Critiquing Criticism: How Reviews Are Changing on Adventure Rules

Recently the gaming website Polygon released an article explaining that their review process would be changing. The social media promotion of this article focused strongly on the fact that the site would no longer use review scores as a method of criticizing games. I recommend you read the full article (linked above) to see their full description of the philosophy behind this decision, but the meat of their argument is this: video games and the ways people interact with them are changing, and the ways that people review games need to change too. The classic scoring system that breaks games into a series of categories with assigned point values doesn’t work for them anymore – they see it as rigid and tired, and want to change things up. It’s a take that I can only imagine has seen some criticism, as for every person I know who values creative freedom with reviews, I know someone else who thinks scores are essential to objective criticism.

As a game blogger myself, reviews became a part of my writing reality early on in the life of Adventure Rules. I started with a no-score system – or rather, playing off of the show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, I assigned numerical values with no significance to each category within my reviews. As time went on and I decided I wanted to take a more “journalistic” approach to the website, I changed the review system so that review scores generally reflected my feelings about how a game performed within a specific category. Regardless of which system I used, though, one thing remained the same: I hated to write reviews.

Reviews are something that for a long time, I considered a necessity on the site strictly for SEO purposes. “Who reads a gaming blog with no reviews?” I thought. Reviews were the best way to draw in readers who didn’t regularly read my content. So even though I hated taking a video game, breaking it down into categories, and assigning what often felt like an arbitrary value, I still wrote reviews out of obligation to the medium. I envied those who chose a scoreless review system but shook my head because I felt that surely this isn’t the way to get the internet at large to read your content. Reviews frustrated me in a lot of ways, but I didn’t have the words to pinpoint exactly why I was so aggravated with them.

Totally Subjective Reviews
On second thought…

OBJECTIVE VS SUBJECTIVE
It took some time to reach a conclusion that made sense for me, and it also took reading other perspectives to help me find words that I couldn’t find for myself. My frustration with reviews the way I felt they had to be done boils down to three points. The first is this: many writers and readers treat criticism as objective when it is subjective. Now I know this is a point that may see some debate in the comments – and I welcome that for this particular topic – but in my view there is no such thing as objective commentary on video games. Every single person in the world has their perspective influenced by the culture they grew up in, the beliefs they have, and their preferences for the kind of content they engage with. You and I have different definitions of “fun.” We have different definitions of “art.” We even play video games for different reasons. No person is immune to the influence of their unique perspective, and I don’t think they should have to be: embracing your unique voice is why I think blogging is an amazing hobby in the first place.

I want to take a moment here to ask you to keep in mind that everything I say about objective criticism in this article is a criticism of my own past perspective, not a criticism of other writers who consider their work to be objective. I think there is value in aspiring to create something with an awareness of your own biases and striving to keep them from influencing your final verdict. I certainly think there is value in trying to understand how someone who thinks differently than you might see the same content and attempting to reach objectivity in that way. While I don’t think true objectivity is possible, to strive for it is artful in its own way and I love to read the reviews by writers who do so. But that style doesn’t work for me, and it has been proven time and again when I try to write reviews. I need a new approach, a different perspective, and that’s why I write this article now.

What frustrates me about reviews is when subjectivity tries to masquerade as objectivity, when a writer refuses to acknowledge that different perspectives are possible and valid. This is the perspective that my favorite video game also has to be the highest rated video game. This is the perspective that if I think the graphics of a game are good and you think they are bad, one of us has to be factually wrong. This is, in my mind, what scores do. They quantify my subjectivity and try to pass it off as objective. But in the end, my opinion of a video game is still my opinion, and it isn’t the only correct way to think about the game.

Adventure Rules Reviews 2018
I will never tire of the “too much water” meme.

