A Critic, Reviewer & Gamer Walks Into A Bar…
If you’re waiting for a punchline, there isn’t one. But if you assumed that the title referred to three separate entities, then congratulations: Not only have you lost the game, entirely, but you’ve also gone and proved the point of this article before it has even gotten under way. You over-achiever, you.
I recently read an interesting, eye-opening but not altogether agreeable essay on videogame reviews, and while it might not have been something I took word-for-word as gospel, it did highlight some very interesting aspects of gaming that I had either not stopped to consider, or closed my eyes to. In any case, it got me thinking enough that I wanted to talk about it here today. Not in a ‘recite verbatim, stuff that’s already been said in the source link’ kinda way. Rather, in a ‘pick a particular point and elaborate further, with some personal thoughts’ kinda way.
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Although that said, the link above is pretty much required reading. But since I know that most of you won’t read it anyway, feel free to go ahead and we’ll just assume you did.
Now. There seems to be a common belief that there’s a difference between a critic, a reviewer and your average gamer. In some ways, sure, there are certain connotations attached to calling yourself each of those. And certainly, an individual who is considered, say, a critic, might justify that label by being hypercritical. But what if I told you that there’s more to it than that? What if I told you that attempting to encompass all three groups is the best thing you could do for your gaming experience? Intrigued? Well, you’d better pick the red pill so you can read on and find out.
Let’s first play along with this notion and attempt to define the three groups for everyone who’s wondering what the differences actually are.
A critic is someone who plays a game and attempts to break it apart into its absolute bare-bones intricacies, citing factors that might not even be relevant to the experience of playing it, all for the purposes of critique. They are the ones who will pick apart a game the likes of BioShock: Infinite for having an ironically cyclic approach to the racism themes, or mapping interactions with Elizabeth to the ‘use’ button, as if she is some object in the game to be utilised when necessary. They exist to help us to understand the progression of gaming as a whole. Let’s call it macrogaming, for the purposes of this article.
A reviewer is someone who plays a game and attempts to provide constructive advice to you, the reader, in order for you to make an educated purchasing decision. They might or might not enjoy the game they play, and will tell you, either way. They will cite flaws and either use them as justification for not recommending a purchase or dismiss them as irrelevant to the overall experience of the game. They’re the ones who might complain about BioShock: Infinite’s average gunplay, before dismissing it as secondary to the game’s story. They exist to help us make purchasing decisions and thus, are relevant on a per game basis. Let’s call it microgaming, for the purposes of this article.
A gamer on the other hand, is a slightly more difficult one to approach at face value. This can be a very bipolar label, where you get those to whom nothing is ever good enough, and you also get those to whom very little can put a foot wrong. We’re going to ignore the first of those two extremes because those are the cryfacers that nobody actually likes. The latter group, however, are vehement in their enjoyment of games, and adamant in their defence of their experiences. Their opinions are golden and if you conflict with them, then you’d better watch out because you’re going to get judged harder than the prime suspect in a Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode. They exist to simply play games and appreciate them.
You might find that in the ‘games as art’ debate, critics are the ones at the forefront of arguing either for or against, because after all, such a debate is concerned with macrogaming, or, the state of gaming as a whole. Reviewers, meanwhile, are busy talking about their experiences with particular games, and criticising sales figures and so on, because those tend to relate more to specific games, or, microgaming.
There are very clear distinctions between each group but up until now, I’ve not elaborated on my initial point: That it’s possible for all three of these to be found in a single person.
Mostly, I’m not saying that it’s currently a thing that exists in the world. Ninety percent of the time, it isn’t. But I’m just giving it a right go and hoping that enough people agree with this idea that it’s possible to be a critic, a reviewer and a gamer. You might not actually be a writer on a website, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be a reviewer. You might not actually care about games as art, or the medium’s progression, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be a critic. I find that a lot of times, people are so afraid to criticise a game because they don’t want it to ruin their experience, and I can’t help but think, what makes you so sure it would?
I hear it often that every person is entitled to their own opinion and so we must respect those of others, but then those same people would direct ill feelings towards me because my opinions don’t reflect their own? Please, man. The amount of people who tried to convince me that my opinion of The Last of Us was incorrect, and that it was obviously my own experience of the game that was at fault… seriously, are they really trying to say that I played the game incorrectly?
