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12/12/2003

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William

The review is better than most, granted.

But his concept of how moral choice should operate in a videogame seems flawed somehow. He's disappointed that there isn't a reward for the moral choice of saving innocent lives.

That morality should be explicitly rewarded no longer makes it morality. It makes it a reward system, a mercenary contract. Granted, there's something classically Christian (at least the saved-by-works school of Christianity) - that the reason to do good is so that you can go to heaven. But then there's no moral choice involved, just a deal - you give me that, I'll do this.

The "reward" for moral choice should be knowing that you made a moral choice. We can reward moral choices along the way, to bring more value to wanting to be a moral person, or at least behave like one.

This is why, in spite of everything, I think that GTA3 is a highly moral game: because it takes moral questions outside of the simple reward/punishment formula that informs a lot of this kind of language.

I usually play videogames in ways that confrom with my morals - avoiding betrayals, trying to be honest and compassionate, etc. When I've broken those rules, I've felt both a thrill of naughtiness and a naggind discomfort at the same time. It may not be a matter of the consequences of my actions that make me project my real-world ethics into game-situations: instead, I think it's a matter of protecting a certain image I have of my self as a moral agent.

Andrew

Before reading the article and commenting on it, I'd like to take this opportunity to comment on the notion I've seen espoused here and in a few other places (Penny-Arcade, of all places) that games are the most subjective experience and it's futile to try to attach an "objective" number to them. I believe that this is a fallacy; I think games in their present state are about as subjective as any other medium, and can be evaluated in similar ways to those (there are maybe a few exceptions- the Sims, for one). I think the "interactive" element of games is what leads to this fallacy- but as has been pointed out here, your average vocabulary of "verbs" in a video game is extremely limited, even in open-ended games, so the ways a person can respond doesn't signficantly vary any more than music or film, or poetry (except in terms of skill level, but that is becoming an obsolete standard.) This is not to deny the subjective element, but I don't think we should throw out the baby with the bathwater.

I think the current rubric of game criticism is not inherently flawed, but the actual standards- ie what is "good" gameplay?- should be reevauluated. For instance, I think an understanding of the standard "breakdown" (graphics, gameplay, sound) could be evaluated more in terms of a game's aesthetic structure, storytelling modes, or other more sophisticated ideas about games. Games can still be referred to by a score, not as an "end-all" evaluation but an aid to understanding the game; as long as each number is qualified with a textual meaning (a la the ratings scale at Pitchfork).

It seems that this review approaches some of these principles, but in forming it around his personal response, I feel that he is putting the cart before the horse, as it were (I know, two hackneyed and cliched sayings in one post; sue me.)

(That makes three.)

Jason

I did take Smith's Manhunt review to be a "breath of fresh air" -- but it still ended up reading like any another review. Try this one out, from mbf tod@y a blog from an Italian fellow named Matteo Bittanti.

ClockworkGrue

I've also read Matteo's article on Manhunt, but in my opinion, it was too much article, not enough review. Although the points he makes are interesting, at the end, I didn't really didn't feel like I understood what playing the game might like, while Smith's did work for me. Perhaps it's a personal taste issue, but I couldn't help but feel that what Matteo is actually doing is using Manhunt to critique the actual city of Milan.

Jason

Yup, I agree Matteo does use Milan as a backdrop for his piece heavily. And yeah, taste is a point. But wow, we're discussing how people write about games -- never imagined gaming would grow so cool!

Bowler

I loved this review, but at the same time I miss the "score" options.

As a consumer, there's two things I need to see out of a review:

A). Is it a "rent," or a "buy."
B). If it's a "buy," how does it rate to comparable (if possible) titles.

Smith's review solves the "buy or rent" category for me nicely. It's a rent. I'd like to check out the gory deaths and see just how shocking they are, but it seems that there isn't enough there to bother finishing the game.