STAGNANT STRUCTURE
My second issue with the way I felt obligated to do reviews was how they are often structured in the same fashion. This is perhaps a less philosophical argument than my first point but it had a greater impact on my frustration. I created for myself a review scale based on the five points that I figure most readers care about when they read a game review: graphics, sound, story, gameplay, and value (referring to whether the play time you get out of a game is worth the price you pay for it). Note here that I said “most readers care about” and not “what I as the writer care about.”

Fun fact about me – I don’t care about graphics. Now there’s this supposed class of people out there who only play the video games with the very best graphical output. I’ve never been one of those people (heck, I don’t think I’ve ever even met one of those people). The only standard I have for graphics is whether or not I can literally see and understand everything that I need to in order to successfully play the video game. If the visuals do not hinder my ability to experience the game, then I am satisfied with the graphics. Yet because I felt that my reviews had to appeal to these mythical graphics-hounds, I always felt compelled to talk about graphics in my reviews. So every time I put my fingers on the keyboard to write a review, the very first thing I discussed was a topic that I cared nothing about and rarely felt I could make informed commentary on.

There’s also the fact that video games of different styles may not even meet all of the possible categories at the same time. It’s hard to talk about the “story” of a multiplayer-focused game with no campaign mode. Conversely, the story might have a greater weight in a visual novel game while the gameplay isn’t as significant of a factor. And golly, don’t get me started on my “value” category. Does a short game that’s a ton of fun have less value than a really long game that gets boring halfway through? Or is it the other way around? What even is a reasonable value to pay for a video game? Should it be $1 an hour? Less? More? I felt tied to these rigid structures because in my mind, this is how my reviews had to be in order to get strangers on the internet to read them. I hated it.

Undertale Cover

THINGS CHANGE
My final frustration with reviews is their finality. Once a review is put out onto the internet, it is forever going to be cemented as the final perspective of that author on that subject. If you’re interested in reading more on this topic, I encourage you to read this article on Waypoint, as the writer expresses many thoughts about the culture of reviews that resonated strongly with me as a game blogger. The point I want to focus on is this one: “Reviews are nothing more than an opinion from a moment in time. It’s an introduction, not a conclusion, with reviews acting as the first wave of examination” (Patrick Klepek, “I Really Like ‘God of War,’ But Reserve the Right to Change My Mind”; parenthetical removed). We treat reviews like the final thoughts the reviewer will ever have about a game when often they are just the beginning, or at the very least only represent a single snapshot in time.

In my own experience, I have two reviews on Adventure Rules which accurately reflect my opinions at the time they were written, but now no longer describe my feelings for the games being covered. The first of these is Undertale. To say that I played Undertale at a difficult time in my life would be an understatement. I experienced the game’s neutral ending at my wife’s bedside as she lay in the hospital. I was also dealing with the loss of a loved one – at the time of the writing of this article, it is the most significant loss I have ever had to face. Undertale was my escape during that time, and because I needed it to be a game that made me smile and laugh, I focused heavily on the themes of friendship and the sense of humor without engaging at all with the game’s powerful statements about humanity and violence. I’ve experienced Undertale again in the years since that time, and playing it in a healthier mental state allowed me to understand that Undertale is not just a fun, goofy romp through a world with quirky characters. It has so much to say about how we play video games, and how the way we play video games often translates directly to the way we treat other people. I love the game even more now than I did then because I have a greater appreciation for everything that it is, not just what I needed it to be at a specific time.

Conversely, there’s my review of Breath of the Wild. Fresh off of playing this game, soaked in hype and still glowing with the joy of defeating Ganondorf, I gave this game a 9.5 out of 10. I certainly identified some things that I thought of as flaws but I felt that the positives of the game overwhelmed the negatives and made it near-perfect. However, a multitude of factors have influenced my thoughts since then – other reviews, the DLC, distance from the game, and playing other Zelda titles all changed my perspective on Breath of the Wild. Breath of the Wild is perhaps one of the best open world games I have ever played, but on my list of Zelda games it doesn’t rank highly at all. Breath of the Wild is missing the very aspects of Zelda that are most important to my experience of the series: unique, clever dungeons with bosses that are puzzles as much as they are combat challenges. In my experience, Okami HD is closer to what I want from a Switch Zelda than Breath of the Wild was. I wouldn’t rate the game badly, but I don’t consider it particularly remarkable either. It is a product of its time, and doesn’t feel to me like a game that I will ever want to revisit. That’s how I feel now, and it’s different than how I felt back when I reviewed it – and in another year and a half, I may once again feel differently about the game as my perspective continues to evolve.

