Galvatron asks a few game industry based questions.
The interactive entertainment industry has come a long way in a relatively short period of time, continuing at a steady pace to penetrate into the mainstream psyche; not just with every blockbuster, replete with big budget marketing campaigns spread across digital and printed media, but smaller, more artistically recognised efforts made for a fraction of the development costs.
For every Grand Theft Auto that dwarfs previous revenue, once the royal reserve of film or music, there shines a Journey or Gravity Rush; elevated to gaming noir by the industry’s generation of gamers, now grown with emotional attachment, influence and expendable income to broker both their own habits forged years back, their children also.
Nostalgia combined with the evolution in gaming makes the prior stereotypes of Pacman or Asteroids not only ancient to today’s cinematic experiences, but positively insulting. Retro classics in today’s industry mean Flashback, Final Fantasy VII or Speedball II.
The image of gamers themselves has also matured to correlate with it’s larger audience; once laughably the domain of the bedroom geek, adverts and demographic analysis denotes that for every Call of Duty purchased by teenagers or gamers in their twenties, there’s Brain Train procured by parents FOR parents, or Football Manager for office workers via IOS / Android devices on the 7.23am to Fenchurch Street. In many a case the protagonist who skilfully sniped you from a bewildering distance could well be a female Lecturer based in Hawaii, or a serving Private enjoying downtime.
State it with a nudge; gaming is becoming an acceptable mainstay of popular culture. Movies, sitcoms and music increasingly reference it, from Rules of Engagement to Lana Del Ray. The gaming console has shifted it’s perspective from the bedroom to the living room.
It’s a disappointing situation then that the pivotal game review, hewn to inform the buying public of each titles DNA to separate it from genre staples, is currently a diluted, incoherent voice.
I take no inherent satisfaction from this attack, which it effectively is, save the opportunity to articulate issues bubbling under the surface; like most gamers, I’m a professional with varied interests outside of it, including sport, film and music. My interest was secured by the arrival of the Commodore 64 and it’s escapist digital representations of interactive worlds, an interest maintained with a roll-call of gaming systems, from Game Boy to Playstation, PC to Vita. All had their share of classics, some more than others.
As such, I remember reading my brothers copy of Zzap 64 regularly, primarily for it’s reviews of classics such as Rambo, Joe Blade & Sanxion, in addition to it’s free games sellotaped to the front cover. In my final year of school in Middlesex, with a progressive understanding of the English language, a quality publication surfaced which continues to be a valuable source of reference to this day; Edge.
Edge didn’t just use niche literary terms, imaginative metaphors or a mature perspective to preview or review titles supremely well. It gave – and continues to give – structure to it’s objective summaries which usually involved a key fundamental; outlining the mechanics of how a game actually plays. To elaborate; what is the cumulative effect to the player of a series of button presses and movement in relation to it’s digital representation on screen, and how satisfying is that experience?
Unlike film or music disciplines which are passive, albeit no less gratifying experiences, gaming requires active interaction by the recipient to indulge it’s worlds. Thus, in this reviewers eyes, it’s paramount in reviews to outline it’s specific play mechanics when informing whether to buy, rent or ignore. Whilst growing budgets dictate narrative should involve characters motivations or story arcs, that is a pivotal hook of a literary novel or film. Gaming has the capacity to bypass that necessity by placing the recipient into it’s world AS a character. It’s what you do within that world, and how well you do it, which is the key to determining the title’s level of success. Seminal classics such as Another World, Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Shadow of The Colossus rightfully placed a direct correlation between immersion and playability. A specific, recent example is Assassin’s Creed: Liberation on Playstation Vita; whilst the game was bizarrely criticised for it’s apparent lack of character motivation, I for one was primarily interested in the technological and thus immersive leap of a fully realised 3D realm into portable form. A fact sadly lost on many of today’s reviewers, unable to grasp this key differentiator to the growing bemusement of the gaming public it claims to represent. Many an owner of Liberation will be nodding accordingly at this point.
Conversely, many reviewers will be reading thus far and firming to the notion I am stating the bleeding obvious. It is precisely why I’ve chosen to write this article when I say the evidence is there to the contrary; either by design or through negligence, gaming journalism is failing to inform, it’s ability to influence hamstrung by it’s own proliferation, with professional perspective often replaced by a misplaced yet growing sense of self-importance.
