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Happy reviews and unhappy people—a rant

Brad Gallaway's picture

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Screenshot

Fair warning: I'm in the mood to rant tonight, and I've got something to get off my chest.

By the way, this rant isn't about any one person, game or review in particular. If you think it's about you, it's not.

(...and if you still think it's about you, it's still not.)

Also, if you're easily angered or not in the mood for a strong, non-Politically Correct opinion, do yourself a favor and click elsewhere... it'll be better for the both of us.

Now that we're at the tail end of 2011, I've got to say that not only has it been a somewhat uninspiring year, it's also ending on a strange note. Recently, I've seen a number of reviews, commentaries, and editorials that seem to suggest that a writer's "feeling" on a game is an acceptable way to review something.

From my perspective, it's not.

If you ask me what a review should be, it should absolutely include feelings, thoughts, and emotions that are stirred in the player. However, it needs to also include other factors, such as various aspects of design, how bug-free the technical side is, and how it functions overall. On top of that, a good critic will take into account a game's content in terms of how it relates to others that have come before it. Does the game in question bring something new to the table? Are there innovations or new ideas?

While I have never believed that a reviewer should (or can) ever be objective, I do think that it's possible to temper a personal level of enjoyment with all of the other factors that go into a critical, comprehensive review. If a piece of writing or a final judgment is passed on the game with the overwhelming reasoning for the score being "feeling", then that's not a review, it's being a fan.

Deadly Premonition Screenshot

To illustrate the point, my game of the year for 2010 (and I repeat for emphasis, my game of the year) was Deadly Premonition. I absolutely fell in love with it game despite a wealth of problems. However, main character Francis York Morgan was one of the best-written I've ever seen, the story was mature and absolutely intriguing, and the approach by the game's director was frustrating, challenging to my expectations, and genius-level brilliant, all at the same time. What score did I give it in my review? 7.5

If I had gone with my feelings leading the way, I could easily imagine giving it an 11/10 or something equally hyperbolic and absurd. I didn't. Instead, I took note of how much it won me over in terms of emotional connection and intellectual engagement, and then contrasted that with the obvious issues in production, control, combat, and so on. I never stopped saying positive things about the game to anyone who asked, and when given the chance, I was happy to give it the highest honors available to me. In terms of the actual review, I had to be as fair as possible and there was just no getting around the fact that it had warts.

Am I a fan of Deadly Premonition? Absolutely, but taking that particular ball and running with it wouldn't have led to anything resembling what I consider to be a good review. When it comes to a number of games that have been released in the fourth quarter, I can't help but feel as though the concept of "being fair" as I just described has been tossed out the window in service to the giddy excitement that accompanies cracking open the plastic on a blockbuster game and diving in two weeks before retail release.

The biggest and most common example is (obviously) Skyrim, and the staggering number of perfect scores it's racked up—currently thirty 100's on MetaCritic, on the 360 alone.

Is it a terrible game? No, not at all, but I certainly don't think it's deserving of top marks for a number of reasons. However, a number of paeans to its freedom and beauty beg to differ. I don't dispute the fact that people enjoy the game, but it seems to me as though quite a lot has been overlooked in order to praise it to the degree that most people do. The same can be said of Saints Row: The Third, Arkham City, Skyward Sword, Uncharted 3, and others. Although they don't enjoy the same number of perfect scores (though Zelda comes close) I saw many instances of "fun" being the gist, and short shrift given to potential problems.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Screenshot

I mean, don't get me wrong—most games are meant to be enjoyed. That's not in dispute. I guess I'm just surprised at how far the tide has shifted towards giving an utterly personal and subjective feeling so much weight while strongly downplaying areas that can legitimately be seen as in need of improvement. Besides that, I can't recall another time in recent memory where people have been so defensive and quick to take offense if a comment gets made about it.

Let's be perfectly frank here—how many times have you read a review of a certain game that was dripping with praise, only to hear that reviewer change his or her tune a month, two months, or six months afterwards?

It happens all... the... time.

Questioning a flood of glowing reviews for any title is par for the course as far as I'm concerned, but something about this particular year felt... different. It's almost as though people became insecure about their opinions and positions, and the level of touchiness just shot through the roof. The comments I got were nastier, friends were less friendly, and people who usually seem like calm heads got hot.

It's been some bad juju lately, man.

