Why I Don’t “Review” Games

I have a few things lined up to write about, but I saw an interesting discussion online earlier today, so I thought it would be something worth talking about.

It’s a discussion that seems to have continued in perpetuity ever since the earliest days of gaming media, so regardless of whether you’re reading this at the time of writing or a few years down the line, I suspect it will remain relevant.

I’d like to talk about why I don’t consider myself to “review” games in the traditional manner — and why, from the very beginning here at MoeGamer, I have not made use of any sort of summative system such as percentage scores or star ratings. Let’s talk about that!

Here’s the picture that prompted the discussion. It’s a review of Street Gangs — better known as the PAL release of Technos’ classic River City Ransom — in the December 1992 issue of Total! magazine. Gaming enthusiast Martin posed the question as to whether or not there were any games that had mediocre reviews back in the day, but which you still found yourself kind of wanting to check out for yourself. This was one of his.

Now obviously with retrospect most people in the twenty-first century know that River City Ransom is an all-time classic of the beat ’em up genre, an influential title on numerous subsequent games — even quite recent ones such as WayForward’s wonderful River City Girls and the sadly deceased Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game — and a game that most people would regard as something of an essential when it comes to experiencing what the NES had to offer. So it’s quite odd to see a review from the time describing it as “unspectacular” and full of “mediocrity”.

River City Ransom

Granted, this review, published in December 1992, came two full years after the North American release of the game — we Europeans had to wait a long time for PAL conversions back in the dark days of 50Hz — but it actually wasn’t all that much of an outlier from the period, regardless of region. UK TV show GamesMaster panned the game with a 32% rating, for example, and even Famitsu in Japan gave it a fairly middling (for them) 28 out of 40 on its original 1989 release as Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari.

Back in “the day”, as men of my venerable age tend to refer to it, the Internet wasn’t a thing, so all you really had to go on when it came to making purchasing decisions was articles like this: single-page pieces that consisted of maybe about 250 words of substance. So, for better or worse, a lot of people took them as gospel; as the definitive judgement on a game; as sufficient reason to rush out and buy a game or — as in the case of River City Ransom — pass on it.

Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm

But what this has never taken into account — and still largely doesn’t to this day — is the fact that not everyone feels the same way about everything. This seems obvious, doesn’t it? Of course they don’t. If we all felt the same way about things, we’d be mindless robots without any opinions of our own; no-one would ever create any unique art, no-one would ever have interesting things to talk about and politics wouldn’t exist.

Actually, that last one doesn’t sound all that bad. But I digress.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

I remember seeing a lot of games in magazines of the time and thinking “that game looks cool!” then ultimately deciding not to try it for myself because the reviews were “bad”. This definitely continued throughout the SNES era, but I started to break away from this in the PS1 era, where I developed a strong interest in RPGs — many of which simply didn’t get covered at all in magazines of the time, so I had to make my own mind up! But, at the same time, I still knew plenty of people who took reviews entirely at face value, and let their opinions be entirely formed by… well, by someone else.

The fact that people can see one review of something from an individual and take that seemingly definitive judgement as “fact” is troublesome. Yes, there are examples of things that simply don’t work properly and it’s perfectly fine to point these things out as a reason not to bother with something — you wouldn’t want to buy a game that, for example, you couldn’t complete, would you?

Auto Modellista

But for more subjective things — the “I don’t like this”, “I find this boring” or “this offends me” side of criticism? That should never be taken as the definitive view on a game, because it’s entirely opinion-based. And it’s not only an opinion in the moment that matters — you also need to bear in mind any pre-existing opinions that may have coloured the current judgement.

I’m not going to do a retrospective review of an established classic like Sensible World of Soccer on Amiga and declare it “bad” because I don’t like football games, nor am I going to pan Crusader Kings II on PC because my strategically impaired brainmeat is fundamentally incompatible with how that game works. I’ll probably just quietly decide those experiences aren’t for me, set them aside — and perhaps enjoy hearing from people who have had a good time with them. This, unfortunately, doesn’t always happen elsewhere on the Internet, particularly when disagreement is just a click of a button away.

Nier

Pleasingly, we have seen a number of games enjoy a reversal of fortune over the years for one reason or another. Taro Yoko’s existential classic Nier is a great example; receiving largely mediocre reviews at its time of original release, based primarily on the fact that it wasn’t quite as graphically impressive as some of the other games around at the time, it has subsequently gone on to be quite rightly accepted as a masterpiece. There are still people who don’t like it, of course — and that’s fair enough — but even those people, in most cases, can recognise the reasons why it has come to be such a success, and so fondly regarded over the years.

