From the Outside Looking In

A good critic is not a good creator. We saw this well with Roger Ebert, who became one of the most important voices in the film industry for his critiques and reviews, but the actual movies he was behind saw a troubled reception at best. Critiquing something takes a totally different skillset than creating something, which itself takes a totally different skillset than getting someone interested in something. Talking about what did or would make something good in retrospect is a completely different picture that building something good from the ground up. And frankly, creators have the harder job.

I used to follow Shamus Young’s blog pretty consistently. Dude’s pretty prolific with it, so I’ve read a lot of his words. His former LP series was the first Let’s Plays I got into, so… yeah. He’s put a lot of thoughts on video games out into the world, and I’d absorbed a lot of his ideas over the years I spent with him.

About the time I moved on from his content, he was working on building a game of his own. I ended up being surprised that it actually existed when I caught it by chance on a Steam sale last year, so I picked it up, toyed around with it a few times, and finally gave it a good, earnest playthrough relatively recently.

There’s something very surprising about Good Robot. Namely, after all his commentary on games that I’ve consumed, this would be the last game in the world I would have expected him to make.

Which, to be fair, he didn’t end up being the only person making the game. He took it to a point, but got another team involved once it turned out he couldn’t get it to where he wanted himself. But still. There’s a lot in that game that runs completely along the same lines as things he’s been completely dour for before.

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Let’s give you a picture of what we’re looking at first. Good Robot. It’s a twin-stick shooter roguelike. And… that’s about it, actually. The real notable things about it are the interesting things it does with vision, and the fact that the levels are truly procedurally generated rather than being a collection of pre-built rooms in random formation. Aside from that… meh. The engine seems pretty solid, and it feels good to move and shoot, which is what you do most of the game, but it’s aggressively simple and feels like it’s just wasting a lot of potential. Also has some pretty major, avoidable flaws that just make the game less fun.

And it’s those flaws that are really interesting to me, because I’ve seen Shamus identify them in other works before.

Let’s talk about the most apparent one to me, and probably the biggest one with the game. Good Robot is a rogue-like. Meaning that death is a complete restart of the game. But it’s a slow, long rogue-like. The game encourages hesitant and defensive play by virtue of having the permadeath in the first place, and the levels are just so loooooong. I beat the game. It took about two hours, start to finish. If I had made a stupid mistake (which I never do, but hypothetically) at any point during the latter part of that run, that’d be a solid two hours of my life cut down by a video game punishing me for essentially pressing buttons wrong.

That’s a problem on its own. But then that comes from a guy who once termed the “Dark Souls problem” wherein failure makes you repeat something you’ve already done in order to get to any new content. This comes from a guy who stated that rogue-likes don’t have to do this, followed by examples of some who have circumvented the problem by implementing a level select. This comes from a guy who complains about a game’s difficulty coming from punishment rather than challenge, yet built what’s potentially the most punishment-heavy game I’ve played in a long while.

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There’s plenty of examples like that, but I don’t want this post to be turning too negative on an innocent blogger I haven’t followed in a while. Rather, the big thing I want to focus on is why that happened. And why you’ll see that happen in most critics-turned-creators. It all comes down to what I mentioned, that there’s completely different skillsets involved.

What I would consider to be good critiquing largely comes down to being able to analyze oneself, particularly one’s own thoughts, and being able to communicate them well. Sure, being able to analyze the work itself, break it down into its component parts and talk about how that works, because that gets people to understand how what relates to you would relate to them, but overall, critiquing is really a selfish process. It’s all about your own opinion, how you’ve arrived at it, and what reactions you have to what’s going on with whatever you’re looking at. I’d like to say that good critics are able to analyze themselves the whole way through and track their emotional development throughout, but particularly in video games it seems that the most popular critics never leave their first impressions, just making things work because they’re good at communicating those first impressions. In any case, though, critiquing is very self-focused, very reactionary, and has a strong basis in communication.

Creating has a strong basis in communication as well, but aside from that, it’s where the similarities with critiquing end. It’s not about communicating a reaction, it’s about communicating a vision. Which of course, requires being able to build an interesting and full vision in the first place, having the technical chops and the resources required to achieve that vision, and a whole bunch of other skills I probably can’t speak to very well because I’m not a professional creator. Creating is forward-looking whereas critiquing is reactionary, building the material to deliver that reaction from whole cloth.

Which is not to say that being good at one can’t help you with the other. But there’s a lot of primary skills in both that don’t cross over. There’s a lot of stuff we can bemoan about a bad game, and armchair game design is a lot of fun, but we probably wouldn’t be able to build anything better without a lot of skill-building to overcome some of the realities of game creation. I can rail against the rogue-like nature of a game that seems poorly suited for it here, but perhaps without that the game had some even greater flaw.

