Every Wednesday in Bit Slap, Dan Chruscinski breaks down the latest in gamer culture, and examines these sometimes contentious, sometimes just silly items in closer detail. This week, the philosophy of video game reviews.
A few weeks back I was browsing through the myriad of tweets of which maybe 30% are from actual people (celebrities aren’t people), and I happened upon a tweet from a game journalist saying that he was enjoying I Am Alive, even if it was a flawed experience. While the game sits at 72 on Metacritic, it has been torn apart in game outlets such as IGN and G4. This got me thinking about game reviews, the stock we put in them, and the purpose they serve in the gaming community. When does a game review really matter? How long is a game review relevant? Why do we place trust in game critics? Game reviews are a touchy subject. Read the comments section of any game review, positive or negative, and you’ll see just how vocal the readers are in supporting or tearing apart a reviewer. So let’s see if we can do a little digging to see why they’re so damn controversial.
Like most people, I spend my days at work not actually working, but rather burying myself in wiki-pages like TV Tropes. One of my favorite entries on the TV Tropes wiki is for “8.8.” What does this refer to? Well, let me take you back six years when a young boy named Link learned he was a werewolf and this alien chick bugged the holy hell out of him for 45 hours in teeny tiny game called The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. The game remains one of my favorite entries in the series and was almost universally praised at the time of release. Unless you define praise as a review score of 9.0 or better. See, Jeff Gerstmann at Gamespot gave the hyped Zelda entry an 8.8, which everyone knows is the same as calling a game a Nazi war criminal. People flipped their collective shit and accused the site of taking bribes, of Gerstmann of not playing the game, and the world itself as being topsy turvy. As such, the term “8.8” was coined to refer to any game that received a high score but not a “deserved” perfect score.
This phenomenon happens with pretty much every high profile release and demonstrates a primary flaw in the review process; scores! Remember when 1UP took a stand against reviews scores and switched to a grading system. That worked for about a second before Metacritic assigned a number to each grade (more on them later). When readers are presented with a three page review of a game, they’re going to skip right to the end where they can read a bullet point list/quick summary and see the score. Unfortunately, a score without justification is open to interpretation. Readers treat the score as they would a grade on a multiple choice test rather than a grade on a written paper. There’s a difference between saying you got a B on a test because you missed five questions and a B on a paper because you didn’t fully explore the subject. I am not going to propose taking away the scoring system as it exists for almost all entertainment reviews. What I suggest is that when a reader is looking at a score, you understand there is a rationale behind the score.
Enough about the score itself, what happens after a game is slapped with a review? How long is that review truly an indicator of the game’s quality? One of my absolute favorite examples is Final Fantasy XII. At the time of release it garnered positive reviews across the board and a handful of “Game of the Year” awards. That seems to indicate the game is a critical success, right? I did a quick little search on the game and came across a slew of articles citing the game as controversial, too far from what Final Fantasy should be, lacking in character, utter bollocks, etc. The interesting part, all of these articles were written two or more years after the release of the game. So what happened? Why is a game loved at the time of release and then taken apart afterward? I have a theory that this occurs because we refuse to allow games to be a product of the time in which they are produced. We judge games partially on the technology on display, and when this technology becomes obsolete, we think less of the game. I don’t AGREE with this theory as my retro game library will prove, but unlike films or books, we don’t allow games to age gracefully. Another reason for the review decay is the similarity of games. Truly unique games are few and far between and we find ourselves playing different interpretations of a few core genres. If it is true that all stories have already been told, I would posit that all game genres have already been created and we’re left comparing games within in each genre. This close connection of games does not allow us to view games on their own merits, but rather on what they lack or display in relation to both past AND future games.
So we can deal with looking at review scores and even judging games as a creation of their time, but what about the people actually reviewing games? Universities have film studies and criticism programs, you can obtain a degree in journalism, but good luck having a Masters in Games Theory. The problem with game reviews as a whole is there is no overarching philosophy to how a game should be judged. Is a reviewer who gives a higher weight to storyline better than a reviewer who values technical achievements? Even the concept of a game being “fun” is more complicated than answering yes or no. Games are trying more and more to rise about being merely for entertainment. Some games are designed to help us lose weight, learn new languages, puzzle solving skills, or tell us a story that we may not be comfortable hearing. Because of this, I find value in the variety of gaming sites and publications in existence. There are websites I will never go to for reviews, while other sites and reviewers in particular I hold in higher regard. While having no real structure is an issue, the industry has provided a solution by giving us, the consumer, the ability to choose who we trust. It is up to us to decide how we learn that trust. For example, while I don’t always agree with 1Up’s Jeremy Parish on his reviews, I read and contemplate his work because I know he has a massive knowledge base of game history that I see him bring into his writing. Will I blow off a game because he doesn’t like it? No. Will I love a game he loves? No. I use his reviews as a means to educate myself and hopefully increase my own knowledge base.
When it comes down to it, game reviews are a flawed system. But the system is not beyond repair. In actuality, the only change that is mandatory is how we as readers actually consume reviews. Rather than taking a review as an attack on a game or pandering to a developer, we should view the review as an opinion. That’s all it is, one person’s opinion, no more or less valid than our own. I can give a game a horrible review and a 3 out of 10 ranking and truly believe in my heart that is what the game is worth while you rank it as your favorite game of all time. All this means is that we have a chance to learn more about the game by taking into account several viewpoints. The only way to actually know if you like a game is to try it yourself. Nobody can tell you otherwise.