In November 1936, the New English Weekly published George Orwell’s essay In Defence of the Novel. Orwell felt that the prestige of the novel was in peril, in part due to a systematic failure in the reviewing process. This essay will soon be 75 years old, but many of the critical points made in the piece are still eerily relevant. By examining In Defence of the Novel, it is possible to draw parallels between the imperfect system observed by Orwell and the lack of public trust in contemporary videogame reviews.

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Orwell opens his argument with a declaration that the majority of novels are over-hyped. In penning too many ecstatic articles, novel reviewers have confused and alienated their readership: “When all novels are thrust upon you as words of genius, it is quite natural to assume that all of them are tripe.” This problem, Orwell feels, is compounded by the volume of books being published and reviewed.

Animal FarmVille

The affliction is rife in videogame reviews. How many of today’s publications use – really and truly use, not just for the purpose of gimmickry – the full range of their scoring system, beyond the numbers 6 to 10 (or equivalent)? The top-heavy ratings scale is widespread in games publications, bestowing an artificial sense of importance on many titles that scarcely deserve it. This practice has created the unwelcome side effect of squeezing ratings into an increasingly narrow band, to the point where 6 out of 10 is, absurdly, now considered a poor score. As a result, distinctly average games will regularly receive 7s and higher: “There is no way out of it when you have once committed the initial sin of pretending that a bad book is a good one.”

In part, this can be explained by the baffling trend of rewarding games for their mere functionality. Even in this patch-heavy era, it’s rare for a game to simply not work or crash every two seconds (outside of weird PC hardware conflicts), which for a lot of reviewers seems to be enough to earn a title at least five out of a potential ten points. That’s rather like awarding 50 percent to someone for writing their name correctly on an exam. Inexperienced reviewers often seem unable to point to anything beyond technical errors as reasons for why a game might not be any good; and while it’s wise to admonish games for bugs, it’s quite another thing to actively reward titles just for working properly. Poor design choices, weak narrative or the lack of a coherent art direction (something entirely different from “bad graphics”) are far more important factors in judging a game, but only in extreme cases do failings in these areas seem to affect scores in any major way.

When Kieron Gillen rightly pointed out that F.E.A.R. 2 was little other than competent, several of the subsequent reader comments expressed dismay. A culture of giving uninspiring but functional titles at least 7/10 had made his award of a 5/10 appear somehow shocking. Gillen’s review made it clear that he found the game about as average as it’s possible to be, and his score reflected this. But multiple readers still felt that “his review sounds like he’s going to give it a 7.” Perhaps it did – but only in the kind of reviewing malaise where scores are inflated beyond the point of all reason.

Sam & Max Hit The Road To Wigan Pier

Orwell argues that writers are under constant pressure to find something good to say about the titles that they review, even though “the chances are that eleven out of the twelve books will fail to rouse in him the faintest spark of interest.” Publications will not tolerate review after review stating that a novel is neutral, lifeless and pointless and so “X has got to discover something which is not tripe, and pretty frequently, or get the sack.” This lowers the standards of reviewers and invariably results in the virtues of any given title being oversold. Worse, “it is possible for a novel of real merit to escape notice, merely because it has been praised in the same terms as tripe.” After praising generic releases to the skies, a reviewer has nowhere else to go when a truly classic title comes their way. “Having started with the assumption that all novels are good, the reviewer is driven ever upwards on a topless ladder of adjectives.”

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Games reviewers are trapped in precisely the same cycle. Imagine a reviewer who, in a moment of sloppiness, or simply in concession to the ratings status quo gives Pretty Average FPS a score of 7/10. Later that month the same reviewer is playing Slightly Better FPS and realizes that to remain consistent, he should award it 8/10. It only takes one incident like this for scores to begin trending upwards. Consider also a reviewer who sees someone at their publication giving Kinda Rubbish RTS a 7/10. This reviewer had planned to give Bland But With Some Decent Ideas RTS somewhere in the region of a 6/10. Now, however, he cannot bring himself to rate it lower than the nonsense which was just handed a 7/10.

In light of the above, it’s really no surprise that the games review process is confusing and disheartening for the buying public. After purchasing yet another highly rated title and finding it to be overhyped, they will begin to lose trust in the publication, reviewer or system as a whole. Look around for places where “professional” games reviews are regarded with anything other than scorn. It’s not easy.

Readers are not entirely without blame. The addition of comments sections to most online publications and the ease with which score-comparisons can be made has resulted in a cacophony of tedious posts along the lines of “but if X got [score], how can Y receive [lower score]?” These criticisms fail to realize that publications are not hive minds, but also serve as further pressure on weak reviewers fearful of a verbal assault.

