Monday, October 13, 2014

Azure Striker Gunvolt, and the Gaming Media: A Prime Example of Guised Criticism

Originally I'd intended to write a review of Azure Striker Gunvolt that was to be glowing. I've recently finished up my 20th hour with this downloadable title and, while at first I found myself a bit disappointed, eventually came to understand and learn what it is that Gunvolt offers uniquely, and how exciting the title is once understood.

But I ran into an issue, and the issue was that every time I tried to write about Gunvolt I felt myself repeatedly drawn to recognizing the assumed position of the Megaman series in regards to Gunvolt. The two games look very much alike, and with Gunvolt there's quite a lot that takes both openly and admiringly from Megaman, which includes not only gameplay but art-direction, storytelling, some secondary functions, and last but not least Keiji Inafune (the creator of Megaman) himself serving as Executive Producer.

The largest issue with this is that I kept feeling the need to spend this great amount of time discussing Megaman, and the reason why is because of how much not alike Gunvolt is to Megaman. In truth, Gunvolt is an utter bore if it's played as though it were Megaman, and what is essential to experiencing Gunvolt, particularly for gamers alike me that are very familiar with not only Megaman but most 2D Platformers since, is being able to dissect our expectations and familiarities and objectively witness the individual product that is before us. To be open toward what is truly an almost entirely original game design.

But I didn't give up writing my review immediately. Instead, I jacked in to the Net and researched reviews for Gunvolt by other gaming media. What I discovered was rushed gaming journalism that once again proves a sizable inferiority to other established mediums, this time in the form of the "review" that is actually a biased criticism. And there's something sincerely wrong about this, because Gunvolt is certainly not the first title this has happened to, and definitely not the last.

Before citing only a few of these examples, it's important to clarify exactly what the difference is between a review and a criticism. While one person may write both a review and a criticism of the same product, these writings should be largely unique from one another. Unfortunately, they're often not, leaning more towards the latter while being titled as though the former. There doesn't seem to be any cemented definition between what separates the two, but for me I would argue that:

Review: Writing that is fixed solely to the item that is being discussed. A review assumes no knowledge of elements outside of the discussed item. While certain staples needn't be explained too thoroughly (with gaming this can refer to consistent genre mechanics; if you don't know what Turn-Based or Platformer is, you'll pick it up soon enough), the review does not alleviate discussion by recognition of other items similar. Any style of comparison (which assumes knowledge other than the reviewed item) alienates objectivity and therefore the entire review.

Criticism: Writing that assumes readership having additional knowledge other than the item under discussion. Criticism is founded by the critic, and the successful critic is a personality that essentially speaks for the assortment of readers who share or disagree with the critic's values. Criticism is not based on objectivity but instead on bias; criticism offers a more intimate study of a title, but it's one whose results are widely open to debate and discussion by readers.

So let's look at some Gunvolt reviews. More specifically, let's look at their opening paragraphs---

Gamespot: In Azure Striker: Gunvolt, you charge through a series of missions in the order of your choosing within a colorful 2D world, contending with pitfalls and robo-fodder until you engage in a boss battle confined to a single screen arena, and if you're successful, you're rewarded with a new type of gun. So, yes, it shares a few things in common with Mega Man...

Destructoid: If Capcom ever decides that they're done with Mega Man, someone will carry the torch. Whether it's tireless fan creators or the father of the Blue Bomber himself, the Mega Man community is one of the most passionate collectives I've ever seen in the gaming industry.

IGN: Several years ago, Japanese developer Inti Creates captured the essence of the late-'80s with its spot-on entries in the classic Mega Man series, Mega Man 9 and 10. Its latest, Azure Striker Gunvolt, is an original game that represents a natural evolution of that appreciation of retro gaming, done in the style of Mega Man X. While it's in no way, shape, or form as good as X, it's certainly fun in its own right, and like Mega Man 9 and 10 before it, it provides a nostalgic trip for anyone who still finds value in games from an era gone by.

Even Jeremy Parish, a rather celebrated gaming journalist for his deliberate, intelligent, and, most importantly, actual journalist writing style, begins his review for USGamer as, "Azure Striker Gunvolt is not Mega Man. It certainly does its best to give that impression, but beyond surface appearances the game goes in its own direction. Nevertheless, you can't properly discuss Gunvolt without invoking Mega Man." And I couldn't have been more disappointed to see this. While I admitted that I too had an impossible time discussing Gunvolt without referencing Megaman, the real conclusion of the matter is right what Jeremy says; "...beyond surface appearances [Gunvolt] goes in its own direction." Put more bluntly: "This is an original game that hasn't a thing to do with anything other than itself."

So why is it that nobody wants to honor that? Rather, why is every journalist allowing the reactionary response of readers a notch inside of what is supposed to be an objective piece of writing? Each of these reviews eventually conclude with Jeremy's opening; Azure Striker Gunvolt is a completely original game design that inhabits the 2D Platformer genre, and no matter what it "shares" with Megaman it likewise shares with every single 2D Platformer before, since, and after Megaman as well. Comparatively, bringing up Megaman with Gunvolt is like bringing up Mario with Klonoa--- they share the genre, but they are completely different titles.

So why do this? Why alienate an original product, to distort clear information, so to share a voice with readers?

Because gaming journalists were never taught the difference between the review and the criticism. Or, more likely, they just don't care.

The importance of understanding the difference between the review and the criticism is that, for all of the attention there is toward critics, towards personalities, in the gaming medium, there still should be a place where one can acheive objective information in regards to games as individual additions to the medium as a whole. No, there is not a pristine gauge of objectivity toward creative work, as there isn't for any creative medium. But there can be centralized facts, concentrated observations, that are undertaken with exclusive consideration toward the item under review, keen studies that enlist the reader with the specific and relative information needed in the formation of an unbiased overview of an item they've an interest in. While often forgotten, we as readers of gaming journalism are ultimately consumers weighing our spending, and there is as much a sincere significance in our being entitled a thorough understanding of what we are trading our money, our livelihood, in exchange for with gaming as there is for all products across all mediums.

It isn't that all gaming news sources need to oblige the rules of objectivity; it's clear that most readers would rather read that which has personality (even more so when they disagree with it) rather than that of the cold and flatly factual. And there's nothing wrong with criticism, and it is no way less than (nor more than) objective writing. But what needs to be established is that these websites which claim objectivity, which claim being leading news sources, need to make up their mind about whether or not they've an actual interest in fulfilling their own claims, and with gaming this clearly needs to begin with that of the most sought after editorial that is, of course, the review. It is the review which most profoundly affects both the very people who fuel this medium that make videogames, and those who buy them. It is beyond reason, beyond indecency, that there still is not a place where one can take from a "review" even a glimmer of solid and true information.

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