Saturday, April 16, 2022

Editorial - Videogame Reviews: Whom to Trust?

As a videogame reviewer, I absolutely do not trust review scores for major and minor releases, and often disagree with not just the numbers, but also the logic, in many instances illogic, behind them. In fact, there have been countless instances in which I’ve purchased and played games that have gotten wonderful scores, even universally with some “professional” critics even calling them “the greatest of all time,” only to experience one disappointment after another, given common gameplay issues that reviewers either downplayed or outright didn’t mention in their critiques. In fact, there really seems to be an epidemic of this, which I aim to analyze in this editorial.

Given my constant crusade to go back through games I’ve originally beaten and reviewed, one can guess that I consider videogame reviewing to be a living, breathing art constantly evolving, and I firmly believe that even older games should be subject to contemporary scrutiny, even if many gamers, professional and casual, suggest that such titles were “good for their time,” rather than given permanent scores from many publications online and offline that don’t ever change, thus remaining skewed for years or in a few instances decades or more. The text of such reviews very much matter as much as, if not more than, the scores their authors assign.

However, just as much as there is rampant bias in mainstream political news, so too is there a pandemic of subjectivism in videogame journalism. For one, videogames tend to receive more favorable reception than other media such as books and movies, with most mainstream reviewers, just like I, tending to use an out-of-ten scale for scoring, although in my case, zero is the lowest score I assign to certain aspects of a game and overall, whereas mainline journalists tend to use one as the lowest assignable metric. An /10 scale with 1/10 as the nadir of grading somewhat diverges from typical scholastic grading in America where students can potentially score zeroes on various assignments and tests.

Speaking of school, websites that use out-of-ten, or out-of-a-hundred, scoring scales tend to suffer from the curse of scholastic grading, where scores seven through ten or seventy out of a hundred are passing, and the seven-based numerical scores are “average”, and anything below tends to be failing. This leads to an issue where websites such as Metacritic that collect scores from countless publications online and offline don’t consider what exactly the numbers entail, especially if videogame reviewers such as I actually use the full spectrum of review scores rather than going by school grading, have skewed amalgamations of numerical opinion ratings.

For instance, in the case of websites such as GameRankings (now fused with Metacritic), they would assign a game with one as the lowest review score on an /10 scale a ten-percent percentage rating instead of a zero percent, and in instances such as a score of one on a /5 scale, they would assign a twenty percent, and so on, which would account for inflated overall scores. When GameRankings still existed, the lowest overall score a game received hovered somewhere between twenty and thirty percent, which I attribute to the most-negative reviews with the lowest scores rarely, if ever, ever coming to fruition due to things such as reviewers not being able to finish certain games.

Speaking of which, another issue with game reviews is how much time reviewers actually spend with games. For the most part, I attempt to complete whatever games I begin, although there are occasional cases where I don’t want to continue playing, with Anna Marie Privitere of RPGamer, to which I once contributed before going rogue, having a “five-hour rule” where if she wasn’t enjoying a game after that time, she would cease her time with the game and move on to other titles, believing there’s no shame in not finishing a game. I’ve attempted to adopt a similar methodology, with the last time I successfully applied it being with Super Mario Sunshine, which was way too hard even with a guide.

However, there are instances where a few hours alone aren’t enough to gauge a game’s overall quality, since there are many times where games start out good but decline in quality later on, or in the rare instance, vice versa. For instance, I was having a decent time with Bravely Default II, although at the twenty-three-hour mark, where I was just in the second of seven chapters, and had levels high enough so visible enemies indicating encounters ran away from the hero on the overworld and in dungeons, I still had an incredibly-difficult time with a story boss, and decided I had had enough.

