A few weeks back, I put out the following poll on twitter:
Should game reviewers write reviews as if theirs is the only one you're going to read?
— Nic Reuben (@nicthehumanboy) August 9, 2018
As with roughly 98% percent of all social media, this was part curiosity, part boredom, and part longing to find out whether my own personal set of weird neuroses happened to match up with anyone else.
I think the main genus for this was the feeling of disparity between a certain, unspoken professionalism that encourages writers to provide comprehensiveness, and the reality of the critical landscape which one cannot — and, in my opinion, should not — try to exist independent of.
It’s both well worn wisdom and good practise to avoid the reviews of others on any given piece of media when writing your own. In my own experience, no matter how strongly you might feel a certain way while writing review, the spectre of doubt always lingers, refusing to get in the fucking ghostbuster tube. The danger of seeking a second opinion, then, lies not only in the possibility of confirmed biases but — and perhaps more dangerously — in the confirmation of doubt.
But the negative result of this is a sort of critical solipsism. A singular, safe, consumer-focused party line that, at best, actively discourages conversation and at worst, fosters a landscape explicitly hostile to minority voices and those that express dissenting opinions.
Here are two statements which, on the surface at least, don’t strike me as especially controversial.
- A successful review of a video game should strive to answer most, if not all, of the reader’s questions.
- A single individual’s perspective is never going to be all things to all readers, and to expect such is not only to erase identity, experience, and taste, but also to call for to homogenisation of criticism.
The perceptive among you might have already guessed which side I fall on from the more weighted of these two points, but what can I say? Actually, that’s a rhetorical question, because I know exactly what to say: I’m right as fuck, and all other opinions are inferior. Since I’m not only right but nuanced as all hell though, I’ve collected a bunch of other opinions from people whose writing and work and faces I admire.
I’m not sure if the aim here was to reach any kind of conclusion, but, as a couple of the conversations I had surrounding the initial poll suggested, for all the great criticism surrounding video games out there, there’s comparatively little work or discourse discussing what form that criticism should take. So, yeah, here’s some takes from people far more focused, lucid and thoughtful than myself. Might we reach an OBJECTIVE STANCE on SUBJECTIVITY hohoho?
No, that would be stupid to even attempt. But how about this? If something in this piece that I or any of the people that were kind enough to give up their time to contribute sparks some thought or idea in you, please follow it, write about it, and tag me on the soul sucking bird site. This way, we might be able to foster some sort of ongoing conversation about what we do, and that seems like a positive thing to me.
“To me, a review is just a piece of the puzzle. If I’m on the fence about buying a game I want to know what is good, what is bad, and which of these things seem to hold true throughout multiple opinions. In order for me to obtain this information, I need reviews to be thorough so that all elements of the game can be compared. While the writer should probably be aware that their review may only play a small part in forming an opinion, I think it is important that the review is written as though it is the only one that will be read. That way, the reviewer is more inclined to report on all of the details.”
Khee Hoon Chan, Writer and Critic — Polygon, Unwinnable, Heterotopias
“In some ways, I don’t believe there is a consensus as to what functions as a review. If a game doesn’t offer much in terms of replayability, does it deserve a higher or lower score? Should the cast’s lack of diversity, for instance, affect its score too? Without this objectivity—let’s face it, we probably have wildly varying ideas as to what a review should cover—it’s pretty impossible for a single piece to encapsulate the entirety of a game’s experience. Aside from gameplay, which is a very mechanical and limiting way to scrutinize a title, there are also plenty more facets of a game, some of which reviewers are bound to overlook. Some may be better at dissecting the title via its thematic concepts, or analyzing it through the lens of our personal experiences. Others may even latch onto lesser considered aspects of the medium to explain why a game works. All these are equally fascinating, and is why reading a variety of reviews from different publications would paint a much more nuanced perspective of a single title.”
“There are arguments to be made for both sides but I simply think that it is removed from reality to think that readers will only read your review and your review only. The argument might be that your writing ought to be so fulfilled that it covers every possible aspect and no one need look any further. This rather devalues the nuance of subjectivity and disregards the craft of writing, somehow presuming that there is only one review to be had and that opinion and fact are roommates. Opinions are the warm towel, wordplay and turn of phrase are the belly rub and subjective insights are the fresh laundry blowing on the line when it comes to reviews. Of course make your review standalone but more importantly: make it your own.
Knowing that one’s review is not in isolation might encourage competition on a personal level. There does seem to be a distrust when it comes to competition in the arts which I understand yet I do think it can be healthy, not in terms of accolades and bragging rights but in terms of developing one’s practice. A couple of months ago I had a piece in an exhibition including works from various artists, the idea that my work had to be in some way better than the other works on display only reinforced my own voice and bolstered aspects in the work that I found meaningful. I imagine it is the same for review writing. I know it’s the same for game development.”
Aimee Hart, Writer — Unwinnable, Switch Player Mag, Game Revolution
“I believe writing a review as though it’s the only one a person is going to read is a pretty troubling way of thinking. It not only puts a large weight on your shoulders, as you’re writing as if your readers believe what you say is law, but it doesn’t allow for other perspectives to be considered noteworthy too. For example, if I wrote a review on God of War and said ‘the axe throwing mechanic is overpowered and this takes away the fun of the game’, it has the chance of unintentionally causing bias in the person reading my review. While I think reviews are very important in highlighting issues in video games, I also believe that readers have games that they ‘want’ to believe are good, and so dwindling down to just reading one review really closes the door on discovering a variety of opinions”
Alexander Chatziioannou, Writer — Av Club, Kotaku, Eurogamer
“I can’t help thinking that a review that doesn’t acknowledge its peers is one targeting a specific kind of consumer (both of games and games criticism): a one-stop, five-minute read for with all the information needed (and, naturally, the only verdict that matters) in order to make an informed decision on whether to purchase or not. The material forces, however, that encourage this kind of approach (most crucially, the need to to post as soon as possible after embargo lift to earn those valuable clicks) influence even those who reject this model and opt for a more nuanced, focus type of approach. Even those critiques, however deep or insightful, are often produced in isolation and come with an air of finality about them. I’d love to see a type of criticism under conditions that would not preclude genuine interaction, where different voices could converse, develop ideas in collaboration, and even (gasp) change their views along the way (but I’m not holding my breath it’s gonna happen any time soon).”
Elizabeth Henges, Writer — RPG Site, PSLifestyle
“While of course I think gamers should find reviewers that speak to their own tastes, I don’t think any reviewer should write or view their review as the only one a gamer may potentially read. I do think it’s important to write reviews so that they’re as helpful to as many people as possible (explaining basic mechanics, offering insight if it’s welcoming to new players of the series, etc), at the end of the day a review is comprised of a reviewer’s subjective opinion, and if someone is really evaluating if they should spend their money on a video game, they will be reading more than one review.”
Adam Grindley, Writer — Old Grizzled Gamers
“To me, you go at the review making the assumption the reader will only read yours, at the same time knowing full well that they’ll read others, too. Most likely. That encourages you to be comprehensive with your review. Cover all of the key aspects that affect the overall experience, otherwise the reader might never know about them until they play the game.
I guess the plus side to assuming the reader will read other reviews is that you can be more personal about your own experience. I feel like the usefulness is reduced though, in that case. Just a touch. And you can be personal in a review assumed to be the only review, just try to point out that your emotional response to whatever thing you’re talking about is likely your own and not necessarily representative of everybody.”
George Cheese, Writer — Goombastomp, Bonus Stage
“I used to feel that it was disingenuous to write a review as if it was the only one your target audience was going to read. This feeling stemmed from a worry that the reviewer might waffle on about facets of the media they’re reviewing that they believe the audience will want to read, but that they have little-to-no personal interest or expertise on.
However, I now believe that reviews should be written as if they’re the only authority on the subject. However, the reviewer still ought to focus primarily on the strongest aspects of their experience with the product, rather than trying to cover every conceivable angle; its still unlikely that you’ll be the only review that the audience reads.”