Life, The Universe, And Gaming — Game Reviews (Or The Lack Thereof) [Column]
A new week, a new column, a new feature picture. I hope you like it.
So I have a beef to pick with gaming review sites and publishers. But before I do, I’d like to start by saying that at this point in time in the world of gaming, the internet, and therefore online gaming journalism, everyone seems to think they are reviewers.
That is to say, everyone seems to think that they are capable of giving reviews of games they play based purely on the fact that they’ve played it, and that’s enough. Utterly deceptive quarrel-speak, says I. I’ve read reviews which felt like walkthroughs of the game’s stories. I’ve read reviews where zero research was done on something that clearly needed the extra effort. I’ve read reviews where I had been left with that distinctly sour after-taste that can only come when you hear someone speak of a game they just played while they try to recall what went on in the game and fail entirely to be anything other than a rambling idiot who clearly allowed the finer points of the game to fly right over their head, and was too busy faffing over how awesome the graphics were, to be of any practical use anyway.
In short, I am tired of people who are clearly incapable of doing games reviews, actually being asked to do games reviews.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to jump on some high horse and declare that a gaming reviewer needs to have a billion qualifications in order to effectively review games, nor am I saying that people who haven’t been in the industry for years have no place here. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be here. And I fully accept that I may be grouped in the above category of reviewers who really can’t review games because they lack the know-how and experience, or just plain brains, to properly do so. Except I actually have brains. I think…
My purpose here is simply to detail where games reviewers are going wrong these days…
Objectivity is one thing.
You can be as objective about a game as you want, clearly stating the positives and negatives of that game while remaining completely impartial, and still have a review that is utterly fucked, as a mechanism for informing gamers of the finer points of the game. Likewise, you can be subjective and perhaps get called out for taking a side and being biased and what have you, yet your review tells the story that you set out to tell and you manage to successfully convey the message you have for gamers, about that game. Sure this doesn’t happen often, but it needs to be mentioned before I move on.
It seems to me that more and more people are being asked to review games just because they play them, and this is wrong. See, it’s one thing to talk about a game that you’ve played. There you’re just speaking of your experiences and recollecting memories that stuck with you after playing that game. But a reviewer needs to be opinionated about it. He needs to be able to say that he has played that game and at some point in the game they did this wrong, or that right. He needs to basically be a know-it-all jackass straight from the get-go. Sure you can relay your playthrough of a game for others to read, but how is that different from a walkthrough, really? You need to be able to relay your thoughts and ideally cover every key aspect of that game.
Sadly in 2011, there aren’t many gaming review sites where every games reviewer is capable of successfully doing that.
No, they would rather spoil the story for you, or speak of the graphics and gameplay and assume they’ve covered everything, or perhaps they’ll make some scathing attack on something or the other that either is or isn’t present in the game, and forget that their job is simply to review a game.
Before I go any further with that, in today’s gaming world, what exactly is a review supposed to do?
First, what entails your basic review? I like to think that a review tells a story about a game and gives gamers the necessary details on that game. The good, the bad, the ugly. It needn’t be a laundry list of pros and cons. It simply needs to give gamers enough know-how of the finer points of the game and help them to decide what to do with those points. Sometimes you get a really bad game that is very fun and addictive to play, how do you review a game like that? That is why gaming reviews are almost always subjective, but still opinions that attempt to be objective where possible. Why? Well again, what is a review supposed to do?
From my very humble standpoint, there are three types of gamers that read reviews. Only one of those actually care for whether or not the review will sway their choice of buying that game. Since review turnout time is usually dependent on reviewers playing, finishing, and then writing about a game, after release, and gamers enjoy buying games at release date, on most occasions by the time the review for a game is out, most gamers have already played, finished and formed an opinion of their own about the game.
So essentially a review can cater to either of three types of gamers.
The first type only read the review to compare their experiences and opinions to the reviewer’s opinions, usually taking shots at him if their opinions disagree with the reviewer’s or commending him if they agree. In essence they read it to basically try and justify their purchase of the game and see if it was worth the money they had spent for it.
The second type have no inclination to buy the game, nor ever plan to, but read the review out of interest and curiosity for what the game is about. They’re more in it for the journalism, the read if you will, or perhaps they’re just fans of the writer and their writing style. I have authors whose articles I simply must read, regardless of what they are, because their writing styles appeal to me. But more on that later.
The third type of gamer is the only one who will actually be swayed by a review. They perhaps lack the funds or have prioritised another game ahead of the game being reviewed and seek only an answer from the review: Is the game worth waiting for? Basically they read the review and decide whether it’s better to put it off for later or to buy it sooner, or to simply not buy it. And I’m willing to bet that this group numbers in the vast minority compared to the former two.
So why do we review games? Well because there is a call for reviews, people want to read about games that release and there are those who can write about them. Ideally. But it’s not to say that a review, at least in 2011, is to be the holy grail of objectivity and perfect advice. Why advise a gamer perfectly on something he has already played or never plans to? Don’t get me wrong, all reviews cater to all three of those types of gamers, but I am saying the focus needn’t necessarily be on the latter group that need a question answered, though they are still important.
