Readers often have plenty to say about professional reviews, much of it critical in nature. And I mean critical in the sense that they're not exactly filled with praise, not in the sense that readers form a "critique" or analysis of a reviewer's technique. But maybe that's exactly what they should be doing.
It's not easy writing a 1,000-word review about a 30-hour game, after all. But it can be even more difficult to write about a 3-hour game—like Journey, pictured above—if the experience of the game is so unique or so defies what we consider standard genre conventions that the words to describe it literally escape us.
Over at Brainy Gamer, writer and critic Michael Abbott delves into exactly this:
For a long time we’ve tried to make games align with our critical sensibilities. We’ve focused a dramaturgical lens on narrative games; we’ve applied film theory to cinematic games; we’ve examined games as rhetorical systems; and we’ve tried to understand the systemic principles that define games. These are worthy efforts, not a waste of time.
But they're not enough.
Whereas in the past, Abbott posits, we were waiting for games to "grow up" and become "worthy of critical analysis," now "the situation has reversed," he writes. "Creative designers are building games, inviting us to find a language or critical approach to convey their essential meaning...or if not meaning, then what they are. What they do."
What's the solution? How can we describe games and experiences that defy description? It's something I've struggled with more than once, as has anyone who's been caught tongue-tied while trying to explain the wonders of Dark Souls or Fez to a friend.
Abbott's solution is to come up with better words—or, maybe, an entire new critical language. "We need new words. Or better words. Or simply different words. We’ve worn out the old ones," he writes.
His study in generating a word cloud for the reviews of various games, including Journey, Papo & Yo, and The Unfinished Swan, appears to be proof that most reviewers are running out of unique ways to describe their experiences.
"There’s nothing wrong with words like "emotional" or "experience" per se. Most games do convey a "world" and deliver "gameplay," but too often these terms function as generic placeholders. They communicate a vague sense of something richer, more vivid and complex.
Do you think there's a better way to describe video games? How can we reach that point?