Friday, January 14, 2005

Objective Opinions?

GameDrool, a blog from one of the editors over at GamePro. The original article prints a long, interesting letter from Trip Hawkins, the now-president of Digital Chocolate and former-master-chief of 3DO.

The comments below that article get into the philosophy of game reviewing, with comments from, "Good on that reviewer!" to "Game reviewers need to be more open and objective." There seem to be two camps on this issue:

1) Game reviewers need to be objective. Championed mostly by game publishers and people who insist on calling game reviewing "journalism," this stance believes that game reviewers should take into account the chance that someone out there will enjoy almost any game they review, and so they should angle the review toward finding the good things about each game and communicating those.

2) Game reviewers should give their opinions. This one is self-explanatory. When someone is paid to play a game and tell what they thought about it, then you're obviously asking for opinions. This one makes reviewers succeptible to their inner biases, say some, and it skews their reviews likewise.

There's good and bad in both camps. For Camp 1, you risk a review that reads like the manual for a support group ("The game's not fun for me, but hey, we're all okay, you might like it!"), but you also avoid some of Camp 2's bias. I believe that a skilled and conscientious reviewer stands in both camps, able to understand the good and bad and the difference between that and what he likes and dislikes.

For example: I don't like having to reload multiple times on a level. I hate the interruption of game flow and the frustration that creates. Others like the challenge and don't mind reloading, because they like trying to approach the problem from different angles. If I mention the dying and reloading in the review, it's just my opinion that it's lame, and that's not necessarily true for others. But if that sequence in the game causes reloads because of cheap shots, poor controls, or unfair challenge, then that's not going to be fun for the "different angles" guy, either. So I put it in my review, so people know what to expect.

Then, what happens when someone reads a review like, "This game isn't really that great, but you might like it"? That tells no one anything. That reviewer might just as well have written, "I like pretty flowers, and zeppelins are big!" The reader gains no information and has to go somewhere else for a clear opinion on the game.

For Camp 2 folks, you have to be considerate of the state of the gaming art just as much as your own likes and dislikes. You can't just say, "This sucks! This game is like " and hang it up. You have to be able to explain, often in objective terms, why the game wasn't fun. Learn about game development processes, figure out why something turned out the way it did, and drop that in the review. Maybe make notes and plan to look into development snafus for a future article--developers are often willing to do post-mortems for publication, and there are few things readers like more than seeing behind the scenes. At that point, you're getting into actual journalism, which is where the objectivity comes in.

As a reviewer, you don't have to be objective, but you have to be fair. You have to understand things and keep things in mind and know stuff. You have to have played tons of games and be able to compare them. You have to be ready to say unfavorable things about a game you were hopeful about, and you have to be ready to suck it up and accept that, just maybe, Barbie Beach Vacation or whatever has some redeeming value. Maybe not to your readers, of course, but to someone.

Opinions are subjective by their very nature. When someone writes a review, they're not searching for the truth; they're forming an opinion. The reason I say that reviews aren't journalism is that I don't think they are. Journalism is the search for and archiving of truth and facts, and there is precious little of that in game mags these days... but that's another topic. This belief that reviews must be objective comes from the confusion that reviewing is journalism. Reviews are opinions, and they don't have to be objective. They just have to be educated.

Anyway, I wanted to bring this discussion here, especially since 50% of the 4-person readership I have here are game journalists/reviewers or were at one point.

So, let me have it.