Tuesday, May 01, 2012

An impassioned plea for apathy

 Above: Geralt begins his quest to hunt down a guy who said something mean about him on the internet.

I can't take it anymore. Every day, it seems like people are all atwitter about another irrelevant nontroversy. Matters that a normal human being would dismiss as trivial are elevated, on the internet, to grand morality plays where nothing less than our fate as a species hangs in the balance. It is fucking ridiculous. If we could find a way to channel self-important outrage into kinetic energy, our dependence on foreign oil would be finished tomorrow. Instead, we're going to choke on it.

The latest? Some guy at Gamer Limit didn't like The Witcher 2. Now, you or I would hear about this and think, "Huh, someone has an opinion about a video game. I wonder what I should have for lunch." Witcher 2 fanboys hear about this and see a battle as pivotal as the invasion of Normandy. They regret that they have but one life to give for a game they enjoy.

It doesn't matter to them that reviews for the game are still almost uniformly positive. If anything, that's all the more reason to start wailing on the one guy who didn't like it. You let somebody step out of line just this once, and what happens the next time? We might have to start dealing with a real diversity of opinions, which would require us to engage with games critically, and with one another respectfully, and that just sounds too hard. Easier if everyone repeats one another.

I haven't played The Witcher 2, and I have no idea if I'd agree with Bobby Hunter's criticisms or not. But they sound fair to me. He talks about a tricky interface, cumbersome combat mechanics, and a storyline that didn't resonate with him. Not only does this sound reasonable, but I've read positive reviews of The Witcher 2 that make the same points! It's not as though he accidentally played some other game.*

Of course, there's a bigger issue here. The reason many people claim to be outraged -- the reason people think they are justified in firing whatever insults and accusations they can imagine at the writer and the site -- is because the Gamer Limit review dragged down the game's Metacritic score from 90 to 89. The horror!

We all know it's bullshit that developers have powerful, often unfair incentives to hit a certain Metacritic score. I was heartbroken to hear that the Fallout: New Vegas devs missed getting a bonus by one lousy Metacritic point, especially because I consider it to be nearly a masterpiece. But does the fault really lie with the reviewers of New Vegas, who accurately mentioned that it was buggier than a Victorian whorehouse?

Further, if CD Projekt, like Obsidian, does have the fate of their business riding on a 90+ Metacritic score, something I have not seen seriously suggested, then whose fault is that? I would suggest the blame should be apportioned in this order.
1. The executives who made a boneheaded deal.
2. Metacritic, which wields its influence like a cudgel.
3. Fans who, by giving a shit about Metacritic, grant it its influence.
5,000. Someone who wrote a bad review of The Witcher 2.
What do these people want, exactly? All critics to march in lockstep all the time? You hear so many complaints about how reviewers don't use the entirety of the 0-10 scale, but as soon as someone does, it's a bloodbath. Why, it's almost as though people want a validation of their own opinions, and nothing more.

What bugs me most about flare-ups like this are the accusations of bad faith. I don't doubt that there are people out there who are not interested in writing good, honest criticism, and see controversy as a shortcut to pageviews. But there is no evidence -- none -- that this is the case here. I happen to have right here a link to another review that Bobby Hunter wrote of an action-RPG called Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Let's see what kind of incendiary lying bullshit he made up about it just so Gamer Limit could get more hits.

Oh wait. He gave it a high score! Even weirder, his approach is consistent across both reviews. What he liked about Reckoning -- smooth combat, fast-paced action, and competent adherence to genre tropes -- he found lacking in The Witcher 2. Whether you agree with his conclusions is beside the point. Judging by his work (what a concept!), he's not somebody who flings shit at the wall to see what sticks.

The way so many people default to this line of attack tells me that they don't have anything substantive to say. They just want to gang up on someone. They want to elevate a simple disagreement into a clash of good versus evil -- with themselves radiating pure white light, of course, no matter what garbage they sling, because they are armed with the correct opinion about a video game. That's borne out by reading the comments on the piece. Not that I'm suggesting you read the comments, if you value your sanity. You could guess what they sound like, and you'd be right.

