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In Praise of Subjective Game Reviews

The fact that I thoroughly enjoy writing game reviews must say something bad about my personality. Perhaps I overvalue my own opinion or like hearing the sound of my own voice. These flaws likely influence the tone and content of my reviews: I attempt to canvas objective components of games when I evaluate them, but in the end the final rating and much of the critique itself center on my subjective experience of a game.

Sometimes, this can verge on the extreme, and I concede that I may often be objectively unfair. About half a year ago, I posted my review of Metal Gear Solid 4 after getting the game for my then-newly acquired Playstation 3. I gave it a 6.5 and stand by that today. Before starting Kojima's "masterpiece," I was incredibly excited about it, as I had seen the stellar critical reception back in 2008 but had no way of playing the title at that time. However, I found the game deeply disappointing and wrote a review that reflected that disappointment. Admittedly, it was over-the-top. In the tagline, I set the tone by saying, "For Classification, I struggled to select between 'Overrated' and 'Pretentious.' Yup, that bad." I then proceeded to lay out a fairly narrow critique: I found the storytelling mechanism, with its long cut-scenes, unbearable (as a student, I often like to play for 30 minute to 1-hour chunks in between classes or at the end of the day, so I get annoyed when half that time ends up being absorbed by a non-interactive experience). After playing for a few hours, I actually found that I would rather do something else -- anything else -- other than load up Metal Gear Solid 4 and progress further. And given that I'm in law school and the alternative is reading Supreme Court opinions, that's really saying something. As I put it then: "Every time I think about taking it for a spin, I get this reluctance deep in my gut. Few video games make me actually cringe at the thought of playing them, but Metal Gear Solid 4 is one of them."

Solid Snake on his final adventure.

Above: Hopefully this isn't the guy out to get me for my Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots review.

People did not necessarily take well to this review. Judging by the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down mechanism the site employs, it is both my most read and most reviled piece, with just 7 of 31 users finding it helpful. One Gamespotter had the kindness to send me this thoughtful email (which I've included in full with only minor censorship):

"long story short, you are a c**k.

1st. you havent played any other metal gear solid game, why not you ch*de? maybe you would of enjoyed mgs4 more if you did c**kface.

2nd. you only played act 1?

to summarise, you are a c**k and should appreciate masterpieces, pr*ck."

I wouldn't expect it of an argument presented in this manner, but he (or she) actually makes good points. My review failed in at least two gigantic ways: (1) I hadn't experienced the rest of the series, as I never owned a Playstation console before the Playstation 3 and (2) I didn't even finish the game! From an objective perspective -- or more precisely, a perspective that expects and values objectivity in reviews -- I was in the wrong.

With all that being said, I'd now like to present my argument in praise of the completely, unabashedly 100% subjective game review.

The Minority Report

What exactly do I intend with this reference? Well, for one thing, I encourage you to see the movie and/or read the Philip K. Dick short story, both are spectacular. But more immediately relevant for me is the idea of the one voice that disagrees with the majority; in legal parlance, the dissenter, though some (see above email) have more colorful terms of art for it.

There are two ways to see your user review. One is as a standalone object, an evaluation that will be the only one that a person will see before making their decision whether or not to purchase a game. If seen in this way, a purely subjective review may be misleading, even irresponsible, and is certainly not the best way to proceed. Most game sites still review in this manner. The second way, however, is the way that I see reviews; and, I would argue, the better way to view them in today's world. This way envisions the review as part of a larger dialogue, a highly subjective opinion written in response to previous pieces and setting itself apart from those pieces in some meaningful way. User reviews in particular capture this new paradigm perfectly; most of the time, when I look at user reviews, I try to pick out at least one that rates the game extremely highly and one that rates it much lower (say -2.0 or more relative to the most ecstatic writers advocating a score of 9.5 or 10.0). This tactic helps me understand both sides of the ongoing argument about a game's merits and is immensely helpful in making purchasing decisions.

