Objection! Should Video Game Reviews Change?

Objection! Should Video Game Reviews Change?

Objection! Should Video Game Reviews Change?Welcome to Objection! This is where we take the time to go on-depth on gaming issues, and let you guys continue the discussion in the comments section.

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).

Objection! Should Video Game Reviews Change?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!)

Objection! Should Video Game Reviews Change?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.


  • I use reviews only when I am buying a game that I’ve never played before, in conjunction with the games demo. Otherwise, I know what I’m buying and don’t care what the reviews says (unless it has a hugely drastic metacritic score than what I thought it would be i.e. something that I thought would in the 90’s gets something in the 70’s. Then I’d have to read the review).

    The only exception to this rule is if it comes from a developer who I respect, admire and have loved all their games (Naughty Dog, Team Ico, Kojima Productions, thatgamecompany etc.).

    Reviews are useful enough to tell me about the game, what’s good, what’s not. Then I play the demo. If there is no demo out there, I’ll try and play it at a friends house, otherwise, I don’t play it. So I partly value reviews, but don’t use them that often.

  • I watch Zero Punctuation and check both IGN and Gamespot (even though they can be wildly inconsistent). Sometimes it helps me choose a game. I’d rather trust them than word of mouth. One such example of the latter had me buying Need for Speed Prostreet. Never again dammit.

  • This wouldn’t have anything to do with the “DS’s swansong” getting a 6. LOL
    I mainly use reviews to find out about gameplay elements, would never base a purchase purely off review score.
    Agree with above that people tend to put more stock in reviewer and written opinion than a number.

  • I don’t think anybody really regards Yahtzee’s Zero Punctuation pieces as reviews, do they? While I do enjoy them, they’re more satirical comedy pieces – if you actually took them seriously as reviews then you’d probably never buy a single game as long as you lived 😛 In fact you’d probably give up on gaming completely, and wonder why he hasn’t already done the same.

    As this article says, I think the key is to find a particular group of reviewers / sites / blogs that you trust. That takes time – you need to read their reviews and see how closely their opinions tend to match your own. Once you know which reviewers tend to like/dislike the same games as you then you go to those reviews rather than just looking at something like metacritic which might have a score that’s really pumped up by strong reviews from people who love games you hate.

    The really big point for me though is to read the actual review itself, and pay close attention to what they’ve written rather than just the score at the end.

  • I guess it was different when we were younger and there weren’t as many games around, no internet and you really had to make an informed decision because games were so god damn expensive, for so long!

    Nowadays I just buy anything I’m remotely interested in in the end of year steam sales for peanuts, if it sucks, big deal I only paid $5.

  • I think the reviews themselves are still relevant, but the scores at the end no-so-much. Just look at some reviews for GT5, all throughout the review they go on and on about it’s misgivings and alike, yet at the end they give it 8.5 out of 10 or something similar. If that was a movie review it would be the score given to a film in contention for the film of the year, not something that you can write 3 pages on it’s shortfalls.

  • Ben and I have talked about this before, and I tend to highlight a different point to what Ben would rather talk about. You guys do mention it above, though, when talking about Yahtzee, and how he is not ‘useful’ in any way like other ‘reviews’ are. You say its more of a shared experience, and that gets at what I think is important: “criticism” is for people who have already played the game and want to know more about it (where I differ in emphasis to Ben mostly, I’m more concerned with the game and its authors than the critic’s authorial mind). Reviews are for people who haven’t played the game yet and are looking for consumer advice. Criticism will help someone understand facets of the game in a new light, bring new interpretations that maybe aren’t so mainstream, like highlighting a feminist angle to the boys, or exploring religious symbolism that a non-religious person just wouldn’t pick up on.

    I personally think that is incredibly ‘useful’ its just not designed/written to help you decide whether or not to buy the game.

    The critic is an important personality though, like Ben says. Its really important to know your critic while reading their review, because even a good critic (or maybe “especially” a good critic) will be bringing his/her own flavour to the interpretation of whatever game is being analyzed.

    Good stuff Mark and Ben 🙂

  • I just had to comment on this story. There are two things that get my goat in relation to game reviews.

    1. Blatant lies about performance. In IGN’s review of Crysis warhead the reviewer said it runs like butter! and better than the 1st one these statements were patently false, I never ever read IGN anymore!!!

    2. Uploading a review of the 360 version of the game into the PC section of the webisite. Most major review sites do this and it is a massive injustice to the developer. If the dev has gone to the effort to do a pc version review that version!! there are a number of games that had poor scores on 360 that were waay better on pc section 8 for example. This is a serious issue and IMO really damaging to the industry.

    PS Rock Paper Shotgun Rules!

