When I’m not holding things down here at Dork Shelf, I have a side gig reviewing games at Indie Game Reviewer. I bring it up because I recently reviewed Gods Will Be Watching, an independent game from Deconstructeam currently available on Steam. It is – without hyperbole – one of the most miserable games I’ve ever played.
In fact, it’s so bad that it’s made me reconsider the philosophy that I use to approach game reviews. I’m not going to review it again, but I feel like I need to explain why the game so aroused my ire because I want to clarify why bad reviews for otherwise passable video games are important for the medium.
I gave Gods Will Be Watching a negative (1.5 star) review because it’s a joyless video game that doesn’t make any kind of coherent point. But it is a functional video game, in the sense that the systems work as intended. That’s historically been enough to garner at least two stars out of five. Game critics – myself included – have typically graded on a letter curve where the worst scores are reserved solely for games that are broken, admittedly with good reason. Bad glitches are painfully obvious, and a game that is functionally unplayable will almost by definition fail to convey its intended purpose.
That’s not true of Gods Will Be Watching. If anything, I think it’s exactly the game the developers set out to make. The entire narrative is presented as a series of dialogue trees, and what you pick is what you get. For all its faults, Gods Will Be Watching is not a grave technical misstep.
But I’m starting to think that we’ve been far too lenient with that standard, and I don’t think I’m alone. Giving a game a passing grade for having useable code is a bit like matriculating a student through high school for showing up with his shoelaces tied. That might be good enough for a kindergartener, but the games industry has hit puberty and should be held to a higher standard.
I’m not the first person to compare game criticism to its cinematic counterpart, but no movie critic would hand a director three stars for putting the actors in front of the camera. Film critics make evaluations based on artistic merit, which means that film criticism is an inherently subjective practice. What the critic thinks – the overall experience of a film – matters when considering the final grade. If a movie angers its audience, critics won’t hesitate to use low scores to articulate the point, regardless of the technical prowess of the editor.
A similar trend is starting to emerge in gaming, where critics are increasingly calling out games that contain thematic content the reviewer views as harmful or objectionable. Though generally praised, Bioshock Infinite drew considerable flak for its problematic racism, while games like Grand Theft Auto V and Dragon’s Crown have come under fire for their blatant sexism. Even then, the raw numerical scores remain relatively high.
But the scores are coming down. Russ Pitts recently found himself in a bizarre back and forth with Jason Rohrer, the creator of The Castle Doctrine. Pitts reviewed the game for Polygon, and while he clearly understood the game’s intent and mechanics, he disapproved of what Rohrer was trying to do at a fundamental level. His review score reflected that disapproval.
That’s exactly the kind normative judgment that will allow the medium to develop its critical vocabulary. I did not enjoy playing The Castle Doctrine, but I gave it a positive review (twice) because I respected the way it used gameplay mechanics to raise incisive questions about the social norms of ownership and privacy. For me, the intellectual subtext made up for the unpleasant experience of the game itself.
Pitts doesn’t think The Castle Doctrine is worth your time, regardless of its fidelity to that intended purpose. He makes the point well, and it’s an opinion you’d be wise to consider before purchasing the game. For a consumer, his review is much more useful than one that obligingly credits the game’s mechanics because Pitts’ take is more reflective of what you will experience while playing it.
That’s how I feel about Gods Will Be Watching. In my opinion, the game is not worth the sheer agony it imposes, and I wanted impart that message in the harshest possible terms, without having to soften the blows because the programmer did what he or she was paid to do. In the past, I would have done so.
But I did not appreciate the hostage mentality of Gods Will Be Watching, and I had no way of making it stop because the game treats the player as a spectator to its own imagined genius. I hated every minute of it. So why shouldn’t I say so?
It’s that disrespect – the failure to acknowledge that I am a human being with other interests and other, more valuable uses of my time – I find so infuriating. That’s also what I was trying to spare other players with my review. Though exhausting, The Castle Doctrine could at least be played in chunks, while Gods Will Be Watching did not grant the player any control over the length and nature of the experience. Its player-computer relationship is broken.
In a way, the scorn for buggy video games was always about theme. A broken video game doesn’t have one because it makes the content inaccessible. Games have finally matured to the point that most stories pass that standard, which means that critics are free to turn our attention to other elements that we may find objectionable. If that trend continues – and I hope it does – then don’t be surprised if many games can’t withstand the scrutiny.