Why Do We Need Video Game Reviews?

Free-Bioshock-Infinite-Logo-Wallpaper

Stupid question, you might say, but a recent and worthwhile article by Tevis Thompson called “On Videogame Reviews” put this question in my mind. (It also raises this question: when did “video game” become one word?)

Don’t be shocked by Thompson’s first line: “BioShock Infinite is the worst game of the year.” As a stand-alone lead, the line might seem like a grand and original statement. It really isn’t. Richard Goodness, a lesser-known critic, said this about Bioshock Infinite in a July article titled “I Miss ‘Interactive Movies’”: “Bioshock Infinite is perhaps the worst videogame I have played all year.” On top of this, GameSpot recently ran its second review of Bioshock Infinite. Written by Tom McShea, this review gave Bioshock Infinite a 4 out of 10.

I say you shouldn’t be shocked by any of this, but if you’re used to mainstream video game reviewing, I can’t blame you if you are shocked or, at the very least, inquisitive about the sincerity of negative Bioshock Infinite reviews. As Thompson points out in “On Videogame Reviews,” video game reviewers tend to form a consensus about games, and they tend to do so on a 7-9 scale, even though they’re supposedly using a 1-10 scale. Video game scores might be silly altogether, but that’s another debate. The point here is that popular video game reviews are relatively uniform in their scoring, especially when the reviews are about hyped games.

Due to this reality, you might be justified in asking “Is all of this Bioshock Infinite dissent sincere?” Only the critics in question know the real answer. Based on my conversations with him, I can tell you Richard Goodness is an honest guy, so I have no reason to question his sincerity. But what if Thompson and McShea are insincere? Does it mean there is no value in dissent for readers? Without dissent, are we mainly reading what we like to hear?

So why do we need video game reviews?

Money is a realistic answer. If games like Bioshock Infinite didn’t cost $60 at release, we probably wouldn’t care as much about video game reviews. Hell, many of us might not care as much about liking the games in the first place. Imagine a world where every video game is free. People might still write reviews, but the reviews would be less about “Is this game worth the money?”

What makes a game worth money? “How much fun you have with a game” might seem like the obvious answer, but I doubt this is the case. If a game’s worth is determined by how much fun you have with it, I don’t believe video game journalists would focus as much on technical specifications of consoles and how a given game utilizes the system’s “potential.” And nobody likes game-ending glitches or technical flaws that might make a mainstream game less playable and, thus, a potential waste of your money. There’s also the question of how long a $60 game should be. Is a really fun $60 game worth the money if it lasts three hours?

As you know, money can make hobbies and interests like gaming a little challenging, but video game reviewers who receive free copies of games aren’t necessarily cognizant of this at all times. Money may not be the main reason we need video game reviews. If it is, why the hell are we listening to people who don’t always spend money on games?

Validation is priceless.

The passion shown about various review scores indicates that our need for video game reviews goes beyond money. The mere suggestion of Bioshock Infinite getting a 4/10 can start a strong debate. This point resonates even more when we talk about Grand Theft Auto V. Some gamers were super pissed about a 9/10 score for GTAV on GameSpot. Dammit GameSpot, the nerve of some of your writers.

Ponder this. Let’s say there’s a game like Bioshock Infinite or GTA V that you love to death. You love this game so much you would stick your penis through the hole in the disc or, ladies, rub your clitoris on the disc’s edges, that is, if such behavior didn’t constitute insanity (of course, my example doesn’t work if you get off on digital downloading). But then you start seeing some negative reviews of this game that you would love to bang. 6/10. 4/10. 2/10. 0/10. (HOW COULD ANYONE GIVE A GAME NO POINTS?) Some of us would be very dismissive of these scores.

Now, imagine if review scores didn’t exist. Assuming there were no factual inaccuracies or personal attacks, would you be as dismissive of the negative reviews in question? If the answer is yes, why do we hold that our experiences and feelings about games are more valid than others?

Coming clean.

