One of the many odd things about me is that I don’t generally sort entertainment into “good” and “bad” so much as “good” and “stuff I don’t care about.” It’s relatively rare for something to viscerally bother me enough that I feel the need to complain (Cloverfield comes to mind, but let’s not go there). It does hurt my ability to critically analyze things, but it also helps me stay reasonably relaxed about entertainment. It probably helps that I’m so much into RPGs, a medium for which there isn’t really an edifice of journalism, and the inherent subjectivity of reviews is even more blatant than elsewhere. There’s also the fact that when I was young, my family was poor enough that I didn’t have all that many entertainment choices. I could decide which VHS tape to put on, but not which ones we bought.

Over the past year or so I’ve gotten back into video games in a big way, and as a result I’ve been reading more video game media than I have in years. In the process I’ve realized that I personally don’t have much use for reviews. I respect the work that critics do, and I genuinely think it’s important, especially when that criticism goes into deeper analysis, but when it comes to making buying decisions, reviews just aren’t all that useful to me. Movie trailers can be misleading, so if I’m on the fence about a movie I’ll check the Rotten Tomatoes score to see if there’s an actual good movie or just a highly polished turd (like the recent Fantastic Four movie), but I don’t generally bother with the individual reviews unless there’s some terrible movie and I want to see just how they rip into it.

Back in the day one of the major places my friends and I went for information about movies was the local weekly free newspaper. They had a few different movie critics, but the lead one always came off as particularly snobbish. He just didn’t seem to appreciate movies being fun, and there was also the thing that he seemed to arbitrarily give anything animated bad reviews. We ended up seeing some stinkers (I know I saw Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever in a theater, but that’s pretty much the only thing I remember about it), but by and large watching movies has been vastly more enjoyable than reading reviews of them.

With video games in particular, my tastes (and for that matter the array of hardware I have to run games) are eccentric enough that I get very little benefit from the overall edifice of video game journalism. I find the general aesthetic of AAA games kind of off-putting, I specifically avoid online play (hence Bungie’s Destiny, which I might’ve otherwise liked, was a no go), and it generally feels like a fluke when Game of the Year winners happen to line up with something I actually want to play. I occasionally check Metacritic to get an idea of what reviewers think of a game, but in general I find that my tastes are specific enough that I more or less have to form my own opinion. In general I tend to engage media on my own terms and in my own ways, and I suppose other people don’t really factor into things nearly as much as with most people. I’ve gotten so used to seeing movies by myself that getting a group together always feels like a bit of a hassle.

It may be my perceptions, but to me video game marketing feels quite a bit less deceptive than movie marketing. It probably helps that the kinds of games that get big marketing budgets tend to be the sort that I avoid anyway, so I don’t have any basis for forming an opinion on whether the latest Call of Duty game lives up to the hype, or any real incentive to do so. If anything, video games usually wear what they are a little too blatantly, and it’s not a medium that has all that many surprises in terms of what the basic gameplay experience is going to be like.[1]

There’s also the fact that the video game industry and its fandom have an utterly bizarre fixation on review scores. Reviewers turn their (by definition subjective) opinions into numerical scores, which Metacritic (and similar sites) collate and average. That would merely be a bit silly if not for some publishers being willing to tie developers’ bonuses to Metacritic scores (as opposed to, you know, actual sales), which in turn leads fans to pressure reviewers to give good scores (because the publishers have done something stupid, so everyone else has to cater to that stupidity). It’s one of the very few things where another industry could stand to learn from Michael Bay, who I’m pretty sure is too busy resting on a giant pile of money to care in the least what ratings his movies get on Rotten Tomatoes (which is good for him, because he hasn’t directed a “Fresh” movie since 1996).

Where I find journalism about games the most useful is simply in providing information about games I might not have heard about otherwise. I’m very happy with my subscription to Casual Game Insider for example, which gives me the lowdown on board games I probably wouldn’t have heard about otherwise. Of course, CGI tends to be mainly about explaining games that the writers think are nifty, and much like video games, I find that I need to know about the specifics of a game to then form my own opinion about whether it’s something I like (and something I can talk friends into playing). I know that I find highly bluffing-based games like Avalon and Resistance uninteresting, and I know that while I’d enjoy games like Ascension and Concept, it’s hard to justify the price because I’d hardly ever get to play them.

RPGs are in an odd place as far as reviews go, because there isn’t much in the way of outlets to publish them in the first place. D&D was the only RPG with a big enough fanbase to really sustain magazines, and even that abandoned covering non-D&D RPGs, and then abandoned print, and then finally for all intents and purposes died out. Today Knights of the Dinner Table is about the only place you can read about RPGs in print, and RPG reviews are mainly the purview of bloggers and people who post RPGnet reviews. The basic process of play for RPGs, especially more traditional RPGs, makes the experience more subjective than for other types of games, so it’s harder to review an RPG without reviewing the book more than the game it contains. The RPG scene also includes a lot of people with very specific preferences, and every new edition of D&D brings a raft of reviews that point out traits of the game and expect the audience to accept that they’re as wonderful or terrible as the reviewer thinks they are.[2] They are thus another kind of game where reviewers are at best a source of factual information, and I have to take their actual opinions with a grain of salt.

Anyway, I mostly just wanted to articulate my thoughts on this subject, and how I personally relate to reviews. I suspect I’m not totally alone in feeling this way, but it’s also pretty clear that there are a lot of people who go to the opposite extreme so I dunno.

[1]That Brutal Legend starts off as a beat-em-up and then transitions into being an RTS (a genre that I just totally lack the ability to play effectively) is my least favorite thing about it.

[2]There’s also stuff like that one review of Inverse World where the reviewer angrily questions the book’s every deviation from D&D cliches.

2 thoughts on “Reviews

  1. One thing I always liked about Roger Ebert was how he was able to recommend a movie if it was meant in good fun and if it delivered on that score. He gave the original “Speed” a four-star review, a rating I’m not sure holds up in retrospect, but at the time was completely in the right spirit for the film. On the other hand, he didn’t think much of Michael Bay’s movies, in big part because they were more lugubrious than actually fun.

    1. Oh, definitely. Michael Bay movies are too often a lot of noise and explosions that don’t really gel into anything at all. Speed on the other hand was goofy as heck, but it was also generally a really fun ride.

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