June 29, 2022

Experts: Once More, With Feeling!


So once more, there are sites dredging up the “Should Gaming Critics Be Good At Games?” debate.

And therefore, I thought once more I’d delve into this with the benefit of having had time to come to a more clarified position. Let’s be clear; everyone should enjoy video games. That’s the point. Entertainment is entertainment and we should all be able to come together in a sense and enjoy games in whatever way we so choose; from those striving to become eSports Contenders to the casual person who plays on a smartphone on their daily commute. There are enough genres, enough systems and enough types of games and difficulty settings (and variants) that young or old, rich or poor, male or female or whatever division you can think of – there should be something out there for you. And if a game isn’t aimed at you – it’s no less a game. Someone might enjoy it even if you don’t.

(Except Ride to Hell: Retribution. THQ Nordic, now you have bought Deep Silver, do the world a favour – take that source code and burn it. And then bury the ashes somewhere they will never be found.)

However, when it comes to Critics – or those who are aiming to be paid to talk about video games, or review them for a consumer audience that could vary from broad and inclusive to selectively niche by design – the rules have to change slightly.

I have thought about this long and hard and come to a simple conclusion; someone who is being paid to comment on anything should be able to convincingly show they understand the chosen subject. For example, football (or soccer, for some people). Would you sit through almost two hours of commentary on a sports channel listening to someone babble on and miss all the technical details… like offside or oh dear I’ve reached the limits of my football knowledge. Heck, beyond football – could you honestly say it would be okay for someone to be paid to comment on ANY sport they don’t know the finer points of?

We can all have opinions. That’s great. I think having an opinion is fantastic and I thoroughly support every individuals right to have an opinion and to be able to express that opinion, no matter how silly or distasteful it might be. For example; pineapple on pizza is fine, but the ham or cheese has to be very salty. The point of the sweetness of the pineapple is to contrast with the saltiness of the rest of the pizza. If the ham or cheese or any ingredient isn’t noticeably salty – then you shouldn’t have pineapple on it. I thought that made sense. Clearly not for some people.

Ahem. Got distracted there for a moment.

The difference comes when you are making a living on said opinions. People can watch movies; but a critic has to understand the finer points of filmmaking, such as pacing and framing, dissonance and lighting, ratios and film types (and by that I mean actual film, which is still employed in some movies for effect). We can all go to restaurants, but a critic has to understand the fundamentals of eating at a restaurant, and the food. Sports I’ve covered. People wouldn’t listen to someone review Doctor Who episodes if they weren’t well versed in the Who-niverse (is that right? I’m so sorry Whovians if I butchered that!).

Video games shouldn’t be any different in that regard; there should be an expectation of understanding and being competent at video games, at the very least. You’re being paid for an opinion, the absolute least you can do is make it an EDUCATED opinion, right?

Michael Pachter
… wow, I haven’t used this image in a LONG time.

I do however understand that video game criticism has its own particular challenges, especially in regards to more challenging or niche titles.

In an ideal world, game criticism and gaming critics would all find a particular niche; for example, Souls fans like me would gravitate towards that sort of subgenre, because we have the patience and the knowledge and know-how to appreciate brutal difficulty spikes and the artistry that lies underneath them. It’s easy for a critic to just throw high scores at familiar brands and give lesser ones a spanking, but that’s genuinely unfair and unreasonable. I mean, I like Lords of the Fallen. It’s always had bugs, particularly all the sound crashing issues (which will never likely be fixed at this point) but it’s a solid Action RPG-come-Soulslike.

But that is different from, say, Animal Crossing. Or Smash Bros. Or FIFA. That’s not to say we can’t make educated and fair opinions with a bit of time and research, but it’s not the same is it? Fans want to hear from a fan.

Of course, not every fan can be a critic – you have to be able to give criticism where it is necessary to do so. And for the record, a criticism from me over Breath of the Wild is due sometime in the next few days. Some fans can become blinded to a series and whitewash it in a sense, or rather can’t see from the sun shining from a games firm, supple buttcheeks. Being able and willing to be honest about and with a games faults is kind of important. As a critic, consumers and fans are relying on you to give a comprehensive and fair assessment of a product. That includes pointing out all the warts. That’s the job.

BOTW Landscape
And let’s be clear; BOTW is NOT 100% perfect.

That said, since this isn’t a perfect world (I don’t have a helicopter or cybernetic implants that let me run around so…) I think the least we can expect from anyone getting paid in any sense for their opinion of a game in a professional sense is to be professional enough to actually demonstrate some ability to play the game. I mean, I know that Cuphead video has become legend and all but that was someone being paid to give an opinion on/demonstration of a video game who not only couldn’t perform one of the industries most basic things – 2D Platforming – but was wilfully ignoring actual directions on the screen explaining how to do it. That’s why this whole issue got serious last year. And that was a particularly cringe-inducing example.

Having said that, making generalisations on extreme examples like that is a bad idea too.

I happen to think most game reviewers get a hard time for a relatively tricky job; I’ve tried reviewing in the past. Trust me, it’s not that easy to do well. Like many things in this world, taking extreme and isolated cases and extrapolating them into some kind of big conspiracy or trend is actually doing everyone and everything a massive disservice. Broad strokes paint the walls faster, for sure, but if you’re not paying attention you’re likely to destroy paintings and posters and furniture and so on. It’s all about context. And context is very important.

Most people in this industry are good at their job. Where things go wrong, people are found out and fired where necessary (like that chap formerly from IGN). That’s how it should work, by the way. Particularly for plagiarism.

Ultimately though, there’s nothing controversial in the idea that games critics should be able to demonstrate a rudimentary grasp of the game they’re supposed to be reviewing – but I trust most reviewers to be capable of that much. Personally, I happen to think in most cases, a reviewer should be able to finish the game before the review is published – and I’m of the view that publishers not sending review copies out until the day before release is a terrible move, since it encourages “Hot Takes” more than actual lengthy criticism of a games core production. Sometimes that isn’t necessary – Ride to Hell: Retribution is hot garbage and you couldn’t pay me to play that game again. But again – games that bad are exceptions, not rules. And we can (and should) make allowances for exceptional instances.

We need to stop letting these small and isolated cases be painted as the norm. They’re not. Tens of thousands of game reviews are posted every day and it’s only once every few months that someone does something silly. Deal with these instances on a case-by-case basis.

Trying to stop people being dumb is a fools errand and you’re only going to lose and piss a lot of people off.


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