The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Screenshot

Fair warning: I'm in the mood to rant tonight, and I've got something to get off my chest.

By the way, this rant isn't about any one person, game or review in particular. If you think it's about you, it's not.

(…and if you still think it's about you, it's still not.)

Also, if you're easily angered or not in the mood for a strong, non-Politically Correct opinion, do yourself a favor and click elsewhere… it'll be better for the both of us.

Now that we're at the tail end of 2011, I've got to say that not only has it been a somewhat uninspiring year, it's also ending on a strange note. Recently, I've seen a number of reviews, commentaries, and editorials that seem to suggest that a writer's "feeling" on a game is an acceptable way to review something.

From my perspective, it's not.

If you ask me what a review should be, it should absolutely include feelings, thoughts, and emotions that are stirred in the player. However, it needs to also include other factors, such as various aspects of design, how bug-free the technical side is, and how it functions overall. On top of that, a good critic will take into account a game's content in terms of how it relates to others that have come before it. Does the game in question bring something new to the table? Are there innovations or new ideas?

While I have never believed that a reviewer should (or can) ever be objective, I do think that it's possible to temper a personal level of enjoyment with all of the other factors that go into a critical, comprehensive review. If a piece of writing or a final judgment is passed on the game with the overwhelming reasoning for the score being "feeling", then that's not a review, it's being a fan.

Deadly Premonition Screenshot

To illustrate the point, my game of the year for 2010 (and I repeat for emphasis, my game of the year) was Deadly Premonition. I absolutely fell in love with it game despite a wealth of problems. However, main character Francis York Morgan was one of the best-written I've ever seen, the story was mature and absolutely intriguing, and the approach by the game's director was frustrating, challenging to my expectations, and genius-level brilliant, all at the same time. What score did I give it in my review? 7.5

If I had gone with my feelings leading the way, I could easily imagine giving it an 11/10 or something equally hyperbolic and absurd. I didn't. Instead, I took note of how much it won me over in terms of emotional connection and intellectual engagement, and then contrasted that with the obvious issues in production, control, combat, and so on. I never stopped saying positive things about the game to anyone who asked, and when given the chance, I was happy to give it the highest honors available to me. In terms of the actual review, I had to be as fair as possible and there was just no getting around the fact that it had warts.

Am I a fan of Deadly Premonition? Absolutely, but taking that particular ball and running with it wouldn't have led to anything resembling what I consider to be a good review. When it comes to a number of games that have been released in the fourth quarter, I can't help but feel as though the concept of "being fair" as I just described has been tossed out the window in service to the giddy excitement that accompanies cracking open the plastic on a blockbuster game and diving in two weeks before retail release.

The biggest and most common example is (obviously) Skyrim, and the staggering number of perfect scores it's racked up—currently thirty 100's on MetaCritic, on the 360 alone.

Is it a terrible game? No, not at all, but I certainly don't think it's deserving of top marks for a number of reasons. However, a number of paeans to its freedom and beauty beg to differ. I don't dispute the fact that people enjoy the game, but it seems to me as though quite a lot has been overlooked in order to praise it to the degree that most people do. The same can be said of Saints Row: The Third, Arkham City, Skyward Sword, Uncharted 3, and others. Although they don't enjoy the same number of perfect scores (though Zelda comes close) I saw many instances of "fun" being the gist, and short shrift given to potential problems.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Screenshot

I mean, don't get me wrong—most games are meant to be enjoyed. That's not in dispute. I guess I'm just surprised at how far the tide has shifted towards giving an utterly personal and subjective feeling so much weight while strongly downplaying areas that can legitimately be seen as in need of improvement. Besides that, I can't recall another time in recent memory where people have been so defensive and quick to take offense if a comment gets made about it.

Let's be perfectly frank here—how many times have you read a review of a certain game that was dripping with praise, only to hear that reviewer change his or her tune a month, two months, or six months afterwards?

It happens all… the… time.

Questioning a flood of glowing reviews for any title is par for the course as far as I'm concerned, but something about this particular year felt… different. It's almost as though people became insecure about their opinions and positions, and the level of touchiness just shot through the roof. The comments I got were nastier, friends were less friendly, and people who usually seem like calm heads got hot.

It's been some bad juju lately, man.

Anyway, if you ask me, I'm glad that 2011 is nearly over. Between some surprisingly underwhelming games and the level of sensitivity and raw nerves we're getting here at the end, and I'm more than ready to get started on 2012. Hopefully tossing out the old calendar and putting up a new one will welcome in some fresh energy, and the gaming sphere can hit the reset button and start over.

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
Brad Gallaway

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15 Comments on "Happy reviews and unhappy people—a rant"

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Alan Williamson
What a load of nonsense. A writer’s feeling is the ONLY honest way to review something. Is a technically perfect, boring game deserving of a higher score than a technically deficient, more enjoyable game? Moreover, since when did the arbitrary score at the end of the review become the emphasis of the piece? The problem isn’t opinion, Metacritic, IGN or whatever website we decided was bad this year (they are all pretty bad except Eurogamer, IMO). The problem is that little number at the end of the review, and the number of ‘journalists’ who think they are best placed to… Read more »

Let’s not forget the internet gaming world’s favorite: “immersive.” It’s gotten a bit silly how often people mention how their immersion has been broken. I’m pretty frequently finding myself (here I am)reading an otherwise decent article only to stumble across this little buzzword, immediately shattering my engagement. Sucks.


Movie and book reviewers get into details because they know how to say what they feel. They have studied what other art reviewers have been saying for centuries. I think that game reviewers lack words, concepts, knowledge about what they feel. That’s why they rely on (sort of) meaningless words like “fun”, “cool” and “engaging”. Game reviewing needs more academic study. Or people should read less and play more.

