Reviewing the Reviewers: Heterogeneity in Game Opinions

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Mighty Ponygirl wrote a post linking to and critiqueing a review of Metroid Prime 3 in Variety. In general, I agree with her. The review seems to largely miss the point of the game and gets a lot of things wrong, and from what I've played of Metroid Prime 3 so far I expect to completely disagree with the reviewer's take on the game.

Yet I come here not to bury the Variety review, but to praise it.

A few months ago there was an article in the New York Times discussing the peculiar unanimity of opinion in the assessment of video games. The Times article discusses a study done by Ben Shachter of UBS that showed that there was a strong correlation between review scores for games and sales. High-scoring games sell well, low-scoring games sell poorly. The same correlation doesn't exist in other media, where, for instance, critically acclaimed movies may sell poorly while movies that get panned by critics may perform well.

There was a lot of discussion of the article when it was published and speculation as to why this correlation might exist. My pet theory is that it's brought on by a general lack of diversity in the audience for video games. There's a pretty unified set of criteria for what makes a good video game, much of it focused on the technical side of things (How crisp are the graphics? How responsive are the controls?). Certainly, there's a little diversity of taste among gamers, some players prefer RPGs, others like shooters, some place a lot of value on the story in a game, others skip past all the dialogue to get to the action. But within a genre there's broad consensus about what makes a game good or bad, a consensus that doesn't seem to exist as much in other media.

What I like about this review is that it approaches Metroid Prime 3 as a casual gamer might. The reviewer doesn't seem to understand Metroid's genre conventions, so he's able to write a review that questions the game's value from the perspective of someone who doesn't necessarily know or agree with the criteria by which most of the gaming press judges games. Most reviewers agree that Metroid Prime 3 is a fantastic implementation of all the things that make a Metroid game good; the Variety reviewer questions whether those things, well-implemented though they may be, make for a fun game from his perspective.

I think this review is an important step in the growth of the games industry. If the market for video games is going to expand, it's going to mean a lot more people playing video games who don't agree with the current consensus on what makes a good game. I may think Metroid Prime 3 is a fantastic game, but I don't think it's a game for everyone, particularly not a lot of the casual video gamers that Nintendo appears to be attracting with the Wii. For those gamers, a review that says "Metroid Prime 3 is the best Metroid Prime ever, and if you enjoyed previous Metroid Prime games, you'll love this one," is far less useful than a review that says "This is Metroid Prime 3. It'll be hard to understand if you haven't played prior Metroid games. It requires quite a bit of skill and dexterity, it's very non-linear, and it's focused on exploration. It does not hold your hand. You will be thrown into the game with only a basic explanation of what the controls are and will be expected to find your own way to the goal. In fact, often times the game will not even tell you what the goal is and you'll have to feel your way around in the dark just to figure out where you're supposed to be going. If the only games you've played are Wii Sports and Mario Party, Metroid Prime 3 will probably not be a very fun experience."

This review doesn't appear in a mainstream gaming magazine. It appears in Variety, an entertainment trade newspaper read by a broad audience, many of whom may be interested in video games but few of whom would describe themselves as gamers. In that context, it makes sense that the review is written the way that it is, with a casual gaming audience in mind.

As more people begin to play video games, we're going to see less consensus on what makes a game good. We're also going to see the media react by producing reviews that reflect that shift in taste. That means there won't be the same pleasing unanimity in game reviews that once existed, but it also means a greater diversity of opinions and an expanded debate on video games as a medium, which I think will be healthy for the industry and for consumers.

On the other hand, there's also the possibility that this is just plain a bad review. There's a narrow line between "writing a review that targets a casual audience" and "writing a review that treats a game as though it's a casual game when it isn't." I think the former is legitimate while the latter is puerile. Just as you'd look askance at a film review that critiques a romantic comedy for not having enough explosions or special effects, a review that criticizes a first-person adventure like Metroid for not having enough mini-games is just a bad review. Also, a review that targets a casual audience and is actually written by a casual video gamer is legitimate, as the review is likely to be an authentic representation of the reviewer's feelings. A review written for a casual audience by someone who's actually a long-time gamer is suspect; you've got somebody reviewing a game not according to how they feel about it, but according to how they think others will feel about it. In this case, the reviewer, Tom Chick, has a long record of game reviews, mostly for gaming media, stretching back to at least 2001. This leads me to think that he doesn't actually fail to grasp Metroid Prime 3 to the degree that he claims in the review, but is instead playing dumb for the Variety audience.

Still, I think reviews that subvert the dominant game-review paradigm are, on balance, a good thing, and something we're likely to see more of. Even if this particular one is stupid and wrong. Also, Metroid Prime 3 is awesome.

1 Comment

A thoughtful post, but just for the record, I can assure you that we never instruct our critics to "play dumb" with their opinions. Only to keep in mind that their writing should be accessible to our readers, many of whom aren't avid gamers (though a sizable minority certainly are).

Ben Fritz
Videogames Editor
Variety / Daily Variety

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on August 29, 2007 3:38 PM.

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