Game Critics are not Authorities (But They Should Be)

I think game critics should be authorities. If they are not authorities, if they are not better at their job than the common public, why do they exist? Why did they think they should be the few voices highlighted among a great many voices? Why are they paid to be these voices? Why are their opinions important when we have user scores and steam reviews? They should, based on their position, be selected because they are better at doing their job than the people around them. They should, based on having the job, be committed to doing it well. They’ve failed at this.

For a fighting game like USFIV they don’t need to break it down frame by frame. They could, at minimum, comment on how street fighter, as compared to other fighting games in its genre, is a game that stresses grounded play by having a lack of movement options, using links to hit-confirm into special moves and supers, features a more simple combo system with very simple cancel rules and the FADC mechanic which costs half your super meter, allowing you to make moves safe on block, and extend combo. They could go over the slow walk speed, the use of dashes over runs or hops, or air dashes. The tendency that combos are based primarily on 1 frame links. There’s all these things that fighting game players use to describe their game relative to the games around it that these reviews don’t include. If you move over to a Guilty Gear review, a less popular game that is reviewed more in the vein of, “here’s how this crazy thing in the fighting game genre differs from the template we’ve come to expect” rather than “here’s how the new update plays” like Street Fighter is, then you’ll still find it to be deficient in comparison to the way a player would describe the differences between the two. They could at least have someone on staff who is knowledgeable to know why all these things are the way they are. Journalism outfits have multiple people to cover multiple games and genres, yet none of them seem to have a fighting game player on staff.

Unfortunately a lot of great evidence of incompetence, at least for the fighting game genre, and Bloodborne, has come through since I wrote the post Tripping on Air that would have served as an aid to the central message of the article.

With Street Fighter V, probably the biggest, easiest to describe, and most important changes to the game are the fact that the crouch tech throw option select is out, there is no longer invincibility on backdashes, there is a 2 frame buffer on all inputs, and a longer buffer for canceled special moves, pushback on light attacks has been increased to prevent long pressure strings, and almost none link into medium attacks anymore, with almost no sequences of 3 moves linking into one another existing anymore, input shortcuts (the diagonals counting as both of the cardinal directions) are out, and there are no close and far versions of moves with most neutral jump versions of moves also being defaulted to the diagonal jump versions. Less important/noticeable changes might be that kara-throws/kara-specials no longer work (technically still possible, but no movement), you can only die from chip damage with supers, plinking is no longer in the game, and the hitboxes were all standardized to very blocky shapes, making the ranges of moves and combos much more consistent. These are all things that were known during the beta period, many months in advance of the final release. These are all basic information that don’t go nearly as deep as the precise frame data chart (though that was also available during the beta).

In addition to that, they probably could have stood to comment on how PC only supports xinput, and on PS4 you need to be signed into an account for every controller you use, with legacy controller support only working by plugging in a dualshock 4 first, setting it to an account and engaging the legacy controller mode, then plugging in the legacy controller, with the dualshock 3 needing to remain on standby for the entire time the legacy controller is plugged in, making it useless. Not to mention the game picks up lag if wireless devices aren’t properly decoupled from it. Mentioning the sub-par single player content on release would probably have helped too, but Smash 4 had that as well and didn’t get slammed for it.

Here’s the top 3 reviews for Street Fighter V returned by google:
And here’s a Jim Sterling video thrown in for fun.

The Kotaku and IGN are really sad, mentioning none of the above, and the giantbomb one picks up a few of those points (input buffer, chip, and rollback netcode). They can kind of be dismissed for the legacy controller thing and the subpar server quality, these reviews were written before release so they couldn’t have known. But they have had every opportunity to find out all this other stuff that people knew long before these reviews were written.

In comparison, here’s a video someone made before the game came out about all the changes between SF4 and SFV. (you can tell it came out before the game did both by the date of publication, and the fact that Zangief has no facial expression during his super, this is the cracked version of the game people played on when the beta wasn’t up)

So before the game came out, people had better information about the over-arching and game shaping changes than what journos eventually released with. This video doesn’t explain how these changes affect the game entirely, but anyone competent at the game could tell you easily. A journo on top of their game could fill in this information, but most aren’t.

