“If you like fables, you’d be doing a disservice to yourself not to,” said my editor Matt, when I asked him if I should buy Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us. I have faith in Telltale, and I have faith in Matt’s opinion, so now the game sits in my download queue on Steam. That simple exchange is how I envision video game reviews evolving--my little pipe dream. I would love to see video game reviewers become personalities, and I would love for the reviews that connect them to their readers to be something more akin to a dialogue.
You see, reviews have this tendency of masquerading as an objective statement of a game’s quality. It’s true; we do our best to point out the tangible flaws of a game and establish the better elements. The graphics are sub-HD, we might say. The frame rate drops on occasion. The controls feel jagged; however, the narrative is moving in a way unprecedented in games. But the final blend of the good and the bad will always have its own unique taste, and whether or not that taste is for you will always be subjective. So we can’t pretend that reviewers speak in irrefutable truths, nor can we accept that the average of their subjective opinions is a valid guide for buying games.
I do believe, though, that a review should be a buyer’s guide. Games are by no means cheap, and it would be nice to know that you’re going in informed when you walk in to your local GameStop. But how can you do that when a review is just one person’s opinion?
The answer is actually quite simple, and it lies on the reader, not the reviewer. The reader has to find the people who have opinions that they generally agree with. Sure, their tastes won’t be absolutely in line with one another, but it’s a much more telling system than implicitly trusting every reviewer ever, or worse, the numerical value that they have collectively averaged together. Preference is too nuanced for that
So I suggest you start reading reviews with careful attention to the author. If they seem to speak to your sensibilities, read some of their back work. Most sites make it very easy for you to track down an archive of their work. And then, when you finish, add them on Twitter and find another reviewer. Amass your own personal catalogue of trusted reviewers and start comparing and contrasting their opinions so that you can make an informed decision when selecting the next game you will be spending your hard-earned money on. After all, what good is an opinion if it isn’t somehow qualified? If you don’t know what a person likes, you can’t really know whether or not their dislike for something means anything to you, the reader.
The benefits to this approach are numerous. If readers were to behave in this way, reviewers would be held to a higher standard. Ideally, their reviews would become more personal, find their niches, and focus on a love for gaming over an objective condemnation based on what few ascertainable flaws we can uncover. It would also take some focus away from the publishers as reviewers were forced to consider their readers more responsibly, realizing that loyalty is, in the end, a two-way street.
In the current system, publishers do hold a degree of power. For one, the advertising that pays the reviewers tends to come from the publishers who provide the games for review. That’s a bit of pressure. For two, it’s natural for people to form bonds with the companies they find themselves working with on a frequent basis. At this point, it may be hard to be unbiased. It’s certainly not a prevalent issue, and larger sites have the ability to escape pressure from publishers, but some smaller to middle-sized sites can become affected. And their review scores often contribute to the overall metacritic scores. So readers should, as a precaution, reward reviewers for not compromising their opinion in exchange for press kits or pull quotes.
And as power shifts back to the publications and the readers, maybe the publishers will stop blackmailing reviewers by locking them out of first-hand information, interviews, previews, and press releases. That is, after all, the way journalism is supposed to work. The power shouldn’t be in the hands of the corporations, but I digress. This is about you, the reader.
Take the initiative, please. Find the personalities in the gaming industry that are helpful to you. Don’t even gravitate to certain sites, because those are, themselves, made up of multiple personalities. There are many, many, many writers out there, some of who are writing honestly and contrarily to popular consensus. Don’t simply scroll past the text of the review for the score at the bottom, because that number ultimately means little to you. You are too unique to put that much stock in a number.