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When the Worth of Individual Parts Belies That of the Whole: Shenmue 2 and How Games Are Reviewed

Chris Snyder

Game reviewers assert that their task involves the evaluation of a game’s individual components, and the cumulative sum of those components often constitutes how “good” or “bad” a game is. Graphics, gameplay, ease of control…these are some of the many individual characteristics of games that constitute the whole game. As gamers, this seems to be a fair way to evaluate a game’s worth as well. But what happens when a game violates the general rule that if a game’s individual parts are all unsatisfying or downright awful, the game is automatically deemed as bad? Is it possible for a game with terrible individual components to be considered good? In a recent discussion with fellow RPGamer staffer Karlinn, several examples surfaced that serve as counter examples to this general rule.

I recently played through Shenmue II on the Xbox. I loved the first Shenmue, for reasons that are explained in this editorial. One day, as I had Ryo backslap a transvestite carrying a chain saw, I came to a realization. Many of Shenmue II’s characteristics are, well, downright awful. The voice-acting is atrocious, the control scheme could use a lot of work, camera angles change abruptly and inexplicably at the most dangerous of times, it’s impossible to load a saved game unless the Xbox is reset (Oh wait, the Xbox doesn’t have a reset button…guess I’ll have to eject the disc and then reinsert it or turn it on and off quickly), the action is viewed as too slow for most people (who aren’t enthralled by the prospect of airing out library books or arranging cargo crates at a harbor)…Shenmue II has a lot of critical flaws.

Yet, even in the presence of all these flaws, I loved every minute of Shenmue II.

How could this be? My affinity for the game defied a general opinion about how games are even allowed to be considered good; I loved the whole of the game despite the poor quality of its individual parts. After a lot of thought, I’ve identified the source of my love for Shenmue II: I find its originality and innovative approach to gaming refreshingly entertaining. Shenmue II offers me an experience that I haven’t encountered before; its starkly different style of gameplay is incredibly alluring to me. Shenmue II (and its prequal) creates an almost realistic world and story; this constitutes an extremely daunting task given the nature of Shenmue’s action. I mean, come on, think of the story of the Shenmue games if they were a movie. They’d most likely be martial arts movies. How serious do most people consider martial arts movies? The Shenmue games succeed in that they make the plot and action of a martial arts movie seem…believable. The games’ stark realism belies what one might expect of a game whose action is dependent upon various martial arts moves. The long periods of boring “inaction” (the dialogue, the minigames, the visiting of multiple people in your quest for other people who will send you to buildings where you’ll be ambushed by not the people you’re searching for, but rather by random strangers who will not advance your quest in the slightest) in Shenmue II are absolutely key to preserving this realism. While most disgust these elements, I’m willing to see them preserved and implemented so that the game’s sense of realism is sustained. As a result, I find that I’ve enjoyed a game that most others consider slow, boring, and incomplete.

What does any of this mean to you, you who have probably passed this editorial off as an author’s personal rant about how great he thinks a game is? Take heed, for the realization I’ve come to implies a criticism of the entire process of game reviewing. If nothing else, the message I hope to communicate with this editorial concerns not how great I believe Shenmue II to be, but rather how the primarily subjective process of game reviewing is viewed as objective, and as a result, might prevent some people from experiencing games that they would actually enjoy. Too often, gamers only seek out the “best” games (as determined by reviewers and high amounts of critical acclaim). However, in doing this, some games with elements that would enthrall a certain player go under the radar screen of that player. Simply because a game gets mediocre reviews doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it. What I’m saying probably sounds ridiculously obvious, but think about it. How many games have you bought solely on the basis of how many “9’s or above” they got by reviewers, or other similar means like word-of-mouth? Look over at your game collection right now and count how many games you own that are considered mediocre by reviewers. I’m not saying that the general rule explicated above, that the sum of a game’s individual components is an appropriate way of determining the worth of the game as a whole, doesn’t work or is fundamentally flawed. It does, after all, form the basis for how we communicate about games. However, don’t be deterred from trying out a game that others consider mediocre. If it has a gameplay element that interests you, check it out. Your particular attraction to certain elements may cause you to like that game more than reviewers. No matter how hard we try, no matter how many different methods we develop to depict how good or bad a game is, the process of reviewing games will never be objective; subjective affinities for certain aspects will always cause us to enjoy certain things more than others.

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