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.
I like to think of videogame reviews now as the three major networks before the arrival of cable. They serve a broad audience very well, and they’ll always be there, but the niche channel is coming – the long tail well on its way into the world of videogame reviews. People who play videogames come from a huge variety of backgrounds, experiences and educations. Some media outlets have realized this and started addressing these more specific groups. What They Play aims itself at the discerning parent, RPGFan assumes its audience has a built in tolerance for certain aspects of RPG gaming and mainstream publications offer short and breezy recommendations. I think as the medium grows there will continue to be a stream of new voices, each with their own biases that the reader happily takes into account. The idea of an impartial reviewer is falling to the wayside as players flock to the writer, or site, with whom their tastes most closely align.
It’s this coming reality that will lead to the closer readings and critiques of videogames everyone has been clambering for. The call for reviews to simply be “more intellectual” has turned into a loaded phrase that contains everyone’s frustrations with the lack of more audience specific reviews. To use the film world as an example, not everyone will be served by an Ain’t It Cool News super hero movie review just as not everyone will care for Anthony Lane’s digressions about the depressing state of feminism on display in the Sex and The City movie.
At some point in the near future reviewers will start focusing on the parts of games that are most salient to them. People will recommend games based on the art direction alone. “Forget the crappy controls. It’s worth the 60 dollars solely to see the lighting in level 3.” Sites will review Call of Duty 8 purely based on its multiplayer portion. The idea that graphics, gameplay and story all need to be mentioned in a proper triple A game review will no longer be a standard expectation to which all reviewers are held. That’s when games will finally get the truly balanced reviews they deserve. Perhaps the next Ratchet and Clank iteration will be pretty much like the last one, except that its environments are incredibly evocative and easy to navigate. For some, this game will only be worth a middling score at best. But for others, with trained artistic eyes, Insomniac’s latest will deserve special praise and perhaps be their game of the year. Considering the amazing work Dezern and the Insomniac team do in this regard, the day when such a thing occurs can’t come soon enough.
Tom Endo has a reviewer’s bias, but he’s not sure what it is yet.