You know what the truth is? Writing a negative review sucks. It feels terrible. You know that a lot of dedicated people worked hard on something, and put a lot more hours into it than you did, and you're about to tell people that it's no good. And if you know that you're going against popular opinion, you have to live with the very real possibility that you're about to become ground zero for the next round of targeted fanboy fury. Many of the angry commenters suggest that Hunter should quit his gig as a game reviewer because he didn't get the same value from The Witcher 2 that so many of his peers did. I would suggest the opposite. The day that he pretends to find something in a game that isn't there, that's when he should quit.

Really, though, it's not this particular case that bothers me as much as the pattern. Whether it's a negative review of The Witcher 2, or the ending of Mass Effect 3, or somebody saying he felt weird at PAX, the story is the same every time. The mob moves, locust-like, from one controversy to the next, with no sense of perspective or decency. They'll pick Bobby Hunter's bones clean today, forget the whole thing within a month, and then swarm the next one who strays from the pack. Guaranteed.

People, I am begging you: the next time you read something on the internet that spurs you to anger, wait a goddamn minute before you react. Stand up. Walk out of the room. Pet your cat. Ask yourself what you're so pissed off about. Ask yourself if it matters to your life and your experiences. Ask yourself if your response is going to help.

If you're still mad after all that, okay. Go ahead and write a searing blog post.

*Read this, from Jim Rossignol's orgasmic review of the PC version:
It’s a peculiarly ill-judged baptism of fire (literally at some points). Where you’re expecting a game to teach you how it works and lead you by the hand, The Witcher 2 offers nothing but a few text-based tips boxes. If you don’t take time to figure out that you have to constantly dodge away with the spacebar, or use magic to buff your combat, you are going to struggle. And the game does not tell beginners this. The spells are barely mentioned, and you’ll need to stop and figure it out for yourself if you want to know what they do. While there are situations in which they /are/ introduced to you, at no point are you explicitly taught that it is a lot easier if you use the shield power to protect yourself in combat, for example
That's almost exactly the same thing that Hunter complained about. The difference is that Rossignol liked the game despite this, while Hunter didn't. Isn't that... good? Isn't that what we want from our writers? Different perspectives? When I read Rossignol's review, I thought to myself, "This does not sound like a game for me." It didn't make me want to string him up for liking it.


Cunzy11 said...

Sometimes we feel the same about irrelevant nontroveries but a lot of the time it is because we're too plugged into the network of gaming sites.

Recently we gave our RSS feeds a good pruning and that help to put the scale of these problems in perspective. Sometimes it can feel like "everyone on the internet" is talking about A or B but actually a handful are and everyone else is just linking to it.

Mitch Krpata said...

That's a good point. Even linking to something without comment can have an amplifying effect, which can be good or bad. In a case like this, it definitely seems bad.

You just have to wonder what the incentive is for the hundredth person to call the reviewer an idiot. It's well-trod ground by now!

Etelmik said...

FWIW, I reviewed the Witcher 2 and I hated it. Just hated it. I get why it got high scores but I just couldn't accept it as good.

So for me, this is a game I'm glad it's happening to, though not as much as I would to milked series such as stuff by say, Activision or Nintendo.

SMS said...

We seem to have established a culture in gaming where this kind of attack is acceptable. Game forums are especially filled with insular thinking and perceived importance.

Unfortunately, mob mentality takes over.

I don't know how we got here, the real question is: How do we stop it? Responding to vitrol provides encouragement to attention seekers. Not responding is a sign of tacit approval.

Freddie said...

This is awesome. Thanks for it.

Apolo Imagod said...

Great post Mitch. I wish there was a slight possibility your words had a chance of changing the minds, even if only slightly so, of those people. But there isn't. I only take comfort in the idea the this is a vocal minority... but I don't think so either. I think common sense is actually minority trait...

Apolo Imagod said...

I would also like to add that I am currently playing this game, and I'm liking it so far. But I agree with some of the criticism in that article (not all of it though). In particular, how some quest markers are hard to find... as in, they don't exist. You're told to find something, but given no absolute clue where to start.

Also, the criticism about not giving proper introduction to the world to newcomers is also fair. The game throws you in the middle of ongoing events, picking up right after the ending of the previous game, and you may feel a little puzzled as to what's going on. I didn't play the first one, so I get the feeling, but I built up my knowledge prior to playing reading plot summaries for the previous game, because I wanted to know what was going on.

