I’m one of those people that opens a gaming magazine and goes right for the negative reviews. I look for the low scores and jump to those articles to watch the bottom-feeders get thrown to the rhetorical lions for my amusement. For a long time I thought this was because I was evil and mean-spirited, but I later realized that my affinity for negative reviews has nothing to do with my evilness or my warped personality. I just like negative reviews because they’re usually more entertaining.
The other type of review I enjoy is one for a game I’ve recently played. In fact, I’ll often “save” reviews for after I’ve completed the game. In other cases, the first thing I do after the credits roll is Google around for some reviews and see what other people had to say. I know I’m not alone in this. But aren’t reviews supposed to tell us if a game is worth buying? What’s the sense in reading reviews for games you either already own or would never buy?
Game reviews are a strange business. Not since people started using their whipped cream canisters to get high has the intent of a product been so different from its use. Game reviewers are often trying to inform, and a lot of the readers are there to be entertained. The reviewers are putting on the nightly news, and the audience is often booing them because they’re not the Tonight Show. If we judge videogame reviews by how they are used then they are entertainment first, and consumer advice second. Distant second.
Professional reviewers are generally journalists, and their mandate is to inform your purchasing decisions. But they are judged (by their readership) on how enjoyable their reviews are to read, not on how accurately they predict what the public will think of a given game. That’s why I generally enjoy negative reviews. The author can dispense with the dry consumer advice early on and spend the rest of the review on funny anecdotes, analogies, obscure pop-culture references, boob jokes, and insults. They generally have a lot more room to be creative, and that makes it more fun to read.
This doesn’t mean that reviews need to be savagely cutting and sarcastic in order to be enjoyable. Reviews also feed our desire to simply see another viewpoint on something we’ve experienced. It’s natural to want to talk about a movie with your friends after you leave the theater. You talk about what you liked, what you hated, and re-live and re-quote the good parts. (Or more likely, rant about all the ways in which it sucked.) Reading a good review is an extension of this experience and it enables you to you enjoy the thing again by looking at it through the lens of someone else’s perceptions.
And of course it’s always nice to read a review the reinforces our preconceived notions. If you’re a fan of – oh, I don’t know, let me pick a game completely at random – say, Super Smash Brothers, then when a reviewer excoriates your chosen game it creates a very negative feeling which is often expressed through incongruous levels of personal hostility. Conversely, a reviewer that states what you’re already thinking is likely to sound pretty smart, because they “get it” the way you do. I’m not pretending to be above this level of self indulgence. I like reading reviews that reflect my own opinions as much as anyone else, I’m just old enough to refrain from flaming the offending reviewer when they fail to tell me what I want to hear. (Usually. Sometimes.)
I don’t think it’s random chance that some of the most famous reviewers aren’t journalists at all. In the past we had Seanbaby and Old Man Murray. Today we have Yahtzee. The common thread in these superstar-reviewers (aside from their dense comedic profanity and madcap aggression) is that they scorn even the pretense of even-handed journalism and simply try to make something worth reading. You may or may not learn anything useful about the game covered in the article, but if you’re not laughing, then someone is reading it to you while you’re in a coma. Their work is edgy, unconventional, personality driven, insanely popular, and generally useless for someone trying to learn about the game.
Meanwhile, mainstream sites all too often review games the way other magazines might review dishwashers, server hosting packages, and life insurance: Clinically, and in great detail. One of the reasons I like The Escapist (aside from their excellent taste in Friday afternoon columnists) is that they are more focused on personalities and interesting writing than on churning out feature lists and numeric scores from a team of faceless interchangeable writers. (I realize it’s normally bad for your journalistic integrity to praise your employer in public, but my position as a rent-a-columnist with no journalistic credentials gives me the freedom and lack of shame to get away with stuff like this this: The Escapist is a good read, even without my own meandering contributions.)
I actually think more review sites should move away from the consumer advice model and closer to the entertainment idea. Drop the review scores, the dry enumeration of feature lists, and the pretense that one gamer can somehow speak for all gamers. Make reviews more lively, more personality-driven, and more incisive or humorous. My own wishlist for the perfect site:
1) A picture of the author would help readers to connect with them. If I read something that makes me laugh or think, I’m much more likely to remember their face than their byline. I’ll be on the lookout for their stuff in the future, even if they’re reviewing games I don’t care about.
2) Hire people that want to play the kind of games you want reviewed in your publication. Don’t hand a fast-paced shooter to a number-crunching RPG gamer, and don’t assign turn-based strategy games to action-oriented players. Yes, they work for you and you can make them review whatever you like, but there is nothing more frustrating for a reader than to read a negative review from someone who is obviously not even interested in the given genre.
3) Don’t worry about doubling up on reviews. If two people want to review a game, let them. Some publications seek to portray their editorial board as a single gestalt entity, an oracle with many voices but only One Message: This game is good, and this other game is bad. All hail the Oracle. Gamers can see through this, and your one-voice approach strikes dissenters as a conspiratorial bias, an insidious agenda to favor one group of gamers over another. Having lots of different people with different opinions and license to express them will diffuse this paranoia and encourage a more productive exchange.
4) Don’t worry about skipping a game. If everyone on your staff is brimming with apathy towards Kane & Lynch or Haze, then maybe that should tell you something. Odds are good that your audience doesn’t care either. And if Eidos Interactive really wants your readers to know about the game, let them know that they can simply send you whatever they like and you’ll be happy to print it at normal advertising rates.
5) Review scores have started more and bloodier flamewars than “Mac vs. PC”, “Xbox vs. Playstation”, and “Paris Hilton vs. Abortion” combined. It shorts out a lot of interesting conversations that might take place about story and gameplay mechanics and instead gives everyone a number to argue over. Why did you pay somebody money to produce a thousand words of prose if you’re just going to boil it down to a number anyway? If all you want is a number then fire the interesting and witty J-school grad and get yourself some dice that only roll sevens, eights, and nines. Use them to fill out a chart with attributes like “gameplay”, “graphics”, and “audio”. Post that sucker and take the rest of the day off. If you’re going to produce something worthless then you should at least not spend money doing it.
Actually, I guess I already follow these guidelines on my own site. The only drawback is that I can’t get anyone to pay me to do it. Wait. Let me add another item to my wishlist:
6) I would like it if you could actually make money doing all of the above. And I would like it even better if I was the one making the money. And if publishers sent me their games for free. And paid for my new consoles and computers. And that Valve would hurry up with Half Life 2, Episode 3. And I want a black and silver pony named starbreeze. And a meadow to ride in. And free ice cream.
Are you writing all this down?