THE SUBJECTIVE NATURE OF REVIEWING GAMES OBJECTIVELY – TAKING RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR PREFERENCES

January 3, 2017

Casey Moore, Host

**This piece, like the previous, was original posted on my personal blog, which will no longer be accessible after this goes up.  After today, all content on this site will be crafted for it instead of pulled from elsewhere – I’m out of stuff to steal from myself anyway.  As affirmed before, every Tuesday will feature another piece, and every Thursday an episode will go up – starting next week.  Did you bring enough potions?

If I had a dollar for every time someone said their thoughts on a game were “objective,” I could almost afford the mortgage payment’s worth of DLC for Super Smash Bros. 4 that is going to be trivialized when it gets rereleased on Nintendo Switch with all the content packaged in.

There’s a place for examining whether a video game is up to snuff or not.  Recently, I wrote about how we misinterpret the proper way of reviewing older games and should use two scales, a relative one and a modern one, but I think we can do better still.

It should be obvious, but being that video games are a creative medium, judging them is an inherently subjective venture.  The creators’ visions may fall flat to one player, but another may find themselves completely encroached in them.  One player may have a preference for high fantasy, while another may hate everything but neo-noir.  That’s part of the beauty of video games; if you can think of a setting and a genre, odds are they’ve been matched together somewhere in history.

With that comes all sorts of notions regarding what makes a good game.  Is it fun?  Does it tell an interesting story?  Is the artwork good?  Is it mechanically sound?  Can you play as your favorite characters?  It takes innumerable variables and a lot of discipline to fully examine a game, to really break open its exoskeleton and observe all those finer details.

It seems like everyone has their own unique pretense of what encompasses a good game.  Traditionally, the most important detail is whether or not the game is fun, but I think that’s short-sighted – of course, fun is good, but it’s not mutually exclusive to artistic quality.

Consider movies.  Apocalypse Now isn’t an especially fun movie to watch, but it’s a masterpiece of cinematography with clever attention to detail that provides a lens into the culture of US soldiers during the Vietnam War.  Saving Private Ryan similarly isn’t entertaining in the traditional sense, but it’s a mesmerizingly well written movie.  Books are much the same: Robinson Crusoe is boring as boring can be, but deliberately so, as it lends to the creative vision being portrayed by Daniel Defoe.

Understandably, video games are a specifically player-input medium (although an argument could be make on that inherent nature), so it stands to reason that the player should enjoy themselves while playing, but I don’t think this is a universal truth; I think, just as books and movies before them, video games can be good while simultaneously unfun.  Many folks on the internet would pose the idea that The Walking Dead (Telltale Games) isn’t fun, and yet it’s critically acclaimed, because while it doesn’t feature hair-trigger reactions or platforming, it’s an engaging tale.

One player may consider how fun a game is to be the primary rule of whether they like a game or not, while another may insist that it have a sprawling realistic world, and yet another may hate realism altogether and insist that it be as far divorced from that as possible.  Gameplay, music, control, genre – there’re so many reasons to like or dislike a game that when asked what they should be judged on I just couldn’t tell you.

So, what then?  Do we kneel and accept that it’s impossible to judge video games because the value of their merits are in the eye of the beholders?  No, of course not – it’s clearly understood when a game is as bad as, say, the Xbox Live Arcade version of Tetris (how does Tetris lag of all things?) and there must be something to Chrono Trigger for it to have as many fans as it does.  IGN tells me Game X is a 8/10 while Kotaku tells me it’s a 6/10 and USGamer thinks it’s a 9 and I just don’t know who to believe!

Turn your attention once more to movies.  You may have heard of a website called Rotten Tomatoes and, as fans of 2016’s Suicide Squad seem to have overlooked, this is not a website which rates movies.  Rather, it’s a collective of aggregate scores, an average of all the reviews taken from a set of given reviewers.  The advantage to aggregate reviews is that when you culminate a large number of subjective reviews, you’ll begin to notice where they overlap – the scores for Movie Y may be everywhere from a 5 to a 10, but you may see commonalities where, perhaps, they all seem to think that the lead actor had a good performance or the script was well-crafted.  From this, you can further derive whether a movie is worth watching based on not only the collective opinions of people who, ideally, know what they’re talking about, but you can distinguish further should you choose to find the commonalities of what determines a quality film by your agenda.

If I say that Radiant Historia is a 9/10 game, but don’t explain why nor do you know what my preferences are, then that score means nothing to you – I could’ve rated it on the name alone for all you know.  When several reviewers aggregate their scores and explain what factors were examined to determine their scores, that’s when something significant comes to light.

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Of course, you may just disagree with every one of them.  You may think Secret of Mana isn’t even worthy of licking Donkey Kong Country’s boots if we’re judging them on your criteria, but there’s some amount of expectation on the part of the person reading those reviews to understand that.  I was recommended to play Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney a few years ago by a number of friends, all of whom said it was a masterpiece, but when I played it I didn’t enjoy it at all.  This wasn’t because of the writing, or for wont of understanding the localization travesty that Capcom put themselves through to get it to the West, but because I simply don’t like visual novel games.  It frankly didn’t matter if everyone but me thought it was the best game ever made, I wasn’t going to like it no matter what anyone said.

I bring attention to the responsibility of the reader because too often do I see folks on the internet making a stink about being “lied to” or thinking reviewers are amoral for their thoughts on a game.  One glance at the website GameFAQs will reveal message forums filled with vitriol of users insisting that they are somehow wronged by reviewers, and in my experience, those complaining are people who were never going to like that game anyway.  If you don’t have an affinity for high fantasy, maybe The Elder Scrolls isn’t for you, good game or otherwise.

All the same, I don’t mean to discourage people from reading reviews – that’s what they’re for after all.  Some may tell you that you shouldn’t pay attention to them and you should only judge a game after you’ve played it, but unless those same people are going to spend the $60 on a maybe for you instead of you trying to gather a consensus on a game beforehand, I think they’re misguided.  Read reviews, make informed purchases on your games, but understand that the interpretation of the reviews is the responsibility of the reader – if you don’t enjoy a game that was given universal praise, chances are it wasn’t their fault.

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