On Videogame Reviews
1. Game of the Year
BioShock Infinite is the worst game of the year.
It’s an unjustified shooter without a single new idea. It’s a self-gratifying spectacle that confuses cunning with depth. It’s a craven, heartless game of false moral equivalencies that uses the suffering of oppressed people as window dressing, as theme, while it explores its own cold metaphysical conceits.
For its lack of humanity, for its fake guilt, for its flat boring gameplay, for its 100 million dollar cost, for its cleverness, for its cowardice, BioShock Infinite is not just the worst game of the year. It’s the worst game I’ve played this generation.
2. Complicating the Narrative
BioShock Infinite is the third most highly reviewed game on Metacritic so far this year. Across 3 platforms (PC, Xbox 360, and PS3), it has received 126 positive reviews and 2 mixed. Its overall Metacritic score is 94 out of 100.
The question is not: why do none of these reviews agree with me? It is: why do they all agree with each other? Where is the diversity of opinion? Where is the spirited debate? In the aggregate, it becomes clear that the problem is not any one review. It’s all the reviews.
I don’t expect every reviewer to give BioShock Infinite a 2 out of 10, as I would. But I expect to see more dissent than that offered by excellent outliers like Game Critics or Quarter to Three or Action Button. I expect to see more actual criticism in the videogame review community. I expect to not have perspectives like mine looked upon as trolling.
Reviews are not about finding agreement. They are not based on commonly held values. As if anyone is sure just what makes a videogame great. It’s all contested ground. It’s our values as gamers that are exactly at stake in reviews. We shouldn’t be asking whether BioShock Infinite deserves a 9 or a 10. We should be asking whether it deserves a 2 or a 10. That’s a real debate.
3. Fake Empire
BioShock Infinite is lauded for its art design and worldbuilding. This is an obvious plus for most reviewers.
For me, this is one reason the game is so disappointing. A beautiful, corrupt place that I can only see, not touch. That I can interact with in no meaningful way except to shoot or loot. That actively presents itself as fake, a theme park, but offers no mechanics to go behind the curtain.
A game’s visuals cannot be separated into some separate category for evaluation. That’s the old logic of graphics/sound/fun factor. They are instead an integrated part of the entire game experience. Striking images and loving details can actually make a game worse if they draw you in and suggest a world that the rest of the game cannot support. A basic dissonance is created between hand and eye, and you feel more like a viewer than a player. The world calls to you, but you cannot respond. This may be all too common in videogames – compelling visuals overlaid on stiff, conventional, unimaginative mechanics (see also: Sonic the Hedgehog, Limbo, Skyrim) – but Infinite doesn’t get a pass just because it’s all high-minded and old-timey about it.
For all its artfulness, BioShock Infinite’s Columbia doesn’t even try that hard to suggest a world. It’s a ‘living’ city filled with animatronic dummies and conveniently closed shops. It hangs in the sky with no sense of altitude, since you can’t fall off. You ‘explore’ by rereading the same few propaganda posters, rummaging through desks for pineapples and bullets and hot dogs, and wandering around until you discover which way to go and then going the other way (for fabulous prizes). All those fine period details become merely glowing objects to click through, and the game reveals FPS to mean first-person scavenger as much as first-person shooter. It’s the thinnest sort of exploration imaginable. You’re not in a floating city; you’re not in a place at all. It’s just another videogame level.
Of course, the game claims to be aware of all this fakery. It Disneyfies with glee and says: hey, this Columbia is pretty dystopian, huh? And if this dystopia seems like your typical videogame world, well there’s some sly critique for you. The BioShock series’ great talent thus far seems to be thematizing videogame conventions rather than challenging them. It has mastered the safe subversion, never mind its conservative heart. Clever self-awareness trumps actual innovation. And gamers eat it up. Because we love to feel smart, removed, safely above it all.
4. Picnic, Lightning
BioShock Infinite is an intensely boring first-person shooter. Its gunplay is loose, loud, full of bluster. Weapons and vigors are poorly differentiated and seem designed around lurid effects rather than compelling interplay. When I was offered the chance to buy upgrades my first time through, none of them interested me. So I waited. I saved all my scavenged silver eagles and waited for a reason to buy anything. And then the game was over. I’d never bought a thing.
It’s not that I have any particular talent for shooters; it’s that Infinite’s entire upgrade system and economy is unnecessary on normal difficulty. In fact, there is no real difficulty at all on normal (outside one inane ghost and the final firefight). Like the original BioShock and its game-breaking vita chambers, without a meaningful penalty for death, it all comes down to a war of attrition. Even among modern games and all their coddling, Infinite is particularly indulgent about failure. Your choices are either a frenetic, garish, mayhem-filled picnic on normal or the tedious meat grinder of the harder difficulties.