Anyway, if you ask me, I'm glad that 2011 is nearly over. Between some surprisingly underwhelming games and the level of sensitivity and raw nerves we're getting here at the end, and I'm more than ready to get started on 2012. Hopefully tossing out the old calendar and putting up a new one will welcome in some fresh energy, and the gaming sphere can hit the reset button and start over.

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So true

I usually skip out on the major game releases because one, I'm broke, and two, I know what you mean about reviewers going overboard. For all the 90% and 9/10's that are out there, isn't it startling that no game seems to earn a 1 or a 2?

Case in point, I missed playing Half Life 2 by about 8 years. I didn't play it until March of this year when I bought the Orange Box off Steam for $5.

I posted my review of the game on the Escapist, and basically my take on it was yes, this game was probably very clever when it was released, and sure it still looks pretty good. But the game itself is one long mind-numbing corridor shooter. It just dragged on and on and on.

I didn't care for the NPCs, the bad guys were faceless and generic, and the set-pieces were just so obvious and annoying. Yes game, I get it, that tower represents the Big Brother aspects of the Combine, I get it, thank you.

The way Half Life 2 doesn't explain anything about the plot or story or who ANY of these characters are or what Gordon Freeman was even doing there... an absence of information does not create a mystery. Valve wrote 1/3 a story and did not expand on any of it with two DLC's and people are clamoring that the Half Life universe has one of the best written stories of all time - are you kidding me?

What story? Who? What's the plot? GF appears and somehow the Combine immediately know about him and want to kill him. The "silent protagonist" was acceptable in the first Half Life game because it was 1998 and we were all just impressed that any of the NPCs were chatting.

But now, today... if Half Life 2 released today, I would question any reviewer that gave it higher than a 6/10.

You cannot release a pretty game and allow it's presentation to fill in for everything else. Yes, I get it that HL2 is a good shooter - but that doesn't make it the game of the year.

A fair point

Nice post Brad; I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about the disconnect between what has been a largely underwhelming spate of triple-A releases, and the effusive praise they've garnered.

So what's causing this? Are reviewers unwittingly becoming part of the PR machine? Are they struggling to be heard amongst all the background chatter and having to exaggerate for effect? It does seem that the whole reviewing side of the industry has become ever more hyperbolic.

I appreciate your thoughts on reporting the flaws of a game, and I think your point about critics' opinions on games changing 6 months later is very valid. That to me is a tacit admission that they got caught up in the hype.

I played Borderlands for the first time this year; out of interest I went and looked at a few old reviews, and the Gamecritics one really stood out as much more sensible and less affected by the publicity machine than the others. I enjoyed the game a lot, but I appreciate that it had numerous flaws, and it was good to see them recognised in the review rather than glossed over.

Whereas I don't think any of this is life-or-death type stuff in its importance, it's good to see a site which is providing proper criticsm and appreciation for games. Keep up the good work, you guys!

Keep up the great work

This is the reason why I value the opinions on this site over those featured on most others. It's really nice to have a site that is willing to relegate a Triple-A title to the sub-5 range if it is deserving. Most other sites won't consider doing such a thing unless the game is a movie tie-in, and even then it's exceedingly rare.

The hype wagon seems out of control. "Buy now! Buy new! Buy everything!" It's like 90% of the gaming population has nothing better to do than spend outrageous sums of money on every single shiny new thing. Do I think there is anything wrong with buying new? No, not at all. I make a point of buying new from Atlus, not only because of the scarcity factor, but because I can expect a quality product and little, if any, DLC nickel-and-diming.

I've had your experience many times this year. A really good friend of mine bought Skyrim at launch for PS3 and doesn't seem particularly perturbed by the fact that the game is experiencing such severe issues on that console. As a matter of fact, she and many of my other friends consider it their GotY, which is fine. However, I cannot get past the fact that so many people are accepting of such serious technical issues. For $60 I expect something that works out-of-the-box, not a broken game and a string of excuses from the developer. It is for this reason that, generally speaking, either I buy used console games or wait for a steep discount on PC. I just can't afford to gamble $60 every few weeks.

