I watched a woman cry because of my words Tuesday night.
Indie Game: The Movie is a documentary that follows the development of three video games: Braid, Fez, and Super Meat Boy. During the tail end of the movie, Super Meat Boy developer Edmund McMillien is shown alongside his wife Danielle as they watch my review of the game that they both sacrificed so much for to see through to completion. My voice plays in the background, reading from a script I wrote more than 18 months ago. I mentioned the precise controls and the way the game skirted frustration while Edmund and Danielle sit on a couch listening to my words. When the review concludes, Danielle ducks behind her laptop, overcome with emotion. "They get it," She said. "They understood what you were doing."
Watching people react to my review made me feel like a dirty voyeur peering behind a curtain. Ever since I got hired by GameSpot almost four years ago, I have actively tried to shield myself from anything that could potentially taint my opinion of a game before I sit down to review it. Avoiding previews has been one such tactic because they have a tendency to build unrealistic expectations that cloud my thoughts. Talking to developers is even more problematic. Though conducting interviews is occasionally part of my job, I go to great lengths to keep things distant and impersonal, so I never dive below the surface of the work to reveal the person beneath it.
My entire philosophy of hiding from anything that could influence my evaluation was shattered Tuesday night. Now, I am fully aware of how people might react to my words. Livelihoods--even futures--are determined based on the success or failure of a given game, and reviews can shift the buying public's feelings.
I almost wished I hadn't watched Indie Game: The Movie at all.
It was sobering to see the raw emotional reaction to my words displayed on the big screen.But that's a silly notion. I always knew in the back of my mind that my reviews can have an impact. I've heard that certain companies determine bonuses based on the Metacritic average of a game, and I've seen forum members passionately argue about review scores for games they haven't even played. I've always known the power of reviews; it was just sobering to see the raw emotional reaction to my words displayed on the big screen. So that's something I have to accept and overcome. Developers are real people who are affected by reviews. But their reactions won't change how I approach my work, so I shouldn't let Danielle's tears get to me.
So what do I take from that scene? Honestly, I feel pride in my review. Not every review of mine is up to the high standards I hold for myself, and there are some that I wish I could write again. But Super Meat Boy was a review that I slaved over, and I felt even at the time that I was getting to the heart of what makes the experience so incredible. To see Danielle and Edmund say that I understood what made the game so special felt empowering. Their reaction solidified my belief that with hard work I can separate the special quality every game carries.
I still remember the reaction when I sent my review around the office to be read before it was published. We have an extensive QA process for every review at GameSpot where we read each other's work and suggest ways to possibly improve it. Usually, these changes boil down to sentence structure and other grammatical quibbles. But sometimes, opinions are challenged. Super Meat Boy was just a simple-looking 2D platformer, and I was the only one who had spent extensive time with it. Of course people were going to question my preposterously high score (9.5!) and bold claims (Frustration free? But it's so difficult!).
But I defended my review with as much passion as anything I can remember in my professional life. Super Meat Boy was a game I fully believed in, and I needed to explain that it really was everything I had said it was. It's rare for a game to come along that conjures the strong emotional response Super Meat Boy tapped into, and trying to get across just how much of a leap it offered from comparable games was not an easy task. I fought to have certain statements and ideas make it through, and it was a relief to see the developers back up the claims of my strong assertions.
I realize how self-indulgent this editorial has become. And I do apologize for focusing so much on myself and my review process. But this is the one time in my short career that I have really seen how much of an impact my reviews can have, and it certainly hit me extremely hard. My words and opinions have unpredictable ramifications once I publish them. I just have to accept this idea and then move on before I freeze from the terrifying pressure of outside forces.