Debate Club: Reviews Are OPINIONS, Nothing More

As Steve did in his post on Tuesday in favor of game reviews, I’m going to start with a little disclaimer here and say that despite what I’m about to say and the tone I’m about to say it in, I’m not a complete review hater. I read reviews, I’ve listened to reviews, I WRITE reviews myself. But I have found myself becoming increasingly disenchanted with video game reviews in recent years, and both disappointed in and alarmed by how much importance is placed on them these days and how so many gamers seem to let reviews dictate how they spend their time and money, and worse, inform their OWN opinions. I’ve used Steve’s handy category headers as a guide for my rebuttal.

“Reviews Can Protect Your Pocket”

There is little question that if you only want to spend your money on what is absolutely 100% guaranteed to be worth your money, then only buy what gets good reviews. Certainly, you’ll spend your life being consistently entertained. However, if you ask me, there’s something to be said for taking a risk every now and again. To try out the game that everyone doesn’t love, or even that nobody loves. One of my absolute favorite PS1 games is Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, a game which got mostly lukewarm-at-best reviews at the time. But I liked what I saw of it and it was intriguing to me so I picked it up anyway. The only thing reviews would’ve protected my pocket from was a game that I ended up playing the hell out of and eventually counting among my all-time favorites, not to mention leading me to some very enjoyable sequels that I also would’ve missed out on as those generally didn’t get the best reviews either. No, those risks don’t always pay off, I admit that. For me, though, I feel less disappointed when a game I followed my gut on didn’t knock my socks off than I do when I listen to a review and the game didn’t do it for me. There’s just something to be said about being brave in that way and trying new things and taking a risk, and not always relying on the comfort and safety of a guaranteed sure-thing.

“Reviews Are Fast”

What’s the rush? Why do we absolutely need to have games downloading to our hardware within 10 seconds of them being made available? Maybe it’s my age, or just my personality, but I don’t feel this obligation to be playing the newest game the moment it is released. There are certain games that I look forward to and try to buy relatively close to their release, but those are usually the games I was going to buy anyway. The games that I am unsure about, which I’m assuming are the games we are discussing here – the ones we “need” reviews for – those are the games I can take the time to mull over. See what people are saying about them, talk to my friends, listen to podcasts, and yes, even glance at some reviews. Get a general overall feel for how I may feel about the game, culled from that myriad of sources.

Plus, let’s talk about these day 1 or early reviews for a minute. How early do websites typically get these games? Certainly not months in advance, or even weeks in advance most times (I wouldn’t know because we haven’t reached that level yet. Ahem). So that means it’s people rushing through the games to get them done in time to have that review up at the same time as the other sites so that they can ride that hype and get those clicks. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, or that they aren’t giving the games their full attention or that their reviews aren’t genuine, but for me, that isn’t the opinion I’m most readily going to trust, no offense. The opinion that is more real and honest to me is that of the people who have had the time to dig into the game at their own pace, explore it, feel it out, play it the way I would play it. That’s the opinion I’m more interested in. Not the guy who finished the game at 5am so he could have his review up by 8am.

“Reviews Create Consensus”

“Consensus” is a dangerous word. Consensus among who? The small percentage number of people writing reviews that show up on Metacritic and GameRankings? What percentage of the total gaming population does that amount to? Less than 1%. Okay, so how about we take to message boards or look at user reviews on the various sites that feature those? Well, if I have to tell you why THAT is a bad idea, then I’ve got nothing else to say to you. You can find a consensus that says just about anything you are looking to find a consensus for. Just look at the buzz about Nintendo in the last few months (hell, years even) and tell me what the single genuine overall consensus is about where they stand in the opinions of gamers? Yeah, good luck with that.