Keep up the great work! Looking forward to many fair reviews in 2012 :)

It Is What It Is...

i can't remember exactly how long it's been since i first discovered this site (followed a review link from GameRankings.com) but it quickly became my de facto destination for common sense and practicality concerning games and the people who love to play them.

i stopped being surprised years ago by the plethora of ridiculously high scores being handed out like candy, with games like Skyrim being no exception.

we all know the web, unfortunately, is littered with websites like IGN, Joystiq & GameInformer that are more concerned with straddling the line of "being honest" with gamers while appeasing publishers. sites like this have become so predictable in their scoring (especially in regards to AAA titles) you already know their canned reviews, regardless of any criticisms no matter how glaring, are going to end with an eight, nine, or ten out of ten.

that's why i love this site and listening to people like Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw from Zero Punctuation; people who aren't beholden to the publishers in any way whatsoever who in turn provide us with more organic, inspired and authentic opinions.

but it's just the realities of the business and i do understand that. the bigger your website becomes, the more indebted you become to publishers to provide access, the greater their ability to influence scores, etc. it's a position i don't envy and do sympathize with. remember Jeff Gerstmann?

and seriously Brad, that "new calendar" you plan on hanging up just wouldn't happen to be the new David Hasselhoff spread, would it?

c'mon, Brad, be honest now. we're all friends here, lol.

experiences

David,

thank you, those were my thoughts when I played it, which was when it came out. Years later I discover people are holding it up a a shining example of storytelling in video games, and I'm puzzled. I couldn't even tell you what it was about anymore. Something with aliens, I guess.

Brad,

I totally understand your point, yet I'd like to disagree. I am actually strongly in favor to reviewing games as self-contained expreriences, as opposed to an agglomeration of various criteria. Following your example, I would certainly mention Deadly Premonition's faults in a review, but wouldn't hold them against it as strongly as 7.5 suggests. What really counts here is the lasting impression a game makes, and it may be argued that scores hold no value in this approach at all. Gamecritics deliberately doesn't show scores on their reviews, which always left me under the impression that your aproach to reviewing clearly wasn't about the laundry list of pros and cons, but rather its value as a whole in whatever context the critic sees fit. Of course, you give scores so you will be shown on metacritic, but not including them on the site means they are not meant to be seen or discussed here.

This means, to me, that if there has to be a score, it shouldn't be based on whatever arbitrary categories we have come to expect, but in how successful the game is in what it sets out to induce in the player. Coming from this standpoint, it really doesn't matter much that the map in DP is useless, the combat repetitive or the graphics not up to standards, because none of this takes away from the unique and immersive experience the game is. Annoying as some of a game's faults may be, they have to be weighed against its merits in terms of the overall impression. If you stand by your belief about whether a game succeeds or fails, you should not hesitate to rate it accordingly, as long as you can articulate your decision adequately, which you are without a doubt capable of.

All that being said, I respect you giving your game of the year a 7.5 if you believe that is what it deserves, and I'm also on your side when it comes to the abundace of 10s being thrown around lately, because that is just ridiculous and in no way plausible.

games and 20/20 hindsight

@Brad

Great post, I completely agree with your ... less than positive reading of the trend away from objectivity to fanboyism and outright pandering. Part of what it means to be a critic is to look at something with an experienced and somewhat jaundiced eye. Then give a reasoned and relatively objective review of the experience.

@David
I think you may be suffering from a bit of 20/20 hindsight, and maybe a problem connecting to the narrative format of the game.

Yes the set-pieces are obvious nowadays, but at the time a lot of what was in HL2 was very new. I remember an exciting "new" thing about the engine was how naturally the objects in the game could interact with each other in a realistic fashion, whereas previously a lot of those interactions had to be scripted in the game.

As for the story, there is actually a fair amount of explanation as to why Gordon Freeman is there, who the various people are, and why the humans are trying to rise up against the Combine. A lot of this is doled out slowly over the game in cutscenes, scripted dialog events in game, or as part of the background (i.e. pa announcements, posters, etc...). Given that it also a sequel, the game also assumes that you remember the plot from the first game.

It may be that the narrative format of the game just doesn't sync well with your play style. I know that I have a similar problem with Bethesda's title's (Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout) They are designed as sandbox-ish open world type of games, and because of this they don't have strong guiding central plot. I have a tendency to get horrendously sidetracked in their games going after a mission or just plain exploring. I often to end up losing connection with the main plot and end up not finishing the game before moving on to a new game.

This isn't to say that the writing is bad, my experience in the games has been that they have a rather deep, vibrant, and intricate world. It's just that Bethesda's preferred narrative format is one that I just can't really get engaged in.

