The Power of the Press

By Gordon Aplin (February, 2007)
In my last editorial, No, seriously..., I lamented the lack of humorous adventure games and asked for more to be made. Then in rapid succession came Ankh: Reverse the Curse, Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman's Mine, Sam & Max: Culture Shock and Situation: Comedy, Mr. Smoozles Goes Nutso, and Runaway 2: The Dream of the Turtle.

Ah, such is the power of the press!

All joking aside, the coincidence of the timing of the release of these humorous games was simply that ... a coincidence. Clearly, my editorial had no influence on the rapid appearance of these games that had been in development for a long time.

Sadly, the power of the gaming press is not always so illusory. The "Death of Adventure Games" mantra gained wide currency amongst reviewers for many of the multi-genre gaming magazines and websites, and is still trotted out occasionally by the ill-informed. How much influence this pronouncement has had on publishers is, perhaps, debatable, but it is no thanks to such reviews that adventures are still being made.

This started me thinking about the purpose of game reviews. Clearly, one of the main purposes is to inform the reader about the merits or otherwise of a particular game. If this is simply a matter of opinion then you don't need a reviewer for that. A succinct "This game sux" will suffice but it's not overly informative. However, such a 'review' just may be enough if you trust that person's opinion.

How might that trust come about? The person who posts "This game sux" to a forum may sound sincere and you could give them the benefit of the doubt and decide right then and there never to play that unfortunate game. Checking the forum a little later you spot another post by the same person proclaiming that a different game "sux". Hang on a minute, you think to yourself, I played that game and really enjoyed it. Doubt creeps into your mind. Can you really trust that person's opinion on the first game?

Ok, I'm having a bit of fun here. What really happens is that trust is built up over time. You have played sufficient games for you to know what you like and dislike, and you seek out those reviewers who have played many of the same games as you. By reading the reviews of games you have already played you can eventually find reviewers who generally share your likes and dislikes. You may not agree with everything they write but it's a close enough fit for you to trust them.

This meeting of minds sharing similar tastes in games is not as serendipitous as it first appears. After all the reviewer and the reader already have many things in common. They both enjoy playing computer games. They both enjoy discussing them. They both share a liking for the same type of game, and they have both played enough of the games to understand what it is they like and dislike about them. This process, similar to natural selection, is how the various genres evolved. Almost everyone has a preference for one or maybe two genres over the others. Players who enjoy adventure games, or roleplaying games, or combat games, or sports games will seek out similar games and share their enthusiasm with like-minded people.

It's the gameplay elements of each genre that appeals to the players and brings them back for more. These gameplay elements then 'define' the genre. Therefore it is important that the reviewer has played sufficient games of a particular type in order to write about them in a knowledgeable way. Conversely, it's not possible to fairly review a game unless you are familiar with the genre or game type to which it belongs.

This underlines the importance of the reviewer being someone who understands and likes the genre and wants to see the quality continue to improve. Unfortunately, too many of the reviews of adventure games in magazines and on multi-genre sites are written by those who actively dislike the genre and are openly hostile or ambivalent towards it. Often such reviews fail to critique adventure games for what they are, but rather criticise them for what they are not (eg other genres, as in "this game is boring it has no fighting in it"). Such generally destructive reviews serve no useful purpose as they mainly focus on the perceived shortcomings of the genre rather than the merits of the particular game under review. It's the equivalent of saying "This genre sux".

I recently read Writing for Video Games by Steve Ince and he holds a generally positive view of the usefulness of the gaming press but approaches it from a different perspective. In the context of a writer learning about what works and doesn't work in games he says:

Other valuable sources of information are the many reviews, both online and in print, which regularly highlight the problems that games may have. When written well, these reviews can really get to the heart of why a game is successful or not, and how it might have been improved if features had been implemented differently.

"When written well ..." is an important proviso and clearly shows that constructive criticism can have a positive influence on the development of future games. This is one aspect of the role of the reviewer that is frequently forgotten or overlooked.

Not all games are perfect even though we would like them to be. To point out the features of a game that, in the opinion of the reviewer, didn't work as well as anticipated is legitimate criticism. Of course, the developers may not like to hear criticism of the game that they have lived with and sweated over, often for a number of years and this is understandable. But as long as the criticism is justified and fair and not delivered in a mean-spirited way then it is a necessary function of the game review.

By the same token, too much praise without pointing out the flaws or things that 'didn't work' can also be a disservice not only to the reader who may ultimately purchase the game but also to the developer who may be inclined to think that no more improvement is possible or necessary. Reviewers (and readers), above all, need to keep things in perspective and remember that not everyone will see things in quite the same way.

Just as trust is a necessary component of the relationship between the reviewer and the reader, it is also important for the game developer. To be able to benefit from the feedback that a review provides the developer needs to be sure that the reviewer understands where they are coming from and what they are trying to do.

If reviewers do have an influence with game developers, or even publishers, it should be the positive one of applying constructive criticism where required. After all we share an enjoyment of the genre and a mutual desire for the games to be a showcase of the best the genre can offer.

Surely the power of the gaming press resides not in destructive or mischievous outpourings, but in balanced, knowledgeable and informative opinions.

Copyright © Gordon Aplin 2007. All rights reserved.