing due to the great controls, graphics, or how it immerses and amuses the player. That is all very positive for me! However  I have huge problems with this aspect of a videogame though when it actually can be used to circumvent the challenge or the game. This is a similar problem to my next category –

Grind

I’ve split this distinctive part away from the general “MMORPG” pot from Navan’s definitions. As he correctly identified, a MMORPG can be many things to different players – if I were to review one I’d still attempt to categorise its appeal in the game and a challenge aspects (and to date, no MMORPG I’ve seen is very appealing in either of these categories, which is why I become bored of every one I attempt to play very quickly!). However I do feel ‘grinding’ as I term it, is a distinct game mechanic here that sees one it’s strongest visualisations in the standard MMORPG format. This is anything where a game uses skinner-box like mechanics and the carrot of “constant growth” (probably with variable reward schedules) as either a key part of the game mechanics, the long-term incentive or the ‘challenge’ (which, by its very nature will likely be trivial, easy agon – if time consuming). Examples of this may be requiring the player to repeat levels or sections over to collect money to buy objects to be able to beat later parts of the game – replacing the need to increase skill with time – or forcing lengthy set of ‘unlocks’ by doing unrelated tasks, for example having to play through a fighting game multiple times in single player to unlock character availability for the competitive game part of the title. I will certainly mention these types of mechanics in my reviews where I find they are significant, however I won’t be attempting to discuss this as any kind of merit, as to me I find all of these things are entirely detrimental to the Puzzle/Challenge and Game categories I am interested in. I wrote about why that is here. If this is what you are after in a videogame (a surrogate job?), then I’d suggest you don’t really need any reviews, you’re in luck! You can simply go and play WoW, Farmville, COD multiplayer, or Progress Quest as your budget allows, and depending on how much of an actual challenge or game you’d like mixed with your grinding addiction. Just be aware you’re now a mind-controlled ant. 😦 Whilst this pattern of play was certainly not found in Caillois’ time, I can see some potential correlation with some forms of Caillois’ Mimicry pattern, and I feel it certainly analogous to a corruption of Illinx play, as an addiction:

“In the end, deprived of the freedom to desire anything but his poison, he is left a prey to chronic organic disorder, far more dangerous than the physical vertigo which at least only momentarily compromises his capacity to resist the fascination of oblivion”

I believe that an enjoyment of this kind of play can also be associated with a player dominated by Chris Bateman’s theorised “Juggernaught” style of play, although I suspect it needs it’s entirely new category – “The Rat in a Skinner Box” player perhaps!

Simulation

Also as discussed in the comments section of Navan’s previous article, I feel this is another distinct category that games could be reviewed against. This corresponds to Caillois’ Mimicry pattern of play and in certain simulations also with Illinx. Note that simulation against reality is not necessarily the only form this could take. My friend from many years back, Cacophanus, in fact has reviewed games against a completely different degree of simulation over at Mecha Damashii.

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The Overall Score

For each title I review I will give a separate score out of 5 stars for Puzzle/Challenge category and for the Game category where applicable. Note again that I am not saying that the other categories do not matter when it comes to videogames. On the contrary, sadly for me, based on sales data they actually all probably matter far more than the elements of entertainment software I personally care about – its purely that I have no interest in attempting to review titles against these areas. Here’s how I break down the 5 Star scale with descriptions:

star – “Hated It” – Well, hate’s a strong word, but will certainly sometimes apply! This is also the appropriate score for a title that didn’t interest me at all under the given category, possibly because it was extremely affected by mechanics in the other categories. As either a challenge or a game, I do not consider this worth the time I spent on it whatsoever.

starstar – “Not a fan” – this means that there was something worthwhile there, but not enough for me, and I likely would have preferred to have spent my time elsewhere. A game or challenge I am ambivalent about would also score here.

starstarstar – “Liked It” – this is the point at which I can actually say I could recommend the title to others. Note that for me, 3 stars does not indicate any kind of ‘average’ score. I tend to find that the rule of thumb “90% of everything is shit” sadly applies equally well to videogames – if I was ever able to review everything out there, I am pretty sure most titles would fall at 1 or 2 stars. I feel that the time I spent playing it as a challenge or as a game was worthwhile, however there is likely much better things out there, even within the same genre; so it depends on the individual and how much time (& money) they spend on videogames as to whether this is a full recommendation or not.

starstarstarstar – “Really Liked It” – obviously this is just a higher gradient of how much I enjoyed it. The mechanics are likely to have been very appealing to me in some way, and I’ve become enthused by the challenge or game aspect enough to play them a great deal. There is very likely something about it though that I’m not liking that is preventing me giving it an even higher score. However I have certainly enjoyed the time I spent playing it as challenge or a game, and I certainly think there’s a large amount of things to recommend that it’s worth the time of others. However again it does depend on the individual and in particular the genre. If there’s an even better challenge or game that’s very similar, you may not necessarily consider this worth your time.

starstarstarstarstar– “Loved It” – This does not in any way imply perfection, but this means I consider this title one of the “best in class” at whatever it is trying to do – and it appeals to me massively as a challenge or as a game. As a challenge I’ve found the skill tests so interesting I’ve likely played through it multiple times or on ever increasing difficulties as I enjoyed pushing myself more and more. If it’s a competitive game I will have certainly spent a great deal of my time playing it, and have almost certainly attempted to become as good at it as I can do. You can use the games that I give this score to form a description of my actual ideal taste in challenges or games. Time & money are almost complete non-issues for games scoring this highly, I enjoyed them so much I considered them some of the best things I can do with my time.