Anonymous said...

I always attributed this to being a part of growing up. As a youngster you get easily enraged if someone criticizes something you like - be it music, games, cars, sport teams or whatever.

Like a long-married pair sometimes manages to sensitize each other into getting terribly upset about their pet peeves, you'll get angered in no time and try to be as harsh as possible to lash out at the felt enemy.

Eventually you notice the pointlessness and stop getting enraged. And change how you respond to issues of taste. Saying "that's not my kind of music" instead of "I only listen to this and that because they're the best/everything else is shit/etc.".

At least that was my impression. It's annoying, of course, that all this has to go live on the internet instead of staying in a shouting match in some quiet corner, heard by few.

Mitch Krpata said...

Cygon, I agree, but I don't think that explains all of it. I know I've mellowed with age. But there are plenty of cantankerous old folks online, too, who have also embraced their newfound ability to share their malformed thoughts with the world (see the comments on just about any newspaper website, for instance). Like Apolo said above, some people's minds just can't be changed.

Of course, all of us live and let live types typically aren't showing up in the comments sections to say so. Maybe we should start.

Gravey said...

"Of course, all of us live and let live types typically aren't showing up in the comments sections to say so. Maybe we should start."

Done! I read that review the other day, and actually rather liked it since it articulates all the issues I've been having with TW2 so far. I hated to be a c-c-c-c-combo breaker in that comments section, but maybe it can at least let Hunter know someone out there appreciated his work.

Anonymous said...

The thing with scores is that they shouldn't exist. I didn't read the whole review, which automatically means that many who know about it didn't read the whole thing, I skimmed through it just to see the score. It's low. Meh.

What those people didn't like about The Witcher 2 is what I love about the game - the fact that you have to figure stuff on your own, the fact that the combat is slightly weird makes it feel unique to me. It has charm. I am talking about the PC version, I can't speak for the console. I am used to playing old games, that relied on you reading the manual and didn't tell all the information in the game... however I didn't read the manual, I just clicked stuff and looked at what happens... I love little surprises in the game.

Like, if the game tells me "This element is a trap, you should lay it down and trap enemies with it" and I lay it down my reaction would be "oh, yeah, it's a trap, fairly decent", where if I haven't been told that, my initial reaction would be so much more vivid and the skill will be much more fun to use later on... The game shouldn't tell things to the player, they need to figure it out on their own. And they shouldn't care about scores or mobs to force developers to change their game.

Anonymous said...

Honestly ain't even mad about witcher. I did however, question my anger about Mass Effect 3. It was an alright game with a shitty ending. An ending I rather not think about. I admit I was one of those guys on the wagon, I couldn't help it at the time. I was so hyped for the game, to find out the ending was a bit mediocre and almost all of the endings were the same, I just had to find others who agreed with that.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sylbinor said...

Some time ago I read an article in a vg magazine about the system of marks in the specialized press.

The journalist made a good point when he stated that vg journalist are the only ones who gives very similar votes. For movies we usually have different opinion and for music is not unusual to find a guy who gave 8 to a cd, and another guy who gave it 5.

This is a good point because it is closely linked to the "vg are art or not" debate. How it is possible that many different people gives the same opinion on a subject? The only possible explanation is that we are still stuck to the point where we analyze the game meccanically, like those obnoxious people who see a Mondrian and say "I could do better".

One of the reasons we are still stuck here is because we have two different kind of users. The casual gamer who read a review to just knows how cool is that game, and the hardcore gamer who read a review to have a feedback on his own idea.

Pay attention that even the casual gamer is "guilty", because he wants just very low, technical details: how "cool" is the graphics, how many thing you can destroy... And that are prety objective things... but a game isn't good just for tecnhical reasons!

I think that we (I work for a non-anglophone website) reviewers should have the courage to break this behaviour. But the users have to support us.

p.s. I think that we should use a full scale 1 - 10, simply because there is no rule that says 10 means "perfection". It may means "masterpiece", one of those games who change a genre. Unfortunatly seems that no one wants this (the magazine I was referring at the beginning did this, bu they were the only one)

Anonymous said...

