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.

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On critics, criticism and making a living by ripping on other people’s work

Jamie Kennedy’s documentary Heckler showed up in my mailbox courtesy of Netflix last week.

The film is interesting specifically because it gives a perspective not always readily apparent for the regular consumer of creative works, specifically comedy as film. Kennedy spends a lot of time displaying what it’s like to be heckled as a stand-up comedian, and how comedians have to deal with it.

It’s more than just the idea that sometimes people come and make fun of you while you do a show – sometimes heckling is so intense that it has a major psychological impact on comedians. It’s hard on you, certainly, when you put all you have out there on stage and still, some drunk jackass won’t let you do your job.

So I don’t blame the comedians for getting bitter.

The movie goes on to attack movie critics, which was a different and interesting point of view for me. Not that I’ve never heard of the critiqued complaining about the critics, but Heckler did go out of its way to talk to both sides. The movie also sat a few Internet critics in front of Kennedy so he could confront them directly on their panning, mean-spirited reviews of his film, Son of the Mask.

As some of you may know, I’ve made a living as a film critic and done it for fun for some time. Occasionally I’ll throw reviews up here because I enjoy writing them.

So it was yet another perspective, to listen to these comedians lashing out at the many, many critics who don’t like their work, and who not only complain about it, but who relentlessly attack character.

On that point, I’ll concede: Critics perch on cushy seats in little cubicles, safely removed from much of the creative process. They sit back, watching movies for free, and then turn around and often come up with the best ways to make fun of them. For the worst critics, this involves attacking the personality, character, career and work of the people involved, sometimes to a vicious degree.

And that’s wrong. If you don’t like a Jamie Kennedy movie, that doesn’t mean Jamie Kennedy should never do another movie. Nor does it mean Jamie Kennedy should perish in a car fire with his mother, to paraphrase the anti-heckler barrage of the late, great George Carlin.

However, many of the comedians attack the profession of critique. One director mentions that just because he’s watched football all his life doesn’t mean he could become a coach – a metaphor implying that just because you’ve seen movies doesn’t mean your opinion is worth a damn.

Many other people in the movie follow up with, “Let’s see you do better.”

About this, I must comment.

To say that critics are worthless wannabe movie-makers, stranded in a land of ripping on other people for lack of ability or creativity is, in many ways, very wrong. I’ll agree that many critics are unnecessarily harsh.

But a critic ripping on a movie is no different than a comedian ripping on rednecks, politicians, Christians, cultists, other comedians, or any other group or individual. Pretending that the creators of such things are exalted because they filmed their exploits, but me, I’m an asshole because mine appears in print, is hypocritical as well as naive.

You may have watched football all your life and not be able to coach – but you can recognize good football and bad, peewee league football. Being a critic is about being educated about film to the point where you can make a judgment about the quality of a project in comparison to other projects.

As a critic, you fulfill two functions:
1. You’re giving your opinion for the benefit of others, so that they can save money on things they may not want to spend money on. This is why they read your reviews, value your opinion, and pay you to do a job.
2. You’re an entertainer. Your job is to write a review not just that you give that opinion, because really, nobody cares what your opinion is if they really want to see the movie. Most people discard the value of critics’ opinions for Harry Potter, the latest Schwarzenegger vehicle, or a romantic comedy. So what you’re really doing is giving your opinion for the people who want it, and trying to give everyone else something fun to read.

So saying that you’re just some clown wannabe who never made it and now sits around, picking apart other people’s work, is ridiculous. Readers want to read funny reviews – I promise. Your review sells because it’s funny, or in some other way interesting. But you’re writing for your audience.

Not to shirk my responsibility for the way I treat people in my reviews, because that’s not my goal. But pretending like it’s just bile and vitriol is to treat the critic just as you’re complaining the critic is treating you.

For my part, it takes a lot for me to call out a filmmaker to the point where I really dislike them. A few – Michael Bay, Paul W.S. Anderson – I cannot stand. Bay’s work pisses me right off because it lacks substance and glorifies cliches, and Anderson loves to take franchises I love and do a half-ass job of adapting them to film. Anderson’s a wannabe fanboy, and I have no problem saying that if he never made another movie, I’d be happier for the film industry.

Whether or not that makes Jamie Kennedy cry isn’t my problem, I guess (though I really do like Kennedy, and I loved Malibu’s Most Wanted). Just as I have to have some thick skin when people comment on my writing – and they do (or did), and I did have to take it – so too must people who are creative be ready to deal with the fact that the Internet is a place where people rip on them.

And yes, I realize I’m feeding into this negative Internet stereotype by sitting in (relative) anonymity, writing this blog, but just because Kennedy gets paid for his soapbox and I get mine for free in cyberspace doesn’t necessarily make him president and me a crazy hobo. The point is, I have my perspective and he has his. I appreciate him being creative and I appreciate my ability to make comment. That’s the way it works when you make things.

Without third-party perspective, what’s the point of creation anyway?