The internet has brought our humble race a wealth of benefits since its immaculate conception. Besides the obvious, it’s given our fresh new medium a powerful platform on which to discuss issues and raise a (usually) healthy and strong community. I would guess that the internet has allowed video games to enjoy more general discussion and self-reflective insight in its first thirty odd years with us than film did in its first seventy-five. It’s free unadulterated opinion and access to the tools for expressing them. Hell, I’m doing it right now. I didn’t get an English or media studies degree, and I certainly didn’t work for years to gain any reputation to convince people to read my work. Blogging and opinion piece-writing today is much like writing on a sheet of paper and throwing it into the wind, only some people might actually read it.
I mention this to put what I have to say into perspective. I am just a guy, sitting in bed, thinking up some opinions I might have tucked away from which to encourage debate. Game reviews are not written by a legion of angels or demons who live to satisfy your expectations or lie to you face while grubbing bribe money under the table. Game Reviews are placed in far too many inappropriate contexts these days I hardly ever see anything constructive coming from them. What with Metacritic dictating the games that get made, worthless arguments that solve nothing, and reviews that focus too much on the immediate experience without looking into anything deeper, the entire realm of game reviews could use a whole lot of looking at. Here’s some humble recommendations on how to write reviews, read reviews, and remember the time and place for emotion.
In a perfect world, we are all ignorant little sheep with not a genre or series bias in the world. When new games come out, our little brains are too dumb and neutral to have any idea what games to buy (or films to see, or any other entertainment consumption choice you can think of). That’s why reviews would exist. We need to throw our money somewhere, after all. That’s how the world works. So instead of buying games randomly and hoping they aren’t terrible, reviews act as a crutch to guide us through the murky waters and make recommendations on what has solid design and contextual importance.
We are not sheep, however, and the matter is miles more complicated.
First off, let’s talk about that word “review.” I hate it in all my radicalism. A review, in my mind, has no place in anything of artistic value because a review is just a summary of features and shortfallings. When I play a game I really, truly enjoy, those may play an integral role in my enjoyment, but my love, my passion, often comes from something less quantifiable. Similarly, I find that elements of game design that turn me off from games are usually not mentioned in reviews, as they sometimes only apply to my own sensibilities. I bet you can think of a universally panned game or two you really enjoyed for some inexplicable reason. I bet you can certainly think of universally praised games that didn’t strike your fancy. If reviews are merely reviews, then they’re about as helpful in getting us to join a bandwagon as is the fluff on the back of the box. We tend to have more intricate relationships with games than just the outward presentation and core features.
So let’s not write reviews. Let’s write critiques. Reviews are for appliances in a Consumer Reports, when you just want to know which blender will be more powerful and last longer compared with to the competition. Reviews are about helping you get the most out of your money. Critiques allow you insight into what makes a game special or subpar on its own merits through its own language. With that in mind, some might say comparison has no place in a critique. But that, in my unerring opinion, is unabashedly incorrect. Comparison is a tool for relevance and helps place the game in question in an appropriate context, and builds a literacy that incorporates elements that games tend to share as well as ways they successfully or unsuccessfully do them differently.
A solid film critique by a renowned critic is never a recount of the time the critic spent with the film, accompanied by unjustified or unqualified reactions. Game critique should be no different, but too often it is just that. That solid film review will look at the film as how it fits into the incredibly well established and constantly updated encyclopedic history of the tireless medium, as well as how the film itself attempts to push the medium forward, or how it pulls it back. It can be incredibly tempting to rely on unprocessed intuitive reactions without exploring deeper meaning behind them. If I wrote a review that was merely a list of little pieces that I liked or disliked, would it really help anyone? Isn’t there a pretty good chance that you’ll like or hate it based on something more intimate than visual flare or even mechanical specifics?
It’s known to social scientists that Westerners tend to view the world as a series of disconnected pieces as opposed to underlying relationships and meaning. There’s a reason too many of our video game reviews represent a need to disconnect from everything else, and ignore the growing need for an artistic congruency. Even different elements in games are treated as totally separate entities, as many a well respected game site separates rating criteria into graphics, sound, gameplay, etc, instead of exploring how these elements marry and blend to enhance the overall.
That being said, I’ve noticed some very good improvement on this front in the last few years. IGN now incorporates a plus and minus system, instead of the element breakdown, and Kotaku has an interesting recommendation system that tells you why you should or should not give certain games money. While I’d still say that something about these systems keeps the reviews from being as truly freeform and explorative as they could be, they at least don’t segment and isolate.
There’s a lot more I’d like to mention about how I think appropriate reviewing looks, including thoughts on number scores, video reviews, and the ever-present threat of publisher influence. However, this is getting a little too long for its own good, and there’s another side to reviews that I find important to talk about. Regardless of how the review is written, there’s a genuine poison in the way most of us use reviews.
I mentioned the sheep analogy earlier to illustrate what we most certainly aren’t: opinion-less creatures with no bias towards specific series and genres. It’s important to mention because few of us use reviews in the way they’re intended. If you, say, really like the Mass Effect games and a fourth one comes out, do you really need to read reviews? Are they really written for you if you have unadulterated love for the game series in question? Aren’t you going to buy it regardless of whether its reviewed well or poorly?
If we treated reviews the in the way they’re supposed to function, either placing games in their appropriate context among the larger picture of video games as a whole or convincing the unbiased masses to buy in or skip and go to next, why do we need to get bent out of shape over them? Why does Greg Miller of IGN receive death threats for not giving Uncharted 2 a 10 before it was released? Because our relationship with reviews is unhealthy.
I’m actually rather hard to find a definitive solution to this one. Emotion plays such a strong role in our attachments and hatreds that asking for a peaceful relationship with opinionated reviews is basically asking for the impossible. Just know that: A. Reviewers are humans with their own baggage and personal perspective that you do not share and B. if you already have an opinionated mindset regarding the game in question, the review isn’t written for you. You don’t have to feel defensive when a game you enjoy comes under fire. It should invite healthy evaluation and debate, not flame wars and epithet hurling.
In general, I just wish we were more cosmopolitan about opinions in regard to our medium. In my wildest fantasy I imagine game reviewers and their readers as old gentlemen sitting in leather chairs by the fire, sipping brandy whilst discussing the finer elements of game design and the importance of the medium as a whole. It’s silly, and certainly impossible, but at least we can try to emulate that level of civility in how we write and regard our game reviews.