Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Reviews Reviewed

All over
the gamer blogsphere recently was the story about how an editor changed a writer's review without informing said writer of said change. Not going to provide specific links or details, as that particular horse has been beaten postmortem and served raw in an Okinawa sushi bar long ago.

The result of that story, however, was pretty easy to predict. Some people were incensed by the idea that an editor would act in a manner that was, while not really unscrupulous, somewhat reprehensible. Of course, there arose accusations that the professional video game reviewing industry is wholly corrupt; That the promotional materials given by game companies amount to little more than bribes; That game reviewers can never be trusted to provide any kind of informed opinion because they are all mouthpieces of The Developer Industry.

This, naturally, prompted reactionary backlash from persons in the video game reviewing industry, defending their careers and integrity, explaining some of the simple behind-the-scenes facts that those not in the know wouldn't know and in some cases acting like total dicks by disparaging the role of bloggers.

Which, of course, led to lots of back-and-forths concerning how professionals are dishonest puppets or bloggers are know-nothing hacks or professionals are sell-out lickspittles or bloggers are uninformed ignorant blowhards.

I started thinking about the role of reviews in my own life.

It's definitely true that I'm influenced toward certain games by what I hear or read. I'm not going to pretend that I'm some sort of stoic individualist that isn't swayed by any kind of opinions. I'll leave that to Hot Topic clerks.

For me, sites like Gamespot and Gamespy are good sources of coming-soon information and preview screenshots. Using this information I try and judge which games are most likely to be interesting and fun to me. That's right, it's totally subjective and gut-feeling and is probably wrong at least half the time. But who cares? I get a taste of things to come.

When games do come out and those same sites give their final verdicts, well . . . who cares? I will read the actual reviews (you know, those word things that follow the score) in order to find out the things I find relevant: types of gameplay, story elements, characterization, soundtrack info and pretty much anything that describes how the game plays or what it is about. Which gives me a general idea of how a game presents itself, but that's it. Just a vague, fuzzy notion of whether or not I'll like it.

And that number in the corner? That number is a fucking lie.

So how do I figure out which games are worthy of my time?

Well, my first stop tends to be my friends. I ask them how much they played a certain game or what the story was like or how long it was and, if only rented, would they consider buying it? I might browse some blogs or forums (though doubtful) and read opinions, but I try to avoid that, since it doesn't take long before this gets old:

"Game X totally rockz! It is teh bomb!"
"No it doesnt, fag, game X is teh suck!"
"Your the suck, fag!"

Ultimately, then, I figure out which games I'll play by this method, which I call Johnny Pi's Commonsense Algorithm for Determining the Likelihood of Playing a Specific Video Game:

1. Do I have time to devote to Video Game?
2. Do I have money to rent/purchase Video Game? Barring that, is there a suitable way to get ahold of Video Game?
3. Do I have desire to play Video Game which overrides desire to do other activities within a designated span of time?
4. Do I want to get off ass long enough to obtain Video Game, if necessary?
5. Does Video Game contain elements that evoke at least mild interest?
6. Is Video Game not a product created or endorsed by Derek Smart?
7. Do I still have enough control over my body to interact with whatever type of equipment is required for Video Game?
8. Is there at least a slight statistical probability that this game won't turn me into a sociopathic killer?

Assuming that these questions can all be answered "True" then it's likely that I'll play the stupid game.

When I was a kid my father swore by Siskel and Ebert. Every Sunday we'd watch their show and see what the verdict was on all the movies coming out that week. Which could be a real drag if they blasted a movie I wanted to see. The best I could hope for was a split-vote, which would put a movie in the "maybe" category.

And I never really liked that method of choosing entertainment. Why not just go and fucking see if you like that movie? Why not read that book even if The New Yorker said it was rubbish? Why not check out that band even if Rolling Stone gave it one star? You can always walk out, put it down or turn it off.

Entertainment is expensive, though. You have to be picky. So it can be useful to look to other people to help make your choices.

I understand that some people trust certain reviewers more because over time they have found that they tend to enjoy similar things. Perfectly understandable. And if you're really lucky, you'll find a reviewer who has a knack for exploring the elements of a piece of media without letting their personal tastes infect too much of it. Though it's still quite common to see a reviewer with obvious prejudices reviewing something they really shouldn't.

I think part of the problem is that magazines have merged the idea of critical analysis and editorial. And, no, it's not possible to be completely objective, about anything. But that's hardly a good excuse for not making more of a distinction between examining the efficacy of a certain media to evoke an intended effect and stating whether or not you enjoyed it.

To help illustrate my point, I don't like Halo. Or Halo 2. I don't like playing them, I don't get into the story, I think they're overhyped and underwhelming.

But in a critical light, as games, they are completely successful. The story is presented well, the controls are responsive and intuitive, the art design is solid and the multiplayer is, by all accounts, wonderful.

An architect can look at a stadium and appreciate the design of it, the structure itself, how it's put together, how it achieves its particular function. And they can still hate it.

Does that point up the difference at all? It's not always easy to separate those two types of thought, I recognize that. Sometimes the medium is the message. Sometimes content and form merge. Bad design can make a good idea unpleasant. A bad idea slapped over good design doesn't always sell.

Shit. I suppose I should founder for a conclusion.

I don't put much stock in the arbitrary number system used by a lot of reviews. Except, uh, for that magazine Perfect 10. They're always right.

And it is kinda shitty when an editor tinkers with a writer's work without informing said writer. But it hardly reveals any kind of mass corruption or even an evil streak from that editor - just bad judgment. Next time get permission to make the change or pull the piece.

And, uh, be good to each other.

No comments: