On Design-Centric Game Criticism

by L.B. Jeffries

12 October 2010

L.B. Jeffries bids adieu to the Moving Pixels audience, but before he goes, he has a few words to share about writing game criticism, noting that "the difference between a critical analysis and a game FAQ is that somebody who has never played the game can still gain something from good analysis."

Due to a massive increase in my workload, I’m not going to be able to keep posting regularly on Moving Pixels. This blog has been a wonderful creative outlet for the past few years, and I’ve learned a great deal about games and writing while working here. Thank you for your time.

For this final post, I’ve decided to offer a few tips and tricks for writing about game design. When I started writing about video games, I relied on a mostly “narrative-centric” approach. I think this is very normal for people because we’re all familiar with content and discussing it. We do it when we talk about books, television, or movies, and it’s natural to apply those skills to video games. From the writer’s and publisher’s perspective, it also makes better business sense because more readers will understand what you’re saying if you focus on content. The issue is that not every game really fits into this single perspective. A lot of them don’t have plots or have stupid ones, but their gameplay is still superb. Sometimes people will glorify the story of a game far beyond its meager offerings just because they like the gameplay, or worse, give it a low score because the plot is silly despite the game’s quality. It’s for this reason that I think the best game critics are ones that can handle multiple approaches to a video game depending on if it’s a story game or a design-oriented experience.

Most people understand game design when you talk to them about it in terms of what they like or dislike, but the actual discourse as the critic begins to examine the nitty gritty details can be so mechanical that often readers are understandably put off by the process. You’re just rattling off rules, after all. There’s also the more fundamental question of how you go about criticizing a game’s design without devolving into just whining about difficulty or frustration. Here are some of my personal tips on writing a design-centric article. To keep things accessible, I made spiffy headers and will offer a brief explanation for each point as I go.

The Design Paragraph

In terms of writing style, the approach that I use to discuss design is similar to how a lawyer writes about law. You have an intro paragraph, then a design/law paragraph, then you start discussing what happened. The design paragraph will be a very short, dry thing in which you just explain the rules and controls. You then reference the paragraph throughout the rest of the piece as you go through content and quality issues. So, first, you develop a thesis paragraph or introduction. Then, you explain that a game works like, say, an FPS, how the X button controls jumps, the grappling hook does flips, and you do those with the bumper . . . or whatever.  Follwoing that, you comment that the game gets tedious when there are three platforms in a row with enemies. If a plot exists, you then go into that and talk about how it relates back to the design. I promote this approach because it encourages the writer to get all the design information out and onto the page. Often if the flow isn’t working, I’ll break up the information into multiple sections or add analysis to the design portion to make it less dry. To gauge how much design info you need, ask yourself a simple question: would a person who read this article understand how the game works? If the answer is no, consider adding more information.

Comparative Analysis

Another thing I ripped off from my legal education was the method by which judges decide how to apply rules when resolving a lawsuit. It’s a principle called stare decisis, which means you check and see what other people did when confronted with a similar problem. To me, game design is mostly an exercise in conflict resolution. The player wants to get across a river. The designer, as the rule maker, allows them to jump. There are moments where jumping is too easy a solution, so more rules have to be applied to enforce a different solution. The main reason that a player is rejecting a rule is that they’ve encountered a game with similar circumstances that felt more fair. So when you’re saying something is badly designed, you’re mostly saying that the rules are arbitrary and that there are more efficient solutions. By comparing the conflicts and rules of other games, you can gauge their quality by addressing which one seemed to work better.

This is not necessarily an exercise in saying one rule system is superior to another. Like any good puzzle, there are always multiple design solutions to any given issue in a game and how well they work depends on a lot of factors. If it’s a horror game, having wonky controls might serve a larger point about the experience that it’s trying to create. If it’s an RTS, then there are all sorts of balancing issues that come into play. Try to look at the big picture and what the overall effect the design is having on the experience, not just your immediate reaction.