Exhibit A is possibly the most pretentious review I have come across in 25 years of gaming; for Call of Duty: Black Ops II on home consoles, on a mainstream pure gaming website popular in both the far east and western hemisphere. It was less a review and more a 1500 word ‘article’ outlining the story and its emotional impact to the player in the first 1000 words. That’s right, the rambunctious Call of Duty series. The title has many strengths, however character narrative is not one of them. The remaining 500 words described the length of the campaign, it’s set-pieces and multiplayer component. At no stage whatsoever did the reviewer accurately relay the tangible feeling of the actual mechanics of it’s gameplay. Zero.
Moreover, this was a featured review. An exception to the rule? I’d genuinely love to say yes, but that would not only negate the point of this article, it’s unfortunately a growing trend by gaming Editors and writers to ‘innovate’ their verdicts, thus onwards to Exhibit B.
Recently, on the same website I came across an umpteenth review of a very different type of game which I’ve decided to purchase on the Playstation Vita; Persona 4 Golden. Whilst I’ve recently come to the realisation that many of my all-time favourite games have originated from Japan, including luminaries such as Shadow of The Colossus, Metal Gear Solid 3, The Ocarina of Time & Demon’s Souls, I’ve never been taken in by kitsch anime either by it’s form in film (Akira aside) nor games (Final Fantasy 7 also aside). Persona, a sprawling RPG, has received critical acclaim since it’s initial release on PS2. Whilst also carrying out day-to-day tasks as part-time jobs, making friends, attending classes and securing girlfriends, it’s a totally different title to many a gaming diet. As I say with a keen sense of intrigue; Japanese kitsch.
This particular review was effectively a ‘discussion’ of the title’s selected talking points by two reviewers who clearly revelled in what they felt was a revolutionary review, yet amounted to nothing more than an unstructured, uninformative conversation in the very best traditions of self-promotion. The type of conversation one is forced to endure on commuter-packed journeys to and fro work. In their defence, if i was seeking an article to confirm gaming is as sexist and churlish as ever it’s a great reference point. It certainly wasn’t a summation of the title’s gameplay mechanics. Yet not a single review has given me the information I sought to affirm my buying instincts; Are the characters walking past static screens a la Final Fantasy 7 / Resident Evil 2, or interacting with it in three dimensions? Can you move the camera in both the turn-based battles and the general world? For a title with circa 70 hours of gameplay, what level of interaction is there with the background?
It rankles highly that despite dozens of reviews on Metacritic and elsewhere, 75% of all reviews focus on what the player will do within the confines of the game environment, rather than relaying those actions directly to the gamepad. Read any of the 25+ reviews available online and chances are they will attempt to impress upon you that one of Persona’s key strengths is ‘you go to school, take a part-time job, choose a girlfriend or sometimes choose to study’ with a nonchalance suggesting you actually participate in those activities with zero questioning of suspension of disbelief.
Really? When you ‘go to school’, what does that actually involve in the context of holding a controller in your hands and how long is that an activity in real-time? Because if undertaking a part-time job amounts to a few button clicks, then that is surely worth mentioning?
Furthermore, look back at the Metacritic ratings for Far Cry 2. I bought that title on PS3 for the same reasons countless reviewers feigned upon; the variety of open-world stealth and gun options, it’s ‘living, breathing world’ and, my personal favourite, ‘grass swaying from wind adds strategy to burning out enemies’. None of this was true on the PS3 version; guard posts re-spawned, enemies lacked variety and amounted to mindless shooting. AI, supposedly refined, was a million miles from Halo, it was more akin to PS2. Surely the law of averages would dictate most reviewers will acknowledge this in the body of a review. Bizarre. Was it because the publisher and developer had made the reviewers feel part of the industry with endless preview invites, replacing true preview honesty with marketing spiel which simply ended up embarrassing the reviewers?
Exhibit C is the growing trend of pretentious reviewer who is ignorant of a gaming system’s audience and should respectfully choose to verbalise their comments in a pub rather than assume responsibility to accurately inform. Enter stage left, the PS Vita.
I’ll lay my cards on the table for the sake of transparency; so exacerbated am I and a growing base of gamers at the vitriol aimed at Sony’s Playstation Vita by popular gaming websites it singularly prompted me to respond as a volunteer reviewer to Push Square and The Vita Lounge and balance out the growing bias and negligence of certain ‘influential’ sections of the console reviewing community.
