What’s happening with game reviews?
As I have made clear before, I am not a professional game reviewer nor am I an industry critic. What I am is a gamer who has grown up around games and a person who is also smart enough (I hope) to make my own informed decisions. They aren’t always right but they are mine and mine alone. These thoughts and opinions I have are not reflective of my partner, the company I work for or my friends. The reason I say this is because the idea of a personal opinion is paramount in what I am about to discuss…
After seeing the response to The Last of Us 2, with critics largely praising the game but users review bombing it on Metacritic it really made me think about what is true; how could a game be loved by the industry and hated by the players? Now, I ask this as a hypothetical question and I have my own answer in my head but that is the question I am putting to myself, and the one that is fundamentally driving this post. Who is right, who is wrong and who can I trust?
Before I look at this, I thought I would go a step back further and ask, why does this matter? Why do people read reviews? For me, as a parent and a full time worker, my time has become much more precious to me. I have less time to spend playing games and although I have more money than I may have done when I had the time, as an adult, I really shouldn’t spend it on video games (doesn’t stop me though). These reviews offer insights into the game; the length, the content, the enjoyability- everything that I need to understand about if it is worth my financial and time investment. I find however that they don’t influence my decisions nearly as much as I’d expect. As a huge Pokemon fan, I am almost certainly buying into any new games that are released; as a Marvel fan, my pre-order of Avengers is already paid for. These are a given and they are franchises I choose to support. Reviews help fill the gaps and help me understand if some of the new games I am not sold on are worth investing in. However, I don’t take these as the definitive scores as you need to factor in personal taste and interest – there are plenty of games that appeal to me that don’t appeal to my friends. They won’t put the time in as they don’t care for it and likewise they have games that they love that I won’t bother playing. This is a concept that applies, not just to games but to life. It is the simple, undeniable fact that everyone has different opinions on these things meaning you need to understand yours and choose accordingly.
So, lets take The Last of Us 2 then as an example. As it stands on Metacritic, it has a 94/100 from the critics, formed of 108 reviews of which 106 are positive. Why then, does it also have a 4.8 as a user score made up of some 30,000 negative reviews? Can the critics be so blinded by the studio or seek to gain favour that they have lied or are people genuinely just hating the game? As someone who has played this game, it is no way deserving its negative press from playerbase and it was a superb ride from start to finish. How can my experience differ so much then? Looking at some of the reviews and you can begin to see why…
To start, some of these reviews were posted hours after the release. You cannot make an informed decision about the game within that time but due to some controversial narrative choices, those that were upset about the outcomes take their rage to the internet and take it out on the game itself. In unhelpful and often disgusting comments, the game gets dragged down into the red scores due to people’s hateful reviews that are not reflective of the game. They may be upset, the game is designed to upset you, but they are not thinking objectively. They are not considering the implications of the story or the characters behaviour in a wider capacity but instead reacting out of anger due to not agreeing with the way the story has unfolded. This is called review bombing and in my eyes it is a form of tantrum throwing that you can find online.
Ryan, I hear you say, if this is the case then surely ignore those comments and listen to the critics. To this, I say that the insights from actual players is incredibly helpful to me. I plan on posting reviews on this site because I would like to share my view in order to help inform other people’s choices. I don’t want to make it for them, but I want to be able to help them on the points they find important. Luckily, I sift through and find the reviews, both good and bad, that try to make compelling arguments and help me understand the game as a whole. This insight is important as often it comes from people like me, with similar constraints but also sometimes from people who can provide a look into the game that I may not have considered. However, people that don’t understand the context of the negative press may be unfairly influenced by the loudest minority of players who hate the game.
On the otherside, you have the industry critics. A huge criticism of the industry reviewers is that people perceive that they don’t want to rock the boat or are being paid to give that review. Personally, I don’t believe that is true. Any self respecting reviewer would write the story according to their facts, their insights and their experiences. They wouldn’t and shouldn’t be swayed by money or professional influence and should, where possible, avoid all unconscious bias. Now this is not always the case and I am sure there are occasions of these being swayed by internal pressure but I, perhaps naively, believe that these journalists do their best to give their best opinions here.
I found this video here from Alanah Pearce incredibly insightful in her presentation of just how the industry reviews and reacts to new games… I recommend giving it a watch! It goes on to discuss the pressure that the internet can put on the expectations of reviewers; they aren’t scared of the companies backlash, they are worried about the responses from the people on the other end of the keyboards. This loud minority of people who are review bombing are the ones that critise the critics for being honest and as unbias as they can possibly be. This is a shame because, in turn, it makes me wonder how much you can trust the reviewer. This may not be out of intent but there will be an element of unconcious bias that they may know what they are posting will cause a huge backlash and may either temper or at least act more cautiously in their presentation. You could also argue that because a lot of these sites rely on Ad revenue they need to ensure that the visitors keep coming back – if you have a negative review then you will likely see a traffic spike in visitors but if you continue this you run the real risk of losing readers. Again, this is speculation on my part but its one to consider in a world which is often dictated by the people who scream the loudest on Twitter.
Consequently, I find that neither insight can really be fully trusted but at the same time I’m not sure they need to be. If it’s a trusted source then I think if you apply an element of common sense and context to the review then you will take the insights you need from the review. You know what you like and you know what you have enjoyed so make your own decisions. It feels like a weak conclusion to come to that ‘no-one is right/both are right‘ but the real point I want to make here is that you have the power to rationalise what you see. Only you can make the ultimate decision on if you like something but please try and to consider all sides. This in particular is crucial when you are being vocal about games and discussing their merits online. Go ahead and discuss the narrative merits or pitfalls of the story, the technical beauty or beast of the game and even the style of the logo but please, please, please hold off on the attacks. The petty review bombing and threats to the actors and creators undermines any kind of journalistic or creative integrity that people with sincere thoughts have. It shouldn’t be something you need to ask but just be considerate of the people who read what you post and consider the implications. These are your thoughts on the games and if you are able to aticulate the reasoning then you will always be greeted with support or discussion whether people agree or not.