I need to make peace with an old game here. Hear me out.
Game reviews are a strange beast. Publishers use them as marketing, journalists produce them as entertainment, and gamers read them as consumer advice.
Gamers want all the scores to be “accurate” – you know, everyone should give the same score, because then we “know” how good the game is, sometimes out to a couple of decimal places. (Witness how often a reviewer will get flamed if their rating breaks ranks with Metacritic. Too low? Troll. Too high? Sellout.) At the same time, reviewers want to make something worth reading. Who would want to write a review that says the same thing as the other hundred or so people who came before you? No games journalist comes to work in the morning with the goal of standing in line and honking with the rest of the geese. And publishers just want scores to be as high as possible, all the time. This is useless and – in the end – self-defeating, but apparently it’s easier to game the review system than to make good games. This leads to this crazy system where the people funding the writing, the people doing the writing, and the people reading the writing all have different and sometimes even opposing goals.
It’s amazing the system works at all.
But it does work, and it’s not half bad, even with all its faults. Gamers can still get the consumer advice they need. (Assuming they’re willing to think for themselves.) Reviewers get to earn a living. (And if they’re lucky, write some stuff that they’re proud of.) And publishers … well, I have no idea if publishers are happy with the way things work, but they ought to be. If I was elected emperor of gaming, everyone would be complaining about the skewed review scale that only seems to go from zero to three.
But one of the oddest artifacts of reviewing is when a reviewer likes (or hates) a game when they really shouldn’t. Probably the most notorious example is when Tom Chick reviewed the original Deus Ex. Tom Chick is a liked and respected journalist, but ten years ago he mercilessly slagged the game while everyone else was holding it up as Game of the Year. He’s not famous for writing outrageous, iconoclastic reviews. He just didn’t like this game.
A bit closer to home, a couple of years ago I hated a game I should have liked. I’m always banging on about how much I hate brain-dead morality systems in games. I hate simplistic, contrived stories. I hate watered-down RPG’s. Then came The Witcher, which was everything I ever wanted from a game. Complex moral choices. Large world. Nuanced setting. And I hated it.
Well, I actually didn’t hate the game. I just hated main character Geralt. I couldn’t stand him. I wanted to punch him in his leathery face from the moment I met him. I hated him so much that it drove me away from the game. I never finished it. (And no, I don’t think that journalists are obligated to finish games before they review them. They just need to be honest about it with their audience.)
The Witcher 2 should be on my pre-order list. Developer CD Projekt has promised to release the game without DRM. For the last five years I’ve raged at an industry that has slowly poisoned itself with this septic stupidity, and now here is a company taking my advice and dropping the ridiculous business. They’re also the team behind Good Old Games, an endeavor which should qualify them for sainthood. They’re making a real leveling and stat-building RPG in a time when everyone else will put the label “RPG” on just about any dang thing. This isn’t just a game I should like, this should be my most anticipated game of the last three years. I should have the collector’s edition on pre-order and be sending awkward, gushing emails to the designers. And yet whenever I see an advertisement for The Witcher 2 I still think, “Geralt. Ugh. I can’t stand that guy.”
I’ve put off buying a game I liked because I was angry at the company behind it. (Never did get Spore.) This may be the first time that I’ve hated a game but bought it because I like the company.
The point is: It happens. Reviewers (at least the ones I’ve met) are human beings, and prone to like and dislike things for all sorts of unpredictable reasons. The Witcher was the perfect game for me right up until the point where I played it.
Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, Stolen Pixels, Shamus Plays, and Spoiler Warning. He also really enjoyed Resident Evil 5 even though it gave him every reason to hate it.