Tuesday, August 9, 2011

My Thoughts On Reviews

Hello. So, readers of my blog (yes, both of you) will probably know that I do a lot of reviews on here. You can find them all here. I thought, since it's one of the main things I do on here, I might as well spend a little time talking about my review philosophy, and a certain fallacy I think a lot of reviews, professional or otherwise, fall into.

The fallacy is, in short, the thought that the only point behind a review is to inform the reader of your own opinion of the film/book/whatever, something which I feel is only partly true.

I can hear the disagreements already.

Let me explain my point a little bit; While it's inarguable that reviews are subjective and opinion based, and in fact all personal taste is subjective, and there's no "right or wrong" taste (unless you like Twilight, obviously) informing the audience of your personal opinion should only be half of the point of the review. You see, there are two main reasons why anyone would read a review. People who have seen the film you're reviewing (or played the game, or read the book, and so on) want to see if they agree with your opinion of it, or hear alternative viewpoints and criticisms or compliments toward the work being reviewed. The second, and more obvious point, is simply to decide whether it is worth the money to buy the film/book/game/etc. And the review should, as such, attempt to inform both of these audiences equally.

Let's pretend for a moment that you want to write a review of a movie you just saw. Now, this hypothetical movie is the latest summer action blockbuster, and it's been being hyped for months. The trailers look interesting, and you decide to go buy a ticket to see it opening day. You sit down for two hours, and think it's the greatest film you've ever seen. You decide that you're going to go home and write a review of it on your blog, and post it for all your friends. (This is beginning to become uncomfortably familiar to me.) You sit down and write your post. In the review, you write about how it's the greatest film you've ever seen, and how it's changed your perceptions of how good a movie can be. You insist that everyone reading the review go see it immediately. However, you neglect to mention in your review that, while the action and effects were, in fact, the best ever seen in a movie, the acting and writing were awful. After all, though you know this is true and wouldn't argue otherwise, you didn't care about the plot and felt the action held up the film on it's own, thus making the plot, characters, and lame sex jokes in every scene (it's a Michael Bay film) irrelevant to your review.

Now suppose one of your friends, who for the sake of the argument doesn't like action films and instead only likes movies with intelligently written characters, reads your review and decides to see the movie you loved so much. He walks out of the theater instead feeling outraged at how terrible he thought the film was.

Now obviously, he wasn't the right audience for the film. Unfortunately, because of your review simply using broad language and not explaining what was good and bad about the film, he's going to feel cheated and not trust your reviews again. Maybe he'll even feel lied to. Obviously this isn't the best way to go around writing a review.

Now of course, if you loved the film for the action, that's your prerogative, and you have every right to tell people that on your blog. But a better way to about it would probably be to tell the audience, instead of simply that the movie was the greatest you've ever seen in your life, that the acting and writing weren't that great, but that you felt the unparalleled special effects and action scenes more than held up the film on it's own. Not only will you sound more intelligent in the end, but you'll end up pleasing your readers more, and will let people know whether they'll like the film, not just whether you did.

And this can go for any kind of review, of course. For example, Angry Joe, a reviewer of both video games and movies whom I have a lot of respect for, gave Mortal Kombat* a 9/10, but after watching his review, I know it's not a game I'd never be any interested in. It's a fighting game, a genre I'm not too interested in because I simply don't like it that much outside of Smash Bros.

That's what I try to do in my reviews, and that's my review philosophy. I try not only to tell my opinion of a game or movie, but inform my reader of why they may or may not like something. A game I really liked, and I still play quite a lot a whole year later, Beat Hazard, is currently sitting at a score of merely 70 on Metacritic, so obviously most reviewers weren't as in love with the game as I was. (Sidenote: The problem with the menus being laggy I mention in that review was patched almost a year ago, and Beat Hazard is still a phenomenal game in my opinion, though like I said, the flashing lights can be headache inducing.)

Now I may not always succeed in trying to bring through why you may like or dislike a game, and going back to some of my older reviews it's downright embarrassing, but I'm always trying, and back when I did some of those older reviews like Beat Hazard, I was still trying to find my identity as a blogger. Heck, I still am trying to find my identity as a blogger.

In fact, something most people will probably notice is that in my reviews I don't use a "rating score" at all, and even more importantly, in my video game reviews I end each one with a "Buy this game if:" and "Don't buy this game if:" quote. That's because, simply put, I don't believe in arbitrary review scores. Here, let me elaborate a bit. I just pulled three random issues of Game Informer out of my stack of 10 years worth of them. Let me pick three reviews real quick.

