An internet-meaning-objective review is useless to me.
I’ve been reading videogame reviews for 30 years or so now, more really. Over that time, there’s been a number of constants in how games are reviewed, a number of shifts in approaches to reviews, a widening spread of angles and approaches to reviews from the personal to the critical to the bog standard common or garden consumer guide. It’s been interesting watching games and the worlds surrounding them become more expansive, more inclusive, more accommodating of different views and approaches.
Yet, the cries for objective reviews have been a constant recurring curse. I’m going to refer to it as internet-objectivity for a bit but really, it’s a cry that’s been heard since the start of videogames. The first issue of Crash magazine in 1984 has Roger Kean, the editor, explaining that their reviews had to be subjective because they’re reviews.
“Because they’re reviews” is the thing that gets lost and it’s kinda annoying when you try and explain that an objective review is actually entirely impossible because it always, always, with not a single exception, comes down to some level of subjectivity somewhere down the line. That’s frustrating. It’s also frustrating because we’re in using a word wrong territory. It’s often the case that people are either asking for reviews that agree with them (where good is their definition of good) and that’s an interesting angle but umm nope, or they’re asking for reviews that take into account multiple points of view and neither of these things, not by any reasonable definition, are “objective”.
They are both really terrible ideas, mind. That’s something, I guess.
There’s a tendency to focus on the impossibility and the futility of these demands from a writer’s point of view and I get that. I welcome that. There’s a more important point for me though. What these requests (were it possible to actually fulfil them) would achieve is to make reviews absolutely useless to most people. As a reader, as someone who buys games having read the words of others, these requests would reduce the utility of the reviews to somewhere close to fuck all.
Like, as much as I enjoy Edge as a magazine, its reviews are somewhere close to fuck all use. OK, OK, they’re of professional use to me because no matter what you think of Edge, it has sway in the industry. Whether you think it’s declined, stayed about the same or gotten better than ever before, Edge still has some not insubstantial amount of prestige surrounding it. That’s valuable to me as a person who makes games, obviously. As someone who buys games, Edge remove one of the most important pieces of information I need to help me judge a game from a review, they don’t tell me who wrote the review.
I have an Edge 8. I’m proud of my Edge 8 professionally (did I mention I have an Edge 8?). I’m proud of it personally because I know who wrote that review and for me, their approval is something I’m proud to have worked for and gained. I’m proud because I know that person’s body of work, I know their body of work because their taste often aligns with mine and when it doesn’t, they smartly tell me of the how and the why. I know that if this wasn’t my game, I’d rush out and buy it because this person recommended it to me.
But were it not my game, I wouldn’t have that context because Edge remove the reviewer’s name from the byline. No matter how glowing, divorcing the words from the human behind the words serves the industry more than it serves me as a buyer of games because I have no idea, outside the review, of the hopes, likes and dislikes of the person behind those words. A good review can overcome that, can still excite me about a single work but I’ll always know that Edge is sort of generally the work of more than one person (most of the time) so it’s only ever of use to me right there and then. I have no-one to go to for future opinions because who knows who wrote what and even if they’ll still be working there next month.
This is great for marketing! Marketing get a prestigious publication’s number to tag on their work, they get a box quote from somewhere in there and if it all works out right, they get a sale from me on the there and then. It’s shit for me in the long run because if it turns out I don’t, having now played the game, share the views of the writer I have nothing to fall back on to filter their words in future. It’s a fragile trust.
Ah, but internet-objectivity would cure that, right? Well, no. At least Edge are just removing one element of the required humanity, right? Their reviews are still the opinions of someone writing what they feel about a game, even if I don’t know who they are.
Internet-objectivity takes away more. Either it leaves me, truly, in the dark as to whether something is good or not by becoming little more than a feature list to be perused or I’m left with a review full of useless guesswork and outright bullshit because the reviewer can never really truly know what I like (if we’re assuming that a reviewer should attempt to address the hopes and tastes of everyone who might read the review). Reviews would quickly become as useless as recommendation engines that try and work out that because you watched The Breakfast Club you’d want to watch Home Alone because if you like this, you must like this because “I don’t actually know for realsies I’m making this up and hoping for the best. Do you like pink? Rate this out of 5 and I’ll see how we do next time!”
It’s about trust and trust is built on honesty. Trust is something that can be earned from the first review I stumble upon by a writer but it’s a trust that’s built on with every successive review I read from that moment on. And it’s built, entirely, on the honesty of the writer. Their ability to convey their feelings on a work, the more reviews I read from a writer being honest and telling me how they feel, the more I can build a picture of how and where their tastes align with mine. From a purely consumer view, I can make better shopping decisions this way as I’m more likely to know when I agree or disagree with elements of a work.
If we remove that ability, if we force writers to not have any opinions (even though this is absolutely fucking impossible anyway), we might as well just hand control straight over to marketing departments. If we force writers to spend their time trying to put themselves in someone else’s head, put the onus on them to represent a myriad of views that likely aren’t their own, we’re exhausting our limited word counts on guesses and fantasy, dart throws really. It becomes nothing more than “if you like x maybe you’ll like y” and that’s no good. It tells me nothing because it’s from a place that knows nothing.
Of course, marketing departments are already aware that there’s people out there who feel they don’t need that trusted relationship, that feel they don’t need buffers, just the facts ma’am. Direct marketing stuff like blogs, casts and streams direct from the source and on message (never deviating from the brand image) are on the rise. From Nintendo Direct to E3 dropping the pretence of being primarily a trade show, there’s never been more ways to get your unfiltered marketing fix. It’s not like this is a new thing, y’know? We folks don’t keep mailing lists so we can send you Christmas cards and meet up for beers every Friday, right?
I’m not really comfortable with that but whatever, I guess. As long as I’ve still got reviews, as long as I’ve still got humans to act in my interests, to be a buffer, it’s cool. I’m a smart guy but good reviews keep me smarter. They keep the industry smarter too. That seems pretty important in a space that’s fairly egregiously rode roughshod over human beings on a regular basis.
And y’know, it’s often overlooked but it’s an important point. A good videogame review (as in “good words”, not “good score”) is a joy to read. Like any media review, there’s so much that can be said about a work, so many fascinating angles to approach it from. From snark to awe and everything around and inbetween. Sometimes, often, that has a place outside of pure critique, y’know? Sometimes, when there’s nothing else left, it can just make someone laugh whilst understanding why they’re laughing at it because we’ve been here before thanks to other reviews.
I’ve only got so many years on this planet and I’ll take the joys where I can get them. Ridding the world of reviews so that marketing isn’t interfered with seems like a fairly awful result all round to me but that’s really all internet-objective reviews would achieve.
So yeah, internet-objective reviews. A shit idea. Stop it. Ta.