Hello! You have probably stumbled upon this page by way of the Freeplay unConference Keynote, and in particular, a slide on videogame criticism.
It’s become a meme that videogame criticism is “in it’s infancy”, and it’s not. There are just not enough critics. There is no way to ‘automate’ or ‘script’ or ‘program’ criticism, so videogame criticism is handmade. Videogame criticism will always be handmade. We need more hands, and so need more critics.
This list is meant as a guide to the interested reader and aspiring critic. This is meant as a How To guide to videogame criticism, without being prescriptive. There is no “right” way to write about games critically, but here are some attempts that have succeeded, grouped loosely into a number of categories. At the end is a pair of cautionary tales, and some suggested further reading.
Game reviews as criticism:
Kieron Gillen reviews ‘Darkfall Online‘ identifying the pratfalls of reviewing MMO’s, and the journalist-developer relationship.
Kieron Gillen reviews ‘Boiling Point‘ and gives 3 different scores for three different receptions.
Tim Rogers 18,000 word review of Final Fantasy XIII at Action Button dot net.
Tom Bissell’s review of LA Noire for Grantland: “Press X For Beer Bottle“.
Ryan Kuo reviews Bastion for Killscreen.
J. Nicholas Geist reviews Infinity Blade, deploying both text and code to procedurally reproduce a similar reader-experience as a player of the game might receive. (Don’t forget to click the button)
Kirk Hamilton demonstrates in his review what it’s like to play Portal 2, using another game - Dominoes.
Jamin Warren at Killscreen reviews ‘Duke Nukem Forever‘ and works through some issues with criticising monolithic games.
Great stories told about games – positive criticism:
Quintin Smith regales the reader with heroic tales of victory and failure in Planetside with ‘The 1%‘.
Tom Bissell’s ‘Video games: the addiction‘ for The Observer.
By AlwaysBlack, the historic piece that inspired a wave of like-minded writing: “Bow, Nigger“.
Kieron Gillen on ‘Team Roomba‘ and the culture of creative griefing.
Jim Rossignol’s ‘The Five Year Spree‘, a 4-part series discussing the highs and various fortunes of the ‘StateCorp.’ in Eve Online, as he witnessed and participated in it.
The ‘Squall Is Dead‘ interpretation of FFVIII suggests a David Lynch-esque story hidden beneath the surface of that Final Fantasy title.
Cultural/theoretical criticism and essay format criticism:
Alex Raymond at The Border House blog on ‘Gears, Krogan and Women-as-incubators‘.
Alex Raymond at Game Critics, ‘Women aren’t vending machines: How videogames perpetuate the commodity model of sex‘.
Jenn Frank on ‘Videogame feminist of the decade: or when “You” is a girl‘ on the shock at realising and identifying with Chell inPortal.
Tanner Higgin on ‘The Trap of Representation‘ in games, and issues of depicting race, class, sex, ethnicity, etc. etc.
Jorge Albor with ‘Critical Eyes on Civilization‘.
G. Carl Purcell at Supercollider discussess the XBLA game ‘Toy Soldiers‘ and embeds it within a wider discussion of WWII and gaming.
Michael Abbott’s ‘I’m your Huckleberry‘ is about the blurry line between the game and your personal attitudes.
Troy Goodfellow’s ‘The National Character‘ series is an exploration of how history can influence strategy game design.
Game designer Clint Hocking writes about a creative experiment performed with Far Cry 2 and what it means for meaning, choice and emotional engagement in games, in ‘Live and Let Die‘.
Robert Yang on ‘Gay (But Not “Gay”) Characters in Videogames‘ is a look at a pervasive social prejudice that infects games as well as wider society.
Michael Clarkson writes an essay on ‘The Real John Marston‘ in Red Dead Redemption.
Rob Zachny reads Alan Wake as a gamic allegory for the process of creation.
Simon Parkin’s “Maps” for Boing Boing looks at Final Fantasy maps.
Lara Crigger at Gamers With Jobs writes on personal ‘Adictions‘.
Tom Armitage’s piece on the literary quality of Far Cry 2 in “Africa Wins Again“.
Leigh Alexander’s “The Four Month Bell Curve“ considers the arc of anticipation, excitement and inevitable backlash surrounding a majority of major game releases.
Criticism with a design focus
Clint Hocking’s post coining the phrase ‘Ludonarrative Dissonance‘ to describe the mis-match between meaning taken from the story elements of Bioshock and the meaning derived from the gameplay is a foundational piece.
Steve Gaynor discusses the role and relative invisibility of the designer of a game, in ‘On Invisibility‘.
Michaël Samyn of Tale of Tales talks about ‘The Challenge of Non-Linearity‘.
Steve Gaynor applies his practical knowledge of level design in ‘Basics of Effective FPS Encounter Design‘ using demonstrations from FEAR and FEAR 2.
Anne Anthropy teaches level design by way of Castlevania.
Mitch Krpata gives us an illustrated guide to ‘Using the Sniper Rifle in Killzone 2: a photo tutorial‘.
The players give us the full story of ‘Boatmurdered‘, a collaborative playing of Dwarf Fortress.
Penny Arcade spell out with their typical humour the absurdity and contrived nature of puzzles in Professor Layton.
Experimenting with Permadeath in Far Cry 2, done by me, that became a 390+ page PDF machinima novel about Far Cry 2.
Hunting, PETA and ethical treatment of animals in Red Dead Redemption in ‘Call of the Wild West‘ by Brendan Caldwell.
Zach Hiwiller on ‘If Mario Was Designed in 2010‘.
The RPS crew plays Solnium Inferium and hate each other (and in the game) in ‘Gameboys from Hell‘.
Critiquing a game with another game can be a rewarding tactic – here’s “Press X to Jason” sending up Heavy Rain.
Some thinking about approaches to games criticism/reviews/journalism:
Kieron Gillen on ‘The New Games Journalism‘ (infamous piece; required reading).
Shawn Elliott convenes a symposium to think about and discuss videogame journalism (and criticism, indirectly). Part one here.
Mitch Krpata’s “A New Taxonomy of Gamers” suggests a different focus for criticism, based on a conceptualisation of players that exceeds the hardcore/casual divide.
AJ Glasser suggests there should be ‘“No Cheering in the Press Box” and other rules game journalism needs‘.
Ben Abraham asks some ‘Rhetorical Questions‘ about the nature of game criticism.
Gus Mastrapa’s “How to read a videogame review” inspired by Tom Bissell’s review of LA Noire.
LB Jeffries – ‘Does Videogame Criticism Need A Lester Bangs?‘
Michael Walbridge’s ‘“So you wanna be a games writer” post‘.
Mark Johnson’s warning against attempting games criticism as a career, in ‘Run‘.
And some books:
Tristan Donovan’s “Replay: A History of Videogames”.
Tony Mott, et al.’s “1001 Videogames You Must Play Before You Die”.
“How Fiction Works” by James Wood.
‘Fundamentals of Game Design’ by Earnest Adams & Andrew Rollings.
‘Rules of play: game design fundamentals’ by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman.