There are many different review styles out there: stars, percents, fractionals, blurbs and diatribes. Each has a very important niche in our society, and many people have a definite preference in how they want their information conveyed. But the one sticking point for most aggregates are having a numerical grade for each review. This really makes sense for review aggregates, as having a definitive number lets them average things out. From Metacritic to Rotten Tomatoes, we see a score telling us what we want to know: is this game/film good?
What if, however, this wasn’t the best way to judge entertainment? While it may be good for quick glances and data systems, is the numerical score system good for providing an in-depth review? Perhaps, if the individual writing the review takes into account various weighted scoring systems.
On the other side, though, we have the systemless review system: long-winded paragraphs that go into the most minute of details. Is this the type of review that can be adequately done with each new release, or something that people will want to read?
The goal of Fixing Gaming is not to reinvent the wheel. Moreover, the goal is to provide a merging of exposition and data. We accomplished this with two approaches: a full, in-depth review of games from four lenses, alongside a loosely defined stat sheet for each of those four lenses for quick reference. Those in need of a quick look into the qualities of the game can look at the simple graph, and those who want to dive deeper can read at their leisure.
What are the four lenses, however, and can games be judged entirely through them? Let’s find out:
Part One: Story
Why start with story? Not all games have a story, and not all stories are important. However, all games have a why. And sometimes, a lack of story isn’t a bad thing for a game. As long as the why is satisfiable, that’s all it takes. This section of the review covers the importance (or lack thereof) of the narrative of the game. In a game where story is critical, we look at how it executes said story. In games where story is nonexistent, we look at how the lack of story accents the gameplay.
Take, for instance, Resident Evil: Village. That is a game dominated by story. Every new development in the game is due to the story at work. The pacing of the game, new levels, and new techniques are provided through story beats. Thus, without a compelling story, the game would fall flat. The game itself dictates this reliance as well.
See another example, DOOM 2016, a game entirely upfront about how little the story actually pertains to the gameplay. It is an example of narrative dissonance, where neither the player nor the character has the plot at the forefront of their minds. From the start, you’re given a gun and some demons, and your job is to remove them from your presence. That’s all the “story” you need, so having the plot take an immediate backseat serves as a complement to the gameplay itself.
Both of these examples are positive methods of storytelling in games. By giving a hook that can be either very upfront and focused or brief and detached, you’ve provided players a sense of how to approach the game.
Part Two: Gameplay
Once we’ve set the table, it’s time to look at the meat of the matter: how does the game… play? This section is a large portion of the review for a reason: gameplay is what ninety percent of the audience is here for, and it’s one of the biggest parts of (most) games. How are the controls, how are the mechanics, what are the problems inherent in the system, etc. We try to focus on a few key things here, though: the unique selling point and the game feel.
The unique selling point for a game is usually what differentiates it from any other title. For shooters, it could be a movement mechanic not usually seen, like the grapple thing from Bioshock Infinite. For story-heavy games it could be a subversion of tropes, a la Doki Doki Literature Club. Generally, this is unique. However, there’s only so many ways you can skin a horse, so here we describe the unique selling point, how they approach that unique point differently from other games, and discuss the quality of that point.
Game feel is a very broad term for a simple question: is game fun to play? When I’m playing the game, do I feel as though the gameplay is getting in the way of something. For instance: Red Dead Redemption 2 is a solid masterpiece of storytelling that I’d love to experience were it not for the terrible controls. Walking is sluggish, having to button mash to go at a normal pace is obtuse, and the over-reliance on several buttons for similar actions leaves me confused. Conversely, Among Us is not a very polished game, but does everything right in this regard. At no point am I not able to use the mouse to accomplish everything. Every minigame uses the mouse, as does every imposter action.
Am I arguing that one of the most beloved blockbusters of all time is worse that Read Dead Redemption 2 (I’m kidding…)? Not at all. These are two very different games, but they have a distinct game feel and it can make or break my enjoyment of the title. RDR2 should be a shoe-in for my favorite game, yet I’ve put far more time into Sussy-Trend Monthly and I don’t generally like social deduction games.
Part Three: Presentation
<Tastefully inserted Megamind joke here>
I’ve never been much of a graphics connoisseur. As long as the game looks cohesive, visually speaking, I couldn’t care less if it was stick figures or the Mona Lisa. But presentation isn’t just about visuals. This section is here to talk about how the game presents itself. Is it a visually impressive powerhouse with top-notch voice acting and a score to rival the greatest cinematic masterpieces? Is it a cobbled-together hack-job that looks like it was made with Unity Assets? How does the game convey information? How does the HUD look, and are there accessibility options? Do all of these things match the tone of the game, or the gameplay of the game?
During my review of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, I described the presentation as one of the saving graces of a game riddled with small problems. If you present a game with a great deal of care, it’s easier to ignore some of the missteps everywhere else. Sure, AC:NH lacks a very long story, and has control issues, but it’s so darn cute I can ignore most of that.
However, the opposite can happen: a game can be phenomenal in the story and gameplay department, but the presentation is just not that great. I was intrigued by Greedfall, but the visuals were not particularly memorable or compelling. The story was pretty interesting, and the gameplay was adequate, but the presentation of the game was fairly clunky.
But this section isn’t about judging the presentation alongside the rest. That’s saved for…
Part Four: Cohesion
This section is where it all comes together. Some may think of this as the biggest or most important of the four parts of the review, but that’s not entirely the case. Cohesion is about how well the first three sections mesh together. A terrible game in all categories could still have great cohesion, even if the elements themselves are lack-luster (see Carrion). A masterpiece of a gameplay/story/presentation could have next to no cohesion (see EVERSPACE).
Cohesion looks at congruency, and cohesion helps determine how well the game seems to have been joined together on the planning board. Do the elements work together to improve things, or do they feel cobbled together? Do we see a hierarchy of design, or a mixture of forms? Does story get in the way of gameplay? Do gameplay detract from the presentation?
I tend to prefer games with better cohesion, but that doesn’t make a game that lacks cohesion a bad game to me. It just adds the finishing touch to a wonderful game, or the final nail in the coffin of a bad one.
Usually, my conclusion will attempt to wrangle all of that into a blurb. I don’t want people leaving my review expecting a hard score and/or a thumbs up/down. I want people to draw their own conclusions to whether or not they’ll enjoy a game. The world is a big place, with a variety of audiences and preferences, and my favorite game will be hated by others. It’s my goal to provide the most amount of information in the aspects of games that I find important building blocks.