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.