Originals

10/31/2012

I’d Give It A 7

Reviewing the weight of reviews.

By: Lana Polansky

Filed Under: Industry Review

I knew I’d have to talk about video game criticism this week. I didn’t think, between the time that my pitch was approved and the draft was written, that anybody else would be either.

It goes without saying that, off the bat, I generally agree with Rab Florence’s now-edited, now-infamous Eurogamer article, “Lost Humanity 18: A Table of Doritos”. I think I’m generally firmly in the camp that maligns the symbiotic “weird club of pals and buddies,” as Florence terms it, describing the relationship between the video game industry and video game media. That in ways both subtle and overt, it compromises both the quality of the journalism that takes place and, perhaps more interestingly, the perception people have of journalists who for the most part, as John Walker points out, are as vigorous and as objective as possible in how they approach their work despite the temptations around them. I think I even at one point referred to this system as an “unholy and incestuous clusterfuck.”

But I’m not here to talk about journalism per se, and for a couple of reasons. The first is that I don’t consider myself a journalist and I’m very careful to no longer call myself one. I’m a critic, an essayist and a writer, but I do try to adopt certain journalistic ethical principles—be accurate; be balanced; do your research, and so on. The second is that the form of “journalism” oft-lamented as embodying the corruption and collusion is the review—which, as far as I’m concerned isn’t journalism in the first place. It’s criticism.

I’ve written before about my very open desire to turn away from the “consumer report” style of review writing, and veer it more toward engaged close readings. I’ve made it clear that I’m sick and tired of review writing being used as a litmus test for whether something is worth the money, and that I believe the culture surrounding these demands exploits enthusiasm press for the self-interests of marketers. So it’s interesting that now, of all times, a piece decrying the state of corporate influence on the so-called objectivity of video games’ Fourth Estate, is making us address some of those concerns.

But I think a broader concern, one that notably affects both journalism and, for the purposes of this piece, criticism, is the same one that treats games more like consumer products than cultural artefacts. The demands that influence publishers to place a suspicious degree of primacy on review scores is the same one that makes us believe aggregating them is a good way to determine the quality of a single game: after all, the games industry is an industry, and is as susceptible to the invisible fists of consumer capitalism as anything else.

When we talk about the “drip-feed” approach to game marketing, or overt attempts to alter reviews scores, for instance, we’re talking about extreme and exceptional examples of this consumer capitalist system. But most of the time we’re talking about a system that subsumes critical discourse into demands of whether or not a game is worth our money. Before that tirade begins, I have to admit that in many ways I understand this demand. After all, we all live and participate in a capitalist culture, and consumer products, like games, are expensive. I can’t afford every game that comes out, regardless of how badly I might want it, so I can understand the perspective that desires an appraisal of a product before the decision is made to purchase it.

This is how we approach purchasing all kinds of things—swimming pools, tablets, Panini presses, whatever—that are made for functional purposes. We have magazines and forums to help us decide which products are the best to buy and when. And, considering the economic system we live in, this makes a hell of a lot of sense.

The problem is, some “products” are not just made for functional purposes—like books, or films, or video games—and yet we now appraise them as if they are. In many ways, the Rotten Tomatoes culture, the Metacritic Culture, the 5-Stars-on-Amazon culture, is one that equates the cultural merit of a product with how high a score it gets, and, by extension, how profitable it is.

Now, I’m the type of person that believes in abolishing review scores altogether, mainly because I don’t think that critical opinion can be justly quantified in a reliable way: that every score or grade will be specific to whatever Critic X thinks about Game Y at a given point in time. But what does it mean when a review is perceived as a tool for evaluating the worth of a product’s consumption, instead of the reader’s edification? What does it mean when the aggregate score is seen as a reliable consensus for what to expect of the game, without looking at how many people reviewed a game, who reviewed it or what they even had to say that informed their score? And what does it mean that we do this with books and with film now, too?

It means that we see our artistic cultural artefacts as reducible to a universalized metric, without much room for nuance or discussion. Things are “good,” “mediocre” or “bad,” in terms of percentages, without needing to be qualified or described in more complex ways. It means that we see artistic products the same way we see any other consumer product—as fulfilling a simple need or want efficiently enough compared to its cost.

Consumer capitalism often relies on planned obsolescence: things need to be that one Daft Punk song, all the time. And that means, inherently, that whatever new thing the consumer is compelled to buy must replace the old, allegedly worse thing. PR departments have lots of clever ways to try to get people to rationalize the new expense, be it through brand retention practices or hype machines of various sorts. The same thing quite obviously goes on in the games industry. Geoff Keighley is pictured sitting by a table full of it.