On a similar note, using the internet and a detailed walkthrough isn’t anything to be shameful about, either, if reviewers note their playthroughs necessitated the use of a guide. As far as my own reviewers go, I firmly believe that needing to use a guide to at least see the standard ending of a game is not an indicator of sound design and do my best to mention that when I write my critiques. For instance, while I’ve had a positive experience with Shin Megami Tensei IV, I’ve often needed to use a walkthrough on the internet to advance the central storyline, in addition to many sidequests, and believe as well that poor direction is a strike against the narrative in addition to the gameplay.

Back to the matter of time spent on games, I believe too that reviewing and scoring a game at least necessitates a playthrough to the standard ending credits, although playing the game to absolute one-hundred-percent completion, in my opinion, is a different matter. However, there have been many cases in which “professional” reviews of games accompanied by scores had their basis in incomplete playthroughs, which would be akin to grading a college essay based on the first few paragraphs. Should I find myself unable to finish a game, I write what RPGamer termed a “deep look” that has no scores but at the end a recommendation, usually average or negative, about whether the game warrants play.

Another issue with videogame reviews, which I’ll admit I’m somewhat guilty of, is bias, with many cases in which it seems “professional” gaming news sites allow reviewers with obvious biases, positive or negative, to critique big-name titles, such as having a journalist who doesn’t care much for JRPGs review one, or a big fan of The Legend of Zelda do the same for the Nintendo franchise’s latest entry. If websites insist on letting such reviewers critique games, they should have another writer with an alternate bias write one as well, or have multiple authors collaborate on individual reviews, as RPGamer has rarely accomplished.

That videogame reviews most of the time tend to reflect one writer’s subjective opinion is one of the primary issues with mainstream game journalism, and while the average consumers would think amalgamations of scores would indicate “collective” opinion, in reality they’re collections of individual biased opinions instead of, more ideally, an assortment of group critiques. Even reviewers written by average janes and joes tend to be unreliable, as well, and RPGs that I primarily play are one of the far-more-favorably reviewed gaming genres among both “professional” critics and audiences, and the latter’s overall scores tending to experience inflation too.

A further issue with videogame reviews from both “professionals” and average gamers is the possibility of not getting one’s facts straight. For instance, I once read a review of the Gameboy Advance title Onimusha Tactics that erroneously said that it had its basis in Chinese mythology when in reality it had roots in Japanese mythos. Some may argue that such errors “don’t matter,” but they most certainly do, damage a writer’s credibility and can easily con average consumers into playing titles with game-breaking flaws. As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Every man is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.”

Other phenomena include reviewers downplaying or outright failing to mention serious flaws or conversely exaggerating trivial issues with games. For instance, most positive reviews of the strategy RPG Final Fantasy Tactics from “professional” critics and average gamers (even the Wikipedia article, and as they consider independent reviewers such as I “unreliable sources,” my attempt to mention the flaw in the text the admins reversed) don’t even mention the inability to undo movement, which was to me a serious issue, and as an autistic gamer, I tend to notice things mainstream neurotypical reviewers overlook or don’t think are big problems.

Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles in the way of negative reviews for big-name titles is the fear of online harassment from audiences, to which I can definitely attest from personal experience. Even if reviewers are civil, positively or negatively, in their opinions, many average gamers and users on gaming websites will absolutely refuse to face criticism of their beloved games, and make excuses when others politely indicate flaws in them, frequently gaslighting those with whom they disagree, which really hurt me since I’m autistic. In one case, when I posted an average review of Demon’s Souls on Amazon, it got downvote-bombed by the game’s apologists.

To repeat the question posed by my editorial’s title, whom exactly should players trust when it comes to videogame reviews and both purchasing and experiencing games old and new? The answer is themselves, and whomever reviewers, if they can find any, happen to share their particular perspectives on games. As a high-functioning autistic with unique perspectives, I have yet to find a videogame critic whose tastes align with mine, and thus I tend to trust my instincts and experiences with particular series, positive or negative, and those like-minded should form their opinions as such. As the late Hans Rosling quipped, to conclude, formulating your views based on minimal sources would be akin to judging a person based on a photograph of their foot.

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