A lot of this comes down to the belief that if you’ve enjoyed a game, then you ought not to criticise it. After all, it provided you with hours of entertainment and the developers worked hard on the game, so who are we to pick it apart? I find that mentality frankly immature. Those developers are paid for their efforts. Compensated. Yes, crunch times are a bitch and some gamers are ridiculously unfair on developers, some going as far as issuing death threats, which is just not on. Yes also, sometimes publishers put unnecessary pressure on developers to produce something that the developer would not otherwise produce.
Does this then excuse the final product? Is it then okay to spend our hard-earned money in this way?
I find that the clearest distinction between the gamer, the reviewer and the critic involves two things:
- Passion — A gamer is passionate about gaming, but not in the same way as the reviewer, or the critic. A gamer is passionate about the experience and fun factor; a reviewer is passionate about the value of the game and the amount of entertainment value derived from it; a critic is passionate about progressing the medium and creating games that are inherently better than their predecessors.
- Finances — A money trail is important because it tells you where the money came from and where it went. Typically, the gamer is not part of a fully functional family in which there are many incurred costs, however there are outliers to this; a reviewer will get most review titles for free and so, must consider but cannot quite know the real value attached to those games based on the amount spent; a critic however, is typically part of a family and must provide for that family while also attempting to sate a gaming desire, thus, a lot more value is placed on each gaming experience and time wasted in a game is time wasted in real life.
When it comes to passion and desire, it pays to be critical. For one, it’s just a really neat way to be frugal about your money. For two, it helps the industry to progress as a whole. Many of you guys who immediately dismiss negative opinions of games the likes of The Last of Us and BioShock: Infinite don’t realise that it actually does the industry harm when we not just accept but wholly praise a game for being good without pointing out the rest of it. The amount of perfect scores each game has received. And again, that’s not to say that the games were awful. Far from it, they were both brilliant titles. But that does not, or should not, absolve them from criticism.
No game is above criticism.
Consider if you will, this year’s Game of the Year candidates and last year’s. There’s a certain calibre that you expect when you affix the title ‘GotY contender’ to something, and yet we’ve had a lot of sub-par or decent-at-best experiences and right now a lot of people are leaning towards the aforementioned two games and Grand Theft Auto V as realistic GotY contenders. Do you not also feel as if the standards have dropped a bit?
One last example: Consider a relationship with a partner. You cannot simply lean on the good parts of that person because you would essentially be living a lie. Blinding yourself to their faults means that some day it will come back to bite you in the ass. And then you’ll wonder what went wrong, oblivious to your own ignorance. On the other hand, if you are aware of the faults of your partner and accept them as they are, then your relationship is all the better for it, and you may live happier with the truth until
they leave you for someone better your dying days.
I used to believe that it was a really dick thing to always be hyper-critical with my gaming, but after playing The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V recently, finding a few flaws in these games, and not immediately dismissing them in favour of the fun factor, I have to say that it actually enhanced my experience. AG agreed with me when I presented my findings from The Last of Us to the eGamer group. In a way, you get a fuller, more detailed picture of the game. You are aware, not only of the good bits, but also the bad bits. You’ve gained a better understanding of the game. And as any person who’s lived a full life will tell you, understanding is everything.
And so when year-end comes and we start to ask questions about game sales, performances and why a certain game is so forgettable compared to another, we can get much easier answers in knowing exactly what some games did wrong, rather than scratching our heads and wondering why things played out the way they did.
To summarise, it’s not okay to consider a game above criticism. It’s not okay to attack the opinions of others, as you would expect nobody to attack yours. Yes, some people like to scream ‘overrated’ (something I myself was guilty of just this week, although at least I substantiated my views rather than just making vague claims) and it gets a bit annoying when other people cannot enjoy a game that you saw no problems with. Trust me, I fucking loved Lollipop Chainsaw and Deadpool, for all the good it did the world.
Look at games from every possible perspective. Whether it’s positive, negative or neutral. It will enhance your gaming experience, I promise you. By blinding yourself to a game’s flaws and living a life of blissful ignorance, and then later complaining about the stagnating gaming industry, you only do yourself a disservice. Don’t be that guy.