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Objective Videogame Reviews – There’s No Such Thing

All across the internet, I see people calling out videogame reviewers for not being objective enough, or showing bias towards a particular system or game type. Actually, to be more accurate, I see things like “OMG u r so bias,” but that’s neither here nor there.

Game reviews are a subject that I’ve wanted to write about for some time. The discussion of what reviews are and what they should be is one I can have for hours. I love to debate over whether scores should be applied, what the interaction with PR should be, and the rest of those tricky ethical issues.

I feel strongly about my views, which is why I’ve been hesitant to start writing, lest I sound like I’m speaking from a soapbox. However, this point has been bothering me particularly. It’s something I just can’t stand.

People on the internet, presumably fans of games and game reviews, are calling for reviewers to be objective, and to show no bias. They want the cold hard facts, not somebody’s opinion. It’s a clear demand, and it’s one of the most ludicrous things I’ve ever heard.

Whether you believe videogames are art, entertainment or a mix of both, you’ll have an opinion as far as which games are good and which games are bad. There’s no way you can prove any of these opinions, except by offering up the opinions of other people. Things like fun and immersion can’t be quantified – they’re feelings, and as such vary from person to person.

A reviewer can only speak from his or her experiences. That’s all a review is really. It’s someone talking about his or her experience playing a game. Sure, the reviewer has probably played more games than most, but the review is an opinion and should be treated as such.

Still, if you go to almost any game review with a less than perfect score and a decent amount of comments, you’ll find something along these lines. Let’s take the GameSpy review of ‘Donkey Kong Country Returns’, for example.

Three comments down is a poster complaining: “Wow, 70% only cause YOU think the game is hard? That is what i call a biased review.” Let’s take a look at each of these parts.

The first line, “Wow, 70% only cause YOU think the game is hard?” is absolutely mind-boggling. Why would a game reviewer use any opinion other than his own? There seems to be an implication that one man’s opinion can’t stand on its own. There’s also a failure in reading comprehension, since the reviewer takes time to clarify that it’s not the difficulty of the game, but the nature of the difficulty he has a problem with.

I’m not sure if people think there’s an official board of reviewers that gets together and decides things, but there certainly isn’t. The reviewer – Ryan Scott – got the game, played the game, and then wrote about the game. The 835 words he wrote came out of his head and went onto that virtual page.

The second part of the post is what really irks me. “That is what I call a biased review.” This suggests that bias or subjectivism are somehow bad things. Reviews are meant to be subjective, and biased towards the reviewer’s preferences. As a reader, your job is to determine whether you identify with the reviewer or not.

This is one of the tamer reviews as far as these comments are concerned. It’s one I simply picked at random from Metacritic – a site that I hope to talk about more in the future. Consider the now-legendary ‘Twilight Princess’ review at GameSpot. A reviewer named Jeff Gerstmann gave ‘Twilight Princess’ an 8.8 out of 10. That’s a good score. In fact, an 8.8 out of 10 is an amazing score that puts the game up there as one of the best on its system. Once Gestmann’s review went up, all hell broke loose. Not because he scored the game too high, but because fans of the series who had never even played the game claimed that an 8.8 was too low. Calls of bias ran rampant that day.

Now, I’m not simply coming to the defense of reviewers because I also write about games. I read and listen to far more game reviews than I write, and I haven’t dealt with much in the way of frustrating comments on my reviews – Bonus View readers are far too intelligent for that sort of thing. I’m just annoyed with the way game reviews are being treated.

Videogames can’t be analyzed in the same way that a graphics card or a Blu-ray player or a projector can. There are few hard numbers, and they aren’t worth talking about. Polygon counts, frame rates and resolutions are there, but they don’t make or break a game. Hell, ‘Halo 3′ wasn’t even in high definition and no one seemed to care.

If you want to read a purely objective game review, you’re in luck. Jim Sterling over at Destructoid wrote one, and it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Here’s a tidbit:

If you buy Final Fantasy XIII and like it, then you like Final Fantasy XIII. If you buy Final Fantasy XIII and don’t like it, then you don’t like Final Fantasy XIII. It has things in it that some people might enjoy but other people who have different ideas of what is enjoyable may not actually enjoy it.

All this comes down to in the end is that videogames are entertainment, or art if you’re one of those people. Neither thing can be reviewed in an objective way and still be worth reading about. It’s just not possible.

Objective reviews are great for magazines like Consumer Reports, who use a testing process to gauge the worth of products. They promise unbiased reviews by experts. It’s what they do and it’s great if you’re looking for the best vacuum cleaner or the best toaster. But that’s my whole point in a nutshell, isn’t it?

A videogame is not a toaster.

25 comments

    • You’re exactly right Josh. I know Blu-rays are a little different since audio and video quality tend to be objective, but there’s no way to quantify the movie itself.

