[At Gamer Limit we are quite privy to reading random blog posts. At times, we'll even post the best of the best on the front page. So enjoy our latest blog editorial!]
Have you ever been on a date with someone who, every time you brought up stuff that you were interested in, replied with something neutral like “oh yeah, I like that too,” or “yeah, (such-n’-such thing) is alright”?
They made no attempt to really rock the boat or disagree with you. Maybe you’ve been that person – don’t be shy to admit it to yourself; I’ve certainly done it before. How did you feel about them as they made no attempt to create any difference of opinion? I bet it was probably the most boring date you’ve ever been on in your entire life (unless you’ve been on multiple dates like that, I suppose).
Here’s the reason: your date was trying very hard to be OBJECTIVE. They were so afraid to disagree with you, or say anything you might disagree with, that they ultimately said nothing at all. How much did you really learn about the person (not that you need to be on a date, but I’m not trying to play date doctor over here)? Did you find their company to be enjoyable and entertaining? Did you find yourself respecting and appreciating what was truly different and unique about them? I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say probably not.
Virtually no one finds it fun to keep someone like that in their company, because they’re boring. And yet, when it comes to video game criticism, this seems to be exactly what is expected of us. Things like ‘bias’ and ’subjective’ are treated as dirty words in criticism, or like deadly sins. As for me, I think the opposite should be true; objective people are are wholly uninteresting to be around, and objective reviews are equally tiresome and uninformative.
Before I continue, allow me to establish a few things: I don’t think that objectivity is useless in all walks of life. If you want to buy a car, one would probably want the facts more than anything: miles per gallon, how many people can it seat, how large the car is, trunk space, or whatever is important to their personal needs (even still, these are not the be-all end-all factors in a car purchase for some people, but I digress). For a product that serves a specific function to to a person, the facts are important above-all; whatever can be discussed subjectively is probably negligible anyways.
Video games are not one such thing. Sure, they are a product that serves a specific function to a degree; however, their function is to illicit an emotional response from their consumer. When I say ‘emotional response’, I’m not necessarily talking about games which are driven by narrative, but the most important emotions a video game can bestow upon the player: fun and happiness. On the other hand, something like a car is meant to help transport a person and their belongings more quickly and easily – in other words, a function where feelings are pretty irrelevant.
How on earth does objectivity help in matters of emotion? Recall your terrible date; if you had to give them a review and post it up on the internet, what would you write? “Leslie was very nice, had good hygiene and did not disturb the other patrons of the restaurant/theater/bar. She was respectful of my opinions. I give Leslie a 10/10?? Or, would you say something like “sweet holy mamalo, Leslie made waiting in line at the DMV seem like a thrill ride at Disneyland. I looked at my watch at least once every two minutes, and prayed that someone – no, ANYONE – would come hit on me and whisk me away from her boring ass. 1/10??”. Which one of these two reviews was more entertaining to read? Even more importantly, which one of these reviews was more INFORMATIVE – the review which told you a few facts you would hope to be a given? Or the one that had actual opinions?
Hopefully, this is enough to convince anyone that the idea of a subjective critique on a game is worth considering. But, moving past the analogy of video games to dating, a critique of any medium of entertainment needs to be subjective to be ultimately informative and entertaining to read. Allow me to discuss a few things which I imagine that critics of other entertainment mediums are already privy to.
First things first: the very notion of someone being completely objective is ridiculous. Everyone has their preferences and their biases. It’s strange to me that video game critics are held to this inane standard of being completely objective at all times, when true objectivity is such a phony idea. To me, the trick is to recognize your biases, both for and against things, and strive to avoid them or even use them to your advantage.
An example of using a bias to your advantage: Reviewing a game from a genre you particularly enjoy, so that you can discuss things that a critic who enjoys the genre casually may not deem important/lack the experience to discuss in depth.
An example of bias working against the critic: Giving a game a bad score when they know that they tend to dislike the particular genre/series of games in the first place. Possible solutions: Avoid reviewing the game in the first place; make well-constructed points as to why the game doesn’t feel fun, while acknowledging your bias. This should be a rare instance in the first place, though.
Secondly, “objective” reviews are not interesting to read in most cases. They state the facts of the game – most of which can be found in news pieces or previews on the game – and then stating whether these facts are positive or negative. When I some reviews, I feel like I’m reading the instruction manual with adjectives like “excellent/compelling/amazing/poorly executed/sloppy” written in the margin.
This is just downright boring, and sometimes, and more importantly, it’s LESS informative than a subjective review, because it doesn’t really offer any insight into how the game FEELS to play. It is important to bring up unusual or extremely unique aspects of a game; however, if a critic mentions in an RPG review that “characters have maximum HP, MP, and stats which go up after battling monsters in a turn-based combat system by attacking them with a devious combination of physical and magical attacks”, they insult the reader’s intelligence and simultaneously waste their time by telling them nothing they couldn’t already guess.
At the risk of sounding hypocritical, I want to wrap this up by saying that there is indeed a place for straight fact in video game reviews. Because video games are interactive products, there are issues to be addressed in video games that other entertainment mediums such as music, film, and literature will never have to deal with. These factors, however, are minimal: how long should one expect to play a game to complete it? Are there glitches in the game which make it prohibitively difficult to play? Are there significant differences between the same game on different hardware? These are things that should be approached with objectivity.
If I had to pull a statistic out of thin air, I’d say that game reviews in our day and age are 70% objective facts and 30% opinion and emotional response. I fear that game criticism will not really evolve or improve unless we reverse that statistic. Unfortunately, game reviews are still approached like an automobile review. Until product recommendation becomes the SECONDARY goal of a critique, handing the primary seat to discussing how a game feels, I fear we’ll still be reading a lot of instruction manuals in the meantime.