My Reviews are Biased

This is going to come as an incredible shock to my dozens of readers, but all the reviews I’ve ever posted at Indie Gamer Chick had some degree of bias in them. And I’m not talking about that ridiculous “objective review” nonsense, though I suppose that requires a quick addressing: no reviews are objective. They are all 100% subjective. Every single review you’ve ever read or watched, by every single critic, in every single field. All of them subjective. There’s no objectivity in them. None. Zero.

If a critic claims any degree of objectivity, they’re both lying and full of themselves. Believing you are objective about your opinions while everyone who disagrees with you is subjective is a sign of clinical narcissism. This applies to gamers too. When someone is mad about one of my reviews, about one-third of the time they’ll try to use the classic “the game you bitched about is objectively good” argument. I find it hilarious that people who are so in-love with games that their entire life is based around finding all dissenting opinions so they can white-knight for them will say you are the one not being objective. Because their slobbering fandom that forces them to base their self-esteem around everyone else liking the game as much as they do came about entirely through objective means.

Uh huh.

No, actually your opinion is just as subjective as mine AND you’re a narcissistic asshole just for thinking you’re at all objective. That’s just how it is.

But that’s not why I’m here today. We need to talk about this notion that games are reviewed in a vacuum. That a critic has to be a complete blank slate when playing a game. This is such a ludicrous notion that I literally can’t believe I have to write an editorial explaining just how absurd thinking this way is, but it comes up all the time. All the time.

In over seven years of being a game critic, I’ve never once had someone who agreed with one of my reviews tell me I needed to be more objective. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

I’ve been writing game reviews since July 1, 2011, when I opened Indie Gamer Chick. But, I started playing games much earlier. I’m lucky, because I know the two most important dates for my gaming upbringing: December 25, 1996 (when I got a PlayStation with Crash Bandicoot under the Christmas Tree) and July 11, 1998 (when I got a Nintendo 64 with Banjo-Kazooie for my 9th birthday). The former planted the seed for my gaming existence. The latter could arguably be the most important day of my entire life, because that’s the point where gaming became my passion. I was lucky growing up too, because money was never an issue with my family, and gaming was the one thing my parents spoiled me with. I got a lot of games. Mostly because it was such a positive influence on my life. The only thing I wasn’t allowed to play was M rated games (besides Perfect Dark and Halo, which I played entirely multiplayer), because my parents were afraid that if I was allowed to play such filth I might grow up to be someone who regularly uses vulgarity and jokes about arbitrary murder. The results speak for themselves.

So, if you do the math, between the start of my full-time gamer existence and the time I became a game critic, that adds up to 4,738 days I was a game player but not a game critic. Apparently, the argument about game criticism is I’m not supposed to allow any of the opinions, preferences, or biases that I formed on the thousands of games I consumed in those 4,738 days to shape my opinions of the games I play now. Not to mention the thousands of extra days since then that I’ve been an actual critic.

Seriously?

You guys realize that game critics aren’t robots, right? We can’t just turn that shit on and off. If a critic claims they can, that critic is lying, either to you or to themselves. You shouldn’t read them because they can’t be trusted. They’ll spend their entire review more focused on trying to come across as neutral and not enough on making sure their opinions are expressed honestly and articulately. I’m going to tell you the truth: my reviews.. all of them.. are in some way tainted by my cumulative gaming experience. When I play any game, I have some form of an expectation of what a game should or shouldn’t do.

For example, I just played a title called Emerald Shores for PlayStation 4. It’s a platformer that has RPG mechanics. Within just seconds of starting the actual gameplay, I realized Emerald Shores would have problems. The controls were incredibly loose and floaty, which meant precision movement would be very difficult. So naturally the game, right from the opening stages, relied heavily on very narrow platforms with spikes or pits surrounding them. The collision detection is some of the worst I’ve ever seen. You can have what appears to be a comfortable amount of distance between you and the spikes and still take damage. The enemies in the early stages require jumping on them as much as fifteen times to kill. FIFTEEN! Even the first enemies take around eight jumps. Imagine if the first two Goombas in Super Mario Bros. took eight jumps each to kill. It’d be horrible. And Emerald Shores is horrible. It would have to be in the discussion of the worst games I’ve ever played.

You’ll notice in this picture I’m taking damage from the spike in front of me. The one I’m not even grazing. Emerald Shores might be the worst game on PlayStation 4. I’ve spoken with quality indie developers who are downright distraught that such a piece of shit of a game can get a listing while they can’t.

But, if I could truly play Emerald Shores in a vacuum, like some brain-dead people seem to believe I should, how would I know it was bad? By what standard would I measure it? Would someone look at the fact that when you push the controller in one direction and the character on the screen moves that direction, that the game works and therefore it must be objectively good? That if you push the jump button and the character jumps instead of doing anything but jumping, that the developer achieved what they set out to do and thus the game is successful? I’m asking because I’m often questioned when I post a negative review why I was so harsh and never considered if the game “achieved what it set out to do?”

Achieved what it set out to do? As opposed to what? Crashing during the load screen? Shitting itself? Gaining sentience and attacking you through the screen like the girl from The Ring?