I really don't like arguments that start with "don't make a big deal about it." Let's not make a big deal about video games either, cause they're a waste of time? I don't think you can drive an argument by just saying that it isn't worth caring about. In fact, I think it totally is worth caring about—though not because of anything stupid that only publishers care about, like dropping a metacritic score by 1 point.

I mean, aren't we maybe right to call each other out if our reasoning is thin, our metaphors vague, or our opinions unsupported? Sometimes there might be real criticisms that are worth pointing out. That's waaaay older than twitter, too: controversial reviews have been written without the help of the Internet and critics have taken each other to task for it.

I'll be honest, I'm a lot more worried about reviews that use phrases like "visceral combat" "sticky controls" or "fluid gameplay" in the place of actual analysis than I am about spats on twitter. It's disappointing and unfair when they get nasty, but I don't think it helps to stop getting worked up by the quality (or lack thereof) in game reviews.

Blokeh said...

Just who does the author of this blog think he is? Doesn't he realise that its us - the basement-dwelling, still-living-with-parents-at-35, jobless, 18-hours-a-day gamers - that are right about EVERYTHING?

Does he not realise that, without our expertise in all areas of gaming, garnered over 30+ years of being shut-in recluses waggling the shit out of our joysticks, the gaming industry would be in a sorry state, with rehash after rehash after shovelware title?

Just because the massively talented development crew spent years and years slaving away over a game, doesn't mean that they deserve any kind of respect. I mean, I made a Tic-Tac-Toe game in C++ at community college, so its not like game development is hard.

Without people like me, there would be no gaming to speak of, and therefore, every developer in the entire world should listen to us when we say that we want something different, and they should listen when we say that different is wrong and familiarity is what we crave most, and...

...have I gotten my point across yet?

tl;dr - anyone who thinks someone elses opinion is "wrong" or "bullshit" just because it doesn't match their own, should be beaten to death with a hardback copy of "Diversity For Dummies". As someone who didn't like Half-Life, couldn't be arsed with Portal, but absolutely loved Sacred 2: Fallen Angel, and thought Bulletstorm was GOTy 2011, I prefer to ignore reviews, play games and just make my own damn mind up.

Mitch Krpata said...

Andrew, we don't disagree. But if there were good points made about that particular review, I didn't see them. I saw people calling the writer an idiot, telling him to quit his job, and so on and so forth.

To be clear: I love disagreements! That's why I said in the piece that I don't want to see reviewers all saying the same things all the time. But what I want are constructive disagreements that are based on reason. We see precious little of that.

When I say I want people to ask themselves how much they actually care about what they're about to flip out about, I mean exactly that. If they took a minute and cooled off, they might be able to engage the issue in a more meaningful and helpful way.

Nick said...

Great writing. I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned, it was like they are seeking validation for their own opinions. That is exactly it. Fanboys approach their hobby too much like a sports game. They are committed to the victory of one team, and any other result is unacceptable. What they fail to realize is they are sharply limiting themselves by gaming like this. There is a lot of excellent stuff out there, and it will not be for everyone. I for example, really do not like the Assassin's Creed games. I really want to, the story and setting deeply interest me. I just cannot maintain interest in them.
I also do not understand why people cannot get through their heads a review is going to be subjective. There are going to be numerous background factors influencing the reviewers perception of the game. I am sorry, but you cannot create a statistical model that will objectively spit out game scores. Does not work that way.

Apolo Imagod said...

Another funny thing about this whole thing: the PC version, which is supposed to be superior, has an 88 Metacritic, one point lower than the 89 for the recently released one... I wonder if this whole whining syndrome is a malady of console gamers? (of which I am one myself -- I don't play PC games)

Anonymous said...

Great piece which absolutely needs to be stated a heck of a lot more often. The Witcher 2 is my game of the year thus far, but to witness the lowest common denominator type bile spewed in the comments section of that review is sickening.

That said, I do think the problem is exacerbated by inconsistencies within a particular review site. It's interesting that you should link to Bobby's Amalur review, since that was the first thing I read after his Witcher review (what better way for ascertaining a reviewer's mindset), and whilst I'll agree that he was in certain ways consistent with the reviews, one also has to raise the question 'what is the point of a review?'. Too often I see reviews being excused as opinion pieces, when they are most certainly not. Yes, it involves the relaying of an individuals perception and opinions, but within a structured framework that at its heart is aimed to give the consumer a service. And the only way this is achieved, is by utilising a consistent framework.

