I’ve been following Shawn Elliot’s reviews symposium lately. It’s basically a series of articles where some far better writers than I discuss the given topic, responding to each other’s thoughts on the matter. It’s a very interesting read, and the most recent one covered review policy practice and ethics; an area I touched upon briefly a few months ago. I’m not nearly as experienced a journalist (or, frankly, even a journalist at all) as these chaps, but I think I’ll have a go at expressing myself on the issue anyway. I would apologise for the length and meandering nature of the article, but frankly, I don’t care!
The specific question at hand: Shawn Elliot: “Is it important for a writer to have a history of fandom with the genre of the game he or she is reviewing.”
My initial reaction to this is a resolute yes. I argued this point in my previous article, though I’ve come to expand upon the idea. Essentially we are moving into a world where games seriously transcend the old catagorisation. You can’t really have someone review a game based purely on their genre of choice. There’s more to the gamer demographic than FPS/RTS/Sim/RPG fans. You’ve got big budget, high graphics games, and then there’s the indie scene. There’s now DLC to take into account. Some people can cope with a games bugs or other issues and see the strengths of a game despite this, while others cannot. Basically the terms have changed, and I think a reviewer does his or her job best when they know who is reading their material but doesn’t change style and opinion to suit the readership. Infact, I think the reverse should be true; the reader should be selecting their trusted opinion.
So lets look at what I look for in a game. I like FPS’s and RTS’s primarily, but I will quite happily play most genre’s. I like decent story lines, with interesting, well written and memorable characters. I especially like a decent setting with a coherency of setting; e.g. Thief, Fallout, Bioshock. I want a game to do something new, but without throwing interface after interface at me. I really like games that have some kind of social commentary such as Deus Ex or the Oddworld series. Some of my favourite games? Total War (bear in mind, I’m a history student. I know history, that’s always going to affect my opinion of them), Thief, Half-Life, Fallout (Starting of course with the first 2), X-Com. My games of the year last year were World of Goo and Armageddon Empires. I think all that says a lot about what I’ll be saying in my reviews and articles. The problem is I suppose, that’s quite an abstract way of looking at things, and indeed it makes reviewing things quite tough for me; what am I comparing it to? What does my rating represent?
As an aside into scores; that’s why I scrapped trying to rate things arbitrarily entirely. Game’s reviewing is not an academic field. You cannot judge a game as a checklist of points frankly, though a number of reviewers will try, based rather ludicrously on criteria like graphics quality. Tell me. How can you give a percentage comparison of Crysis graphics with World of Goo graphics? I’d argue WoG makes a far better use of its resources than Crysis, but that’s a subjective opinion. Or what about game mechanics? “Bioshock was 8/10 more innovative than the nearest leading competitor!!!”. “World of Goo charged my thought process banks by 88% more than Farcry 2!” Sorry? What the shit is that all supposed to mean? Anyway. I’m digressing into the murky region of review scores.
I think in the Symposium, Kieron Gillen put it most succinctly; different games are for different gamers, and consequently you need different reviewers to bridge the gap. The blogger/critic/journalist should simply voice his or her opinion. You write what you write, and eventually so long as you maintain consistency in your own opinions, I think you’ll attract a following of readers naturally. This is of course difficult with a popular game. A big name game, on a big name website will attract readers from all over the nebulous world of gaming. When Oli Walsh had the audacity to give MGS 4 an 8, I strongly suspect that it wasn’t his regular readership that got hot under the collar, but the masses who were linked to it because it was one of the first (or was it the first? I don’t remember) mainstream website reviews out there. I seriously believe here that the only way to maintain integrity in your evaluation is to simply state whether or not you think a game is worth paying for, or of course in the case of indie games, downloading, or just loading up on your browser, and why you believe this is the case. I think it’s important in the written content to know what you’re writing about; partly for the developers sake. They will read the reviews for advise on where they went right or wrong after all, and I think that’s a very important part of any game review.
I particularly like John Davison’s point that things like sims and strategy games seem to be best assigned to people that know their stuff. I’d agree really. I look foward to Empire: Total War myself because I’ve studied the period it covers, and I simply love history (in fact, Total War encouraged me to study Ancient History). So when I review it, I’m going to be bringing a bit of that to the table. At the same time though, I know my co-writers are very interested in it as well. And so are thousands of non-history student gamers. No review can encompass that demographic disparity – and you know, I don’t think you should try to. Just write what you feel is right. Even on mainstream sites. Especially on mainstream sites. You’re being payed for your opinions after all. You’ve got to where you are because your opinion’s are respected.
Robert Ashley brings up a very interesting point of development – engagement with the readership. The Reticule has only been up a few months, but we’ve had some very interesting discussions on here and a couple on our Steam chat. It’s a nice way of doing things. It also lets you know if your opinions are valued or not. “These people seem to come from different income and education levels, different countries, and they often latch onto you for reasons other than your preference in games. They think you’re a likable person. They identify with your attitude. You make them laugh. “ That has a lot to do with it. It means a lot to the reader – knowing your reviewer isn’t some kind of mechanical word box makes your opinions a lot more real and valid.
Stephen Totilo made a fundementally crucial point: “This is the crux of it all in my mind: the mutant gaming experience of the professional games reporter and reviewer.” I think this explains what Kieron is saying about the fact that the readers are losing faith in the reviewer. They feel reviewers must be somewhat disconnected because they’re often given the games to review, rather than buying them. There’s also the idea that games journalists don’t have to deal with DRM or have a kick ass gaming PC to test it all on. Which makes sense. There’s often a sense in many reviews that the reviewer hasn’t approached technical issues. Fallout 3 springs to mind. It’s very buggy you see. A lot of people couldn’t get it to work. It’s natural I suppose to blame someone who convinced you to buy it, but it didn’t work. I suppose the question that arises out of all this is “Should we be telling the readers about these issues?” I say yes. The proof? I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get Operation : Anchorage for Fallout 3 going. John Walker didn’t even get it running, and told us about it. I say we need to make a point of emphasising these points as part of the gaming experience. After all, it’s the only way developers will learn to improve. A reviewer should make a point of putting him or herself in the shoes of a buyer, considering what they have to go through in order to play a game, and what they can expect for their money.
I suppose I’ve made a lot of disparate points that I will now try to unify. Indeed addressing such a volume of opinions in the Symposium has proven quite difficult albeit enjoyable. I highly suggest you all read through some of the points. The basic point I want to make is that I believe that a reviewer should simply take on any given review, and write for the sake of saying whether you, yourself think it is worth spending money on. Regards choosing the “right person for the job”, I think it should simply come down deciding to who will be able to convey the entire experience of a game to their readers. If it’s a specialist game, then by all means, get a specialist in. If it’s a mainstream game, then the main thing to do it to select someone that fundementally understands what it means to spend £30 or more on a game, and can balance this out with knowledge of what mechanics will appeal to the broader gaming community. It’s then up to the consumer to check this review against others they respect and decide for themselves. And preferably not send in the death threats, no matter how useful they are as points of discussion.
Finally, apologies to any of the contributors I should have addressed! I’ve thus far found the symposium incredibly useful as a highly amateur writer, thanks guys!