Opinion

Reviewing Games is Hard

One year later, from the perspective of a new reviewer.
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Reviewing games is hard.

As specified in my editor’s piece from last year, it’s not all rainbows and butterflies, and I’ve learned about it first hand as I started writing reviews last year. I fell into the trap of “yeah, it’s just reviewing games, how is it different from a feature article?” That was my first mistake. Then I fell into the other trap of “I’ll just play this game and provide an opinion.” After a while, I’ve seen a stack of rookie mistakes piling up from trying to be edgy or just attempting to re-invent the wheel.

Reviewing games is hard, I just have to say it again for effect.

I started to write unofficial reviews starting with 13 Sentinels, and then I did a quick review for Hades, which is definitely one of those rare games that come out once in a lifetime. They were really easy articles to write because the games literally sell themselves.

Hades is probably a game I could confidently say is the closest title to a “perfect game”. It is well-designed, with a robust narrative, highly accessible, the developer not marred in controversy, and with a friendly price point. Anybody in their right minds will slap it with an Editor’s Choice given a chance, because it revitalized a genre and it’s just really well-made game that sells itself. You would have to be a complete cynic to rate this game terribly.

My real issues began when I started to write official reviews for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Watch Dogs Legion. They’re not bad games, in fact they’re titles that made me believe in what Ubisoft could do despite their controversial year and their equally controversial games. It’s really easy to fall into assumptions of accusing the titles of padding their content and offering shady microtransactions. Yet as a reviewer, they’ve surprised me with great ideas and ingenious game designs that I missed some minor aspects of the game while trying to meet deadlines, which affected my overall verdict. I finished them before publishing, but rushing to get them out was really tough.

Reviewing games is hard, because the moment you hit “publish”, you can’t take back your verdict. In some cases you’ll think about something you just thought of after your review has been published, but I just chalk it up to a learning experience and promised to do better with future reviews. I will stand by on the scores I’ve given those games and will welcome criticism as it comes.

About that game journalist difficulty…

Reviewing games is hard, because I have to play games that I have to “git gud” at. I’m confident with my writing ability, but I’m not too confident with my gaming ability. I will say a part of me gets salty when I see the “game journalist difficulty” as a joke because I do my best to “git gud” at the game with my old man reflexes in order to deliver a fair review. At times when I see another reviewer misjudge a game because they could not beat it, I resist the temptation to call them out because I have to put in the same work to get through the game.

Reviewing games is hard, because I tend to make it personal. I’m referring to my review of Returnal for context. It was one of my most challenging reviews because the game is crushing. I would play for hours and then lose all that progress because of a careless move. I eventually beat the game and even saw its secret ending and I can honestly say it is one of my contenders for Game of the Year because not only did it verify my expectations, but also surprised me on what the game can do as a narrative device. Yet I also have to admit that I was ecstatic when I actually finished the game in its entirety and could not wait to put it down.

returnal-goes-gold

Reviewing games is hard because there are times where I look at other reviewers with more experience and I kick myself because they put the review into words in which I couldn’t. I envy SkillUp for putting his objective review into words regarding Returnal, “it’s a great shooter but a mediocre roguelite”. I envy James Stephanie Sterling for being edgy and critical in their reviews and standing up against backlash from developers/publishers. I envy WhatCulture (Jules Gill), Gameranx (Jake Baldino), and Playstation Access (Ash Millman and Rob Pearson) reviewers for having passion for their love of gaming despite the many shortcomings in the industry. Reviewing games is hard because I’m just a bitter, crusty old man.

Sometimes I really don’t look forward to some game reviews because of my assumptions about the game. That goes for Souls-like games because there’s a responsibility to analyze the game inside and out and it would force me to play in a specific way that I hate in Souls-like games. Yet I took the challenge of completing an official Nioh Collection review and upon reviewing it, I admitted that there is a great game in there but my lack of skill prevents me from fully enjoying it. Yet there’s a part of me that feels this resentment against reviewers who slammed Returnal and didn’t finish the game, when I actually had to push myself to beat that game and then some.

Reviewing games is hard, because I have to realize that it’s not about me and my emotional reactions to these reviewers who don’t beat a game that I worked hard to beat, and that it shouldn’t take away from my opinion about the game. I should learn that once I’ve beaten the game, wrote the best review I could, and just walk away from it.

More than a buyer’s guide…

When I started, I felt that our rating system was great, but can be improved. I’ve had countless of discussions with other writers in the publication on how to improve it, but I’ve conceded time and time again and will stand by our rating system. Reviewing games is hard when either I fall into the trap of just writing a buyer’s guide or when I fall into the trap of letting my personal biases get ahead of myself.

I call it the “7.5 conundrum”. If you take a look at our guide, “Buy It” is roughly scored at 8-10, “Wait for It” is 5-7 generally, and Ignore it, well you get the picture. What happens to those games where you’re not too sure if it’s a Buy It or a Wait for It — the elusive 7.5 conundrum. There are times where my personal opinion would swing the vote towards either score, but really, I should be objective about this account.

There’s no hard and fast rule to avoid this conundrum, but one lazy mistake is to judge it based on its price point and how much we could justify the game based on that. There are times where I would judge a AAA game that I didn’t get my money’s worth this way, but when faced with playing the game as a review copy, a PS Plus giveaway, or a Game Pass title on Day One — how do we get past this 7.5 conundrum?