Did it achieve what it set out to do?

Are you fucking kidding me?

Who gives a shit if it achieved what it set out to do? IS IT FUN? Have we really reached the point where you can’t say a game sucks, no matter how lazy, broken, or unplayable it is, as long as it boots up and the stuff the developer wanted to do is in the game, mangled or not? Because if the standard of excellence is being faithful to the developer’s intent, you can’t really consider whether the game is fun to play, can you?

“Achieved what it set out to do.” Oh please. You know, I’ve never heard of a person who set out to build a bridge and somehow made a video game by accident. “Well, I’d like to give this game high marks, but the developer’s intent was to find a cure for cancer and instead they ended up making NHL 2019. Fun game but it’s not what they set out to do, so I rate it a 2.5 out of 10. The .5 is because it might have cleared up my cataracts.”

Once upon a time, I thought Goldeneye (and Perfect Dark) would be untouchable in the realm of first person shooters. But I was 10-years-old when I started playing it, and my sample-size for FPSs was 0. Ten-year-old me played Goldeneye in a vacuum. 29-year-old me did not, and it really doesn’t hold up by any standard today except historical importance, which doesn’t make a game more fun to play in 2018.

I had thirteen years of gameplay experience to draw upon when starting Indie Gamer Chick. That I grew to like some genres more than others should be obvious. But, as a game critic, I’m expected to pretend that none of those things factors into my reviews. If I dislike overly difficult games like Cuphead, people say that I’m letting my opinions get in the way of my.. uh.. opinions? Huh? You guys realize reviews are opinions, right? When people say that portions of games are “objectively” good, I ask by what standard? Because that stuff is all subjective too. Every component of every game is subjective. That the game is a game is the one objective thing about it (well, unless it’s something like Proteus, where it’s subjective as to whether it’s a game or a glorified screen-saver). Whether it looks good or plays good is subjective no matter how universally acclaimed it is. The same people who want me to put aside my personal opinions also want me to dip into my accumulated gaming experience to concede that the game is good by the standards of other games, even if I disagree with that. It seems like a double standard to me, and it’s a reminder that the “objective” argument comes only from self-righteous types with absolutely no understanding of what objectivity means.

I’ve had people say AH HA! like they caught my hand in the cookie jar when I unflinchingly declare that my reviews are biased and completely subjective. Well, no shit they are. Not biased in the sense that I favor some developers over others (my dev friends who had to watch as I delivered scathing reviews of their work might secretly wish I was that type of biased), but biased in the sense that I openly admit I’m almost certain to like certain games more than others. This is true of every critic, but a lot of us don’t admit to it. I think because it sounds unprofessional. Really, shouldn’t the opposite be true? Shouldn’t a professional critic have significantly more experience dissecting games than you or I? Critics are humans, and humans favor some things over others, even if they shouldn’t. That’s why every parent has a favorite child. Long before I was a game critic, I was someone who only read reviews, and I often wished I knew what writers liked and didn’t like going into the game being covered. That’d been nice to know, because I could have weighed that against the body of the review itself. Context is everything.

That’s why, when I know those preferences that I’ve had for years factored into my opinion, I always try to find a way to disclose it within the first part of the review. For my Yoku’s Island Express review, the first few paragraphs provide my readers with the following information:

  1. That I’m a fan of Metroidvanias, so much so that they’re probably my favorite genre.
  2. That I love pinball..
  3. But I don’t play a lot of video pinball.

Don’t you think those three things are important for people to know when I’m sharing my opinion on a game that combines a Metroidvania with video pinball?

Yea, me too.

But, a large population of gamers believes that a critic shouldn’t allow these personal biases to factor into a review. How stupid and/or silly is that? How do you expect the review to be useful without ANY context? Because really, isn’t that what the argument comes down to? Removing context?

Since writing the Yoku’s Island review, I’ve had a lot of people bombard me with “if you liked it, you’ll like..” suggestions for similar games that mix video pinball with other things. Apparently a golden age for video pinball mashups dawned and I slept through it.

If you review games in a vacuum, you draw your opinion from a pool of zero games. Any game you review has to be the best ever made and the worst ever made. In that world, Emerald Shores doesn’t control bad because I have nothing to cite that controls good. The collision detection isn’t horrible, because I don’t know that taking damage from spikes you’re not even touching is sloppy design. If I could erase all previous gaming experience from my head, I might very well be mesmerized by Emerald Shores, believing it to be the single greatest achievement in entertainment in human history.

Want proof that I’m right? Ask any gamer in their 40s about their favorite childhood games and how much time they put into them, and then go play those games now. I recently purchased Atari Vault for Steam, which contains one hundred games, most of which are first-party Atari games for the Video Computer System (aka the Atari 2600). I’ve long wanted to experience for myself the childhood classics that raised the majority of my readers (who tend to be ten years older than me), and Atari Vault has options to remove the dangerous-for-my-epilepsy flicker many vintage games had. What did I discover? The games that owned their childhood are, in many cases, so fundamentally bad on many levels that they’re practically unplayable today. I’m not talking about the graphics or the limitations, but just the raw, naked gameplay. Without any historical context, they’re really bad. But, by the standards of the time, they must have been incredible.

