Should a Game Be Judged for What It Isn’t?

So E3 was this week. What did I think? Some people will really enjoy what was represented. E3 is a space where companies try to put their best marketing foot forward. However, those who follow games actively have turned E3 into gaming Mecca or gaming Christmas. A mystical place where companies hear our wishes for games and answer them. Within this torrent of expectation vs. marketing, we all negotiate our thoughts about what we’ve been shown. Part of my E3 experience was watching ProJared recap each press conference. As part of this, he mentioned a note-worthy point. Critique the presentation you got, don’t judge the presentation because it’s not the presentation you wanted. For E3, grand advice. However, when viewed in the context of all games I wanted to examine this idea. Should a game be judged for what the game isn’t?

Of course, from one perspective, the answer is always no. When reviewing a product, you review what you are shown. You judge the elements of the game. Both the narrative ones and the mechanical ones. However, there are examples where you can look at a game based on what it is and also look at what it isn’t while still having a valid review. For example: Super Mario 3D Land is an enjoyable Mario experience with both some new, unique power-ups. However, Super Mario 3D World again relies on the rather tired Damsel-in-Distress trope with Bowser kidnapping seven fairies who are all coded female.
This is a perfectly valid review that focuses on what the game is and also what it isn’t. The game still contains narrative elements that seem to be a vestige from the series basic routes. Hypothetically, there is nothing wrong with rescuing someone kidnapped as the onus of a simple plot. However, the game is judged based on the repetition of the trope within the series. Critiquing the game for not changing with the times is judging the game for what it isn’t. However, this is valid because we are balancing the game against our expectations which are based on changing social values.
Joe Parlock of Let’s Play Video Games reviewed Kingdom Come: Deliverance and noted that its lack of diversity was a sore spot for a game that purported to be historically accurate. Trade and immigration have existed for all of recorded history. As part of that, no part of history was insular and wholly white. Likewise, LGBT people didn’t just appear in the past fifty years. They have been a part of history as well. There are some great historians doing work on finding evidence of this history that was often quashed by the hetero-normative structures of the past. To not put these elements within your game whose main selling point is historical accuracy feels like a shade of historical revisionism. What the game isn’t in this case is important.
On the other side of the scale, No Man’s Sky was judged as a game primarily for what it wasn’t. There was much discussion post-launch of No Man’s Sky trying to determine if the marketing has lied to them. Lead designer Sean Murray was accused of lying and compared to Peter Molyneaux. Molyneaux and Murray are now both infamous for over-promising features that didn’t make it through development and lots of the critique that was placed at No Man’s Sky was about the gulf of what was promised and the reality of the game. That is talking about what the game isn’t in one aspect. I do think this is worthy of note in a review though. A review that highlights this will give a greater understanding for those thinking of purchasing the game.
However, I also believe that there’s value in reviewing the game for what it is. Laura Kate Dale formerly of Let’s Play Video Games, now of Kotaku UK, revealed her relationship with No Man’s Sky as one of tumult. In an opinion piece some weeks after release, she spoke about how the games systems kept her engaged particularly as it related to her obsessive traits associated with her Aspergers. The piece is fascinating to me as I understood how No Man’s Sky’s gameplay loop could appeal. I sunk sixteen hours into No Man’s Sky myself as I found it a soothing game to play while listening to podcasts in the same way that one might find Euro Truck Simulator and its ilk calming.
Super Bunnyhop’s review of No Man’s Sky makes a cogent point about how the sheer scope of the game makes one feel infinitesimally small. Viewing No Man’s Sky from that lens makes it an interesting experience where you wander aimlessly through a lonely universe. There’s something interesting in judging the game on those terms rather than as a minefield of broken promises. Hbomberguy takes a fascinating look at the game as a lonely, introspective game simply by examining the game for what it contains. The lack of features that others saw due to their familiarity with the marketing was not a sore spot for Hbomb but rather an interesting subtextual existentialism that comes with being a space vagrant. That’s an interesting angle on the game and one that can only be considered by viewing the game as what it is.
So, do I agree with ProJared’s philosophy that we should only judge a game for what it is and not what it isn’t. Not really. Sometimes it is important to look at a game for what it is and sometimes what it isn’t is important. I think there is value in asking ‘From what I’ve played and what I think the game was trying to achieve, did the game achieve its purpose?’. All creative work exists for a purpose. You, as the artist, have a motivation behind the story you are telling. In the negotiation of that story, meaning is created between the person consuming the media and the author. In that way, meaning is the space between the work (the what it is) and what the ‘reader’ bring (the what it isn’t).
I think it’s a good lens for E3 however. E3 is a show of what people in the industry is working on. As the game develops, it will change. We have a closer lens on works in progress then ever before. As part of this, we can only judge what is shown to us. If a game isn’t shown, it wasn’t ready to be shown. For example:
‘I was expecting a dragon,’
‘In the Handmaid’s Tale?’
‘Yeah, the creators talked about enjoying Game of Thrones so I thought there’d be dragons.’
‘In the Handmaid’s Tale? No one said there would be a dragon in the show.’

There are some lens through which critiquing what isn’t there is fine but if you’re putting dragons in the Handmaid’s Tale, perhaps you’ve misread things.


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