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How to Read a Game Review

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There’s always a lot of discussion when a review doesn’t fit the chosen narrative of a game’s hype. Even when it’s pretty much spot on, fans of a given franchise will question why it didn’t score higher when it’s their very favourite new game, better than Grand Theft Auto V by miles “and look at what you gave that!” There’s no talking to people who’ve decided their very own score based on a twenty second teaser trailer, but a worse kind of reader has appeared – the sort that don’t know what a review is and how to get the most out of it. And, sadly, their number seems to be growing.

Reading a Review

There are two mistakes that people make when approaching a review. Either they’ll skip the text entirely and just glimpse at the score – the perfect thing to do if you’re only interested in being pissed off – or they’ll take the writer’s content at face value. By that, I mean that they see the review as a kind of opinion piece, a subjective glimpse at what one person thought of a game they played for a few hours. While this is true of some critics, it certainly shouldn’t be the norm.

The fact is, reviews aren’t opinion pieces – they’re reviews. That doesn’t mean that you’re going to agree with the analysis of the writer, the way they’re painting a certain problem, but it does mean that the problem should exist in some way or form.

Let’s take an example.

Grand Theft Auto is Misogynist

When Grand Theft Auto V came out, several reporters dared to say that they found the game was disparaging of women. Some of these comments even made it into reviews, most notably Carolyn Petit’s piece at Gamespot. From the review:

Characters constantly spout lines that glorify male sexuality while demeaning women, and the billboards and radio stations of the world reinforce this misogyny, with ads that equate manhood with sleek sports cars while encouraging women to purchase a fragrance that will make them “smell like a bitch.” Yes, these are exaggerations of misogynistic undercurrents in our own society, but not satirical ones. With nothing in the narrative to underscore how insane and wrong this is, all the game does is reinforce and celebrate sexism. 

Do you agree? I don’t, personally. I think that needing to be slapped over the head with a massive sign that says “THIS IS A JOKE” negates the tight writing that Grand Theft Auto has always offered, and that doing so would completely ruin the tone. There’s no need for these “misogynistic” moments to be called out by some sane, realistic character, because Rockstar have presumed that their users are smart enough to be sane and realistic about the portrayal of certain stereotypes in the game. I don’t agree in any way with her comment, but then I don’t need to. Petit made a point that there are moments and characters that could be deemed misogynistic and it’s true, that if you were the sort of person who only likes content with “strong” women, you’d be better off playing Tomb Raider than Grand Theft Auto.

That small paragraph above isn’t an attack on Grand Theft Auto (and, in fact, seems to not have bothered the 9/10 it received at the bottom of the page), but a warning for potential buyers. It says, in no uncertain terms, that you’re not going to have your hand held through the story, and that there aren’t any trigger warnings or giant flashing neon lights to tell you when a two dimensional comedy woman is going to jog around the corner and shout at you because there aren’t any proper men who can keep up with her. If you’re not having a panic attack at the very idea, you can move on, understanding that it isn’t going to impact your enjoyment of the title.

Those that commented on that review attacking Petit for “not getting the game,” or those that replied to her in articles and blogs wondering how Gamespot could have someone so off the mark critiquing the title missed the point entirely. It’s not because they disagreed with her take on things, but because they’re not the ones affected by the reinforced “sexism.” They saw it as a useless aside, something that only someone completely unschooled in Grand Theft Auto would pick up on – and there’s the rub. It’s not an opinion piece, but a review, an evaluation of a product that we as writers have to presume you know absolutely nothing about. Petit picked up on something she saw as a potential problem – perhaps because she’s into the ever-excitable social justice movement or perhaps just because she’s female, I don’t know – and decided to warn her readers.

That’s an important distinction, and one that many people manage to miss when reading a game review. If I say something is handled in a certain way, I’m not saying that it’s an issue that bothers me or even one that’s necessarily going to be picked up on by the vast majority of people, but it might still be an issue. If you roll your eyes and rush down to the comment section, ready to tell me what a jackass I am for pointing out something that doesn’t specifically bother you, there’s a good chance that you’re not the reason that point was put into the text in the first place.

Have there been people put off by Petit’s observation on the game? Almost certainly – but not the ones angry it was put in there in the first place. Had the above quote not made the cut, those people would have maybe bought the game, been offended, ranted and raved on the internet… it’d most probably have never affected anyone else, but then that’s the whole point of a review: so that you know whether or not there’s something in a title that you’re not interested in confronting.

I’ve used a single rare example, but this is how you should approach every situation. Does the critic say that the battle system is slow and uninteresting? “Duh, it’s an RPG” isn’t the right answer, you just have to presume that, as a seasoned RPG veteran, you’re fine to go ahead. You’ve played dozens of slow RPGs, with battle systems that most people would find uninteresting, so you know that this will be another title that you can work your way through without issue. Taking offence at the wording isn’t helping anyone, but knowing your tastes and examining what the writer is actually saying (instead of taking a knee-jerk reaction to the tone) will help you get the most out of any review.

