Defining the Divide: How Price Hampers Popular Games Criticism

We're all aware of Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes' recent pricing controversy. A lot of people couldn't swallow spending $30 on what they perceived as a glorified two-hour demo, even as that length varies depending on your inclination toward side quests and collectibles.

Similarly, I doubt you can lurk many imageboards, forums or comment sections without seeing people scoff at the idea of spending another $60 on the latest "copied-and-pasted" Call of Duty game.

However, with price bleeding into our reviews, I can't help looking toward other mediums and wondering, why does this seem to only be our problem?

In literary reviews, how often do you hear the "value" of a novel come into question? Or even a movie, barring DVD and BluRay releases? Not often, right?

The simple explanation is that in those mediums, the product is nowhere near the investment of a triple-A video game. A novel? You can probably get that for 10 bucks, 20 at most, or check it out for free from your local library. And though films vary in length, you'll still roughly get the same ratio of hour to dollar.

Video games, on the other hand, typically run $60 as a new release, and can last anywhere from six hours to hundreds, depending on the content, your dedication and the developer's dedication to adding/selling additional content.

For Metal Gear diehards, it must sting knowing that pricing controversies will be reflected in the Ground Zeroes reviews, rather than the game being measured solely by its compositional merits.

So how do we fix this problem? How do we separate the game's value as product (or service, if that's your perspective) from its merits as art?

Perhaps we're already on the onset of that divide.

In the fall of 2013, Steam did what indie gaming fans and PC gamers probably only dreamt of: it eclipsed Xbox Live in registered users. Whoa.

Attracting users with daily discounts, weekend specials and, most famously, seasonal sales, Steam—followed by sites like Humble Bundle, Good Old Games and even Amazon—redefined the meaning of a deal for PC gamers.

Adapting to the changing climate, we've seen conscious efforts from both Sony and Microsoft to keep up with our shifting conception of value.

Since June 2010, Sony has provided PS+ subscribers with the Instant Games Collection, which adds new games—often recent ones—monthly; Microsoft, for its part, has more recently launched Games with Gold, though their offerings have been arguably lackluster compared to Sony's.

In addition to freebies, both the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live feature regular sales, the likes of which were rarely seen on consoles before digital distribution and perhaps the pressure by Steam to offer more bang for the consumer's buck.

As prices continue to decline, maybe years from now, in the far-off future, when the only time we pick a game off a shelf is in virtual reality à la Futurama, maybe the standard price will drop so low as to remove questions of value from our reviews entirely.

But that's not gonna happen

If games fell to a ridiculously low price, how would triple-A developers recoup their exorbitant budgets? We'd be up to our necks in microtransactions. And even if all games were as low as, say, $10, we'd still debate the value of buying a shorter game versus, for instance, Dark Souls.

So what do we do?

Actually, it's simpler than you'd think.

For any craft, even less "artistic" ones, there is a set of criteria one ideally considers before making that first keystroke, or later during the editing process. In other crafts, those criteria are well defined (until further expertise allows you to start tinkering—but let's not go there). For video games, an only decades-old industry with an even more recent revelation of potentially being "art," those criteria are nebulous, still being molded and re-molded by critics and designers alike.

So at the onset of his review, a writer might ask himself, what do I want to communicate? Am I seeking to review the value of the game, as in the amount of playtime available to the player, how much money was shoveled into production, the extras it includes; or am I more interested in the composition, how well themes are articulated, how well the level design and art style are executed, and how all these components coalesce to speak of some deeper meaning or offer a unique experience?

Though even that separation might not be neat. I doubt we're going to see a new trend of journalists labeling their game assessments either "product reviews" or "criticism."

Ultimately, your most visible reviews may never separate a game's monetary value from its artistic merits. However, raising this question and asking it before diving into a review may allow a writer to inject his criticism with greater nuance, even awakening himself to the various types of gamers who might be interested in a game.

It can be as simple as an aside such as, "For those of who can only afford a few games a year and want more bang for your buck, steer clear of this shrimp of a game."

As a caveat, I'm speaking primarily of more visible reviews: publications like IGN, Game Informer and heck, even Kotaku, who have wider audiences and thus must diversify their reviews to appease the various interests and questions of disparate readers.

Criticism exploring solely the artistic value of a game and esoteric questions of composition is still out there for those who know where to look.

It's just nowhere near as visible as the aforementioned publications, which makes sense considering that most gamers follow the industry and the craft on a more surface level, hence why popular reviews should be proportionally surface or, more aptly, accessible for various types of gamers.

For our popular criticism, perhaps the sometimes adversarial concepts of artistic and monetary value are inseparable. But maybe all it takes is asking oneself the question and, arriving at an answer, writing a review with a greater awareness of all the potential angles and reader interests.

Image: Konami