Expressing opinions has always been a risky business, but it’s still a profitable business nonetheless. In the good old days, we had a limited number of publications who paid professional critics to review the latest thing and presumably help readers decide for themselves whether or not any given film/book/restaurant/etc. was worth their time and money. It was cute.
Welcome to the digital age. Now we are dealing with the infinite virtual real estate of cyberspace and its countless opinions and earning capabilities and an endless audience of anonymous people poised to vent their hate upon each other. And now we have Metacritic, ready and willing to deliver all of the reviews for all of the things to you on a single page. It’s a new world, baby. So why is it that all of this now means less than ever? Is it even possible to ascribe credibility to any given review when everybody with a keyboard or a cell phone is desperately posting and reposting every thought that enters their head across the net in an attempt to your attention by any means necessary?
What brought on this round of steady thinkin’ wasn’t Gamergate (thank god) or any other movement out to change the world (or at least the parts of it that matter the least), but a recent accidental leaking of Mic’s review template for a Rihanna album that hadn’t been released yet. That is to say they wrote an analysis of music they had never heard and just left out a few words and phrases to be filled in by whatever song/music service/lyrics fit the narrative for the album as they’d constructed it. And considering the increasingly banal output of most mainstream media outlets, this revelation was less of a surprise than I’d have hoped.
This isn’t directly relevant to gaming, but what happens to older media will almost certainly happen to newer media if it hasn’t already, especially in a time where information is transmitted instantly across the entire world and everybody wants to be the first to soak up those page views. This is even more true in the tech-savvy and….mmmmm…. let’s say “occasionally overly passionate” gamer culture. So the question has been raised again: do reviews even matter? Like, at all? And should they?”
Obviously, the answer on a financial level is yes. Sites post these things because people read them. Publishers give bonuses to devs when their game achieves a high Metacritic rating, and gamers come out in droves to tear down any game that displeases them in the slightest manner by bombarding sites with bad user reviews while Youtubers make a living posting videos dissecting every aspect of releases old and new, so clearly the perception is that these things matter. At the end of the day, people are making a lot of money and getting a lot of attention doing this.
But consider the cultures of various forms of entertainment. Being a geek of all trades, I can’t help but notice that reviewing patterns differ greatly from one medium to another, and the results have become highly predictable. Often disturbingly so. Metacritic has often been lambasted for bringing review culture to a new disposable low, but they’re just the messenger. Each writer or publication is responsible for their own output. When “shit” like this happens it’s because they created it. Regardless of our personal interpretations of it impact on popular culture Metacritic is a great resource for tracking mainstream entertainment trends. So let’s take advantage and have a quick look at what gaming looks like compared to other entertainment media right now.
On the surface, game reviews seem to be striking a decent balance at the moment. At any point in time there are a lot of average scores, several good scores, a few great ones, and some stinkers. But when dealing with unimpressive AAA titles it does seem like the scores level out somewhat and magically dodge lower ratings while a lot of decent smaller games of comparable quality get the full brunt of the critical shaft.
Music is the oldest form of popular media, arguably the most subjective, and the least impressive when you look at the state of its critics. A glance at Metacritic confirms an intensely blase critical landscape where almost every release is within the same score range and the content of the reviews often say nothing of genuine artistic relevance. The only really highly rated albums are reissues of bonafide classics (which typically got lackluster reviews as well in their day) and the relatively low-rated albums are usually reserved for older flash-in-the-pan artists with limited followings. Everything else is almost custom-designed not to offend either the fans or the haters, as if they’re all looking for new ways of saying “it’s good if you like it, but not all that if you don’t”. It’s no wonder some sites feel comfortable using review templates.
The film industry, on the other hand, seems to inspire elitism in critical circles, with a broad range of criticisms both objective and subjective. Some movies are so widely hated they will literally get a single digit average rating, others are endlessly applauded regardless of mainstream visibility, and most will have mixed results. You may not agree with any given review, but at least actual opinions are expressed with little regard for popular tastes. Film as a popular art is a little over a century old and the critical expectations and trends are pretty well established, for better or worse. It’ll be interesting to see if it follows suit and tips the balance further towards irrelevance in the future.
And that brings us back to video games. As an art form, it’s still finding its footing, so it’s not crazy that the state of its journalism is in flux. Sites rely on reviewing new releases, which relies on receiving early copies of a game from the publishers. And if you trash their games, they’re less likely to want to provide you with one. You can listen to an album or watch a movie in a couple hours tops, but most big games require a substantial commitment of time to explore and understand the mechanics and story so waiting until release day is hardly an option. The likelihood of somebody using impressions garnered from beta releases, demos, and past releases in the franchise to write a pre-review or to brown nose in the name of future professional considerations is much greater in gaming journalism than in other media.
And even putting that aside there’s the fans. The rabid, trolling, sanctimonious, Poe’s law invoking, death threating, fanboying fans. God bless them. God bless them to Hell. Even writing a well-thought-out opinionated-yet-objective masterpiece of digital entertainment analysis is going to bring on the hate either from lovers or haters of any given game or company. Could this possibly skew journalists’ content? Of course. Not everybody understands that when you guys threaten to murder people and their families in an AIDS fire because they loved the last GTA more or less than you did for any reason it just means you care. It’s like a digital hug (or at least an awkward unwanted grope).
Films have always been split between art and entertainment, with critics adoring the art and often disregarding the entertainment while fans have done just the opposite and music has insane fans that appear to have driven the state of its critical journalism into complete paralytic impotence. Where does that leave gaming? Games are pure entertainment now aspiring to be interactive art and succeeding more and more often, but in terms of fan passion we are trending hard towards popular music. We can probably expect professional critics to follow suit eventually.
It seems really likely that some gaming site is going to go full Mic at some point in the future if it hasn’t happened already, given the extra pressure that this youngest and most awesome of entertainment mediums places on its long-suffering journalists. As it is, most professional commentators are legit fans following their passion, but eventually that head of steam will run out, the corporate mainstream will have its way, and Gamergate will rise again, this time with complaints that go beyond an obscure female game designer cheating on her boyfriend with a journalist (god, did that whole thing really happen?).
So enjoy it while it lasts, folks. My psychohistory game is strong and I’ve seen the future. Right now we’ve got a vibrant community of sites and publications with frequently strong opinions (be they right or wrong) and that’s something we should relish as we discuss our favorite hobby. But there’s a lot of money to be made there and when corporate America figures us out, they will take us over and the result will be boring. We’ll always have the comments sections and message boards to name call and threaten one another, but in terms of legitimate opinionated professional content our days may be numbered.
For BioWare fans, it’s been a long wait for [LAUNCH DATE], but Mass Effect: Andromeda is finally here. The latest entry in the beloved sci-fi action-RPG series is another massive space opera that rewards gamers’ patience with [INSERT RELEVANT PHRASE] and expands upon the themes of previous Mass Effect titles while successfully integrating [NEW MECHANIC STOLEN FROM ANOTHER GAME] with a new sheen of polish on the familiar tactical RPG-shooter mechanics that have defined the franchise. While some fans may miss the [FEATURE FROM PREVIOUS GAME NOT PRESENT IN THIS ONE] and others will decry the launch day DLC, the sheer scope of the game is overwhelming and epic sequences like [LARGE-SCALE ACTION SCENE] are artfully contrasted with small personal moments that raise the emotional stakes even beyond the destruction of the universe. Scenes like [TEAR-JERKING MOMENT] are the kind of moments that make me proud to be a gamer and that’s where Andromeda really shines.
You weren’t supposed to see that. Whoops.