Wake Up, Game Criticism, It's Time to Die

Recently...

...A venerable game magazine invites the lead designer of a flagship PS3 series to respond to (read: rebut) a review that gave its latest entry an 8 out of 10...

...One of the game industry's most personable developers 'pejoratively' refers to reviewers who issued sub-9 scores to his latest game as “haters”...

...The executive editor of the country's biggest gaming magazine receives death threats prior to posting his review of a certain open-world RPG, informing him that such will take place if he doesn't score it a perfect 10...

...One of the project leads on the most popular entertainment product in history takes to Twitter to ask his fans to boost the Metacritic USER SCORE of a game that does 775 million dollars in just five days (that's almost thirteen million copies sold worldwide, in less than a week, mind us all)...

Years from now, when I think back on 2011, ensconced in my adamantium dreadnought with a snifter of Blue Label and an ottoman resembling a taxidermied Bobby Kotick, I'm going to remember what was easily the busiest autumn release season in the history of gaming. Between the weeks of September 6th and November 20th, there were approximately fourteen core titles of various cachet (fifteen if you count the sleeper hit, Dead Island). Of those, I'm zoned off from Gears, Forza, and Zelda, being bereft of a 360 and Wii, and of the remaining eleven I have played six, own four, and plan on acquiring another two (Rayman and Assassin's Creed, and I mention them only to remind people that Rayman is out and needs mad support, yo). Any way you slice it, I've invested a hitherto unseen amount of time, preparation, and money into this fall.

And I know I'm not the only one. Gaming is a medium which asks just as much of us financially as it does emotionally. But between the monetary difficulties of staying current with the games I've been most excited to play, there's the secondary uncertainty of just how good these games are actually going to be, and that's where the reviews come in. Given this fall's number of hugely anticipated titles from studios with strong track records, not only is there a great deal of pre-release hype at play, there's also a strong sense of fan loyalty in the mix.

Which is ultimately why I guess it shouldn't be surprising that vitriolic public reaction to anyone voicing pointed criticism for Highly-Anticipated-Game-X would happen. I understand. I've been burned by the hype train before, and in turn I've been mad at critics when I think they've gotten it wrong. However, if you look at any of the above examples, you'll see a pattern that's taken things from the typical gulf of public disagreement to an ocean of outright hatred, trolling, and misunderstanding. I'm here to say that there's been enough. Public perception of games criticism needs to die, and it needs to die horribly- in a fashion worthy of a Spinal Tap drummer. What's more, critics need to realize that they've contributed significantly to the madness.

Let me be clear, disagreeing with critics is nothing wrong or new, but what we've seen over the past few months has taken things to a new level. What else could compel Eurogamer to invite Naughty Dog's Richard Lemarchand to respond to Simon Parkin's extremely well thought out review of Uncharted 3? Would you discontinue your subscription to a magazine because they awarded a game you were looking forward to a 9.5 out of 10? A woman cancelled her Game Informer subscription because Matt Helgeson did just that for Uncharted 3, prompting him to draft the pithy hashtag #iheartgamers in response.

Developers haven't behaved much better. At least Lemarchand engaged Parkin's Uncharted review in context. It's a far cry from Cliff Bleszinski's whiny attitude towards Gears 3 scoring 8s, or Telltale Games getting caught inflating the Metacritic user score for Jurassic Park with perfect 10s (at least that was in keeping with all-or-nothing user score tradition).

That all pales in comparison, however, to Glen Schofield's appeal to his Twitter followers that they improve Modern Warfare 3's user score on Metacritic. THE BOLLOCKING USER SCORE, FOR GOODNESS' SAKE! A scale that by definition is given by unprofessional contributors, who are not required to play the game or adhere to the standards of even the loosest publication before posting their thoughts. If that set of rules doesn't scream, "breeding ground for melodramatic fanboy zero-or-ten bifurcation," I don't know what does. And this is all before you consider that the game in question is Call of Duty. Glen, you made $6.5 million on day one; take it on the chin.

In my opinion, this all boils down to a fixation on numbers. Metacritic has bewitched us all with its beautifully aggregated system for critical game consensus, but behind all those numbers and averages of numbers are the arguments that critics use to justify them. No one I know who's read Parkin's Uncharted review or Destructoid's Gears 3 review has felt that they were unfair or unjustified, let alone negative in any overriding fashion- and that's because an 8 out of 10 is a great score! Furthermore, it's a great score because generally, people who review games have the sense to back up a substantial numerical judgment like that with a procedural and reasoned critique of the game at hand.