In the larger dialogue of critique, one highly relevant viewpoint is the person who says, "X was so boring or alienating that I couldn't even finish it." It would be disastrous for us if we only considered the opinions of people who made it through a game (or any work of art) entirely. After all, half the English majors you ask about James Joyce's "Ulysses" will tell you that they found it unbearable and couldn't finish more than 50 pages of it. It's worth hearing from those people; pick up the book tomorrow, and there's at least a 50% chance you'll have the same reaction.

Interestingly enough, this sentiment cropped up in the most recent column from Penny Arcade regarding Final Fantasy XIII. I'm not even sure if I'm permitted to quote from their site, but until someone tells me otherwise, here goes nothing: "We have at times considered the plight of the games reviewer. Forced by the mechanism to consume games, because more games are coming, cresting the hill, and these games must be consumed also - but at least someone is compensating them for their time. I considered loading it up last night, just as I have every night since I got back, and I could make no cohesive argument for why I should do that and not something else. It's horrifying to think that I had defeated Uncharted 2 by this point, traversed a full narrative arc, in the time it took me to hate Final Fantasy XIII."

Going back to the subject of my Metal Gear Solid 4 review for a second, I believe I approached it with some traits that must be shared in common with other gamers. I'm of a similar age to many (22); I have enjoyed stealth action games in the past, such as Splinter Cell; and I had not played any of the Metal Gear Solid games prior to the last one. For people with similar characteristics, perhaps the reaction would be similar, and they would be served well by heeding my warning. Then again, maybe not. In the larger picture, the great thing about user reviews is that they average out over the entire Gamespot population. Considering Metal Gear Solid 4 still boasts a 9.4 weighted average, it seems clear that not many people experienced the same problems I encountered with the game. But if a larger percentage had, wouldn't you want to know that? And what better way would there be to convey that issue than for those gamers to give the game a low score and consequently drive down its average?

Games as Lived Experience

Most importantly, we should remember that people don't play games "objectively." They experience them, and while their enjoyment certainly bears some relation to the graphics, gameplay, replayability, and story, those simply cannot explain the entirety of any person's encounter with a particular title.

This phenomenon is most readily observable in our attitude toward sequels. Some take the following attitude: X was a 9.0 game; X II adds gameplay feature Y that is a marginal improvement on X, so it must be 9.0 or better. But this simply isn't what happens, at least for myself, when I play a sequel. Gears of War (2006) was an unforgettable experience, because it was the first "next generation" game I played, the first I purchased for the Xbox 360. Rainbow Six: Vegas, released in the same month, also enthralled me. Yet when I visit their sequels, released years later, that same feeling doesn't automatically come back. My jaw dropped the first time I played a UE3 game, but after it became the standard, I began to see the flaws of the series more clearly. I believe the same thing just happened to me with Bioshock 2: a return to Rapture, to be sure, but not the one that captivated me in 2007.

The Cogs step off their noble steed in Gears of War (2006).

Above: Delta Company's first adventure blew my mind, and I reviewed accordingly (9.5).

Below: Don't these games look awfully similar? Gears of War 2 had the same gameplay and a story equally as over-the-top as the first. But after two years had passed, the "Wow" factor was gone, and it was an 8.5 at best in my mind.

Cole returned for his second tour of duty in 2008.

Certainly it seems unfair at first for Bioshock 2 to receive a lower score than the original based on a subjective feeling. But consider the alternative: what if a reviewer who did not enjoy the sequel as much as the original feels compelled by that logic to give the game a score at least as good as that given to its predecessor? When readers rush out to buy the game and then feel the same sense of subjective letdown -- for surely the feeling cannot be entirely unique to that reviewer -- who is to blame? Considering that the worst feeling one can have after making a purchase is buyers' remorse, that sense of disappointment that comes with excessive anticipation or failed expectations, shouldn't we take special care to capture that subjective element in reviews?