Still working on it

After much contemplating and an abundance of hemming and hawing, I’ve determined that I’m confused.

Let me explain: earlier this month the video game industry saw the much anticipated release of Uncharted 3, an Indiana Jones-esque adventure game that serves as sequel to two critically lauded titles of the current gaming generation.

The game received rave reviews, as was expected, but then, almost out of nowhere, the title was panned by the A.V. Club in a 369-word review that highlighted the gameplay mechanics as the central failure of the series.

“[Bad] guys still require three or four shotgun blasts to the head before they’re deterred,” says reviewer Scott Jones, “and the game’s star, Nathan Drake, still has no clue whatsoever about how to crouch.”

What’s interesting about this review is not so much that someone out there didn’t like the game, but that it raises the question of how to evaluate modern video games in the first place. That is, when approaching this kind of a product, should we focus on technical achievements, presentation, gameplay mechanics, story and overall cost? Is any one of these elements more important that another in our evaluation of a game like Uncharted, or something of the like?

Specific gameplay elements aside, video games today take painstaking efforts to create an immersive world for the player. The film industry does the same, but with a different set of tools, allowing for a type of immersion that’s much more voyeuristic and passive than what’s expected when playing a game. By nature, games require their audience to be active in the process; the immersive world of the game must grasp the player, but in turn the player must enable development of the experience.

All of this is to say, video games exist in a unique world where evaluation should ultimately rest on the level of technical achievement.

I’m not claiming the more processing power you have the more enjoyment you’ll get out of video games, but consider the fact that in a medium where the immersive experience of manipulating the world in front of you is paramount to your satisfaction, all elements of what contribute to that experience should be considered. And like it or not, these elements are all tied to the technical capabilities of any given game, on any given platform.

I don’t mean to pick on this particular A.V. Club review, but it serves as an example of why today there still exists a din of video game reviews that invariably miss the point of this type of media.

Control mechanics are without doubt an important aspect of any game, but unlike, say, a television show or a feature-length movie, it’s less responsible to demark a game for one element without addressing the topic of the experience — the technical achievement in pulling all things together: sound mixing, presentation, story, graphics, gameplay, control, style, etc..

Apart from your typical slew of negative responses to an opinion on the Web, I doubt many would have a problem giving Uncharted 3, Call of Duty, Halo or Legend of Zelda, for that matter, a terrible review score so long as it’s justified, it’s earned, through actual discussion of, again, technical achievement and experience over the ability to crouch.

Okay, now I fear I’m droning on.

And I’m still confused, but I know why. In the past 30 years, the past 10 especially, the video game industry has grown at an exponential rate, surpassing both the music and film industries in the process. Mainstream media has been somewhat slow to keep up with this growth, but now that it has there are ample opportunities to write about the topic of video games; be it the family friendly Wii, the college friendly Xbox/PlayStation 3, or the omnipresent iPhone, there is more coverage of these technologies now than ever.

The problem with this is that the content is more often than not predicated on the availability to write on the subject rather than the desire to do so. The reason I’m confused is now every outlet is trying to tell me something about these so-called games, but I’m not sure I’m getting the right information.