Damn the Reviewers, or why video game critics and movie critics are often at odds with the audience

There’s a joke amongst journalists.  “Journalism:  The pay is crap.  On the other hand, everyone hates you.”

There’s a clear disconnect between what game journalists say about games, and what gamers say about games.  There’s the same divide between movie critics and regular movie goers and books that people are reading on Amazon vs. what book critics are praising.  This article will attempt to expound on why that is.

Of the groups mentioned, gamers in particular seem to have a special hate relationship with most games journalists.  The tl;dr version is game journalists made a devil’s bargain a long time ago based upon the market at the time:  The first to publish a story wins the most views.  In exchange for these exclusives, the game magazines had to basically act as sock puppets for PR departments at game companies.

Anytime there has been a major dispute, the game journalists have almost always and uniformly come down on the side of the producer rather than the consumer.  Several times, their articles come across as condescending and hateful towards their own target audience.

It’s a rather strange thing to see, but game journalists generally despise gamers and vice versa.

One of the first things you should realize is that game journalist and movie critics are paid.  By whom is an important question we should look at.

We’ll start off with the least controversial case ever, the fate of Driv3r.

Driv3r (2004)

The Driver series was once one of the most successful series of its era, more so than the Grand Theft Auto series, even though it’s been largely forgotten.  But the story is a familiar one.

After the first successful games, publishers Atari wanted to rush publication of the new games out well ahead of schedule.  In order to get a review copy before anyone else, PSM2 and Xbox World agreed that they would to an advance copy in exchange for giving the game a guaranteed 9 out of 10.

Then the game came out.  It was a hot mess.  Broken, glitchy, and unplayable, the scores were mostly in the 3 to 5 range, so the 9 out of 10 rating is completely at odds with what most people saw.

When people investigated and found the double-dealing, forums were deleted, accounts scrubbed, a PR company was hired to attempt damage control by praising the game in forums where people had serious questions about the games numerous issues.  The end result was that the company was sold off to Activision.

Sadly, there was a website that attempted to actually analyze this trend in a statistical manner.  The website was MetaFuture (2006, now defunct with websites like MetaCritic acting as review aggregators), and it looked at the overall trend of a game journalism websites like GameSpot and IGN, then compare that to other outlets to see what the statistical trend is.

Sadly, the website doesn’t exist, (archive snapshot here), but GameSpot and IGN both consistently rate games at 8 out of 10 as the most common score, while other websites and reviewers rated those same games in the 5-6 range.  What made MetaFuture different is that they weighted the games reviews by reviewer trend, if a harsh reviewer gave a game high praise then it was weighted differently than if a gaming outlet consistently gave out high praise for mediocre games.

GameSpot is going to come back up again as our next example is:

Kane And Lynch, Dog Days (2010):

Kane and Lynch, Dog Days is one of the worst video games ever made.  Not quite Ride to Hell: Retribution levels of bad, but certainly godawful in almost every aspect.

The original Kane and Lynch featured two protagonists who hated each other, but had to rely upon each other in order to escape from prison.  One is a cold-hearted assassin, whose family is placed in jeopardy after he’s captured.  The other is a psychopath who killed his wife, but doesn’t remember doing it.

When controlling the psychopath (Lynch) close-quarter kills are done by bashing the other person’s head in a psychopathic rage.  When the assassin kills people, it’s done with calm, precise movements.  In a bank heist, Lynch goes insane and starts shooting civilians, leading to a police chase.  If you play in two-player mode, you can watch the other screen as Lynch goes insane and see what he sees.

It’s the balance between these opposing forces that drives the game’s fairly mediocre third-person shooting up a notch.  The two endings you can choose from either leave them as complete enemies to each other, (the non-Canon ending), or as two people who really don’t like each other as Lynch’s daughter dies after helping out Kane.

In Dog Days, they are suddenly best friends.  The entire plot is so basic and stupid as to make no sense, controls barely work, you can be shot from behind cover for no reason, and the third-person view looks like a drunk friend shooting it on his camera phone with all the filters active.  Then it ends with what sounds like porn music playing as you get on airplane.

