Critics on criticism: Gaming

Industry sway, little cachet

When I tell people that I review videogames professionally, they usually think I’m only in it for the fun and free games. Reactions are typically something like, “My 12-year-old son would kill to have a job like yours.”

Videogame critics don’t get much respect from the general public because videogames don’t get much respect. Politicians use them as punching bags, and even other reviewers like to diss them. (Witness the numerous film critics who dismissed “300” as little more than a videogame, as if that was inherently a bad thing.)

It’s ironic, because no critic has more power within the industry he or she writes about than the videogame critic. Publishers scour critics’ ratings for their titles on Metacritic and GameRankings.com. Execs use the number to make major decisions, like what developer to work with or what titles to greenlight. In some cases, payments are contractually tied to the average review score.

Publishers take reviews seriously because gamers do. The five bestselling games in 2006 had an average Metacritic score of 89. The top five movies averaged 56.

Videogame reviewers are listened to more closely by the average consumer than other reviewers, but I’m not sure that’s such a healthy thing. Most game critics write for publications aimed squarely at fans. Enthusiast websites and magazines are expected uniformly to be bullish about blockbuster titles, and not produce the videogame world’s Pauline Kael. Stimulating debates that make people re-think what makes a great game are almost non-existent.

Virtually every gamer publication, for instance, gave “Halo 3” a rave review. While the game has a lot going for it, “Halo 3” is only an unqualified success if you loved “Halo 2” and are simply craving more. Charles Herold in the New York Times and I were among the few professional critics to conclude that “Halo 3” is essentially “Halo 2” with hi-def graphics and some new guns.

As a videogame critic, I’m also working under a unique set of constraints. A typical movie or play may be two to three hours, but videogames require at least 10 hours and sometimes as long as 50. The goal is always to finish the game, but on a tight deadline, the process is more like triage: figure out the most important parts of the games to sample in the limited amount of time I have.

Since I’m writing for a mainstream publication, I also can’t trust that my readers have played many videogames before. It’s tricky to write for the person who doesn’t know the difference between a DS and an Xbox 360 without patronizing the person who does.

But since every review appears on Variety.com, that means my reviews sometimes pop up in the world of fan websites and blogs. Naturally, videogame fandom is a very Web-centric community. Members speak their mind, which is great, and often viciously attack those who don’t conform to the opinions they are used to getting from “enthusiast” reviewers, which isn’t so great.

When our critic Tom Chick wrote one of the only reviews to point out that Nintendo’s “Metroid Prime 3” isn’t easy to understand for anyone but a “Metroid” devotee, the response was swift and brutal on the blogs and on Variety.com as well as in emails to our editors. Some claimed Chick didn’t understand the game. One said, “This sort of blasphemy is disgusting.” And one thoughtful emailer suggested, “Stop review videogames!”

Regardless of whether he was right or wrong, it was clear that many videogame players were shocked to see one of their favorite franchises questioned. Reviewers, by and large, aren’t engaging each other or challenging their readers the way they have in movies and TV. And the fans aren’t exactly encouraging us to do so.