As well as the individual category scores, I will then also give an Overall score to a videogame. In the vast majority of cases this will simply be the the highest it scored at any of the categories I applied to it. In exceptional cases though, where I felt a game was so strong in one or more of the other categories noted above that it actually enhanced the actual challenge or game, or offered other very good reasons to engage my time that were not detrimental to the challenge or game, I may raise the actual overall score above the higher of a games category scores. Alongisde my overall review score I will put a “+” plus or “-” minus against the categories above that I feel are enhancing or are to the detriment of the overall challenge or the overall game score.

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A few other notes

My reviews are always my opinion of how things stand right now, and I may even to adjust previous scores accordingly over time if my opinion changes. No account is made of when a videogame was made or other such nonsense, because I believe these same criteria could be used to review any game, from any time. If you can’t use the same scales to compare your opinion on chess, soccer, solitare, or a Rubik’s Cube, then the review category isn’t doing what I intend it to do. A critique of a game also cannot take into account price or value for money, as these terms are a complete nonsense as explained perfectly on Insomnia. What I will do is put an approximate time I’ve played the title at the time of the review. It’s completely up to the reader to determine what they consider “value for money” and also it depends on what price they can find that game available at. The personal nature of reviews and the importance of the conditions under which a game is played has been noted numerous times – and this is why the text of a review is required to understand my personal viewpoint more than just checking the “final score”. It is also why I am very keen to get other people involved in writing reviews within these strictures. If you are interested and think you are up for the task, please let me know in the comments and feel free to write or link me to your examples, because I’ve currently not come across anywhere that consistently reviews videogames against the same criteria, even though almost every review site will at times hit upon doing a decent review. If my standards on reviewing a game is still confusing to you, Nahtzee puts this into more extreme terms (& sadly with a lot of sexism and offensive commentary!):

13 thoughts on “Agoners Game Reviews

  1. Interesting discussions about the concept of the word “game” and what it means at these links:
    http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/167418/what_makes_a_game.php
    http://www.raphkoster.com/2012/03/13/x-isnt-a-game/
    http://blog.ihobo.com/2012/03/beyond-definitions-of-game.html
    http://blog.ihobo.com/2012/05/implicit-game-aesthetics.html
    http://www.fantasystrike.com/forums/index.php?threads/definition-of-the-word-game.6387/

    As I commented on the last link:
    “I’ve come around to accepting there’s a whole bunch of stuff that people refer to as games, that I barely consider should be games, and they certainly don’t make very good games by my objective criteria. However there are many other kinds of objective criteria & definitions out there!

    The bigger issue as I see it, is people not defining what criteria they are judging things against. So when a review states in some way that Diablo is a ‘great game’ – what they actually mean by that is incredibly blurred. That’s a bigger problem to me than someone claiming it is or isn’t a game. To get around this when I’m writing about games, I’ve stated my current definitions and criteria for ways to review games here”

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    1. More about the definition of the word “game” here:

      http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/ring-a-ring-o-roses-as-a-game

      “Wittgenstein discounted the possibility that the things that we call “games” (or rather Spiele in German) have anything in common, and argued that they rather have family resemblances. Wittgenstein’s argument is basically to say that naive people/philosophers assume that words have definite meanings, but that if we consider his range of examples, from board, to card, to ball games, to Ring a Ring o’ Roses, it will be clear that the things we call games have nothing in common.”

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  2. This epic Cracked piece also ends with some amazing commentary about the business models and very definition of games.
    http://www.cracked.com/blog/the-6-most-ominous-trends-in-video-games/

    “Now ask yourself why those Modern Warfare games essentially have two utterly different games on the same disc — one is a five-hour-long action movie (the single player campaign), the other is a competitive electronic sport (the multiplayer).

    In both cases, it’s because we’re combining a bunch of completely different experiences and art forms and calling them all “video games.”

    and this also sounded like my idea of a single Street Fighter title to play

    “Then we’ll have competitive multiplayer games as their own thing — those will probably be a subscription model, with no $60 game up front”

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  3. More thoughts about gaping flaws in gaming ‘journalism’ & media have been published here, and from some surprising sources:

    http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2012-10-24-lost-humanity-18-a-table-of-doritos
    http://www.edge-online.com/features/videogame-journalisms-decline/
    http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/180134/It_takes_all_kinds_Video_game_cultures_weird_identity_crisis.php

    It all reminds me why I long ago decided a career in this kind of industry just wasn’t for me, as I’d never be close to the popular opinions that people expect & the industry essentially demands.

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  4. Do we need any more?

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/gamesblog/2012/oct/30/video-game-journalism?CMP=twt_fd
    http://wosland.podgamer.com/the-wainwright-profile/

    Probably the best response I’ve seen is here:

    http://www.vg247.com/2012/10/31/doritosgate-after-the-storm-lets-clean-ourselves-up/

    And an excellent summary take on the present and future of this by Total Biscuit on youtube:

    But it’s a ridiculous farce any of this ever even happened as we’ve said long ago on Agoners. And this is why our reviews are so different to anyone else’s!

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