Since it's not a buy, I'm not as concerned about it having a score. Maybe it's not even worth a score. But I for one do like the score system (and please, let's get rid of this merciful "curve" system of giving everything a seven to a nine) as it's more nuanced than the film industry's "rock or suck" philosophy it's adapted as of late. In film reviews, regardless of the score, the movie is either a total hit or a complete miss. This sort of mentality has led to sites like rotten tomatoes, which while fun for quotable lines, it unfortunately inspires reviewers to either lavish praise or come up with "The-Best-Quotable-Putdown-of-All-Time." I'm tired of a thumbs-up or thumbs-down style of a review, and keeping game reviews on a ten point scale would help alleviate this.

But more importantly Smith's review takes a critical look at the game as a whole, not just pointing out what's right and wrong with it, but as it's Rockstar, attempts to wrap his head around what they were thinking when they created it.

Couldn't we have both? A score system combined with deep analysis? It's not an insurmountable goal.

Andrew

I think reviews should move away from the "worth buying." I remember reading that one of the primary goals of criticism (in this case it was literary, but I think it applies here) is to determine whether or not the work should have been made in the first place- ie the worth of the work. This is why "replay value" is such a determining factor in most reviews now, because if you only get like 10 hours of gameplay, it isn't "worth" the $40 you pay. But I don't think the worth of games should be reduced to a monetary value; the experience that you get playing Ico is priceless, even though that game itself is rather short.

Not to get all marxist, but this is a huge problem I have with capitalism and the "commodification" of culture; it assigns an arbitrary monetary worth onto cultural artifacts. For instance, is the lord of the rings dvd really "worth" 29.99 (or however much it costs)? But we must ask ourselves that question when we stand in line to buy it- this is why much critical journalism is reduced to weighing a score against a price; but I think understanding the worth of a work is much more than just a numbers game.

Erin

I think both styles of review serve a purpose, and I think both can be done well. I like to think of the two styles as "before" and "after" reviews.

If I'm simply toying with the idea of whether to plunk down 30 bucks on a game, I'm not interested in reading a 2500-word analytical essay that explores the game's more abstract concepts. These kinds of essay-style reviews inevitably contains game spoilers anyway, which annoys me to no end. At this stage, I'm just looking for a technical run-down and a concise opinion stating whether it's worth my time to investigate this game further.

It's after I've tasted the game for myself that I like to turn to the meatier, more tangential critiques and weigh that critic's opinion against my own. It's now that I want to read beautiful, detailed, self-indulgent writing. Not before.

BrainFromArous

Reply to William...

The "reward" for moral choice should be knowing that you made a moral choice. We can reward moral choices along the way, to bring more value to wanting to be a moral person, or at least behave like one.

That is self-contradictory.

This is why, in spite of everything, I think that GTA3 is a highly moral game: because it takes moral questions outside of the simple reward/punishment formula that informs a lot of this kind of language.

Which means what, exactly? You can play and win GTA3 as as murderous criminal. How is that "moral?"

eli

"Not to get all marxist, but this is a huge problem I have with capitalism and the "commodification" of culture; it assigns an arbitrary monetary worth onto cultural artifacts."

No, it assigns a monetary worth that is exactly what people will pay for it. It's not arbitrary at all. If the game isn't worth $40, nobody will buy it, and the price will be reduced. End of story.

Lev

Unless a government protects the free market from working by extending protections to organizations that would otherwise be feeling the effects of devaluation.

(Sorry, just being contrary.)

Re: morality in GTA3, at some point he mentions how the 'sandbox' aspect of GTA somewhat mitigates the murder/death/kill plotline and offers you a choice to either advance the plot by commiting crimes or play around in the city. I'm not arguing that this is a good argument :)

It's certainly a far cry from something like KOTOR, which is structured so that one is forced to make moral choices in the role of your character, which of course extends on to the player themselves.

Philip

Re: Morality Rather than complaining that he wasn't rewarded for making a morally "good" decision, I think the author simply wished to see some consequence of this action in the game. For instance, one of the "innocent" people might have turned out to be another ruthless killer who was a particularly difficult boss. This can be viewed as either reward or punishment, but at least it suggests to the player that actions do not take place in a vacuum.

jane

another interesting, thought shorter, review of it at the BBC.

rabbit

I hope this plug isn't totally out of line...

