Gavin recently noted that games that receive almost universal dislike from professional reviewers still sometimes sell better than ones highly praised. For example, Sniper Elite V2 sold better at one point than Mass Effect 3. Ignoring for the moment that sales don’t indicate quality – Twilight, anyone? – it is still interesting to wonder about game reviews’ purpose, in general. After all, if reviews that universally hated a game do nothing to reduce a game’s sales, then what is the point of reviews? To be clear, the aim of a critical review is not to reduce the sales of a game (though I did hope to stop at least two purchases with my column on Skyrim): but reduced sales of a game is usually a sign that people aren’t going to invest time and money, because they know it’s crap. And obviously people discover crappiness through reviews.
Gavin’s point was that this data means either that people don’t care about reviews or that they simply ignore them. Both are good things, but it doesn’t negate reviews altogether. It just means in many instances, reviews are ignored – it doesn’t prove reviews are pointless.
My thesis is this: Reviews are not written for the “fanbois” or the die-hard lovers of a game or franchise. Reviews are written for those who are uncertain; for those interested but not so interested they’ve read the entire WikiPedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica entry and judged it according to other similar or past games; or are using your review as one of many to make an informed decision.
This is the point of writing a good review: knowledge of similar games and indeed the franchise. Sometimes it is refreshing to get a new person’s insight – someone not clouded by fandom – but you’d hope that reviewers would still be professional enough not to get their keyboard wet with drool. In any case, a good review should be clearly and well written, enjoyable, expect no previous knowledge of the title and the franchise in question, and be based not on how your level of abject devotion but on objective reasoning.
Reviews are mostly not for the fans: I didn’t read a single review of Mass Effect 3 before purchasing it, since I knew I was going to buy it. It’s my favourite series and no review was going to undermine or dissuade me from my purchase. (I’m currently busy with a several-pages long document disproving the Indoctrination Theory, which I’m pitching to Gavin soon. That should tell you how much this series means to me.)
Thus, reviews served no purpose for me before playing Mass Effect 3. Furthermore, I wasn’t interested in criticism of the game, since I didn’t want my experience marred by other people’s points: for example, I was mostly fine with Oblivion until someone noted how horrific the faces were. Then I couldn’t look at it anymore (ditto Fallout 3). It’s like going out with a hot girl, only for you to overhear one of your friends talking about your girlfriend’s facial hair: now, you won’t stop noticing it.
Of course, after several playthroughs, I usually become interested in critiques and reviews. Some of these provided wonderful insights into games, highlighting beauty and tiny details I had missed: the various choices I didn’t make in games like Mass Effect or Deus Ex: Human Revolution (which makes me want to replay these); certain acting or music choices in production; and so on. So here is another purpose of reviews: to provide insight for those who want it like obsessed fans, but after having experienced it first-hand.
BIAS: AND A ONE WAY TO OVER COME IT
LG Commenter* ‘Sir James vanni Kaap’ said recently:
The wheels came off (for me) for professional reviews after Dragon Age 2, and Skyrim. Both games were lauded as the second coming, sold reasonably well, but were either soulless piles of manure or buggy piles of crap. Sniper Elite is a niche title, you’re either going to love it or you’re going to hate it. For some reason, the professional reviewers hated its guts while the gamers love it.
In a nutshell, my point is – A high metacritic score doesn’t always mean a good game (Dragon Age 2, Skyrim etc.), and a lower metacritic score doesn’t always mean a terrible game (take Two Worlds 2 for instance). It’s not the gaming industry that’s wonky, but rather the gaming media that’s dodgy.
This is a reasonable point (but I wouldn’t make a sharp distinction between reviewers and gamers: reviewers are gamers, just ones with a platform and audience).
However, a cursory glance of just Lazygamer will inform you about the difference of opinion with, say, Skyrim. Here was a game that some of the staff at LG thought amazing. I, later, contributed a small critique which argued for it being a crappy game. What this did, at least, was raise the level of engagement from readers and potential buyers: you could see two sides and decide for yourself. I provided points for why it was rubbish, citing terrible gaming mechanics, awful combat and so on. And Mr Holden did the opposite. Both of us, though, talked about points that the other might have missed. Collectively, then, this can be good for readers uncertain of whether to spend nearly half-a-grand on a product.
So ‘Sir James’ is correct: Dragon Age 2 was massively disappointing and didn’t deserve very high praise (though, I do think it was a somewhat excellent game), ditto for Skyrim. One way then to overcome it is to see whether someone else disagrees and allow platforms for different views. IGN, despite it being an often terrible website with poorly written and uninspiring articles, at least provides platforms for multiple sides. This is one way to allow bias to be passed, so readers can at least face “multiple biases”.
But we must be careful of thinking of good reviews as only the outcome of biases and “just opinion”. Nearly every view, aside from certain scientific and logical ones, are essentially opinion – what matters are justified and good opinions. Do you have reason to believe this person’s opinion? What evidence do they provide? No one, for example, disputes that Oblivion had faces that looked like Satan’s colostomy bag. So don’t dismiss something as “merely” opinion: of course it is opinion, but that’s not a criticism so much as it is a description. What arguments does this person mount? What is wrong with their arguments? And so on.
So as readers we can be smart about it. Reviews are not meant to be for all gamers, but for those who have not made up their mind and wish to be persuaded (going in to a review announcing nothing will dissuade you makes you look idiotic. Don’t participate unless you’re willing to be proven wrong or have no investment. That’s why I avoided Mass Effect 3 reviews.) Each of us has a niche or franchise or series we’re obsessed with and don’t need reviews. Does anyone still read reviews of FIFA? Presumably only to measure it against Pro-Evo, but otherwise no one’s really looking to be convinced. We know what we’re purchasing. But new IP’s, sequels and so on, are new territory, requiring expert viewpoints that can provide insight and reasons to avoid or purchase.
Oh and don’t get me started on using the deification of Metacritic…
* Doesn’t this look like it says “LG Commander”?