Mirror's Edge - 8 (Issue 188)
Wii Fit - 8 (Issue 182)
- 8 (Issue 213)

There you go. Those 3 games, according to the review score, are exactly equal. Wii Fit, Mirror's Edge, and Nail'd are all games worth exactly an 8/10 score according to Game Informer. (I know a lot of people have problems with Game Informer. Shut up. I'm making a point.)

My problem with review scores, in case I haven't made it apparent yet, is that it's impossible to tell anything about a game from a number alone. I mean really, what do we know about these games from a review score alone. We know, apparently, that they're all games worth an 8/10. That's it.

Now, looking more carefully at each game, what we actually know about them is that one is a first person platformer, one is a glorified yoga mat, and one is a racer of some kind, I don't know, I'd never heard of Nail'd before, and it's not really relevant. The point is that these are very different games, and putting the number "8" on each of them is virtually useless. What does "8" mean? The magazine describes it as

"Very good. Innovative, but perhaps not the right choice for everyone. This score indicates that there are many good things to be had, but arguably so."

In other words, an 8 means "READ THE REVIEW!"

I just don't see the point in applying arbitrary numbers to a review. The scores are just a more professional way to give people a TL;DR ("Too Long; Didn't Read") without actually saying anything. They're essentially the exact opposite of what I was just saying about explaining the merits and problems with the film/book/game.

Now I get most review scores are meant to accompany the review itself. Most reviewers would claim that a review score isn't meant to replace the review itself, and instead should be read in context with the rest of the review. You know my answer? Well if you're supposed to have read the review, shouldn't you know how good or bad you thought the movie/game was anyways, without the review score? Either 1, you're being lazy and don't want to write too much or too passionately about what you really thought, or 2, your review score is completely and utterly redundant. Neither are a good answer to why the review score should be around. That's why I don't use them, and that's why I don't like them. I know I've given Ebert a hard time on this blog before, but I did like the "Thumbs up, thumbs down" review mechanic, and I still have respect for him as a critic when he's in his element.

The only thing I will say is that it is nice to be able to tell at a glance whether a review on Metacritic is positive or negative, so that when I'm judging whether or not to buy a game I can go to Metacritic and pick both positive and negative reviews to get a fair assessment of what the good parts or bad parts of a game are. The problem with that, however, is that most people don't USE Metacritic for that, and instead only take one look at the metascore, and either buy or dismiss the game based on that alone, which ties back in to what I said before. Reviews should be about helping people decide whether or not to buy the game. I'm sure many people have been angry that they got a game they really didn't like because it had a high metascore, simply because it was a critical darling, and I'm sure many people have missed real gems that they would have loved (like Beat Hazard) because they have a lowly score of 70.

Another point that frustrates me with game reviews specifically is the inflation in game review scores. I'm not going to go too in depth with that point because the Extra Credits guys already tackled that topic, and they put it more eloquently than I ever could, not to mention the fact that I'd just parrot what they say, but the short version is this:

As it is now, there's a huge inflation with game review scores, to the point where an 8/10 score among game reviewers is typically an average to mediocre game, instead of a 5/10 which would make sense. As such games at 80/100 on Metacritic are to be taken with a grain of salt (Oh, and keep this in mind and read that Game Informer review quote again. They're one of the biggest offenders of this.) and anything below that is generally a pretty poor game, equivalent to only a 2/5 movie score or below. There's even a Trope about how stupid it is that 8.8 is considered a lukewarm review. The end result, obviously, is that instead of having the range from 5-10 to review games that are above average, you only get from 8-10. The result is a lot of scores of, well, 8.8 or such. It's stupid. (Note: If you want a review absolutely not guilty of this, who actually uses review scores better than anyone else I've ever seen, Angry Joe is awesome with this.)

The end result is that, when I go to look for reviews I know of a few critics whom I generally find informative, like Giant Bomb, Angry Joe, or, if he's done a review of it, Totalbiscuit, and listen to their comments, ignoring the metascore entirely. (Unless, like I said before, I was looking for various opinions on a game.)

So yeah. That's basically a really long blog post about my review philosophy. I hope it's been informative and has helped people understand my reviews better.

*Note: Obviously I'm not responsible for any content such as language or blood seen in the review I linked to. It's for an M rated game, the review will have blood in it, and the reviewer doesn't have as tame a mouth as I do.

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