    • But maybe he didn’t lie about Crysis Warhead. It probably did run like butter on his machine, and it was probably a big improvement over the performance that he experienced with the original game.

      I’m not saying that he wasn’t negligent in undertaking sufficient hardware performance tests before recommending the performance improvements. But considering the complexity of hardware configurations, and the potentially different software scenarios, you can’t really say that he was a liar, can you?

      • I’m sorry but Jason Ocampo is a liar and has no business reviewing pc games. From the review:

        “Next, I checked the game on a slightly older PC with a two-year old 8800GTS and I was still able to crank it to Enthusiast settings and the same resolution and get solid results”

        It is a fact that only in late 2010 did computer hardware exist that can run Crysis warhead with ‘solid results’. The best computer in existance in 2008 could not run that game at over 30fps on those settings. I tried to play that game in 2008 and it ran like S#%@.

  • So many reviews today are either just walkthroughs of the first couple levels or full of spoilers so I don’t bother reading them.

  • My biggest issue with reviews is that some readers of reviews and unfortunately some reviewers out there see a review score as some kind of science. When I see two reviews for a similar game where one is 9.2 and the other 9.6, who are we kidding? Is the latter really the better game?

    Game reviews at the end of the day are subjective and that can never change it’s always from the view of someone and that person doesn’t think the same way you do and he/she certainly isn’t the measuring stick that we should hold games up to.

    I’m fond of reading reviews where a reviewer will talk about their own experiences and how that is relevant to them but the second a score gets involved I grow weary. Kotaku reviews have gained a lot of traction with me in recent times with a complete lack of the standard score for graphics/gameplay/etc we see elsewhere.

    Reviews rarely ever sway me. Usually over games I’m on the fence about and even then it only works some of the time. No matter how low the review scores got I still snapped up Record of Agarest War day one! The biggest impact reviews have on me is whether I’m picking up a game I’m not too fussed about day one or months down the track on a sale.

    These days its rare for me to pick up a game that I haven’t been watching/reading about months ahead of time. I’ve been gaming for 20+ years now and I know what I like and I know what PR departments can do in game trailers or write ups to make a game look like something it isn’t. So reviews rank very low in my purchasing decisions.

  • I would disagree that Yahtzees reviews don’t count
    Many a time he has said he likes games (eg: Portal, Dead Rising 2, etc) and also offers reasons as to why he doesn’t like others, which are all valid (see Kane and Lynch 2)

    While he does focus on the negative aspects of games, they really highlight the problems of the game and help people decide whether or not those issues are enough to bog them down

    Like with FF13
    Apparently people can put up with 20 hours of pure agony before things get good, others can’t
    He made the point that he couldn’t with some legitimate reasons to back up his opinion

    At the very least, he’s far better than that crapshoot they call IGN
    If you ever wanted a example of the worst and most useless review site in existence that site would be it, getting a 9 on that site is worthless because you can just buy the score
    The worst example of this being FFX-2, getting a 9.5
    Don’t even know how thats possible

    • Asuron said exactly what I was thinking.

      Zero Punctuation does a really good job of getting to the heart of the issues with a game. It IS comedy, but he also manages to provide an insight into each game’s failures. And from that, a viewer can decide if the game’s shortcomings are going to significantly hamper their experience.

      Or, at least, he did, back when I bothered to keep up to date with his videos.

  • “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.” – This.

    I personally don’t like to read many reviews because these days all the reviewers appear to be jaded and pick on arbitrary things(they sound like grumpy old men) or as Dire Wolf said, the reviews are all spoilery.

  • One thing that I think helps movie reviews is that “most” reviewers use the five star system. With games you can have out of 5 out of 10 or out of 100 or even A+ B+ etc.
    I think some of the meta critic data would be better if they were all on the same scale.

    I sometimes check a games score if i see something interesting. As long as it is above 65 i usually will still give it a chance. It is good for strange second hand/bargain bin games.

  • I love watching Zero Punctuation… Ok Yahtzee is all about the nerdrage but he knows what he is talking about when it comes to games. As the pic above says people out there are “pants on head retarded” when it comes to buying video games. People out there need a second opinion when it comes to all forms of media and need to be told if something is good or not. Personally… Timeshift for me is a good game but critically is was bad, People would have judged it from the reviews and missed a potentially good game.

  • I read stacks of reviews… but mostly because I’m bored at work. I don’t put too much stock in numerical scores, but I like to take a look at descriptions of the game, of features (and opinions of how those features turned out) and try to get a feel for what it would be like to play.

    I’ve only been surprised by games a couple of times using this approach.

    • That’s why I like video reviews. You can watch what the game is actually like to play, rather than reliving the experience through a middle man. Unedited gameplay clips on youtube are even better.

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