One of the most challenging things about being a writer on games is that they are such complicated, personal things, and yet our readership and the product-oriented culture around them seems always to demand that we be "objective," or analytic.
There's this idea that somehow we can arrive at an absolute conclusion, and if a sufficient number of people disagree with our conclusion, it must mean we were incorrect, somehow. It was easier to negotiate this kind of absolutism when games were simple creatures -- you remember those childhood magazines, and how they dissected games into core elements to be evaluated separately (Graphics! Sound! "Fun Factor"?) and then averaged into a number.
But the more mature and diverse, the more rich and varied games become, the harder it is to establish some kind of baseline against which to measure all things. Each game is its own unique creature; rather than form absolute judgments on them, we increasingly form relationships to them, and those relationships inform how we express ourselves about them.
That's why I so rarely do reviews. I did give Atlus' Catherine a 7 -- and it still bothers me, because I still love to talk to people about this game and show it to them and that number tells them nothing.
Surely our attachment to a game, our level of interest and the way we share it says volumes more about the game than the measured, buy-or-not conclusions we've handed down from our professional spaces.
Last year, my colleague Kirk Hamilton and I did a long exchange of letters on Final Fantasy 7, about which I'm incredibly nostalgic and which Kirk had never played. That difference in perspective helped us discover new and interesting things about a ten year-old game, and our readers told us they loved coming along for the ride.
With that in mind, my colleague Quintin Smith and I decided to do an unusual correspondence about Dyad, an abstract visual "racer" of a kind that defies definition -- and eludes the assignment of a tidy number.
He's into it; I'm not so sure. Neither of us can really say why. So we decided to reject "reviewer" hats completely and talk about the game within the context of our lives as human beings. I learned a lot in the process, and I had fun. And it's funny! Or, he is, at least, I can't speak for myself.
Handling game criticism from this angle is certainly not a referendum against reviews, or on other ways people choose to analyze and opine on games; personally, I hope a wide array of approaches continues to exist, since everything has its merits.
It's just the games press is always wanting developers to try something new, and to experiment, and they've been doing such a good job of it that we've got to try new things as writers if we're going to have any hope of parsing it in a way that will inform, entertain and provoke our readership.
For me this time, I think an honest discussion is more valid than any attempt I could have made to grasp at a clinical conclusion. We also both felt that giving a glimpse inside our lives in this way was the best way to show the game and its creators the respect they deserve, regardless of what either of us feels toward the game.