The Basis of Critique

Words: 3026 Approximate Reading Time: 20-25 minutes

Inspired by a recent post by fellow blogger Frostilyte Writes, I wanted to examine a question that comes up every now and then in the context of reviewing games: do you need to finish a game in order to critique it?

This is a topic that has been asked and answered over and over again. You can find plenty of think pieces on the subject. Usually the answer is “no.”

Now anyone who has followed this blog for some length of time will know that one of my favorite subjects is how we talk about games. Reviews fit right into a perfect niche in that regard: there are a lot of them, it’s a skill that is professionally developed (though there are also plenty of amateur reviewers out there as well), and reviews are one of those things that can draw a lot of attention. People tend to fixate on reviews as proof of everything – that a game sucks, that it is good, that a reviewer is biased, and so on. And so how we think about reviewing is an important aspect of how we talk about games.

To tackle this subject, I wanted to examine the question by looking at what a critique ultimately is. Because reviews are designed to be assessments of a given game on a wide variety of scales – examining technical aspects, narrative and theming, mechanics, and so on. So what does it actually mean when we engage in this critique? It’s by going to that root that we can see how “finishing the game” fits into the whole scheme.

The Purpose of Critique

When we critique, we’re engaging in one or more of several potential objectives. I will note here that “critique” can be used in two forms. There is the narrow form of critique, which involves analyzing a specific piece of media on its own, usually for the purpose of saying “does this piece of media do a good job of being whatever it’s trying to be?” Then there is the broader form of critique, which involves analyzing multiple pieces of media – sometimes across different forms of media (i.e. books, games, movies) – to talk about bigger subjects. I will be focusing primarily on the narrower form of critique for the purpose of this essay.

The most obvious type of critique is…well…criticism. Criticism, whether in the form of individuals talking about a piece of media or a professional article on the subject, is about trying to address what that piece of media did well or poorly. You look at a game and say what its strengths and weaknesses are. Maybe it has a good narrative, and you explain how and why it does a good job telling a story and presenting compelling characters. Maybe its controls are confusing. Whatever the case may be, we’re trying to hold up the good and bad and reflect upon it all.

The point of criticism is to hold up what we see as the essence of a “good game” for the purpose of analyzing other games. This criticism can then be a way of presenting that essence to others to engage in a discussion about what a “good game” is, or it can be presented to game developers as a point of guidance.

Another objective is what I’ll call “reviewing.” By this I mean what we think of when we normally think of a video game review – the process of analyzing a game with the general purpose of conveying to an audience whether a game is “worth it.” Some of the trappings of reviewing are going to be similar to criticism, but the key difference lies in its purpose. Because when we review a game, we have a particular aim in how we go about picking and structuring what is good and bad. The audience of our content is not necessarily one we are trying to convince, but one we are trying to inform. The reader is not a game developer or someone interested in what a “good game” is, but a consumer wanting to know what to buy.

Another aspect of critique is opinion. What I mean by opinion is simply conveying what we personally did and did not like about a game. Perhaps some aspect of the story irked you, or really spoke to you. Maybe you don’t like first-person shooters in general, or you really struggle with video game puzzles. Perhaps jump scares don’t entice you one bit, and an over-reliance on them is tiring to you. Whatever it may be, one thing we can do when we engage in critique is just focus on what appeals, or doesn’t appeal, to us on a personal and visceral level.

These three categories are not mutually exclusive, nor do they need to take place in specific contexts. Whether we’re talking to friends, writing a review for a personal blog, writing a review for a professional magazine, or anything else, we can engage in any one of these objectives, or multiple objectives at the same time.

But the reason I wanted to separate these objectives is that we can look at our core question – “do you need to finish a game to engage in critique of it?” – with respect to each type of critique. This way, we better clarify the question and the potential answers.

After all, what if it was the case that for the purpose of conveying your opinion, you didn’t need to finish a game…but to review a game you did need to finish it? Then when we answer the question, we could end up conflating the two. People might talk past one another.

How Far Must We Go?

So let’s pick each category apart. Do we need to finish a game to engage in these different forms of critique?