To flesh this out in the context of Uncharted 3, I myself had a bit of "sticker shock" upon seeing the 8/10 from Eurogamer. I'm a big fan of the series, and I was worried: "if someone else saw fit to give it a less than perfect score, as I gave to Uncharted 2, would I end up agreeing with them about Uncharted 3?" That's the big worry, not that the game doesn't live up to the standard, but that we'll agree with those who say so.

And so, fueled by curiosity, I read Parkin's review, and many other well-reasoned opinions on Twitter and in podcasts, and then played the game for myself. I found, rather comfortably, that Parkin's review was completely fair, the 8 score was well merited, and that if I were to review it I would have given it a 9. Does this make others who differ from my opinion wrong, destructive, or hyperbolic? ABSOLUTELY NOT. And I can say that, because I played the game for myself and judged it accordingly. It's that simple.

People who've flown off the handle for scores that deviate as little as two or two-and-a-half points from so-called perfection need to calm down and realize that a) those scores only reflect the sensibilities of the reviewer, and b) those scores won't make your perception of the game any less honest or any more unwarranted.

Now if you've read up to this point and detected a hint of critical elitism, let me allay your concerns. What I'm arguing is that game critics don't automatically have superior opinions over their amateur enthusiasts. Rather, that they should at least be given the benefit of the doubt when you encounter an offering from them that doesn't immediately ring true with what you're expecting. There are critics out there whose writing and attitude I detest, but it hasn't prevented them from expressing opinions and judgments that I agree with, or even find unreasonable.

If you're going to get steamed with critics because of a game review, remind yourself that it's difficult to argue with numbers. Though the placement of a 7 or an 8 for a much-hyped title is fundamentally objective criteria, it's based upon a subjective opinion. Therefore, engage critics through their writing. Open up a dialogue that picks apart their arguments and give them the chance to defend themselves. It's clear that far too many see the score they don't want and call for tar and feathers, when in all likelihood the reviewer in question has praised the game a great deal in the text paired with the 7 or 8. I gave Marvel vs. Capcom 3 a 6, and I made sure to establish how much fun it was in the body of my review.

So we've established that numbers are potent, and that the words behind them are just as much if not more important. Personally, I've never been completely comfortable with numbers. They add a nice way to shorthand the judgment of a review, but the temptation to absorb the score without the reasoning is too great. This is especially problematic because critics by and large have abused the scoring system, making it difficult for games to get anything less than a 7 if they hope to find an audience.

This is all about perspective, and I'll use myself as an example. So far this year I've given out two 10s. These were for Portal 2 and Infamous 2, given on Bitpunch's 5 point scale. In my mind, the Portal score stands, but the Infamous one does not. If I had written the latter review on a ten or twenty point scale instead of a five point one, it definitely wouldn't have been a ten. The difference is that in a game with slight or negligible faults, in this case Infamous 2's dumb and unnecessary "Evil" campaign, the text of the review has to articulate its criticism around the lack of granularity in the score- you have to make a five sound like it's not quite a five.

This kind of impertinent math is performed by game reviewers all the time. No matter what position they're in, they have to figure out how to express their thoughts with the scale they're given, and then decided if their criticisms are pointed or nitpicky. It's all well and good, but the above problem could've been solved with a simple solution: subtract a frigging star.

I've encountered this several times with reviews I'm struggling to write, "it's pretty good, there's no real problems, but ehh, guess it's an 8?" This is a problem. I shouldn't be giving seriously positive scores to games that are functionally impressive, but fail to engross me in any way. Doing so inhibits me from making convincing arguments for the L.A. Noire's or Battlefield 3's when I give those games 8s (which they are, in my mind).

To summarize, I believe that critics need to take into account what they'll think of a game six months or a year down the line before they commit to a score. Look at the Metacritic scores for Final Fantasy XIII, Rage, or Killzone 2. They're all in 80-90 territory, but when's the last time you heard someone speak about them in a way that supports those scores? FFXIII in particular is widely regarded as a huge misstep for that series. I'm not speaking out of both sides of my mouth here, the press did a good job of noting how boring and repetitive the first half of the game was, but few were willing to reflect it in the final tally (I realize there's more to this debate here, but I'm just noting the general flak that has become the game's legacy).

As we have it now, the relationship between critics and gamers has soured. It's not because either side is particularly wrong (if they take the time to reasonably express their thoughts). It's because both sides have become enamored with AAA titles reaching a critical ideal- the 9 or 10. I'm not asking that critics hold off on delivering high scores when they think it's merited, just that they gut check themselves for any nagging uncertainty when they lavish praise on a game that's good, but perhaps has aspects to it that the reviewer doesn't really like. If we can learn to embrace and articulate what those errant criticisms are, and then adapt to the current 1 to 10 scale so that 4s 5s and 6s carry a little more worth, then this acrimonious back-and-forth between the press and the public will be dead, only to come back as something more refined, honest, and informative.