This week we're taking video game reviews to task - are they now redundant? So they need to change?
Helping us out is Ben Abraham a PhD candidate studying the early history of the video game blogosphere. He also writes for Gamasutra and does a weekly round-up of games writing at Critical Distance. He has great hair.
MARK: So Ben, is the humble video game review relevant anymore? Is there are place for it in amongst Twitter, Facebook, user reviews, forums, etc, etc?
BEN: I'm going to irritatingly hedge my bets here and say "Yes, but also no". If you'd phrased your question more along the lines of, "is there anything uniquely relevant about the review format?" Then I'd probably say absolutely not. What is relevant about reviews still - I think - is that they are just like any other piece of writing by an author - they help readers build up a picture of who that person is, how they think, and hopefully with enough exposure over time, help understand why they think the way they do.
It's a truism these days that no one really pays that close attention to what any single review says anymore - Metacritic, GameRankings and other sites have seen to that - even if people do like to quibble and argue over the occasional single score. In fact, what better evidence is there of this trend than the fact that readers are often so keen to argue and disagree with a reviewer that scores 'out of line' with the critical consensus? I think this is a really damning piece of evidence against the relevance of any single review, but I digress.
My answer to why we still read reviews, then, hinges on the fact that while its original function (evaluation) is in decline, another facet of it is on the rise, and that is its role as a window into a writer/reviewer's mind. If you've read hundreds of reviews then you're probably in a relatively unique position to evaluate how any writer you encounter for the first approaches the task, giving you a framework that you intimately know (from reading so many other reviews) with which to evaluate the author.
The point I'm trying to get at, I think, is that personality and individual branding is (for better or worse) becoming the hallmark of the most successful writers, reviewers and critics. A review is becoming just another way of finding out more about one author's 'brand', if that makes sense. (I'm talking in awfully commercial terms here and it's only because there aren't yet any better words than 'brand' for what I'm trying to describe).
MARK: That’s an interesting point – in a way reviews do work as an exercise in ‘branding’. The most widely read/watched reviewer in Australia is Yahtzee and, although I’m sure he’d gouge my eyes out with a spork for saying so, he’s done an amazing job of branding himself through his reviews.
As a standalone frame of reference, however, his reviews don’t really stand up as helpful in any real way – he hates everything, but that’s his ‘brand’ and it works as entertainment. It doesn’t exist as a buyer’s guide in the way that we’ve previously expected reviews to work – it works totally differently. You play the game, you like it, but some things annoy you – you watch Yahtzee’s review and laugh collectively at all the stupid problems with the game.
My point is – reviews now exist more as a means to talk about a shared experience as opposed to consumer advice, which explains why people get so shitty when a game they love receives a low score – they want reviews to reinforce and justify their own opinion of the game. That is now part of their function.
BEN: So I guess the question is now, why bother calling it a 'review' then? Without appealing to tradition ("That's how we've always done it!" isn't really a satisfactory answer, to my mind) what reason do you think we do still rely so heavily on reviews, or is that the only reason?
At the risk of answering my own question, I'm going to suggest that it might be to do with the fact that videogame criticism is still underdeveloped despite the best efforts of bloggers and critics like myself. I do a weekly roundup of game criticism online for my site Critical Distance as well as Gamasutra, and even I think game criticism in general is underdeveloped. There are the occasional stand-out pieces that just hit a home-run but they're generally few and far between, what passes for criticism consists of generalised description with some kind of added explanation. "X system in Y game does this, and I think that means Z" is usually how it runs, and that's been okay for a while but I think audiences are beginning to demand a little something more.
At the risk of becoming too academic, my current hero Bruno Latour suggests that if you have to explain something, you've actually failed in your description. For example: If you have to explain that the "malaria" mechanic stands-in for a degenerating moral condition as evidenced in the player’s character then you have failed in your description of the interaction between the player's action with respect to the civilian population and the player's malarial condition. (Even that last sentence wasn't very descriptive, but in comparison to the first it's much more descriptive, and persuasive!)
MARK: So what’s the solution here? Clearly reviews serve a purpose, even if that purpose is to be absorbed into the gargantuan Metacritic hivemind – if scored reviews as we know them ceased to exist, readers, publishers, and developers may lose their minds. Should reviews just evolve a little, in the direction you mentioned above?
BEN: Probably. And I think the best reviewers can be seen doing just that. My favourite all time reviewer is without doubt Kieron Gillen, who's sadly moved on from games journalism. There are two of his reviews that I think every games reviewer should be forced to sit down and read before they get to write anything themselves. The first is his review of the now notorious Boiling Point, in which Gillen gives not one, not two, but three separate review scores (you'll have to read it to understand why it's so completely appropriate). The second is his review of Darkfall online, a small independent MMO that received a controversial first review that the developers disagreed with, and which really needs to be read within the context of the whole brou-ha-ha between developer and press. On top of that, it was Gillen's last ever review and touches on the difficulty of reviewing something like an MMO, and to cap it all off it still works as a perfectly exemplary review.
I don't read a whole lot of reviews personally, I make my purchasing decisions based on the recommendations of people I know and whose opinion I can trust, but Kieron Gillen through his amazing body of work and his incredible branding, to come full circle, means that I'd literally read anything he ever wrote. Because I got to know what his tastes were like, I got to know his sensibilities and those that we shared. So I definitely think reviewing is as much about having a trusted reviewer (or series of reviewers) as it is about any one particular approach or reviewing ethos.