Breath of the Wild Cuddle
I’m sorry Link, I just don’t feel this way anymore.

REDEFINING REVIEWS
For all of these reasons – the impossibility of objectivity, the stagnation of structure, and the impermanence of perspective – I want to change how I do reviews on Adventure Rules. I’ve grown enough as a blogger to understand that I don’t have to do things the same way as everyone else in order for my blog to find success. I don’t have to take the “journalistic” approach to writing reviews when I want to share my thoughts about a video game. I can review games in the style that works for me and leave the traditional method to those whose review philosophy directly aligns with it.

This article reflects a shift in philosophy more than it reflects a shift in execution, I think. I will look at reviews differently but as far as how much that changes the substance of the articles – that remains to be seen. I’m planning to add a small disclaimer to the end of reviews which welcomes readers to reach out to me on social media if they want to hear my current perspective on a game I reviewed a while back. I also will no longer use scores, and I won’t review games according to any specific structure. This allows me to avoid speaking to topics that I honestly don’t care about as well as topics that I don’t think are relevant to a particular game. For those who only want to see reviews that quickly give them an objective measure of whether or not they should purchase a game, Adventure Rules simply will not be the website that provides that service. (If you want to support a blogger who does provide scores and considers those scores to be objective, I fully recommend The Well-Red Mage.) I think that this shift should make reviews a lot more engaging for those who want to read my organic thoughts about a game. It will make the article less forced, written out of passion rather than obligation.

Ultimately, I believe that every gaming publication – be it magazine or website, small blog or influential icon – has the freedom to choose to handle reviews how they wish. For me that means embracing my subjectivity as a unique perspective rather than a weakness, and intentionally deviating from the traditional structure and philosophy surrounding game reviews. I know that choosing to view my articles in this way will make the review process more enjoyable for me. As for how it will impact you, well, that remains to be seen. I’d love to hear your thoughts on reviews and encourage you to share them in the comments. Perhaps your perspective will help me to further refine my own.

20 thoughts on “Critiquing Criticism: How Reviews Are Changing on Adventure Rules

Add yours

  1. I’ll preface this by saying that I very much dislike both Polygon and Waypoint, since as a former member of the professional games press I feel they’ve both done a fair bit of damage to good quality gaming criticism and online discourse about games in general — but that’s a whole other discussion I won’t bore you with now!

    The pieces you bring up from them here do have some points that I agree with, though; while I won’t go so far as to say “objective” reviews don’t exist like some do, I will say that they’re exceedingly boring and not terribly helpful for me personally. Some may find a rattled-off list of whether the game has graphics and runs in 4K or whatever useful, but it tells me nothing about how much I might enjoy the experience of the game.

    Scores in particular have always struck me as extremely silly; they’re an attempt to measure and quantify things that are inherently unquantifiable, and moreover, things that our perception of change over time, too. A “10” in graphics from 1989 would be a very different rating today… unless of course the developer was going for a deliberately authentic retro-type experience. Same goes for pretty much anything you can say about a game; everything has evolved over time, but “newer” doesn’t always mean “better”, of course.

