Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Game Reviews Are Kind of a Mess

Each person has a gaming fabric. Not something they can hang on the wall or cover their bed with, but something more nebulous that determines their personal likes and dislikes in regards to video games. Some people’s gaming fabric may include the embrace of genres such platformers, role playing games, first-person shooters, rhythm games, etc – while some may be fueled by pure aesthetics or other personal pleasures. Each person’s gaming fabric is unique, and it is formed over years of gaming experiences, but when people with similar or dissimilar gaming fabrics talk about games, they can enjoy the common ground of discussion regarding their likes and dislikes.

When I was a young lad, videogame reviews were a little different than they are today. When a magazine gave a game a score, you felt like it really meant something. You knew where it placed a game among its peers. If The One magazine scored the latest Bitmap Brothers’ game 40% or 80%, you were able to process that score based on how you felt about previous scores that magazine had given other games. It was like The One was a single person, with its own opinion. A single gaming fabric you could rely on for consistency – a hive mind of writers coming together to offer a single voice.

Whether you agree with someone’s opinion or not is a different matter, of course. Everyone has their own unique opinion and each person will react to practically everything in a different way than someone else. And that, my dearest of friends, is why I think the current state of game reviews is a mess. A joke that I heard many years ago: “Opinions are like assholes; everyone has one and everyone else’s stinks.” Funny, and sometimes true!

Many video game review websites and magazines today lean towards promoting the expression of their individual writer’s opinions. Walter Writer may really like the latest game from Gary Game Maker, and score it 90%, whereas Jenny Journalist may dislike it, and would have scored it 40% if given the chance. This is fine, in concept, but it devalues the overall value the website or magazine can offer due to the fact that the opinions offered are varied and inconsistent with scores that may have been stated by the website or magazine in the past.

Adopting the approach of individual writer expression is an admirable thing to do, and it is the right thing to do in many regards. It is a more laser focused opinion than that of a hive mind. However, it does not reflect the website or magazine at large and therefore requires the reader to be aware of the fact that this is not the opinion of the site/magazine but the individual, instead. You are not tapping into a single gaming fabric, but potentially three, five, or more.

I say “instead”, because I believe most people visit websites and read magazines with the assumption that the opinions are from the “site” or “magazine”, and not purely the opinion of the person who wrote the review. Sure, most of the expression is of course from the writer, but an editor typically proof reads every review for flow, spelling, grammar, and to ensure it reflects the style and legacy of the site or magazine itself. After all, if their scores are to be included on a site such as Metacritic, they want to offer its readers some sense of consistency, right?

A review score given to a game is seen as a measurement. A low number means the game is bad, and a high number means it is good. If that score needs to come with the caveat that this is a personal expression of a single person’s experience and is not necessarily connected to other scores presented by the site, then I think the value of that measurement becomes a tricky thing to quantify. In almost everything else in our lives, a measurement is reliable. The height of someone is not an opinion. It is a fact. Sure, a score given to a game is not a fact, like a measurement is. It is an opinion. However, having a review opinion be that of a “site” or “magazine” is more helpful and easier to understand and digest and thus provides a greater service to readers than presenting a myriad of opinions to decipher the true meaning of.

There are some situations where an individual’s opinions are the entire point of a website, such as Jim Sterling. Having originally been the reviews editor for Destructoid and with the Escapist for a short period of time, Jim went solo in 2014 and now runs his own website that offers his personal opinion of video games: http://www.thejimquisition.com/. This is a perfect example of where a single writer’s opinion is extremely valuable. You can rely on Jim’s opinion to be consistent, because you can get a sense of his likes and dislikes from his history with games and how he has rated games in the past as an individual.

However, when reading a website or magazine that offers opinions from a variety of different writers, the reader is required to become knowledgeable about the individual who wrote the current review to know how it fits into the writer’s gaming fabric. It is perhaps ironic that many websites and magazines are leaning towards the individual writer’s opinions because it encourages readers to seek out individual writer’s opinions they value and avoid those they may not, which could lead to lower overall readership if their preferred writer did not review a certain game or it can encourage more solo ventures like Jim Sterling.

OK, now I have that aspect out of the way, let’s move onto opinion versus analysis. In my opinion; an opinion of a video game is a relatively simple and natural expression of how something affected you while you were experiencing it. I use the word simple in relation to how the individual is free to focus on the single train of thought of how it affects them, and not need to explore outside of that framework. An analysis is a relatively complex study of how something functions as a single entity as well as where it sits among its contemporaries.

To me, an opinion piece is for entertainment. Analysis is for information. These two things can (and should) be combined to present an entertaining and informative piece that helps the reader understand the game by offering some kind of anchor for them to measure it by. A pure opinion piece may not help the reader understand the qualities of a game, as too an analytical piece may not effectively reveal the qualities of a game. But, when combined they can offer much more.

If you have ever used the phrase, “It’s not for me, but I can appreciate it for what it is,” then I think you might make a good game reviewer. In my opinion, reviewing a game is not only about how it affects your own emotions or how it fits into your personal gaming fabric, it should also be about how well the game achieves what it was designed to achieve. Whether it is something you like or not is still valid, but I don’t think it should be the main focus of the review. Just because I may not enjoy playing Monster Hunter, does not make it a bad game in my opinion. I can see that it is a good game. It’s just not for me, yet?