Yes, Bobby marked Amalur high for it's fluid responsive combat and Witcher low for what he perceived as the opposite. And whilst that's consistent, where is the consistency with regard storyline, characterisation, voice work, side quests etc etc? If he was being truly consistent, Amalur's excellent combat would not have been sufficient to grant such a favourable score, when it came up short in so many other facets that Witcher was penalised for.

How is that consistency? This discussion is in danger of becoming circular in nature, opinions about opinions. At some stage, we need to find an agreed upon anchor point, else we risk being labeled as full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I firmly believe that anchor point is that reviewers cannot simply state an opinion and leave it as such. It must be considered, measured, and ascribe to objectivism, even if it will always be doomed to fail at that.

As tired as I am by internet trolls and fanboys, I'm equally tired of reviewers hiding behind 'it's just my opinion'. Work to a formula, disclose what that formula is, and grade accordingly.

Mitch Krpata said...

Anon 8:15, thanks for another example of productive dissent. I lean more toward thinking that reviews are opinions, but obviously they do need to be based on shared facts. That's why I thought it was interesting that some of the complaints raised in the Gamer Limit review have come up elsewhere. How much an individual reviewer weighs those types of complaints against the total experience will always vary.

One thing I've said before is that a good game overcomes its flaws, while a bad game sinks despite its virtues. I may be letting myself off the hook here, but I sure as heck can't systematically define which is which from one game to the next. A game is more than the sum of its parts.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I agree completely that a game is more than the sum of its parts. No one even said reviewing was an easy thing, is this is perhaps the area that is hardest to quantify and relies the most on opinion. But still, that becomes just an additional factor in what eventually becomes the review. Yes, many of his criticisms were echoed by other reviewers, even the always incisive gents at gamecritics.com marked the pc version as a 5, if memory serves.

But in most instances, the greater weight of what was perceived to be a strong narrative and a strong identity outweighed the combat and interface niggles. And that's really my point right there; being able to highlight faults and express a personal opinion don't preclude still working to a framework. The problem is, as a reviewer this means sometimes awarding higher marks to a game than your instinct allows, and for many this might seem like a compromise too far.

As an opinion, I don't rate Inception as the saviour of moviedom, but as a reviewer I can recognise that it's various facets, though not perhaps done in the way I would have ideally chosen, are nevertheless not an indication that they are therefore inferior.

To me, a great reviewer still has his/her personality shine through, but is able to take a step back, look at the words holistically, and understand they are still, above all else, offering a service.


Anonymous said...

The whole reaction to the ending of Mass Effect 3 was precisely BECAUSE the developers demonstrated no "perspective or decency." The ending did not make sense, even contradicting the established story, left huge plot holes, and offered no closure to the story. In short, it completely lacked "perspective." Furthermore, it did not deliver what was promised ("wildly different" conclusions based on choices made throughout the game) since the endings were all the same regardless of player choices. In short, they lacked the "decency" to deliver a product as advertised. Perhaps you need to consider that this is a business, and consumers have every right to expect the features advertised in a product.

Mitch Krpata said...

Anon 10:09, I appreciate the comment. I don't have too much to say specifically about the ME3 ending, because I'm not a fan of the series and have nothing invested in it. But again, I have no problem with people arguing and sharing considered criticisms, as you do in your comment. What you say about the ending makes perfect sense.

I'm asking for a sense of proportion, and for people to stop and think before reacting out of blind emotion. The biggest thing I'm advocating for is for people to consider the most constructive way to go about arguing, not the most destructive. Personally, when I read something I disagree with, if I'm honest with myself I usually find I don't have anything to add, and don't see the point in registering my opinion just because I have one.

Not my real name said...

I love this blog post. I would have everyone on the internet that's mildly into gaming read this, TWICE.

So many points to articulate and I don't know where to begin.

People talk a lot about gaming journalism being in decline and never about gaming communities. They've become a hate machine hive mind that doesn't allow for any serious discussion or forwarding of ideas. The most glaring issue are personal attacks on someone for having a different opinion about a videogame.