This makes it, rather reasonably, seem like a reviewer’s responsibility is to guide the consumer through this sea of exaggeration and elucidate whether or not something is worth shelling out the 60 bucks for. Instead of unpacking, say, Medal of Honor in terms of what ideas or sensations the gameplay offers, for example, I should instead be talking about whether or not that gameplay content is “fun” and “action-packed” and “innovative” in aesthetic or mechanical terms. Everything else is a “pretentious” waste of time compared to what’s important.

Now, to some extent, I understand why this is happening. Part of the effects of this relatively new paradigm is that the definition of “review” has come to mean something very specific. After Kill Screen published my review of Dear Esther, for instance, one commenter was concerned about spoilers, saying that the review was best read “after playing” the game. Another wondered if what I wrote was a review at all.

I suspect that both of these people have a very similar idea of what a review is supposed to be: an evaluative overview of the game tied to a recommendation of whether or not to play it—something that people would be looking for if they’re interested in advice on whether or not to buy it. But the word review has many meanings, because all it really means is to “look at something again.” That means I can give you a critical review, a personally experiential review, a retrospective, and any combination thereof of a particular game (or book, or movie, or whatever.) Sometimes reviews are actually best read after you’ve played the game, to give you something to think about. Sometimes that’s the point.

The review under this consumer-oriented paradigm carries, then, a bunch of questionable perceptions: that reviews have to be timely and bluntly efficient rather than retrospective and long-form; that critics must feign a kind of clinical objectivity that is simply not possible in an intrinsically subjective framework; that the review itself is a kind of journalism, with a reportage-like responsibility to the consumer, rather than a kind of critical literature, with the responsibility of, introducing the reader to alternative interpretation, experience or critical conversation.

We can even say, as Michael Abbott does in his latest post on Brainy Gamer, that the language itself that often gets used to describe games is stunted—and perhaps this is a result of the need for this efficiency. We repeat adjectives because they’re easy signifiers for people to understand—but like any food label that offers Organic or Fat Free wares, the words become “generic placeholders” and eventually cease to accurately describe the thing they’re labeling.

We have seen the extreme ways in which this prioritization of metrics and consumer appraisal has played out—chronic over-scoring; companies making Metascores a part of their bonus policies; reviewers fired for refusing to score a game higher—but these are symptoms of the widespread disease of consumer capitalism, one that warps our perception of what we actually value in game discourse.

Of course there are superb, thoughtful and important critics working today, just as there are fine journalists working in games media. But under a tenuous systematic relationship where the consumer is looking for value and the marketer is looking for profit, these more involved conversations are not what are traditionally privileged. Of course there is excellent criticism already out there, going on all the time, with many game-makers, critics, academics and writers of various sorts participating in it, but, as Michael Abbott writes,

“But we continue to see a disconnect between scholarship about games and the critical community charged with writing about games for a broader non-academic audience. Worse, we struggle to capture the more elusive, expressive dimension of games.”

This important conversation is actually going on as we speak, but it is not yet the norm for the “broader” audience to participate in it.

Now, okay, I did call this system an “unholy and incestuous clusterfuck,” and that probably points to a little bit of bitterness on my part. But I don’t think there’s a  single scapegoat we can roast over a spit. We—by which I mean game critics, consumers, publishers and makers—are all complicit in a system that pretty much impels us to prioritize the material. The tragedy, for me anyway, is the limitations this system compels us to place on ourselves when it comes to the discourse we have about games, the standards and methods we keep to maintain that discourse, and even the games that we bother to discuss or acknowledge.

But all you need to know is that I give this whole situation a 7/10.

Filed Under: Industry Review

About the Author:
Lana Polansky is a game critic and writer peddling her wares at Kill Screen, Gameranx, Medium Difficulty and here at Bit Creature. Also, a ludonarrative disco-dancer.

5,042 Responses to “I’d Give It A 7”

  1. BOOOO!no Dion

    “Sometimes reviews are actually best read after you’ve played the game, to give you something to think about.” Interesting, because that’s where I draw the line between reviews and critiques. Like my movie criticism teacher once said to us: “A review is for those who want to know if they should see the movie, and a critique is for those who saw it and want to talk about it.”

  2. ninja haunt

    I once thought about doing consumer reviews on my blog but came to the conclusion, that “spoiler-free” “metric-driven” “unbiased” shopping recommendations forced me to actually skip all the bit’s I would have liked to talk about…

    Games have a large “functional purposes” part, they are software after all, they need to work, have proper usability. It’s rather easy to rate that. But when it comes to the expressive part, I feel the competitive product culture of games severely blocks a lot of things that could be achieved and appreciated. Indies have found a way around that, by carving themselves a nichè of “we don’t got the money, but we got the creativity” or something like this.