Let’s use Warren Robinett’s 1979 classic Adventure as an example. It’s an undisputed all-timer. Probably the most commonly-cited “still holds up today” game in entire VCS catalog. But, when I played it, I honestly could not comprehend how anyone would argue it still holds up. A bland, personality-devoid maze game. It’s a dot. It’s a maze. There’s ducks. There’s arrows. There’s a bridge you can pick up and move around that you can easily drop in a way you can’t retrieve. Yea, randomly generated maps is nifty, especially for its time. But, like, it’s just kind of boring. At least today, without the historical context. It certainly can’t stand on its own in 2018. And it’s not even fair to try and make it.

Having said that, I’m so in favor of the Dot being added to the Smash Bros Ultimate roster.

But in 1979, gamers played Adventure in a vacuum, because there was nothing like it. The impact it had on their gaming lives, which carries over nearly 40 years later, is every bit as real as the impact Goldeneye had on my life. A game that, at the age of ten, I found no fault in. Of course I didn’t. My sample-size to compare it to was 0 first-person games and probably under 100 total games. Or, going more extreme, how about Crash Bandicoot? It wasn’t the first game I ever played (my family tells me that would be Super Mario Kart for the SNES), but it was the first game I ever wanted. Is it fair for me to say Crash Bandicoot is one of the most important titles of my life? Yes. Is it morally right for me to recommend people buy it today, in 2018, over games that I, myself, would rather play today, now that I have a lifetime of context to stack Crash up against? No. Actually, that seems like it would be a shitty thing to do.

That’s why I prefer to disclose all my preferences and biases in my reviews. It levels the playfield. It gives my readers the information they need to know. If they’re looking for the opinions of someone who enjoys the camp and quirk of classic FMVs, they know within the first line of my review for Press X to Not Die that I’m not the critic they should be reading. “I hate FMV games..” Simple and to the point. Now, all the words that follow have context that my fans can weigh against them. Yea, I hated Press X to Not Die, but I was predisposed to hating it. I admitted it, because otherwise I’m doing a disservice to my fans. I serve at the pleasure of my readers. I have to do right by them.

No, I don’t want to play Crash again. I played it once. Why do people think it’s weird that I’d rather play stuff I’ve never experienced before?

When my readers absorb one of my reviews, there’s not just getting the opinions of Cathy Vice for the hours that I played the game in question. In a way, each review I do is something that my entire gaming life built up to. When I fawn over Dead Cells, I know it’s good because every previous game I’ve played had some role in that enjoyment. Perhaps the fact that I’m open about not liking roguelikes adds extra weight to those words. Or, maybe when I talk glowingly about Axiom Verge, my review means more to some readers and less to others because my favorite genre is Metroidvanias. Most importantly, the experience of playing those will carry over to the next games I review. A critic is the sum of their parts just as much as a game is.

And that lifetime of opinions and preferences and biases is what makes your opinion matter. I wouldn’t buy golf clubs based on a review by someone who had never previously swung one up to that point. So, why would anyone expect that from a game critic? Reviews are a dime a dozen. Anyone can do them. It’s not just my opinion that my readers value, but rather everything that led to that opinion. That doesn’t just start when I became Indie Gamer Chick. That goes all the way back to a little girl on Christmas morning playing Crash Bandicoot and having a blast right up until she fell into the acid seven times in a row, flipped the controller in the air and blurted out “FUCKERS” while her parents gasped in horror. I wish when they were taking a belt to me that, someone had been there to tell them that a pseudo-famous game critic had just been born. That context would have been nice for them to have had.

Emerald Shores releases on November 21. A review copy was supplied to Indie Gamer Chick. During the week of November 21, a copy of Emerald Shores will be purchased by Cathy. All games reviewed at Indie Gamer Chick are paid for in full by Cathy.

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About Indie Gamer Chick
Indie game reviews and editorials.

5 Responses to My Reviews are Biased

  1. Hannie says:

    Your post here so eloquently describes all of the things I feel about reviews. It’s gotten to the point that, even though I love to write about games, I’m terrified of writing reviews because I just don’t know how to strip out my own biases, in a world where people seem to think you have to in order to write a good review. I think I’m just going to worry less about that and just let readers know a little about my background. If I hate every entry in a series and am reviewing the newest title, I think that’s a valuable perspective, but I also think that’s a perspective that should be disclosed so people know what my mindset probably was when I went into that title.

    Thanks for the insightful piece!

    • Well, that’s me with Sonic Mania. I don’t like the series in general, so maybe for some, that adds extra weight to my enjoyment of Mania. Or maybe that means they should take my review with a grain of salt. They get the context to make that choice for themselves.

  2. That was smart. Thanks for posting it. Reviewers are people, with opinions, not calculators with objective scoring units. I play games to have fun, and I like your reviews because of your unique voice. Don’t change. Not that you ever would.

  3. Matt says:

    Everybody has some bias in them. Usually, a lot of it. You are right.

    Great post!

  4. Pingback: Chasm | Indie Gamer Chick

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