Ever since I opened up my first gaming magazine I always wanted to be a game’s reviewer. I actually didn’t care two cents about being a ‘journalist’ or writing articles about gaming news; I only cared about being that guy I saw in the magazine, getting to play games for a living, and talking about them. Twenty years after reading those magazines I’ve got over fifty reviews and counting under my professional belt. But during those two years of reviewing, I learned a lot about the industry when it came to reviewers, fans and the reviews themselves.
I learned that people mostly tend to care if you make any mistake, or they don’t agree with you. That last sentence has epitomized what I like to term ‘number salt’. It is the commentor seeking validation of their choice of game through the score. Everyone wants their games to be 10s. Sadly, not every game can be a ten.
Three Easy Corrections
The score of a game is inherently meaningless because it is not a universal number. What I look for when grading a game is something entirely different than other people. What I think is a positive, others think are negatives. What I think is a ten and the ‘greatest’, others are going to disagree with. What I’ve learned to do is justify the score with my words. This is where the art comes into play—how to make the review reflect the score. I’ve told people under my guise that as long as what you say justifies the score, then give it the score. It is your score.
This can be done in a couple easy ways, which I’ve seen lacking from others over the years. The first is say the positive or negative and explain why. The ‘why’ part being left out a lot when I read reviews. If I am skimming through someone’s thoughts and they tell me something is good or bad there should be a why to back it up. It sounds simple but you’d be surprised how often that is missing, especially the last few years when more and more reviewers are injecting their own ideologies into their work and just expect people to agree something is good or bad.
The second is a game should be reviewed for what it is, not what you think it should be. How does what I’m given accomplish creating a fun experience? Does it work with the mechanics of the game? Final Fantasy 13 is a good example because a big complaint is the game is mostly linear. I say, so what? Why does that matter in the context of that game. If it is because FF7 had a more open world then it is unfair because it is not FF7, nor a sequel of it. If it is because it reduces the amount of gameplay, or side quests, then that is legitimate.
The third, and what I see a lot with ‘English’ reviews is they bring their personal philosophy and morality into the picture and let it affect their review. I say English because I can’t read reviews in another language. I play and review a lot of niche, Japanese titles. What is normal in Japan is not normal in other countries. While I have my own preferences, the review is not about me. The score is about me, but the written work is about you, the reader.
So if I see something not ‘normal’ by North American standards (I’m from Canada), like BDSM themes or moe girls in a game, I don’t say these or good or bad like I’m making a moral judgement on it, and by proxy you. I contextualize it for the reader in terms of the game and their fun. “If you like BDSM themes then this will not offend you and it will raise your interest in this character. However, if that lifestyle does not appeal to you then you might have a hard time enjoying this part of the game.” I’ve divorced my personal opinion and gave a contextual opinion that looks at both sides of the coin. My morals and likes are not yours, even if they are similar. A review is not a soapbox to preach on.
A Lack Of Continuity
I say these things not only as a critic but as a content creator, and author. I try to think about how I’d want someone to review my book. What is done properly, what needs work, what doesn’t work at all, who will like it, who won’t like it, and so on. This allows the developer to get real feedback about what could be done better, instead of fanboy complaints and ideology, as well as answer the question you the reader care about most: Is this game fun for me?
The biggest problem with reviews on the internet is a lot of sites don’t pay their reviewer. I’ve not been paid a single dime. I do it out of love and resume building. Only the big, multi-million sites can afford to pay someone something to review a game. But even then, if you’re freelance how much are you really getting paid. Let us say minimum wage is $10 an hour. You play a game for twenty hours and spend three hours writing the review. Are you getting paid $230 dollars? What if you’re Joe Blow off the street and have no background in writing? Some sites barely get the traffic to survive, let alone pay for a large, hands-on staff. It takes a lot of clicks to get that $230 back.
This means there is a lot of turnover on Metacritic established sites. This ruins continuity, which is the most important missing piece of reviewing. The next time you see a review for a game, try and check if the same person did the review for the previous games on that site. It is the most obvious thing that reader’s miss. If you have three different reviewers for games one, two and three in a series, there is little continuity for that site and that affects the quality. (For a more in-depth analysis of this, check out a podcast I did on the subject with others.)
Reviews are not an exact science and the scores are meaningless in the long run, outside of the person who gave the score. Reviews should be about giving an informed opinion of the content from both sides of the coin, and simply let the consumer decide. As the player, in the end, as long as what is written is factual and ideological free why does it matter what score some other person gave it as long as you enjoy it?