Why I Don’t Write Reviews…And Why I Might Start

The beginning of this article is somewhat relevant to this.

At the start of this odd project, I had assumed that I was going to avoid the “review” question entirely. Isn’t “reviewing” what every game journalist does, you might ask? Absolutely! Many of them are handed a game and they proceed to play it, slap a number/letter grade and call it a day with some text. Some systems (like Insomnia, EuroGamer, and 1Up) are better than others (IGN, probably), but they tend to give a pretty qualified and interesting take on whether the reviewer liked the game or not. Reviews are subjective works that express opinion. Whether or not that’s true, the establishment media parrots this mantra at every opportunity. Is criticism merely an opinion, though?

Modern video game journalism hasn’t made that clear. There’s always the notion that some advertising agency simply begs for a good review scores and gets it. Jeff Gerstmann, currently at GiantBomb, was fired by Gamespot for such a review as I’ve heard (Kane and Lynch: Dead Men was the game). Though he tends to talk with his current GameSpot employers with undue adoration even after being laid off for expressing his opinion, he never really left the fold of the “game journalist community”. It’s hard to be indepedant in your thought if there’s prior expectations, right? Eidos (the company who published K+L) had adverstisements on the site at the same time as well – who’d give up money over integrity?

“Review” websites become just as prone to this as any other; if you’ve gained exclusive access to a new game, or coverage exclusive to your web domain, isn’t there some expectation that it’ll pay off with a great review score? A swank hotel and free food can do a great deal to sway an journalist’s opinion, especially if he/she is forced to play the game at some other location than their home. GTAIV’s utterly baffling 98 MetaCritic score has to call something into question! In retrospect, now everyone seems to think it was horrible, exactly when I thought it was pretty medicore four years ago. After the initial hype, 1Up even gave the PC port (mediocre for its time) a B- rather than an A!

The Internet gaming community, contrary to the popular notion, exists to sell you a product. Video games are a product and video game reviews are treated as reviews of products. Some publications have gotten it into their heads that, perhaps, games mean a little more than that. Their ability to express this opinion with any measure of freedom is restricted by the product review format.

Furthermore, if it is all subjective (and the above would peg reviews as such), then what’s the point of a review? Being somewhat disiullusioned with the video game news racket as such, I decided I wouldn’t review a game on this website – zero, zilch, nada. Problem one was the inevitability of placing some arbitrary unit of measurement which tells you what is “bad” or “good”. A five star system gives you a similar indication to one based upon a 0-10 with decimal points like GameSpot had back in the day (check old review scores for stuff like 7.7 and 8.2). Problem two is the reactions to any game has some subjective element to it. I, for example, am absolutely fine with the art design in most games.  Some prefer the Japanese aesthetic and cannot stand games that look brown and grey like the Call of Duty series. That’s fine, but everyone has different tastes. The tactile, crunchy, and fast action of DooM contrasts with the duck-and-cover mechanics of Gears of War, but that doesn’t mean everyone will like both…

…or so I thought. I’m unsure that aesthetics, in this case, should be considered “subjective” like I’ve been stating. I’ve been showing the pros and cons of a variety of games over the past two months, but many of these aren’t subjective qualities – they’re objective statements. Is Max Payne’s shooting mechanics somewhat inaccurate or overly precise? Absolutely; anyone can agree on this. Learning how to aim with a slight handicap and bullet-time doesn’t make that a subjective notion. Any person with experience in video game shooting galleries can see that.

From a theological perspective, aesthetics in playing a game isn’t subjective but objective. Jewish notions in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible writings display a sense of materiality and bodily existence. Those things with flaw weren’t good; those things without blemish or spot were perfect. The opposite of beauty wasn’t “ugly”, but “flawed”. Theology in these books consists of a recognition of beauty as something without any flaws. From our modern post-Enlightenment standpoint, this is surely an odd concept. Jewish writers used the word “tam”, which means something equivalent to “beautiful”, or “integrity”. The book of Job celebrates Job as having precisely this characteristic:

There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job; and that man was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil.

The context allows us to use “blameless and upright” rather than spotless, but this could easily extend to the use of animal sacrifices in Jewish religion. A physically spotless, or “blameless”, animal was required to make a proper sacrifice. This just as easily extend to Jesus, who was a perfect and spotless sacrifice in spiritual terms as well as physical. Imagine that Christ as a physical being was considered “perfect” and you’ll see what I’m getting at here. John 14:9 says what I mean clearly enough:

 Jesus said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?

However, language has been “Platonized” over time. Plato’s idea that only the Ideal was “beautiful”, the concept rather than the thing in itself, became normative for Christianity. While not a bad turn, it removes something of the perfect/non-perfect distinction, instead moving to a ideal/non-ideal. A slight difference, maybe, but the physiciality is lost. Once we’ve elevated the distinctions into the realm of ideas, we’ve lost a component of the whole picture.

As well, it leads us to the post-modern notions of “subjectivity”. Edmund Burke probably didn’t intend for his empirical notions of aesthetics to lead to such notions, but they have. If experience becomes primary rather than truth, then we lead ourselves into all sorts of unintentional errors and problems. If God’s gift to human beings was the world itself, in some sense, then our senses are designed to perceive a particular world. This would apply to all human beings, in fact! So there is a universal criteria for the beautiful and the good, and that is God and the original form of His creation by association.

But, and here’s the kicker, we’re not good at seeing that. A sin nature makes it impossible to see God’s creation in completely correct terms. We can catch a glimpse of “beauty”, but not its true character. That doesn’t mean it isn’t there, but we’re looking through a glass darkly, eager to see a glimpse of it. The modern period, to counter this notion, has made beauty the universal character of everything on a perspectival basis. If it’s beautiful and good to you, great! It doesn’t have to be for me.

I can’t accept that line of thought any longer. Christianity engenders notions of equality by its very nature, but that doesn’t mean one central characteristic rises before all others: love. It’s a giant umbrella, and everything a Christian does should become subservient to that general principle. Objectivity exists, whether or not you want to see it.

So, as a result, I’m thinking it may be time to start doing reviews of some kind. It’s not just a buying guide, but an objective examination of its quality. Surely, opinion becomes part of every review, but that can be debated and discussed over time to see whether the opinion has any rational validity to the subject at hand. It also doesn’t mean I will place an arbitrary review score on the end – whatever the system becomes, it’ll be well thought out and easily understood. They’ll be coming soon enough.


About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.