One of the advantages of writing for GamersWithJobs is the feedback. If I post a draft up, there are plenty of folks there to inform me what works, what doesn’t and how things should be reorganized. In fact, a couple of articles were almost entirely rewritten due to new directions being sought, or feeling as if the right angles were not being explored.
There’s a lot of talk about improving games writing lately, but just as the analysis of the games themselves are lackluster, so are the critiques of the different outlets. People aren’t really tackling the lackluster capabilities of most reviews or features out there. As such, I will be taking point as Conceited Writer in picking out pieces from across the web, taking the metaphorical red pen to them to see how they fail and how they could be improved.
I will not be politically motivated. In light of recent events, it seems like most “criticism” of games writing is to “get your politics out of my games”, and while I can understand that to an extent, that’s not really the problem. What you’re describing is a preference. That said, the environment is toxic enough that I also won’t be analyzing anything that discusses socio-political issues in-depth. Maybe one day I’ll feel comfortable calling out a logical fallacy when I see one, but there’s too much pressure to be “with us or against us” that I would rather not partake in the conversation at all.
So let’s begin with VideoGamer.com’s The Evil Within review, a piece that went live earlier this month.
All credit where it is due, I applaud writer Steven Burns for informing the reader as to why their review broke the media embargo date for the game.
Note: the embargo for media that received The Evil Within from Bethesda is on October 14th, the day of release. As Bethesda declined to send us a review copy of the game (presumably due to the score we gave Wolfenstein: The New Order) we bought our own copy. As such said embargo does not apply, hence why the review is live now.
Unfortunately, this disclosure brings about other questions. How many days in advance did you manage to purchase the game before posting this review? Were you able to take notes in that amount of time? How clear is your memory of all of the game’s mechanics? Did you play it all in one or two sittings? How accurately will this reflect the consumer’s experience?
This last question has always been an important one in regards to video game reviews. Are you analyzing the title on a deeper level, or are you simply trying to assess overall consumer value? VideoGamer.com seems to be a rather traditional games outlet, so I’m going to assume the latter. In this case, marathoning through the game may not accurately represent your typical player’s experience.
There’s also the concern that the game’s score is a reflection on the author’s theory that Bethesda is no longer sending the outlet review copies due to a previous game’s poor score. While I doubt this is a possibility, the risk still exists. Full disclosure is all well and good, but now a clear conflict of interest exists before your audience. “We did not receive a review copy from Bethesda, thus we purchased our own and are not under media embargo” would have sufficed.
Does the combination [of Resident Evil and Silent Hill] work? It does, even if The Evil Within doesn’t hit the heights of Mikami’s previous work.
This sentence acts as the segue from the opening paragraph, wherein author Steven reflects how similar The Evil Within is to both seminal horror franchises both aesthetically and mechanically, before diving into mechanics. The issue is that the “heights” of Mikami’s previous work are left a bit ambiguous considering the content of the remaining paragraph. Steven continues to compare The Evil Within to Resident Evil 4, but fails to make note of how the current title falls short. The closest we get to Mikami’s heights is the possibility of spin-kicking an enemy out the window.
To understand how The Evil Within fails to measure up to game director Shinji Mikami’s previous accomplishments, we need to develop a baseline. What does Steven Burns consider to be the heights? Not only which games, but what elements of them? Different players are yearning for different kinds of experiences, and as a result what the author considers a highlight of Resident Evil 4 might have been a detriment to the experience for one of VideoGamer.com’s readers.
The only conclusion we can currently draw is that The Evil Within is good, but not as good as previous entries in the Resident Evil franchise. We don’t know which games specifically or how it fails to measure up. It is possible to conclude that the author is simply viewing those previous games through a nostalgia fogged lens. It could simply be that The Evil Within is not as fresh an experience, and thus doesn’t generate the same positive impressions the earlier works had.
Once again, I make no accusation, but the possibility is now clearly presented for the reader to assume if they so desire.
[Kicking the player to a menu after completing a mission] seems an odd, momentum-breaking decision at first, but later reveals itself as an effective way of letting players simply breathe again. Beyond mere survival The Evil Within’s chapter objectives (find a key, flip a switch, etc) are simple, and for good reason: they serve as effective ways of focusing the terror.