A natural question arises: why is BioShock Infinite a shooter anyway? If it barely matters how well you shoot, why shoot at all? And if the most potentially engaging part of the game – its world – is inaccessible, why not make it some other kind of game? One that would allow actual exploration and some meaningful form of, you know, interactivity?
The most straightforward answer is that the original BioShock and System Shock 2 were shooters. The genre pressure on a 100 million dollar game is probably another reason. But in-game, BioShock Infinite doesn’t justify its own gameplay. I get that Booker is tough, a deeply violent man. But a one-man army? With flashy magic powers shoehorned in just to make the killing cooler? Given his mission (bring us the girl, wipe away the debt) and Infinite’s ambition (a videogame of big ideas), does the basic interactive premise of the game really make sense? In the way that the gunplay of Halo, Far Cry 2, or Call of Duty does?
This line of thinking seems illegitimate to most reviewers. You can’t question a game’s genre. You are supposed to take the game on its own genre terms, see what it’s trying to do within them, and then evaluate it fairly. But what if what it’s trying to do is dumb? Telling the story of a violent man trying to come to terms with his crimes while using lightning to make heads explode is dumb. Creating a world of delusion, suffering, and historical evil and then making you feel awesome as you plow through it is beyond dumb. This is not meaningful violence. This is having your cake and chain-lightning it too.
Reviewers speak about videogames genres as if they’re well-established categories. They are not. They are in constant flux, and any supposed convention is up for debate. In practice, genres are either marketing labels or convenient shorthand for writers who do not know how to describe their videogame experiences. They keep our expectations in check and our criticisms either in a comparative/historical mode or at the level of the nitpick. We do not ask why we’re here, what it’s all about. We narrow and focus on surfaces, features, the presumed genre facts, not our experiences of them. It’s not even that thinking in genre terms can’t ever be useful. It’s that in videogameland, we don’t know the difference between a genre and a rut.
5. Not My Thing
So BioShock Infinite is not a compelling first-person shooter. Then again, few first-person shooters are. Once I admit this ‘bias’ – that I think the FPS is one of the most limited, least interesting genres – I’ve marked myself as someone unqualified to give a fair review.
Online, we often say a game is ‘not my thing’ if we dislike it or just aren’t interested but want to be nice to all those people for whom it is, presumably, their thing. (See also the demographic cop-out: I’m not the target audience.) It works as a courtesy, as a basic acknowledgement that other people with different tastes exist. But it’s also shallow, a way of not engaging. It forecloses conversations about the ‘thing’ itself before they can even begin.
We’ve internalized the logic of ‘not my thing’ in our reviews as well. We assume that genre preferences are all about taste. Thus, you should at least halfway enjoy platformers, or JRPGs, or racing games to give them a fair shake in a review. To make sure you ‘get’ them, their particular pleasures. To keep your criticisms in check, not prone to personal ‘bias’.
We assume that disliking particular genre elements disqualifies a reviewer, but not the opposite: that being predisposed to liking a genre, being a fan, might be the problem. That it might also predispose a reviewer to a fan’s conservatism, a fan’s indulgence, a fan’s myopia and pedantry. Fans excel at celebration, but criticism? No, fandom seeks to insulate itself from criticism. And yet videogame reviewers are, by and large, avowed videogame fans.
‘Not my thing’ is really gatekeeping dressed up as broadmindedness. It’s the preemptive agree-to-disagree that keeps conversations pleasantly limp and premises unexamined. It erects a neighborly fence so that thoughtful outsiders don’t accidentally wander in. It says: I’m treading lightly; you do the same. And if this all sounds like a weird club run by the faithful, by thin-skinned boys, well that’s because it is.
6. Press X to Elizabeth
“Elizabeth though is really the hook that knocks BioShock Infinite into maximum score territory…She is a truly phenomenal combination of coding, voice acting, mo-cap, design, and writing…She’s a fully formed character, a real person near enough.”
You have to wonder if some reviewers know any women. Do they have sisters, mothers? Or, less likely, are they women themselves? Who else is on their list of fully-formed female characters? The rebooted Lara Croft? Our standards for women in games are so low that a down and dirty Lara can now make claims to being a feminist hero. Never mind that her QTE deaths are mini snuff films. That every time she finds a tomb to raid, the camera cozies up for a sideboob shot. That none of this is accidental. (Did the sideboob camera direct itself?)
Elizabeth may clear the very low bar set for women in games, but she’s not a complex character. She’s a companion cube in a corset. For most reviewers, this counts as a real person. Or near enough.
She comes from the haircut school of character development (which can sometimes actually work – see The Walking Dead’s Clementine). She gradually loses her clothes over the game until she is finally re-damselled and etherized upon a table, mo-capped, fully formed. She’s been caged and ogled her whole life. Why stop now?