In terms of criticism, our focus is usually being drawn to specific components of a game. Specific points of dialogue. Story progression and communication. The number of different mechanics, how they’re taught, and how easy or hard they are to perform. Difficulty of enemies and bosses. We are highlighting these specific components because they are the building blocks for discussions of what makes a game good or bad. Whatever the context of these discussions, whether it’s chatting with friends or talking with game developers, criticism is going to try to pick apart more specific things.

The outcome, though, is that you don’t need to have a complete picture of the game to analyze those particular components. A bad line of dialogue is bad regardless of the story it takes context in. A poorly explained mechanic needs to be rethought even if the rest of the game is well-made. All of these things can be put into the wider context of the game – we can analyze how a mechanic fit with the theme of a game or how well it meshed with the rest of the gameplay. But this “can” is not a “must.” We don’t have to get to the end to start saying whether some aspect is good or bad.

In terms of reviewing, this is the context that is most likely to evoke the idea that critique requires completion. But once again, reviewing has as its focus those specific components of the game. How is the gameplay? How engaging does the game feel? How good are the graphics and sounds and controls? Those are once again things that you can glean fairly quickly from playing a game. For a game that is expansive and boasts of having over 100 hours of gameplay on offer, do you really need to experience every bit of it? Certainly not – once you have an understanding of the basic loop, which you might learn within say 5-10 hours, you have a sense of how the rest of that loop is going to go. And since narrative is something that is generally talked about in oblique terms – since we usually like our reviews to not spoil major plot twists and endings (or many reviewers are barred from talking about stories as part of getting a review copy) – it doesn’t really matter if a particular reviewer gets to the end. If they do and don’t reveal the twists and endings, then from a reader’s perspective it has the same impact as if the reviewer didn’t see those twists and endings in the first place.

So once again, even in the context where we are most likely to think that finishing a game is a prerequisite for critique, there actually is no need for it. Which to some extent works best – since professional reviewers can often be saddled with a lot of work (writing isn’t exactly an easy job, whatever it may seem like from the outside), the need to “cut corners” is going to be pervasive. So when a game is fairly clear in its engagement, whether being really fun or incredibly boring, that kind of information can then be conveyed to the audience to indicate whether consumers should buy it or not.

Finally, there’s opinion. Opinion can again come up in all sorts of contexts, whether it’s just chatting with friends or writing for a professional publication. But the nature of opinion is such that we pretty easily understand it’s supposed to be deeply personal. Which means that the specific experience we have with a game is what “belongs” to us. If we found a game unplayable for any reason, that opinion is ours and can’t be taken away from us. We can choose to revisit the game, to make a new experience, and perhaps our impression might change. But we generally don’t demand that a person have a specific opinion of a game – at least if we’re not a jerk.

But that obviously means that it’s again not necessary for someone to finish a game to develop an opinion about it. Take the example I just described: if you try to play a game and you just can’t get through it because it feels unplayable, then your intensely negative experience is sufficient basis for forming an opinion on the game. You don’t need to get through the entire game to validate that opinion in some way. You already know how you feel.

Okay, so if the three different types of critique all lead to the same conclusion, why bother separating them in the first place?

As I mentioned in the previous section, we can engage in all three of these forms of critique simultaneously. Even in a professional game review, the reviewer might not simply be engaged in “reviewing,” but also in presenting “criticism” and “opinion.” There’s not a clean division between these forms of critique, and it’s easy to conflate them because when we see someone writing a review of a game, we think that they’re doing something very specific – they’re trying to explain whether or not I should buy this game – when they may be doing something else entirely. Maybe they’re actually just trying to convey their opinion about the game.

Which is why, strange as it may seem, it is best to think about “a review” as something different from “reviewing.” The thing “review” is just the term we use to describe a piece of writing or a video on a specific game. The act of “reviewing” is the specific form of critique that gets employed in talking about a game. They can often overlap, but are not the same thing.

Which is all to say that when we see a given review, we should step back to ask what the review is doing. What kind of critique is it employing? Sometimes we can get angry at a reviewer for having a different outlook on a game because we think that they’re doing one thing (e.g. “reviewing”) when they’re actually doing something else (e.g. “opinion”).

