There’s been a blog debate brewing the past week about Mirror’s Edge, and exactly what’s wrong with it – or what’s wrong with our critiques of it. Did we shortsell its innovation? Are we missing its true design flaws? On Twitter, Brinstar and Mitch Krpata have both called the game “frustrating” – but it sounds like Brinstar really likes the game, and while I find it frustrating, I keep coming back to it as well. If I had to sum it up in one pithy phrase, I’d say that its core problem is that it looks like Rock Band 2 but plays like Mega Man 9; you want to settle in and enjoy the thrill, but imagine if Rock Band stopped the song every single time you hit a bum note.

But the other day, I said something less pithy: that this first version of the game was merely okay, but the sequel would be better. Keith Stuart anticipated this very argument, by asking if we would ever say something like that to, say, a film director. More than just a cop-out, it’s an argument against games as art, and we all want to say that games are art.

But you know what? Games are also software.

I come from a software background, as well as an artsy-fartsy one. I want to see games as art, but they’re also supposed to work as logically-constructed bodies of code. And in a lot of cases, reviewers need to see them as software rather than as art. Here’s why:

Sequels are not bad. In movies, sequels are usually a sign that the bankers are taking advantage of the artists. But movies don’t have to invent a new studio, lighting system, camera, and style of acting every time they’re made. Games often benefit from sequels. Noone remembers the first GTA, the first Ultima, or the first Burnout as fondly as the later ones.

Games can be patched. Critics have to start considering more and more that games will be fixed after release and ultimately, upgraded or expanded upon. To an arts reviewer, and even to a lot of games reviewers, this seems very fishy. Should you cut some slack to a buggy, short or unsatsifying game on the off-chance that it’ll get better with the next content release? If a good game like Far Cry 2 or Fable II has DLC on the radar, does that bump it even higher? My hunch is that while you shouldn’t err too positively, you should see the game as something of a platform that may or may not be worth building upon. I might cut Fallout 3 slack for a couple of its brazenly stupid but easily fixed bugs, and at the same time, feel eager to see how they expand it, whereas Fracture could get all the DLC in the world – and I’ll still hate the game.

Playtesting is crucial. I don’t know how much playtesting Mirror’s Edge received, or how much time they were given to act on what they learned. But I suspect it got a lot less than Portal. That game’s learning curve was paced pretty perfectly, and there were no cheap shots or headbangers that I can remember – whereas Mirror’s Edge has a number of them. Now, in movies, focus groups still carry some stigma (even though they’ve helped more of our favorite movies than we care to admit). But in games, as with software, we know that usability testing is crucial, because a team of developers cannot anticipate all the ways the players will behave. And to take it a step farther: think of all the data that Valve collects on its players after their games ship. What does that data inform? The sequels. And the patches …

(And btw, musicians effectively “playtest” their music in concert again and again. I feel like this is turning into an argument of why games are not like movies – and I knew that already.)

Not everything in the game is worth evaluating. This seems obvious yet it’s the one thing critics grapple with the most, because everyone draws a different line in the sand. We often hear that every element of a work of art should be integral to the whole. For example, in a poem or a short story, every single word should matter. We cut novels, movies and pieces of music a little more slack. But in a game, whole elements of the work could be considered features that are optional to the player.

A piece of software should have a vision – not visions, but a single vision that unifies the feature set and defines the audience it’s targeting and the user experiences it hopes to create. But once you’ve mapped that out (if you have), not every feature is equally important. Microsoft Word has a vision of giving users a powerful way to create text documents. You can argue that Word fulfills that vision even if you hate the word count tool, or even the spellchecker.

Game by game, we have trouble deciding what matters. Should bad sound design really cripple the grade? Did the graphics matter that much? Were the three redundant chapters at the end so boring that we should dock it some points for wasting our time? That’s all for us to wrestle with – just as the critics who liked Mirror’s Edge for its innovation, but hated its combat, might have their own opinions on how that turns into a final score.

But I definitely believe that games deserve more slack on this front than any work of art. They are not a unified experience. They are pieces of software with rich feature sets.

Games don’t pose arguments, they present systems with which to interact. See Ian Bogost on procedural rhetoric. Again, we know that games usually don’t have one single meaning that is transmitted equally to every player. But every time we tackle a game with strong and prominent themes, like Fable II‘s exploration of morality, or Fallout 3‘s portrayal of the many ways that people reorganize themselves after a nation-ending cataclysm, we risk looking for linear arguments when the game is offering a loaded scenario. See also Jonathan Blow’s discussion of the thought behind Braid, and what differentiates it from, say, a piece of writing.

… So that’s a starting list. It doesn’t even get into the obvious stuff, like the fact that not everybody has a PC that can run Crysis, or that people with regular TVs have a hard time reading type on PS 3 games (like me).

So here’s one case where I wish I had personally followed these recommendations: Spore. I reviewed it and also blogged about it, at length, trying to work through all the things that I thought worked and failed in the game. But after 10-15 hours with it, I didn’t get a full assessment of what was right or wrong with it. I would need to approach it the way I would evaluate a piece of software – and try to end up with a 10-15 page document that tries to assess the vision the game was trying to fulfill, the critical success factors that would execute that vision, and all the ways that it did or didn’t live up to them. If I had the time, I would love to do this kind of mega-critique with Spore, or even with Mirror’s Edge, which would be much simpler.

After all, it’s easy to write a favorable review – really, an appreciation – of a game that fires on all cylinders. But if we could dissect exactly what works and what doesn’t work about games like those two, it would probably be more edifying.

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