I’m not a professional critic. I don’t get paid to write about video games, yet I write at least one article per week about games, mostly because I enjoy doing so. But I’m not actually legally obligated in any way to sit down at a computer and write.
This fact became quite important to me a few days ago after I played about 90 minutes of Party Hard. I really, really don’t like Party Hard. I think it’s a badly designed game on nearly every dimension. It’s ugly, confusing, boring, shallow, and has some of the worst voice acting I’ve ever heard in a video game. I came to this realization after a mere hour and a half of gameplay. In fact, I was so confident in my understanding of the game, that I thought I could write a standard 1,500 word analysis of Party Hard right then and there.
The problem was that I had only reached the third out of twelve levels in the game, and I didn’t want to keep playing. It wasn’t worth it. Party Hard is a slog for me to get through. Everyone knows that sense of irritation which builds up in your mind when you try to force yourself to do something you don’t want to. Fortunately, I have mostly left that feeling behind in my life since I graduated high school, but it occasionally flares up again when I’m forced by circumstance to do menial, pointless tasks at someone else’s behest. Well, playing Party Hard for more than ten minutes straight makes the part of my mind which produces that feeling go berserk and force me to quit out to do literally anything else.
It’s not that I think Party Hard is the worst game of all time or anything, it’s just a game which does things wrong that I particularly can’t stand.
If I were a professional video game critic who was under some sort of contract to complete and review games, I could (probably) begrudgingly drag myself through Party Hard, or at least find someone to play it with. But I’m not a professional critic and have no such obligation. But I also don’t want to just not write about Party Hard because I actually have a lot I want to say about it. What do I do?
This brings me to a question: how much of a video game is a critic obligated to play to legitimately analyze it?
The default answer which comes to my mind is: “the critic must finish the game to properly review it.” But what does “finishing” a video game mean? Does it mean experiencing every possible bit of content contained in a game? Does it mean achieving an official (as in the case of Ubisoft games) or unofficial 100% progress rate? Does it mean completing just the narrative or main campaign? What about games like Minecraft where no such thing exists? What about games like Skyrim where the main quest line constitutes only a tiny fraction of the game’s total content? What about games like Madden where the ostensible “campaign” is meant to be played numerous times? What about games like Infamous where much of the campaign content is blocked during a single playthrough? What about games like Bloodborne where 10 of the game’s 17 bosses are optional during a standard playthrough? What about complicated online games like Starcraft where complete mastery of the system and mechanics could take a lifetime to achieve?
If I want to be a good critic, how much of each game do I have to play?
Most video games cannot be properly understood after only playing through approximately one quarter of its content. I wish I had a more principled way to decide how much of a game needs to be played to write a proper review, but unfortunately I can’t think of a more interesting response to this article’s title-question than: “play the game until you think you understand at least the game’s core mechanics and narrative.” Ultimately, that means deciding how much to play each game on a case-by-case basis, based on the reviewer’s speculative evaluation of the game’s content.
For instance, I don’t think I need to get to 100% progression in Far Cry 4 to fully grasp the game’s mechanics, but I do need to finish its campaign to fully understand its story. However, to properly analyze that game, I think I would need to complete some of the non-campaign checklist/collectible content with the understanding that those elements are an important component of Far Cry 4 as a whole. If I were to 100% the game, I certainly wouldn’t remember “Bomb Disposal Mission Number 7,” at least not more than an encounter with the game’s antagonist, Pagan Minh, but I would remember that I spent dozens of hours completing minor missions like Bomb Disposals, Races, and Hunting Challenges during my time with Far Cry 4.
On the other hand, I do think there are games that a critic can properly understand after completing only a small fraction of its content.
Consider how critics in other artistic mediums might answer the title question. In the case of movies, tv shows, and literature, an individual cannot really understand a single story without experiencing it from start to finish. There are probably exceptions to this rule, but for the vast majority of movies, tv shows, and books, I think it’s safe to say that reviewing a work after only experiencing the first quarter of its length would be extremely unfair and not an accurate portrayal of its content.
The thing is, I don’t think the same rules necessarily apply to video games. To some games, sure, especially heavily narrative-oriented ones, but not all. That’s partially because the process of “finishing” a movie, tv show, or book is far more linear than finishing a video game. You just watch or read it until the end and then you’ve seen or read everything within the self-contained item. But video games are interactive and therefore must provide a massive array of potential player options which the vast majority of players will never entirely experience in even the most primitive games. For instance, consider that every enemy in Doom can be shot with a variety of guns, in a variety of body parts, from a variety of locations, at a variety of times, etc. The choice options are so immense that no individual could ever conceivably experience absolutely every potential aspect of a game, but anyone who sits through a movie has essentially experienced every single component of the entire movie.
Another instrumental reason that merely playing to the “end” of a game isn’t like traditionally finishing a movie, tv show, or book is because the relative importance of narrative to composition is far more variable in video games than in those other mediums (at least most of the time). By narrative, I mean the work’s story. By composition, I mean how the story is told within the medium. So for books, composition is the writing style, including prose, vocabulary, sentence/paragraph/chapter structure, etc. For tv shows and movies, it means filming, including cinematography, camera work, set design, costuming, acting, etc. For video games, it means mechanics (ie. gameplay).
What I mean is that there are plenty of good video games which have relatively lackluster stories or mechanics (though not both at the same time), while there are very few good books, movies, or tv shows which only have a good narrative or a good composition (and some people would argue there are none).
Flowery, well-designed prose which doesn’t amount to an interesting story is pointless and pretentious. A movie about a fascinating story presented with the most pedestrian, rote filming style possible is dull and plodding. But a video game with enjoyable mechanics and little to no story can be perfectly serviceable (Tetris, Pacman, Mario, etc.). Likewise, a video game with an intriguing story but mechanics that would be unenjoyable without the story’s context, can still be a good game. (ie. Gone Home, Telltale games, arguably Silent Hill, etc.).
This is relevant to my original question because while a story’s narrative cannot be fully understood after experiencing only one quarter of its run time, a game’s mechanics often can be. Typically a game will introduce its mechanics in the simplest way possible and then slowly add new elements to increase its complexity. Admittedly, in some games the discrepancy between early game simplicity and late game complexity are so great that a critic genuinely can’t understand the game’s mechanics coherently without playing through the whole run time (consider Dark Souls, most roguelikes, RTSs like Starcraft, etc.). But in most games, the core mechanics can be grasped, analyzed, and evaluated well before the game’s half way point, if not earlier, at which point additional gameplay may provide extra material for an analysis, but won’t fundamentally alter the player’s perception of the mechanics.
Thus, in the case of some video games, a critic can gain a reasonable understanding of a game’s mechanics without playing anywhere close to the entire game. Furthermore, if a game has a weak or nonexistent story which doesn’t add much value to the user experience as a whole, then mechanics take prominence in evaluating the game’s quality. Thus if a game is heavily mechanically-oriented and the mechanics are simple enough to be conceptually mastered early in the game’s run time, a critic can give a reasonably complete evaluation of the game after only playing a small portion of its total content.
Or at least that’s my long-winded excuse for not playing all the way through Party Hard. Next week, I’ll describe why I hate it so much.