Insomnia | Commentary

Casual Reviews are for Casual Gamers

By Alex Kierkegaard / April 25, 2008

Actually, the truth is that casual reviews are for no one; I just played around with the title of this article to match that of the previous one, for bonus cheekiness points. But what the hell exactly am I talking about here?

From time to time I'll get an email urging me to "dumb down" my reviews, in order to make them more "appealing" and "accessible" to a greater number of people. What's even worse is when people who I've asked to contribute to this site offer, of their own accord, to dumb down their own reviews, for the same reasons. Before reviewing Arcana Heart, for example, I contacted HeartNana, who is among the top AH players on Shoryuken, and asked him if he was willing to do the honors. He accepted and wrote a first draft, but when I sent it back to him with a request to go into much more depth, he replied that "I didn't want to go too deep into it cause I figured people wouldn't understand wtf I'm talking about."

Now what's wrong with this mentality?

First off, people -- let's get one thing straight right off the bat: If you expect to always get every single point of every thing you read on your first read-through, that means you are either the smartest, most knowledgeable human being that has ever lived, or that you are reading worthless crap. A genuinely valuable article/piece of criticism/book/poem/novel or whatever should challenge the reader, otherwise it's useless. Make no mistake: human beings read to learn, and we want to learn even when we are reading merely for entertainment -- it's more entertaining that way.

So, to get back to the subject of criticism, consider that reviews written by the greatest critics of all time, whether we are talking about Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert, George Orwell or Lester Bangs, were always written to the highest level of analysis that each of them was capable of producing. Ebert didn't win the Pulitzer prize for criticism by "dumbing down" his reviews, and Kael's film reviews and Orwell's book reviews were so lengthy and sophisticated that they had an influence on film and literary criticism itself. These people were nothing less than what stupid gamers (i.e. the vast majority of them) would call hardcore. Yes, that's right, Orwell was a hardcore book critic, Bangs was a hardcore rock critic, and Kael was a hardcore film critic. In fact, they were not merely hardcore, they were ultrahardcore. These people devoted their lives to their work (Kael, for example, used to rent like two dozen videos a week), these people desired to excel at their work, and they became so good at what they did to such an extent that they ended up defining the very standard of what was good and what was bad in their respective fields -- and what could possibly be more hardcore than that? So if they were still around, would you email them and ask them to dumb down their reviews in order to make them more "appealing" and "accessible"? Dude, they would have laughed at you!

The term 'casual review' itself is an abomination. It is basically a euphemism for "crap review". The word 'casual' itself is fundamentally antithetical to very concept of criticism, which thrives on analysis based on expertise. There's nothing "casual" about analysis and expertise -- and the deeper the analysis, the more valuable the review. And valuable to ALL, not simply to the few experts who will understand everything right away. Valuable also to the others, who will only partly understand what they just read, and who will therefore be given the opportunity to learn more, and grow as, and become more sophisticated music, book, film, or videogame lovers. When I read one of Kael's reviews, for example, and she namedrops half a dozen movies I have never even heard of, all of which were made decades before I was even born, my reaction is not "Meh, I've never heard of these films, I don't understand everything she is saying, so I'll just stop reading her reviews and go read some user reviews on Amazon". For fuck's sakes man -- I read her reviews exactly because I've never heard of the movies she keeps namedropping! How else am I going to find out about them? By randomly watching movies I found linked on Wikipedia? There are tens of thousands of them! Kael watched two dozen movies a week for like thirty years -- most of them trash -- so that me and you wouldn't have to. She watched them to make some sense out of them, to evaluate them, to pick the best, explain why they are the best -- set the very standards of what people even called best! -- chronicle the development and evolution of the medium, and serve everything to us on a silver platter.

A great review sits comfortably above and beyond your understanding, beckoning you seductively to previously unexplored heights of taste and appreciation. This is after all, why people seek out critics -- to help them appreciate to a deeper level whatever it is they specialize in. And the deeper the level, the more useful the review. That's why I am saying that a so-called "casual review" is worthless even to the casual gamer: he has nothing to learn from it that a friend or Wikipedia could not have told him. Make no mistake: No one chooses to write a casual review -- people write such reviews because they can do no better.

So no, we won't be dumbing down our reviews on this site any time soon. There are enough dumb review sites out there as it is -- the internet should be able to tolerate a single one that treats players as intelligent adults. And if anything, we plan to keep increasing the level of complexity of our analysis as far as it will go, to the point where only a handful of experts will be able to understand wtf we are talking about. And once we reach that stage we'll go back and rewrite all our old reviews, to be similarly incomprehensible. And yes, I realize how ridiculous this statement may sound to some, especially in the context of videogame reviews. But there's a very good reason I am going to such extremes, and I hope you got it.