Now an obvious response to all of this is that games are a holistic medium. How do you really separate a character from the narrative they take place in? How do you separate a mechanic from the theming of the entire game that mechanic is supposed to support? How do you talk about a game’s difficulty without reference to the difficulty curve throughout the entire game? All of these specific components take place in the context of an entire game, and so surely you need to have a full understanding of the game to talk about its specific parts.

This response marks the seed of what I think is the best argument for saying that we do need to finish games to properly talk about them. However, I think it doesn’t quite hold up.

Namely, it falls into one of two problems. The first is the assumption that all of the specific components cannot be discussed in any isolation. We can’t say that a character is thin until we’ve seen everything that that character does. We can’t say that a mechanic is convoluted until we’ve seen everything that that mechanic is used for.

But this claim doesn’t really shake out. The more experience we have with a given medium – books, games, movies, etc. – the better we get at making intuitive judgments. The easier it is to tell when a writer is engaging in thoughtless tropes. The easier it is to tell when a gameplay mechanic is put in because it’s popular or because the developer needed something for the player to do. In this sense, it might be useful for players to begin by finishing games to get a sense of how things fit together. But as we gain more experience, that need to finish games become less important.

The second problem is that the argument presumes that the point of critique is to put things in context. For example, it begins with the assumption that the purpose of “reviewing” a game is to explain everything about the game and lay it all out for the reader.

But critiques rarely are about putting things into these contexts. They can, but they don’t have to. We can engage in an analysis of the components of a game and isolate them without needing to reference the rest of the game. And it’s in fact a rarity when our analyses are performed with the purpose of looking at “the whole thing.”

It’s here that it is important to note that there are special occasions when a critique does require the critic to finish the game. For example, let’s say you wanted to do an in-depth analysis of the themes of a game, and say whether the game presented those themes well or poorly. Well, in order to do that analysis, you’d need to have all of the information necessary to do it – which would include information about how the game ends (since the ending is going to usually communicate the game’s final message on its theme). So in a context like that, the critic will indeed need to complete the game. But important here is that is if you wanted to do an in-depth analysis of the themes. Whereas just mentioning what a game’s themes are doesn’t require as much information – a game will usually throw out its themes pretty quickly, and you can figure out what they are if you know how to spot them.

It’s in those specific circumstances that critique requires a fuller engagement with the game. But those circumstances are the exception, rather than the norm. If you are going to talk about the game in a way that requires knowledge of the ending, then you do need to finish the game in some way. If you were going to talk about how the game progresses from beginning to end, you need to know the ending, and therefore get there. If you were going to talk about all the twists and turns a narrative takes, you can’t really do so without getting to the end.

But critiques in general – and video games reviews specifically – don’t tend to engage in these kinds of discussions. We mostly find ourselves focused on discussions about the core gameplay loop, or how the game feels, or whether the story seems interesting. We don’t usually talk about the ending in these contexts. Arguably, the only thing that would make the claim that we need to finish a game to talk about it feasible is if endings were always some kind of massive surprise. If a game could be terrific right up until the ending, at which point it becomes terrible. In that case, we could then see how it might be useful to know that information before starting the game up. But quality very rarely progresses like that – a bad game will probably stay bad up to the end, and a good game will probably stay good.

Concluding Remarks

There are a lot of different ways to address this basic question of “do you need to finish a game to review it?” I began this essay by linking a few different articles to show the diverse angles from which we can address the topic.

But I always like to try to go back to first principles. And so by breaking apart the very nature of what a review is – by putting it in the context of “critique” more generally – we can then start to see how our knowledge of a game shapes what we say about it, and can say about it. And in turn, what we need to know if we’re going to talk about the game.

There are certainly plenty of “gotcha” questions that could be asked in this context. What about games that don’t really have an “ending”? What about games that last for hundreds of hours, with most of it being side content? What about games that have multiple endings, each requiring a new playthrough? I think these kinds of questions help solidify the underlying problem. But without a good grasp of the principles of our debate, these “gotchas” aren’t going to solve anything. And hence why I try to shy away from them here. They have a place and time to be used, but we want to be careful about treating them as all-purpose tools for discussion.

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