While leading the player to end-game enlightenment, Elizabeth serves a practical function as well. She’s really a power-up more than a person. A kind of embodied super-vigor mapped onto the controller, sharing the same button as use/reload. She also flicks coins and supplies at you, just to remind you she’s still there. She is otherwise invisible to the rest of Columbia, despite being its most wanted citizen. She exists only for you, a marvelous tool, an extension of your strapping self.
This is all by design. Irrational head Ken Levine wanted the player to forge an emotional connection with Elizabeth but not have her be a burden. Because lord knows, relationships are never burdens. In an interview, he contrasted Elizabeth with a crying, needy Microsoft Word. Who wants that? And reviewers agreed, praising Elizabeth for ‘being useful’ and ‘not getting in the way’.
7. Fair and Balanced
If the reception of Elizabeth isn’t evidence enough of reviewers’ inability to evaluate the human elements of a videogame, the response to BioShock Infinite’s story makes it perfectly clear.
Let’s recap: a racist, nationalist, religious cult secedes from the Union, and the planet, and proceeds to oppress all people of color, enslave its workers, and stone interracial couples, all while its privileged white citizens bask in an orgy of Americana. So far, so good. This is a videogame, we have a gun, let’s shoot the shit out of this place.
But Infinite has higher things in mind. Halfway through, the people of color who constitute the rebel Vox Populi actually manage to overthrow their oppressors. And lo and behold: the white man’s fear comes to life. The Vox slaughter, they scalp, they paint their faces and play the part of the bloody savage. See what happens when you let these people out of their cages? No better than beasts, Infinite says.
Many reviewers were impressed by this insight:
“This doesn’t boil down to the typical good guys/bad guys scenario. Due to the nature of the world and the way it changes over time, you’ll also see that Vox Popul’s rebel forces are capable of just as much cruelty as the forces they seek to overthrow.”
Why are the Vox capable of just as much cruelty? Because the legacy of violence is passed on from oppressor to oppressed? Perhaps, but that’s not actually in the game. Is it because history is full of examples of bloody rebellions and reigns of terror? But then that ignores the actual historical context in America that Infinite claims to care about, where the long struggle for civil and political rights was remarkably non-violent (at least on the side of the disenfranchised).
No, the Vox are just as cruel as the Founders because Irrational decided they would be. They wanted to show a city fall, not just the aftermath as in the original BioShock. They wanted a new set of enemies, a literal skin palette-swap, halfway through the game. They wanted to make a point about how any extreme position is dangerous. Even if that position is racial equality, fair wages, or medicine for your daughter dying in Shantytown. Infinite is a game that lets you peck a man to death with crows, but hey, let’s not get too worked up, too extreme, about suffering and social injustice.
Infinite creates a clear moral equivalence between Columbia’s oppressors and oppressed. Both Booker and Elizabeth voice versions of this ‘one no better than the other’ logic, in case you miss the point. Such false equivalencies are beloved by the lazy, the aloof, the cowardly. It’s as if the game almost realizes the absurdity of the scenario it has set up, since it doesn’t even happen in the universe you occupy the first half of the game. You have to cross over to a parallel reality to experience it. It’s like admitting: at least both sides are equivalent in some universe!
Infinite may be about multiple universes, but the game itself has only one reality – the one you play through. This false equivalence is not optional, given to some quantum fluctuation. Open the box and this cat will be alive 100% of the time. This turn by the Vox is not even background noise, something you can just ignore. This is a videogame after all – you have to participate. Those people you were just sympathizing with in Shantytown? They’re coming to kill you now. Pull the trigger or walk away and miss the end of this mind-blowing story. And don’t feel guilty when you shoot them in the face. Though Infinite claims to be a game about a genocidal white man’s guilt, all the racial stereotypes turn out to be true. The racially impure are just as bad as the Founders feared. You are justified.
If you still have doubts about this equivalence, consider the question Irrational tweeted in late June (since deleted):
8. God Only Knows
Why is the moral failure of BioShock Infinite not only accepted but celebrated by reviewers? Because Infinite’s politics are exactly the same as that of many gamers. It doesn’t ‘compromise’. It doesn’t ‘placate’. It suits no ‘agenda’. This is familiar conservative language for those who imagine themselves above politics. Who do not see that claiming no political position is itself a political position, and a self-serving one at that. The straight, white male gamer could in fact find no better home for his high-minded non-politics than BioShock Infinite.
Of course these gamers don’t get what the big deal is. They can’t relate, didn’t feel the same way, aren’t offended. Of course they don’t see that Infinite’s ultimate depiction of the Vox is not that far removed from the racist caricatures in the Hall of Heroes. Of course they applaud Elizabeth’s character growth, her ‘education’, first sympathizing with the powerless in Shantytown and then realizing her naivety once their brutality emerges. Of course Shantytown itself is just a fiction to these gamers, a videogame level, and ultimately, like all the hucksters and snake-oil salesmen of the time, a sham.