My 2 cents: metacritic is

My 2 cents: metacritic is the problem. It has too big an influence, because this society we live in doesn't believe in words, it only believes in numbers.

We all know that the metacritic aggregate score doesn't have much value, for many reasons - because a 4 out of 5 stars doesn't equal 80, because a 7 on gamescritics isn't the same as a 7 on IGN, because the consensus on a game can change radically once the hype has died (read the alan wake's reviews, a lot of them adopt the "was it worth the wait" angle, which is irrelevant for someone reading them in 2011), and so on.

And there lies the problem: people read the reviews backwards - they look the number at the end of the review first, and then maybe they might read the words.

Because in this world we live in, people don't ask themselves "would I enjoy this game?", which is the only question worth asking, and the only question that can't be answered with a number. They think: "is this game worth 60$? It's 10 hours long? 30$, then. 7/10? 10$. Easy achievements? 15$. Multiplayer? My friends are gonna buy it? Must buy it sooner than later, then. Does it max out my 300$ console? Yes? That increases its worth."

No offence, but if you're that kind of gamer, you deserve that kind of reviews.

Brad While i agree with your

Brad

While i agree with your opinion that a review can never be absolutely objective, i believe that professional reviews should strive to approach this level as much as possible. Sure, personal opinion will always influence a review, but a review is an article to inform people if a game is worth their money and time, and not all people share the writer's personal taste.

I don't agree with the "a review is just an opinion" excuse game reviewers say from time to time. No dear game reviewer, you are not paid to give your personal opinion, we couldn't care less about it. You are getting paid to play a game and tell us if it is good and if we should spent our money on it and not on another. That is why your are "professional" and not "hobbyist".

Since i am a "big boy" now(28), and VERY experienced in gaming, i know that most game reviews today are paid advertisements. It is easy to come to this conclusion when you have played almost every notable game in the last 20 years and have acquired a sense of what is worthy and what not. Most shun this possibility, but the reality is that gaming is a billion dollar industry which relies on impressions to sell, and game reviewers aren't exactly rich, so when you couple this with the treatment AAA games get, you get the picture.

A lot of those reviewers tend to throw this excuse to justify their blanders. When the outrage of gamers becomes big, it is easy to dismiss it with the "a review is just an opinion" excuse. But i am not bying that...

This is the reason i pirate almost every game the moment it comes out. I test it, if i don't like it, i delete it. If i like it, i go out and buy it. I have lost count on how many games with a good metacritic score were way overrated. For example Oblivion, Fable, Quake 4, Spore, Starcraft II, Dungeon Siege, World in Conflict and list could go on and on... Were those games decent? Some of them, yes. But they didn't deserve their praise and i would have thrown a lot of money in vain if i had believed the "professional reviewers".

This goes the other way too. Some critics rate poorly good games either for shock value and clicks or in order to hurt the competition of someone who pays their bills.. For example, destructoid's recent review of Mario Kart 7, giving it a 5... The reasoning for this 5 was inconsistent with reviews of the same person, most notably his own CODMW3 review... Giving Mario Kart 7 a 5 for being "just another kart game" while giving COD 9.5... Even though out of those 2, the one that changed most was MK7, it is far less iterated that the COD franchise, and given its genre has far less room for innovation...

I am not saying that all reviewers are paid. And i don't believe this is happening here at gamecritics. I wouldn't be here otherwise. Even though i sometimes disagree with some of the reviews, i tend to appreciate the honest opinions you people give. But in general gaming journalism is a very sad story...

Thank you!

I've fought and fought over this with professional reviewers and especially recently, thanks to Skyrim (well, duh). There is a little something that many reviewers I come into contact with have forgotten and it's something that vastly annoys me. The bloated industry tends to rub off on professional critics, who seem to neglect that in the end of the day, a review is the only viable means for me, the consumer, the decide on whether or not I should throw money at a game. When this is in question, a critique based entirely on emotions and personal preference (especially when said preference isn't even mentioned, but instead passed off as the concensus) ranges from unprofessional to immoral.

It's also why Gamecritics is the only place where I actually pay attention to reviews. I don't agree with a lot more than I usually show, but I find them to be well-put together pieces that overview the product well and can lead me (or anyone) to an informed decision.

