Review Policy

1. A game will be evaluated based on its individual component as well as on the overall experience. Most gaming websites tend to take one at the exclusion of the other, or judge certain games based on either in exclusion. That will not happen here; even a narrative focused game has its own mechanical quibbles, and a game focused solely on its mechanics has its own problems with plot.

2. This doesn’t mean that a game without narrative is necessarily bad. A video game remains a video game, including the part about video games. As such, a game like Heavy Rain would take heavy criticism by failing to have an interesting game under it. An interactive experience can’t rely solely on plot alone. As much as I’d like to say otherwise, we can’t if we want to keep calling them “games” rather than experiences. A graphical-novel style game, for example, can present challenges, but they need some interactivity; it can’t just be a string of cutscenes. A player needs something to actually DO and actually present some kind of challenge, however arbitrary or bad that challenge may be.

3. As a project devoted to the idea of theology intersecting life, the reviews will follow the same format. How is such criticism justified by Scripture, you might ask? Think of it in the sense of sanctification. Sanctification is more a concept than something directly in the text itself: it is the continual process of becoming holy, or more Christ-like, through the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. Part of this sanctification process requires wisdom and understanding of our actions and the things we believe, akin to developing the spiritual gift of exhortation or teaching. Whereas many churches today focus solely on justification by faith, the Reformers (like Martin Luther and John Calvin) as well as the later Wesleyans believed that sanctification was an equal part of the procedure. Obviously, Christian still sin even after declaring Jesus Christ as Lord; learning to be like Christ is a process, not an instantaneous event like salvation and justification.

If this is a process rather than an event, what is needed is a sense of personal criticism. This is why Scripture continually asks us to be humble and recognize that a higher power exists above us. God is more powerful than you; you can’t be a self-satisfying, self-absorbed narcissist and a Christian at the same time. To properly criticize, nothing can become an idol before God. When it comes to video games, a whole history lies both behind and beyond the influence of any particular video game. No one game is the “best of all time”, but that doesn’t mean we have no objective standard of what’s good and bad in video games. Sanctification, then, also requires the criticism of others; no dialogue means no proper criticism from other perspectives. It’s a community project, in a sense, that requires a great deal of debate.

4. Reviews are meant to edify and to help others. That might seem an odd juxtaposition with criticizing, but the point of that criticism is to inspire improvement in both the game (for developers) and the player. As such, overwhelming negativity is simply unneccsssary. We are not reviewing a product here, but a video game as a holistic entity.  You can’t just ignore parts of the whole, or say “I don’t like it”; it needs some backing. You need to play a game before you can judge it with an open mind and an understanding of its history. When Luke starts his Gospel, for example, we can see this pretty clearly:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been[f] taught.

In the tradition, Luke has been called a historian obsessed with detail; he takes the structure of Mark but adds a lot of the stories missed by that author and assembles them as best as he can remember, using eyewitnesses and searching for the data possible. In other words, it is a search for the truth. Modern game reviews miss this wealth of experience. How can I review a sequel without playing its predecessors, especially recently enough to make an evaluative judgment of its qualities? I can’t play every game, certainly, but I can ensure my information is as accurate as possible. It’s an opinion, but also an attempt to formulate an opinion in accordance with the facts present. That’s what we need in evaluative judgment.

I’m trying to lend a different perspective on the things people enjoy. If anything makes my motto clear enough, it’s 1 Corinthians 10:

14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to wise men; you judge what I say. 16 Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? 17 Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. 18 Look atthe nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar? 19 What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons. 21  You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? We are not stronger than He, are we?

23  All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. 24 Let no oneseek his own good, but that of his neighbor. 25  Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience’ sake; 26  for the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains. 27 If one of the unbelievers invites you and you want to go, eat anything that is set before you without asking questions for conscience’ sake. 28 But if anyone says to you, “This is meat sacrificed to idols,” do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake; 29 I mean not your own conscience, but the other man’s; for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience? 30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks?

31 Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32  Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; 33 just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profitof the many, so that they may be saved.

5. So, I’ll be instituting a star system similar to Learn to Counter or Insomnia, both of which use a criteria for each rating. Seems simple enough, and I give full credit to them for my blatant plagiarizing.

Zero Stars – a non-game. It’s not a game, but a movie disguised as a game. Moving on…

One Star – a bad game, plain and simple. Has obvious deficits in mechanics, experience, immersion, music, or any number of other aspects that never coalesce into a fully formed game. These are reserved for things I don’t like much.

