Someone asked me about my Unreview rules recently:

  • I have to pay for it,
  • I have to like it,
  • I do my best to use E-Prime.

Well, here’s why.

 

Imagine someone who reviews movies after only seeing the trailer. Or reviews books after reading the back cover. Or reviews games after only reading the rules.

I know what you’re thinking. Nobody does that. Those people don’t exist. Well, you’d only be partly right. The first two don’t exist. But the last one is actually commonplace. I see it all over the internet.

The fact of the matter is, reviewing a game after only reading the rules is exactly like reviewing a restaurant after only reading the menu. One of my favorite little lessons I learned from studying Zen (stolen from Alan Watts) goes like this:

 

I can give you the recipe for baking the cake.

I can give you the ingredients.

But I can’t tell you good it will smell when it comes out of the oven,

Or how it will taste.

 

Let me give you a couple of examples.

In many editions of the World’s Most Popular RPG, rolling a 20 gives you a critical hit. It’s also an automatic success. That’s a rule. There it is. Look at it.

 

Of course, that doesn’t tell you at all about the emotions rolling around the table when the DM says, “You have to roll a 20 to succeed.”

It doesn’t show you the tense moment before someone rolls that d20.

And it doesn’t show you the cheer that rises from a table when it happens.

 

Those moments cannot be written down in rules. They’re what James Joyce called “sublime moments.” A short period of time that words could only fail to describe. Even now, writing it down, have I really captured that cheer? Has anyone? I can tell you about it. I can even try to show you that moment with lyrical prose, invoking your own memories of that one time you needed to roll a 20 and you did it and saved everyone’s lives.

But does it really capture that moment?

Gaming moments are sublime. That’s why gaming stories are so boring. Okay, for one, they’re usually told by people who don’t know how to tell a good story, but the other part is the moment was so magical…you just had to be there.

I’ll use a video game as an example. I used to play a lot of Left 4 Dead 2. That’s two teams competing for survival. Each round, they take turns playing the survivors and the zombies. The heroes want to move from one safe house to another and the zombies want to stop them from doing it. Pretty simple, right?

Except in the world of L4D, nobody is Master Chief. You need a team of four to make it, all working together, fighting for every damn step you take. It is an intense, brutal and merciless game. And there’s one mechanic that makes it all sing.

When you get knocked down, you need someone else to get you up.

Now, I know this mechanic has been lifted in other games—I’ll talk about one of them in a moment—but this is the point. When you go down in that game, you know there’s a good chance you’ll be…left for dead. Because going back in a game that’s all about going forward means you’re losing. When you play the game as the zombies, the whole point is to keep them from moving forward and pulling people back. So, when you go down, the whole team has to stop and get you back up.

As zombies, whenever you get one of the survivors down, it’s progress. Getting two down…oh, buddy. That’s the end.

So, here’s the situation. I’m playing online with strangers. Just two of us have made our way across the map, fighting for every step, like I said above. There’s just two of us left. The safe house is in sight. We get to the door and…my buddy gets pounced. I have a choice. I could stay in the safe house and score points, or I could go back and get him, and thus, score more points. But if I go back outside, there’s a whole host of baddies waiting to jump me. So, the obvious choice is staying inside.

I don’t take the obvious choice. I use a med pack and heal myself up. I take a shot of adrenaline so all my actions are fast-fast-fast. I grab the grenade launcher.

All the while, I’m saying over the mic to my buddy, “I’m coming back for you.” And my buddy is shouting, “Don’t you come outside! Don’t you come outside!”

I just tell him, “I’m coming back for you.”

I open the door. Fire the grenade launcher to kill the zombie that’s on him. (For fans of the game, it was a hunter.) Then, fast-fast-fast­, I get him back up and fire the grenade launcher again, just in case. And together, we shut the door.

“Holy shit!” the other guy shouts. “You come back outside whenever you goddamn want!”

Another story. I’m currently playing Mass Effect: Andromeda multi-player. Similar deal. Four players against waves of baddies. We have to work together to win. And, like in Left 4 Dead, if you go down, someone else has to get you up.

When you’re playing with friends, chances are, folks will run to pick you up. But when you’re playing with strangers, your odds are 50/50%. So, when you go down and you see someone running across the map to get you…there is nothing in the world like it.

I can show you the mechanic, I cannot tell you how the cake will taste.

Anyone who reviews a game without playing it is missing 90% of the game. And that 90% only happens at the table. I’m not talking about player banter, I’m talking about seeing a mechanic in play and how it affects the table. You can’t tell those kinds of things by only looking at the rules. You have to see them in play.

And until you do that, you’re just reviewing the movie after reading the script. Sure, you may get to see the best lines, but you’ll never see the actors or the special effects or the editing choices.

Or, you’re reviewing the album after looking at the sheet music. I’m sure Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah looks pretty boring on the page. But hearing it…now that’s something else.

I’m going to Italy later this year. I plan on seeing Michelangelo’s David. Because seeing the pictures doesn’t do it justice.

When I went to Scotland, the thing I wanted to see most was Rosslyn Chapel. Why? Because I had seen pictures and I wanted to see the real thing. Watching your favorite band in concert on video is not the same as being there, watching them live, surrounded by a few thousand other fans who are just as excited to see them as you were.

And saying that someone who saw a concert on video is the same as seeing a band live, well, that’s as silly as…oh, I don’t know… maybe…

…reading the rules and thinking you’d played the game.

The Map is Not the Territory