Talking Point: Considering the Methods and Means of Game Reviews

Andy Robertson suggests evolution, Tom Whitehead simply seeks standards

In this special Talking Point feature, we consider a question fundamental to one of the core aspects of Nintendo Life — game reviews. They're often a source of huge interest around the web on hundreds of websites, and also the potential cause of controversies that are, at times, wildly out of context. We've seen plenty of sites adjust their review policies, introduce evolving scores and more. For our part, we've stuck to our usual formula.

Perhaps no review policy is perfect, and Andy Robertson — who specialises in gaming for families — feels that his experiences suggest that the approach to reviewing games should maybe change. Features editor Tom Whitehead, who's been on the end of supportive comments and scathing criticisms in his time reviewing games for Nintendo Life, takes a different view.


Andy Robertson

I’ve written and talked about family gaming for some time. While the Wii popularised the idea that anyone can play a videogame, I prefer to get people playing proper titles rather than watered down mini-game collections.

Each time I encounter a new game though I often find myself saying similar things about it. As a reviewer I have the things I like to see in a game, and the things that wind me up. This is often more about my personal preferences than the game itself or the target audience.

Then last week, as you can see in this Swap Force preview video, I got my son to review some Skylanders Swap Force figures for me at family festival in London. It was a revelation.

Not that he particularly made incisive or telling points about the game, but that the way he looked at it was entirely different to me. Seeing him holding the figures was totally different to holding them myself.

Firstly the scale of them was altered. With his smaller hands he had to clasp round the Swap Force characters – they were suddenly bigger. While it took me a while to get round to mixing the characters up his fingers moved, seemingly instinctively, to snap each character apart and together. The magnets fascinated him as did the ability to twist the characters at the torso, making them almost articulated.

Then it came to the names of the characters. My son was much less interested in what each character was called and more about how they looked. Playing with a Robot and a Chicken seemed to appeal to him. He wanted to know about how the powers worked to upgrade the figures, whether this was stored in the top or bottom of the figure. This is a feature that is lacking in Disney Infinity and I think has diminished their enjoyment a bit.

He really liked being able to recognise the different elements on the base of the Swap Force figures and identify which families they belonged to. This continuity would be easy to loose with the new figures and wasn’t something I had really considered in my previews for the game.

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Moving on from the figures to the Swap Force game itself, he quickly highlighted the novelty of the dual element gate. I had thought this may be a negative, requiring the player to have a particular combination of elements in play, but my son thought this was actually a great feature.

We then spent time playing with the Hoot Loop character and he found different uses for his attacks. One which simply hadn’t occurred to me was using the ability to teleport to hunt out treasure with the targeting ring.

The best feature of the game for my son after playing a level was not the new graphics or enhanced audio but the continuity with the previous games and the return of his favourite characters. But the killer feature for him was still the snapping apart and putting back together, that he did endlessly while we were trying it out.

In our half hour with the game I realised that I needed to seriously reassess how I reviewed games. While I was concerned with graphics and sound and next-gen support on Swap Force, my son’s concerns were much more about the magnet snapping of the toys and being reunited with old friends in the game like Flynn.

Of course this is harder to apply to more mature titles. Who, for instance, is the right player to review Bayonetta 2 on the Wii U, or Mario Kart 8 when it arrives? I’m not saying that review scores are redundant but that together as reviewers and readers we need to put them in their place. The best game is not the one with the highest Metacritic score, but the game a particular person enjoys playing the most.

I know this may be a bit controversial considering the emphasis placed on scores here at Nintendo Life. But equally I appreciate the profile the site gives to the reviewer. Each score is not definitive but the opinion of that person on that particular day. Or at least that’s how I read it. It makes me wonder if we would be better off without scores at all.

Tom Whitehead

Andy clearly makes some really valid points in terms of how his assessment of a Skylanders game is perhaps at odds with the audience that title's targeting, kids. In our reviews of the Skylanders franchise and recently Disney Infinity we've clearly had adults doing the job, and while I think a children's perspective is vital, so is a writer's opinions for our target audience. I don't think a change is needed to our approach at all, I think it's a proven system — what is vital is that we maintain high standards, and that readers treat a score as a part of the review, not its defining feature.