So then, if I were tasked to write a review of Monster Hunter would it be fair or right for me to write a pure opinion piece and score it as an average game purely based on my own personal bias and how it fits into my gaming fabric? I expect many will say yes to this. But, to me this is a disservice to the readers and shows a lack of respect for the game because it is not an accurate reflection of the game. “But, it is an accurate reflection of your personal opinion,” I hear some cry. So what? Which is more important: my personal opinion of a game and how it fits into my personal gaming fabric or an analytical study of a game?

Well, I think both are important. But, the problem is that the majority of game reviews today are purely opinion pieces based on how it affected a single individual, and not critical studies, digging deeper and going beyond emotions and personal bias.

If I were to write a review about Monster Hunter stating that it is too complex and does little to guide or help the player ease into the experience it would technically be an accurate portrayal of my experience with the game. But, it would also show my ignorance of the game and discount who the game is made for and what the game does well and what the game may also do badly within the context of what the game is and what it was designed to achieve. I must step outside of my own personal taste, and consider the possibility that this might be designed for someone with a different gaming fabric than mine. Oh, the horror. Dare I say, “try to be objective!?”

A definition of “being objective” may go something like this, “Not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.” Some people like to belittle the idea of being objective by literally stating the facts about a game, such as requiring button presses and containing polygonal creations on the screen. I think being objective is a little more complex than that. I can objectively say that Madden NFL 2016 is a good game, even though it is not something I personally enjoy. How is this? I can analyze the controls, gameplay, visual and audio communications presented, and many other features that make up the whole experience and determine that the game achieves an admirable level of sophistication. If I then combine this objective view with my opinion of the singular parts, such as art, audio, context and such, I can determine whether I think those individual elements are of quality and how it combines to make a whole experience, and also compare all of these attributes to similar titles.

Looking at the art in Madden, for example, I think the polygonal models and texturing of the characters and environments is expertly accomplished and consistent with the developer’s intent to create a believable experience. The audio also delivers a high quality aesthetic that when combined with the visuals create a world that produces an emotional reaction – one of excitement and competition.

I don’t want to go into too much detail with Madden as it is a massive game, but hopefully you get my point. I think it is not only possible for a review to present an individual’s opinion and objective analysis of a game, but I think it is vital that reviews do so. Sure, it may be uncomfortable to step outside of one’s own skin and go beyond personal opinion, but I think that is what readers deserve.

This does not invalidate opinion pieces. Hearing someone’s pure opinion of something is very valuable, especially if you trust that person’s opinion. But, it is not always helpful. Everyone’s gaming fabric is different. If the individual whose opinion you trust happens to review a game that is a bad fit for them but a good fit for you, then you might miss out on that experience if you put all of your trust in that opinion. However, if that review is more of an analytical-opinion combo review and not only focused on their personal experience, then you might then be able to see some of the game’s qualities despite it not being a match for the reviewer’s taste.

I feel as though I should also add that as a game developer, I gain much more satisfaction from reading detailed analytical reviews than pure opinion pieces, because critical analysis shows the writer’s thought process on how they came to a conclusion and demonstrates their understanding and perspective of the game by looking under the hood to judge the inner workings and not just the surface experience of the game and their personal taste. To appreciate something, you must break it apart piece by piece to understand how it works and if it works well.

Thank you for reading this rather long blog piece. If you have a 3DS, you should purchase Dementium Remastered because it is a great game. And, if you have an iPhone of iPad you should do yourself the courtesy of downloading Totes the Goat, because it is fun and free! It's simple math, really. :)


  1. Haha nice plug at the end. Great blog post; read the whole thing. I wish more people would feel this way about game reviews and reviewers. I have all but stopped reading them completely due to this fad. The biggest problem now is that due to the Internet, since it's so damn easy to publish something to potentially millions, quality has diminished and these "magazines" have mostly transformed into tabloids.

  2. I think what would really, really help is to have a slightly detailed box before the review which says what kind of a gamer the reviewer is, for example:

    Favorite gaming consoles: DS, Wii U, N64

    Favorite game generes: Non-grindy action games, Wii, DS and GBA FPS' like Metroid Prime Hunters and Red Steel 2, 3D platformers like Rayman 2 and Mario 64, innovative and unique games like Skyward Sword and Mario Slam Basket Ball, anime games, visual novels and puzzle games, like Zero Escape and Rune Factory series.

    Other favorite games: Kid Icarus: Uprising, Yume Nikki, Phantasy Star Zero, Spirit Tracks, Anima: Ark Of Sinners, Castlevania: Dawn Of Sorrow, Mario Kart 8, Xenoblade, Smash Bros., Guitar Hero, Quake.

    Dislikes: Turn based RPGs, realism in gaming, many non-Nintendo games, over the top gore and unnecessary jump scares.

    Most hardcore games (what reviewers usually are) would have a long description, but all you'd need to do is to have an info box right above the review which you could click to expand. It would definitely help people to find the right reviewers for them.

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