But see, they say, that’s not what the story is really about. Did you see that ending, man? Oh right, there’s ‘always a lighthouse, always a man, always a city’. I’m not sure what’s worse: the false moral equivalency, or dropping all concern with the Vox so that we can get to this profound truth at the end. Like so many videogames, BioShock Infinite can only make comments about itself, about its franchise, about theories of the world, not about the world itself, not about the human beings in it.
If only this were true. Infinite doesn’t know how to humanize the white citizens of Columbia and make their vile perspectives comprehensible. Instead, it dehumanizes minorities and laborers so that everyone is a monster. Why does Daisy Fitzroy, a black servant falsely accused of murder, turn into a rebel leader who would actually murder children? Because Irrational needed her to. For moral equivalence to Comstock, for Elizabeth’s character growth, for their plot. Why are the Luteces the most successful characters in the game? Because clever, amusing, so-above-it-all-they-are-actually-outside-space-and-time characters are the only ones that play into Infinite’s ethos. The game doesn’t grant characters much humanity because, while it believes in quantum mechanics, I’m not sure it actually believes in humans. Or has any use for them.
The thing is, reviewers don’t care about any of this. Infinite’s use of racism and oppression as window dressing, its indifference to the suffering and injustice it portrays, its dropping of it entirely once its sci-fi engines get going, none of it seems to trouble the average reviewer. He’d rather not have any ‘politics’ in his games anyway. Certainly nothing that would ‘compromise’ the narrative to ‘suit a specific agenda.’ He who strives for ‘objectivity’, who claims to have no ‘agenda’ of his own. There may be consequences to callously using race and class to fill out a world and then casually dismissing it. But not to videogame reviewers. They just don’t care.
9. Embarrassment of Riches
I’m not the first to bring up some of these criticisms. After the initial wave of laudatory reviews, posts began to appear questioning the combat, the violence, the depictions of Elizabeth and the Vox. Cameron Kunzelman collected some of the best of these early critical impressions, and more appeared soon after. Such writing is vital to the ongoing conversation about videogames, and it has led to the present sense that while reviewers loved Infinite, ‘critics’ were not nearly so impressed.
There are a couple problems with this, though. First, it plays up a division between reviewers and critics, one supposedly commercial and mainstream, the other more academic and higbrow. This leaves reviewers to comfortably churn out the same feeble game apologetics and the critics isolated in their own little community of like-minded folks. Second, the critics’ impressions are themselves insufficient. They are often too loose and bloggy (just some thoughts…) or too detached and meditative or prone to simply talking past reviewers. They observe, they analyze, they muse, sometimes passionately, but they rarely lower themselves to appraise. To evaluate comprehensively, and with force. To judge.
It’s not like critics and reviewers would have nothing to say to one another. You don’t have to look for low mainstream reviews to find criticisms of BioShock Infinite. You just have to look at the 8’s. Reviewers who score Infinite in this range see many of the same problems as the critics. Reading their reviews, you might think they’re describing an average-to-bad game. That is, until you get to the part where they say how despite the game’s obvious problems, they still admire its ambition, applaud the obvious effort and expense, and feel, in the end, that the good outweighs the bad. Nice job. 8 out of 10.
The review scale is one of the most embarrassing aspects of the videogame community. Where else is an 8 the acceptable level at which to criticize a failure as colossal as BioShock Infinite? The score that won’t cause too many waves, since anything in the 7’s is average at best, and below that: no man’s land. Where else do you see these numbers? School, that’s where. There is perhaps no clearer admission that videogames have not escaped their adolescence than grading them on a high school curve.
This is an old problem, but one that even relatively new sites show no inclination to address. When Polygon launched last year and began putting out higher caliber feature stories, I had some hope that they might approach reviews differently as well. I read their review policy and saw a lot of fuss about updating reviews over time but nothing new when it came to the scale. Worse, the scale they put forward actually validated and reinforced our current low standards, only gussied up with professional language. 9’s “may not innovate or be overly ambitious but are masterfully executed.” 7’s are good but “have some big ‘buts’”. A 5 “indicates a bland, underwhelming game that’s functional but little else.” Not 5 as average, as commonplace, the middle instead of the bottom of the scale. (Their 2’s, 3’s, & 4’s list some silly trinity of ‘complete’ failures to justify their existence.)
These numbers are unworthy of a serious site. Which is to say, there are virtually no serious sites for game reviews. And why are they not serious? Because their reviewers don’t actually believe in videogames. When you believe in something, you have high expectations. You believe it’s capable of amazing things, things you can barely imagine. Our pitiful standards for games betray not only our lack of belief but our acceptance of this lack. We expect nothing more than entertainment, gratification, distraction. And we grade accordingly.
