On the Importance of Differing Experiences When Writing Reviews (An AARPG Editorial)

What I’m referring to should be an obvious fact: that everyone’s experience of a game is different. This is a given, since everyone brings their own taste to the table and plays under different conditions—but with video games, there can be a lot more to it than that.

Consider a movie review. Unless one reviewer fucks up and gets the wrong version of a movie, all of the people who review it should essentially be watching the same thing. The major differences are what kind of screen they viewed it on (good theater, shit theater, home theater), whether or not they watched it on TV with commercials (probably shouldn’t review a movie you watch this way), and other factors like the audience or group they saw it with and what mood they were in at the time. It all effects how they see the movie, even before their opinions do.

Now, take a simplistic video game, like Super Mario Bros., and limit it to the NES release, so that we aren’t comparing it to other versions. You still have some of the same coloring as the film review, such as the TV you play it on—but probably less consideration for the audience.

There’s one entirely new factor: your interaction with the game. Unlike movies, where you essentially see the same thing as everyone else, each person can interact with a game in their own way.

However, in a simple game like Super Mario Bros., your interactions are very limited. There’s a degree of agency in how you complete each level, and there’s a fail potential which completely doesn’t exist in movies, but two different people will not interact with the game in radically different ways, unless one of them has a lot of experience with it.

If all video games were like Super Mario Bros., then there wouldn’t be much wrong with reviewing games similarly to the way that we review movies (which most game reviewers do). However, they aren’t, and we shouldn’t.

Let us look at Tera Online.

The amount of variety in how one can play an MMORPG is enough that the idea of trying to review one scares me. I think it’s damn near impossible to tell MMORPG players on the whole if they’ll like a game or not. You really have to know the player personally, and know what they like about the games to figure out if they’re going to enjoy it or not.

Consider the races in Tera. There are seven races, and I’ve tried playing each of them. I like a few: the Castanic and Amani women, my pink gay Elf, and of course, my favorites, the Elin. It means a lot to me that there are so many races which I enjoy in Tera, because in World of Warcraft, the only race I was willing to play was the Undead. I hated all of the other races.

But getting back to Tera, while I enjoyed the other races, it’s the Elin who originally sold me on the game, and whom I like the best. I played an Elin all the way to 60, and once I hit the level cap, I was concerned mostly with her appearance. I got armor which I thought looked nice, and experimented with dyes to make it the color I wanted. I got hipster glasses and was working towards getting a hat (paid for with daily quest points) when I stopped playing the game. I earned the “Fashionista” title, which I wore on my character with pride.

Being an Elin and obsessing over her appearance was just one of many ways that I found to enjoy Tera. But out of the fraction of people playing Elins in the game, and the smaller fraction who obsesses over their appearance, how many people does this impact? If I write a positive review of Tera, does it help anyone that I liked it for these reasons?

There are eight classes in Tera. I never played a healing class or a tank, because I shy away from having too much responsibility in games, but I tried out five different DPS classes: a Slayer (my main, carries BFS), an Archer (reached lvl 30), a Sorcerer (reached lvl 24), a Berserker (giant axe, reached lvl 15 or so), and a Warrior (reached 10 or so).

To some degree, I enjoyed each of these classes, but none did I enjoy nearly as much as the Slayer. Slayers were the most zen-like class, where I could just run in and lay out an enemy with a beautifully timed series of attacks. I rush in—my first attack knocks the enemy to the ground in a matter most satisfying, while I instantly chain into my next attack, and ruthlessly carve my enemies into chunks.

There was so much gratification in the attacks. The sound effects for my sword were fucking beautiful. I made a point to have sound effects on, even though I played my own music in place of the game’s, because I found the crunch of my blade so satisfying. Running around as a Sorc or an Archer, dodging constantly as a Warrior, or blocking as a Berserker, never carried the same satisfaction for me that knocking an enemy on their back at the start of a fight did as a Slayer.

And returning to the music, I consider Tera a, “choose your own music,” game (my nickname for games that only play music every so many minutes). The vast library of music that I played to accompany the hundreds of hours of game time also effected my experience of it.