In response to the lack of good review site out there, I've actually just started my own. My aim is to review games in such a way that the reader can actually tell if *they* will like it. The reviews I (soon: we) do are long, with only the last page of the review focusing on such things as graphics and sound quality, etc.

I debated getting rid of a rating system altogether, but I've decided to keep them for those who find them useful. One of the other problems I find, related to this (ratings) is that review text often contradicts the ratings given. A recent Deus EX:IW review by Gamespy (or was it Spot?), thrashed the game in the review but ended up giving it some rediculously high number like 8 or 9 or of 10. The review read like a 6.5 at best.

Keeping on topic: the Manhunt review in question is precisely the kind of review I'll be encouraging my other reviewers to do. We've only got one review up there; it's for Max Payne 2. And expect I may get some flack for giving it 5/5, but I really did *love* the game, and despite my obvious affection for it, I think that anyone who probably wouldn't like the game would be able to figure that out based on my review...

rabbit

Regarding the reward/morality thing: in theory, yes being moral is supposed to be its own reward. But in the case of Manhunt - the guy isn't moral - he's a serial killer or something - so rescuing civilians had better come with a reward - for him, at least.

In a sort of contrast to the idea that "morality is its own reward" is the idea that living a moral life is more rewarding. Depening on how you look at it, it's either a very christian idea or a very hindu one...

I'm finding right now that in Knights of the Old Republic, you typically have three options when considering whether or not to do a task:

1. do it without asking for a reward (which you will get, anyway)
2. do it but, require a reward
3. do it and demand more of a reward than is being offered

The first option often gets you "light side" points. The second, is neutral. The third generally gets you "dark side" points.

One other thing I've finding about KOTOR is that the dark side game is more intriguing, and your characters ends up better equiped...

rabbit

Regarding the reward/morality thing: in theory, yes being moral is supposed to be its own reward. But in the case of Manhunt - the guy isn't moral - he's a serial killer or something - so rescuing civilians had better come with a reward - for him, at least.

In a sort of contrast to the idea that "morality is its own reward" is the idea that living a moral life is more rewarding. Depening on how you look at it, it's either a very christian idea or a very hindu one...

I'm finding right now that in Knights of the Old Republic, you typically have three options when considering whether or not to do a task:

1. do it without asking for a reward (which you will get, anyway)
2. do it but, require a reward
3. do it and demand more of a reward than is being offered

The first option often gets you "light side" points. The second, is neutral. The third generally gets you "dark side" points.

One other thing I've finding about KOTOR is that the dark side game is more intriguing, and your characters ends up better equiped...

rabbit

doh. sorry bout that.

Andrew

No, it assigns a monetary worth that is exactly what people will pay for it. It's not arbitrary at all. If the game isn't worth $40, nobody will buy it, and the price will be reduced. End of story.

I still think it's arbitrary insofar as we are discussing what it is actually worth. The fact that they have to reduce the price means that, despite all their marketing research, they still can't tell exactly what people are willing to pay for a specific movie, cd, book, or piece of software. So in that sense it's arbitrary. If they weren't arbitrary, then we wouldn't see rows of games that are all the same price- they would be priced according to some detailed appraisal of how the game will sell. But it's not the market's job to make critical evaluations, which is why sometimes I feel like the "business of culture" isn't their business at all. (And I do realize that until VERY recently, most modern music, film, and video games were not possible without the astronomical budgets that market capitalism could create for them. But in principle, I still find it offensive; because the only critical standard for a company is "will it sell?", and it reduces or eliminates the possibility for more "fringe" or "art house" games.)

Anyways, in terms of the artistic worth of a game (my proposed goal of game criticism) the price is entirely arbitrary. Simply put, most game criticism now is like consumer reports; they test games to make sure there are no huge mechanical flaws (mechanics as in gameplay, balance, play time, things like that), and give you a rating to see if it's worth buying.