So, for example, comparing Halo 3 to Halo: Reach helps one explain the merits of either game. Halo: Reach requires a lot more aiming. Everyone has more health, and the player with the better shot will outlast someone shooting everywhere in a fight. Most players are going to have to ramp the sensitivity of the thumbstick to remain competitive and be more proficient at headshots. That takes more practice and muscle memory than the average FPS. In Halo 3, you could get away with being a bad shot more often because you could unload a few bullets into someone and then just close for melee. As a consequence Halo: Reach is not quite as beginner friendly as Halo 3. By using the examples and contrasts in play styles, you can effectively communicate that point without getting bogged down writing out lots of rules and details.

I should add that I haven’t played enough of Reach to fully grasp the game. This is just stuff that I’ve noticed that contrasts with my understanding of Halo 3. While single player games can be plowed through and grasped relatively quickly, multiplayer games take a long time to really fully understand. I usually make myself play an online FPS for two months before I’ll write about it, but really it just depends on the scope of the game. A large enough MMO could take years. I’ve never had the time for one.

Comparative analysis is also very handy for spotting what the conflict is in a game’s design. Design is an evolutionary process, and you can often trace the lineage of a concept to get a better grip on what tweaks are being made. Going back to Halo, you can start the comparison by asking what games the developers have been making. Before they were making Halo: CE, Bungie produced a squad RTS called Myth and its respective sequel. The first Halo carries these influences by having diverse yet balanced enemies and alien weaponry.  Each individual level is designed like an RTS puzzle in a similar style to the Myth games. Consequently most Halo games have difficulty with creating a sense of place and narrative because they are such carefully constructed combat spaces. They’re just big rooms and elaborate outdoor spaces for the player to have interesting fights in. A game like Modern Warfare, which has only one kind of enemy, is built around being a setting first and foremost in campaign mode. A particular flaw with MW2 is that it is comparatively uninteresting at higher difficulties because they just amp the health and damage of enemies. In a Halo game, the developers have changed enemy positions and made the combat puzzle more difficult. The comparison highlights the differences, goals, and ultimately what kinds of issues crop up depending on what the player is expecting from the game.

Watch People Play Games

I cannot stress this one enough. Whenever possible, hand the controller to someone else and watch them. See where they get lost, what parts confuse them, and gauge how long it takes before they want to quit. Even if they’re enjoying the game, see how they bend and twist the system. Do they just do the X, X, Y attack and never explore the others? Do they actually bother with magic, or do they just use the gun? A game critic is more proficient at video games than the average person, and you have to accept that this creates bias. I don’t play a game that I’m reviewing like a normal person does. For RPGs, I have to sample abilities and try new crap whenever possible. In an FPS, I see what happens if I screw up a mission. When I play a game for fun, I just milk whatever lets me win. Forums and YouTube videos are handy for a similar reason: you can see how other people play the game and thus how diverse its gameplay really is. Often when I’ve been tempted to dismiss a game’s design as stupid, I go online and see people doing amazing things with it. In games, more than any other medium often the problem is just you.

Challenge Yourself

The best way to learn about discussing design is to just write about a game that has no story. There are hundreds of them and often they’re free. The results don’t have to be spectacular, and you only get better the more that you practice. As you get used to it, you’ll start to develop your own tricks for keeping the writing engaging and not just turning discussion into design summary. Remember that the difference between a critical analysis and a gamefaq is that somebody who has never played the game can still gain something from good analysis.

That’s the gist of everything that I’ve learned over the past three years about discussing video games. The rest was just me testing and improving my writing skills. There’s mountains of crap I could mention for what makes something good design, but you can go through my past articles if you want to see that. As I got more experience in law school in discussing rule systems, those ideas fed my video game work. And in many ways, video games influenced my perception and understanding of law. Whenever I had to write a paper or answer a law exam question, I’d always start by telling myself, “Write a game FAQ about it.” The bulges and flaws in game design that I know how to spot have informed my understanding of what makes for bad law and what sorts of conflicts they generate. So in many ways, all the columns and blogs that I’ve written have been my own private three year course on video games and law. I hope the work has been helpful and again, thank you for your time.

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