Folks may remember that when Battletech was released a little while ago, I had a rather… bad time with the game. It would either not launch, or crash, or simply fail to load a save file, on no less than three different PCs.
This was disappointing not only as a fan of the series, but also as a reviewer – here’s a game that I know a lot of people are enjoying, and offering high praise to… But my experience of the title was that it was essentially unplayable.
And I reviewed – and scored the game appropriately.
Not long after, I had a discussion with my colleague, Nathan Lawrence, about his review of State of Decay 2. Again, a game with a clearly passionate community, dedicated developers, and that works just fine for a lot of people… but for him it was a janky mess. He asked me how we should review games in those circumstances, where the play experience is so inconsistent across different players and reviewers.
What I told him is, I think, worth covering in the open, because it speaks to a very important aspect of game reviewing.
Essentially… we can only ever review the game that WE play. Anything else is either leaving out the core experience of the game as played by the reviewer, or an outright fabrication. And I don’t think anyone wants that from a reviewer.
There’s this odd response that I often see to reviews, along the lines of “You’re wrong, check Metacritic!” or “But I can play it/like it just fine!”, as if somehow any review outside of a standard deviation is incorrect. These lines are basically identical, because what they’re doing is calling back to an aggregation of individual reviews (not, I must say, a review itself), or simply another individual review. The thing is, if a review and its score are honest, then there’s no such thing as a review that’s wrong – they’re just different, and that’s no bad thing.
The experience of a game is always going to be more or less subjective. Between the game, and the person playing it, are layers of subjective interactions. For instance, any given first person shooter may well have reams of near perfect scores, but if you put a person who doesn’t like the genre in front of one, and tell them to review it… well, you’ll get a negative response. That’s an extreme example, but everything from a game’s setting, its colour palette, pacing, dialogue, UI design… all these interact with the player to create an individual experience of a game.
Look at Battletech, for instance – there’s a cadre of gamers who think the decision to include a they/them option for gender identity is stupid pandering, while I think it’s forward thinking and inclusive design that should be praised.
(Also, those guys are TOTALLY wrong, by the way, but you get my meaning.)
Game reviews are by nature subjective, and they can’t be anything else, and still be an honest review – and frankly, what are the alternatives? Looking back at Battletech the only alternative for me is a reviewer, if I want to somehow be a part of the group-think that people expect from reviewers, is to lie about the game. I’d have to cadge and re-write responses from other reviewers, because how else would I even know what to write? It’s just shy of plagiarism, and I’m pretty sure no-one wants that.
The experience of a game is always going to be more or less subjective.
Of course, buggy games are one thing – artistic differences are harder to quantify, but no less important. A game may be lines of code and screens of rendered polygons, but they’re also creative endeavours. Dialogue, artistic style, level design, character design, story beats, overall narrative, and, yes, I’m saying it, politics (remember: even the rejection of politics in games is a political stance)… all these things create different tensions with different people, creating wholly different outcomes when it comes to relating to a game.
And that should absolutely come out in a review, and that is absolutely how PC PowerPlay will be shaping its review process. It’s nothing new, but I figure it’s worth re-stating. We have a bit of a habit of being hard on games, and we make no apologies for it.
But trust me – our reviews will always be honest.
(Also, I can now play Battletech after a recent update AND OH BOY IS IT GOOD - an addition to the review will be forthcoming)