On Games Journalism: Why Objective, Performance Based Reviews Are A Bad Idea (Reprint.)

This article was originally published on my personal blog, when I was planning to get back to games journalism.

So, one thing that I have seen people calling for is “More objective” reviewing. Sometimes, they mean “Less biased overall” (Which is good to ask for), sometimes they mean “I don’t want political viewpoint X to be represented so god-damn much” (Tough titty, writers have political viewpoints, readers have political viewpoints, and if you don’t want to deal with gender and politics, good fucking luck in life. No, really, good fucking luck.)

Sometimes, however, they really do mean “objective”, in the sense of purely representing the technical aspects, how well it runs, etc. Let’s illustrate how misleading this can easily get with two hypothetical reviewers. Let’s call them Jim and Graham, after Jim Rossignol and Graham Smith.

Jim has a computer which often meets minimum specs for AAA games, but rarely optimal specs for the newer ones. So he can play the game, but he can’t afford to get the whole experience (Because, spoilers, even guys who write full time for a mag don’t get paid a whole lot!). He experiences some slowdown at certain points in the game, but, unbeknownst to him, this isn’t because his setup isn’t top notch. It’s because he’s using an AMD graphics card, and the game was primarily coded around NVIDIA cards. Yes, that’s a thing that still happens, even to this day. So he, naturally, mentions this as part of his review. NVIDIA fans slam him.

Graham, meanwhile, has a swanky computer with all mod cons, an NVIDIA card, and… A top range anti-virus program. This causes some problems, and, because he has a top of the range setup, he makes a bigger deal out of it. A week later, it’s discovered that his particular anti-virus program fucks with the game, and he looks like a twat.

Meanwhile, both of them use different routers, and have exactly the same problems in multiplayer, problems which are widely reported. Their editor, Steve, doesn’t have these problems, and writes an apology about both pieces when the folks who didn’t experience these problems, and didn’t notice all the complaints, decided to write in to say that they shouldn’t lower the score based on this “nonexistent problem.”

…Three months later, the readers look like twats when it turns out that, yes, the netcode was shit all along, and they start experiencing problems and complaining. And nobody’s happy.

All three of these things have happened at least once. Because there are so many different components for PCs, software and hardware, and that means Your Mileage May Vary. I’ve seen windows updates, graphics driver updates, lack of graphics driver updates, all sorts of things fucking with performance in games that sometimes, it’s hard to tell what’s actually causing a problem.

“Ahhh, but consoles are different!”, I hear you say. Perhaps. But sometimes, consoles look like they’re working when they’re actually about to break, and this, too, can occasionally affect reviews. Less than PC reviewing, it’s sure, but you still have to use a router to connect, an ISP, so keep in mind that no system is free of this.

Then, we come to another issue: With only certain exceptions, older games re-released will, on a performance based scale, consistently score higher than newer ones. For example, I can play Jet Set Willy with so much less hassle than I used to have. Before, it was “pop a tape in. Is the tape clean? Is the cassette drive jammed? Do I have the cable connected?”

Now? “Put thing on hard drive, run program/emulator, fiddle with performance settings a little.” 100000/10, much god-damn better than it used to be. Sonic 1 runs far better, on my current system, than Lichdom: Battlemage, and so it scores higher.

“That’s not what we said, though! We meant as they come out!”

Ah, you’re right. But re-releases are often reviewed as new products, because some of them (Not all, but some) come with slightly swankier graphics, and a slightly improved engine, and nothing else. Oh look, that re-release, on a performance base, still runs better than brand new AAA game, because it didn’t have extra fancy gubbins.

Indie games would consistently score higher on a performance basis, because they’re less resource intensive and smaller. The simpler the game, the higher it could score on a performance basis. And then comes the real killer: You then have to consider how much performance the game needs compared to its compatriots. Is it “objectively” better because it needs less resources, or “objectively” worse because it doesn’t need to be as effective in using your computer’s resource allocation?