      And you know, just because a critic hates something doesn’t mean you can’t love it. People seem to forget that. I sure don’t :)

  1. Alex

    It’s a good point that video game reviews are inherently biased, but it should be noted that any review of entertainment is biased. We’ve had many a rousing discussion in these very forums that clearly reveal that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure (yes, I still like “Big Bang Theory.” Sue me and my laugh-track). A perfectly objective review of a movie would largely consist of how many scratches there are on the film and how many times the speakers hissed and popped. The quality of art or entertainment is, to a great degree, found in how effectively it elicits an intended emotional response from the viewer and since everyone experiences emotions in different ways and to different degrees, to each person, a work of art or entertainment will be different.

    There’s certainly room for objectivity in reviews. High Def Digest reviews the video quality and audio quality of blu-rays with splendid objectivity. A video game review docking points because a game has noticeable graphical glitches or gameplay bugs that cause your character to fall through the ground into oblivion is objective, fair, and perfectly appropriate. However, that cannot be the full extent of a review. There are plenty of truly awful, but virtually bug-free games available.

    Excellent article, Dick. I really appreciated it, and I must say that your reviews and those of your colleagues at High Def Digest almost always seem to strike that perfect balance between objectivity and subjectivity.

    • Alex

      Now, to say that I didn’t bother to read Josh’s comment from above is not objective at all. It’s a supposition. It happens to be right, but it’s still a supposition. :)

      Still one of my favorite articles in recent memory.

  2. You probably COULD write an objective article, but it probably would not be recieved well. My thought is Art Critics. They could absolutly HATE a painting, but they could go on about the skill of the artist, using lines of symetry, talking about how such and such represents something totally unrelated to the picutre (I took art appreciation in Salzburg. My professor showed us a still life in Munich, and swore up and down that it represented death. I asked her how she knew, if the artist ever stated it. She said no, but all the classical artists at the time painted that way. I said, this guy lived in the hills in Denmark, did he ever have formal training? She said no, so I said, then how do you know that this is anything other than a simple still life).

    Point is, you can have an objective review, but its kinda pointless – that is really NOT what people want to know.

    I can probably for example, Super Mario Galaxy.

    “The worlds are created on perfect spheres, with landscaping dotting the world. Trees are built to be perfectly symetrical – you can lay an isocilies triangle on top and see how perfect all the trees are. The color shading is linear along the greens of the trees from 99FF00 all the way down to 2C6700 to create the illusion of light and depth.

    Some worlds are not perfectly spherical, created at on a rounded-cylindrical-type sphere with a ratio of 1.2:1.

    Most of the music is written in an F Major key, with the common 4/4 time. The music makes heavy use of brass and strings.”

    I tried to run an objective movie review site for a while that was based on how good a movie looked, as opposed to how good the transfer was. The problem with this, you needed something to set as a refrence for what you consider to be perfect, and then you have to compare all other movies to it. At the time, I sat 2001 as being perfect. The problem is, if you compare other movies visually to this, movies such as From Russia With Love get around a 5 out of 10, and I think it was Thunderball got a 2 (may be thinking of the wrong Bond movie). However, I DID spell out on my site exactly how I scored movies, and specifically stated that it was all based on the reviewer’s prefrence, and should only be used if you want to know how one movie looks to another.

    The problem with this was, what happened when movies started coming out that looked BETTER than 2001? Avatar, Tinkerbell, and stuff like that? I then had to go in, and make ammendments to all the movies, restating what the refrence was, and I would have the old score and then the new score.

    It was fun, but I finally lost interest and the drive to review a movie every time I watched one for fun. Last review I wrote was for Wizard of Oz.

    I have disagreed a few times with Josh, for example, over his scores for certain movies, but have learned that he is one of the most objective reviewers I have ever seen. He goes into detail as to why he scores stuff in certain ways, and can sit here and give video and audio great scores even if he absolutely hates movies. (cough-Avatar-cough)

    Anyways, I started rambling, like I always do. My point is, you CAN write objective reviews, but, despite people stating that is what they want, I doubt that, if they actually saw one, they would be happy with it.

    • Alex

      If that’s the case, then, where do you draw the line between a “review” and a “description”? All of the stuff about Super Mario Galaxy is correct and perfectly objective, but without your opinion, I would suggest that it remains, simply, a description (or a comparison in the case of “From Russia With Love”) and not really a review. How would we differentiate between the two?

  3. Jane Morgan

    I prefer video game reviews to be 50% objective, 30% biased, and 15% numerical score. This leaves me 5% to consider my personal taste. I prefer the numerical score to be color coded. I don’t like yellow. Red should be best, because red is power. Blue should be average, because average is sad. Green should be worst, because green is vegan. And any game that is not in HD should be docked ten points.

  4. Prayformojo

    Just like movie reviews find the reviewer or publication that has similar views as you do in terms of games and see what they say. I thought the reviews for Super Meat Boy, one of my favorite games of the year were very fair, most reviewers stated that the game is insanely hard, but fair and that it would not appeal to everyone, but for those it does it will be an instant classic.

  5. mlemaire

    This was a great post and it brought out some awesome comments. It’s good to know I’m not alone in my dislike (okay, maybe hatred) for people who troll the internet arguing about bias in reviews and taking them to be gospel. They are what they are, an opinion. Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that, and taken as opinion they can prove to be quite informative to the (intelligent) reader. It’s one of the many reasons I keep coming back to this site as it seems to be far and above the usual BS I have to read on other, similar sites. Keep up the good work, everyone!

