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.
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.
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.
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.
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.