IMO: What’s in a Review

Todd Wohling / February 10, 2015 at 8:00 AM / Gaming, Gaming Opinions

Games media has one job to do: Take a projected 100 billion dollars of disposable income and direct it at the good games.

Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?  Write an article, make a video, record a podcast, or throw out a tweet to separate the cream of the crop from the cream of the crap, to differentiate champ and chump, or to highlight a new developer or new IP.

Apparently it isn’t as easy as it sounds, because it has been claimed “impossible” to give an objective review of a game.  Let’s set aside postmodernism’s gobbledygook and examine what would, or perhaps should, be in an objective review.

The Anatomy of a Review

In every review, the measurable aspects of a game should be reported as matters of fact.  Here’s an example: with a given hardware configuration—simultaneously a means of providing context for the facts as well as a barrier to entry for any PC game reviewer—a game can run at some number of Frames Per Second at such and such resolution.  Similar should be done for art style, animation, sound, mechanics, controls, story, as well as the options in the various menus.

The point of all this is to drive toward the answer to a single question: should a consumer buy this game?  That’s it; that’s the reviewer’s job in a single sentence.  What the reviewer shouldn’t do is wield his/her personal politics as a weapon to find fault with the game, or its presentation to the player.

To take a recent, concrete example, examine Arthur Gies’s review of Bayonetta 2 for Polygon.  In the first three paragraphs, the reader is assaulted with the morality hammer.  The first instance reads thus:

It’s also the kind of game that left me asking how many times and how many different ways developer Platinum could run a camera up the main character’s spread legs and cleavage.

From this, we can glean a couple of facts:  First, the camera in Bayonetta 2 spends a lot of time looking down the main character’s shirt or up the main character’s skirt.  Second, Arthur Gies is either offended by, or scared to death of, attractive, assertive, powerful women.  The quoted statement would be important if the reviewer had the courage to report the camera work as a point of information without the fear-mongering disdain for the way the developers chose to depict the main character.

It’s the second instance of Gies swinging the Morality Hammer of Puritanism where the review becomes worthless:

On the other, the deliberate sexualization and objectification on display serves as a jarring distraction from the creativity and design smarts elsewhere.

Let’s break this sentence down.  First, everything a developer does in a videogame, sans bugs, is deliberate, so that word holds no weight beyond trying to establish an environment of offense or fear.

Second, not every consumer is going to consider the presentation of Bayonetta to be objectifying.  A simple majority of responders to a poll on The Escapist say Bayonetta is not at all sexist.  Further, the women interviewed on Negative World didn’t come to a consensus on whether Bayonetta 2 is objectifying or empowering.

Finally, a consumer cannot know if the possibly objectifying portrayal of Bayonetta actually distracts from the creativity and smart design in the game until they play it.  It’s more than possible, given the vocabulary and phrasing in the introduction to the review, Arthur Gies is simultaneously obsessing over attractive women wearing yoga pants and trying to massively project outrage over the depiction of Bayonetta’s main character in order to “earn SocJus points” from Ben Kuchera.

The introduction might be forgivable, if Gies didn’t go on…and on…and on trying to convince himself that some esoteric notion of sex assault happens during the game.  The effect of this obsession is the review can’t be trusted to do it’s one and only job: advise the consumer whether or not to buy the game.

Just to emphasize the point, I want to put 2 statements side by side, as a “Dos and Don’ts” for what should be in a review and what has no place in a review:

Do: The camera in Bayonetta 2 shows the main character from the perspective of down-shirts and up-skirts.

Don’t: The camera in Bayonetta 2 shows the main character from the perspective of down-shirts and up-skirts, and that’s sexist.

The goal of the reviewer should be to provide agency to the consumer through the dissemination of information, not to remove agency from the consumer by letting personal politics get in the way of disseminating information. Or, put another way, the job of the reviewer and review is to inform, not to persuade.

Personal Opinions are Okay…

For whatever reason, it’s been misconstrued in several places that “objective review” means a review devoid of personal opinions.  I suspect this comes from people cherry picking the words of others who don’t always express themselves perfectly.  It’s intuitively obvious that personal opinion is going to come in to play when reviewing a game.

That opinion can take several forms, all of which are acceptable in the context of a review.  In the case of clones and sequels, making a statement of a game being better or worse than its sequel/clone is an acceptable form of personal opinion that might be expressed in a review.  Making a statement of personal preference about graphics, sound, art style, etc. is also a reasonable personal opinion to appear in a review.  Using the example above:

The camera in Bayonetta 2 shows the main character from the perspective of down-shirts and up-skirts, and I feel/believe/think that was distracting.

The above statement has several virtues: it gets the point across that the reviewer didn’t like the camera work; it puts the responsibility for the opinion on the reviewer, so the consumer still has agency; it sets up the accompanying op-ed where the discussion of whether Bayonetta 2 is exploitative or empowering can happen in earnest without distracting from the review’s only role; and it divorces the reviewer’s personal politics from the reviewer’s job: informing the consumer about where to put their disposable income.

…Political Opinions are Not

I can’t say this enough: Arthur Gies’s level of offense at the way Bayonetta is portrayed is irrelevant to me as a consumer, which is not to say Arthur Gies’s level of offense at the way Bayonetta is portrayed is irrelevant to me as a person.  Those are 2 vastly different things.  I want to have the discussion about representation in video games (with people who can name three games and actually know things about the games themselves, the industry, and how the industry has evolved over time); however, the place for that discussion is not in reviews.

The place for the discussion about representation in video games should be had in commentary pieces like this one, in discussion forums, on Reddit, or on social media.

Similar is true for making false DMCA claims against Youtube creators, what is and isn’t a game, whether games are art or games have art, and a ton of other important topics simultaneously critical to “advancing the medium” (whatever that means) and completely divorced from whether consumers should buy a specific game.

Doing the Dirty Work

Games media has a single responsibility to the consumer: to guide disposable income toward good games.  It isn’t glamorous work, which is probably why people like Arthur Gies in the Bayonetta 2 example are so bad at it.  I also imagine that disseminating information doesn’t garner all that many clicks when compared to dropping incendiary propaganda in the guise of a review, and potentially costing a developer ratings based incentives.

This is why, for the sake of the industry, we need much, much less David Gallant and Arthur Gies in favor of much, much more Total Biscuit, Niche Gamer, and Tech Raptor.

Todd Wohling

A long time ago on an Intellivision far, far away my gaming journey started with Lock n' Chase, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons The Cloudy Mountain, and Night Stalker. I earned both a BS-Physics and a BS-Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Today I spend most of my time on PC. I left a career of 14 years in aerospace in Colorado, so I could immigrate to Norway.