March 31, 2017

The Game Beat Weekly: The pressure to stay in line

I'd like to start off with two quotes this week. The first comes from IGN's Alanah Pearce, who admitted her trepidation before bad-mouthing Mass Effect: Andromeda during some lengthy video impressions last month.
“I, full disclosure, am scared of saying negative things about it, because I know how passionate people feel about this, but it feels a little more bro-ey than previous games did, and it feels more like a cover-based bro shooter than it does of Mass Effect."
The second comes from Deadspin writer Albert Burneko, who felt the need to apologize multiple times before bad-mouthing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

“I feel a strange but real impulse—as a nostalgic lover of the Legend of Zelda series (and, yeah, of Nintendo itself) whose heart swells at the sounds of the Hyrule Field theme from 1998's Ocarina of Time—to apologize for this take . ... I’m sorry! It’s just not doing anything for me at all.“

These apologetic quotes both get at a truth that's rarely explicitly acknowledged in the world of game criticism: being out of step with the critical or fan consensus on a big-name game or franchise is often not an easy thing to do.

At best, having a contrary opinion about a big game these days means being subject to a huge stream of nasty comments, tweets, and e-mails about your view. Many of these will simply point out how many other outlets disagree with your opinion of the game, as if that's supposed to convince you that your opinion is objectively wrong or something. Worse, maybe rabid fans might try to DDOS your site, as happened to Jim Sterling after a less-than-perfect 7/10 review of Breath of the Wild this month.

I feel like the lack of tolerance for a wide range of differing opinions on a work is somewhat unique to popular video game criticism. That's probably because most video games don't see a truly wide range of varied opinions from the critical establishment. This also extends to the mass of fervent "core gamers" that usually quickly converge around one "safe" conventional wisdom on a title's quality, and which can refuse to acknowledge the validity of any other takes.

I once heard a story (I don't remember from where) that Rotten Tomatoes at one point tried to apply its simplified "thumbs up/down" ratings to video games. The site supposedly gave up rather quickly because the results for games were never very interesting. Every game's summary, it seems, came back nearly 100% or 0% "fresh" -- there was little of the many varied gradations between "universal praise" and "universal scorn" that characterize the site's movie and TV reviews.

This story might be apocryphal, but it's also eminently believable. Just look at the ratio of "positive" to "negative" reviews on Metacritic for most games. It's very rarely anything close to balanced, even if the particular numbers on the site's 100-point scale numbers may vary up and down a bit. When you get down to it, though, a 90/100 review and an 85/100 review both pretty much agreed on a game's overall merits.

While there are a few polarizing exceptions (Beyond: Two Souls immediately comes to mind), game reviewers as a whole tend to agree much more than we disagree on what makes a game "good." Some of this is due to a lack of diversity (both in background and in taste) of the people writing the bulk of game reviews. But part of it, I think, is a kind of groupthink that can easily infect the popular discourse surrounding some of the biggest games.

After you play enough games and read enough reviews, you can kind of predict what kind of aggregate reception a game is going to get from the bulk of your colleagues, even if you never talk to them about it beforehand. Reviewers also generally know what sells, and can also sense the level of hype and name recognition of a big-name game before its release. We can also probably tell you what range of scores will be considered "acceptable" to a hype-frenzied fan base before a review copy even hits our hands.

After conventional wisdom has congealed post-release, it can be even harder to knowingly give an unpopular opinion. You know you'll be accused of just being contrarian as a form of clickbait, or hating on a game just because you can't stand that it's popular, or of Slatepitching a ridiculous "actually, this bad thing is good" hot take. What's worse, given all the research into how our brains are hardwired to seek the agreement of those around us, what you think of as an "honest opinion" can't help but be infected somewhat by the overwhelming critical discourse. What is beauty?! What is truth?!

This pressure probably isn't enough for a critic to give a rave to a game that's they truly think is bad, or to pan a game they unexpectedly loved. Consciously or unconsciously, though I think a lot of reviewers subtly tailor their opinions towards this expected consensus, afraid of attracting too much reader or publisher ire for being the lone dissenting voice with the "wrong" opinion on a game (how do I know it's wrong? Because everyone else disagrees, you biased idiot!)

In the end, the simplest way to fight back against this problem may be for reviewers to simply be aware of it. Once you realize the effect that the pressure of the critical consensus might be having on your views, you can take steps to try to combat it in your own work. Sure, there's always the chance of overcorrecting to an overly contrarian viewpoint, or being overly analytical about what your actual opinion would be in a vacuum. Still, I think this kind of self-awareness is important to being a critic in today's hyperconnected age.

Quick Hits

  • Valve is apparently consulting with Jim Sterling, TotalBiscuit, and other outspoken media personalities on what they can do to make the Steam platform better. This is an unusually direct form of influence on a major publisher that most in the media only get to have indirectly, though their work. On the other side, it's an unusually direct bit of outreach to prominent media voices on Valve's part.
  • After not updating for over a month and accusations of problems paying writers, Kill Screen has now apparently taken down all of its online articles and replaced its web presence with a store page for its print and digital editions. I have no inside information on what's going on over there, but it doesn't seem good.
  • This kind of analysis showing how little the Nintendo Switch is being covered compared to other consoles is endlessly fascinating to me. It's worth remembering that a large part of the media's influence isn't necessarily in what we say, but in what we choose to write about or not write about at all.
  • “Hi, I’m Chris Kohler, Kotaku’s new Features Editor. I’d like to introduce myself to you by talking about how much I love the Super Nintendo, or Ouendan. And that’s what I’d do if this were a video game website. But since it’s about snacks and anime, I will begin with Japanese curry secrets.”

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