    I haven’t ever used any form of scores on MoeGamer, and I don’t even really feel like I do “reviews” as such. If I had to pigeon-hole the things I write, I guess they’d be “critique”; more commonly, however, I just tend to refer to them as “writing about games” or “exploring games”. I use them as a means of talking about the things I found interesting or noteworthy; nothing more. I’m not there to declare something “good” or “bad” since everyone’s tastes are different, one man’s trash and all that. The only constant is that if I’ve included it on MoeGamer, I’ve found something worth saying about that game.

    One of the troubles with entertainment culture in general (not just gaming) is that it is obsessed with that “quantifying the unquantifiable” concept, however. There are many people out there who judge pieces of entertainment purely on their Metacritic rating or their first-week sales, when neither are a good indicator of how much you, the individual, might enjoy them. I know, believe me; several of my favourite game series perpetually hover around the 40-50 Metacritic mark!

    This is where those subjective opinions come in, and it’s where individuals’ blogs (or named writers on a larger site) are helpful; over time, you get to know how that person thinks and feels, and you can understand how much your own tastes align with them. Based on what they say, you can then make an educated decision about whether that work is for you or not. It’s not a case of it being “good” or “bad”; it’s a case of if you’ll enjoy it.

    This has been a discussion for a long time; I recall my brother and his colleagues talking about “new games journalism” on the 1Up Yours podcast a good decade or more ago. At the time, they were advocating for a “Lester Bangs of gaming journalism” — the concept of writing interesting, experiential articles about gaming rather than the conventional sort of reviews we’re discussing here.

    I don’t think commercial mainstream sites have quite nailed this yet — many are a bit too concerned with tabloid-style outrage-fueled hatesharing clickbait at the best of times — but smaller sites and individual bloggers most certainly have a handle on this now, which is why I’m much more interested and excited to check my WordPress Reader every day than any “big” site out there!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with a lot of your points here. I see so many of the bloggers we interact with who do reviews in ways that are infinitely more engaging to me than reading them on one of the bigger sites, even if I never end up deciding to purchase the game as a result. I think to a degree, the fact that our monetary well-being (in most cases) isn’t tied to the performance of our writing probably helps us do so in ways that’s more meaningful but perhaps draws less attention to our sites.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yep. Bit of a double-edged sword, that, isn’t it? By not falling into clickbait habits, you produce better content that people really appreciate when they find… but ooh, it can sometimes feel like pulling teeth to actually get eyes on your page!

        Just the other day I had someone ranting at me on Twitter because they’d only read a headline, not an article… and, of course, had completely mistaken what the article was about as a result! To their credit, they did apologise for “being a dumbass” (their words) after I politely informed them of their error and invited them to actually read the article in question :3

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’ve been very fortunate in that I haven’t had that sort of thing happen yet, but I imagine if I do this long enough or grow my audience enough that it is pretty much inevitable.

        Like

  2. Wow, you summed up exactly how I feel about writing reviews far better than I ever could. I’ve been putting off reviewing games because I hate trying to figure out how to balance objective quality with the “I just don’t like this” factor, and my game tastes change so quickly. I already have games I rated two months ago that some time apart from the game has changed my opinions for the better or worse.

    I’m not sure what to do in order to change this. I may stop giving a numerical score and do more of a rant/rave approach to game reviews. That numerical score requires me to quantify something that doesn’t feel quantifiable. I don’t know, I need to keep thinking on it…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I think for me not focusing on a score, and not even focusing on the stuff you’re “supposed” to talk about, will help me to enjoy reviews a lot more. I’m gonna talk specifically about the aspects of the game that drew me in, or pushed me away, the parts that I’m passionate enough about that I wanted to write an article in the first place.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well done and kudos to you. It takes guts to do what makes you happy and not followed a perceived set of rules. My hat is off to you.

    That being said as for subjective and objective I mostly agree with you. I think that for the largest part of video games it is entirely subjective. Things that you didn’t like about Breath of the Wild I may have been crazy about and vice versa, there is certainly no accounting for taste after all.

    However, I do believe there is an inarguable part of gaming that is purely objective, and this is because it is based all around 1s and 0s. Anything technical on the game ends up, in my opinion, purely objective.

