As I sat in on a TGC presentation by Chad Dezern, art director for Insomniac Games, about mise en scène in videogames I realized that all the debates about videogame reviews are working under a flawed assumption. Many of the complaints, symposiums and snipes regarding reviews can be traced back to the fact that videogame critics all believe they need to write for one audience. It is the fallacious assumption that there is a unified front of core gamers who are or aren't being uniformly served by videogame reviews today; the notion that there's some ultimate form of videogame review towards which all writers should be toiling and maybe a few will actually reach. This approach doesn't make any sense, and Dezern's work with Insomniac illustrates why.
As an art director, Dezern has to think about all sorts of visual elements in a game, all of which add up to the game's mise en scène, which is really just a fancy French word describing all the design aspects in a film or now a videogame. During his presentation, Dezern referenced no small number of major visual artists and filmmakers who have influenced his work on games like Resistance and the Ratchet and Clank series. He spoke of Piranesi engravings that serve as the gold standard for complicated but understandable level layouts, Winslow Homer paintings that provide inspiration for effective lighting and Fritz Lang's Metropolis which directly influenced the imagery in sections of Ratchet and Clank. He also thinks about things like how well Assassin's Creed used vertical space to guide the player in spite of the natural tendency to look downwards. Simply put, Dezern is a formally trained artist, and as such, he thinks about the art direction in games in a way that's nearly impossible for anyone else, save other artists, to think about.
For a trained artist like Dezern, it would be pretty easy to review how impressive a game's mise en scène is: the innovative or derivative use of elements like value, framing and depth of field. Most videogame reviewers can't do that, and even if they could, even fewer would assume any of their audience actually wanted to read about it. And yet surely developers and some players would appreciate this kind of insight.
Appropriately, reviews are being written to address the largest population of serious gamers, 14-34 year old males. They're all written with certain assumptions about what this audience expects in its games and what it finds entertaining as well. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but I can also guarantee that as the medium matures people like Dezern, who are highly educated and have levels of appreciation for certain elements in a game no general review can hope to address, will start to demand different types of reviews. They will be looking for critiques that make a different set of assumptions about their audience than the ones currently being applied by the typical videogame review.