I think that the day people

I think that the day people will stop to expect shopping advice from reviews will be the day video-game journalism is going to finally come of age. I'm not so sure videogames can be considered art, but I'm convinced that we should speak of them as such, and when you talk about art all considerations concerning the commercial value of the work should be banned. Also, I think reviewers should be wary of drawing a line between the technical and "artistic" sides of a game.
Frankly I don't understand why if I love a niche or technically flawed game I shouldn't give it a higher score than a flawlessly executed but run of the mill FPS or something. Of course I should be able to explain why that game is great and why despite its technical limitations it still excels, but that's it.
No other kind of critic is expected to take into consideration any supposedly objective factors in their reviews or essays and saying that videogames critics should is saying that videogames aren't worthy of being treated like art, just products.
A critic's work is NOT that of letting you know wheter you should or shouldn't buy a game, a record or a book, a critic should expand your horizons and give you perspecive and possibly a better appreciation of art, full stop. A critic doesn't have any responsability towards his readers if not that of being honest. Consistency doesn't matter either, human beings, like art, is contradictory, and that's the beauty of it.

Not sure how I feel about

Not sure how I feel about this piece, since it seems to imply that my intense liking of a particular title (Skyrim for instance) and not hesitating to recommend it stems from some puerile giddiness; and not genuine enjoyment that overrides minor issues (IMHO). Maybe everyone doesn't find issues in the same things; so why should they be held to a particular standard that doesn't apply to them? For instance, I loved Indigo Prophecy, but would I have rated it nine? I felt it had some issues under its belt (particular the action segments). But I won't condemn your opinion, or claim you were overly excited when you wrote that article.

This is further expressed by the user comments to this article, with most condemning the industry as a whole. I find that to be a tad insulting, considering how broad and diverse this industry is.

One reviewers disdain may be another reviewers cup of tea. It's your opinion though. I don't necessarily agree with it.

"No other kind of critic is

"No other kind of critic is expected to take into consideration any supposedly objective factors in their reviews"

This is factually wrong. Technical fidelity matters in everything, from films to food. It's also a preposterous idea to suggest that videogames should be treated as art more than they should be treated as products, considering in its overwhelming majority the industry is pursuing the commercial approach and its benefits a lot more than it does its "artistic" one. You can't ask the audience and the press to change their tune, before the industry itself undergoes some radical changes.

More than that, it's a myopic view on what art is. Videogames are a vastly different medium than its sister-branches in the entertainment industry, from the way they are developed to the way they are experienced. If they can be art, they can be art on their own terms. These terms, so far, demand a strict commercial exchange with costumers. On those terms, you should be required to be upfront about the issues. Should you wish to describe your experience, have at it, but only to the point that it will not interfere with the reader's judgment. Especially considering the subjective nature of art, it's downright deceptive to do otherwise.

I do have to say, I like how we've got to the point that we're so high up our own a** we need to completely exempt critics from their responsibility to what is a market as much as -if not more than- it is an audience. Back during the early PS1 days with two magazines out there to inform the player, any such notion would've (or at least should've) cost careers.

Expressing feelings

Movie and book reviewers get into details because they know how to say what they feel. They have studied what other art reviewers have been saying for centuries. I think that game reviewers lack words, concepts, knowledge about what they feel. That's why they rely on (sort of) meaningless words like "fun", "cool" and "engaging". Game reviewing needs more academic study. Or people should read less and play more.

"meaningless words..."

Let's not forget the internet gaming world's favorite: "immersive." It's gotten a bit silly how often people mention how their immersion has been broken. I'm pretty frequently finding myself (here I am)reading an otherwise decent article only to stumble across this little buzzword, immediately shattering my engagement. Sucks.

What a load of nonsense. A

What a load of nonsense. A writer's feeling is the ONLY honest way to review something. Is a technically perfect, boring game deserving of a higher score than a technically deficient, more enjoyable game? Moreover, since when did the arbitrary score at the end of the review become the emphasis of the piece?

The problem isn't opinion, Metacritic, IGN or whatever website we decided was bad this year (they are all pretty bad except Eurogamer, IMO). The problem is that little number at the end of the review, and the number of 'journalists' who think they are best placed to give out those numbers based on how many games writing cliches they managed to vomit onto the Internet this year.

I've written a slightly more coherent article om the same theme at http://www.split-screen.net/blog/reality-check-the-machine . I respect your right to an opinion, but personally I would be quite embarrassed to be posting articles that come with a proviso and would question the worth of publishing something like that in the first place.

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