You know what annoys me? The widespread acclaim for Papers, Please, which I gave a 3/10. I won’t get into why my opinion differs from popular opinion (that’s what the review is for). Why do I feel so strongly about this game and how people have received it? Part of it is that I gained nothing from the game; that’s still personal, though. The real reason I don’t like the positive reviews of Papers, Please is what the reviews implicitly say about games as art. Papers, Please, without a doubt, is a piece of art, not merely a game in the tradition of Pong or Donkey Kong. The attention Papers, Please receives says a lot about the potential of games as an artform. Unfortunately, I believe the game is shoddy art, the kind of stuff that makes you feel bad for no good reason. I don’t want people to feel bad for no good reason, but it’s not because I always care about everyone else. It’s because I selfishly want to start a conversation about art and video games. Am I simply tired of the majority agreeing about almost everything, including Papers, Please? Or do I have a hard time believing that everyone thinks the same? In this respect, I think Papers, Please does more harm than good as a piece of art, and that disappoints me.

On the opposite side, I believe Earth Defense Force 2017 is one of the greatest games of the seventh generation, and I don’t mind that it received mediocre or negative reviews. I understand why people didn’t have fun with the game. Earth Defense Force 2017 was never about making a statement. It’s old-fashioned and mindless fun. If you don’t get that, it’s your loss.

My different feelings about Papers, Please and Earth Defense Force 2017 are merely indicative of a crossroads for video games. In the 1990s, I never thought of video games as art. The question was always about how much fun I was having, and the reviews of Diehard GameFan, GamePro, and the like were consumer guides in this respect. They were fun magazines for fun games.

Games like Papers, Please — which asks you to study naked photos of immigrants, among other things — have taken away the innocence of gaming and opened it up to new intellectual scrutiny. The blood in Mortal Kombat seems irrelevant in comparison. The difference between games as fun and games as art is why we need video game reviewers to step up their, ahem, game.

Bringing a number to a word fight.

Tevis Thompson is right that most reviewers work on a 7-9 scale rather than a 1-10 scale, but his emphasis on numbers is problematic. He admits review scores are subjective while twisting this knife: “Grand Theft Auto V is exactly a modern AAA videogame. And a 4 out of 10.”

Thompson and all reviewers (including myself) need to answer this question: do we want people to care more about numbers than words and emotions? Numbers may be preventing what we, reviewers and gamers, need from video game reviews: human communication.

5 Comments

  1. Great article. As a game reviewer myself, I think I’m too easy to please. More often than not I’m just happy to be playing a game. Giving most insecurities the benefit of the doubt.

    One thing I strive to do with my review blog, rather than review games with an end all be all rating, is to find comparisons to other popular games. If you like games like “A” then you’ll like game “B” because they have common game mechanics or story development.

    By this angle I’m not out to attack someone’s game but am wearing nostalgic goggles which always proves fruitful.

    On games being art: only the crappy games are considered art. Because of their crappy – ness. They lost their way of a game and settled for art.

    OK I’m done. Keep writing. I enjoy reading.

    • Jed Pressgrove

      Thanks for the feedback, Eric! Like you, at times I am just happy to be playing a game, but I also have limited free time. So when I sit down for a review, I can be pretty hard on the game if I look back and don’t believe my time was spent well.

      I also like comparing games in reviews — to illustrate either how a game might play or how a game fails to match another game’s success.

  2. To talk about one of the most minor points in this piece: There was a lot of back-and-forth about “videogame” vs “video game” back in the early-mid 00s when a lot of the conventions that surround What Game Writing Is Today were being developed. I was definitely on the one-word side, and I have always been very happy that we won.

    The best explanation that I’ve ever heard, and maybe this will help you, was told to me by my EIC Sean Fischer at AllRPG.com–he hasn’t participated in the space for years so you unfortunately probably won’t find anything he’s written–and it was this: Final Fantasy is a videogame. Scene It is a video game.

    The distinction between the two has always been fairly obvious to me since hearing that, so hopefully it helps. For me, it’s just part of a general trend that includes leaving the hyphen out of “email”–compounds do tend to become one word as they become more recognized concept.

    As always, go with whatever your editor tells you, though these days more and more are on the side of “videogame”.

    • Jed Pressgrove

      Thanks for the info, Richard. I was not aware of this discussion. Honestly, my comment in the article was meant as a playful jab. I prefer the two-word approach and just wanted to be an ass!

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