You know what it makes me think of? That kid from high school, you know the one I’m talking about, he went to your school too. He was supremely unintelligent, ugly, unpleasant to be around but inexplicably popular. He’d put no effort into his schoolwork, convinced as he was that he’d be a football star when he grew up. Reading is boring, he’d say–something you took as almost a personal affront, given that you always had your nose in a book growing up, given that you were writing your first tentative short stories and giving serious thought to becoming a writer when you grew up. Whenever I see TL;DR, I picture this kid, staring, slack-jawed, at anything more than a sentence or two long, scratching his head. When I go into the comments of a Kotaku or a Destructoid, I picture a clone army of this kid, all of them batting at their keyboards in clumsy unison, calling me a fag.
One of the pleasures of growing up is being able to avoid a lot more people than you could growing up, and to that end Eric and I have almost completely broken with geek culture. That’s part of the reason I’ve always felt very strongly about review scores. I would be perfectly comfortable if review scores were abolished entirely, given that they attempt to force a nuanced opinion into an objective number. I don’t care if you think me elitist for expecting people to read a whole 1500 words–in one sitting!–without any pictures to break it up or a number and a couple of bullets to summarize the whole thing for you. The TL;DR crowd doesn’t often find its way to us, but if they were to complain, my response would be a genuine, Look, talk to me when you’ve grown a brain.
Today, Stephen Totilo announced that Kotaku reviews would be switching format. Traditionally, Kotaku’s reviews were indeed unscored–he quite explicitly states that the editorial team “worried that the number would undermine the review” by its pretense of objectivity and its lack of context; many of the reviews were also written in this weird question-and-answer format that almost seemed like the reviewer interviewing himself about playing the game.
So one of the major changes is that the reviewers will have much more leeway to determine format for themselves–Totilo mentions that in addition to traditional essays, writers might “review a game with a poem or a comic strip,” which gives me the sinking feeling we’ll be seeing more gems like Tracy Lien’s…thing about Tim Rogers’ ZiGGURAT. The attempt seems to me to be an attempt to create more diversity of voice among the writers, and I can’t say I have a problem with that. Because reviewers in general don’t seem to have distinct voices or points of view–it’s not something that’s really been encouraged in the community.
But that seems to fly in the face of one of the other changes, which is the addition of a three-tiered scale. All Kotaku reviews will now come with the label YES, for a must-purchase; NO, for a game you should never purchase (something Totilo doesn’t foresee many of them, because, gee, what is a bad game, after all, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, and, you know, yeah); and NOT YET, meaning wait till the price drops or it’s patched. That they feel the need to call this out from the meat of the review almost suggests that this will not feature in the review itself. Totlio states that this is a concession to readers who are “short on time and don’t have the patience for creative writing”.
I have a notoriously low tolerance for “creative writing” in game reviews–largely because so much of it is so bad–but I think this is a decision which undermines the attempt.
I might be oversimplifying, but what we generally call a “review” is one of two things–criticism, and buying guides. Criticism discusses the more theoretical implications of a game–its themes, its relation to its genre, its more interpretative elements–and buying guides tell us whether or not we should purchase it–is it entertaining, do the graphics look pretty, is it good to break out when you have friends over. Neither is better than the other, and often a review can feature the two in combination. But I think, in this case, in attempting to be both, Kotaku’s new reviews aren’t going to feature the benefits of either. I don’t think Totilo has assembled the talent or the audience in order to win over the Critique crowd, and the parts of its reviews that are not YES/NO/NOT YET aren’t going to be passed over by those just looking for whether or not to buy the game. The two reviews that are published under the new format–one of Final Fantasy XIII-2, by Mike Fahey, and one of Resident Evil: Revelations, by Totilo himself, are, in practice, more like long-winded product reviews that are trying too hard to be profound rather than anything particularly interesting.
Now, to be fair, I find the YES/NO/NOT YET system to be, in theory, a pretty good one, and maybe it’s a simple case of Kotaku’s writers needing to just get more familiar with the new style of reviews. But there are some curious things otherwise–such as the sidebar addition of made-up back-of-the-box quotes. This is a tweely cutesy, bizarre, and kind of stupid decision that seems less to give any useful information and more like…well, it just reminds me of being in grade school, when you’d draw your own covers for videogames you loved and you’d put made-up quotes in there, or when you’d pretend you were writing a review that got published in Nintendo Power. It feels extremely juvenile.
Perhaps the most controversial part of Totilo’s article is a tangent where he quotes Penny Arcade’s Mike Krahulik, commenting on Assassin’s Creed’s poor reception. The game was underrated not because of any flaws in it but simply because everyone who reviewed it was simply too busy to give it a proper try. Totilo agrees. As a result, Kotaku may delay some reviews. Now on principle, I’m fine with this. Some games genuinely do need some time to mull over. But there’s also a strangeness to that point–and the choice of Assassin’s Creed seems to hammer it home. I personally disliked Assassin’s Creed and couldn’t bring myself to finish it because of how boring it was–its missions were too repetitive, its conversations too long-winded, its plot too unfocused. That Totilo and Krahulik blame deadlines for the game’s poor reception rather than any flaws in the game–that almost implies that there is a definitive, objective opinion that one can arrive at.
Totilo mentions that reviews might be updated as opinions change or evolve–that with time, an opinion of a game may change and that the official review will be changed to reflect that. This I am against. Totilo is vague about it, but it seems that instead of publishing future reviews, the original review will be updated to match the reviewer’s changed opinion. If that’s where this is going, then I’m not crazy about this idea. I think it would be far more useful and interesting to write a completely new article explaining the reasons for the opinion change, rather than pretending that’s what they were thinking all along.
I think that Totilo’s heart is in the right place here, and I recognize that these ideas will evolve as writers and readers get better used to the limitations and benefits of the new format. But I think the whole thing sounds very half-baked. Reviews have never been Kotaku’s focus–it concentrates on news and issues (tangentially) related to videogame culture; its reviews have always come across as more of an afterthought, of something else to read while you’re there. Maybe these changes are Totilo’s way of getting the reviews to be more prominent. But without a clear focus, I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I think it’s just going to annoy the TL;DR crowd, and the heavy criticism crowd doesn’t like Kotaku anyway.
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