Two Stars – a bad game made as such by certain key deficiencies, yet still fun in certain respects. Elements of the game are excellent, yet fail to inspire or excite overall.

Three Stars – a mediocre game. It’s simply an average game. It may have a few exemplary qualities to its name, but there’s nothing here that hasn’t been seen before or done better.

Four Stars – a great game, only limited by a few key flaws that prevent it from reaching the upper echelons

Five Stars – an exemplary game that represents the medium at its peak. Not flawless, but certainly every element works together to create a great challenge and experience.

New as of November 12th, 2012 – 6. I reserve the right to change scores based on hindsight. Most game website have their scores set in stone – not here! If I find, in retrospect, that I was too harsh or too glowing, I will go back and change the score according. This fits in line with the previous lines of self-criticism and learning from one’s mistakes.

 

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
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  • Glad to hear that you’re all about encouragement and not descending into the pit of criticism!
     
    Sad to hear that you’d take such issue with Heavy Rain. I felt that the game did an excellent job of weaving narrative with exposition. To say that it didn’t have gameplay, would be the same as saying point-and-click adventures don’t have gameplay. While you’re never in direct control of the characters in such cases, the emphasis is on finding the right thing to do in the world around you (and making good decisions). As such, there’s an unfolding mystery that you unearth by being a thorough detective, a choice problemsolver, and yes, a quicktime-event-solver. The quicktime event thing makes sense as a criticism, but the themes? Sorry. I digress. Back to your review stipulations:
     
    So how do you plan on evaluating the games against scripture in particular? Like for example, there’s the issue of Jesus’ empahsis on not picking up the Sword. That could disable our play of 90% of all games (for the matter that the sword=gun in our modern sense). But if we’re evaluating things based on the heart of God versus what the ambition of the play involves? That opens us up to a lot of questions. I guess I’m just asking how your’e going to approach that as a rule, or if it’s more of a “Let the Holy Sprit drive” approach. Which certainly isn’t wrong, by the way. Just curious.
     
    Personally, as a reviewer, I’m much more in the latter category. And I love making fun of the “ratings” system by giving as many games as I can 10/10s. 🙂
     
    Blessings. 

    • Adventure games do have a mechanical underpinning. For most of them, involves discovering a logical series of events and piecing them together in order to achieve the objective. For Monkey Island, the first past is literally “How do I get in the mansion?”, and everything contributes to that one question. Adventure games only fail in that “logic” sometimes makes sense only to the developer, and not the player. The narrative doesn’t necessarily drive the sequence of puzzles, but it gives an objective.
       
      Where I have a problem with this is games like LA Noire and Heavy Rain. Sure, they’re primarily “narratives”, but the story progresses either way without a “game”. LA Noire lets you skip action sequences outright to continue with the story; Heavy Rain just makes you repeat the same sequence of quicktime events.
       
      To put it a different way: much of my time in such games involves no puzzle solving skills like an adventure; you can just wander around, press the one button that does something near every object, and then progress. That, to me, says there’s something wrong with the game design underlying it. It’s why, if I finally write a review on LA Noire, it’s not going to get a very high score. You don’t get special advantages by lieu of focusing on narrative; this is still a video game at heart. Max Payne 3 does this technique better than both of them; even if it takes control from the player, the game’s mechanics still give you a game underneath all the shiny parts.
       
      As far as evaluating against Scripture, it’s more an issue of the principles behind it. When I’m killing someone in a game, reducing the action to its base level means I’m eliminating an AI in a virtual environment programmed to do specific things. What I will be doing is making an evaluation of their content as a whole in each individual aspect. If that sounds contradictory, It’s not intentionally so.  It’ll look similar to any other review, I imagine, only that I have good and bad things.
       
      I’m not judging the morality/worldview of the game, only the game qua game. I hope that didn’t come off as pretentious.

      •  @Zachery Oliver You raise some good points. Especially in areas that we’re different. For example, I loved Journey. But being that you progress without any puzzle, combat, or real challenge, it wouldn’t quite qualify as gameplay to you. Right? 

        •  @Mjoshua Not necessarily. I think Journey (which I haven’t played yet) does has game mechanics underlying it (the jumping/scarve thing), and definitely fulfills its own objective: to be a journey. When a game wants to be cinematic, yet allows me to supervene that category (unlike Journey), then we have a problem. Journey is still a game at heart, even if it’s not “challenging” in the traditional sense.

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