Wednesday, November 15, 2017

I Settle All Video Game Arguments, Part 1: Game Reviews

There was a ridiculous controversy recently because a games journo was bad at this difficult game. All time spent debating it was time wasted. I am writing this so that such time-wastage never happens again. I live to serve.
"You can speak your mind but not on my time."
      - William Martin Joel
One of the painful things about being in the games biz for a long (LONG) time is that you see the same tedious arguments brought up and rehashed, again and again, by new generations. I am writing a series of posts to settle these debates once and for all.

Don't bother to thank me. Seeing my own face whenever I look into the mirror is reward enough.

First up, I will settle all debates regarding games reviewers: How good should a reviewer be at a game? What topics are a reviewer allowed to bring up when doing a review? Are review scores and review aggregators a good thing? Does anyone still care about game reviews?

So the next time someone gets Mad On the Internet about a game review or mega-butthurt because the newest installment of their fave series gets a 91% when they KNOW it should have gotten a 93%, you can send them to this page and get on with your life.

A thoughtful and useful review of Avernum. Hmm. Let me check if it's still, 17 years later, making me money? Yep!!!
Why Are You Authorized to Settle This Argument Forever?

Because I am old, and that makes me wise. Also, once PC Gamer gave one of my most popular and enduring games a 17% review, literally said it was worse than choking to death on your own vomit, and provided a helpful sidebar with a list of rock stars who choked to death on their own vomit.

Believe me, every possible opinion you can have about game reviews, I have had at one time or another.

(Also, we have a kick-ass new indie, retro role-playing game coming out in early 2018, and I want to make sure everyone's heads are on straight before they start reviewing it.)

The Most Important Fact About Reviews

Think about your friends. (For the purpose of this exercise, I will assume you have friends.) When they recommend games/movies/TV shows to you, you take their personalities into account, right?

For example, there are some people who I listen to when they say a movie is good, and there are others who I won't, because they only like cheesy romantic comedies and Shrek. Or some guy will say I have to play Face Obliterator 5000, and I like him and all, but I'm not a fan of the Face Obliterator genre. Or, while his wife is great, no, I don't want to see the new Benedict Cumberbatch movie. Under any circumstances.

They're good people. We just have different tastes. I don't make them watch the long, depressing foreign movies I like, and they restrict their evangelizing Rick & Morty to me to one hour per day. I only accept recommendations from people when I've found their tastes line up with mine. You're the same way, right?

Pick Reviewers The Same Way

Reviewers are just individual humans, with their own tastes, and no one human can be a perfect, impartial justice machine for evaluating a work of art. Any decent reviewer can say how buggy a game is and whether it runs OK on their PC. Beyond that, it's just, like, your opinion, man. 

If you want reviews, don't just sit there. Find a couple reviewers you like and read them. If a web site doesn't have regular reviewers and just uses a rotating stable of whatever recent college grad is most desperate that week, it's not going to be useful to you. It takes work to find a site that works for you, but that's life.

Fun bonus fact: All awards for art, from the Nobel prizes down to video game awards, are arbitrary and meaningless. If you want to obsess about the Oscars, hey, you do you, but don't pretend they have any value beyond distracting you for a minute.
Are Numerical Review Scores Dumb?

On the surface, yes, evaluating a complex work of art and boiling it down to a single number is dumb. I mean, it's not like critics have an Art Scale, and they can put the last Call of Duty on it and say, "This game weighs 8.3 Arts, and the last game only weighs 7.1 Arts, and that's 1.2 Arts more!!! So this game gets a 93%."

Review scores, in practice, are fine. However, remember, a high or low number is just a reviewer giving an opinion, and if you trust his or her opinions, you're fine. High number means they like it. If a reviewer I trust says, "Yeah, this game is a B-," I know what's goin' on.

Is It OK For a A Video Game Reviewer to Be Bad at Games?

Of course. A lot more game reviewers should be bad at games. Fact is, most people who play computer games are bad at them, and they deserve reviewers who advocate for them and can say, "If you blow 20 bucks on this, you'll die 500 times on the first level and hate it. Don't waste your money."

Look, I love laughing at game professionals flailing at games as much as anyone. Remember when that unnamed Polygon writer tried Doom and showed no signs of ever having played it (or any video game) ever before? That was a hoot.

