Someone recently asked me why the fan reaction to the Mass Effect 3 ending was so intense, while journalists seemed to barely notice it. The ending is all the fans are talking about, yet it hasn’t really been mentioned in reviews. People are saying it “ruined” the game (or even the series) and yet the bad ending didn’t seem to have any impact on review scores. What’s the deal?
To answer this question, we need to talk about how games are reviewed.
Disclaimer: I am not a journalist. I am a pundit. I don’t write news stories. I don’t generally write “game reviews” in the sense of giving consumer advice, and I’ve never given a single review score to anything, ever. I’m actually a programmer and author by trade, and the only relationship I have with the hard journalism side of games coverage is that I’m friends with some journalists and I think they’re great people.
First some stuff you probably already know: Journalists don’t actually sit around all day playing videogames. It depends on the outfit in question, but a “game reviewer” can have a lot of duties that extend beyond the stuff you read. Some of these are not terribly glamorous, but they need to be done if you’re trying to run a business. Reviewers also don’t get a lot of time to play games. The review copy shows up shortly before launch, and they need to have their review up as close to launch as possible if they want to keep their site relevant.
It takes time to play through a game. It takes time to distill a ten-hour (or even thirty-hour!) experience into a 2,000 word article. If we’re talking video reviews (and everyone is doing video reviews these days) then you need even more time to record the audio, capture some game footage, make some titles, and edit it all together.
The upshot is that there just isn’t room for in-depth analysis of a game. When I first beat Mass Effect 3, I was simply disappointed by the ending and the lack of closure. It wasn’t until I thought about it the next day that I started noticing all the logic holes. It wasn’t until the day after that that I realized just how much the ending conflicted with existing lore. Even after that I was still thinking, “Well, the ending I chose was bad, but maybe the other two options are better.” (Ha!) It wasn’t until I turned to YouTube and watched all of the endings before I realized what a mess the whole thing was. If I’d been playing on a deadline pre-launch, that additional analysis wouldn’t have made it into the review.
Story analysis takes time. You have to be caught up on your lore. You need time to reflect. This is especially true of a BioWare game, where you might need to play through the game more than once to get an understanding of how much your choices mattered. (Or if they didn’t.)
Another important point is that a great number of people simply don’t care about story. They don’t care if characters are consistent, if the lore makes sense, or if the player character was obliged to do stupid things in service of the plot. They’re happy as long as pressing the buttons is fun. (I’m not being snarky. It’s perfectly reasonable to only care about gameplay. As long as you’re enjoying the game then you’re doing it right, whether you pay attention to the story or not.) On my blog, I usually do long-form analysis of things, covering multiple entries, often weeks or months after release. Heck, sometimes I’ll spend ten thousand words analyzing part of a game. The most common criticism I get is, “You’re just looking for things to complain about.” People ascribe bad faith to my motives, assuming I’m just looking for excuses to bitch and moan because they can’t imagine that anyone could care that much about the story of a game.
Even if story comments do make it into a review, nobody can agree on just how much they should impact the score. Angry Joe hated the ending to Mass Effect 3 really bad, but he still gave the game 8/10. Was he wrong? Should he have punished the game even though it was 30 hours of fun followed by ten minutes of drooling stupid? Depends on who you ask, and it’s basically just an extension of the whole, “How to you assign a number to a game?” argument anyway.
Story quality is also dangerously subjective. Reviewers are forever hounded with “you over-rated this game, so clearly you are taking bribes” and “you under-rated this game, so clearly you’re a hater who was prejudiced against the game all along”. If you want to head off these ankle-biters, it’s a lot easier to stick to the mechanical subjects and leave the subjective stuff out. For example, I can fault Mass Effect 2 for putting opposing actions like “sprint” and “take cover” on the same button. That’s a thing that actually happened, and it’s not really up for debate. It’s a lot safer to stick to concrete subjects like bugs, interface, and gameplay flow, rather than getting into nebulous arguments about whether or not Kaiden and Ashley were properly characterized.
So that’s why story isn’t taken into account when games are reviewed. There’s not enough time, it’s difficult, usually people don’t care, and if you try the audience will just punish you for it. And this is fine. Most people looking for reviews on day one are just looking for red flags to warn them away from dropping their money on duds. There’s plenty of time to put the game under a microscope later. Compare Susan Arendt’s concise and straightforward review of Final Fantasy XIII-2 with Jeff Dunn’s study of the different approach of Final Fantasy XIII and the fan response to these changes. People looking for consumer advice can read what Arendt wrote, and people looking to continue the conversation after playing the game can read what Dunn had to say.