In my view a reviewer's job, and something we all strive for — I'm not saying we're perfect and hit the mark every time — is to judge a game on its merits and on what it's trying to achieve. I've read arguments in the past that pricing, format etc shouldn't matter in a review, and I've never understood that. I won't wear the same reviewer's hat for a DSiWare puzzler that costs 200 Nintendo Points as I will for a retail Wii U game, as it's all about context. So in that respect if the game I'm reviewing is clearly targeting young children, I won't automatically say it bores me to tears and give it 1/10, but I'll consider whether it's delivering for its audience. I reviewed over 20 Successfully Learning games — I'm not joking — but I didn't type 200 words of frustrated expletives after the 20th, I probably said it was the same-old competent edutainment game (they were all practically identical) and gave it six stars.

Yet to stick with the children's games analogy, I think it's our responsibility to try and consider the angles important to a young gamer, but write for our audience regardless. We have a broad userbase here at Nintendo Life, but when we review a children's game it's for people old enough that they're actually here reading the site anyway, whether good readers of a young age, teenagers, adults that like children's games — because why not? — and parents. If a parent is reading, I suspect in some cases the toys may matter less than whether the game is a glitchy mess, or if it offers decent value for money, fun gameplay and intuitive controls. Our job as writers is simply to share our views on these factors, and more, in a literate, clear way. We're giving opinions and information not to tell consumers what to do, but to perhaps help them gain a perspective before they dive in — we also give a clear link to Metacritic to access lots of other reviews, too.

Reviews by their nature are opinions based on our own experiences, and like any other form of critical writing are flawed and imperfect — there is no perfect reviewer, and if they say they are they're deluded, bonkers or both. It can be a balancing act as while anything we write is inevitably personal opinion, we also have to step outside our heads to consider a broader picture; if a genre isn't our favourite, we must still judge it fairly on its merits. All reviewers should play lots of games, write well, and ultimately think beyond themselves when writing.

And this is where I think the key point lies. We're writing for our readers that are, in most cases, consumers. It's those with money that ultimately need reviews — though don't take that as a claim to over-importance — from various sources to help decide whether to take the plunge on the game. Some may read dozens of reviews and still wait to see what their friend thinks anyway, while others may read a few trusted reviews and plonk down a pre-order; each to their own.

Reviews by their nature are opinions based on our own experiences, and like any other form of critical writing are flawed and imperfect.

It's simple, really. We give opinions while attempting a level of objectivity — just loving Sonic or Mario as franchises shouldn't guarantee 10/10 and gushing praise — and give a score. Should we ditch scores? No. Some film, book and music critics apply scores, some don't, game sites should decide for themselves. I won't insult anyone by denying that scores are important from a business sense, too. I'm not at the business end of the site, but applying scores is an industry standard that, if ignored, reduces exposure; that reduces traffic, and any website's ability to fund costs. That's just the reality right now, whether people agree with it or not.

I would suggest that with this being such a young industry scores are a sensible inclusion to add to the text. We shouldn't ditch scores, but rather the daft focus they're given. Whenever someone criticises a score I give a game, I want to know whether they've read the text. If they have read it and disagree with me, that's very welcome, if they didn't actually read the review then I'm simply not interested in that criticism.

Scores aren't arbitrary, they're a tool, and we must all review to cater to those that form our audience. It's our job to consider the perspectives and opinions of a game's target audience, and we can only do our best. But it's also our job to cover a game fully, to give it a fair assessment and to provide the information that we think can help readers to understand more about the game. We can't focus excessively on the way toys click together any more than we can on which semi-automatic is the best gun in an FPS. We must cover the full product.

I believe we should stick to our process on Nintendo Life, in any case. The system's fine, what always needs to be watched carefully are our own standards, while readers should accept opinion and individual experiences while deciding whether they trust in the objective honesty of the reviewer. If the reader answers no to either of those points, then they're wasting their time reading the review anyway.

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