Talk of the Ninja: Nuance in Game Criticism

Let me apologize up front for not posting on this column for the past 4+ months, but honestly, game criticism has made me very depressed lately. And that’s not because I think games are all bad or boring or whatever, but because it’s hard to shake the feeling that any criticism I make is useless or worse.

One of my brothers works as a usability analyst, and sometimes it feels kind of strange knowing that while I haphazardly examine my own subjective reactions to entertainment media that I consume, he’s making a career out of compiling hard data regarding a multitude of reactions to software use. But he once shared an observation with me that I don’t think I’ll ever forget:

“Often times what people say they want is very different from what they actually want. It’s more important to note what users do, not what they say.”

Super Bunnyhop recently put out a video about game length. In it he said,

“The reason people continue to argue about game length is the same reason people argue about review scores: it’s easy. It’s just about a number. That number breaks down all the complicated, subjective highs, lows and uncertainties of the experience into just one or two digits.”

That’s been a big sticking point for me, because the oversimplification of complicated aspects of games into something you can easily shout about and feel right and smart about is a pitfall I’m no stranger to.

velvet assassin

Back on my old blog that I don’t like linking to anymore (we’ll get to why in a bit) I wrote a post three or four years ago claiming that every PC game must have quicksaving. When I wrote that post I’d recently played a subpar stealth game called Velvet Assassin, which featured badly implemented checkpoint saving. I thought about how games that let you quicksave, like Half-Life 2 or Doom, are much less irritating when it’s time to load a recent save. “Wow, quicksaving is clearly just the better option. Everybody should be doing this.”

At the time my logic seemed totally sound, but afterward I started finding games that proved me wrong. I played Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a game that deliberately keeps you in the dark about when the game autosaves in order to ensure that you never feel completely “safe.” I realized when playing it that if I had the ability to save whenever I wanted, it would have sucked a lot of the tension out. When you’re hiding behind a box wondering if the monster is going to see you when you poke your head out, the risk-free option would be to quicksave, poke your head out, and quickload if you’re spotted. A horror game like Amnesia shouldn’t have a risk-free option. In this context, quicksaving would have been a poor fit.


I also played Gunpoint, which did what I thought impossible and featured a checkpoint system that actually felt more convenient than quicksaving. Whenever you died in Gunpoint, the game would give you four or five options for how long ago you want to jump back to. Maybe five seconds, eight seconds, fifteen seconds, or a full level restart. These moments were estimated by the game based on their being immediately prior to player action or danger — five seconds ago you jumped off the wall, eight seconds ago you passed by an enemy guard, fifteen seconds ago you hacked the light switch. This was essentially the game quicksaving so I didn’t have to, and it was elegant, creative and smart.

In retrospect, I see why I said that every game must have quicksaving. Based on the games I’d just recently played, it seemed like an obvious solution to an obvious problem. But in doing so I ignored so much of the nuance and context of game design that my stance ended up being needlessly exclusionary and downright ignorant.

I’ve made this mistake so many times with so many of my old blog posts that for the past year I’ve often wanted to wipe the entire site off the ‘net, even though it’s just a WordPress blog and I could easily keep it existing for free. There are so many misconceptions and misguided attributions I made in the three years I ran that site that I don’t want anybody else reading it anymore, even though some people discovered me through the site and continue to follow me to this day because they liked what I wrote.

But I’m not the only person guilty of this. In fact, I see it everywhere, with arguments about review scores, game length, button prompts, cover-based shooting, linearity, wait times, microtransactions, DLC, free-to-play, subscriptions, so on, so forth, so it goes. For awhile I wanted to say the problem is that we’re too quick to come up with absolutes — longer games are better, microtransactions are bad, all games should have quicksaving, etc. — but I think the root of it is that when people try to deduce why we like or don’t like something, they tend to grab at the most obvious and straightforward answer, which is often wrong.

And considering the fact that I’ve done this before, I find the thought of doing it again and again very troubling. Blaming lack of enjoyment in a game on the wrong factors seems useless. In fact, it seems potentially worse than useless, since you could steer the community in the wrong direction. (I’ve long had the concern that so much focus on game length leads developers to pad their games out because Longer Is Better, for instance.) This makes me feel very anxious about writing games criticism.

But I suppose the truth is that the best way to learn is to do. I’m sure I’d be less nuanced in my analysis and criticism now if I hadn’t been writing on that old blog for three years. Discourse generally helps us all come to a deeper understanding of the topic at hand, whether we agree with each other or not, so the best thing to do is to talk about what we think of games, and try to be open-minded about it.

If most of us don’t really know what we want yet, it’s important to examine ourselves and what we like so we can figure that out.

Ninjustin will make a concerted effort to get back into his writing groove. No really this time. In the meantime, here he is on Twitter, where he rambles about games and other stuff. If you like Ninja Blues, consider pledging on Patreon.


  1. I guess the key here is that by advocating for a specific solution to a generic problem you are often going to miss the mark.

    I don’t really know of a great way of avoiding this though, beyond just talking about specific problems and how you think they could have been solved in this instance. And be willing to accept that you are fallible, you could be wrong, have certainly been wrong in the past, and will be wrong in the future. As long as you are capable of recognising and learning from your mistakes then you are at trying to make things better.

  2. +1 good post. I’m not sure what I can add to the conclusion, but here’s my two cents:

    Almost everything is more complicated than it seems at first, and absolutes are rarely totally correct. You can always look deeper.

  3. I actually really like the feeling of looking back on my old opinions and finding they’ve completely changed. It means I’ve grown and learned more in the interim, and just the process itself is fascinating.

    The one idea for a blog I had (if I could ever make myself draft my work or meet the time commitments) was one where I would write whatever I felt about but had to revisit the topic a week, a month and a year afterwards. To see what had changed and what hadn’t and how I’ve changed.

    I also think it makes for perhaps an even more interesting discourse when people are presenting ideas and opinions that are subject to change overtime. Like I feel reading your story of your initial ideas on check-point saves and how they’ve changed and what changed them makes for a really interesting and good and solid view of the subject.

    The original post was an interesting opinion, but the original post plus the time you spent thinking about it and the games that challenged your original opinion? I think that makes more a more valuable read than the opinion pieces that get published by paid games critics.
    Incidentally on a related note, Kuchera at Polygon recently wrote two articles in quick succession about game length. One explaining why he thought game length shouldn’t matter and one explaining why he should. I thought that was kind of cool.

    1. Man, that’s a pretty rad idea, though. It would be a terrible time commitment, especially later down the line, when different deadlines start overlapping. But cool nonetheless.

  4. I’ve had a lot of arguments about Day 1 DLC, and while they usually start with the assumption that content was removed in order to sell as extra content, that claim is literally never proven or even supported well. It’s just a narrative to rationalize why gamers should get D1DLC for free, as they feel. Which wouldn’t be so irritating if they actually made that argument, or yelled at me for questioning the narrative.

    And when the press starts pandering to this, such as certain posts about total price of the entirely cosmetic crap you could get with Evolve on launch, it doesn’t help. Even normally sensible gaming communities have this blindspot. I was accused of being a shill for just asking.


    That said, I do wonder if any other games are going to use a Gunpoint-style save system in the near future. Francis has said outright that he made the game, in part, to show off the things he’d like to see more of in games, and I believe there was some ninja game “inspired” by it. Which he liked and approved of.

  5. This is tricky: sometimes, a game doesn’t have a certain feature, and the general gaming public, even experienced, cannot tell if the feature is missing because (1) it was a design decision, (2) the coders wanted it but are not good enough to implement it correctly, (3) it’s essentially impossible to have the feature given the technical constraints.

    Very few people can take a good guess as to which option we’re dealing with.

    Here, I am thinking in particular about the save anywhere, which is what I came to expect in the 1990’s. Apparently, it can be tricky to implement well. I especially remember RPGs where the load and save time would increase exponentially as you progressed through the game.

    1. Yeah, I think Shamus wrote an article awhile ago about how checkpoint saving is done because quicksaving is too much of a hassle on the devs. I don’t know how often that is actually the case, though.

      There are definitely instances where save systems are built with stylistic goals in mind, like in Amnesia where the game goes really far out of its way to make you not think about your save state, or the original Resident Evil where you were limited in how many times you could save and thus had to make tough choices about where and when to do it.

      And like you said, there are many cases where it’s hard to tell.

  6. I actually found a different conclusion : I think root of the problem is that most people think everyone play games for the same purpose, and that every game should be judged on whether or not they fulfill that purpose. Take game length for example: If you see games as a way to pass the time, then you would want longer games. But if you’re a busy person and can only spare an hour or two for gaming, you would not want longer games. And if you game for different reasons, then length might not even matter at all.

    I guess that’s also the reason I’ve been putting (even more) effort to restrain myself from posting in general gaming forum/websites. preferring instead to post on forum for specific games. Otherwise I would encounter something like people bashing on the game because it doesn’t do something that goes against the core concept of the game. So yeah, I guess the takeaway is that you’re free to criticize a game as long as the criticism is in line with what the game is trying to do. Otherwise, keep it to yourself and go find something that was made with your priorities in mind.

    1. Okay, no gravatar. Did I used a wrong email?
      Edit: yep.
      Edit2: and now my comment is gone. Is it in moderation?

    2. That’s a good insight — it makes sense that the “all games should be like I say” mindset would come from a sense of entitlement. If you think all games should exist for you, then of course you’re going to make sweeping demands of them.

      Having said that, the difference between a game being made “with your priorities in mind” and not can be really murky, and I think that’s part of what makes game criticism confusing.

      And yeah, Gravatar is weird.

      1. It’s not always entitlement, most of the time it is simply ignorance. For example : I used to give DeadCore a lot of flak for its gotcha moments. However, when I read a comment about how GTA’s gotcha moments are some sort of challenge that people enjoy, I realized that DeadCore is simply a game that was not made for me. So I stopped complaining about it and started reviewing my techniques on ‘researching games I’m about to buy’ instead.

    1. (I understand that this comment is almost definitely spam, but I couldn’t get myself to delete it. It’s like a puppy. A spam comment puppy.)

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