Friday, January 04, 2008

Dean Takahashi falls on his sword

Don't worry: as per our earlier agreement, this is not a Mass Effect post. Not really. It seems that San Jose Mercury News critic Dean Takahashi has retracted his negative Mass Effect review after comments from numerous readers led him to discover that he had missed a crucial component of the game. He wasn't assigning his characters the talent points they had earned, which left them woefully underpowered as he tried to progress. In fact, Takahashi's original review echoes my own thoughts about the game quite closely, even though I wasn't forgetting to assign my talent points. But, again, this isn't a Mass Effect post.

Instead, this episode spotlights a problem that's unique to video games in the world of arts criticism: many times, it's simply not possible to fully review a game in a timely manner. I get the impression this is something no reviewer wants to admit. We're positioned as experts, and I think many of us are content not to disabuse our readers of the notion that we see all and know all. But of course that's silly. Our opinions aren't any better or more valid than anybody else's -- we just have the ability, hopefully, to express those opinions in a way that's entertaining or enlightening.

Not everybody agrees with me on this, not least some outlets themselves. Gamespot's explanation of their ratings system actually says this:
"Wait, reviews are just opinions. Right?"
Actually, we don't think so. We make no excuses for our verdicts about games and believe our reviews stand for themselves. While our reviews, of course, do contain an element of subjectivity to them, we see the process of reviewing games as one that primarily involves the reporting of facts. To an extent, we naturally color these facts based on our own experiences of having spent much time playing other games in the past, but we make every effort to look at every game on its own merits, and we describe each game in the most factual terms possible.

Yet just above this, in response to the question of how long they spend playing a game prior to the review, Gamespot uses the weaselly phrase "we play games extensively before committing to our full reviews," and defines "extensively" as about 10 hours. This blows my mind, because that's about the average time I can put into a game before deadline, and I would never deign to call my reviews anything but "just an opinion."

Which brings us back to Dean Takahashi's problem with Mass Effect. He put in, by his own accounting, about eight hours, which is obviously far too short to explore the vast majority of what the game has to offer. By its nature, this is a game designed to be played over and over, in endlessly different ways. It's practically unreviewable, if completeness is your primary concern. I've said it before, but movie reviewers don't have this problem. Record reviewers don't have this problem. Book reviewers don't have this problem. They clock in for a couple of hours and they're done.

I've seen it suggested that game critics ought to disclose just how much time they spent with a game before writing their reviews, and while I don't think this is necessary in all cases, it might not be a bad idea to mention if you kept running into roadblocks early into the game, as Takahashi and I both did. But isn't that, too, a legitimate point of contention for a review? While playing Mass Effect, I said to more than one person, "All I do is play video games and I can't make the slightest sense of this game." While this is a minority opinion, I'm obviously not alone there. How long do you let a game suck in hopes that it'll get better? Why not just load up a game that's fun from the get-go?

All this is certainly not to duck the very real responsibility a game reviewer has to the readership. Our charge is to make a good-faith effort to play as much of the game as possible without bias or prejudice, and to communicate, as clearly as we can, what the experience is like. That doesn't mean everyone is going to agree with us, obviously, or that our take is somehow more correct than that of your average player. It just means taking the time to play both single-player and multi-player modes, and whatever else the developer has thrown in there. It means trying to identify the primary purpose of a game and judging whether the game fulfills that purpose.

As an example: I played the lame, tacked-on CTF component to The Darkness, and didn't mention it in the review because it was so clearly irrelevant to the mind-blowing single-player campaign. Similarly, in my review of Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2, I mentioned specifically that I retreated quickly from online play because I was getting smoked. Maybe it's not what everybody wants from a critic -- but, hey, at least I was honest. What matters is that the reader knows where you're coming from.

Dean Takahashi, to his eternal credit, has done just that. And in spite of this event -- in fact, because of it -- I'm a lot more likely to trust him in the future. Certainly much more than I trust Gamespot's opinions.

Oh, sorry, I meant Gamespot's edicts.

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