“But you don’t need to know these things, all you need to know is whether it’s ‘objectively’ good or bad on your system, let readers…” No. Stop right there.

“Good” and “Bad” are rarely objective statements, because they’re value judgements. You’re stepping into “Worth” territory, and if you think that’s something that can be objectively judged, I’m going to laugh. Hard. An object’s worth changes, fluidly, based on subjective factors.

Good example: The white jacket I wanted for ComicCon. It’s worth less to me now that I don’t need it for a costume, because when I tried to get it, it was for a specific purpose. That purpose has been and gone, so it’s “worth” less. If other people don’t like how I look in it, it’s worth less based on their subjective views, because it’s going to get dickheads yelling stupid shit at me, which reduces its worth because of the hassle it cost me. If I lose or gain weight, it’s going to hang differently, look differently, and so have a different worth to my self-esteem.

Then there’s all the factors you’re now leaving out, whether due to space or time constraints. Most reviews are 500-2500 words long. That’s it. Are you going to read an article that’s 2,500 words about how it performs on System X with Hardware Y,Z,A, and B, when you yourself have System X with Hardware C,D,E, and F (Not to mention that the reviewer probably won’t have even noticed that Software G, which you have, and they don’t, causes bugs in the game)?

Would you read it if it didn’t comment at all on the writing, or great moments in the game, or how a mechanic feels like it fits with the theme you think they’re trying to portray? All of these are subjective things you’ll be missing out on: The cornering on Burnout Paradise isn’t, by any means “Realistic”… Hell, describing it objectively, it would be “The lower statistic X is, the more likely it is to rotate the vehicle you are driving in a manner more consistent to ‘sliding’ than ‘turning’ , especially at higher speeds.” … But it’s fun, not to mention collisions. We like collisions in racing games, right? “The collisions are rendered using a physics engine that -” GOD STOP, PLEASE, THIS DESCRIPTION CAN GO ON FOR HALF A PAGE, AND IS NOWHERE NEAR AS EFFICIENT, FOR A READER, AS…

“The collisions, meanwhile, are sufficiently meaty, with lots of crumpling, slow motion replays, and a delicious feeling of ‘Yup, that car is fucked, and there is no consequence for this. God bless Fun’.”

Which is, you’ll note, largely subjective. Long live subjectivity, I say!

Become a Patron!

On Games Journalism: How Much Do You Play Before Review?

Reviewing games, as much as it’s seen as “Just playing a game, then writing about it”, is actually a fairly nuanced subject… And, because one thing I often see is reviews that reveal how a reviewer has missed something that colours their whole review (It happens to a lot of us, but it is something to watch out for), it’s something I’ve chosen to move up the “On Games Journalism” timetable.

How Long Should A Reviewer Play?

A comment I got, a fair while back (As much due to not properly editing an article I wrote while writing the game as differing ideas of “How long should a game’s examination take?”), when I wrote about Skyrim, was that it was not possible to review Skyrim in 33 hours. Balderdash. 4 hours (What I’d written at the start of the review, adding unnecessary confusion) was enough to note a fair bit about how it differed from previous games in the franchise (Especially since I had played the rest of the series), and 33 hours? That was enough to finish several guild questlines, get most of the way through the main storyline, and enough time to get bored. In fact, with a few exceptions, I started to feel bored about 9 hours in, and remained somewhat bored for the majority of the time. I cared about the woes in Morrowind. I cared about the woes in Oblivion. I didn’t, particularly, care about the Dovahkin and the politics of Skyrim.

There are three indicators of when you should stop, gather your thoughts, and write things down. When the game is too buggy to continue (4 BSODs was 3 too many for Sword of the Stars 2.) When you are bored of what you are doing for a long period (The game is not engaging you. Be honest about that.) When you’re pretty sure you’ve got a good picture of the game. We’ll come back to that last one, because it’s the hardest to judge.

Should A Reviewer Finish A Game?