Jeff Gerstmann at Gamespot reviewed it, and gave it a very generous 6 out of 10.  (My review is 2 out of 10.)  The result of that review is he was promptly fired.  He founded GiantBomb in the wake of that and is thankfully doing fine, but the controversy left a terrible feeling towards game journalism as a whole.

Conclusion about games

Game journalists are, by and large, journalist majors.  With the exception of a few gaming websites like The Escapist which tries to pull in gamers, most of these people do not regularly play video games.  They rely upon exclusives and good relationships with game developers in order to generate revenue by having the reviews out first.

As they aren’t regular gamers, most of them tend to favor video games which are easy.  Things that can be played quickly, write a review about it, and ship it off.  In contrast, most gamers like games that are hard but rewarding.  Hard but rewarding is difficult to get right, but it means a game that doesn’t feel hard because it’s cheap, but hard because it rewards certain decisions and punishes others aggressively.

About the easiest place to see this is the Cuphead controversy, where a professional game critic couldn’t complete the simple tutorial section. IMHO, I think he was drunk while he played it, but gaming outlets couldn’t wait to jump on the trend and scream, THE GAME IS TOO HARD!

Movie Critics

Movie critics are at odds with two types of people.  The first are actual movie creators and the second is with audiences.

The first part of this is education.  If you go to cinema school, you are mostly going to be trained on the language of film.  How do color and lighting affect mood?  What does a dutch-tilt shot say about the mental state of the character?  What does putting one character in a position where they dominate the bed say about the relationship with the other character in the bed?

The sorts of films you will study will mostly be classic masterpieces, ranging from Citizen Kane to Jurassic Park.  Generally speaking, while left-leaning, these courses tend to cater to people with economic/business interests in making money, so they are at least somewhat grounded.

In contrast, if you study film theory, you will receive a completely different education.  You will be given a diet of auteur theory, critical theory, queer theory, and feminist theory.  If you want me to save you a few thousand dollars, most of these theories boil down to challenging the (presumed) male heteronormative values of Western culture.

(If you actually want to save a few thousand dollars, MIT has an entire courseware devoted to filmography online.)

Your film selection will be different as well.  You will mostly watch art-school style films, drama, documentaries, and biopics.  As examples of films you will watch, you might watch The Passenger, with Jack Nicholson or Paris Texas.  These are extraordinarily boring films to watch.

As opposed to biopics and documentaries, big budget movies are typically representative of the bourgeoisie establishment and male patriarchy.  They tend to reinforce and celebrate cultural norms, so most critics are disdainful of big budget movies, action, comedy, and sci-fi because they think those genres are beneath them.  Also, auteur theory states that the work of a film should be the result of one vision, the director.  However, most big budget films are made by very large committees involved in multiple stages.  As such, it’s antithetical to the mindset that most theorists are trained in.

These classes tend to be very heavy on the left-wing spectrum and disdainful of the business/economic interests of film.  As they see it, movies should be art, and art should be subversive.

The ultimate prestige of the movie critic is still the early screening, and critics now have a major problem.   The most recent phonema though has been the displacement of professional critics by amateur vloggers and bloggers.

As stated from above, critics aren’t and have never been fans of sci-fi, action, or comedy. If you don’t believe me, go to any critic aggregator and see the difference between critic and audience reviews. They are generally wildly divergent.

With the recent uptick in nerd culture, critics have been displaced largely by vloggers and bloggers. Thus they have started to anticipate what the audience is going to say rather than what they think, simply because that’s what drives clicks. Clicks = cash. Despite the haughty air they may put on about it, they still need to make money.

The flip side to this is “dogpiling” reviews, where critics jump to write the most scathing review possible of a film that’s mediocre, in order to drive clicks.

If you want to watch that, view critics responses to Melissa McCarthy’s Tammy. It’s a mediocre film, but critics ripped it to shreds because they were trying to outdo each other’s hate to drive cash.

This is all basic economics and part of the industry. Clicks = cash.