This paragraph opens up with more technical discussion, breaking down the game’s presentation and performance. However, what I’ve highlighted clearly has nothing to do with the ideas presented in the original sentence. Every sentence within a paragraph should focus on one subject. The game’s technical performance should be its own paragraph, while this sentence, focused on the game’s pacing, should be separate. The two subjects, at least in the context of this review, are not related.
As for the discussion of pacing here, you only get some sense of why Steven found The Evil Within‘s to function so well. Rather than keeping the player in a continuously tense environment, it allows the player a moment to sit back, relax, and let the tension ease. However, the actual pacing of each level isn’t described. Mission objectives are kept simple? Alright, that happens to be most games, really. What makes it so special here? How do they focus the terror? Are the objectives located in spots that you just know something bad is going to happen?
For example, I’ve been playing Alien: Isolation recently, a game that also has loading screens and levels that exist as a sort of stress relief. Not often, the tension is always high in some way, but some levels are a lot more lax than others. Yet when stakes are high and you find yourself jumping at every sound, the objectives, while simple, are also constantly moving. What at first comes as a sense of relief instead becomes a dreadful glimpse onto a map screen, seeing just how many narrow halls the player is forced to venture down.
A reader can extrapolate just what sort of nail-biting experience is through this description of the gameplay, but reading Steven’s review of The Evil Within, all I really know is that I will have simple objectives in terrifying environments reminiscent of Silent Hill.
None of this informs me of whether I’ll actually enjoy or be interested in the game, however. I just have to take Steven’s word for it.
Your foes - whose tactics are essentially the same as the ganados in Resi 4 - work perfectly in these dreamscape worlds: they just keep coming.
For one moment let’s assume that I’ve never played Resident Evil 4. The game is ten years old now, and while it has been re-released across many platforms, there are also a lot of players in the 18-24 demographic that might have been too young to play the game when it was released, or had simply never gotten the chance. Or they never owned a GameCube and/or Playstation 2, or a Wii. For whatever reason, let’s assume that someone out there is interested in The Evil Within, but did not have a chance to play Resident Evil 4.
If you are going to make this comparison, you need to then explain how the Ganados behaved. As someone that played Resident Evil 4, I am given the impression that many of the foes and monsters in The Evil Within are slow-moving, attack rarely, but are always in groups. That’s the best comparison I can make with the information presented. Without playing Resident Evil 4, I don’t even know what a Ganado is.
Mikami, more than perhaps anyone, understands that the secret to gunplay and enemy encounters is crafting weapons that are actually tools, with specific functions, not just bang-bang power fantasies. The Evil Within’s environments are cramped, dangerous, and oppressive. But they’re also that to your enemies. Best laid plans will often go wrong, but the maxim remains: use your weapons and items wisely.
Once again, how? The game Dead Space provides the player with tools that become weaponized, but that doesn’t stop them from becoming “bang-bang power fantasies”. So how does The Evil Within differ? Do you have a weapon or two whose function and uses you can describe? Does the player actively set traps throughout these cramped environments, or can the enemy A.I. be tricked into falling into a variety of hazards? What sort of options are available to a player?
Enemies are tough and intelligent, moving in packs and swarming the player, using melee and ranged weapons to box Sebastian in. Their resilience - a well-placed shotgun shell to the face sometimes isn’t enough - is at the heart of their danger.
This information should have been two paragraphs up, following the comment about Ganados from Resident Evil 4.
In a nod to Resi remake’s Crimson Heads, one of the few times players will feel safe is after burning downed foes. Even then, matches are at a premium.
Once again a comparison is made to another game that the reader may not be familiar with. Even if you played the original Resident Evil, it is completely possible that you missed out on the GameCube remake that included a sort of mutation for defeated zombies. If you “killed” one of the undead without blowing its head off, then over time it would change into a more powerful foe. Its face would change to the color of blood, claws would protrude from its hands, and it would be exponentially faster than your garden variety zombie. It was a dangerous foe to run into in the Resident Evil remake because that game required the player to backtrack quite often.
Note that in Resident Evil 4, the player is forced to retread old ground very rarely. The descriptions of gameplay for The Evil Within have fit a much more linear game style such as Resident Evil 4, but evolving foes in the nature of crimson heads changes that perception. Is the player now exploring a handful of environments and frequently backtracking? Or is it a more linear experience? Or is it a fusion of the two, where the player will have to backtrack and explore a level frequently and the bodies of the dead have a chance of springing back to life?
