A Musing: Formalism and the Metrics of Reviewing

Here’s a thought: imagine that Super Mario Bros. never existed.

Imagine that Nintendo never released it on their platform, that it was never even conceived. Imagine that it was something else – some other basic game.

Now: imagine an indie dev somewhere put it up for release. Perhaps they placed it up on Greenlight, or put it on Xbox Live Arcade, or placed it on their own website, made a Kickstarter for it, whacked it on Desura. Imagine journalists got seeded press copies, wrote articles on it, looked at it and published their thoughts on their corner of the web. Imagine gamers bought it, then paid pennies for it when it inevitably became part of a Humble Bundle.

Imagine Metacritic gave it a number. What would that number be?

Aside from the obvious logical gymnastics we have to perform to consider that lofty hypothetical scenario, it’s a question worth asking. If someone released Mario today, would it garner fanfare? Would it become a crowning jewel of videogame iconography, a cavalcade of unchallenged loveliness by the majority of its members? Or would it fade into the ether, doomed to obscurity?

To many, the concept of Mario never existing is difficult to conceive.

Super Mario Bros. is a game that’s solid and instrumental in replicating natural space, but it’s also an incredibly progenitorial game. Its acclaim and support comes, at least in part, from having had the comparative advantage of being one of the first entries in what was then the nascent platformer genre. If released today, there may not be such fanfare – it’d just be a generic bit-based game with perfunctory mechanics and pretty solid level design. People would play it. Some would moan that it was yet another pixel-art game. It would be scored, someone would place a wrapped copy on a shelf, some trendy website would hold it up as the game du jour. But the industry and gaming community would chunder on, and we’d all find the next game to play.

Therefore, do the individual mechanics of a game – its innards, thoughts, behaviors, everything – necessarily include contextual and social factors. Even moreso, should they?

At the heart of this question is the idea of Formalism. Formalism is understanding style, visual competency, compositional skill, and construction – irrespective of extrinsic forces. In comparison, there exists iconographic or social analysis of a piece of work, that looks at a piece’s relevance through the lens of history and society.

Game reviews, for the most part, have exhibited a mix of the two. Formalism is an important component to mention when it comes to reviewing a game because developers design games in a more Formal environment than the reviewers playing them.

Though this topic seems unimportant, it can drastically shift a game’s perceived value. Analysis of a game may focus on social or historical biases, but it can also be based on Formal biases. Whichever the reviewer leans towards can influence their overall decision.

For instance, if a developer had a reputation for good writing, does that mean that good writing is not a factor when it comes to the game’s review? This is the reasoning used by Ben Croshaw – better known by his nom de plume of Yahtzee – when he described Mass Effect 2 as part of his ongoing Zero Punctuation series. He said that “the writing’s solid but, then again, Bioware doesn’t score points for that anymore.” If you look at Mass Effect 2‘s writing regardless of Bioware’s pedigree, then it might be more noticeable.

By contrast, Mass Effect 3’s writing scratched a few more heads – and opened more than a few wounds among gamers. Had Mass Effect 3 not been influenced by the legacy of Mass Effect 1 and 2, could it have garnered more accolades from its fans? Here, social and historical factors have come to influence the game’s perceived value. This is the phenomen known as hype, and the legacy of it.

Some may argue that the Mass Effect is a poor example, that it’s illustrative of the role of decoupled mechanics versus mechanics influenced by the people around them. So how about another? How about Fable. Having recently written a retrospective review of Fable, one of the major challenges is being able to decouple – even after all these years – the history of what was once known as Project Ego from the final product.

A retrospective review of Fable would likely elicit more positive reviews because it’s much older and no longer has that stigma. But that also leads to the issue as to whether Fable will generate a comparable score when released in proximity of Project Ego. In other words, can we evaluate a game like Fable almost solely on its internals? Would our numbers change from the beginning of the game’s release cycle to years afterwards? Why would that be the case if games are holistically evaluated on Formal grounds? Or are social and community factors implicit in a game’s design and evaluation?

Though it’s somewhat pedantic to be looking at these examples with such importance, it does provide a clearer understanding of the framework used by reviewers when understanding games. With a slew of new games on the horizon as we head back into the big end-of-year release season (Sunset Overdrive), alongside sequels or possible reboots (Dragon Age: Inquisition, Silent Hill), is the metric for evaluating these games necessarily fair? Is it equal? Are they on the same playing field in terms of an epistemology and methodology for good “gaminess”?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Understanding a game as a set of rules is important, but it’s also rather limiting. We also understand a game not just as a piece of entertainment for an audience, but as a product with staying power. Games are rarely as disposable as publishers frequently treat them. Likewise, games are still a system of rules influenced their surroundings, many of which are factors that aren’t within the developer’s favor. Expectations, hype, and community values are factors that can influence and affect games and their ratings, but may not be factors that are wholly controllable.

And at the end of the day, is that something we can attribute to developer malice, incompetence, or lack of quality control? Hindsight is 20-20 after all, and if we look at games as products on contextual grounds, then it becomes much more difficult to look at games via Formal ones. This may affect how games are judged, what standards are established, and precisely what components are valued over others.

So to expand upon the initial question, what would happen if Super Mario Bros. was released as a different game? What if it was a dark platformer-puzzler that had a pair of Italian plumbers? What if they were inadvertently thrown into a murder mystery where they must get to the bottom of the death of Princess Peach? Would it be considered another amusing, quirky game vis-a-vis Catherine? Or would it garner as much craze and fervor as something along those lines probably would for a Mario game?

Which analysis is right? Whose perspective should we take, and what should we be looking for?

Joe Yang

Joe Yang

Coordinating Editor
Unnecessarily wordy human being, MA graduate, and former Buddhist monk. Moonlight scholar with an interest in ludic components and narrative interplay. Co-ordinator and email jockey at Project Cognizance.
Joe Yang

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