Keeping score: How to judge a gaming world

In April, The New York Times published a review of Elden Ring, the recent release by FromSoftware. The piece, by Brian X Chen, met with scorn and derision in the notoriously vocal areas of the internet dedicated to gaming. Part of the problem was that the review attributed the success of the game to the fact that it “evokes the hardship and disappointment of the pandemic”.

The Washington Post’s Gene Park wrote a quick rebuttal, saying the success of Elden Ring had everything to do, instead, with how its developers have designed and iterated on a successful formula for 11 years: “Elden Ring is a triumph, a milestone for the video games industry. For that, you can thank the people who made the game, and the people who play it — not circumstance.”

Park’s statement goes to the root of the problem. At its core, the question is: What makes a game work, or not work? The same question applies to film criticism, but there it can be answered after a thorough viewing. A film reviewer looks at the elements that make up the experience — script, screenplay, cinematography, sound, acting — and offers their verdict.

A game reviewer factors in all these, as well as the most important aspect, the gameplay experience. And here’s where the problem lies. Games are long. A full playthrough of World of Tanks Blitz can take over 2,700 hours. More conventionally, The Witcher 3 can take 32 hours (if you rush through the game) or 180 hours (if you’re a completionist).

An average Elden Ring playthrough requires 104 hours, and the experience changes based on style of play. A melee build, where the player prefers weapons such as swords and halberds, plays very differently from a magic build. The experience of playing solo is different from the experience of playing the game with friends.

Many games provide different paths through their story. In The Witcher 2, the player must choose one of two paths at the end of the game’s first chapter. Each path is a unique adventure, with different quests, perspectives and characters. A full gameplay experience, then, would involve playing the game twice.

There are games that change based on one’s actions in-game. One can play Planescape: Torment as a pacifist and go through the entire game without fighting, except for two unavoidable combat encounters. Or one can play as a completely evil character, killing everyone one feels like killing; again, two completely different experiences.

In Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous, there are 10 “mythic” paths through the game, each of which provides the player with different powers, abilities, quests and companions. A standard playthrough of any one path takes about 130 hours.

There’s another variable that comes into play when the game is multiplayer or has a multiplayer component. In Elden Ring, players can “summon” other players to help defeat powerful enemies. There’s a player who goes by the handle Let Me Solo Her who has already become a legend and a meme in the Elden Ring community. One can summon him to help with the game’s toughest boss, Malenia. If he answers the summons, you’ll see a figure in a loincloth, with a pot helmet on his head, wielding katanas. You can then just sit back as Let Me Solo Her defeats Malenia solo for you.

With variables like these, how can a reviewer predict the online experience or the community?

When a film is released to the public, it is usually in its final form. Except for the occasional “director’s cut”, the film one sees 10 years after release is the same film that premiere audiences saw. That’s no longer true of video games. Games are usually buggier on release. Like any complex computer program, they are supported by patches and hotfixes; developers add features, alter features, work to smooth out glitches.

There is DLC (downloadable content), which may add anything from new gear to complete storylines with multiple quests. The game you play a year after release is often a different release from the game you played on day one.

In that context, the best reviews are often retrospectives. Take No Man’s Sky. The game was a huge disappointment when it was launched in 2016. Critics panned it, and it received “Overwhelmingly Negative” ratings on Steam. Five years and multiple free updates later, creator Sean Murray tweeted a screenshot showing that the game now had “Mostly Positive” ratings.

When it comes to real-time reviews, admittedly an important first step, one is more likely to get the best read from Twitch streamers, YouTubers or Redditors, who spend hours a day in gaming worlds, and likely spend more time in a new game than its reviewers can.

For now, their verdict on Elden Ring is clear. It is FromSoftware’s most popular game yet, outstripping Pokemon Legends: Arceus with 12 million copies sold in the first 17 days. Among its top draws, gamers say, are its detailed aesthetic, nuanced gameplay, and the way it pays tribute to classic templates but dares to go beyond them, allowing it to feel refreshing and still familiar.

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