Guilty Gear Xrd’s another great example that I won’t have to type as much to demonstrate.

Here’s two people who know literally anything about the game remarking on what makes it better or worse than the previous iteration:

Top 3 Google results for Guilty Gear Xrd Review:–284491.phtml
The game trailers vid is especially funny, with all the actually skilled people playing being spectated in lobby play, with anything in local multiplayer being floundering about, maybe a special or attack, but not even a single gatling combo, like they didn’t play the tutorial.

In both of these cases, these are people who have no more information than these critics saying things that are way more important.

Bloodborne is a bit of a different case, it’s not a fighting game, it’s a single player game which is more standard to a lot of stuff that gets reviewed. I think here it’s important to look at what everyone was talking about, the information that was being shared between the early alphas and leaks of gameplay before. Peeve’s video in particular got 433K views, which is a massive number of views compared to a review.

This is the type of stuff people were interested in. They wanted to know about the crazy new quickstep that replaced the older roll dodge while locked on. They wanted to know about how the backstab and parry system was changed. They wanted to know about the transforming weapons. The new regenerating health system. The amount of hitstun/poise damage that weapons inflict (which ended up being greatly emphasized and differentiated between weapons, attacks, and enemies in the final game). These are the types of things that people were dying to know about the game up front, that they were sharing info on between their friends and starting huge reddit threads about, and the initial press releases said nothing.

Top 3 reviews from Google:

What did the initial reviews tell people? Only Kotaku mentioned the dodge change. They all mention that transforming weapons are in the game, though not that you can cancel attacks into a transformation, attacking at the same time, nor buffer transformations from rolls to get special transformation attacks. IGN lightly touches on this by saying you can string together combo-like attack chains. They thankfully all mention the ability to regenerate health, but none are so clear as to say, “When you take damage, the amount you lost is in yellow and can be healed by attacking back” nor the logical consequence, “This tempts you to attack again when it’s unsafe in the hopes of gaining back the health you just lost, potentially losing even more in the process” IGN amazingly doesn’t mention visceral attacks at all, and kotaku fails to mention the backstab changes.

Reviewers don’t tell the people basic they want to know. They write up a bunch of fluff with vague incomplete feature summaries mixed in. I’m not asking these people to be pros. I’m asking them to be baseline, I’m asking them to report the basic things in front of everyone else’s eyes. I can pick up a game and make a list of notes from it that are more informative than your average review. I can pick up a game and derive from those notes a notion of whether they actually translate into a good game or not, a game with interesting choices, depth, a reasonable learning curve. Reviewers aren’t authorities on reporting what they see, what they do, let alone authorities on games categorically. I asked someone coming back from playing a bloodborne demo at a trade event questions about the game, all the stuff I’d have tested in the first 5 minutes of getting my hands on the game, how did the new backstabs work, how did the new parries work? what range did you have to be at for them? How does the new quickstep work, what can do you do off it? what’s the recovery time like? Invincibility time? He couldn’t answer any of these, he didn’t know quick steps were in the game at all. I showed him footage of one and he was like, “Wow, that’s cool looking.”

I was talking to a friend recently about Vanquish, and had to make a case for why the game was good. These are some basic things I came up with. Vanquish is not a spectacularly deep game like a fighting game. (This will eventually be edited into a full blogpost of its own if it hasn’t already)
Sure, some of what’s written here is more precise technical stuff that the average gamer doesn’t totally care about and I have the benefit of hindsight unlike the other examples I cited which were more fair, comparing people with the same access to information, but this is roughly the same length as the average review, and 90% of these things are things that someone just playing the game could see and write about. Vanquish reviews from the time have nearly none of this.

You do not need to be some type of crazy genius, authority, or pro level player to get this type of information down. To see what is on the screen and describe the same thing I described.

If something like next-gen graphics are the thing that is the premium quality of a review, then I don’t see reviewers reviewing that very well either. Not to mention that reviews could be replaced by screenshots and high res video footage in this case. I don’t see commentary on the use of MSAA over FXAA, or the amount of AA being used/supported (or the lack thereof for console releases). I don’t see commentary about the framerates of various games. I don’t see commentary about visual design in traditional game reviews (and I see it way more often in games analysis than mechanical commentary). I certainly haven’t seen any type of commentary about art as insightful in the general games press as this essay from a pixel artist renouncing his art form. Reviews don’t cover narrative in any great detail because they’re obligated to avoid spoilers. Reviews don’t describe ANYTHING in the game particularly well, don’t get across the facts that a player wants to hear, that they seek out from a game when given the opportunity to ask anything about it, and certainly don’t get into the level of specificity that an authority or expert could.

14 thoughts on “Game Critics are not Authorities (But They Should Be)

  1. DJaeger August 7, 2016 / 4:53 pm

    You should never expect a review that is even remotely well done by a mainstream review website. They are always a joke. If you go by reviews alone, do you know which fighting game is considered to be the best FG ever by them? Brawl. Fucking Brawl. The game which ousted Smash Bros from Evo for 3 (if I am not mistaken) years. The ONLY fighting game ever to be replaced in Evo by its predecessor. That Brawl. No matter the criticism towards marvel 3 or Street Fighter 4/5 or Tekken Tag 2/Tekken 6, they were never ousted in favor of the previous iteration. Brawl is the only one to have ever reached that level of shit. And mainstream reviewers rate it as the best fighting game ever. Go figure.


    • Chris Wagar August 8, 2016 / 6:43 am

      Also it’s the best selling fighting game ever.


      • DJaeger August 8, 2016 / 7:47 am

        That also says a lot about judging games of specific genres by sales and general public opinion. That extends to a lot of difficult games as well.


        • treeghettox August 8, 2016 / 8:09 am

          I think a lot of reviewers don’t ask themselves “is this a good game in comparison to other, similar games?” but rather, “how much did I enjoy this game on a scale of 1 to 10?” As you know, most video game “journalists” are embarrassingly inept at games. Therefore, of course they rated Brawl higher than Melee because they can win more often at Brawl.

          The shitty side effect of this is that dumbing a game down and making it really, really easy is an extremely effective way to increase its potential playerbase, review scores, and therefore sales. Most developers don’t even have the decency to offer legitimate difficulty settings because very skilled players are quite rare and it therefore doesn’t make business sense to consider them. Competitive games of course have to provide a high skill ceiling, but single player games can say “fuck you” to serious players and suffer little to no consequences. Most people nowadays describe games that actually kill you to force you to improve as having “unfair challenge” as if it’s a fucking design flaw. If you call them out for being pussies, they go into an argument about how there’s “real challenge” (i.e. non-existent challenge) and “fake challenge” (anything that can even remotely be justified as unfair or actually hard.)

          Most people would rather artificially inflate their ego than actually master a set of mechanics to overcome a legitimate challenge. Fuck them. They’re murdering what I love.


      • DJaeger August 8, 2016 / 8:08 am

        What I meant is, there are reasons beyond Dark Souls (for example) being a good game that make it popular in the general public. It is the fact that while it is considered hard, it is astonishingly easy to play (compared to the vast majority of difficult games), while still posing a challenge. It has nearly nonexistent demand for execution and precision from the player, instead making sure that if you know what’s coming and don’t completely fuck up, you are good.
        Couple that with the way Dark Souls is marketed (as a hard game for hardcore gamers) and there you got it: a good game that is a bit hard, but not very hard, and allows people who beat it to act all smug and think they are the best gamers in a generation of Asscreeds and Bamhamcities.
        Now compare that to other good games that are really hard, like God Hand and Devil May Cry 3, which not only will outright break you if you are not moderately good with execution and precision (especially in harder difficulties), or if you don’t understand its systems, but also don’t offer this kind of ability to act all smug afterwards. I think you get my point.


  2. RDI October 31, 2016 / 8:16 pm

    Hello, Chris. Interestingly, what your preference for what good reviews are remind me of walkthroughs from GameFAQs. Usually, before the walkthrough proper, the user would go over a game’s controls, different moves, different styles of play, how they, well, differ, and the writer’s recommendations of which actions to use, and when to use them as well as what actions are generally useless or extremely situational, or something that would see over reliance from the player because of how good another action is. Things like that. Yeah, a lot of mainstream reviews need stuff like that, but I can also tell a lot from just game footage.

    I will, however, object to the idea of game critics being authorities. Maybe for the developers, yes, but there is no consequence as far as I’m concerned for purchasing a negatively reviewed game and having fun with it no matter how good the reviewer is. Authority implies forced obedience. If the worst that’s going to happen to me for enjoying a negatively reviewed product is getting lambasted, called out for being “wrong”, “foolish”, or having “poor taste”, then that is not authority at all. I’m unsure if I intend to become a reviewer or a developer, but I will never seek to rob consumers of their autonomy. Perhaps I’m missing the point as I’m want to do, but I think “authority” is the wrong word to use here.


    • Chris Wagar October 31, 2016 / 9:07 pm

      Funny, your statement reminds me of something I read in Game Design Companion, Wario Land 4, and the general style of the book, which is a longform analysis of every single element of that game, and the general dynamic of every single room, done in a way that is totally impartial and doesn’t tell you if he even likes the game or not. Here’s a screenshot of his statement from the foreword:
      and here’s a sample of what the writing in the book is sort of like:

      I’m not asking for analysis like his book, which is really long, really involved, and passes judgment on nothing. Though I do consider his book a credit to the overall practice of games criticism. This is not the format I want to see from reviewers.

      You can tell a lot from just game footage, but you can’t tell everything. I’ve found in the case of multiple games that they looked really dynamic from their footage, but in playing them they were quite different. In the case of Lords of the Fallen, which I started playing recently, it’s hard to identify exactly what’s wrong about the game from just game footage of it. In the case of Sonic Utopia, there were a lot of factors about how the game worked that I couldn’t identify from just footage of it in action. When you play the game, you can test things that aren’t always tested in footage. You’re never going to get a changelist like I wrote here from just looking at footage of the game (though to be fair, a reviewer under standard conditions wouldn’t realize a lot of these things either): I would never ask that a review seriously contain the controls and a tutorial unless it were really important to the game, like the kick command in dark souls is a big deal, and some commentary on how it works and how it could potentially work better, or be communicated better during the tutorial, would be nice.

      Like, it’s not just about recommending strategies, it’s about figuring out how those strategies are balanced with each other, so that the disparate elements of the game are used in proportion to one another, so that the player actually has to think. Noting in what situations things are useful is about determining and describing how the game makes you think and consider, how it challenges you on an intellectual level. You need to demonstrate this for your readership in a way that is clear to them, so they can see it, understand it, and verify it for themselves that your words are the truth.

      I don’t mean authority in the same sense you do. I don’t mean game critics should be people who are obeyed because they are in a position of power. I mean they should be good enough experts that they have an authoritative knowledge of the subject matter. I mean that they establish themselves and are accepted by the people as authorities. Something humbling and difficult for me as I write these articles is I frequently have this temptation to speak upon what I’ve done in the past, what I’ve accomplished, and who I’ve influenced in order to sidestep long arguments over trivialities. I’ve had the temptation to say, “Look, I know what I’m talking about, just trust me.” But I can’t say that. I’m a nobody and I know it. I know that I don’t have any symbols of status backing me up as an authority. I know a lot, but all I can do to convince people is use my words. And so in those situations, I’m forced to be honest, I’m forced to attempt to lay out facts in a way that make sense to the person I’m talking to. I aspire to be an authority insofar as I am able to produce the correct knowledge with the correct reasoning backing it as frequently as possible. Authority becomes a substitute for reasoning.

      Game critics currently do not have good analytical methods backing their opinions. Their opinions are constructed poorly, and the methods by which they came to those conclusions are poorly documented and poor methods in the first place. Game critics are not authorities because they are not knowledgeable about games and are not capable of expressing ideas well. I think game critics should aspire to be above that, because it’s really not that hard.

      A critic is never going to rob customers of their autonomy, unless they build a cult of personality. They can only ever show customers the way. A critic needs to act as though they have no authority, and do the hard work to become respected by their audience through demonstrating their knowledge and insight about what they are talking about. They need to show things in a way that their audience can independently verify and agree with.

      I am fine with disagreeing with critics, I am fine with people disagreeing with me. I solicit such disagreement from my followers constantly, and it makes me consider my ideas and beliefs more thoroughly, or occasionally overturn them in favor of more consistent beliefs.

