I respect video games and the work that goes into creating, marketing, and critiquing them. I respect the people who do these things – the developers, those who work in PR, and my peers in the gaming press. And I respect the gamers who will read my website’s reviews before (or after) playing a game.
So when I read an “honest” article about how a reviewer can’t write an honest review out of compassion for the people – his friends – on the creative rather than the critical side of the industry, I can’t help but feel a trespass upon something that I, and many others, hold so dear and work so hard to support and protect.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anyone come out and just tell it as honestly as they can, so (hopefully!) I can do an okay job of just that.”
Integrity is the biggest part of this line of work. Writing an honest review, no matter how flattering or unfavorable, is a key component of maintaining that integrity. Friendship is a wonderful side effect of such a communicative business, but without integrity, those friends a reviewer may hope to make, retain, or in the case above, placate, simply become cogs in a publication’s grander mechanisms of spuriousness. In essence, everything therefrom becomes, to a degree, counterfeit.
“So I’m sitting at my desk, thinking about writing my review, and you know what I’d probably do? I’d fudge the truth.”
Yes, developers are people who work their hardest to build the highest quality games they can. Occasionally, though, they don’t make the best game of all time. If we are to presume, as the author of the aforementioned article implies, that these people are passionate about their work and truly care about what they’re contributing to the industry, then a review saying, “it ain’t so bad,” is not doing anyone any favors. It’s lying. It won’t help those devs refine their craft and it won’t make their NEXT game better than the last. Unlike an unfavorable review that addresses a game’s design elements with well-reasoned, constructive commentary – something that will rarely be considered offensive – writing a fluffy, flowery review gives them no real feedback.
It also deceives readers.
If there’s anyone a reviewer should be writing for, it’s Joe Blogreader who comes to the website and puts all of his trust in the words he reads there (somewhere above or below that .0000000001-10.0000000000 score from a ridiculously outdated, presumptuously, pretentiously, and obnoxiously specific grade-school scoring system that only uses half of its range). Your job, Mr. Reviewer, is not to handle feelings with kid gloves; it’s to play video games and deliver honest reviews about them. If there was ever a simpler job than looking at the product of someone else’s painstaking, month/year/decade-long efforts and reporting whether it’s good or bad, then sign me up. If you have trouble doing that, you should back away from the keyboard and enjoy games casually, like everyone else who walks into GameStop on a Tuesday to pick up the latest releases… which, by the way, were reviewed by people who can write honestly and responsibly about the games they play.
You and your writing become irrelevant once you’ve sacrificed integrity. Readers have no reason to trust anything you say ever again.
Game critics and public relations professionals forge friendships all the time. We send numerous emails back and forth, work on features and promotions together, meet at trade shows, and hang out afterward at karaoke bars with half-gallon martini glasses shared by the whole table (FACT). One below-average review is not going to hurt a relationship like that, and if it does, then it probably wasn’t a “friendship” worth a damn, anyway. Some of the strongest bonds and feelings of mutual understanding come out of the conversations following unfavorable reviews. Other times, the PR specialist on the other end says something like, “Yeah, I know. We really struggled with that one. Thanks for giving it a chance.”
“But smaller outlets fudge review scores for the reasons I said earlier: They feel bad. They probably hate sending that e-mail as much as I do, so they avoid it. They spare the feelings of developers because that same developer gave them a free game.”
And just because a reviewer declares a game to be sub-par doesn’t mean that the review must be scathing, insulting, or otherwise abusive. Some outlets and reviewers get off on talking shit about a game because it’s not as polished as the Game of the Year candidate preceding it in their review archive. That’s called bullying, and it’s uncalled for. Or perhaps some reviewers simply lack the acumen to present valid arguments that don’t read like, “I don’ liek it cuz itz not gud liek that other gaem.” Strong writing in a negative review that treats the game and its developers with respect can be shared with PR and developers confidently and courteously without ever compromising on integrity and honesty, and is more often than not met with appreciation and reciprocated respect.
I’ve worked with numerous publishers for many years here at GamerNode, and one thing they can all be sure of is that I won’t lie to them. I ensure that we all take our game critique seriously here, and that we write honestly about our experiences with games. Guilt is not an option for reviewers at GN, because I personally deliver each and every review link back to PR (a few slip by during busy seasons; my bad), and I refuse to feel guilty about the value we place on honesty and integrity. Reading an article like I read last night bothers me, and I hope it bothers you, GN readers, because GamerNode would never sell your trust short or devalue our relationships with game companies because we can’t handle the truth.