If I Never Write Another Review As Long As I Live, I'll Die A Happy Man

Every now and then I'll get an email, hidden in my inbox. Sometimes it's just a comment, sitting amongst a horde of others in a story I've written. "Why doesn't Kotaku Australia write its own reviews?" It'll say.

Then sometimes I'll get a different kind of email, saying roughly the same thing, only it doesn't take the form of a question it's more like a quasi statement. It'll say something along the lines of, "oh, but you guys don't really do reviews, do you?" Those ones are normally from the representatives of a games publisher.

Usually that statement will be a response to why Kotaku Australia didn't get early access to a new game, or why we were last in the queue for a review copy. But that's OK -- I'm more than happy to wait until the game's general release to play.

And if I never have to write another video game review as long as I live, I'll die a happy man.

I've written hundreds of product reviews and the wide matrix of issues you have to navigate, particularly in video games, is nigh on unmanageable, to the point where you have to ask yourself: What is the purpose of this, and what do reviews even mean anymore? What are they for?

First you have the scale itself -- do you risk going against the traditional video game scale in attempt to bring more legitimacy to your review, or focus attention on the content of the review itself? Do you succumb to pressure and the need to remain relevant by reviewing games like every other media outlet, or do you plough your own path? The idea of a 7 out of 10 or an 8 out of 10 is so engrained on our psyche after decades of reading reviews that stepping outside that lexicon is risky.

Then comes the process of writing your 'opinion' -- a process fraught with more doubt, and more issues to tackle. Do you review your game like a product, is it a series of experiences that you should judge? Should you take into account your knowledge or lack of knowledge -- do you review from a fan's perspective? Should your review be objective or a written piece focusing on what is essentially a subjective experience?

And that's just the beginning -- do you consider your audience? You are writing for them after all. I have no personal interest in, say, Modern Warfare 3 -- but thousands of Kotaku readers do. Is this review for them? Do I have to take my own dislike of war-based shooters into account?

Normally this sort of self-indulgent navel gazing should be of no consequence or interest to anyone, but in an environment where EA Norway sending a series of demanding questions to prospective reviewers of Battlefield 3 becomes the biggest games story of the day and inspires thousands of seething comments and retorts -- it's clear that people really do care.

And I care -- I really do. Enough to honestly admit that my opinion of any game -- shrink-wrapped and squeezed into a totemic number to be sacrificed at the altar of metacritic -- is really of little value to anyone or anything. So why bother?

What do we do with these reviews? In an age where we can watch trailers the instant they're released and drown in details of development from the minute a game is greenlit, what is the consequence of another review? Why does it need to exist; particularly in a place where reviews are so ubiquitous. Do I really want to add my voice to that mashed up chorus -- simultaneously chaotic and synchronised -- what would be the value of that? What would be the point? I'd like to trust that you've already made a relatively informed decision what games you want to buy -- slapping a numerical score on a game and beating my chest like King Kong probably won't change that.

Don't get me wrong, I admire those who manage to navigate this whole minefield and come out intact, people like Adam Mathew over at Game Informer/OPS, or Junglist, or Joab Gilroy at Game Arena. I may not always agree with their opinions, but I want to read what they think, even if I disagree with them. In fact, that's arguably what video game reviews need more of. Proper, well justified, dissenting voices where necessary.

I enjoy reading well-written reviews, particularly when I've already played a game and it feels like a chance to exchange notes. But I don't want to participate in that dialogue anymore. Not if I don't have to.

For me writing about video games is something different. It's the chance to share experiences and make some sort of connection -- it's a chance to find common ground in a shared moment. It's not about a product and whether or not you'll buy it.

Not for me at least.


Comments

    10/10 post.

      Seriously though, very interesting article. I've always wondered what would happen if a reviewer made their own scale, or rated a game on things that weren't typical - so not gameplay or graphics, but how much fun they had or why. eg: A scale of "Had some fun".

        Hey look, it's what I did with all 3 Transformer movies, I enjoyed watching them and would watch them all again for the 3rd and 4th times because they're fucking fun to watch! I don't care if they are technically bad or the characters suck. I had a bloody good time watching them so what's there to hate?

