All About Balance: What I’ve Learned About Game Reviews

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Video game reviews are a big part of my job as a writer at GameFront.com, and undoubtedly they’re a part of just about every writer’s workload in this industry. They’re usually the easiest content to produce and also some of the more heavily read pieces — it’s a straight opinion, and contentious opinions about games often generate lots of reads and the occasional controversy.

I’ve done my fair share of reviews by this time in my career. Something I’ve been seeing more and more lately, which is an interesting development, is the response reviews have been garnering among the readership at Game Front. To be honest, I’m not used to many people reading my work, in large part, and as we gain more readership, I’m spending more time reading responses from others and their comments, and engaging in conversations with them.

The biggest takeaway I’ve gotten from this is that readers seem very appreciative of balance in reviews. It’s almost counter-intuitive, in a way; the best responses I’ve gotten so far have not been from people responding to a particularly funny or “harsh” review, as one might expect. They’re instead from the reviews on controversial but popular titles, in which my striving to take a balanced approach to the experience has come to the forefront.

Latest of these is Assassin’s Creed 3. My review for the game went live this morning, and I re-edited it several times before finally pushing it through — thus missing the embargo time, in fact, by about an hour. My review was among the last to go up in the first wave, but I felt the extra time was worth spending to make sure the piece came out as honest and balanced as possible. I expected to catch hell for the 70/100 score I gave to Assassin’s Creed 3: The game carries an incredible amount of hype along with it, and AC fans tend to be extremely devoted. I figured I’d be fending off angry comments for the rest of the week.

Instead, the opposite happened. Speaking with a number of readers on Twitter and in other locations, I found that most of the people engaging me were actually really appreciative of the review and of the discussion that went along with it, be they fans of the series or more lukewarm on it. I guess the extra work I put into taking as balanced an approach as I could, and the extra length that went into discussing the positives and negatives of the game at length (it was pretty damn long in the end) was appreciated by people who read it.

A second example of this effect, and one that surprised me more, was with my review for Resident Evil 6. Here was a case in which the pendulum swung the other way, and critically, the game was altogether panned. My review gives RE6 an overall decent score, while spending a lot of time discussing the things I really did not like about the game, of which there are many. But the thing about Resident Evil 6 is that there were factors that actually brought it back, that mitigated the bad design and kept the game fun, despite itself. I tried very hard to convey that sense of ambiguity, of being frustrated but still enjoying myself. And again, readers appreciated, apparently, that I didn’t just lay into the game.

The point is that, I’m finding what I always thought was true but never had objective evidence to really prove: Readers aren’t looking for reviews that eviscerate games so much as they’re looking for an honest connection with that experience. It’s counter, perhaps to what we’re led to believe as critics by anecdote and experience.

Capturing that honesty, it seems, is something some critics struggle to do, but it’s key to a review being more than a chance to gush over a game or tear it down for its failures. I wrote last week on Twitter during the height of the Florence-Wainwright situation that games criticism could benefit from trying to move away from the idea that critics are meant to provide a buyer’s guide to potential players, and I think this is further proof of that idea. People don’t need or want to be told what they should buy most of the time — they get that information from friends and other trusted sources. The place that we can benefit readers is in honest discussion about the medium and the way games work, both positively and negatively.

That’s partially about applying experience and understanding of the medium to the situation, but it’s also about being honest, something that can be hard to convey. I’m not always sure I bring full honesty to a review, but it’s obviously something that readers want to see, and so it’s something that we as writers and critics should be constantly trying to provide. There’s a degree of ourselves that we have to invest, and trust that we have to turn over to games, in order to fully understand them. I suspect that readers can tell when you’ve given up that trust, to any work of art, and when you’ve held back.

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