People telling someone "you should kill yourself" because that person plays Call of Duty or didn't like The Witcher 2. There's so much dehumanization and lack of respect for other people that it's reached critical levels. I'm not sure what we can do to stop this trend or reverse it.

Axikal said...

As a freelance reviewer/writer I cannot agree with you more. It's disheartening to have to give a negative review to a game, especially a popular one. I did a brief summation of Witcher 2 after begrudgingly tossing the controller away over the shaky combat mechanics.

There's a fine line we all have to tread in order to put out not only a quality review, but prepare for damage control from dissenting opinions. We're a damned if you do anything species.

In the end, we have to be steadfast against the tide and give our honest, unfettered opinions in our reviews, and let the dissenters have their moments.

Then again, I ranted against IGN US for giving Deadly Premonition a 2/10, particularly because the review was filled with inconsistencies and pretty much showed the reviewer spent all but 10 minutes playing the game (asking questions that actually get answered in the game). So like I said: Damned whatever you do.

MarcAuron said...

Game reviewers of the past and those of the last few years, devolved from competent gamers into attention seeking casuals , blissfully clueless about basic genre mechanics.
A button mashing game shouldn't be reviewed by the same person as a RPG with at least basic complexity.

Yes complexity, that thing that Hunter confused with difficulty, and came of as a blissfully clueless drone, that is unwilling to RTFM and do basic exploration.

What the Horror, on the start of the year 2012 The Witcher 2 has a learning curve-how could they?

Imagine no giant question marks above the NPC's heads and no press button-awesome to win.

Opinions created by other mainstream companies that make the gamer be perceived as a idiot, in particular the console gamer-well Bobby Hunter did them a service. Apparently a reviewing representative of Microsoft's platform can not read, and learn something new.

The day that he pretends to find something in a game that isn't there, that's when he should quit.

You should play the game before stating that something isn't there.

Jim Rossignol reviewed the game 1.0.
The XBOX users got a far more polished experience, and no, in both cases it's not a game for someone who started gaming yesterday.

Whether we like it or not a Metacritic score is important, for the developer, a publisher expects at least a 80+ to even reconsider funding a sequel, at least important publishers do, so yes the downhill of Obsidian and there is one, whether I like or not can be attributed to the fail of Alpha Protocol and trouble with NV.

Why are some upset, the independent ones like PB,RED,Obsidian have no EA behind them , to intimidate those like Bobby Hunter into 98 for Dragon Age 2, or simply blacklist the reviewers site.
Your opinion would change, if a game that you liked would be affected in the same way.

You most certainly wouldn't bash a game in deffence of someone that failed the basics of a RPG, particularly one you haven't played.

It isn't a mob mentality, some people know more about games, and they are very sick of Corporate lies and manipulations. Odd thing, there is a PSP licking IGN reviewer in ME3, do you really think that ME3 could get a lover score at IGN?

When such a big site is obviously biased, at least the smaller ones like your friend, could be at least a little bit less biased.

No one expects a 100 from him, but not lying, stating he doesn't like the game, the genre, whatever but without inventing things that simply aren't the games fault, but really are coming from his own failed expectations at being spoon-fed like a absolute beginner in the genre that he apparently is.

Who knows maybe you would say, it's great, what was Bobby Hunter thinking, it's all in the journal, maybe he was to "hardcore" for a tutorial-who knows?

Thinking doesn't hurt said...

@MarcAuron, excellent post! It's refreshing to read something rational for a change and I couldn't agree more. Especially that we have here (apart from advocates of truth) another Bobby Hunter-like "reviewer" who did not want to read or just could not understand the manual. Shaky combat mechanics of Witcher 2? Boo hoo! RTFM and repat after me "this is not a button-masher game for kids, so you need to use your brain, no matter what". It's clearer to me each day why console gamers are thought to be fans of dumbed down games. And then we are surprised that the game industry treats us like monkeys on a string.

Mirkle Jernston said...

There's a difference between having an opinion and being completely inept.

Plus, considering the fact that the Gamerlimit reviewer loved Dragon Age 2, it's highly likely that he had a personal vendetta against The Witcher 2, as it was in direct competition against Dragon Age 2