Reviewing games is hard because we have to address that as objectively and as fairly as we could. I had a difficult time reviewing The Medium because I flip-flopped between our three ratings to get to my final verdict. I personally wanted the game to succeed because there’s so much to love about the game, but I cannot deny the fact that the game released in a rough state and many gamers would probably disagree with the rating because of its lack of action. I had to be fair with the game even if my personal feelings about the game want to rate it favorably, which would be unprofessional.

In the end, I was happy with the final verdict I gave the game. One thing we realized after we’ve released the game review is that Game Pass is definitely a great service to look into for games such as The Medium.

Reviewing games is hard because I will continue to have issues with this conundrum and the only remedy will be more experience in reviewing games and finding ways to recommend them based on personal taste, objectivity, fun factor, and value for time and money. Reviewing games is hard because we’re more than a buyer’s guide and we actually put in the time and effort to deliver our opinions in the best way possible.

As a reviewer, I’m a work in progress. I still have many ways where I can improve as a reviewer and hopefully as this publication grows, so do my reviews. I agree with my editor in many ways as a reviewer, because while yes we are reviewing games and we actually get to play games, it is in the end hard work. Reviewing games is hard because we’re not only playing, we are working.

Don’t get me wrong, there are benefits to this job such as getting to play games in advance and readers will base their buying opinions on our recommendations. I’ve a friend thanking me that they’ve saved some money on Cyberpunk 2077 because of my review. I’ve friends telling me that my reviews have gotten fairer over the course of my experience as a reviewer and have held back my more scathing and personal opinions for the sake of an objective review. I do have my moments where I give into being an “edge lord” for edginess’ sake.

Reviewing games is hard, but I’ll still do it because I enjoy it. I may have gotten cynical over the years, but I still like playing games. What’s different is, I actually enjoy writing, and I get to fulfill that impulse while writing for an activity I honestly enjoy.

Author

Vincent Ternida moved Vancouver, Canada in 2006 and called it home ever since. He spends the lockdown catching up with his Japanese RPGs, writing his new manuscripts, and figuring out why he suddenly became the main character of the latest Haruki Murakami novel.

2 Comments

  1. Its odd to see this particular type of neurosis when it comes to game critique. Games are a literal art form. Only the technologically illiterate have ever stated the contrary. It is the very nature of games themselves to literally present art; and it is only through this presentation that the human mind wholly perceives it as such. I’ve noticed that it is through the turducken of overlapping concepts that confuses and obfuscates the ‘conversation’ to be wrought with perversions and misconceptions on what the nature of art is, and therefor,
    what constitutes art itself. The only matter a review – or critique – ought to be concerned with, is the context of what the game wishes to convey, how successful it is at conveying it, and whether or not it resonates with the reviewer tasked with giving their verdict. At the outset, I’m aware that the verbiage I use gives the misconception that this only covers story/theme of a work, but I promise that it is even more effective at tackling the nature of the game itself. Bullet Hells and Shoot ’em Ups have little to no story, but the nature in which a particular schmup’s scoring/mechanic system conveys a particular thematic purpose differs to what another scoring/mechanic system in another schump hopes to convey. How successful one accomplishes relaying such a theme over another isn’t the only metric, as the very nature of the particularities of what is being conveyed to the player will resonate more with certain players, and not so much with others. This is what the subjective nature of art IS.

    Even considering that beating a game is necessary for whatever reason when it comes to a review is perplexing. I’ve completed most Platinum Games, and considerably more difficult games such as lv.1 Critical Mode runs of Kingdom Hearts 2 & 3, and would not consider for a moment that a game necessitates being ‘bested’ before giving a proper assessment on it. No matter what the varying quality of a given section of a game following the moment it has already been dropped, it does nothing to belittle what the game offered prior to then. Clearly, vestiges of product review mentality have stuck around years after print media’s reliance on relationships with publishers have long since been relevant.

    A critic first and foremost ought to be concerned with what a game is attempting to convey on its own merits. Not on perceived ‘archaic’ mechanical or design implementations, but on what it provides as a work unto itself. I have to say, most of the critics you’ve listed are beyond the pale terrible at what they attempt to call a career. I don’t consider you to be the best game critic out there, but you’ve left a much better impression than most with your impressions on Bravely Default and Project Triangle Strategy; I gloss over most written stuff online for the morsels of information I can gleam from a game’s features – as most ‘professional’ critics often lean towards short-term scathing political takes to stave off the dying medium that is online blog features by doing the only thing they can: fester like ticks, getting whatever clicks they can on the very social media behemoths that are slowly killing them off to begin with. There is no need to chase after ‘takes’ on any given game. Do what so many are incapable of: take in a game as it is, and reflect on it knowing that your ego is just as significant as the work itself; it is why others are there, reading YOU, over anyone else. Children don’t have a difficult time critiquing
    games as they know what it is they like, and to some extent, why they like it. It is only the surrounding ‘conversation’ around games, from others with nothing to offer, that give any sort of perception that there is an inherent lack in viewing art in the same way a child does. It is laughable if you stop to think about it for a moment; you ARE a child, a child is a PART of you. There is not a piece of art on Earth that defies what it is you already know to be Good; or even what you’ve learnt to be Good based on experience — the only aspect of yourself that is significantly less child-like.

    • Vincent Ternida Reply

      Thank you for your observations and the honest critique regarding my work. The best I can do moving forward is to improve on my craft and be better.

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