      If you have a good reason to enjoy a bad product, that is fine. I have gone over on my own blog how I enjoy some games I’d consider bad, or less than deep.


      • RDI October 31, 2016 / 9:31 pm

        I’m aware that you’re not asking for reviews similar to the book. As I’ve said, I figured you’d like how walkthroughs go into detail about what the player can use and then give their piece on it, whether they think it’s useless or overpowered and such-and-such.

        As you said, critics should not act like authorities. Therefore, you should never have to resort to some reverse ad hominem “I’m Chris Wagar and I’m right” kind of thing. Ideally, who cares how popuiar you are, you’re either correct or your not, at least on a strictly objective basis. You got people on 4Chan defending you based on those ideals.

        I was being hypothetical. I wasn’t specifically referring to you, but any critic that would think that their opinions would be imposed on the community. Though, as you have probably found out by now, I have had issues with you coming off that way.

        As for footage, what I mean is that footage shows a lot of things that review commentary would render redundant. I’m aware that you can’t get everything from footage. the best way to experience a game is obviously to play it as far as I’m concerned. But sometimes I do wonder if iI get more from footage than you do. Perhaps that makes me more susceptible to getting tricked.


        • Chris Wagar October 31, 2016 / 10:35 pm

          I think I misunderstood you on that point. Yeah, I kind of appreciate walkthroughs in that way.

          Well I’m glad I’ve never resorted to that type of reverse ad hominem. Especially given that I don’t think I’m popular enough for it to ever work, where I think bigger names than me or people entrenched in academia could get away with it, and that’s not the type of behavior I’d want.

          I realize you were being hypothetical, I was relating my personal experiences to what I’d expect out of critics. I hope that they could establish themselves as authorities through being experts. Like what it means to be an authority in the field of 3d rendering, like John Carmack is. Nobody has to listen to John Carmack like people need to listen to a judge or the police, or a cult of personality leader like icyclam was relative to his cult (which he refered to as a cult), he’s considered an authority because of what he knows. Right now game criticism lacks people who are knowledgeable or insightful enough to take that type of role relative to the field, and I think that is unfortunate.

          I think critics need to deliver things that footage can’t provide, and right now they’re failing to do a lot of that. Simultaneously, I think critics need to lay out the groundwork for how the game works, even if it seems kind of obvious or banal, because a lot of stuff that seems obvious or banal isn’t always obvious, or only seems obvious because of hindsight bias.


          • RDI November 1, 2016 / 2:45 am

            I neglected to finish my initial point. I think GameFAQs walkthroughs unintentionally make for better gameplay analysis than mainstream reviews do. Whether they’re good enough, well, that’s up to you, but the fact is is that they don’t necessarily have to be, yet I still get more information about the gameplay from them. Kinda proves your point about not having to be an expert. Like ones that go over each weapon, grade them based on power, speed, reach, and versatility relative to eachother, then comment on the designs, how, when, and where they are obtained, how much effort to acquire, how much player skill or dexterity (not character stats, actual “finger and mind” skill) required to use each of them. Then they give their opinions based off of these statistics as to whether or not they are worth using, as well as which ones are broken, which ones are situational, or which ones are useless or poorly implemented. If they go the extra mile, they list glitches and exploits involving each weapon. And that’s just one section, and I’m already able to make far more inferences about the game’s balancing and play than a mainstream review generally gives me, without the walkthrough writer actually giving me an opinion on the game as a whole. I’m not sure if they make for better actual reviews, but I think the mainstream could learn a thing or two from them. Do you agree?


            • Chris Wagar November 1, 2016 / 3:41 am

              Cool. I know this is certainly informative.

              I think they could definitely learn a thing or two from them, literally. They could stand to learn more about games from FAQs.

              I don’t think FAQs are good reviews, because they don’t really assess anything qualitatively, they’re kind of impartial, but they can be a good hint.


            • Mulgar H November 1, 2016 / 11:16 pm

              Any particular guides that demonstrate your points? I know of the CvS2 guide by James Chen, and I’m quite fond of the Thief guides by Taffer.


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