This is why I tend not to take a traditional “review” approach here on MoeGamer. I’m not here to pick fault with games, and I’m not here to list pros and cons. I’m here just to talk about games that I, personally, have found pretty interesting. This tends to mean that the things I write about are things that I have enjoyed or felt positively about in some way. And that’s just one of many reasons I don’t use summative scores — there’s little point in using a scoring system if I’m already picking the things I write about based on whether or not I felt positively about them. That and slapping a quantitative measure on something inherently unmeasurable is something I’ve always found rather difficult to get my head around.

Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories

The other thing that I’ve always aimed for here on MoeGamer is for each article to be a truly personal look at something: some thoughts from the perspective of one person who you’ve hopefully got to know quite well over the course of the many articles on this site already. I’m here to present you with games that I’ve found interesting, intriguing, enjoyable or otherwise noteworthy, tell you a bit about their history and my own experiences of playing them — and then invite you to make your own mind up about them.

You can find a nice selection of games like this in the screenshots that accompany this article, as it happens; click on the titles in the captions to find out more. If they sound like something you think you’ll dig — great! And if they sound like something you don’t think you’d enjoy — equally great! Hopefully you came away from the thing I wrote with a better idea of what the game in question was all about — and why the people who do like it feel that way.

Bullet Girls Phantasia

That’s one thing I think that has always been missing from the “this one review is the definitive opinion on [x]” approach. And it’s why the fact that people end up parroting the words of tastemakers — particularly, these days, deliberately provocative tastemakers — can be a bit of a problem. It sows discord and divisions in the community, when we could all be sharing the many and varied experiences we’re having, telling some great stories and learning more about one another and our favourite hobby in the process.

I find it fascinating to hear why people enjoy a specific experience — especially if that experience is one that I’m unfamiliar with. I remember a good few years back hearing about the now-notorious first-person adventure game Pathologic and thinking it sounded like the most fascinating game ever, for example — I decided to play it for myself and ended up absolutely hating my entire time with it, but that didn’t make me feel any less interested in hearing from people who really felt like they “got” what that game was going for.

Senran Kagura Peach Ball

Likewise, I’ve been fortunate enough — for the most part, anyway — to encounter people through MoeGamer and my work on YouTube who respect what I do in the same way. They may not necessarily be into the same things as me; they may not like exactly the same games I do; they may even have diametrically opposed opinions about certain games. But they’re interested in hearing about those things, regardless, and I really appreciate that.

I’m not here to tell you what you “should” play or what you “should” spend your hard-earned money on. All of that is your decision and your decision alone. What I do hopefully provide is a look at a broad spectrum of games and visual novels from over the years, from which you can perhaps find a few new favourites — and a few things you might not want to touch with a lengthy pole!

Either way, thanks for your continued support of independent games writing.


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7 thoughts on “Why I Don’t “Review” Games”

  1. I totally get your approach. When you’re just a reviewer, the majority opinion among your colleagues must be hard to resist sometimes, and that’s part of why I can’t trust a lot of professional reviews anymore. Too many of them seem to be parroting each other, either with their praise or their criticisms. And that’s especially true if it’s a review of something like a niche Japanese game from a mainstream Western outlet. There are a few reviewers out there I can read to get sort of “anti-recommendations” even — if they hated the game for certain reasons, I can be pretty sure I’ll like it.

    While I still do write some reviews, I’ve shifted more to those commentary pieces for some of the above reasons. I really just want to write about what I like. Though I only buy games I think I’ll like, so even my reviews are usually positive or at worst a little mixed. Tried the rating system thing for a while, but it didn’t work out for me.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The only times in my writing career where when I wrote for sites that required them. The reason why I forgo scores in most games has mostly been to avoid having people skip through the text and only look at the score. The text exists for a reason, and I want someone to decide whether or not they play a game based on the content of my review rather than an arbitrary number at the end.

    A neat touch in this piece was the mention of the “this offends me” side of criticism. Using what is essentially a measurement system to quantify a subjective opinion is bound to cause a lot of problems, especially on a review site with tons of different reviewers who each have their own standards. This becomes especially difficult considering a lot of mainstream reviewers try to review games both from a technical/design perspective, and from an artistic perspective. So what happens if the gameplay was mediocre but the story was so deep and amazing that it literally changes your life? What if it’s a fun game with no major design flaws, but the story is about a Nazi pedophile doing… Nazi pedophile stuff that I won’t elaborate on (aside from the fact that it is straight up propaganda that encourages being both a Nazi and a pedophile. This example is made to be a pure hypothetical example of a story that is so disgusting and that no decent human being could stomach the game no matter how good the gameplay is) If one was being truly “objective” one would have to give both games a similar score, despite the fact that most people would generally prefer the former while viewing the latter as a pile of filth that should not exist

    In short, these review scores generally discourage serious thought and discussion on a game and only exist so that sites like Metacritic can just give it a quick and easy rating for the publishers to put on the back of the box.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is very interesting. Growing up I followed a couple of mags for my platforms of choice and I took their scores as gospel. It does make me wonder how many great or even just interesting games I might have written off.

