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How Possibly To Do Good Games Journalism, Maybe – Part 3: On Being A Tard

Hey! Remember two days ago?  Before yesterday, when I didn’t post anything here, due to Comrade Richardson pouring goodness-knows-how-many tins down my throat the night before? Remember that?  I said I was reviewing Risen!  Well, I reviewed Risen!

Risen’s going to be today’s case study.  I hadn’t planned at all on writing this.  Today was going to be On The Relationship Between Developers, Publishers, Public Relations Officers and Journalists, which probably would have been too long a title, thinking about it.  That can be tomorrow, maybe.  This is totally going to go on far longer than a week.

But given the response to the Risen reviews so far, makes sense.

Of course there was going to be a backlash.  Risen’s been an interesting game to review, and almost as soon as I started playing I knew I didn’t want to do a normal write-up.  It became more fiercely experimental once I started writing these blogs, and less fiercely experimental when I read it back and realised half of it was some of the most incomprehensible gibberish I’ve ever penned, but it was always going to be an experiment in some sense.  There was a point where I suddenly felt guilty about this, as if I wasn’t serving my audience correctly, but then I thought… hell, my audience is only fairly small.  And besides, as far as ulterior motives go, trying to write the fairest, most honest, most transparent and wide-ranging review I’ve ever done is a fairly ethical one.  What it boils down to, ultimately, is that I was trying to make it good.

So, why Risen?

Well, it’s small enough for it not to be hugely consequential unless it was absolutely brilliant, which I knew straight away it wasn’t going to be.  Yet it’s been long-awaited by a small, dedicated, passionate fan base who would very obviously love Risen no matter what its quality.  As in: the very nature of what it was trying to do, along with its cult-classic lineage in the Gothic series, meant it was going to be huge in some people’s diaries, and that it was at least trying to do something that bravely appealed to just them was going to score it a lot of points.  Also, it’s a really interesting game.  Honestly.  It’s really fascinating and often brilliant, despite often being rubbish as well.  It’s worth the effort, y’know?

Er. Got sidetracked for a few minutes there, air-drumming to Paramore.  Where was I going with all this?

Oh right, yeah.

So basically: you wouldn’t know I thought that if you just read a couple of comments over on RPG Codex, for example.  In order for a big experimental review like this to be successful in the way I intended – ie. something useful for all the potential players approaching the game – it needs to be one that people actually read.  Site stats indicate that just over half have, and that’s lovely, but it still means a few hundred people have gone and skipped straight to page three and the big, red six out of ten at the bottom.  Someone called me a “console tard,” charmingly.  Someone else said the 6 out of 10 obviously meant the game was just too difficult for me.

(Brief sidetrack: I’ve been ranting about difficulty at Gama, so maybe that’s related.  Leigh tells me she disagrees entirely, and is planning a follow-up piece, which I’m both looking forward to and dreading, as she’s far more elegant in her argument structure than I.)

Anyway, point being, nowhere in the text do I say the game is too hard.  I say it makes things difficult, and there’s a huge difference.  Specifically: I was fine in combat and so on, but it still took me half an hour to work out how the interface worked.  Once I was on a quest, I was dead good at completing it, but it regularly took me hours to find one worth doing.  I did get beaten up a lot by rival factions, and I love that about the game.  Man.  Read what I’ve said, or everything falls to pieces.

But that’s neither here nor there.  I should have just done a two-sentence review, like we established would be the best thing to do the other day.  No one else to blame.

What we’re really here to talk about is user backlash, why it happens, and what can be done about it.

But I’ll need your impact, ’cause Christ, I’ve no idea on that last one.

Why it happens is obvious.  We’ve established that we’re all here ’cause we really love games.  That’s a passionate stance, and with one comes personal connection to the material.  So, in Risen’s case, we’ve a spiritual successor to a series of games that were moderately well received in the press, but which many fans felt were highly underrated.  Here, we have a collection of embargo-day reviews saying again that yeah, this game does some things right, but it also has a hell of a lot of problems that meant we didn’t enjoy it.  And really, outside of Germany, it is rather a concensus.  I mean, there’s a big range of opinions, but it’s a concensus that it’s not absolutely, world-changingly brilliant.  I’ve seen scores ranging from 3 to 8 (or equivalent) from the UK types, and that’s pretty much the range I considered too.  In the end, the six was pretty arbitrary.  It’s that kind of score.  It goes on games you can’t pin down.

So people are upset, because they’ve been waiting all these years to love Risen, and what happens is that someone in a position of some bizarre power comes along and says “I didn’t like this game.”  And then people go a couple of different ways.  Well, three: if you don’t care, you don’t care, but that’s not important.  Other than that, you either become worried that the game might not be as good as you hoped, thus being disappointed and frustrated, thus reacting; or you feel personally insulted, as you’ve pledged alliegance to the product and will defend it for all it’s worth, even though you’ve not played it yet, because you feel like you will love it, even though someone else didn’t.