(My favorite bit is when the player unloads a full shotgun blast into a health pack resting on the ground, in what I can only assume is a post-modern deconstruction of late-stage capitalism.)

But some people watched that video and said, "Wow, I should never buy this game," and were right to say it. So the video was useful after all.

This is why I was a huge fan of Conan O'Brien's Clueless Gamer series, before it devolved into a series of tedious celebrity skits. Watching someone who isn't fully proficient in our art form and its weird conventions struggling to enjoy it can be painfully useful.

In the end of Ratatouille, a supposedly heroic writer gives a good review to a restaurant whose kitchen is infested with rats. GROSS! Never trust reviews.

But This Goes Both Ways, Right?

Yes. Some gamers have very little money and lots of time to fill. They don't want to spend twenty of their limited bucks on a one-hour art piece, and they deserve reviewers who advocate for them as well.

Is It OK For a Video Game Reviewer to Have Strong Political Opinions?

Yeah, why not? A lot of people only want games that support their particular political opinions. They can use politics-fixated reviewers as canaries in a coal mine. The writers are exposed to bad opinions so that you don't have to be.

Again, you have to pick a reviewer compatible with you. If someone doesn't like a game because it's too politically whatever or has too much of the color blue, use that person or don't. You get to choose what reviewers you watch.

What If I Think a Reviewer Sucks?

Don't read their reviews. That'll show 'em!

(And leave it at that. Don't be an asshole to them because you don’t agree with them. Not reading them is really the only vote you get.)

Review aggregator sites would have you believe every Marvel movies is one of the Best Movies Ever Made. Which, I mean, Marvel is fine I guess, but nobody will remember any of these flicks in 3 years.
How About Game Aggregator Sites? Are They Cool?

So you can go to a place like MetaCritic, which averages 50 different game review scores to take all those accumulated opinions and blends them together to create one number which represents Objective Truth. (Interestingly, Objective Truth is, the vast majority of the time, between 70% and 90%).

Look, is this useful? Kind of. I suppose.

I mean, look. Suppose ten people you don’t like give you their scores for a game. That won't be very useful. But what if you take those ten dumb opinions, blend them together, and take the average? That won't be any more useful, will it? Do you think that if you mix a lot of dumbness together, somehow smartness is made? Does this work with political parties too?

But it's all subjective. If you get value out of MetaCritic, use it. It's no sweat off my nose.

But Aren't Game Developer Payments Sometimes Determined By Metacritic Scores? Isn't That Bad?

All Metacritic is doing is getting some numbers and averaging them together. Yes, taking this random number and paying developer bonuses based on it is kind of shady. But on the list of Ways the Game Industry Mistreats Its Employees, it's like 893 out of 1200.

And if you look at the list of Concrete Things That Can Be Done to Make Developers' Lives Better, "Being mad at MetaCritic" is not on it at all.

My kids don't even know video game reviews EXIST, but they will buy anything even mentioned by this guy. God. Why do I even pretend I know anything?
One Last, Horrifying Truth About Game Reviews

I'm ancient, and even I don't use them anymore. There's no review that can tell me anything I can't get by watching the game on for ten seconds and checking the Steam reviews to make sure it’s not too buggy.

In Conclusion

Take responsibility for yourself. Accept that the world is full of people different than you and there's space for all of us. As long as they're not punching you in the nose, people are allowed to have dumb opinions in their dumb heads. When choosing who you allow precious space inside your own head, choose someone you trust.

I will trust in the good people of the Internet to take this sensible advice and act with a bit of basic empathy in the future. I consider this entire discussion closed.

One Final Small Bit Of Whimsy

For a games web site, there's a huge advantage to having reviews written by inexperienced, eager people who try to stir up arguments instead of calming them. Those people work cheaper, and their work tends to stir up anger which gets more clicks. Sure, these poor writers/targets get screamed at, but that's what they were hired for. Their employers don't care as long as the clicks keep coming.

In the end, however, we’re talking about video game reviews. In the global scheme of things, game reviews are REALLY unimportant.

Here's what keeps me up at night: How do we know that the journalists covering politics, the economy, and wars aren't being picked in exactly the same way?


If you're intrigued by giant indie RPGs with cool adventures and epic stories, you can wishlist our next game on Steam. Give it a terrible review if you want. We just need the attention. News about our work and random musings can be found on our Twitter.