We are gathered here today to mourn the end of the written game review and all the great things it has done for video game kind over the last several decades. Though its life was cut so tragically short, mayhap we will all learn something from it, and build a better future for ourselves. All Praise the Super Mario, amen.
What happened to written word game reviews? I’ve personally gone from reading the written word, to mildly skimming the text, to now just out and out not caring to read any reviews in depth. Now I prefer scanning Metacritic scores, reading the tiny blurbs that sum up the review, and then move on with my day.
Of course, I know this is defeatist in nature. If there isn’t any written word, then Metacritic is useless. But looking at the Entertainment Software Association’s (ESA) recent study, “Product Reviews in Magazines and Video Game Websites” comprise only three percent of the factors that influence what gamers buy. What could be causing this erosion of influence?
Video Killed The Journalism Star
With the rise of video streaming, YouTube, Let’s Plays and things like Giant Bomb’s Quick Looks, the need to read about a game is rendered useless. To me, video represents a good part of the 11 percent “Word of Mouth” quotient in the ESA study. It’s one thing to read how a game plays, it’s another to experience what’s on offer and be able to make a better informed buying decision.
Video also gives rise to things like “Twitch Plays Pokemon” where a chance to get in on the ol’ zeitgeist or to be an Internet asshole is too overwhelming not to pass up. In a culture suffering from a deficit of attention, video allows a quick shot to the face, with no need for reading.
It also cuts out the middleman effect that lessens the impact of the written word. Gamers are inundated constantly with marginal game updates via “First Look” trailers and/or mundane videos about a new skin shader the game is going to employ. A lot of these concepts demand a video component to show off technical feats and story elements that may need more punch to sell someone on a game.
Writing About Things No One Gives A Shit About
When you’re trying to sell someone on most media, how do you break it down? Do you find that one hook you know will get someone on board? Yes, you do: you talk about the story and the premise, which just so happens to sit at 22 percent on the ESA influence graph!
What don’t you talk about? How about a games perceived diversity issues? In a Dragon Age: Inquisition Review, Paste Magazine’s Maddy Myers writes:
[…] there are quite a few holdovers from Tolkein that I’d personally love to see disappear in all fantasy games, and I was sad to see a shadow of them here as well. Dragon Age struggles with racial diversity; there are some characters of color here, but not many […]
What does this have to do with gameplay and general enjoyment? Having put a good 60 hours into Dragon Age: Inquisition, I personally did not find the lack of diversity problematic. We’re talking not only your general flavors of human, but elves, dwarves, qunari… I’m probably missing a few here, but to say the game has diversity problems based solely on color is pretty silly.
Does a character’s overt sexiness matter when you’re trying to sell someone on a game? Well, Arthur Gies of Polygon certainly thinks it’s worth denigrating Bayonetta 2 in a written review. What does Bayonetta’s “overt-sexualization” have to do with game play, or something worth knocking in the score of the game? Did the overt T&A cause frame rate issues? Are gamers not allowed to multitask while playing games? They can’t mash buttons and think of boobs? I found Bayonetta’s design in the second game to be far less sexy than the first game. Different strokes for different folks and all, but still.
What is this review updating nonsense that Polygon has gotten up to? This seemingly goes hand-in-hand with my (now antiquated) assertion that reviewers actually finish the game they are reviewing. Give a game a great score, but then slowly start walking it back once it hits the market and people start playing it? Why not wait and play the game with the peasants? Oh, you need to get the review out on day one to beat your competitors, quality of the text be damned? Okay!
It’s understandable that video game companies want the best review possible for their game and that they’re going to do whatever it takes to make sure the game gets it’s due. They’re going to try and set up the perfect ecosystem for a game review. Good Internet connections, the best build of a game on the most state of the art computer they can put the game on, offering free trips to exotic locations to “review” the game under their watchful eye, the list goes on.
But problem arise once the game hits store shelves, as often video games with online components come out busted, and as we saw at the end of last year, several games needing a few too many patches to get up and running.
The release of SimCity two years ago was a great example of all this. Initially given a 9.5 from Polygon, they had to start walking that score back as hundreds of players had serious issues with the game. EA took out elements of SimCity proper to make it run better, swore that the game needed to be always online to be played properly, and refused to offer an offline mode for modders. On top of all of this, city sizes allowed were tiny compared to previous games in the series!
What about any of that screams a 9.5?
Eventually the score was downgraded to a 4, then back up again to a 6.5, but to what end? Was the initial text amended to justify why the score was being lowered, or was Polygon trying to court favor with the masses by reflecting general attitudes towards the game in their score? Was anyone actually invested in the latter review updates? Probably not.
This approach takes the luster off the authoritarian tone a written review can give. Reviews should strive to be declarative endeavors, and when you have to keep walking back your score, the audience begins to lose faith in what you have to say.
Misguided Focus On Personality
There seems to be a widening gulf in those who write about games these days. We have our old wizened white pudgy guy in his mid-to-late 30’s, who’s grown so cynical he can’t even be bothered to get excited about anything. Then you have a bunch of failed comedians, actors and TV hosts who are only doing this “games thing” because it’s pop culture adjacent, so there’s no real passion for games to be had there as well.
On video game-related podcasts, instead of talking about current or upcoming games, you’ll have the hosts trying to break comedy bits, talk about their weekends and other things not related to the games industry. Apparently, they really have no love for the video game side of things. This is problematic on it’s own, but what about the written word?
Personalities have always been a large part of the games press. To my mind, going back to GamePro magazine writer nom de plumes, to EGM/1UP of recent days. You have “JRPG Guy,” your “Sports Guy,” your “First Person Shooter Guy”… the list goes on and on. They were a known quantity then, you knew what you were getting out of their respective reviews, and they presumably knew what they were talking about.
But recently these stereotypes have morphed into “Over-Concerned Feminist White Guy,” “Where’s The Diversity? Girl,” “Complaining About What This Game Does For Gender Person of Gender Nonconformity”… this list also goes on and on. What’s even more damning is that these people don’t offer up solutions to their discovered problems. They just want game developers to fix them, or make games more in line with their values.
It has nothing to do with how a game plays or consumer value, yet time and time again, you’ll catch some of that chicanery all up in a game review. In that part of review where everything should dovetail in to the concluding paragraph, jammed up in there is some social justice baloney that does nothing for the reader. It certainly isn’t going to influence a buying decision one way or another.
How many times do you read a review and for some reason half of it is spent telling you’re the premise of the story instead of getting to the nitty-gritty as to what makes the game worth your money? This made sense in ye olden times when we didn’t have the Internet or a news cycle, so we weren’t inundated with constant news and previews about an upcoming game. Most of the time, when we get to the actual products that we’re getting our hands on, we know damn well whether we’re going to buy it or not.
Since a review is now more for purchase validation than anything else, why is someone wasting time and effort selling us on a game we’ve already purchased? Tell me why I’m justified in my purchase, game reviewer! I’m not here because your writing is sooo amazing, get to the “you’re so great if you bought this game” part.
It seems as though the classic ways are the best ways when it comes to buying games. Word of mouth, price, and an interesting story are all that’s really needed to move units these days. That would appear to be the case for the games press as well, with layoffs hitting all the major games sites, it appears that you only need one or two fat white guys to get overly excited about a video game trailer or breathlessly reword a press release and mark it as a news item.
Thre percent is a small influence, and I can’t help but wonder if the actual number is close to zero and indeed may fast be approaching no influence at all. When you’ve run roughshod over your audience’s respect and intelligence for almost two decades, these things tend to happen.