Like many a gamer who actually own’s the device and buys titles for it, I believe it to be a ground-breaking system. Certain titles deserve recognition not merely for their technical accomplishment but supreme gameplay – NFS: Most Wanted, Gravity Rush, Sine Mora, Wipeout 2048, MGS3 HD, AC: Liberation, Uncharted: Golden Abyss. Yet all have been downgraded by mainstream gaming reviewers for either lacking the technical wizardry in comparison to the PS3 or for other irrelevant reasons, such as lazy comparisons with smartphones or tablets, despite the laughable notion of playing any FPS on Vita’s twin sticks versus a pure touch interface deemed identical. Indeed, the recent high-profile release COD: Declassified makes this point irrefutable; the Metacritic critics average it out at 33. It is, by this reviewers own admission, flawed in a number of aspects. Yet users give it circa 5.5.
Why the anomaly? Certainly in part due to Activision not dispatching free review code (ironically anticipating a backlash due to minimal content) and therefore requiring review sites buy their own. Like their games-buying public.
The irony of that pomposity is seemingly lost on them, with vociferous denials rendered impotent by the sneering contempt for the device and evident in paragraph after paragraph in their own reviews and gaming podcasts, who on occasion tempt buyers such as myself to hold them to account in a live, public discussion and not only blow away these lazy arguments, but ensure they are not a sign of things to come. Oh, and these are allegedly PS3 or pro-Sony publications, yet the bile for Vita is so palpable in their rationales they fail to realise actual gamers don’t just seek true representation of customer feedback or a machine / title’s genuine worth.
We demand it.
For reasons unbeknownst to anyone but themselves, these ‘critics’ are salivating at every review opportunity to pen the machines epitaph. Yet owners, who have ploughed hundreds of their hard-earned wages, are absolutely enjoying the machine, it’s growing content and looking forward to increasingly impressive titles. Is Q1 or Q2 2013 barren in releases? Yes. Similarly to early PS3 releases, incidentally. Does the machine already have a glut of AAA quality titles after it’s first year to encourage optimism? Absolutely. It is, without any shadow of a doubt, the best portable console yet released, and as my downloaded copy of Prometheus testifies, a fantastic media player also, with PS1 compatibility fluent and digital downloading direct to the system a breeze.
From a journalistic standpoint, Vita owners deserve to have such positivity represented with reviews which aren’t skewed in the first instance. Moreover, the issue is compounded by stupidity on an embarrassing scale; continuously comparing titles on Vita directly to their PS3 counterparts so regularly they need to be informed that the machine is a handheld device, not a home console with a 250gb hard drive and multiple outputs designed to maximise HD / DTS connectivity.
There’s a discrepancy here between these gaming ‘experts’ and the buyers they claim to represent. Unfortunately, this realisation is the sole reserve of the machine’s owners and certain independent websites who restore your faith in not just positive critique, but sound judgement based on gaming fundamentals.
It’s time that certain ‘influential’ gaming Journalists and Editors took a step back and remembered their objectivity, especially if they evidently yearn to be considered on a par with their film and music counterparts. As the industry continues to expand with greater revenue, attention and media saturation, a holistic and structurally objective review community is absolutely necessary. Critics can still have the final word, should they approach the medium with a sense of responsibility.
Review both hardware and software fairly; inform the reader of key information to sway buying decisions, remove your personal bias and avoid ‘innovative’ reviews so as to not suggest you would prefer to analyse works of 1900 fiction instead.
Looking back at the history of gaming and my own introduction to it’s delicacies, it’s important one does recognise the indispensable role reviews play in providing commentary and critique to the industry’s most revered and equally reviled releases. This article, whilst seeking to hold ignorant or biased commentators to account, recognises there are many strong, independent and fair voices, both in tone and conclusion, within the industry. My focus in temporarily hijacking the spotlight direction and reviewing the reviewers, is in part drawn from frustration and equally recognition that for every such article, there’s a flipside of independent, high quality alternatives deserving greater voice for the right reasons. As gamers, we owe it to ourselves to highlight who exactly are serving our interests, versus their own.
Reviews are often, for millions of gamers, a pre-cursory taste of an ordered wine; just like a Sommelier with a negative critique however, it should recognise the responsibility of it’s recommendation. I have selected some of the finest wines in gaming largely due to the process of reviews both mainstream and independent and this will continue. The trick to keeping the balance, however, is to remember they and we are not part of the gaming industry. We are part of it’s audience.
After all, are we not all gamers in the first instance?
Reviewing the Reviewers
Edge – 9/10
Trusted Reviews 8/10
The Vita Lounge – 8.5/10
Push Square – 8.5/10
IGN – 4/10
Gaming Informer – 6/10
CVG – 7.5/10
Destructoid – 8/10
Gaming Age – 8.5/10
EGM – 7/10
GameCritics – 7.5/10
Kotaku – 5/10
Game Revolution 8/10
GamesTM – 7/10
Galvatron image is from yand.re