Steve mentioned Metacritic, and yes, of course I am going to take him to task on that. First of all, boiling everyone’s reviews down to a universal number IS arbitrary, because everyone doesn’t rate on a scale of 1-100 (in fact, almost nobody does). So if one site gives a game a B-, what number would that be? Okay, so let’s say it’s going by the academic scale where a B is anything that falls between 80 and 90. So a B minus is a low B, so let’s go with, oh, an 80. Already we’re guessing. So now THIS site uses a scale of stars, 1-4. And it gave the game 3 stars. Well 3 stars out of 4 is pretty good, but when you divide 100 by 4 you get 75. So 3 stars is now a 75. Hmm, so 3 stars out of 4 is LESS than a B-? How about sites that do a five star scale? Well this site also only gave the game 3 stars, but that’s three stars out of 5 and 100 divided by 5 is 20 so THIS site only gave the game a 60 according to Metacritic. Transferring that back to the grading system, well that’s a D- teetering on an F. And I hardly think that a reviewer who gives a game 3 stars out of 5 considers that a borderline failing grade. 3 stars is actually above average, if not “good”. So as you can see, trying to aggregate multiple reviews with widly varying scoring scales into some uniform number is definitely “quick, down, and dirty” but far from the most accurate method of creating a consensus.

Plus, again, why does everything need to be boiled down to some simple, easy to read number that we can look up in 3 seconds? Have we really gotten that lazy and that reliant on instant gratification that an arbitrary (and yes, that’s what it is) number is all we have the energy to look up in order to decide if WE are going to enjoy a game or not?

“Reviewers Are Good At Their Jobs”

Yes, generally they are. But they are still only people with opinions. And I personally resent the implication that they are somehow better suited than I am to decide if a game is good or bad because they play more games than me, and judge games with a more critical eye than I do. I don’t need to play every game that comes out to know what I like and don’t like of the games that I DO play. Sure, maybe they do have a more critical eye than I do, but is that automatically a “good” thing? When I played BioShock Infinite, it was an experience I genuinely enjoyed from start to finish. That’s all I was obligated to do, is have that experience and enjoy it. People reviewing the game had to dig deeper, and take the gunplay to task or nitpick the plot holes or complain that Elizabeth really wasn’t as helpful as she appeared to be and blah blah blah. Well none of that mattered to ME when I played that game, and since I’m not a reviewer, it didn’t have to. There’s nothing wrong with reviews that do that. Reviews SHOULD do that. But it doesn’t make them more “right” then us laymen who just play games and enjoy the ride and don’t overanalyze the game to death.

Nobody “objectively reviews” something. That’s practically an oxymoron. It might be tricky for someone to try and objectively claim that certain games have bad graphics or other more clearly defined details, but when it comes to the thing that a review is ultimately about – is this game “good” or “bad” – that is pure subjective. Always. No matter who is behind the keyboard. And there are few games that EVERYONE loves or EVERYONE hates. Just like the slapstick comedies and loud action movies that all the critics hate but audiences of millions and millions love, the so-called professionals don’t always know what everyone else is going to like or not.

“Reviews Are More Than Just Scores”

This I do agree with, although I’m not sure what else there is to add that I haven’t already covered elsewhere at length.

In Conclusion

My wrap up is that reviews should be used as a suggestion, or as a single ASPECT of your buying decision, but never all or even the majority of it. If you’ve been playing games for awhile, you know what you like. Trust that instinct. Go with your gut. If a game comes out that you really feel like is up your alley but the scores aren’t stellar, don’t let that discourage you. Don’t miss out on a potential personal favorite because Metacritic jumbled up everyone’s score into a 65 or something. When we get into this mindset of a game isn’t worth buying unless it scores a 90, has at least 30 hours of gameplay, and contain x, y and z other things off some arbitrary checklist of things a great game “must have”, that’s a slippery slope indeed. Those of you who have been gaming for awhile especially, think really hard about some of the games you’ve had the most genuine fun with in your life. Were they always the “best” games for that system, or even in that year? Did they get 9’s and 10’s from all the magazines? And what if you had listened to those “bad reviews?” Are you feeling regretful and suddenly wishing you had spent that time playing one of that year’s universally-acclaimed hits instead?

Yeah, I thought not.

[Image Credit: Kara Zisa]