In the first part of this series I wrote how a critic must recognise and classify different appeals of games. Part 2 was about understanding the medium of games, at least in its basic features, so that you can judge what a game actually does. Today I want to write about the third pillar of the critical craft: analysis of gameplay.
To clarify, I am not concerned with talking about the ideas and concepts used in the game. Gameplay analysis isn’t about breaking down a game’s rules, its theme or anything like that. A thorough analysis of those points can easily result in interesting content. However, in my opinion, it does not serve as game criticism in its original sense.
Instead, I want to focus on an analysis of play itself. If the purpose of a game is to be played; then a critique should capture and evaluate how well it does just that. If we accept that play is what happens at the table; then it also follows that criticism should be aimed at evaluating that. Therefore, as a critic, you must be able to identify, understand and evaluate play as you experience it.
This is analysis in the broadest sense: identifying the individual elements that something is made of. In the case of a game, this means that as a critic you not only see the obvious connections, but also notice the subtle interactions that reveal themselves through play. Above all, you must be able to carefully distinguish what the game contributes to the experience and what it does not.
At first glance, this may seem obvious, but it is in play that the greatest challenges await a critic. To play doesn’t just mean engaging in a shared activity, but also contributing to it. Who we are influences how we experience the game and changes how we feel about it.
To choose a particularly obvious example, it makes a noticeable difference in the evaluation of a game, if you’ve won or lost. For one thing, it changes the emotional context in which we perceive and experience the game. We judge a game in which each of our decisions was purposeful and advantageous differently than a game in which every decision turned out to be wrong or to our disadvantage. Contrary to the self-image of many players and critics, our emotional experience of the game strongly influences our judgement.
My point is not to say that we’re blinded by our feeling. My point is that critical analysis is not about paraphrasing how we felt about the game, but about asking how those feelings came about.
That “brutal honesty” that some see as essential to good criticism only deserves to exist here, if at all. Once you’ve acknowledged how you feel, you must also answer honestly if the game is the cause of it. Again and again, you must question yourself whether your judgement is based on a fair assessment of how the game played out or if you’re emotionally biased because of how the game went.
There’s the old joke that any game is good as long as you’re winning. But our good humour over the course of the game obviously affects how random, tactical or unbalanced we perceive a game to be. Especially people who consider themselves particularly independent and unbiased often run the risk of not questioning themselves further and end up writing personal mood pieces instead of critiques.
Once you have internalised this point of rigorous self-reflection, the somewhat trickier part of critiquing a gaming experience begins. You have to take the same hard look at what people say after the game is over. Their opinions and assessments are just as susceptible to bias as your own. While their feelings and perceptions are of course valid and shouldn’t be dismissed, when it comes to their reasoning, critics have to put that in the proper context, too. It obviously helps to keep in mind the many different appeals games can have (Part I) or how games function (Part II).
Post-game discussion (or debriefing) is an indispensable tool and resource for any critic. But it follows the same constraints as your own assessment does. Instead of taking every response and statement at face value, you have to take into account the bigger picture in which it was made. You have to be dispassionate and honest in assessing how your group responds to play. Even if players accurately perceive an experience (good or bad), what they consider the reasons for it may not always hit the mark. As a critic, you have to rank the applicability of all comments made by players (As an aside: designers are probably familiar with this from playtest games, in which many suggestions and explanations are thrown around and they have to make the call which of those are useful and which are not).
Critical analysis begins with articulating your experience of playing the game, and everything you felt during it. It then goes on to question and differentiate between what contribution the game made to the experience. The same applies to the experiences of the other players. Ideally, this creates a well-rounded picture of what the game does and does not do.
Criticism is based on such an analysis. Only then does evaluation enter into it. Whether a game is well-made or not, whether it’s fun or frustrating, or whether it succeeds in what it arguably sets out to do or not, always begins with a thorough analysis of what actually takes place when we play.