One might be tempted to think: hey, this scale isn’t better or worse, it’s just different. Once you know how it works, you can translate the numbers to the full scale, if that’s your thing. Except that in doing so, in parsing all the fine distinctions between 7’s and 8’s and 9’s, it assumes a baseline of worthiness, an implicit approval. Look at all our highly-rated games, look at this embarrassment of riches. It gives the unmistakable impression that videogames today are basically great. Even though they’re not. They’re really not.
10. Let Us Now Praise Famous Games
About two years ago, I decided to start taking notes and assigning scores to nearly every game I played. I’d been abroad a few years and fallen way behind on all the next-gen games that reviewers raved about. I suspected my own evaluations might be different, but I wasn’t sure just how big the disparity would be.
The first game to shock me was the original LittleBig Planet. Of 85 reviews, only 5 dipped below 90. The lowest was a 75, and the metascore was a staggering 95. But the game I played was a 3 out of 10. I loved how it looked, loved its charming DIY spirit, loved how it encouraged player creativity, even found many of the player-creator intro videos quite moving. But Sackboy’s running and jumping were so appalling that it killed all my motivation to play and negated the game’s many virtues. There was no explaining it away with talk of physics engines or how it was really a different kind of platformer. Its controls were simply game-ruining for me.
I continued to play highly reviewed games that not only underwhelmed but often stunned me with their failures. There were more 3’s (Skyward Sword, Halo 4, New Super Mario Bros 2) and 4’s (Skyrim, Dear Esther, Tomb Raider) but not so many 5’s (Arkham City, Bastion), since my feelings didn’t often fall in the middle. Even 6’s that I mostly enjoyed (Red Dead Redemption, Fire Emblem: Awakening, Journey) were nothing to get that excited about. Only 7’s (Gone Home, The Last of Us, Wii Sports Resort) and 8’s (The Walking Dead, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Far Cry 2) really started to get interesting, and there were a handful of amazing 9’s (The Binding of Isaac, Kentucky Route Zero, Spelunky). While I did play two 2’s (the other was Limbo), I also played two 10’s (Minecraft and Demon’s Souls).
Of this sampling, you might agree with some of the scores, but how could anyone agree with all of them? That’s precisely the point – no one could, or should. And without an explanation, why should anyone care about numbers alone anyway? If I were to write a review, it would be my task to articulate why I thought the game deserved that number. And of course readers could decide how convincing they found it.
But some of these scores no doubt look ridiculous to anyone familiar with most reviews. The very outlandishness of my numbers points to how ingrained our pitiful review scale remains. It speaks to how easily we submit to the tyranny of the perceived majority. It’s the same kind of thinking that leads to the many ridiculous sacrosanct positions held by the gaming community. To say you consider Ocarina of Time not a great Zelda or find Half-Life 2 overrated or prefer Metroid to Super Metroid, as I do, demands an explanation. It invites skepticism of not only your opinions but of your very motives. What’s your deal? You’re just trolling for clicks. And why should I listen to you anyway? You didn’t design the game. You don’t represent the average gamer. You’re just some vocal minority.
11. The Other Way
It’s exactly a reviewer’s job to speak for the minority. A minority of one. How could a reviewer speak for anyone else? They aren’t elected to stand in for some demographic, and the review community is not a representative democracy. Every time I see a reviewer try to speak for the average player, the fabled everygamer, I see a dodge. An unwillingness to put himself out there and state his values, an attempt to hide in the crowd and submit to the majority. I see not a reviewer sensitive to his audience but a reviewer cowed.
Even for those who have the sense to speak for themselves, there is a more pervasive problem. This is the call, posed a thousand different ways, for objectivity. Isn’t BioShock Infinite objectively a good game? Doesn’t it have good graphics and sound, play well enough, provide interesting characters and themes? I mean, let’s be reasonable here. Let’s be fair. Irrational put a lot of time and money into this after all. Most of your criticisms are just based in your personal biases. They’re just your interpretations. At least you have to admit it’s a lot better than most games out there.
Here’s what I’ll admit: many boys have a really hard time with subjectivity. To grapple with your own subjectivity is to grapple with the subjectivities of others. It’s to see the world not as legible, stable, conquerable but as resistant, shifting, and fundamentally unknowable. It diminishes your certainty and authority. It leaves you vulnerable. This is a human problem, being a person among persons, but one that many boys have trouble admitting even the basic tenets of. And so they call for an objectivity that has no foundation except received opinion, that seeks to diminish individual experience, and that turns out to not even exist.
Objectivity is very convenient for the straight white middle class male gamer. Videogame culture encourages him to see his own subjectivity as the standard, as objective. He’ll invoke science, economics, statistics, and all manner of folk wisdom to defend his little kingdom. He’ll decry any challenge as ‘politics’ or ‘bad business’ or ‘whining’ or ‘here we go again’. He never considers how often objectivity is a cover for a dominant subjectivity, for a subjectivity that stays in power by not being recognized as such. He fears what will happen if the established order breaks down and the Vox take control.