It’s easy to be a critic. I’ve done it. So have plenty of other random internet weirdos with some free time and a checklist of slightly edgy jokes. And critics are very valuable. I’d say they’ve become even more valuable as it’s become easier to be a critic. And it is still important to call out bad games for what they are. But I have found Good Robot to be an excellent reminder that just being a good critic doesn’t mean anyone would be a good creator. Bad games are bad usually because game creation is hard and complex way more than anyone not involved in the process can understand, and that can sometimes be hard to see from the outside looking in.

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12 responses to “From the Outside Looking In

  1. I think you managed to identify a major problem I have with a lot of prominent video game critics – that they don’t leave their first impressions. I have to honestly say it’s not the mark of a good critic – had I reviewed Live A Live or Undertale with that kind of mindset, they would’ve (unfairly) gotten much lower scores. It needs to be realized that a game can start merely okay only for its true value to shine when the experience is completed (or alternatively, to start out strong but fail to stick the landing). It’s a trapping that seems exclusive to criticism in this medium because had that new wave of film critics from the late sixties/early seventies employed similar techniques, I doubt they would’ve been held in such high esteem.

    Several years ago, I played through a series of adventure games known as the Chzo Mythos. They weren’t what I’d call good games; while there are flashes of brilliance throughout, one of the installments was an admitted token sequel, the puzzles often make no sense, and for most of them, I could tell corners were cut at every opportunity. To be fair, they were made before he became a critic, but it’s still very surreal, and although I’ve never heard of Good Robot or its creator, I can’t help but feel your experience was similar to mine.

    Doubtlessly are analytical skills important for a critic, but it’s interesting how they don’t always translate well when they decide to pick up the paintbrush themselves.

    • Honestly, that’s been one of the biggest mindset that’s driving me away from professional video game reviews. Basing everything off of the first impression is especially bad when said first impression has already been built by the endless previews, media events, and builds experienced in the cultured designer-tailored environment. It makes it hard to get an honest estimation when you can’t even trust the reviewer itself. Which is a shame, because a lot of these people are really, really good at communicating their opinions, but when they’re not very thorough in forming them, it makes the whole exercise hollow.

      Yeah, I think I’d have a completely different picture of the Chzo Mythos if they came out after Yahtzee started doing those reviews. It was something that was coming to mind as I was writing this, but he can be really harsh for faults in games that his own creations weren’t any better at, and it makes some of the personal barbs in his reviews really distasteful to me.

      It’s been since high school programming classes that I last played around with making games, but just the exercise in getting behind the mechanics did change my perceptions on what I played. But yeah, I was really good at playing games back then, but I can tell you first hand that didn’t lead to any skill at making them.

      • Now that I think about it, it’s that mindset that really made me not want to check out the indie scene for the longest time. They seemed to be made with a lot of ego, but not much else. I could be wrong, but if I am, then I have to say no one really presented a strong counterargument until 2013 when Papers, Please was released. In either case, ego is important for the creative process, but that can’t be all there is. It’s like how Jonathon Blow will make criticism after criticism about the gaming industry, yet his own works have quite a few issues themselves. Granted, being a part of the industry doesn’t disqualify him from expressing those opinions and he does occasionally bring up an interesting point every now and again, but I ultimately feel that following his example would only succeed in making many of the problems he perceives even worse. Plus, it was hilarious in hindsight how he proposed that video games are terrible for telling stories only for Undertale to come out a few months later. Whoops!

        Anyway, that’s why I barely engage with a game’s promotional materials (i.e. I had no idea how much Uncharted 3 was marketed before reviewing it) – I feel it leads to the development of a more organic opinion. A majority of the time, the only thing I know beforehand is the game’s release date, who made it, and the genre it’s in (sometimes, I don’t even have that going for me). For classics, I’ll usually know what kind of game it is and how much of a following it has, but seldom anything beyond that.

        I do have Yahtzee to thank for getting me interested in Dark Souls and arguably the entire indie scene with his positive reviews of Papers, Please and Shovel Knight. For that matter, he’s another reason I decided to become a critic myself (I set out with the goal of becoming his antithesis). That said, you’re absolutely right. I downloaded those games thinking, “Okay, Yahtzee, let’s see if you can put your money were your mouth is.” The answer was: he didn’t – not one bit. Indeed, I consider 6 Days a Sacrifice to be one of the worst adventure games I’ve ever played (though I admit the story isn’t completely bad). It would be one thing if he made those criticisms in a respectful or self-deprecating manner after having made those games, but the vitriol he displays makes the problem indefensible. He does often have something intelligent to say, but at his worst, he can be completely insufferable – and this is coming from someone who actually likes his work.

      • I wonder how much of that comes across in tone. It’s still easy to take film critics seriously, even though they may, like Roger Ebert, have made plenty of crap themselves, but the online gaming culture seems to have a bit of a problem with attitude. Either aiming to be more entertaining by being more caustic, or just seeming to not actually care about the subject they review, or a lot of them honestly seem to think they’re better than anyone who might be listening to them. And you know, Jonathan Blow hits all three of those points.

        Same. If it’s a game I’m actively looking forward to, I’ll avoid all material on it until I can make my own judgement. It doesn’t feel like I’m missing out on much, honestly.