  6. Patrick A Crone

    I’ve never quite understood the motivation of fanboys. Okay, maybe when I was twelve, but when you know that most of the geeks on message boards are in their twenties, it’s just sad. No matter how loyal you are to a product or company on message boards you’re not getting any reward for it. Sony isn’t skimming the message boards looking for who ripped on a MS or Nintendo product the best. Sorry little fanboy, you’re not getting a trophy because you found two dozen ways to call a reviewer a homosexual in defense of your console of choice.

    • My theory is that fanboys are justifying and defending their purchase. If you’ve only got one system, you want it to be the best.

      That’s why I think you’ll find more fanboys in younger age brackets. As an adult with an income that lets me purchase every system that comes out, I don’t find myself rooting for one over the other.

      When I was a kid and only had a Super Nintendo, you can bet I hated everything Genesis!

      • :-) Fully agree. That being said, I bought the PS3 when it was $700 (I REALLY wanted a Blu-Ray player, and my PS2 went out the week before, and I had JUST started Kingdom Hearts). I paid $120 for a used 360. I bought my Wii the Christmas it first came out. So, I have the most dedication to my PS3, second to the Wii, and third to the XBox. But I have the XBox around to get cheap used versions of games that are on all three systems. Tales of Symphonia? $12 on the 360, even though the PS3 version got better ratings. But games like Bioshock and The Orange Box – PS3 all the way, baby!

        Truthfully, I bought a XBox to play only 3 games – Viva Pinata, Beautiful Katamari, and Fable 2 (I had Fable 1 on the PC).

      • BTW, just remember, “Genesis Does what Ninten-don’t!”

        I hated Genesis though. With a passion! Until my brother got one for Christmas. But we only had a couple of games for it – The Sonic games, mainly. All the other games, we bought or rented on the SNES.

  7. JoeRo

    This is a pretty common topic of discussion among my friends. I maintain that objectivity is crucial when you consider it to be the most important factor in making a purchase. Objectivity in reviews is the main reason I’ve kept coming back to High Def Digest for years, there simply isn’t a better resource out there, or at least one that I’ve found trustworthy, that gives readers an honest and objective review of a BDs audio and picture quality. I don’t rely on HDD to tell me whether or not a particular film merits purchase on blu-ray because frankly I already know whether I want to add that film to my library or not, but I can and do rely on them to let me know if I’m getting a quality transfer or a shoddy rush job. Video games are … different.

    Objectivity in game reviews is an entirely different beast. I’m more concerned with a reviewers transparancy regarding their reviewing methods and corporate affiliations than I am with some illusion of objectivity; I want to know if the person reviewing a particular title has any ties to the company producing said title, has any vested interest in that particular titles success, or is being compensated by the publisher in any way for writing that review. Does anyone remember the controversy of Famitsu awarding a perfect score to MGS: Peacewalker? No? Well long story short the magazine’s former editor and chief, and at the time current president of Enterbrain which publishes Famitsu, Hirokazu Hamamura appeared in various ads for the game and was even featured on the games Japanese website. Whether or not you take video games seriously or think Famitsu has any credibility left to lose it should still be obvious that this was a pretty gross conflict of interest. This is just one example, but the point I’m trying to make is still valid. Integrity trumps objectivity when a reviewer is reviewing something that can only be discussed in subjective terms.

    When it comes to video games the general public seems unable to even reach a consensus as to whether or not the medium should even be considered an art form, which makes any cries for objectivity downright silly.

    • JoeRo, you say that you already know whether you want to add the movie to your library or not. What if you haven’t seen the film? What if you hadn’t even heard of the film before? Do you base your viewing decisions only on the movie’s advertising, or do you ever look for other people’s opinions on whether the movie is worth watching?

      • JoeRo

        Recently you did a “best blind buys” entry on the blog and I didn’t respond, because I never make blind buys. I don’t really have the income to potentially throw away on something I’m not sure about. If there’s a new blu-ray release that I haven’t seen before but sounds interesting, I can generally put my hands on the dvd copy within 24 hours. And if it’s not available on dvd already I can generally count on my oc buddy to purchase the blu ray himself (he literally buys almost every blu ray release outside of the concert/performance type).

        Oh actually I did buy Waltz With Bashir on blu as a blind buy for 2 dollars at Hollywood video when it was going out of business. I don’t regret that purchase.

    • This is where the whole E3 problem comes in too. Can you really trust the opinion of someone that’s been given free drinks, food, entertainment and been treated like a rock star all week?

      The answer is that it depends. Some people let it go to their heads and some people don’t. Some can separate themselves from the free ‘The Who’ concert and some can’t. I think the same can be said of the Famitsu thing.

      If you trust the reviewer and he backs up his claims, then you might not have a problem with it. It’s a situation they shouldn’t have gotten themselves into in the first place, but it’s not like they’re the only ones that gave it a perfect score.

      If it were Kane and Lynch or something, this might be a different story. :p