So: it’s either about fear, the unpleasantness of having your beliefs challenged, or loyalty.

All of those are visceral human reactions.  You’re not at fault for feeling offended if someone says they fucked your mother.  If the connection you hold with this game is already that strong, an absolutely delightful thing, then sure, have a rant.

The question is… well, actually there are two questions.  Let’s deal with the other one first.

Isn’t it relevant that you’ve not played the game yet?

Well, sort of.

A European site whose name I can’t remember reviewed Uncharted 2 at a 7 out of 10 the other day.  So, a good score, but a far cry from the life-affirming marks elsewhere.  This is the game which French PS3 magazine actually invented a score for.  In a hilarious moment of Spinal Tap proportions, the game received one mark above a perfect score.  I’ll save my thoughts on that, as it might result in my blowing my brains out onto the computer screen.

But the response from the community wasn’t really as I’d expected.  It wasn’t “oh, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” or “how dare you?” or any other such.  It was one of immediate suspicion.  Why is the score only a 7?  What’s their agenda?

Which is so preposterous, and that’s the sort of reader response I will always rally against.  People do love a good conspiracy theory.

So the final question is how we go about addressing this reader backlash, in its various forms.  And I really think that, in all its guises, the best way is through complete and utter transparency in every way.

Way back when, I had an idea for Resolution’s reviews, which would be to split them in half and do one section to cover all the hard facts – Does it perform well? What about the other versions? Is the engine up to scratch? What about the interface? How much of it did I play? How much should I have played? What’s its target audience? Am I that audience? If not, then what am I bringing to the table? – and the other section as a critical analysis.  It wouldn’t work, because it’d be far too messy, not to mention violating the maxim we established the other day which is that we should always be using as few words as possible.  Plus, what are facts, y’know?  But doing this would serve a purpose, because it would mean everything you wrote would be, by definition, absolutely water-tight.  Unless you outright lied, of course, which is another matter entirely.  But if we’re saying “this is what I think, based on this version, and this playing style, in a game intended for this type of player,” we’re assigning a strong agency to the piece while making very sure that everyone understands exactly how we’re approaching the situation.

And sure, you’d still get the odd “CORRUPTION!” call, but it’d be a nice step in the direction of eradicating that too.  How about being clear about our relationship with PRs etc?  Not having it so shrouded in mystery?  Honestly, before I got into this, I hadn’t the faintest idea how it all worked behind the scenes.  No one had ever told me, and any time I’d asked people seemed reluctant to share.  Which is odd, as there’s nothing untoward going on.  Not that I’ve witnessed, anyway.

Final mini-case-study: Eurogamer’s 4/10 Risen review, by Dan Whitehead.  Which is pretty scathing and, as many have angrily pointed out, based largely on problems with the interface, controls and technical problems that initial reports suggest are isolated to the Xbox 360 version, despite the review being listed as a multiformat one.

I think this could certainly be helped by being utterly clear about what the review applies to.  I mean, personally, I don’t think they’re the main problem with Risen; I think it’s more broken in a fundamental design sense.  But that might just be me, and Dan seems to have got on worse with the mechanistic aspects.  It’s a small shift, but that transparency could be essential in building our relationships with the audience – which, of course, as you might have gathered by now, is exactly what all these pieces are about.

Two questions to ask you, then, vagely related to all this:

1) What’s the first thing you feel when you open a mag to see someone’s written a review you violently disagree with?

2) Who’s your favourite games journalist, and why?

More soon, probably.


2 responses »

  1. Fucking review scores, they can cause so many problems with reader backlash! Didn’t we say that to each other earlier?

    Right how do I feel when I read a review I disagree with? I just take on board whatever that person has said and get on with it. If a game I had been really looking forward to, say Machinarium, was to get a really low score somewhere then I would feel a bit disappointed to read a bad review, but nothing more. – Just using that as an example other commenters!

    Faveourite games journos? Tie between Gillen, Rossignol and Francis.

  2. In response:

    1) My usual reaction is to read through, and, out loud *cringe*, disagree with every single sentence, then realise I’ve got no say in the matter as it’s usually Edge Magazine and they humble me into a little corner where all I can do is get on my knees and beg for at least a seven out of ten for my favourite new game.

    2) Hmmmm. All time favourite is still Tim Rogers, simply for how engrossing and immersive his writing is, even though it’s usually fuck-all to do with his actual topic. It’s like Ross Noble, just with videogames.

    As for my current favourite? I do love Gillen’s writing, and his off-to-the-left piece about his holiday was hilarious, but in terms of games journalism, I’m stuck.

    *Thinks for a while*

    Probably still Yahztee because he gets right to the meat of the problem with contemporary videogames design and its constant failure in the vast majority to make us go “oh wow, holy shit” any more. His videos got very boring over the summer, but he’s back on form at the moment and making me laugh out loud.

    So yeah, Hunter S Thompson’s sick lovechild or angry Brit living on the island his ancestors used as a prison.


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