The Citizen Kane of Articles
"It’s exactly a reviewer’s job to speak for the minority. A minority of one. How could a reviewer speak for anyone else? They aren’t elected to stand in for some demographic, and the review community is not a representative democracy. Every time I see a reviewer try to speak for the average player, the fabled everygamer, I see a dodge. An unwillingness to put himself out there and state his values, an attempt to hide in the crowd and submit to the majority. I see not a reviewer sensitive to his audience but a reviewer cowed."
Tevis Thompson offered this piece today on the state of game reviews, and it is well worth your time.
Though it seems perplexing that video game reviewers should lavish such praise on flawed, derivative experiences year after year, I admit to understanding their temptation. Not long ago, I was another exasperated voice in a crowd of video game defenders.
Early in my childhood I fell in love with video games, or at the very least, with their potential. The ability to manipulate characters and events in a world separate from my own astonished me, and my love for the essence of interactive entertainment never evaporated. Yet as I grew older, I struggled to find others who shared my passion.
Video games were already popular by the time I started high school, but I played far more than my peers, who normally only bought the latest Halo or Grand Theft Auto. Although my family kindly listened to my longwinded monologues on why a certain game was exceptionally great, they rarely showed an interest in playing.
I felt a sudden need to justify my passion. If IGN said Grand Theft Auto III was a masterpiece, surely my mom would treat it as such. My friends might grow out of Pokémon, but they would undoubtedly respect my desire to play the latest 9/10 in the series.
That never happened. My friends and family acknowledged surface level flaws before I did, while I stubbornly tried to distract them with the game's strong points. They were not wrong, of course, but I saw their opinion as a threat to my passion.
As I began to study video games in college, I realized how foolish I must have seemed playing the role of the video game shield. The very reason I attended USC was to make games that were not like the games being made in the industry. I knew they were flawed, but I kept my frustrations to myself out of fear that should they became widespread, those who did not see the medium's potential would help orchestrate its demise.
Championing the flawed games of today as masterpieces has the adverse effect of encouraging the same flawed games to be made tomorrow. Instead of justifying my passion by vehemently rejecting all criticism thrown at the games I played, I should have been empathetic. Yes mom, I agree that I am essentially playing a murder simulator, but there is something special about exploring a giant spaceship, and we will eventually figure out more interesting things to do inside this great space.
Over the years I read more, realized the err in my mindset, and grew up. Why haven't game reviewers done the same?
BioShock Infinite, like most blockbuster games, was reviewed like a car. Functionally it worked as intended and looked pleasing enough, so therefore it must have been a masterpiece. Should an alien civilization read all of our entertainment reviews, they would likely conclude that video games must be the most mature of the mediums because every other blockbuster game is compared to Citizen Kane.
As Thompson so aptly pointed out, BioShock Infinite suffered from a seriously muddled political message and uncreative game mechanics, but it was pretty and it worked. Isn't that enough?
Maybe for some reviewers, but I am inclined to agree with Thompson on his point on subjectivity:
"This cult of objectivity has it exactly backwards. They want it to be one way. But it’s the other way. A good review is openly, flagrantly, unabashedly subjective. It goes all in with the reviewer’s biases. It claims them for what they really are – not tastes, not mere opinions, but values. It is a full-throated expression of one person’s experience of a game. This is the authority it claims – the player’s. And how could it be any other way? How can a reviewer get outside him or herself?"
I doubt game reviewers would have praised Infinite so highly had they embraced their own subjective opinions, but most of our critics exist to recommend a game purchase, not to establish a dialogue surrounding its importance. There are commercial reviews and there are academic reviews, the former of which still possess a much louder voice. Perhaps some critics shared Thompson's concern that Infinite's world would have been more interesting to explore without a gun, then decided this was a personal preference not worth discussing when evaluating whether a player should buy the game.
A couple of weeks ago I saw Alfonso Cuarón's film Gravity, which has an absurdly high Metascore just like BioShock Infinite. I found the portrayal of Sandra Bullock's character as a helpless astronaut repeatedly saved by men to be misogynistic, and I could not help rolling my eyes when her clichéd backstory was introduced. Even so, I enjoyed the film. I came away with a sense of awe and wonderment from its depiction of space that felt new and exciting, and its cinematography left me breathless.
Judging by the Metascore, I expected that most of the reviews would not mention the flaws I encountered and focus squarely on the spectacle. I was wrong. Most identified its storytelling shortcomings, but concluded that it was a marvelous achievement nonetheless.
The best critics praise greatness while exposing weakness, and their responsibility is not just to help us decide what to buy, but to challenge us to create better work in the future. I disagree with most of the criticism Thompson leveraged toward other games in his essay, and that's perfectly fine. A strong argument against a popular opinion is immensely more valuable than a hollow nod in agreement.