Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Do game reviews help you?

I sort of got my panties in a bunch this week while reading through all the reviews of the latest games. Now that I'm outside the processes of the "machine" and looking on from the outside, it's a very different experience to be looking at coverage of games. It's inevitable that I'll feel this way every Q4 moving forward, but at the moment I'm super aware of the inconsistencies that seem markedly apparent in a lot of the "criticism" of games. I do the obnoxious air quotes thing there, because honestly, that's part of the problem. Without veering too far into games criticism wankery – that's just annoying to read – the core problem (for me) while reading the reviews of things like Rock Band 2, and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is not that I necessarily disagree with the opinions voiced (I do, but that's irrelevant) it's that the coverage is neither criticism, nor buying advice. Because it aspires to be both, ultimately it is neither, and what we get instead are subjective little microcosms of opinion. Less and less, we see content edited within the context of the outlet in which it lives, and the result is that we see the same arguments used to reinforce contradictory points. Reviews editors are increasingly just editing individual reviews, and are not editing their reviews sections. Otherwise, we wouldn't constantly see these contradictions.

To paraphrase:

"This game is just like this other game, and that makes it awesome."

"This game is just like this other game, and that makes it terrible."

Today on What They Play, we posted a story about this in the context of how it impacts people that aren't hardcore gamers. Given that parents, by and large, are not avid followers of video games, and only look for content (if at all) when a purchase is about to be made, we pondered whether the editorial reviews available are actually of any use. Personally, my feeling is that no, they aren't. Why? Because more often than not, decisions about entertainment are made outside of the critical process. People go to see bad movies. They watch crappy TV shows. They play games that aren't necessarily well received. We are polling our audience on the subject right now, so if you have an opinion on the subject please provide a comment on the story, or at least click on the poll that we have.

As these things tend to do, the musings suddenly took on a life of their own. After Twittering something of my usual drivel-level standard, and this in turn being sucked into my Facebook status, I found that discussion on this subject started turning up in Wall responses. First, good friend and current LucasArts employee Brooks Brown chipped in noting that "reviewers seem to not enjoy games like they should," and was soon joined by Robert Ashley (whose work I respect immensely, and have since the OPM and early 1UP days when I first met him) who noted, "The fact that critics who play 40 or 50 games a year don’t feel the same way about games as the average consumer shouldn’t be a shock. It’s not that they’ve lost touch with the spirit of gaming. It’s that experience drives them toward novel and away from familiar."

Shawn "Shawnimal" Smith (whose Ninjatown game comes out on Nintendo DS next month) then hit the nail on the head with, "this is obviously a complicated issue made worse by reviewers who place themselves on a pedestal without ever really doing the work needed to be taken seriously. The moniker 'Critic' in any form shouldn't be taken lightly, and those of you out there who truly are 'Video Game Critics', and take that title seriously (AND do all of the years of research and constant diligence that comes with it) should be a resource for gamers who want to dig deeper. But then where does that leave the average consumer who simply wants to know if they should buy a game or not? Should reviewers 'dumb down' or should consumers 'smart up'?"