The relationship between critics and players is fraught with tension.
This is by no means unique to game criticism. Critics across all media are often accused of being out of touch with the general public by denouncing works that are vastly popular, but there is a particular dynamic that crops up only in game journalism: how accomplished should critics be at actually playing games?
This isn’t a new quandary; it’s been tackled with varying success many times before and will inspire heated discussion many times hence. The latest event to rekindle this argument’s dying embers was a Polygon video showing the first half an hour of DOOM gameplay. Bear in mind, half an hour here is utilised to get through perhaps ten minutes of the actual game for reasons I’ll expand upon fairly extensively.
This is a video which quickly became a widely-referenced talking point on account of its supposedly horrid gameplay. My interest was piqued enough to give it a look myself, although I was sure that this was another instance of a wildly memetic internet doing its thing and that the video, while probably containing a few missteps, would be representative of normal introductory gameplay.
I was wrong. Completely, gloriously wrong.
If you haven’t watched the video, allow me to briefly describe it for you. I don’t have to, and it doesn’t really add anything to the article to do so, but having witnessed what might be the most entertaining piece of audiovisual content ever created, I simply can’t go on without acknowledging it for a while.
Polygon’s DOOM video doesn’t deserve ignominy. It deserves ritual worship and a national holiday in its name.
We begin in a corridor with a pistol, and so far so run-of-the-mill. It’s when we acquire the shotgun and move into the first open level that things start becoming extraordinary. The DOOM guy looks around, shuffles over to the left, looks at his feet, turns his gaze upwards, and starts walking forwards. It’s the movement of someone who considers two analogues sticks an affront, like when you briefly hand over the controller to an elderly relative who calls every console ‘The GameBox’ and doesn’t trust DVDs.
There’s always the expectation that eventually the player will stop doing whatever they’re doing with one hand – maybe haphazardly eating noodles, or cranking a generator – and begin controlling the game effectively with two hands. It never happens. What you end up with is less a slaughter of the demons and more a Hogmanay dance with the demons.
Aiming the gun is eschewed in favour of waiting for the fortuitous moments when the crosshair and demon line up exactly, resulting in around one in ten shots meeting any kind of target at all. If you were to visit that level now, you’d probably see lots of demon silhouettes carved into the walls from errant bullets.
It’s a joyous video, and if you’ve got the time, I’d recommend you give it a watch, but that’s beside the point. The key question of ‘Should critics be good at games?’ still stands, so let’s attempt to tackle it.
Predictably, shoddy non-committal journo dullard that I am, I don’t have a simple yes or no answer to this. Everyone has a certain skill level, no-one is a vacuum of skill (although I’ll be damned if that Polygon video didn’t come close), so the ‘critics should be good’ argument implies that there needs to be a point of aptitude at which critics are deemed worthy of criticising. Where is that line? More importantly, do we want every single critic to conform to that standard?
Do we need critics who fly through games in an effortless breeze, regardless of difficulty? Those who can immediately master any mechanic taught to them and laugh at any challenge thrown their way? Absolutely yes! If they are able to write about their experiences in a manner that is thorough, detailing the game’s strengths and weaknesses, whilst being entertaining or enlightening to read, then of course they should be reviewing games.
Do we need critics who struggle getting through levels, even on the lowest difficulty settings? Those who are perhaps more receptive to difficulty spikes than others, but more importantly those who represent a growing base of new gamers who are still in the process of honing their skills? For me, that too is an emphatic yes.
I can understand the counterpoint that having a game be reviewed by those essentially incapable of playing it is unfair to the creators. I’m sympathetic to that point, particularly in an industry that has been known to withhold money based on Metacritic score alone, but filtering out criticism cannot be the answer. A better solution would be to stop the subservient genuflection to Metacritic and acknowledge that it’s a deeply flawed metric for defining game quality.
‘The critical voice’, if I may so portentously call it that, is built up of a large community of players and reviewers, and is at its strongest when it’s diverse. In my opinion, that diversity needs to include relative levels of skill.
A critic who’s fucking awful at video games.