        Or have no scale at all. Just write your review and don't give it a score. No numbers, stars, letters, grades or anything else. The best way to avoid people complaining about your score is to not give one. Then you don't have to put up with angry publishers complaining you gave their game a 7 when it's clearly an 8. Or readers too lazy to actually try and comprehend a review so they just jump to the score and then start ranting about how only an idiot could think game X is better than game Y (you must think that because you gave it a score one point higher!) when in fact you said nothing of the sort. All these problems disappear when the numbers disappear.

      I was waiting for this!! lol

      "shrink-wrapped and squeezed into a totemic number to be sacrificed at the altar of metacritic"

      - Quote of the day!

    If you pay me I'll handle all of that for you. And I'll write the reviews to boot. I love it! I can provide samples too!

    Unfortunately I can't come into the Sydney office. Too far away. :(

    (PS. Up to you to decide if this comment is serious or not.)

    (PPS. Article was great Mark.)

      Did you read the article bro, Kotakau doesn't do reviews and we like it that way! Also if you are aspiring game writer it's probably better to just submit your work to metacritic!

        (Although of course metacritic doesn't contain reviews but aggregate them. Unless you mean, start a website/magazine and get added to metacritic's database.)

        Or submit a reader review on a number of sites. . Thats another way to get your foot in the door. Submitting your work and letting people read it is the best way.

    *Navel gazing

    Naval Gazing is watching ships.

      You mean you don't have ships in your navel?

      Ahaha! Thanks man!

        Just go with omphaloskepsis to avoid confusion.

    With demos becoming less and less frequent I think reviews are pretty damn helpful. Plus, the less objective the review the easier it is, imo, to figure out whether or not I'll like the game.

      I'm a fan of "impressions" without scores myself.

      You get all the goodness of a game piece, without the obligatory "GOTY, 7/10" tacked on at the end.

      Yea, but then you get 10/10 reviews for Batman: Arkham City eberywhere, then find out the game is only half finished with quite a few problems. Love the game, but perfect?

      Reviews are becoming more and more irrelevant and the only true way to know if a game is good is to play it and try. Your opinion will be different from mine and every review you read to some extent.

    Today's article by Mark Serrells was insightful and interesting. The prose was well done, with gems like "mashed up chorus" but he did miss an opportunity there to hyphenate his phrasal adjective. Overall, a decent piece that is worth reading. 8/10.

      A rather witty comment that drives home it's point quickly and effectively. 9/10.

        An excellent attempt at irony and joke nesting. 10/10

          "Had some fun" reading this.

            Should you read this?

            YES.

              You're all Serrels fanbois and suck goats. Owen Goods is clearly way better and his articles smell like sunshine and hookers.
              Serrels 1/10 hurrs.
              Goods 11/10 derps.

                God, I hope they don't smell like hookers... that could be, yeah...

                  Maybe it's just my monitor that I read the articles on that smells like hookers then. Classy hookers. Escorts if you will. But hookers nevertheless.

        A pleasant read for a rainy day - if you enjoyed their earlier comments, this is recommended.

    I think reviews still have a place - ie we as consumers need to know if a product is up to snuff. I prefer a system that dumps scoring and just lines up the pros and cons, and gives you the details about the game.

      Yeah, but we don't even get that most of the time. LA Noire was the last game where reviews and final critical opinion wildly differed, but it happens frequently.

    Good article,

    I laughed, I cried... I clapped at the end.

    3 stars.

      Seriously though, I'm a fan of impressions.

      You guys need a big industry meet up, where you can all go into a room and say to each other:
      "The metric is broken, let's agree on some standards and reset the scale and how it works".

      I like reading Gilroy's reviews even though I don't always agree with them. It's the same with Junglist, although I don't believe he gives scores on his show anymore.

      Maybe a simple recommended / not recommended at the end of a review would suffice?

    Great post Mark, I think the score system is silly, I've mentioned before its getting like the olympics, 9.992 for an 'awful' game, 9.998 for an 'amazing' game.

    I think the only real way to do a review, is to write it completely and honestly as your sole, subjective opinion. You cant actually write and think from another person's perspective. Even if I totally disagree, I want to hear what YOU thought about this game from YOUR perspective and WHY you thought that.

    I read HYPER.

    After many years, I've become accustomed to their review style and I know whether their description of the game will tell me if I'll like it or not.

    I don't even read the reviews here on Kotaku, I come here for news and gossip.

      I heard that Sally kissed Bobby behind the shed at the back of the oval. But Bobby is supposed to be dating Wendy.