Negative parts of the game also factor in here. One of the things that fans and reviewers all complained about was the game’s horribly broken crafting system. I tried to play this system on my Sorc and rage-quit it rather quickly. On my main, though, I just ignored it. My friend kept giving me shit, telling me that I’d never be able to have the best gear in the endgame and wouldn’t get into any dungeons, but I didn’t give a shit, because I didn’t like going to dungeons anyway.

Which brings up another point! I soloed almost the entire game. Many people told me that this was besides the point of an MMORPG, but I don’t play an MMO like they do. I was in love with many things about the game which had little or nothing to do with the many other people playing the game. Tera Online is currently my favorite video game based only on the experience of soloing up to level 60, doing dailies for a week, and then stopping altogether. I’m not even subscribed to the game anymore.

My point here is twofold. Not only does my incredibly specific enjoyment of the game limit the worth of my review for others, but it limits the worth of other reviews towards mattering to me.

Which brings me to the difference between reviews that I love, and reviews which do nothing for me. The standard value-judgement review has absolutely no weight to me. I can almost never count on a review to tell me whether or not I’ll enjoy a game. You know how people always say that reviews are important because buying a game is a big investment and people need to know if they’re gonna get their money’s worth? Reviews have almost never told me this. Every game I’ve loved, I found out on my own if I’d love it.

But I am nonetheless obsessed with reviews, and there are ones which I love. The ones I love that come along more commonly are in the vein of Zero Punctuation. This means, reviews which are entertaining, regardless of what they tell me about the game. I would be shocked if anyone out there actually based their game purchases around ZP reviews. Yahtzee has extremely specific tastes, and with only five minutes per video, he only usually highlights a few noteworthy features of a game which he found interesting or terrible and fills in time with jokes.

These reviews are all fine and good, but usually do only a little bit to enhance my interaction or understanding with the games themselves.

And that’s what I look for really great reviews to do. I like reviews which aren’t just about if the game is good or sucks, but examine what the game does, and how this effects the player and their perception of what’s happening. These reviews aren’t so much about the good and bad elements of the game, but examining the feelings of the reviewer and finding out why the game made them feel the way that they did.

In any review, the reviewer themself is the most important thing. I don’t read Roger Ebert’s movie reviews to find out if a movie is good or bad—I read them because I’m interested in the grand narrative of how he sees movies. And that’s what it is: a narrative. A tapestry of what the reviewer feels about games. It’s interesting the way a story is interesting—because of the parts of ourselves that we see and relate to in it. It’s not because Ebert likes a movie or Yahtzee hates a game, but because Ebert and Yahtzee are interesting, and they offer insight into my own emotions and opinions.


6 thoughts on “On the Importance of Differing Experiences When Writing Reviews (An AARPG Editorial)

  1. I think the realization in the last paragraph is more significant than a lot of people realize. One of the things that’s most painful to me is reading reviews from people who try to detach themselves from the experience as much as possible and convey their opinions about the work as if they’re speaking only of the work’s objective traits and/or faults. Not only do I find this sort of discourse completely dishonest (as if there is no “self” at all when conveying an opinion), it’s almost insufferable to imagine the “grand narrative” of how they see works: cold, detached, academic, cynical. It’s completely rote and joyless, whether they like something or not. And I’m supposed to relate to this person… how?

    I suppose there is a place for overviews that just try to provide you the facts and some basic impressions based on first-hand experience so you can make a purchasing decision. But, the people who provide true insight about the experience do so by making themselves part of the conversation, and giving us a glimpse at their own perspective and evolving viewpoint. So, in that interaction, the most significant but somehow understated judgement that’s being made is not any judgement made by the author of the review/article, but rather the reader’s judgement of the author him or herself. When we write, we our conveying ourselves in the context of our experiences, and through that offering insight into both.

    I guess I’m not saying anything that wasn’t already said, but I suppose this is only my way of underlining what I feel is important. :)

    • Yup. Overviews have their place, but unfortunately the place they’re being found is in so-called reviews, which color the overview with the reviewer’s opinion and then pretend like they don’t. It’s quite annoying, and makes the overview less trustworthy or worthwhile.

      I’ve been saying these things about reviews in general for years, but with video games, it really takes on a whole new level. Experiences can differ to such a radical extent that I think a review which doesn’t really get into the individual style of play is bound to lack in purpose.

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