A New Theory: Maybe Reviewers Don't Really Need To Finish Games

'GTA IV'I'm ready to have my mind changed about anything that I've long held to be true.

Such changes can occur at any time, as happened earlier this week when a reader began to convince me that today's seemingly generous game reviewers actually dole out too few perfect scores.

Another core tenet I'm at least considering abandoning: the belief that game reviewers need to finish games.

I'm not comfortable changing my mind about this. I happily finish the games that I think are important. That means I finish a lot of games each year, even though I don't review any of them. And if I didn't finish, say, "Metroid Prime 3" or "The Phantom Hourglass," what would I know of each game's major final-hours gameplay twists? How could I talk confidently about "Mass Effect" without having triggered at least one of its endings? How else would I know that the fantastic "BioShock" stumbles to the finish line, a failing worthy of a penalty?

Surely, games must be finished to be reviewed -- or even to be discussed authoritatively.

Yet something N'Gai Croal wrote on his blog a couple of days ago prompted me to question my belief.

And when I learned yesterday that Variety's Ben Fritz hadn't finished -- probably hadn't even played half of -- "Grand Theft Auto IV" before reviewing the game for his Hollywood publication, I knew I had to ask some questions of them and of myself.

On Monday, Croal published an essay about how games are misrepresented in most mainstream game reviews. He reminded his readers that he views games as "fundamentally non-narrative" and urged critics to discuss the feel of playing a game rather than just detailing its features or describing its story:

The essence of game cannot be found in a plot summary or in a catalog of its elements. So we need to find a way to talk about games that can engage the mainstream while educating it--truthfully--about what the experience of playing each individual game is actually like.

He praised Chris Baker's review of "GTA IV" in Slate for doing it right.

Ever interested in messing with N'Gai's theories, I wrote in a comment:

Something for you to grapple with: by rejecting the view of games as a narrative medium and by encouraging the kind of excellent criticism seen in Chris Baker's piece, you have raised the question of whether it is relevant for a critic to complete a game.

What is the meaningful end of a game? When is the moment when a critic can step away and say "I think I've got it; time to write up my thoughts."?

… your standards suggest a compelling second approach: by focusing on experience, who cares about the end? By rejecting the importance of narrative, you're entertaining a different view of game structure and a different prioritization of what needs to be played and discussed in a critique or a review.

Following that, I learned that Fritz hadn't finished "GTA IV" before writing his review. Telling him that I was open to new standards, I asked him for his take on the completion issue.

He told me that he had played a final copy of the game for more than 20 hours before his review ran and made more than 70 mission attempts (some of them failures, of course). He had reached all areas of the city except the final third of its landmass, the New Jersey-inspired Alderney. He also played some side missions, some multi-player and took lots of notes during the three days that elapsed between receiving the game and running his review.

Here's Fritz's reasoning to me about reviewing the game without finishing it:

Do I think games should be "finished" to review them? Ideally, in most cases. But in an open-world, multi-player game like "GTA," completing the story doesn't mean you "finished" the game in any real sense. Would a review of "GTA IV" in which the writer finished the story but did nothing else be more complete? I don't personally think so.

So I thought it was important to take time out to explore and try other things, which of course deducted from the time I had for story missions. I don't think the comparison to books and movies is particularly valid, since they're linear media that take a pretty predictable amount of time to complete. Depending on the type of game, your skill level, how much detail you want to see, etc., a game can take 5 hours, 20 hours, 100 hours, or infinity.

Bottom line: I'm very comfortable that I saw a broad cross-section of what "GTA IV" has to offer, went deep into it in certain places where I thought getting detail was important, and wrote a solid review.

If you've gotten further than Fritz did in "GTA IV," you should read his review and decide whether you think his write-up would have been improved had he played on. I've played further -- I've attempted more than 100 missions and completed 54% of the game -- but I can't pass judgment yet since I don't know all of what I'm missing.

Note that Chris Baker, he who was praised above, also said he hadn't finished the game before writing his Slate piece.

I've been interviewing game reviewers a lot recently for a series of articles about the reviewing process. Until a couple of days ago I hadn't even considered the idea that people could write worthwhile reviews without completing games. None of the veteran reviewers I talked to in the enthusiast press seemed to think so either. But now… I'm wondering.

Is completing a game still key?

Or would you rather your game reviewers spend their time and focus their writing on other things?