It may come as a surprise to some, but I don‘t particularly enjoy writing a negative review. Once you‘ve met a few game designers, or seen the journey from prototype to finished product, you understand that a lot of effort went into creating a game. Calling it a failure doesn’t come quite as easy, then. It‘s not just me, either. Other reviewers tend to soften their final verdicts on games a little, too. You may read of a game not being „all bad“, or „well-suited for certain types of groups“ or just „not my cup of tea“. These caveats are appropriate and often a sign of a decent reviewer. After all, it‘s difficult to force games into a simplistic binary of good & bad, pro & con or black & white.
But just because you realise things aren’t simply black or white, doesn’t mean that black or white does not exist. A game’s quality may reside on a spectrum, but those still need cut-off points. So I ended up asking around in various online and offline circles what a game would have to do, to earn the distinction of being bad.
The responses were quite varied. To some, a game was bad, if it had too little player agency; if the actions they took had too little effect on the game state or its outcome. Even worse, if this was tied to a long play time. Complicated rules, non-intuitive mechanics or a particularly cumbersome turn structure were mentioned as well. In other words, issues of playability and usability ranked highly. A game deserved to be called bad, if its usability was a mess.
Other responses veered more towards subjective experiences: a game not being fun or particularly frustrating. This, too, was perfectly understandable. Our gut instincts tend to reject things that don’t feel good. But if you review games, you can‘t really apply such criteria and expect to be taken seriously. If you‘re mad about getting hosed in a game, you shouldn‘t call it bad or a failure. People expect better and more refined judgement from reviewers and experienced gamers.
Evasive answers to my question turned out to be quite common as well. People would point out that quality is subjective, or that expectations determined whether a game fared well in our estimation or not. Some pointed out that good or bad is entirely subjective, and you can‘t assume to speak for all people. Some mentioned that a game being good has many different aspects to it.
All those statements are, of course, true in a way, but not really helpful. Because at the heart of my question lay the assumption that in order to judge a game, there had to be some criteria the game could conceivably fail to meet. Without such a criteria, no game could actually be bad. And if that’s the case, what’s the point in calling any other game good?
The more I think about this, the more this distinction strikes me as quite important. At least if you are trying to rate games by quality, for example in order to write worthwhile reviews. But the answer isn‘t about finding the one, indisputable line that separates good games from bad ones. If such a line actually existed, you‘d hardly need more than a small handful of reviewers to comment on the entire hobby. Game criticism would be little more than a benchmark test, which a machine or algorithm could perform for us sooner or later.
But there is more to a good game review than that. A good piece of criticism has to be more than a simple relating of your own play experience. Putting into words what play felt like is only the first layer of gaming criticism. Critical engagement must include a careful analysis of one‘s own experience, in order to articulate the reasons for that experience. It’s not enough to name, or vividly describe what playing the game felt like. A review ought to name the parts of the game that helped create the moments that shaped the experience. Criticism is about recognizing the cause and effect between all facets of the game, and revealing them to others. And all of this is, at its heart, is only a lead up to passing judgement on a game. One that, in its crudest and most simplistic function, has to draw a line between good and bad. I think it’s quite difficult to review games, if you can‘t confidently tell where the grey ends and the black/white begins.