        Ah, Yahtzee. I got into his works through the Chzo Mythos, before he ever started his video series. Back then, to me at least, he used to embody the rampant creativity just for the sake of it that you saw from so many of the Something Awful goons back in its heyday. I still romanticize that about freeware releases nowadays. And to be fair, he’s a novelist now, so he still has that bit of it, but I wonder if reviewing games professionally hasn’t made him cynical about the whole medium, which would make it harder to get over the first impression. Having a philosophy of “If I don’t complain about it, assume it’s fine” isn’t really a good way to go about it.

        I don’t know if you’ve seen the Something Awful Let’s Play of the Chzo Mythos, but I found that pretty interesting, and Yahtzee did chime in on that regularly and was pretty forthright about his own failings as a creator. Nowhere near as acerbic as he can get with others, though.

      • I see the acerbic nature of video game criticism and certain indie developers as a side effect of the medium’s overall lack of self-respect. To me, that in-your-face attitude stems from insecurity more than it does any inherent immaturity engaging with the medium entails. Mr. Ebert and his ilk can be rather caustic at times too, but they still carry a degree a professionalism that ultimately supersedes everything else. A reoccurring problem I see with independent game critics is that they often try too hard to be funny – often to disastrous results. I feel that a good critic should strive to be informative first. If they have the opportunity to make a joke, they can take it, but they should never force it.

        Yeah, with that approach, a work’s good qualities don’t get to shine in one’s assessment, and it doesn’t strike me as particularly forward-looking. It’s important to acknowledge the shortcomings of a work you’re reviewing, but sooner or later, you have to make it clear whether they’re minor annoyances or crippling flaws in the grand scheme of things, and the inability to do so hounded Yahtzee for the longest time. I think he’s improved in that regard because he used to be negative for the sake of being negative whereas now, he can write funny, positive reviews, but every now and again, that weakness rears its ugly head (usually when discussing games made by Nintendo).

        I never really engaged with Something Awful in its heyday, but if you’re talking about that one currently on the LP Archive done by one Quovak, then yes, I’ve read it. It’s definitely one of my favorite text/screenshot LPs – especially when he was analyzing 7 Days a Skeptic, which was probably the worst game in the series from a pure logical standpoint. It’s arguably the first time I was really underwhelmed by a game’s ending, though I can laugh at it now (“I JUST WANTED TO GO INTO SPACE!!!” is one of the most unintentionally hilarious lines ever).

  2. I’ve heard this before in relation to writing. It’s easy to critique, but much harder to create, and oftentimes they both can’t exist in the same place at the same time. In relation to writing a story, thought, this means that you create your content before you go back and proofread, but there’s a reason authors generally aren’t their own editors…

    I’m going to say something that might sound mean, especially since I don’t know this guy, but I sometimes wonder if people who are well-respected critics don’t turn the same analytical eye onto their own work because they believe their own propaganda: they *obviously* know games (or whatever they critique) so the game *they* designed will be fine. But I’m not a critic, and I don’t design games, so that might just be my cynicism coming out…

    • You get too close to your own projects to be able to evaluate them the same way you do everything else. One of my biggest growths as a writer, I believe, is when I read a book I couldn’t stand but I was able to identify that the writer had a lot of the same faults that I do. I never recognized them in going over my own work, because I was too close and that was too personal for me, but having that seperation there made them a lot more clear.

      If you’re creating something, it’s living in your head, and your going over everything several times over. That level of repetition and involvement makes it impossible to get a clean perspective on it, which leads to a whole lot of dumb problems coming through.

    • Huh, can’t say I’d heard of him, but yeah, makes sense. And yeah, they absolutely can be good creators. After all, someone who spends so much time reviewing obviously has a love for the medium. Just takes a bit of work learning the two different crafts.

  3. The differences between critiquing and creating are exactly why I try to do both, because both skill sets are integral (to me) to the creative process. I want to know how to critique so that I can attempt to apply that to anything I create. Obviously, I can’t be entirely objective about my own work, but I’ve learned through the years some skills that help me step back. The fundamental differences between the two is the reason the response or “You try making something like this!” is a fallacious argument against critique. You don’t have to be a creator of any type to be a good critic; you just need to be able to do what you said above: be able to analyze your own thoughts on the work and properly convey them within the scope of how the work should function. Good critique is difficult, because you both want to give your own opinion, which is subjective, but also portray the work’s strengths and weaknesses based on common discourse, and if it breaks that mold, does it do so well or fail for whatever reason. Whew…even explaining it is hard :p

    • I’m glad to hear that! I often find myself feeling that if the critics I’ve followed have as much passion for the medium they cover as they demonstrate, they really should give creating something a shot. Just having that experience is valuable. I built a lot of perspective from that brief time in my life I had attempted to learn to make videogames, even if I determined it wasn’t for me in the end.

      I’m starting to realize we’ve spent a whole lot of words here critiquing the act of critiquing. Then comments critique my critique of critiquing, and… yeah, explaining is hard. My head’s starting to hurt now.

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