“No other kind of critic is expected to take into consideration any supposedly objective factors in their reviews” This is factually wrong. Technical fidelity matters in everything, from films to food. It’s also a preposterous idea to suggest that videogames should be treated as art more than they should be treated as products, considering in its overwhelming majority the industry is pursuing the commercial approach and its benefits a lot more than it does its “artistic” one. You can’t ask the audience and the press to change their tune, before the industry itself undergoes some radical changes. More than that,… Read more »
Not sure how I feel about this piece, since it seems to imply that my intense liking of a particular title (Skyrim for instance) and not hesitating to recommend it stems from some puerile giddiness; and not genuine enjoyment that overrides minor issues (IMHO). Maybe everyone doesn’t find issues in the same things; so why should they be held to a particular standard that doesn’t apply to them? For instance, I loved Indigo Prophecy, but would I have rated it nine? I felt it had some issues under its belt (particular the action segments). But I won’t condemn your opinion,… Read more »
I think that the day people will stop to expect shopping advice from reviews will be the day video-game journalism is going to finally come of age. I’m not so sure videogames can be considered art, but I’m convinced that we should speak of them as such, and when you talk about art all considerations concerning the commercial value of the work should be banned. Also, I think reviewers should be wary of drawing a line between the technical and “artistic” sides of a game. Frankly I don’t understand why if I love a niche or technically flawed game I… Read more »
I’ve fought and fought over this with professional reviewers and especially recently, thanks to Skyrim (well, duh). There is a little something that many reviewers I come into contact with have forgotten and it’s something that vastly annoys me. The bloated industry tends to rub off on professional critics, who seem to neglect that in the end of the day, a review is the only viable means for me, the consumer, the decide on whether or not I should throw money at a game. When this is in question, a critique based entirely on emotions and personal preference (especially when… Read more »
Brad While i agree with your opinion that a review can never be absolutely objective, i believe that professional reviews should strive to approach this level as much as possible. Sure, personal opinion will always influence a review, but a review is an article to inform people if a game is worth their money and time, and not all people share the writer’s personal taste. I don’t agree with the “a review is just an opinion” excuse game reviewers say from time to time. No dear game reviewer, you are not paid to give your personal opinion, we couldn’t care… Read more »
My 2 cents: metacritic is the problem. It has too big an influence, because this society we live in doesn’t believe in words, it only believes in numbers. We all know that the metacritic aggregate score doesn’t have much value, for many reasons – because a 4 out of 5 stars doesn’t equal 80, because a 7 on gamescritics isn’t the same as a 7 on IGN, because the consensus on a game can change radically once the hype has died (read the alan wake’s reviews, a lot of them adopt the “was it worth the wait” angle, which is… Read more »
Steven Hertert
@Brad Great post, I completely agree with your … less than positive reading of the trend away from objectivity to fanboyism and outright pandering. Part of what it means to be a critic is to look at something with an experienced and somewhat jaundiced eye. Then give a reasoned and relatively objective review of the experience. @David I think you may be suffering from a bit of 20/20 hindsight, and maybe a problem connecting to the narrative format of the game. Yes the set-pieces are obvious nowadays, but at the time a lot of what was in HL2 was very… Read more »
David, thank you, those were my thoughts when I played it, which was when it came out. Years later I discover people are holding it up a a shining example of storytelling in video games, and I’m puzzled. I couldn’t even tell you what it was about anymore. Something with aliens, I guess. Brad, I totally understand your point, yet I’d like to disagree. I am actually strongly in favor to reviewing games as self-contained expreriences, as opposed to an agglomeration of various criteria. Following your example, I would certainly mention Deadly Premonition’s faults in a review, but wouldn’t hold… Read more »
i can’t remember exactly how long it’s been since i first discovered this site (followed a review link from but it quickly became my de facto destination for common sense and practicality concerning games and the people who love to play them. i stopped being surprised years ago by the plethora of ridiculously high scores being handed out like candy, with games like Skyrim being no exception. we all know the web, unfortunately, is littered with websites like IGN, Joystiq & GameInformer that are more concerned with straddling the line of “being honest” with gamers while appeasing publishers. sites… Read more »
This is the reason why I value the opinions on this site over those featured on most others. It’s really nice to have a site that is willing to relegate a Triple-A title to the sub-5 range if it is deserving. Most other sites won’t consider doing such a thing unless the game is a movie tie-in, and even then it’s exceedingly rare. The hype wagon seems out of control. “Buy now! Buy new! Buy everything!” It’s like 90% of the gaming population has nothing better to do than spend outrageous sums of money on every single shiny new thing.… Read more »
Nice post Brad; I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about the disconnect between what has been a largely underwhelming spate of triple-A releases, and the effusive praise they’ve garnered. So what’s causing this? Are reviewers unwittingly becoming part of the PR machine? Are they struggling to be heard amongst all the background chatter and having to exaggerate for effect? It does seem that the whole reviewing side of the industry has become ever more hyperbolic. I appreciate your thoughts on reporting the flaws of a game, and I think your point about critics’ opinions… Read more »
David Armstrong
I usually skip out on the major game releases because one, I’m broke, and two, I know what you mean about reviewers going overboard. For all the 90% and 9/10’s that are out there, isn’t it startling that no game seems to earn a 1 or a 2? Case in point, I missed playing Half Life 2 by about 8 years. I didn’t play it until March of this year when I bought the Orange Box off Steam for $5. I posted my review of the game on the Escapist, and basically my take on it was yes, this game… Read more »