The Last Guardian and writing a “correct” review

In my recent review of The Last Guardian, I said that the game was good, but didn’t live up to the hype surrounding it. This opinion rubbed some people the wrong way, and it’s not just me who is doing the rubbing. All across the internet, critics who even briefly mentioned the hype built up around the game and its long development cycle are being told that it’s “wrong” to factor in hype or development time in their final review score.

That got me thinking. What does it mean to review a game “correctly?”

What’s Off Limits For Consideration?

A common response to reviews of the The Last Guardian offered some variation of: “The game is just the game” and “It should be reviewed based on how well it executes its game plan.” But, for some reason, that doesn’t quite sit well with me - not only as a reviewer but also as a gamer. What if a game sets out to be bad? What if it set out to have bad controls, horrible graphics, game crashing glitches, and more? It’s not fun, unplayable, and offensive to any gamer’s sensibilities. Does that game deserve a 10 out of 10 because it hit its target spot on?

In my article about No Man’s Sky and surviving shaky launches, I brought up the idea of games being marketed not as a product, but as an experience. It would seem that it would be the reviewer’s job then to comment on the overall quality, or more specifically, enjoyability of that experience. “Is this an experience worth having?” is the question every critic is attempting to answer in their review.

But experiences of any kind are subjective. An experience requires the interaction of a person and a situation, in this case a piece of media. Experiences will naturally differ because people differ. No two people are going to feel the exact same way about any movie, concert, TV show, book, or game.

Reviewer A may feel that a game’s powerful story more than makes up for its lackluster graphics, while reviewer B feels that blurry textures and blocky models are inexcusable in our current gaming generation and that no story could make up for a mediocre presentation. Meanwhile, reviewer C doesn’t think the story was all that good in the first place. Reviewer A feels like including a diverse cast of characters of all races, genders, sexualities, and cultures is inspiring and a sign of progress, while reviewer B may find the game to be shallow and pandering to a political agenda. Meanwhile reviewer C is still struggling with a game breaking bug that only seems to affect his specific computer build.

While we all love to pretend that there is some mythical objective review score floating out there in the aether of knowledge, handed down by an all-mighty power that says, “I DECREE IT TO BE TRUE, FINAL FANTASY XV IS A SOLID 9/10!” I’m fairly certain multi-universal forces don’t really care about a bunch of shonen pretty boys on a road trip. The fact is, there is no concrete objective truth about how “good” a game is.

In fact, even a reviewer’s state of mind can factor into their review. Consider this a gross “this is how the sausage is really made” moment for the game reviewing industry, but it’s just a fact of psychology. The way you feel affects how positively or negatively you view any experience. There have been several studies that show recalling memories in a particular state of mind alters those memories. Recalling memories while in a particularly good mood shades them as positive memories, while recalling them in a bad mood shades them as negative. It’s part of a reviewer’s job to try and eliminate as much external emotional influence on a review as possible, but some always leaks through.

If psychologists literally cannot eliminate emotional memory influence in a laboratory setting, what hope do we have? Don’t believe me? Try acting and feeling 100% neutral after a bad break-up. It’s hard to turn your emotions off, isn’t it?

What’s the Point of a Review, Anyway?

So with the knowledge that reviews are, by nature, subjective, what’s the point of a review? Reviews are essentially offering a comparison. A reviewer is not saying, “This is how objectively good or bad this game is.” Rather, he is saying, “I played this game and had this experience. If you are similar to me, you might have a similar experience.” That’s why it's typical to consult multiple reviews and multiple reviewers. Consumers should search for a reviewer that they have something in common with, so that reviews they read are likely to be accurate for them.

This is why, while I accept that numerical scores are a necessity in our current game journalism climate, I think they can do as much harm as they do good. The presence of a numerical score tends to make a certain portion of the reader base to skip to the score without reading the bulk of the review. The review has to be read in order to tell if you, the consumer, are in any way similar to the reviewer. It’s impossible to express a nuanced and complicated opinion about a piece of media with just a number. Without context that number can, at times, feel unfair.

I’ll use my own Last Guardian review as an example. While I did discuss the hype surrounding the game in my review, the truth is I didn’t factor that into the final review score at all. I took off points for poor controls, a janky camera, and questionable puzzle mechanics. If I took off further points for not living up to the hype, the score would be even lower.

But discussing the hype in the review is still important for several reasons: 1) The janky controls, camera, graphics, and puzzle design are artifacts from an older age of game design, the age that was current when the game first started being developed and hyped, and 2) The game not living up to its hype did produce a negative experience for me. As a result, anyone like me who has been following the game since it was first announced is likely to have a similar negative experience. If I didn’t mention that in the review, then I would likely see comments saying, “Yeah the game is alright but I don’t think it lived up to the hype.”

As for the question of whether it’s right or wrong to factor in development cycles, marketing, or hype into a review, I think that’s a moot point. It’s honestly not right or wrong to factor anything into a review. Anything that alters your experience of the game can be part of the review because it could similarly alter the experience of the audience. If you think the audience will have a negative response to the game because it was hyped so much, it’s probably worth discussing. It is a reviewer’s job, after all, to relate their experience of playing the game to the audience.

Everyone’s A Critic

Which brings me to my last point, the difference between reviews and criticism. The purpose of a review is to comment on something’s quality, while the purpose of criticism is to analyze how a certain thing (in this case, a game) is built. Reviews and criticism are not the same, but many times reviews contain criticism. PBS Idea Channel did a fantastic video about this recently. In it, Mike says that the purpose of criticism is fundamentally positive – not to tear down but to gesture toward what is yet to be built and encourage its construction. “There can be an element of disappointment,” he says, “but disappointment and deep abiding respect are not mutually exclusive… It’s often what critics love the most that they want the best from.”

For me, this holds true. As a longtime fan of Team Ico games, my criticism of The Last Guardian was not an attempt to slander it as bad, but rather an expression of my desire for it to be better.

With that in mind, when a reviewer says that The Last Guardian does not live up to its hype, this is an example of criticism inside a review. They aren’t saying, “NO! STAY BACK! THIS GAME WILL INFECT YOUR MIND WITH THE SADNESS!” They are saying that the hype that was built up around the game, whether through marketing or community efforts, was an overall negative. They were saying that the time that was spent developing the game did not effectively translate into quality of finished product. They aren’t trying to dissuade the user from purchasing the game (the game has an 83 Metascore and 7.6 user score on Metacritic, so it's clearly nowhere near a "bad" game for most who play it).

By discussing hype, reviewers are speaking not only to the user, but the game developers and publishers. The hope is not just that the consumer understands that there are factors that might negatively affect their gameplay experience, but that game creators understand these factors such that they might avoid them or improve upon them in the future. In this fashion, every review written is an attempt to push game creation toward a better tomorrow.

… or maybe I’m just suffering from delusions of grandeur.

This article is intended to be less of a lecture and more of a conversation. What do you think a "correct" review should involve? Should a reviewer factor hype into his or her review score? What is the purpose of reviews in the gaming industry and community?