This cult of objectivity has it exactly backwards. They want it to be one way. But it’s the other way. A good review is openly, flagrantly, unabashedly subjective. It goes all in with the reviewer’s biases. It claims them for what they really are – not tastes, not mere opinions, but values. It is a full-throated expression of one person’s experience of a game. This is the authority it claims – the player’s. And how could it be any other way? How can a reviewer get outside him or herself?
Some might admit that objectivity doesn’t exist but that it’s still an ideal to shoot for. It is, after all, a worthy goal to try and get outside yourself and see things from other perspectives. But chasing objectivity to achieve this is, again, entirely upside-down. You do not connect to the world outside, to the world of others, by suppressing or negating yourself. You do so by fully being yourself and recognizing just who that person is. A good reviewer knows that none of our values are settled, that the game community is actually in thrilling flux, despite the placid surface of its reviews. The only way to change how we talk about games is to encourage a plurality of voices, revel in their diversity, and be honest about our own subjectivity among them.
12. Old Boys
This means the old guard, and the old boys’ club specifically, has to go. Out with the fanboys and apologists and sycophants. Out with those who know a whole lot about videogames and not a lot about anything else. Out with those who applaud basic competence and hand out A’s for effort when ambitions fail. Out with reviewers who invent new ways to fawn, to heel, to kowtow, and whose relationship to game companies could best be described as a kind of Stockholm Syndrome.
We obviously need fewer reviewers who casually begin paragraphs this way:
But also fewer adult men whose idea of sensitivity and fair-mindedness leads to asinine transitions like this:
“While Infinite goes out of its way to point out that these views are negative, some are going to be disturbed by the amount of racial caricatures and casual racism throughout the game…On the other hand, few games in this generation have used music as well.”
Here’s the trouble with subjectivity – you have to own it. If your subjectivity encompasses a love of bloodletting, of feeling relentlessly rad, if it conveniently espouses equanimity in the face of injustice and over-sympathizes with the aggressors, then I can understand why you might want to cower behind objectivity. The straight white male gamers so untroubled by BioShock Infinite, whose ideology and privilege are in fact perfectly reflected in it, are just not up to the task of reviewing on their own. Their subjectivities betray complicity. It’s a dead end, the good old boys speaking to their bros, and only by diversifying in every way possible can the review community thrive.
This means more women, more people of color, more queer and transgender folks, more reviewers from diverse social, economic, and cultural backgrounds that don’t neatly fit the lifelong gamer mold. Not simply because we need reviewers to match the shifting demographics of those playing games, but because diversity is of clear and obvious value to any community and any discourse. We don’t speak often enough about values in gaming, but every game and every reviewer possesses them. And unless we make this discussion public and get different people involved, then the values that inform the power fantasies and self-gratification of the highest-rated games will continue to go unquestioned.
That said, not everyone’s a critic. Everyone has an opinion, everyone has their own experience of a game, and we need to encourage all forms of videogame writing (many as yet uncreated). But not everyone is inclined to think critically about their game experiences and articulate a judgment accordingly. The call for diversity is not a blind one, nor does it pretend to be a panacea for all the ills of videogame reviewing. It is absolutely necessary but insufficient on its own. Good individual reviewers – independent, dynamic, discerning reviewers – are still needed.
13. Portrait of a Videogame Reviewer
What makes a good reviewer? They are not experts, for one. Professors don’t usually make great reviewers in their own field, and neither does someone who’s played every platformer in existence. Such knowledge narrows the perspective of the reviewer and makes it difficult to engage non-experts. Hardcore gamers worship expertise, but an abundance of esoteric trivia often leads to nitpicking, if not missing the point entirely. Videogame reviewers don’t need to know more about genre history or how games are made; they need to know more about something outside of games. Many of the best reviewers I read have clearly been educated in the human world, and they bring to their evaluations an eye unsullied by the ingrained assumptions of videogameland.
Good reviewers do not go the other way either, towards a broadmindedness that makes tough criticism impossible. Gaming apologists love to bring up the inner child as the arbiter of what is good and true. As if your inner 11-year-old, who knew little and was open to everything, is the person you should really be listening to while playing a game. In my 11th year, I read Lord of the Rings, a dozen Babysitter’s Club books, and Stephen King’s It, and I enjoyed them all. I was addicted to both WWF wrestling and the soap opera Another World. I was open alright, but I was no critic. We should approach games generously, but a good reviewer can’t experience them without judgment all the way through. He can’t forget all his experiences and tastes and accumulated values while playing without being fundamentally dishonest. The inner child is just the nostalgic version of having no biases, of striving to be an objective un-person, not a crusty adult with a point of view
A good reviewer has her own standard, though it can shift between games. She calculates case by case, knowing that one aspect can ruin an otherwise excellent game, and another quality make a clunky mess worthwhile. She doesn’t give her Game of the Year a 7 or 8 because she knows it’s weird and doesn’t match others’ idea of a great game. She gives it a 10 and articulates why. She isn’t intimidated by immaculate, expensive, hollow games, and she doesn’t hesitate to score them down for their lack of soul. She knows her own values and does not apologize. And yet sometimes she surprises herself.