The Echo Chamber

This is just one of many problems that have recently sprung out of the internet, and out the way that some people handle differing opinions in an anonymous forum. Adam Roffel examined another way people react in an article earlier this week, but for reviews it’s different. You see, what some of these people really want, at least when it comes to large AAA titles, is for the critic to completely agree with them. They might have already played the game, they might have been following it for two years, and they mistake their own enjoyment for “a good game.” They’re angry that other people might not get to experience such a landmark title because some hack games journalist wants to put in something that wouldn’t ever bother anyone. 

It’s an effect of being in large echo chambers, surrounded by an unknown number of people (we presume it’s a lot). If we have support for our opinion, we presume that we’re in the right. That’s what’s so great about the internet. Enjoy cooking risque cakes? It’s easy to find people agree. Hate public breastfeeding? You’re A-OK buddy, everybody thinks your right. Are you a neo-nazi? Well, those Jews have been getting a little uppity lately…

It’s ridiculous, but it’s an easy trap to fall into. When everybody around you agrees with your opinion, all you can do is form an us-and-them opinion of the whole world, in which everything is black and white. When you’re around like-minded people, it’s easy to forget that you can very easily enjoy a bad game.

Which might sound like a contradiction in terms. The titles that we enjoy are entirely subjective, and it’s only really a case of correlation that, as we get to the higher end of our collective score systems, we start getting more popular, critically acclaimed games. 

The problem is, when you’re so sure you’re going to enjoy a product for so long, and then you play it and you do enjoy it, you cease to be objective. Issues that others might notice – especially decent critics who have done this enough to notice them – might not even appear on your radar and, if they do, they might not bother you enough to affect your own, personal score. Fair enough – a bad review isn’t supposed to change your mind, it’s not even supposed to offer an alternative view. What it’s supposed to do, and what so many reviewers aim to do, is warn people about problems. Not every problem will cause you to stop playing, but you’re only one person. Pointing out that Limbo is incredibly short and expensive might seem like nitpicking to you, and perhaps to the developers, but those that like more bang for their buck will instantly know that Limbo isn’t for them.

Even the biggest Limbo fan in the world, someone who disagrees that the game is short, who thinks it’s worth every penny, won’t be able to change the mind of those that want a certain amount of value in a title. Covering up the problems so that more people play it isn’t really fair to those who have genuine concerns, and it’s completely the opposite of what a critic ought to be doing.

This disconnect with what a critic actually does and what is expected of them from certain ‘fans’ creates an air of tension. “Oh, I can’t find a reviewer I agree with, so I’ve stopped reading reviews altogether” or “so and so gave such and such a low score, so they must be after hits.” The first doesn’t make sense, because a critic ought to be writing to a blank audience who can then cut up the information given – even across multiple publications – and decide for themselves what bothers them and what doesn’t. There’s no other way of doing it. Unless I’m already part of you community, unless I’m already certain that The Last of Us is going to change the way we think about video games, I’m not writing for you. I’m writing for those anonymous internet people that appear as nothing more than a number in our Google Analytics account. I have to presume they’re potential buyers, not knowledgeable video game fans, because the more specific I get, the more people will slip through the cracks and find I’m not covering what’s important to them.

The second can happen, but is often just the result of a different score system or the weight of certain problems overpowering the “glow” from finishing an otherwise decent title.

This problem has been exacerbated, perhaps purposefully, by publishers that put “Metacritic Clauses” into their developer contracts, stipulating that certain bonuses are only paid on the condition that a game receives an average score above, say, 75% on review aggregate Metacritic. I have received emails from people that literally accuse me of taking food out of developer’s baby’s mouths, of being heartless for commenting on content I couldn’t make myself, just for giving a bad write-up of a title. Imagine the issues that go into making a truly bad game – the lack of management, the poor budget, the terrible marketing – and then imagine that there are people out there that actually believe that reviewers are the only thing between that title’s creators and a hot meal.

How to Read a Game Review – Conclusion

There are issues in games reviewing, and you’d be wrong to say there wasn’t. When anybody can start a site and, regardless of experience, get a thousand hits for being contrary, you know there’s a problem, and that’s before you get to sites that are frightened of using their very own score policy (and that applies to both big and small outlets). But the larger issue of there being “no reviewers that get me” is largely a myth, and one that could easily be dismissed if people could learn what it is they’re supposed to take from a review. It’s not the flowery language or even the positives and negatives, but the knowledge of what you yourself enjoy and what will bother you, and that someone out there is shaking their head and saying “I don’t want to play a game that isn’t clearly labelled ‘satire’.”

And there’s no reason that both sides can’t be catered for.

 

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Article By

Mat Growcott has been a long-time member of the gaming press. He's written two books and a web series, and doesn't have nearly enough time to play the games he writes about.

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