Game reviews and morality

I recently reviewed a game called GB&W. I awarded it a 2/5 for a variety of reasons: it was based on what I perceived to be a flawed, frustrating design template. Its innovations, such as they were, achieved nothing more than weakening the venerable Breakout formula. It was overlong, and unsatisfying. And it was a game that made me feel uncomfortable.

I mentioned this latter issue in my review, but only in passing. If I’m honest, it was a significant factor in my decision to give the game so low a score.* The game was flying low either way, but it was my discomfort with the game which pushed me over the edge. Which made me wonder about, well, whether we should expect critics of games to allow moral judgements to sway their reviews. I’m someone who hates the idea of ‘objective’ reviews, but at the same time for or against a game on moral grounds is a particularly contentious, and potentially alienating, thing to do. Particularly when dealing with a game like GB&W, which is not an obvious candidate for casting moral aspersions in the first place – it has no plot to speak of, and its particularly crude graphics don’t seem like they’d be particularly evocative.

GB&W - moral dynamite

Which is to say: were this a game which took a strong position on any significant philosophical or political issues, then I think criticising it for this would be completely reasonable within a review. So a review of the most recent Call of Duty criticising it for promoting a gung-ho, Americentric view of the world would be entirely reasonable. Similarly, a review of Fate of the World criticising it for being ecological propaganda would be a reasonable stance to take. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with the criticism, but I would accept that these games warrant such attention: they’re openly espousing their own, very specific world-views, and it’s therefore reasonable to tackle these issues in any criticism of them.

But GB&W isn’t a game like this. It is, after all, a Breakout clone. Albeit a Breakout clone where humanoid enemies rush towards your ‘bat’: a puck-shaped hover tank which automatically turns to face the nearest enemies and guns them down. Constantly. And it’s this element which feels so… off. As I mention in my review, this is billed as the game making a nod towards 2D shoot-em-ups. Only, where shmups invariably place you as a plucky fighter engaging a massive horde of dangerous enemies, generally with giant bosses to fight at the end, in this case you’re controlling a tank massacring tiny humanoids armed only with short-ranged weapons that barely damage you.

Which could potentially make for an interesting game anyway, were it in any way explored. Consider games like Syndicate, for example, where you help an evil megacorporation brainwash the masses, which works as a not-so-subtle criticism of corporate influence over governments.** Or Far Cry 2’s attempts – however successful you consider them to be – to have the player understand just how amoral their character is, and how negative an influence they had on the world around them. Games which force players into an uncomfortable position can be powerful tools for getting a message across. And, as such, these are also games which are, and should be, criticised on moral grounds.

Far Cry 2 - actually has a message

But GB&W doesn’t do this. As there’s no greater context given for your actions, it’s hard to know what the designer wanted. Well, actually, that’s not true. Rather, the lack of context suggests that the designer put it in because he thought it would be a fun element – as he says, he wants to add shmup-like elements to the game, presumably for extra challenge. Which is fair enough; what is troublesome about his implementation is the representation of the enemy as simple humanoids, who dissolve into a pool of blood on being shot. It rather feels as though we are meant to enjoy this slaughter, in much the same way that we experience catharsis in the mayhem in Grand Theft Auto, say. But even GTA tries to put something of a moral framework over your character now, while the most openly nihilistic clones coat their ultraviolence with a layer of comedy to soften the blow*** GB&W offers nothing: just Breakout and slaughter, without reason.

Now, I could choose to read into this. I could decide that the super-advanced hover tank represents modern, imperialist nations, while the enemies are the foreigners that these nations choose to war on. I could suggest that in having the player gun down these people without consequence, and indeed requiring and rewarding them for doing it, the game is tacitly approving of such behaviour, and trying to desensitise the player to such things. I could do these things, but I won’t, because I really doubt that was the designer’s intention. As I say, I’m pretty sure he just put it in because he thought it would be a fun element. But in putting this element in, in assuming that constantly gunning down poorly-armed people is something most people will find entertaining, he displays a moralistic view of the world that does not fit with my own.

Which brings me back to my problem: should I have allowed myself to be swayed by this moral dissonance between me and the designer? When I’m almost certain that the designer didn’t set out to make any kind of statement, is it fair for me to criticise the game for offending my sensibilities, or should I keep those thoughts out of any direct criticism, saving them for games that intend to convey a message? I really don’t know. That’s why I’ve posted this, and why I’d appreciate any feedback you have to offer on the subject. Even if it is to stop being a pretentious moron.

*Had I been writing without editorial guidelines or my discomfort I would still have given it a two, as I’m a strong believer in using the full range of a rating scale. Well, actually I wouldn’t have given it any rating, because I’m an even stronger believer in not using a rating scale at all, but I digress. Within the guidelines of the site I was writing for, anything less than a three is ostensibly reserved for fundamentally broken games. As flawed as this was, it didn’t fit that description – as I admitted openly. I ended up having a discussion with the owner of the site about my decision to give it a two, and he eventually supported my explanation for the game’s score – essentially that it was lacklustre in too crucial a way for it to be worth even a three. But I didn’t mention the discomfort factor to him.