    Things like console generations… reviewers using “graphics look like last generation” as an insult basically, all the product metrics applied to attribute value to a game… make games a disposable thing, to be replaced by the next better installment…

    Comparative shopping guides are designed to push things to the bottom, sort the lacking ones out, instead of highlighting all the wild and quirky and passionate things. Ratings are reductive, they reduce the wide range of offerings to a clear arrangement of top candidates. We need less sorting out and more appreciation for what is there and how we can build on it and expand.

    Good piece, Lana. Enjoyed it.

  3. Rob Parker

    It does such a disservice to games to judge them solely as these cold consumer products that can serve only a functional value. They’re not toasters or ironing boards, but testing chambers, cities, worlds, galaxies, waiting to be explored. I’ve been moved to tears by games that, because of their limited scope or technical issues, you’d have to score as 7s or 8s out of 10 on traditional sites. I’ve played games with contemptible messages that have nonetheless been worthwhile because they’ve re-framed my own thoughts and morals. And I’ve played ostensibly trivial games that gave me a place to go on bitter and lonely nights: games that were there for me when I needed them.

    Reading stories, reviews, whatever you care to call them, about the experiential zone in which our minds meet games is just as important to me, if not more so, than hearing how intuitive a menu screen is to navigate, what a casting system does to distinguish itself from other examples of the genre, how many weapon combinations the player can create.

    I guess what I’m saying is this article is great and I love Lana for writing it. Thanks!

  4. Jason Johnson

    if Tree of Life is an 87 the whole scale needs to be toppled

  5. Jesse Miksic

    Your essay struck quite a note with me.

    All reviews implicitly take the form of “This artifact is Y, according to X.” There is always a subjective aspect implied, which is why the well-informed consumers will generally search for the reviews they tend to agree with… they want a barometer that will accurately predict their own level of appreciation.

    However, reviewers, influenced by bloggers, have gotten a bit chauvinistic about this. First of all, they ignore the “X” part of the statement, preferring to assume that every audience member is like themselves… or at least, every audience member who has a valid opinion. When challenged, these chauvinistic reviewers will often fall back on misdirection: “If you liked this book, you must not have read many good books!” or “You just hate this game because you don’t understand how to enjoy a JRPG” or whatever other way they have to disqualify the subject. They want their own subjective perspective to be treated as the universal.

    The other problem with contemporary reviewing in general is that it generally only reflects an immediate reaction to the artifact. This is where our discourse has led us… in order to feel validated, critics and reviewers are expected to form an immediate, confrontational opinion. All opinions have to be reducible to “this game is a masterpiece” or “this movie sucked,” attenuated in response to the reviewer’s preconceptions: “this movie sucked” is rephrased as “Christopher Nolan is so overrated,” “this game is a masterpiece” is rephrased as “transcends its genre” (genre disillusionment being a very constraining framework to begin with). Again, chauvinistic, in my opinion.

    I kind of wish we could start with the baseline assumption that every game is worth playing, every movie is worth seeing, etc. From there, the critic could identify its weaknesses, praise its strengths, give serious consideration to its purpose, speak to both its intended demographic and to the broader audience, and generally create a richer discourse around the artifact and its medium as a whole.

    Like you say, this system would render the “starred review” system pretty much invalid, and it would leave the wild pack of ravenous consumers hungry for judgment and Schadenfreude. Still, it’s a nice fantasy that I entertain once in a while.

  6. Mitch North

    ‘I kind of wish we could start with the baseline assumption that every game is worth playing, every movie is worth seeing, etc. From there, the critic could identify its weaknesses, praise its strengths, give serious consideration to its purpose, speak to both its intended demographic and to the broader audience, and generally create a richer discourse around the artifact and its medium as a whole.’

    This of course is, in a nutshell, the role of a critic. Right now the issue stems from the critic’s inability to remain true to such a vision and provide content that enough people will appreciate for them to make a living. The aspects of criticism that you question, and rightly so, only exist because we’ve entered a point where, for whatever reason, a critic is unable to treat something with sincere thought in a way that people will appreciate unless they want they have already decided they want to. Media sources, and ergo critics, have to fit into the demands of readers rather than the other way around.

    We live in an age where validating one’s own opinion is easier than ever. We also live in an age where the amount of opinions that are available are incremental in scale. It’s almost as if the anti-intellectual approach, the shunning of the serious critical view in favour of an easily agreeable opinion, is formed as a backlash against having to contemplate taking on the vast amount of (potentially logical) views that there are out there.

    I guess the term that I am looking for is ‘vicious circle’.

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