Where possible, yes. But if you are not invested in finishing the game, either somebody on your end fucked up by asking you to review it, or the game just isn’t that interesting in the first place. I was not, and still am not invested in finishing Skyrim, despite loving me some RPG action. However, something complicates this: Often, it is considered bad form to talk about later parts of a game in anything but generalities, and there’s this strange disconnect between readers who want to know if it’s actually worth slogging through a game to the end, and readers who GODDAMMIT SPOILERS SPOILERS SHUT UP WITH THE SPOILERS ALREADY. One of these groups tends to be a tadge more vocal and angry about it than the other, you may have noticed. And even putting a spoiler warning on the title and having a headline view won’t necessarily stop folks getting angry.

This does lead to some less than useful disincentive. Another one we’ll deal with a moment.

However, this varies from game to game. Some games can never be “finished”, so finishing a review is a case of seeing enough of how it plays to know what you’re talking about. Some games have a difficulty curve, or other design features that mean finishing it is going to take you forever (Older RPGs and Strategy games are particularly prone to this), so it’s unlikely you’re going to be able to talk about the endgame. And sometimes, the game makes it not worth the time it’s going to take… The phenomenon known as Grindfest. For example, I’d be surprised if many folks who looked at the .//HACK games actually finished them before review. Not all, because some folk are that dedicated and good, props to them, but many. Because god-damn, that series has some serious grind. Does that mean they’re not good? Matter of taste. But it does mean they’re more difficult to completely review.

How Quickly Does The Review Need To Be Finished?

Ah, this, this is a problem! And I have good news… And bad news. The bad news, first, is that, the later you write a review, the less people will care. Many will think that they’ve gotten a good picture from a day one review, but… This isn’t necessarily the case (In fact, “Day One Review” is often used as an insult, claiming that the review is biased. We’ll talk about that another time.) Skyrim, once again, returns (Yes, there’s a reason I reprinted that one today.) You see, the review was written during a very infamous patch… You know the one. The one where dragons flew backwards, and armour that was meant to be weak to something was strong to it, and vice versa (A misplaced negative number symbol was the cause of the latter, by the way, and it was fixed.) Did that affect the review? Not particularly. In fact, re-reading it, I’m not as sure why it got the hate it did (Even after the correction). I was much nicer to it than I could have been. But it could have.

To take another (and seemingly better) example: You can get an idea of how Half Minute Hero plays from the first hour. But that’s not as useful as you’d think, because the game changes. If you just went by Hero 30, you’d miss the other game modes, how they differ, and extra story that you can think about. You would miss, in short, a large portion of the game you’re meant to be reviewing. Whoops. Big whoops.

The good news is that, in the case of games that take more time to review, people are more patient. PR folks will understand if you take two weeks, or even a month to review a large game. Editors on a publishing schedule less so, sadly.

The point I’m trying to make here is that, the bigger the game, the longer you should take over it. And that although day one issues should be acknowledged and discussed (Especially in the case of trainwreck day ones), they shouldn’t dominate your review.

Am I Missing Something Important?

This is an important issue. Make sure. Half Minute Hero was a good example, and another? SWYDS2015. That arrow is obvious. It leads to more options. But some folks apparently missed it (Not naming names, but it happened.) And so they missed the game getting progressively weirder as it goes on. This, as much as anything else, is a factor in how long you play the game before review. And I could cite many more examples where the game changes in some important fashion later in the game. Hell, one of the first would be the first Ultima, which had a space battle segment late in the game because… Well, I don’t actually know for sure. It was pretty jarring. Might and Magic pulled a similar trick with their first game worlds, CRON and VARN (Stale Spoiler: They’re not, strictly speaking, planets.)

These factors sound simple… But unfortunately, the variety of games, and the tricks developers like to play (Even today), means that you will always find edge cases. It’s part of the reason reviewing is not as simple as it looks. It’s part of the reason why a good review takes time and effort. Mistakes will, undoubtedly, be made. We’ll go into that, other facets of reviewing, and how we all make mistakes another time.

Become a Patron!