This leads to the paradoxical situation with The Last Jedi, which critics have given strong openings to but has been panned by audiences.  The Last Jedi does at least fit comfortably within the narratives of critical theory, so critics don’t have to hold their noses too tight.  And despite the invalid claims of conspiracy theories about changing movie scores, (the 55% approval ratings from audiences is valid), this is the worst performing Star Wars to date.  (With the caveat that the worst performing Star Wars is still a massive commercial success because of its initial box-office success, which petered out quickly.  Ironically or by design, a large part of this was due to the high reviews from critics.)

In contrast, if you want to see what critics think of a regular sci-fi movie, professional critics have trashed the movie Bright as the worst thing ever made.  Audiences rate it middling to high.  That’s a pretty high divergence.

The first thing to note is that many of these critics are fed by major and indie studios.  We’ve seen this same drama bear out with how YouTube content creators get treated vs. old guard media establishments.  The same thing plays out here, Netflix threatens the old Hollywood distribution model.

As well, movie critics tend to focus on things outside the movie that most regular moviegoers will not care about.  One of them in Bright‘s case is screenwriter Max Landis.  Landis has always been a bit of a controversial figure, getting satirized in The Untitled Lax Mandis Project.

Several reviewers will thumb down his work just on the basis he did it. There’s also the recent wave of “me too” accusations, and Max Landis has been named/shamed as a person on the list. (No one has said anything against him particularly, but lots of “rumor mill” stuff.)

But as an example of criticism outside of the movie here’s one complaining about female roles.

Movies which are seen to push a particular agenda get rated higher by critics than movies which don’t push that agenda, simple as that.  Most movie critics are completely different than the average movie goer.

Book Critics:

Take most of what I said and apply that to book critics as well.  There’s been a focus on identifying books from “different voices” and calling classic canon “problematic.”  A good summary for what I think of that viewpoint can be found here.

Even ignoring that, there’s a fundamental difference between why most people who consume a medium, (video games, movies, books, etc.) and what critics think they should get out of them.  An image illustrates this nicely.

fiction_review_stack

Most consumers of media care about 3 – 5.  1 and 2 are things that critics care about more than consumers.

A story might help.  One writer was challenged by his teacher when he wrote an essay defending Sherlock Holmes as great literature.  His teacher said that the characters are one-dimensional.  The plots revolve around things of no great importance (see 1).  The writer couldn’t deny the claims, but Sherlock Holmes has been one of the most commonly adopted fictional characters in history.

Partly, this is due to his being in common use, (most fictional characters are reserved under copyright), but this is also due to his general temperament making it easy to create new works based off of him.

Critics tend to care more about how the story is told rather than what the story is about, which is opposite most consumers.

Conclusion:

Critics often diverge wildly from audiences in several artistic categories:  Movies, games, and literature.

In general, media creators tend to fall more inline with average consumers of that media, because it would be incredibly unprofitable to do otherwise.  In contrast, most critics are trained to be disdainful towards the hoi polloi, bourgeoise, and “normie” culture, and are critical of any media which reinforces those values.

For this reason, the most successful YouTube and alternative outlet stars for movie reviews have been from people who come from the creative side of the spectrum rather than the critical spectrum.

Examples are RedlettermediaYahtzeeRalphmakesmoviesThatguywithglasses, etc.

The reasons for the divergence from critical to average media consumer are multifold but:

  1. Monetary.  Paid professional critics are generally part of the established media players or at least have aspirations to become part of the established media, at a time when amateurs and non-traditional routes are becoming more viable in all mediums.  Additionally, they are often competing against each other to either dish out praise or the most hyperbolic vitriol they can.
  2. Temperament.  The average viewer comes from a wide range of political spectrums, in contrast, most critics come from a narrow political spectrum, and crucially, usually allow their political biases to filter into reviews.
  3. Education.  Most critics are trained to think about literature in a way that is hostile to genres which are not seen as actively destroying societal norms or are too low-brow for them.  Art should be about more than entertainment, so something which is just entertaining, particularly if it reinforces what they consider to be problematic behavior or if it comes from a problematic person, it will be trashed.
  4. Exposure.  At least for movie critics, being exposed to lots of movies makes them look for more novelty than the average moviegoer.  The average person cares more about doing something well rather than doing something novel.
  5. Expectations.  Critics care about how a story is told and if the story is profound rather than if the story is good, per se’.

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