Please don’t mistake perfect advice for perfect detail, though. Perfect advice isn’t something important, at least for me, especially since it is up to the reader to actually use that advice, but as far as possible, perfect detail is the height of a good review. Being able to state every possible key aspect of a game, be it good, bad, or just observation, is probably the most important part of reviewing a game, alongside actually having an opinion about the things you have done in that game.
If I may use real-life examples of really good reviewers¹ whose reviews I look forward to and adore, even if I don’t always agree with their opinions:
Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw and his Zero Punctuation reviews probably go at the top of this list for being unashamedly, unabashedly in-your-face and brutal on games because fuck you for thinking they don’t deserve to be broken down in every possible aspect. While he does come across as a cynical and jaded gaming misanthrope, what he does extremely well is detail every possible aspect of a game and give credit where it is due, while keeping you entertained all throughout, if you can keep up.
Then there’s Jim Sterling, star of the ridiculously hilarious Jimquisition, another very much like Yahtzee in being unashamedly, unabashedly in-your-face and brutal on games because fuck you for thinking they don’t deserve to be broken down in every possible aspect. Sterling lives up to his name and his reviews are always memorable and worth a read even for games that you’ve played years ago and have no intention of going back to. He tells it like it is and isn’t afraid of the consequences. Positive or negative. You can only respect a guy like that.
Finally–and here I’m pimping a local gaming reviewer in–Tarryn Van Der Byl. Say what you want to about her, I simply adore her writing style and look forward to anything she publishes because it makes me giggle like a little child. Simply, it keeps me entertained and so I always look out for more. And no other gaming journalist on Earth will do more research before covering a review or column.
With regards to research itself, I like to think that if a reviewer’s primary source of information is Wikipedia, then they’re doing it wrong…
For those budding reviewers amongst you, look up these people and take notes. That is how you review games. Even if they aren’t the only people who do gaming reviews well, they are my inspirations and indeed my favourites.
Back to gaming review sites then, it seems that gaming review sites have seen that the types of gamers that I’ve described exist, and in their efforts to get more hits on their site and therefore more income, they have resorted to making deals with the gaming publishers in order to get review copies pretty much as they go gold, and then have a review out ideally on release week, in order to cater for that first type of gamer as well, the ones who will buy games on release week. Gaming publishers of course can do with any publicity for a game, regardless of the kind of publicity it is² but they tend to frown upon negative reviews on release week, so what happens is a publisher will give a site their game to review, the site reviews it negatively, the site never sees another game from that publisher.
What does this then do? Well either the publisher will give them a review copy, if at all, on release week like everyone else, or the site yields to pressure and needing the extra hits, resorts to inflated game review scores in order to appease publishers and ensure they stay in their good books for future game releases.
Of course, there are sites that are heavily against this sort of dirty dealing and will remain steadfast against it, and in fairness not all publishing houses do this to sites. But the damage remains done and recently publishers have begun resorting to other methods in order to push game sales, and that is where the hype machine comes in as the latest method of appealing to gamers. Announcements will be made, of announcements. Ridiculous as that sounds. Details will be pushed out in minute little titbits, always keeping gamers hungry for more. Almost like a striptease to gamers who crave gaming sustenance in the form of anything they can get their hands on, that reveals more of an upcoming game.
You have seen that most prominently recently with all of the Mass Effect 3 ³ news promised, as well as other gaming franchises that have ‘exclusive reveals’ for everyone, whatever that means.
And while it isn’t killing the gaming industry in any way, what it is doing is decreasing the importance of reviews even further and making it okay for sites to hire the most retarded people on the face of this planet to review games, okay that’s an exaggeration, but not that much of an exaggeration really.
I blame gaming websites for this because they are the ones who will firstly hire these people, and then report all of those little hypie-hype pieces that are simply announcements of announcements about some small detail somewhere in the game or something because lol. All they are doing is contributing to a hype machine that really need not exist if not for the ways publishers carry themselves and their gaming franchises, but they in turn are forced into doing these things because they see that reviews are failing in their purpose (or just plain won’t sell a game they know is bad) and so will hype their games and market them to as many people (read as: the mainstream) as possible. It’s a vicious cycle. Or I just wanted to add “vicious cycle” into this column. Either way…
What can we do about it? Well there’s not much that can be done, really. And this is why I feel like I need to pick this beef with gaming review sites and publishers. It might not raise that much awareness, hell it might not raise awareness at all, but if just one person, after reading this, questions gaming reviews that they read and calls out those who don’t do them right, then perhaps I’ll have made a difference.
More specifically, I simply wish to inform everyone that good reviewers do exist, and once you know what their reviews are like, you will perhaps also see the failings of other reviewers and their ridiculous excuses for game reviews. And perhaps we can ensure that sites don’t tolerate half-rate reviews. The ideal outcome would be that review quality increases, whatever that may mean, and then gaming sites see that they needn’t do the inexplicable things they do in order to hype their games up.
We can hope, right?
¹ Azhar/Tody aside, of course.
² Remember Modern Warfare 2′s grand ‘murder simulator’ scandal and how much it affected game sales? Which is to say, how much more Activision sold thanks to that scandal. There is no negative publicity in gaming.
³ Not at all purporting that BioWare are guilty of dirty-dealing on reviews, mind you. They don’t need to.