    If a game crashes and deletes all your save data, I’m going to say that is objectively bad. I don’t think there is going to be anyone saying that really brought value to their game. The same goes for a horrible camera, constant world breaking technical glitches, and so forth. In that aspect I think that there are degrees something like that would bother an individual, but you can objectively state that they aren’t good.

    The way I look at it is the technical aspect of the game, the math that goes into programming, is basically the canvas of the game. Unlike any other sort of art you have to actually create that canvas, and then be judged on it. Whatever goes on the canvas though is subject to wholly subjective opinion, because those choices and their impact are down to the individual.

    In other words, nobody is going to argue a camera not functioning as it is meant to do isn’t objectively bad. However, if we argue about something like the setting of the game, the way it was designed, art style, graphics, and a myriad of other issues then we are only arguing subjective points.

    Either way, I’m glad you are going to write in the way you wish.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really like your canvas analogy – that makes a lot of sense, and I agree that the technical aspects of a game are definitely objective. I guess for me and the way I write, the objective qualities of the game are the ones that engage me the least, so I feel the least motivated to talk about them. As long as the camera or the sound quality or whatever doesn’t literally stop me from being able to experience the game, I don’t pay any attention to it.

      Like

      1. I agree completely. They really aren’t fun to talk about. I usually will only really go into them if they are an issue, or if they are done so well as to be mentioned. A good example is the new Spider Man game’s camera which performed so well keeping up with the web slinger.

        Either way I find myself inspired by your post and contemplating myself whether to remove scores.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I feel the same way when it comes to reviewing a game and the article you posted made a lot of good points. I have never felt comfortable writing a “review” and I have since learned to stay away from calling my writings of a game a “review”. I like calling them Impressions because they are just that. They are my impressions of a game at the time that I am playing them. You dont have to beat a game to have a set impression of it and you can have many different impressions over the course of a game. It’s not like meeting your in laws for the first time.

    Also I wanted to say that you inspired me to try Undertale. I’ve always wanted to try it based on feedback from family and friends, but your descriptions of it kinda set me over the edge.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Impressions is definitely a good word and it is one I’ve been using more often myself. I hope your “impressions” of Undertale turn out to be positive – I enjoyed my time with the game despite my circumstances when I first played it, and it has stuck with me long after my first experience with it!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. What Ellen said. Do what suits you.

      I don’t use scores and when I do a review or impressions piece I know it probably doesn’t talk about all the things I should but I base it as my views on the game. I talk about points I feel should be made rather than going through a checklist or ending with a number for the sake of it. I’m probably doing a similar thing to Ellen with remembering my own time and giving someone else my perspective.

      Also love the Whose Line influenced picture.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I didn’t ever get to watch much Whose Line just because of the time it aired, but I enjoyed the show and I was in an improv club in college, so it influences my sense of humor and style quite a bit!

        Like

      2. My favorite in the American show was Wayne Brady. The fact that he could so skillfully improvise song lyrics in whatever style they threw at him is astounding to me. I can’t imagine the hours of practice that took behind the scenes.

        Like

    2. That’s a good way to think about it: your goal is to enjoy writing it. That’s exactly what I DIDN’T do for a long time when writing reviews and it really turned me off to it. I think changing to that perspective will help me out a lot!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great article. I appreciated all the points you brought up! I haven’t written a game review on my blog yet, however, I was not planning on talking about all the nitty gritty details as far as resolution, graphics, etc. Sure, I may highlight my favorite soundtrack and stuff but everything is purely what I like and what I thought about the game. I could only hope that my impression(s) supplied by pictures will help the reader to have an idea of what the game is like and can then decide whether it’s a game that they might like to play or not.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That seems to be the way to go about it! I think there’s a market for that, too – not every reader wants to know the exact technical specs of the game, so that type of review allows them to get to what they really came to read.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: