Aevee Bee is our Subjective Reviewer of the Month for May 2014. Each month we interview someone who writes subjective reviews for other review outlets. We also invite them to write an objective review so that they can give their opinions some time to rest, if they would like.
What are some of your favorite video games, and why?
There are two kinds of games that I like. I tend to like games where you press a button and something very cool happens, in terms of like tactile feedback and physicality – games like God Hand or Bayonetta. I like that kind of action-y type games and shoot-em-ups, games that create a strong physical feeling and emotional tension in a short amount of time kind.
The other kind of games I like are games that take me to a place and have a whole world set up for me. These are games which are in some way believable: either narratively, or aesthetically, or architecturally; games like ICO or Proteus or Gone Home. These are games that are really into making that space happen. They’re less interested in win conditions and stuff like that. They’re more about the experience.
I think that both kinds of games I’m interested in are interested in the experience, and not so much winning or losing. I think Increpare’s Slave of God is a really good example of both of these kinds of games. That game creates both a sense of place and a really physical, immediate sensation, and it does both really well.
Why do you write video game reviews? What do you see as the purpose of your reviews?
I write reviews mostly because I’m interested in how video games do the things that they do. It’s really easy to say ‘this game is good’ or ‘this game is bad,’ but not actually explain why those things are happening: what is it about this game that makes it good or bad? One of the more… infamous things I wrote was a takedown of a Dead Space 3 review on Polygon. That was meant mostly as a way of showing how a lot of the ways that this game was described were like ‘here is a system that this game has’ – kind of a lot like one of your objective reviews , in fact – and not saying well why the system matters.
It’s one thing to say ‘in this game you shoot zombies,’ but I’ve played games where shooting zombies feels really crappy, and I’ve played games where shooting zombies feels really awesome. There’s a lot of really easily nameable ways in which you can explain that difference, from the sound design to the feedback on the controllers. The game may be challenging, but why is it challenging? Dark Souls is challenging in a much different way than the Touhou games. It’s completely different.
When it comes to my reviews I want to give my readers a sense of why I think game is good, because I think that that way they can tell themselves, ‘okay, I’m not sure I agree with Aevee on this particular point, so maybe I wouldn’t like this game that she does,’ and the reason you can make this decision is that you understand my reasoning behind it, which also helps you understand your own reasoning.
For me, criticism is not really meaningful if it’s not talking about specific things that are happening in the game. This is my criticism of criticism that tends to focus a lot on personal reactions and conclusions that we’re drawing from the game without talking too much in depth about why that game caused that specific experience. You can use an analogy, like ‘this game is really hard’ and ‘this part of my life is really hard,’ but the connection is not very convincing unless you’re talking about what specifically about that game is doing that work for you.
What sorts of things do you try to include in your reviews?
I try to be as specific as possible, which I feel is the most important thing for any sort of writing. Writing is an act of communication, and the more specific you are with that communication, the more you’re bringing what’s in your perspective to other people. I think it’s important also to be pretty broad in those specific details: as writers writing about video games we’ve got a lot of blind spots. We’re used to, say, literary criticism, and that doesn’t give us the most comprehensive perspective because there’s theater, and visual arts, and music, and sound, and animation, and lots of other details that matter a whole ton.
The other thing I think is really important is familiarity with the history of a game: the history its genre, or its previous incarnations. I don’t necessarily think you have to play all billion Disgaea prequels in order to enjoy the latest one, but you should have done some passing familiarity with the context this game exists in. Like, why is there permadeath in Fire Emblem, for example? It seems like a really bizarre design choice nowadays, but if you look at the history, you can understand why that was put in there. You might still disagree with it and say that it’s bullshit, like I might, but you’re at least doing it within the context of understanding why it was there in the first place. That’s something that I would like to see a lot in reviews. Even if you’re saying ‘this game is trash,’ contextualize your opinion.
What do you enjoy or find interesting about writing video game reviews?
What I tend to do when I play a game is pick apart this sort of stuff already. When I’m playing a game, I find I have all these thoughts already. Writing them allows me to organize and do deeper thinking about how all this stuff works together and why it’s interesting. It’s kind of just as much for me as it is for everyone else.
I also write reviews to be entertaining, and I really like to share, especially when I find a game that I think is really good, or a game that has something interesting or valuable for others. I really believe in the importance of sharing that. Part of me also wants to share if I don’t think a game is very good. Sometimes I feel like the reasons why it’s bad are important and worth talking about. A lot of things in games are trends that I wish would go away for one reason or another, and it can help to have a really specific example of why these things are definitely not working.
How do you think your personality influences the reviews you write?
I think that my most prominent principle is that I want my writing to communicate to another person. Writing a review is in a lot of ways incredibly difficult, because this is a personal experience that you’re having and you’re trying to convey it to another human being. I really strongly believe in those principles of communication and outreach. Those are the sorts of things I believe are inherent and valuable to all writing so they happen to come out in reviews just because that’s what I’m writing.
I think some of my other intellectual principles definitely shine through, namely, demanding a certain amount of specificity and contextualization. I think also there’s a responsibility to talk about both your emotional reaction to the game and the reason why you had that particular reaction. To not talk about our emotional reactions to games is say that we think games are this heavily product focused thing, where we don’t react to them, we simply experience fun units.
There’s this weird sort of doublethink that I often get from people who are reacting to game criticism who both want games to be art but also don’t want people to have honest reactions to them or who get kind of upset when the reactions are less than glowing. I think when I explain why this particular element made me really joyful or uncomfortable, then that that thing can be understood by others.
I like dry humor, and jokes on the twitters, and I think that those jokes often filter through into my reviews. Sometimes I like it when the jokes are on the almost serious side. It can be really fun to write a joke that’s really subtle that finally hits somebody when they’re not expecting it in the middle of a review.
I’ve been not just immersed in Japanese culture but also curious about how it works. I would recommend to anyone who is thinking of writing reviews that, when you know a lot about something, to also think about what makes that thing important. So Christian Nutt, for example, who’s a really great writer at Gamasutra, just did an interview on moe, which, to define really quick, is hyper sexualized young ladies in a lot of anime video games. He was talking about the trend and asking a lot of questions about financially why this is viable, about the niche market that it targets and how it has become increasingly insular. That’s the sort of really important questions that I’ve thought are worth asking. I’ve gone out to try to find answers for these questions, so I want to apply that stuff to the reviews that I write.
It’s also important to have both the critical eye as well as the of firsthand experience. Another really good writer, Patrick Miller, who writes about fighting games, has a knowledge of how fighting games function on a really technical level, and how the culture works, because he’s part of it, but also he can step back and show that culture to other people. He’s not so immersed that he only speaks in that language. That’s what I try to do. I unironically love silly anime video games, but I can also take a step back. I can say they’re silly, and also problematic, and also endearing, so that it’s not a sort of one sided ‘I love this and I won’t hear opposition’ or ‘as an outsider I feel like this is freaking weird, and that’s all I’m going to talk about.’
What are some reviews you’ve written that you’re proud of? Why are you proud of each of them?
I’m super proud of the work I do on ZEAL. I think, though, that I’m almost prouder of the work that I hired other people to do. I feel like a lot of my strengths tend to be the strengths of a lot of other games critics. I really love writing games criticism, but one of the things I wanted to do with ZEAL is to reach out and bring alternate perspectives: people with different knowledge. I’m really proud of Maddox Pratt’s article about Actual Sunlight. It has really important psychological and sociological research involved in it, and that’s the sort of thing that we don’t often get. Polly, who goes by madamluna, has written an amazing article on slapstick humor in games that goes back to comics and animations. That is one of those really important things that’s in so many games. Many games writers are not also visual artists – we don’t have necessarily the knowledge that she does, and she brings a lot to that.
I really like what I wrote about Deadly Premonition about Small Talk in games, because I’m a huge advocate of character and personality in games that’s not necessarily narrative. I think a lot of our assumptions are that there’s a certain narrative flow that happens when we have characters that are interactive with each other. There’s a lot focus on cutscenes. I think there are actually a lot of really interesting ways we can get dialog, story, and character interaction out, not necessarily just by having a linear narrative, and Deadly Premonition is really good at that.
I like reviewing really strange Japanese RPGs for a mass audience. I get to talk about them, knowing all the things I know about Japanese pop culture, and try to convey that in a way that’s accessible to outsiders. I think that tends to be my most entertaining writing. I just reviewed The Witch and the Hundred Knight, which has some uncomfortable narrative moments where it jumps out of its tone a bit, but it’s actually a really competently put together game that’s been getting all sorts of middling reviews. I will proactively say it’s way better than Diablo III.
I had a great review of Dragon’s Crown which in my opinion is probably one of the most generous Dragon’s Crown reviews there is on the Internet. I scored that game quite highly, and I’ve gotten more hate mail from it than I have for anything else that I’ve written because it got linked on 4chan. It’s also my most successful and widely read review, so I have a feeling that in that situation, I was doing a lot more trolling than I was getting. What goes around can come around!
I talked about Bravely Default and how I don’t think it’s that great. I think it’s got a lot of really interesting great ideas, and I think it’s chained to a lot of garbage from the olden days of the Final Fantasies. I see so many really good games in the JRPG genre that are not chained to that sort of stuff and that are trying new stuff. I think people should try newer things a little bit more.
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