      The second N64 Goemon game got a significantly cooler reception than the first, for example, as it went back to the series’ side-scrolling roots. But I think over time the consensus is that while the first helped break ground in the exciting new world of 3D, the second was a much tighter game. I certainly think so; it’s one of my all time favourites!

      Conversely, I think the reason I never got into racing or fighting games is that none released for the console ever seemed to please the mags I read. And that is vaguely troubling – on someone else’s say-so, the genres ceased to exist in my mind! I’m sure there’s a parallel to certain influential critics today trying to stamp out games they don’t want to exist, even if other people like them just fine.

      I think most people understand that taste is subjective – I’ve always thought the practice of reviewing and scoring music is completely pointless, for example – but with games, I dunno, I was always a bit more ready to accept that there were invisible benchmarks that we could collectively accept defined good and bad games. Fun factor, clever design, innovation.. part of me still clings to that vague sense of the medium’s exceptionalism, though I’m not sure why.

      Fortunately in the UK, even if you discount the value of the scoring system, there was a strong culture of vibrant, entertaining, funny writing for games mags. It was a sly, sarcastic, playful style that I hadn’t been introduced to anywhere else – the TV I was allowed to watch was too sanitised, and few authors were writing books with that particular tone. So it was still time and pocket money well invested!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, the overall style and tone of ’90s UK games mags was a big inspiration on me, and if you know the signs you can probably spot some of those influences in my own work. For me, the golden age of that sort of thing was probably around the beginning of the PS1 era, when PC gaming was really starting to take off thanks to 3D accelerators.

        PC Zone magazine specifically was my publication of choice — and not just because my brother was editor for a while! PC Zone is where a lot of people who wrote for some Atari ST and Amiga magazines I used to like ended up — and it’s also where Charlie Brooker (of Black Mirror fame) got his start.

        Like

  3. I think the major key to reviewing is that you need to be aware of the reviewers likes and dislikes. It’s for this reason you can’t truly follow an outlet as they are an amalgamation of reviewers and their biases (for biases read previous experience gaming as well as personal likes and dislikes). For this reason reviewing is intimate, and finding a reviewer whose opinions you respect or agree with is useful. It’s precisely for this reason as well, multiple perspectives are needed for a review as consumers are then able to make a more widely informed decision on what to purchase.

    That of course is the ultimate purpose of a review, that it exists to inform customers of a product. Something i often think has been forgotten in modern discourse around media.

    As for scores they are primarily a metric system, to accumulate the idea of a games reception on a broad scale. They are then simply a tool to analyse the perception of the game (or other media).

    Of course there are exceptions to this where I’ve seen games reviewed poorly that later developed into cult classics (Arcanum and VtM: Bloodlines spring to mind) despite being received poorly.

    Another thing I don’t see discussed often is the fact that reviews are dismissed as irrelevant due to being subjective, as though this precludes the concept of being informative. As such comparisons to other games are highly useful in establishing or grounding the experience of the reviewer while playing and is a very useful tool in a writer’s arsenal to quickly convey information about the new game, for instance referencing JRPGs with ATB battle systems, in a new game that has the mechanic. This quickly grounds the reader without having to explain the entire mechanic in detail every review (which was of course necessary in print with space limitations, though not as necessary now with digital publications).

    The great problem now of course is as you say, the repetition of ideas, on the one hand this creates a critical consensus which is useful for developers about what their game did right, but… The problem arises in that much of what is happening now is people copying the current ‘hot take’ to gain clicks, and boost their own media presence. To be honest I’m not sure how to take it all. Whilst independent reviewers are a positive due to varied opinions the fact that they aren’t truly accountable for their sincerity and may just be pushing publish on a hot take that isn’t indicative of their real view is… Difficult. Of course it’s also something difficult to prove. For instance all the deriding of Skyrim, and yet it is one of the highest selling games and continues to be massively supported by a modding community. It seems strange if a game is so terrible that it would be so well supported. I can accept criticism of say the fighting mechanics (Elder Scrolls has always been weak at this) but the stances against the game are… Excessive, and the more the dislike the more videos seemed to be made but the player count and mod support tell a different story.

    All I do know, is that whichever way games reviewing does go, people will still discuss it and review scores are too useful a tool to publishers to ever entirely disappear.

    Liked by 1 person

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