A good reviewer does not fear emotion. He knows that emotion is not the enemy of game reviews but the key. Emotion clarifies. It cuts through all the noise endemic to gaming, and a good reviewer is dogged, even stubborn, about following his feelings to their ends. In this, he is not afraid to contradict himself, and he is often unreasonable (as reasonableness hasn’t done the game community much good so far). He values the polemical and the contrarian, and he knows that criticism doesn’t require a solution or any proof that he could do it better. He is, in all of this, self-aware. He knows how his own point of view positions him in larger debates, but he is not hamstrung by this awareness, unable to argue his perspective because of it.
A good videogame reviewer is a player first. She speaks both as a particular player and for the player’s experience more generally. She knows good reviewers across media do this as readers and viewers and listeners, and that this is especially crucial in gaming, where there is no game, nothing at play, without a live person. As a player, she asks the most basic questions. Not: am I entertained? Or: do I feel good? But: what is this game experience, and how, and why? And then, she judges that experience. This judgment may put some people off, but it’s where the answers to those basic questions become forcefully personal. It’s where the person herself comes to bear directly upon the game, that singular, willful, unpredictable ghost invading the machine. The cult of objectivity would like to erase the human altogether, but a good game reviewer reasserts the primacy of the player, and testifies to why she matters.
14. We Hope We Shall Arrive Soon
Citizen Kane comes up a lot in game discussions, to the point of absurdity. There is something desperate about it, and you get the sense that many people invoking it have neither seen the film nor understand its significance. But I think it also speaks to something more honest, and more hopeful, that unites gamers: that sense that games will someday arrive, though they haven’t yet. The Citizen Kane of videogames is meant to signal no less than the full arrival of the medium. And so, any fancy game with the barest pretense to meaning brings out the faithful, the still-hopeful, ready to declare our wait over. Even if, as in BioShock Infinite’s case, what we actually end up getting is more like the Birth of a Nation of videogames.
Videogames have always carried with them an unfulfilled promise. They seem to point ever forward, towards some new union of art, technology, and human agency. It’s why a screenshot can still compel, can suggest an entire world that 30 seconds of tired gameplay will immediately ruin. It’s why reviews remain fundamentally responses to previews, an evaluation of our expectations, of PR promises, rather than of the experience at hand. Any longtime gamer will remember those watershed moments when the future of gaming seemed suddenly unlimited. Playing the first Super Mario or Mario 64 or Grand Theft Auto III or Minecraft. Good critics know that these game experiences are bound to time, but a yearning for timelessness persists, for something transcendent, that speaks through the ages, Kane-like.
This longing for arrival infects our evaluations of both AAA and indie games alike. Where else but a AAA game studio can you find so many smart, talented, creative people working together to produce such puerile rubbish year after year? And yet where are the reviewers who will regularly and forcefully call them out on all their shiny iterative bullshit, who will do more than give an occasional slap on the wrist in the form of a 7 or 8, who will crucify the worst offenders, like BioShock Infinite? Reviews of indie games are not much better, even if the desire to advocate for small, spirited, innovative titles is more admirable. We can say ‘let’s have more games like Gone Home or Journey’ and still vigorously criticize their shortcomings, instead of fighting AAA score inflation with more empty 9’s and 10’s. One needs no better example of how reviewers can be just as blinded by indie charms than the hysterical reviews given to the vapid dead-end that is Limbo.
Some see a solution to our reviewing woes in abandoning scores altogether. Perhaps someday our criticism will arrive there too, and I will welcome it. But it won’t be anytime soon. To those would-be reviewers not inclined to assigning a number to an experience, let me say: If you can criticize sharply and forcefully, offering a comprehensive judgment that reaches well beyond the low standards of our 7+ scale, all without assigning a score, please do so. But don’t assume it’s the numbers that are the main problem, or use it as an excuse not to engage the review community where it lives. This allows the false divide to persist between qualitative and quantitative reviews, between biased subjective experiences and fair objective assessments. As if gamers can just choose which they prefer. As if objectivity isn’t a self-serving illusion and subjectivity our only real option.
Numbers are subjective too, and no official review policy can change that. When I first started scoring games, I wondered how I would decide the exact numbers. It took a few games to get the hang of it, and it remains subject to revision (how could it not – I live in time), but it wasn’t that hard. I have no problem saying that games as different as The Last of Us and Wii Sports Resort and Gone Home are all 7’s, and that this is a pretty high score coming from me. It’s my scale, informed by my values, and it won’t match anyone else’s. Only by reading me a while would you get a sense for what my numbers mean. The burden is thus on me to be a critic worth reading.
