Monday, March 2, 2009

Saving Game Reviews From Irrelevancy Part 2 - Electric Boogaloo

In the first part of this article, we discussed the challenges behind game reviews. Let's now go into how these challenges can be overcome. One of those challenges is the perception of collusion with the companies themselves. This is a tough problem to handle, but not without a solution.

Most major reviewers in other media don't work for magazines specifically geared toward their interests. Roger Ebert writes for the Chicago Sun-Times, for instance. Pauline Kael wrote for The New Yorker. When you work for a larger company, you don't live and die based on your access. If Ebert pans a movie and the movie company threatens to not let him see their movie beforehand, he doesn't care.

Take a look at your average review on Rotten Tomatoes, for instance, like this one for Slumdog Millionaire. It's about 50/50 between movie sites and news agencies. There might be more news agencies than movie sites there. Now, take a look at the Metacritic reviews for Street Fighter IV. It's almost ALL game sites.

A big part of this is our own inferiority/superiority complex as gamers. I say "inferiority" because we still think of ourselves as geeks and nerds for liking video games. I say "superiority" because we feel that no one else understands our hobby quite like we do. Here's what that does.

First of all, by feeling that we're somehow a marginal culture, we relegate ourselves to the back pages of newspapers and magazines. We don't assert ourselves the way we should. We never ask for video game reviews, because why should newspapers care about us? We're just nerds. Secondly, by feeling that no one understands our hobby, we discount reviewers who aren't in our "clan." It's like we put up a sign that says "You Must Be This Much Of A Dork To Enter," along with requirements that they name-drop Kid Icarus or Shining Force.

Put another way, we don't ask for game reviews from the mainstream media, and when we get them, we pooh-pooh them because they're not made "for us." How is this helping? Gamers are so afraid of the mainstream that they forget what the mainstream truly brings: Acceptance, organization and variety. Can you truly say that books, movies and music are worse off for being mainstream? Oh, sure, you have your movies like Paul Blart: Mall Cop, but you also have movies like Iron Man. For every Fly Me To The Moon, you have a Gran Torino. Stop worrying.

There's another way that reviewers can help push the hobby mainstream. There are many gamers who are very reluctant to allow their precious little hobby to go mainstream, and reviewers seem okay with this. They talk about certain games being for the "hardcore" or the "casual" audience. We need to stop making these distinctions. There are just games, and there are different flavors of game. It's the same thing in movies and music. There are some that are more popular, but "popular" is not always synonymous with "bad."

When these things are done, the end result will be a better review, because the reviewer won't have the appearance of collusion. They'll be able to speak more honestly and openly than they might have otherwise, thus avoiding fiascos like the overly-positive tilted reviews of Super Mario Sunshine.

Next up is the problem of game length. Most games can't be played and digested within a few days, and we're always nervous about reviewers missing the point of the game and changing their tune later on. Here's my rule of thumb: If a review comes out the same day a game comes out (or before), it wasn't played enough. Simple as that. If it's been a week or two, then it got enough play.

This requires patience on our part. Sure, we want to know everything about the games that come out NOW, but does it mean we should? Does it make more sense to wait and get a better review, or to leap at any old review that comes out the day of release? When we wait, we get better reviews and a clearer picture of the game. It just makes sense.

Take a look at the Zero Punctuation reviews. When do they come out? The day of the game's release? No, there's usually a delay of at least a week or two. Part of that is because Yahtzee's in Australia, so they get games a little later than other areas. However, there's another reason: He takes his time. His reviews are usually more thought-out than other reviews. He finds things that other reviewers don't normally find because he's not playing the game in a hurry.

There are always going to be bad reviews and bad reviewers. There are always going to be games that get excoriated in the press and later become "hidden gems," and there will always be games that will be pumped up in the press and later are revealed to be awful (anybody want to guess what rating Resident Evil 5 is going to get in most gaming rags?). It's our choice to listen to them or not.

Game reviews will always be skirting the line between relevancy and irrelevancy.