Down And Out In Paris And GTA: London

24/7 videogame news coverage also plays a role in the unmerited, upward trend in ratings. Reviewers are games players too, and are often invested in a game that they’ve been covering and coveting throughout its development. Empire: Total War, for example, was a rather soulless, bug-ridden release by the series’ standards, but has a Metacritic score of 90 and a host of gushing reviews. Conspiracy theorists may wish to insinuate a succession of brown envelopes from the publisher, yet it seems highly unlikely that every single reviewer was paid off or leaned upon. A far more rational explanation is that the games journalists involved were eager to play the latest title from a popular series and pretty much willed themselves into giving it a great (and inflated) score.

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The ever-popular specter of publisher interference is, however, raised by Orwell in In Defence of the Novel and should still be treated seriously. He states that “novel reviewing has sunk to its present depth largely because every reviewer has some publisher or publishers twisting his tail by proxy.” Orwell’s summary is exactly the same one applied to games reviews today; publishers advertise in the periodicals which review the books, and if the books do not get adequate reviews, the publisher will threaten to withdraw advertising and place the publication in financial peril. Crucially though, this ruse is not explicitly spelled out by any party, or the result of dodgy backroom deals: “The various parties to the swindle are not consciously acting together, and they have been forced into their present position partly against their will.”

Blatant corruption has certainly soured games journalism before, as in the case of the shameful Driver 3 scandal and subsequent cover-up – for which those responsible (publishers and editors) should have lost their jobs. But as Orwell notes in his essay, the influence of publishers and public relations upon games journalists tends to be more subtle than the high-profile, but rare, dodgy dealings most people assume. Rather than direct threats, publishers favor “gentle” pressure of the type highlighted by Zoo Weekly writer Toby McCasker that resulted in his firing. Zoo editor Paul Merrill later claimed that the article in question was not going to be a review, and stated that McCasker was fired for making the email public. Rather than stand by his writer, Merrill decided to remove him for the crime of releasing information that would help readers make an objective assessment about the nature of coverage within the magazine.

The nature of the job means that game journalists have to interact with public relations representatives on a daily basis. Incessant, insidious pressure from people whose specific roles are to push a title, stage-manage press events and give journalists freebies will inevitably take a toll. Alarmingly, in the aftermath of the Toby McCasker incident, a number of journalists posting on the Games Press industry forum saw nothing wrong with the actions of Rockstar’s PR representatives. Though there was no consensus among the posters, sentiments such as “The PR guy was just trying to get the best coverage that they could” were not uncommon. That some games journalists have accepted PR influence as (at best) inevitable and (at worst) welcome, is deeply troubling for the games media and for its consumers. To re-appropriate a phrase from Orwell’s essay: The approval of a PR handler is about as valuable as the smile of a prostitute.

Nineteen Eighty Resident Evil Four

In Defense of the Novel proposes two possible solutions to the 1936 reviewing slump. First, “It ought to be possible to devise a system, perhaps quite a rigid one, of grading novels into classes A, B, C and so forth, so that whether a reviewer praised or damned a book, you would at least know how seriously he meant it to be taken … Raffles is a good book, and so is The Island of Dr Moreau, and so is La Chartreuse de Parme, and so is Macbeth; but they are ‘good’ at very different levels.” Here, Orwell appears to be suggesting a multi-tier grading system whereby a title would first be assigned a category and then given a regular score. In some respects this already occurs in videogame reviews, with genres taking the place of “A, B and C.” There’s an unspoken acceptance among readers that a 9/10 hardcore strategy game is not the same as a 9/10 driving title, or a 9/10 indie platformer, but this approach has not yet pricked the balloon of inflated games scores.

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Orwell’s other suggestion is the creation of a new, specialist publication which would develop a reputation for reviews and reviewers that can be taken seriously. Orwell stipulates that “it would have to be an obscure paper, for the publishers would not advertise in it.” Unfortunately, he does not address how such a publication would secure funding and this leaves our situation looking rather bleak. Games reviewing is unlikely to see a publication free of advertising, nor a change in videogame scoring/rating systems (or, alas, their total abolition) in the foreseeable future. Publisher/PR influence is as strong as ever.

Hope lies with intelligent writers, the reviewers to whom Orwell refers as “people who really cared for the art of the novel … people interested in technique and still more interested in discovering what a book is about.” We’re unlikely to ever again see a gaming collective with ideals as just and righteous as Amiga Power: “We loved good games, regardless of their advertising budgets. We loved Vulcan and software publishers like them, for being intelligent enough to accept legitimate criticism, even the most severe.” There are, however, still enough robust individuals upholding these values to keep insightful games reviewing alive. Everyone reading this article will hopefully be able to name some favorites, and their continued work keeps gaming discourse above the level of advertorial guff.

Orwell’s concerns for the reviewing process are as relevant today as they ever were, yet the very fact that the novel still exists and is the subject of fine writing almost 75 years after the publication of In Defence of the Novel shows that all is not lost. As Orwell himself concludes, “For just as the Lord promised that he would not destroy Sodom if ten righteous men could be found there, so the novel will not be utterly despised while it is known that somewhere or other there is even a handful of novel reviewers with no straws in their hair.”

Cherish your straw-free writers.

Peter Parrish gives this article 73%.

Reviewing Blood, Sex and Magic

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