Monday, March 23, 2009

Reviewing Reviews: You Suck

Video game reviews are terrible. If one were to judge video games purely by reviews and not directly play them, then you shouldn't be blamed for thinking that video games are shallow time wasters that don't have much status other than a toy to play with--something that politicians and lobbyists still stereotype video games as being.

Video gamers are often inspired to write reviews on the games that they play, and these are terrible. Never mind the fact that the spelling and grammar are horrific and any readthrough of these require a red pen to make corrections with; sure, it's good to see some high schooler feel the need to articulate himself by writing a paper on Super Smash Bros., something he wouldn't do if the subject was something old and stuffy like the "Grapes of Wrath" or "Inherit the Wind". However, as video games are interactive media that reward players for successful achievement, players will invest their time playing whichever game emotionally. This immediately alters the experience into one of being intimate and personal, and thus encourages extremity of opinion.

This polarization allows for only a narrow point of view: something is either good or bad. In gamer parlance this becomes either "this game rocks!" or "this game sucks!" (ie. "this game gives me the rocking feeling!") This kind of review isn't a review at all, but instead an affirmation of an experience. The playing of a good video game proves to be an exciting, exhilarating experience, one that isn't possible through other non-interactive media; if so, a review by a video gamer will serve to affirm this experience by sharing this with other gamers by saying things like "this is the best game ever!". Conversely, the playing of a bad video game is boring and staid, and is far from the fun experience of a good game; as the player feels betrayed for investing his time in something that he hoped would give him the "rocking feeling", he lashes out at this game and deems it to be the "worst game ever".

Besides the polarization of opinion of good and bad, it also appears that every video game review is written with the same composition: a brief introduction outlining the history of the game or peripheral information about the developer or a personal anecdote, then a brief synopsis of the story, and then a rundown on the graphics, sound, gameplay and controls. After that come the complaints the player has in which he make a wish list that may be addressed in a future sequel to the video game, and then finally the conclusion "rent" or "buy" as well as the note "for fans of the genre/movie/comic/anime only".

There are several problems with this, not the least of which is the fact that a review about something should at the very least inspire original thought when in fact the opposite is true regarding video games. Video games continue to improve and evolve and have long since started to involve complex themes and issues, but video game reviews have by and large not matured alongside with it.

Video game reviews are entirely defined by what gamers see themselves as: consumers. Video game reviews serve as mini advertisements that wind up serving the companies that put out these products. Fanboys with their pointless allegiance to a particular platform or brand or game serve as PR men who work without a salary. However, the pro bono work done by these disciples to their higher calling is besides the point; no matter what the game, a video game review tells you to "buy" or "rent" but not "enjoy" or "experience" or "let this influence your thinking".

This ideal of reviewing also affects professional game reviewers, people that should serve as . The difference between professional and amateur game reviewing is sometimes small and other times vast. A professional game reviewer is literate, writes well and can articulate ideas better, thereby opening up discussion to a wider level. However, a professional game reviewer can also be subject to the simplistic "buy or rent" mentality of review and ignore themes and topics brought up by the game; s/he will be biased by the emotional impact of their own playing experience (say, for example, they lack the skills required to play said game); or they may be ill-informed and have a wrong opinion (please see my upcoming review for Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad, a game heinously misjudged).

However, these are are small problems of video game journalism compared with the main problem: the blatant buying of favorable opinions of game journalists by game publishers. Video games are a huge business and make lots of money; video game journalists will often work for a site/magazine that operates on advertising made from these same game developers. Barring the recent controversy regarding the Kane and Lynch Gamespot review, it is obvious a certain amount of collusion between the marketing of video games and the selling of video games occurs between the two are still the same industry, largely due to the fact of what we, the video gamer, see ourself as: a consumer. As a consumer we want the best product, and so the game publishers will disseminate this information through video game journalism, so therefore by proxy video game journalism acts as the video gamer's informed decision as to what to spend money on. We, as a gaming public, made the hypocracy that is video game journalism because it serves our need.

Another need is that of hype, or the anticipation of a game that will largely define it; other than spending money and playing it for yourself, this is what you can come to learn about a video game. The professional video game journalist is a product of this facade to generate interest and potential buyers of this game. If this professional journalist is specially invited to preview an advance copy before the rest of the public but is subject to certain conditions (ie. it must be played only at the game developer's premises for a certain amount of time), well, for this priviledge the game journalist will certainly only have good things to say about this game. By and far, the gaming public is more objective than a professional game critic could be.

This brings me to the last point in an already overlong post, that of scoring. Metacritic is amongst the worst things to happen to the internet, to put it mildly. Besides putting respectable , established reviewers out of a job by devaluing their individual voices, Metacritic emphasizes the fallacy that there is such a thing as a universal opinion. Metacritic celebrates uniformity and does not encourage freedom of thought. Netizens who use Metacritic as a valuable tool to judge whether something is good or bad should realize that everything that is rated on the site - movies, dvd's, cd's, tv and video games - isn't there because it's an art form. No, instead everything is there because it can be sold - it has a monetary value. Whatever you purchase that is rated high on the Metacritic scale is inconsequential in terms of artistic/aesthetic value since each critic, a separate voice, is blended into the other. When you listen to everybody you in fact are listening to no one in particular. No, the intrinsic value of Metacritic is for a particular person only - the people who make this stuff. They can figure out what gets high scores and what sells well to determine a formula to keep producing consumable products that will make money.

Metacritic takes every review and formats it to fit a scale from one to one hundred. This "out of a possible one hundred" is popular amongst video game reviewers; the conceit to know that one game is better than another, if just by a couple of points, is a fallacy to impose on a medium that is trying to be an art form on its own merits, inspite of us.

Indeed, if the popular notion is that something rocks or sucks, or is a must-buy or a rental, then shouldn't the grading system be matched with that? In that case, wouldn't the proper grading system be a one star system, one star for good and no stars for bad? That would be terrible; but then, video game reviews are terrible.

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