        Yeah... but Bobby's a stupid head, and Sally puts out, one of the year 7s told me.

    I honestly think Kotaku AU is much better without the reviews. I pass on the US ones.

    I'm definitely interested in your thoughts on a game, but more interested in your own personal take, not thinking about the community consensus. You've got your own tastes and since they differ from my own in parts, I like that perspective. I like that you don't like things, and I like to hear to go on about the games that you love (Zelda is a perfect example of that).

    Mark, I'd just like to say that I really do enjoy the articles that you write. They are interesting, informative and funny, and I’m positive others would say the same.
    The reason why you would receive requests from readers that you write a review on a particular game would come down to that fact that your opinion is trusted and valued.
    And that’s what counts, knowing that the writer is someone whose opinion matters. Anyone can write a review but credibility is the key issue.

    I would love to see a _major_ focus article on games that get a score of 1-5 out of 10.

    Kotaku (AU at least) seems to be in a great position to look at (serious) some hidden gems that nobody wants anything to do with lest they get a 6 or under from Metacritic.

    Everybody has different ideas of fun.

      I second this.. that sounds great! :D

      Like too human! :D

      I cant even remember the last game I saw that got less than 5/10.

      "awful dialogue, confusing narrative, poor controls, broken core mechanic, disappointing visual style and grating audio...6/10"

    I wouldn't mind a review scale that was just no good/if you think you might like it/you should play this.

    I prefer the Community Reviews anyway. It's kind of like... crowd-sourcing a review. It's easier to hear the positives and negatives when it comes from a bunch of different people.

    I would appreciate more of a focus on hindsight reviews. For example, a game that got brilliant reviews at launch but then went out of favour, or a game that got poor reviews but stood up well (especially with a bargain-bin price). 007 Bloodstone is a good example - received poorly but is a great little game for $20.

    You know, I rarely care about reviews. I mainly just check them to find out of there are any game breaking issues with things, and if it checks out, I buy it.

    Case in point: Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon. Reviewers hated it, but me and Lord Crumplebottom play it co-op and it's an absolute blast, beach ball ant corpses and all.

    I guess at the end of the day I know what type of game I'd like and just buy it.

      Adding on this: Word of Mouth and user comments (Which are easy to filter out the uneducated teenage rich boy xXxsniperkillaxXx assknobs) tell me what type of games are pretty good.

      I know what I like anyway. Occasionally I'll jump in and give a new game / genre a try I wouldn't usually care for, but I think most people in general have a firm grasp of what games they like. I'm pretty sure everyone who has picked up Arkham City have played the previous game and knew it would be good.

      Then again, I've taken leaps into other games and come out rather impressed. UFC Undisputed is good for some funny "30 minute burst" gameplay, and I'm not all that big on UFC / sports games. Nier was a pleasant surprise too.

      There have been crappy games as well, specifically Final Fantasy XIII, which killed my JRPG Teenage loving side for good. I also bought Gears of War 2, and just didn't like it at all.

      Point to that story? Errr... Kittens! That, and people know what they like, and won't go apeshit over the occasional bad gaming purchase.

    This is part of why I keep coming back to Kotaku AU. While I don't read every piece written, the wealth of information that comes through helps me frame all the other feeds I'm getting about games at the moment.

    I remember when I read a review once of the second Hitman game (cant remember the exact name). The review was good, and several other were quite positive too. But when I picked it up, I found the game quite underwhelming.

    Since becoming a regular reader of Kotaku AU, I've found that I'm better equiped to filter out biased reviews, or I'm presented a perspective on a potential purchase (Yay for alliteration there!) that I couldn't find elsewhere, which often has saved me from making a purchase I would later regret.

    It's not failsafe, but amongst my circle of friends, I'm considered the best informed in regard to upcoming titles.

    So even though Kotaku AU doesn't do reviews, they still do a great job of keeping us all up to speed of what we (probably) need to know.

    I think reviews still have their place. Like any form of critique it's a personalized thing. I admit (and so will most reviewers) that the score system is broken (again, I personally use a 5 average score system) and it's not for everyone, but I don't think most reviewers aim it to be.

    People who love games and like reviews will probably find a reviewer whose style resonates with them and stick with that. Same with opinions actually, I can't say I agree with every you and the Action Journalist - Trace Face say, but I come here because it makes me think about things I normally wouldn't, or to get another perspective.