**owing its setting and themes to the cyberpunk science-fiction genre, as popularised by William Gibson – which of course makes it even easier to read its message for any genre-savvy players.

***whether titles like Saints Row 2 are made more worthy by their parodic nature, or whether the moral overlay in the more recent GTA titles actually redeems them or simply seeks to hide the negative message of the games, is another discussion worth having, of course.


8 Responses to “Game reviews and morality”

  1. 1 Dmitry Timofeev 19/06/2011 at 8:11 pm

    You’ve got quite a vivid imagination. The game is designed with the only one purpose, and it is fun, just to fresh someone up like a cup of coffee, or just to relax for a short period of time within a working day, instead you think of political scrap, isnt’it a shame?
    Your review is like executing innocent indi developer!!!

  2. 2 Yann 19/06/2011 at 8:27 pm

    Hi Dmitry,

    I’m glad to get a response from you, actually – I can definitely understand why you’d see things that way, and I’d like to re-emphasise that I was “almost certain that [you] didn’t set out to make any kind of statement” – that it was meant as a simple, fun game. And that’s why I was unsure about whether to comment on my finding the game a little bit unsavoury, and my worrying whether my mild discomfort was making me more critical of your game than I should have been.

    As it is, after a lot of consideration I’m afraid I would have still marked your game as I did even if it hadn’t left me feeling somewhat uncomfortable – I simply didn’t feel that the game offered a particularly satisfying experience, or worked as a combination of genres.

  3. 3 Dmitry Timofeev 19/06/2011 at 9:13 pm

    First, what you wrote in the reviews did not contain game description and features, and thus it’s rather an opinion but not a review, and that should be avoided at Second, Your response is the first and the only one negative. May be you forgot that there are other people except you, who might have got other interests and preferences, and you can see the responses at . As a programmer I can estimate the game in this way – yes, it’s a very fast action discovering the phone abilities. The users agree with me in their responses and I’m very glad of this. However, I took into consideration some reasons in your article, I lowered the price and made some changes in the control process, thank you for this.

  4. 4 Yann 19/06/2011 at 9:35 pm

    I’m not sure I can accept a criticism whose core argument is that my review should match other reviews. The problem is that there isn’t such a thing as a truly objective review: we can simply describe the game and its features objectively, but the moment we start to critically analyse the game, subjectivity automatically comes into it. For example, Deus Ex is widely lauded as a brilliant game, but that doesn’t mean that somebody giving it a highly critical review, and scoring it down for (say) having a flawed combat system, is ‘wrong’ – it’s actually a problem with the games journalism industry that there is a tendency for reviewers to ‘fall in line’ with the popular view, more so than the critics of any other medium.

    Those people giving the game positive reviews? That’s because, well, they liked it. My disliking the game doesn’t invalidate their opinions in any way, and their liking it doesn’t invalidate, er, my criticism of the game. I can try to consider what other people might think of a game, but there are limits to that, and limits to its worth: if you want to look at the homogenised opinions of gamers, then that’s exactly what sites like Metacritic – and the site you link to above – are for.

    Shortest version: there’s no such thing as a truly objective review of a game. If there were, you’d only ever need one review per game. By necessity, reviews are subjective. I try to make my criticisms fair and constructive, but everything is still going to be based on my perspective, and I can’t avoid that. I’m sorry if you don’t agree with my criticism, or indeed if it seems at odds with the general opinion of the game, but I can’t change that!

    That said, I’m glad that you made some changes to the game – a lower price and different controls at the time of my review would indeed have made a difference to my opinion of the game, and I’m glad that, even if you disagreed with my review in general, you saw merit to some of my arguments: and, more impressively, were willing to act on them. That’s a rare attribute in a developer, and a great one: your willingness to try and improve the experience for your gamers is extremely noble.

  5. 5 gaSound 20/06/2011 at 6:37 am

    That’s what I love the British – “love it or hate it”. Marmite reaction..

  6. 6 Dmitry Timofeev 30/06/2011 at 12:29 pm

    I wouldn’t like you to understand me wrong, that’s why I can say that actually I’m discontent with the final judgment, but I liked your review and its style, and possibly I will address to you for my next project review

  7. 7 T J Farrenden 06/07/2011 at 7:06 pm

    Yann, enjoyed the review/reaction a lot, particularly your responses to the comments which were well thought out and argued. I wish there was more evidence of self-analysis in the opinion pieces that i read, very refreshing.

  8. 8 Yann 06/07/2011 at 10:41 pm

    Heh – a less forgiving person might suggest it’s less a refreshing piece of self-analysis, and more an overwrought piece of self-centred writing; but thanks for the comment.

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