There’s a certain question that makes straight men freeze with fear: “Does this outfit make me look fat?” Men hear this, and they are paralyzed in a moment of fight-or-flight panic, because they know, first, that they have to respond and, second, that there is no correct response. Women, so I’m told, often have the same reaction to being asked “Hey, honey, am I starting to go bald?”
The reason these questions are problematic is that they are sometimes not asked in earnest. Rather, they are the slippery tentacles of a chthonic and atavistic beast, feeling around for a tender meal. That meal is called validation. When that meal is replaced with something bitter and truthful, those tentacles can squeeze the life out of whatever they find, instead.
Those of us who play and comment on games are constantly surrounded by such tentacles. They come in the form of people typing the name of their favorite game in Google, and instead of finding a joyous community of like-minded believers, they find you. Or rather, they find your article. The one where you called their favorite game “a buggy mishmash of old clichÃ©s, retarded ideas, and adolescent wank-fest fantasies of gullible women in chainmail bras.”
When people discover that you don’t like their current obsession, they tend to get defensive. They deploy various arguments, again and again. Most of them are easy to ignore: “You must not be very good at the game” is a constantly-repeated refrain, or even better “You just don’t like (RPGs/Racing games/Sports games)”. The ever popular “You’re gay” never goes out of style, of course. And I’ve even heard, oddly, “You must not know anything about programming” several times.
But what I find more interesting, and more pernicious, are the arguments that rely on “Have you stopped beating your wife?” assumptions as to what the responsibility of a reviewer actually is. The most popular argument in this bunch is “This review is unfair because you didn’t finish playing the game.” That’s sometimes phrased in the marketing-speak of “This isn’t a review. It’s a ‘preview’.”
I’ve been putting off writing this article for a bit because I didn’t want to appear churlish and defensive myself, but then I noticed that Corvus’ review of the adolescent collect-loose-women-as-playing-cards RPG The Witcher was receiving this sort of criticism from grievously offended Internet wankers. That provides a good framework for me to talk about the issues without feeling the need to rise overmuch to my own defense.
The crux of the argument — and I am not being terribly liberal in my paraphrase — is: “How can you give a fair review of a game you’ve only played for 10 hours?”
Let me turn the question around: how can you not? If you haven’t managed to form a reasonably comprehensive opinion of a game in, say, 2 or 3 hours, let alone 10, it’s time to find a new hobby that is a little less mentally taxing.
There are a number of assumptions underlying this attitude that one is obligated to sit through every bit of content a game might want to inflict on you before criticizing it. Every single one of those assumptions is wrong.
The first assumption is that people who talk about or review games are necessarily interested in helping you decide whether to purchase the game. In other words, that the purpose of a game review is strictly utilitarian in nature. Some are. Many are not. It’s my opinion that analysis that approaches games as art, or at least as commercial art, tends to be more interesting than writing that approaches games as product.
The second assumption is that one must “finish” a work in order to have a valid opinion on it. I have walked out on several movies in my lifetime, and sat through more that I wish I had walked out on. I sat through every unbearable minute of Bad Lieutenant, but I promise you the last 90 of them served only to validate my belief that you are better off performing a self-appendectomy than watching it. The movie’s only redeeming quality was that by portraying an actual wank-fest, it managed to encode its own future criticism.
The investment required for most movies, however, is typically only a couple of hours, which means that reviewers can splurge a little and squander a couple of hours eating popcorn. Games are a stickier wicket. The Witcher, for example, promises (or, more accurately, threatens) “more than 80 hours” of boring, drawn-out gameplay. The idea that anyone — even someone who is being paid — should be forced to suffer through 80 hours in order to deliver the “It sucks” verdict that is obvious after 15 minutes is more than just wrongheaded. It is utter madness.
The third assumption is that what it means to “finish” a game is even definable. To take one specific example: I’ve been playing Mass Effect recently. My style of play is, to be perfectly honest, plodding. I can’t stand the idea of progressing with the main quest when I know that there is some irrelevant side-quest somewhere left unattended. The reviews I’ve read all focus on the interesting plot and decent writing, but I’ve noticed that the writing is (as one might expect), significantly better in the “main quest” than in the side-quests. I haven’t seen anyone comment on this yet. So my assumption is that various reviewers “finished the game” by powering through the main quest. That’s perfectly reasonable, but it paints only part of the picture of the game. My point is not that these reviewers were irresponsible bastards who cheated their readers out of a deeper understanding of the game, but that it’s not even clear what “finish the game” actually even means.
Pete today observed that for him, an interesting or useful review combines some amount of objective description of the game with subjective opinion. I agree with that summary. One wants the author to be thorough in exploring the text, but it seems to me that there is not, and should not be, any requirement of comprehensiveness.
If one is looking for interesting discussion and commentary on a game, then whether the reviewer has finished the game (whatever that means), is neither here nor there: writers can talk about what they experienced. And if one is only interested in a game as product, then “This game was so bad that I gave up on playing it” is, in my book, one of the most useful comments a reviewer can make.
Tying all of this up with a neat little bow, I will rise to Corvus’ defense: The Witcher is a misogynist fantasia created by people who hate and fear women. Anyone who willingly plays it is participating in the ongoing retardation of computer games as a medium, and is complicit in keeping video games, as art, in their extended adolescence.
That much is obvious on its face. And I haven’t even played the game at all.