    Hell, perhaps I'll discuss this article on my own site at a later point. Hell, if I don't write another news article as long as I live, I'll die a happy man. ;)

      Side note; you'll never get the gist of a game through trailers or previews anyway, most of those are so skewed it's hard to tell what's good and what's crap. That's the benefit of a review there.

      Still, I prefer Kotaku AU without reviews. Just ask Tracey about Hyperdimensions Neptunia, she has nothing but hate in her heart! ;)

    Good article.
    I don't care what reviewers score games, I know what I like by now.
    Many a 10/10 game hold no interest for me, and some of my all time favs got 8/10s

    I agree for the most part also, with all of the different goals that games developers can have when creating a game, there is no way to accurately scale them. When you have games from Angry Birds all the way to Skyrim, how can we grade them? Is Skyrim automatically better than Angry Birds, or even vice versa. Of course not, but yet whenever a game is graded, people often get the mindframe thats the case.
    I ended up liking Alpha Protocol, but I recognise that it was extremely sloppy. Does that make it 5/10? But I enjoyed it more than that, I enjoyed it more than a lot of games that are scored 8/10, but just because I did, doesn't mean everyone else will. So I have no idea what silly number I'd attach, and it's a shame too, because many good games that get a 7 or under, are often thrown to the dumps by publishers, even though they couldn't possibly match up to a major title's budget.

    I'd be happy if all reviews just cut to the quick and put it simply:

    It's fun for these reasons.

    It's crap for these reasons.

    For me, it was more fun/crap than crap/fun.

    Review complete, please insert 40 quarters.

    Thanks for elaborating on this Tweet from yesterday, Mark. Reviews these days are all about hyperbole, scores included. I can't get over the amounts of 8 and 9s out there: if a game only makes minor improvements to a well-stablished formula, how come we keep seeing such high scores on average. Many people would see 7.5 as a low score (particularly for a AAA title), but if that game was going to university, it would've earnt itself a distinction! Nothing to snort at.

    I abandoned scoring games that I reviewed on my blog/Bitmob after reading one of your pieces earlier this year. The result: fewer hits; but more comments through social media. Why? Because people were commenting on what I wrote as opposed to the score I gave.

    Hope you're still happy for us readers to submit reviews?! *shuffles awkwardly*

      There's an interesting counter-point to the whole EA VS Game Journalists scenario on GameJournos: http://gamejournos.com/

      Then again, GameJournos slags Kotaku US a hell of a lot of the time.

      5 Should be good. Nothing terribly bad, nothing terribly good, but just "ok".

      What scores should be:
      1 - Not worth your money, game is fundamentaly unplayable.
      2 - Really, really bad. Might get a laugh out of how bad it is.
      3 - Not good by any means.
      4 - Below average, but has it's merits.
      5 - Average, reccomended to fans.
      6 - Fairly good, does new things, had fun with it.
      7 - Really good game for fans.
      8 - Really good game for both fans and not.
      9 - Amazing game, one of the standout titles you can buy.
      10 - One of the defining games that changes the landscape. Final Fantasy VII, GTA 3, Red Dead levels of brilliance.

      Reviewers Scores:
      1 - Laughable
      2 - OMG SO BAD
      3 - LOLSOBAD
      4 - So shit, crime against humanity!
      5 - NOT WORTH YOUR MONEY
      6 - Kinda shitty.
      7 - Average.
      8 - GREAT!
      9 - SUPER GREAT!
      10 - CALL OF DUTY AWESOME MONEY PLEASE!

        Agree wholeheartedly. Fistbeard, you must bump this (this being my fist).

        Hmm when i read your Reviewers Scores, i felt like i was reading Gamespots reviewing system.. well except there was one part missing, the "honest review but company gives us $$$ so lets fire the reviewer"

    Maaybe the problem with the review scale is that no-one reviews the bad games.

    If there was more reviews on the bottom of the scale, then the system may become more balanced... and you (read: journalists) could review games in the vein of better than: x, worse than y.

    Kotaku AU should start doing reviews just to get some cash from Activision and EA for writing a glowing review of MW3/BF3.

    Yeah, reviews suck. Music reviews are the worst but games come a close second.

    I like kotaku's reader review format where it's clearly an opinion that outlines what was liked and disliked, rather than arbitrary scores...

    It's the best way to do it - but i can see what you mean :)

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