The review answers none of these questions. We just know that it is evidently a good idea to torch some of your fallen enemies, presumably because they will come back stronger than before.
There’s a satisfaction to combat that feels distinctly Mikami - every encounter is a test, a potential last stand, and it takes true skill to come out alive.
This could describe any number of games with a decent difficulty setting, from Tomonobu Itagaki’s take on Ninja Gaiden to the Halo games on Legendary difficulty. The difference between those two design philosophies is that Itagaki demands the player have mastery of character Ryu Hayabusa’s many abilities, attacks and combinations, while developer Bungie expects the player to be resourceful with weapons and to use the environment to their advantage. What makes this kind of back-to-the-wall challenge specifically Mikami?
It’s these elements that drag you through a game that is, on the face of it, exhausting to play. Even when it isn’t at its best, you’ll want to press on. It sags considerably in the middle, unable to match Resi 4’s superb pacing and letting some rather uninspired environments get in the way. Sometimes you’ll be killed cheaply, which given the Herculean effort needed to survive at all can grate.
After several paragraphs of praise we finally get to the flaws of the game, all phrased in a manner that makes it sound like The Evil Within is more of a chore to play despite all the insistence that it is, in fact, enjoyable. It is also unusual to find the game’s pacing criticized here when, much earlier in the review, it was being praised for giving the player a chance to breath. Is it that the game reaches a point where the story seems to halt, and there’s nothing but copy-paste encounters to run through until things pick back up? Does the game feel padded for length in the middle? Does it lose its sense of direction?
Finally, there is a note that the player will be “killed cheaply” at times, though with no description as to how. Are there hard to spot traps scattered throughout the levels? Do some enemies have single-hit kills? What constitutes a cheap kill?
At times it feels like a Mikami megamix: it has the village with the chainsaw-wielding dude, another mansion, etc. But Mikami does this so well it’s difficult to get annoyed.
Wording is important. When I read the term “megamix”, I imagine the idea is to say that this game is a collection of Shinji Mikami’s best work. To then explain that these features aren’t annoying confuses the reader. Were they supposed to seem that way? Is a megamix ever intended to be a bad thing? Is there a musician whose “Best of” album is something to avoid?
Now, technically that final paragraph concludes the review, given a score of eight out of a possible ten. However, the review is then followed by a separate section titled “Merchant of Menace”, all dedicated to describing a “green goo” system that allows the player to upgrade their weapons.
Multiple questions suddenly spring to mind upon reading this. The first is, why was this not discussed in the review proper? Steve already mentioned the use of weapons and tools within this game, and knowing that they can be upgraded would most certainly be valuable to the reader. The second question is, how does this impact the horror element of the game’s design?
The ability to upgrade weapons provides the player a moment of accomplishment and empowerment. You are better set to handle the oncoming hordes ahead of you. Even if the threats are larger and more numerous, you’ve got more powerful weaponry to handle them. As a result, foes that were once frightening are now on a more level playing field, working against the very notion of horror. This is one of the reasons that Resident Evil 4 was more of an action game than a horror game.
The reason I chose this as my first games piece to analyze is that it reads like a lot of reviews I’ve seen over the years, both from professionals and from amateurs looking to write about games one day. New websites spring up all the time promising news, reviews, and features. Yet there is not enough time and care given to the content.
Perhaps it was a result of trying to beat the media embargo, to have that first review out in the wild to garner traffic, but this review doesn’t really explain what The Evil Within is really like. At best, you get a recommendation that if you liked the gameplay of Resident Evil 4 and enjoy the aesthetic of the Silent Hill franchise, then The Evil Within would be a fun game for you.
What about players unfamiliar with those franchises, however? What if there are minor differences in design that cause this game to repulse the player rather than appeal to them?
Yes, reviews are subject, and any reviewer or critic is still the victim to their own tastes. That is why it is the writer’s duty to try and assess what makes a game tick, what engages them with it, in an effort to describe the gameplay experience as best as they can for the player to understand and make a purchasing decision on.
This review for The Evil Within fails in that regard. It merely adds another number to MetaCritic without any context.