To me, this is like reviewing a film in terms of production values; you would dock points if the set wasn't convincing, or fell apart in a scene, or if they didn't do enough takes of a scene, or if the boom mike was showing, or if the plot had basic coherence; things we all take for granted in a modern film (they have school for that.) Hopefully someday we will take things like gameplay balance, graphics (in terms of "eye candy" or "special effects") and presentation for granted in a similar way and hold them up to a higher standard.

Video games are still young; I was discussing this with a friend the other day and he made a good point about film; the first "critical" statements about movies must have been something like "Fantastic! It really looked as if there was train, right there in theatre!!!" I can only hope that we will get over the similar "spectacle" in video games.

eli

I still think it's arbitrary insofar as we are discussing what it is actually worth.

Who makes this determination? You? Anything is worth exactly what someone else will pay for it, and not a penny more. I guess we could argue about artistic value but because that is completely subjective we're unlikely to come to an agreement on it. The market's objective is to determine an item's worth to another person for any reason, be it art, sadistic desire for snuff role-playing, whatever. As such it is completely dependent on individuals and their own self interest.

The fact that they have to reduce the price means that, despite all their marketing research, they still can't tell exactly what people are willing to pay for a specific movie, cd, book, or piece of software.

They usually drop games in at $40 or therabouts, that seems to be the predetermined price-point for them, because people will pay it. Good (or popular, which is the same thing as far as the market is concerned) games stay at that price for a long time, and unpopular games quickly drop in price or dissapear off the shelves. As a former TurboGrafx owner, I have seen it happen first-hand. ;^)

I agree with the rest of what you said: before filmmaking was an 'art', it was just another skill. Current game reviews tend to look at how skillfully a game is made instead of what kind of art value it has. The question is when does a medium transition itself from skill to art, and how do we differentiate between the two things. Is it even worth the time and trouble to review games as art if the game creation industry isn't ready to produce them as art? That's what we've got to figure out.

san

It's perhaps a better angle, but my more general complaint is that many game reviews -- even in major media-owned print magazines -- are barely coherent, let alone grammatically correct or -- heaven forbid -- stylistically compelling.

Hugh "Nomad" Hancock

On morality - thanks, Andrew. That point irritated me too.

Always rewarding "good" behaviour is a Pavlovian teaching tool, nothing more - certainly not in any way a spur to the discussion or consideration of morality.

I suspect that this design choice was a decision, not an accident. A part of Manhunt's raison d'etre seems to be to face people with a vision of a world where only "evil" (cruel, unjust, whatever) actions are rewarded.

Do our players just do the "right" thing because they know they'll be rewarded, or will they do it even when they're actively punished for it? The latter is virtually a cliche definition of a moral decision.

Philip

In response to Hugh:

Repeated behavior in spite of consequences is also a definition of addiction. (From a no less compelling authority than Dr. Drew of Love Lines.) So, is someone who repeatedly does good things in spite of punishment morally addicted?

san

Off topic: Drew Pinsky is a specialist in a field with something like a 90% negative outcome rate. What does that say about him, anyway?

dhex

that his field as a whole is completely full of shit and is the domain of pill-pushing moralists and other dreary characters?

dr. drew has declared in past books that "excessive" tattoos and piercings are evidence of severe emotional damage and that consensual sodomy in heterosexual relationships is a form of abuse. anyway you slice it, he's a fucktard.

the question of art's worth is artificially linked to its cost, maybe because those little green talismans are so terribly attractive or simply because money is a commonality we all share, assuming we have some.

but what i don't understand is how putting a pricetag on effort or even just plain manipulation by the latest owner of a piece of art degrades that art itself. the worth of the work is timeless, like beauty or a really good lay.

Andrew

but what i don't understand is how putting a pricetag on effort or even just plain manipulation by the latest owner of a piece of art degrades that art itself. the worth of the work is timeless, like beauty or a really good lay.

It doesn't actually hurt the intrinsic value of the art. But it skews how a critic evaluates it; and we are talking about criticism here.

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