But wouldn’t having 100 different personal scales wreak havoc on Metacritic? Without common standards, wouldn’t a Metascore be incoherent? Indeed, but that was always the case. Only on top of it, we’ve made our aggregate scores dishonest and gutless too. They betray our conformity, our thoughtlessness, our lack of belief. And they remain the clearest signs that the videogame review community has not arrived.
15. Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
More than 6 months have passed since the release of BioShock Infinite, and another game of the year has appeared: Grand Theft Auto V. The adulation greeting it has surpassed that of Infinite and The Last of Us, and its 97 Metascore is extraordinarily high, even for our zealous reviewers. The game itself is the very definition of expensive, exhaustively fun, high-quality mediocrity. Its world is breathtaking and brittle, a monument to wasted opportunities. Its structure is tired, its satire flat, its narrative trisected to no end, and the entire experience profoundly thin. Grand Theft Auto V is exactly a modern AAA videogame. And a 4 out of 10.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the three highest-rated games of 2013 are about aging white men, their guilt, their anger, their disappointment, their lies. For the most part, the delirious reviews they’ve received were also written by aging white men. The struggles of Booker, Joel, Michael, and even Trevor must have resonated. At least they often did for me. As an aging white man, I can understand the anger and disappointment. I can understand the solace, the control, sought in games. I can understand diminished expectations and the appeal of objectivity. I can understand, but not accept, the lies this all entails. For through these lies, reviewers collude with game developers to present the illusion of maturity, vitality, achievement. All with a straight, if slightly haggard, face.
And yet BioShock Infinite, The Last of Us, and Grand Theft Auto V also feature protégées who represent the next generation. Elizabeth, Ellie, and Franklin, as well as the observant player, cannot help but see in these father figures a warning: Do not do as I do. If only the next generation of game reviewers would also take this to heart. It’s not their job to sustain the dominant narratives of their predecessors but instead to relentlessly, and mercilessly, complicate them. They must be insolent, unafraid of confrontation, unbowed by calls for reasonableness and objective purity by the illustrious Founders.
Gaming itself is on the cusp of another generational shift, of another sense of arrival, and yet our reviews remain enfeebled, unable to grapple honestly with games as nauseating as BioShock Infinite or as hollow as Grand Theft Auto V. As videogames continue to change, our criticism must too. But who will our future reviews ultimately serve? Game companies, the conservative industry, those gamers who want to preserve their illusions and keep games a site for sad self-gratification? Or will they serve videogames themselves and the players who actually believe in them?
At present, we have this: Carolyn Petit’s review of Grand Theft Auto V received more than 20,000 comments, many of them particularly vile even by gaming’s low standards, because she called out the game’s misogyny. It’s easy to blame these commenters, disgusting as they are, and demand more civility in our conversations about games. But I blame the review community as well for establishing the very grounds for these attacks, for making the 9 she gave GTA V a mathematical deduction on Metacritic instead of the insanely high score that it is, for maintaining the entire farce that is the videogame review and enabling the boys who skulk in the comments below.
Those boys, all those pitiful boys – they don’t get to decide anything. It’s the reviewers, all of them, who must give their readers no other option but to face a game’s failures. We don’t have to choose between mechanics and politics. Reviewers must pay attention to both, and everything else besides, and score according to their criticisms. The review cycle must no longer be a source of embarrassment but a dynamic conversation that constantly puts our values on the table and invites a reckoning. To encourage this, sites must vocally, and unapologetically, support their reviewers so they don’t have to face those pitiful boys alone. Carolyn’s criticism can no longer be dismissed as ‘politics’. It must be seen for what it is: being a person while playing a videogame.
Tough criticism is an act of belief. It is sincere in its hopes for the future but clear-eyed about the present. Most videogames are disappointing, and disappointing in dependable ways. But it is possible to love individual games, to be ignited by them, and see a future worth pursuing. We’re not at all sure what this medium is capable of, but it certainly deserves more than our regular pronouncements of excellence and the glib advice that we simply accept every familiar trope and gameism. As if criticism is just the sour grumbling of the ungrateful.
How long will it take before all our current scores are obsolete and the outcry over giving GTA V a 9 out of 10 is the nonsensical embarrassment of a generation past? What will we value in our games if the pretty and the awesome and the comforting no longer dominate our discussions? I want to hear every divergent view, every unpopular opinion. I want gaming to revel in dissent. We should marvel at a medium that allows us such room to play, to explore, to bring ourselves to bear on the experience and make it our own. A good review will honor this. It will say: This is what it was like for me. And in doing so ask: Now what was it like for you?
~ Tevis Thompson
October 16th, 2013
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