Reviewing Games at The Escapist: Experiential vs. Evaluative


A few years ago, when we decided to begin reviewing games at The Escapist, we quickly realized we had a big, big problem: We hated the way games were being reviewed.

That’s not to say we hated the fact that games were being reviewed. We believe game reviews serve a valuable purpose. After all, there are a lot of games being made these days (back then, too). Your average gamer often has to pick and choose from dozens of options, and it isn’t always clear what kind of experience they’re going to have.

Considering the current cost of videogames, it’s a little unreasonable to expect someone just to suck it up and deal if they pick up a game, then realize they don’t enjoy it. In what other industry would people seriously expect you to spend half a hundred dollars on something with no guarantee of satisfaction? What was the last thing, besides a game, on which you spent that kind of money? Would you take it back if it didn’t work? Of course you would, but you can’t take games back. With games, you buy as-is, and to hell with you if you didn’t get what you expected.

In a perfect world, we could play everything and not worry too much that some games might be less enjoyable than others, or less to our tastes, but nobody has that kind of time, setting aside the cost. So considering all of that, it just makes sense that gamers feel a lot of pressure when making their buying decisions, and an equal measure of ire when they don’t get what they want.

This is why reviews are so important. Gamers need to be able to turn to someone they can trust to help them decide which games are for them and which they’d be better off passing on. The trust bit, though – that’s the rub, isn’t it?

There’s no shortage of people trying to tell you how to spend your money. Everyone up to and including the people making the games themselves has an opinion about how a given game stacks up to another. But while there are plenty of people to whom you can turn for advice about games, it’s ultimately up to you as the consumer to decide which reviews are meaningful and which are just further clouding the issue.

The problem we had with the state of game reviewing in 2006 was that most game reviews just plain didn’t tell you a whole lot about what it was like to play the game. Most reviews seemed hung-up on issues like graphics and sounds, whether or not the new game was better than the old one or what kind of gew-gaws the publisher sent over to put on the reviewers’ desks. Very few reviews went deeper, to the core of the experience. While I’ll grant you there are some gamers for whom the shiniest graphics and cleanest sound do make a difference, games aren’t movies. I’ve played plenty of videogames with lousy graphics and sound that were nevertheless stunning experiences. Hell, if we’re being honest, that would include every game from the ’80s and early ’90s.

The Escapist was founded in the belief that videogames present experiences beyond traditional media, that – more than watching a movie or reading a book – games are immersive worlds in which a good percentage of the fun to be had is from simply existing in the world that has been created – escaping, if you will. Our editorial philosophy was established to address the art of videogaming with the thoughtfulness and care that purveyors of more traditional media take for granted, but that videogaming so rarely enjoys.

After four years and over 1,000 feature articles written by over 300 of gaming’s most creative talents, we feel we’ve done a pretty good job at that. So when we turned our minds to writing reviews, we wanted to be sure we weren’t betraying our mission. We felt that if we addressed the subject of reviews in the same manner as the majority of other outlets – judging games based on evaluative criteria like graphics, sound and controls – we’d not only be letting ourselves down, but disappointing our readers, who’d come to depend on us for something more in all respects.

Looking hard at what worked for us and what didn’t, we realized the best reviews, in our minds, weren’t really reviews at all, but articles describing how it actually felt to play the game, articles delving into the experience of play and evaluating the game on the strength of its fun rather than on a checklist. We believed that the relationship between reviewer and reader needed to be one of shared values and shared experiences, rather than that of a privileged elitist showcasing his superior knowledge. Rather than talk down to our readers about the minutia of game technology, we wanted to share with you our love of playing videogames and offer our advice, based on a lifetime of playing games and thinking about them way too much. We felt that if we could do that, then readers would be able to make up their own minds about which games deserved their dollars and might feel better about their purchases as a result.

This was a lofty goal, and it might seem a little pretentious. But worthy goals often appear unachievable at first, and pretension (from the Latin root praetendere, meaning “false or hypocritical profession”) is a word that’s all too often used incorrectly, so we’ve never been too bothered by the accusation. After all, it’s only pretentious if it’s wrong, and since we were already widely considered the “pseudo-intellectual wanks of videogame journalism,” we figured we had nothing to lose by making possibly pretentious assertions about our review policy and staying true to our core beliefs in order to bring our audience something you might actually find of use – truly experiential game reviews.

Over three years and 300 reviews later, we’re pleased to see that there actually is a place for experiential reviews in today’s gaming journalism scene, and that you, our dear readers, seem to prefer them. Each time I read a comment on one of our reviews saying that the reader “had this exact same experience,” I feel a swell of pride that we were not only able to communicate our experiences in a way that others could easily understand, but that there are other gamers out there like us who enjoy the same things we do and feel about them the exact same way.

This year we announced that we’d be making a slight change to our reviews by adding a numerical score. You can read about this decision and why we believed it was important here, but I won’t go into that discussion in this space. Suffice to say, it was not an easy decision, but as it turns out, it was the correct one, and I have been pleased to see how little an impact it has had on the heart of our reviews. You can now evaluate the games we review and make side-by-side comparisons to determine which games, in a broadly subjective way, are “better” than others, but the experiential essence of our reviews themselves has, and will, remain unchanged.

At The Escapist, we believe that videogaming is the most important and influential entertainment medium in the history of Mankind. Far beyond other media, we believe videogames have the power and the opportunity to change everything about the way we live, up to and including who we are as people, gamers and individuals.

In the four years since we’ve been publishing The Escapist, we’ve witnessed gaming grow into a $19 billion dollar industry, from almost half that; from a niche activity enjoyed by small communities of hardcore elites to a global entertainment phenomenon enjoyed by grandmothers and heads of state. When Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft, their goal was to see their software “on every computer on every desk in every home.” 25 years later, they saw that vision realized. Four years ago, if we’d said the same thing about videogame platforms, we’d have been ridiculed, or called “pretentious” yet again. Then again, we did say that, and now here we are. In addition to the overwhelming number of North American homes containing one or more videogame consoles (68%), almost every mobile phone sold this year came pre-packaged with games, and casual games are now being played by a vast majority of adults of all ages.

We’ve come a long way, and I say we have further still to go, but one thing is absolutely certain: Videogames are here to stay. At The Escapist, we pledge to continue sharing with you the life-changing experience of playing them.

Russ Pitts

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