Opinion Piece

Objective vs Subjective: Gaming Reviews And The Conundrum

Human Subjectivity vs. Computer Objectivity

 

Videogame reviews are a strange and fascinating blend of the subjective and the objective, of facts and opinions that must be crushed together into a cohesive whole that explains to the reader how the author felt about the game and why he or she arrived at their final conclusion. It is a strange and mysterious art that I’m still attempting to understand and master, and one day I hope to be truly fluent in the baffling language that is videogame reviewing.

But my less than impressive mastery of the skill does not, and will not, stop me from talking about it a little. My desire to speak of the strange relationship between the objective and the subjective in reviews has been around for a while, but attempting to articulate all my various thoughts about was a daunting prospect. Still, a piece that I just read today (at the time of writing) regarding the controversy surrounding Polygon’s review of Dragon’s Crown sparked the urge to write. While the piece was obviously dealing with the character’s odd sexualization within Dragon’s Crown, by doing so it as also dealing heavily with how reviews should be handled, and explicitly about the relationship between the objective and the subjective. As I read through the piece there were points I found myself agreeing with and others that I simply did not. Yet make no mistake this is not a direct response to that piece, though I may quote some of the points made within it simply to help me formulate my own chaotic thoughts and get them down on paper. Well, on virtual paper. Alright, on a screen.

But first, what is the difference between something being objective and something being subjective? That’s simple: it;’s the difference between something that is your opinion, and something that is factually based. An opinion comes from your emotions, beliefs, morals and much, much more.  When you are being objective about something, that means there is factual basis for your statement, something that you can back up with known facts or observations.  Being subjective is offering up an opinion, while being objective means working in cold, hard facts. Take this example: a simple box. Stating that it is a square is objective – there is no argument against the fact, unless you really want to delve into the complex world of science and claim that the box isn’t really there and therefore cannot be square-shaped. What is subjective is whether or not that box is aesthetically pleasing to you or not.

There are numerous aspects of a videogame which can be judged in purely objective terms, such as the level of graphical detail, and where possible it is indeed, I feel, best to judge them from that standpoint. Other aspects of a game are subjective and therefore depend entirely upon someone’s personal taste, and as we know there’s just no accounting for someone’s taste. It is therefore intrinsically important to match up a reviewer’s personal tastes with the title they are expected to review. No reviewer who actively dislikes or even hates racing games, for example, should be put in charge of writing about the latest Forza game, because that creates an automatic bias against the game, even for he most logical person. it is, for this reason, that I avoid certain genres such as football games and JRPGs, because I simply do not enjoy them and I therefore would not feel happy in attempting to dissect any given game from those genres.

The piece in question presents this interesting snippet of text:

“I’m not saying you can’t offer your opinion in your reviews. What I’m saying is that it can’t influence the score in any real way, nor should it be allowed to influence the presentation of other, more objective subject matters. To do so is, quite simply, unprofessional. Present your opinions within the text of the piece, but we are not entitled to score a game based on an uninformed opinion, nor are we entitled to score a game as some sort of sociopolitical statement, or a statement of any sort for that matter.”

Let’s ignore that the author contradicts himself by stating that opinions should not influence the score, before going on to say that reviewers are not entitled to base a score on a mis-informed, inferring that basing a score on an informed opinion is alright. The real question, to me, is by how much should opinions influence that rating?

As brilliant as it was, and as much as I love it, Skyrim had more than a few problems.

As brilliant as it was, and as much as I love it, Skyrim had more than a few problems.

I understand where the author is coming from, but I cannot agree with much of it. Opinions should indeed influence the final score, even if it’s  for the simple reason that deciding how much an objective aspect of the game should effect and change the final score is purely based on opinion. Take, for example, Skyrim. On release Skyrim was riddled with bugs and problems that could at times drastically effect a player’s experience with the game. There is no room for opinion in talking about the game’s bugs and glitches, because their existence and effects are quantifiable fact, not open for debate. However, where opinion comes into the equation is when determining just how much those objective facts effect the overall quality of the title, and therefore the score that the author decides to apply.

Should you take a point or two off of the score for these problems? If you decide to take points away, how many should you remove? This is a subjective matter because as of the moment there is no mathematical formula dictating such things. When I reviewed the game I decided that in my opinion playing the game was so much fun, so immensely enjoyable, that it overruled any of these problems, and therefore I decided that the negative problems would not result in me removing points from the final score. Some people agreed with me, others disagreed, and that is a good thing as it promoted healthy debate. I got hate mail for my decision, and I got other bits of mail supporting my opinion. For those that didn’t read the review I awarded it a full 10/10. I’ve only awarded that sort of score twice, with the other game being Portal 2. Do note that a 10 does not equal a perfect game, as Skyrim clearly is not.

Other problems begin to arise when components of a game mix the subjective and the objective. Take a game’s aesthetics’ for example. If a review was almost entirely subjective then someone writing about Minecraft would be forced to state the game’s graphics are simplistic and completely out of date. The argument that the game is supposed to look that way would be invalid. Would that completely objective look at the game’s visual’s do them  justice? No.

Minecraft's graphics are simple, yet contain a charm that objectivity struggles with, leading to a reviewing problem: which takes precedence, opinion or fact?

Minecraft’s graphics are simple, yet contain a charm that objectivity struggles with, leading to a reviewing problem: which takes precedence, opinion or fact?

Pondering how objectivity and subjectivity work within video game reviews has often made me wonder if I should just completely drop the scoring system that I use, because assigning a number at the end of the review creates the false illusion of some mathematical, objective scoring system which reflects pure fact rather than opinion. Scores create often pointless arguments, and have driven the Metacritic culture, which has in turn led to some terrible publisher and developer practices. There is no magical objective formula I use to determine a score, because I don’t think one could ever exist without there being a massive list of every possible aspect of a game with a value assigned to each aspect which the reviewer then goes through, ticking the boxes of whichever aspects are within the game in question.  Instead I have a single descriptive word assigned to each score (bad, okay, good, great, awesome) and when it comes to assigning a score I consider which of those words I would use if I had to describe the game using a single sentence to a friend: “the game was…”. As horrible as that sounds I do indeed attempt to ground my scores in at least some semblance of objectivity. Although I may be tiring of its formula at this bad I would never declare Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 to be a bad game, because from a purely objective standpoint it’s very, very well made. Opinions color the review, and objectivity, I think, must ground it. I therefore try to use objective points to ground my score, and then I alter and adjust it based upon my own opinion, all while attempting to remain as “fair” as possible. My ultimate goal is attempt to justify that score’s existence through articulating my own personal feelings of the game, and using objective points to reinforce those arguments.

call_of_duty_ghosts-HD

Let us turn to Call of Duty, for example. We’ll imagine that Activision has just released Call of Duty: Ghosts, It is as well made and designed as the previous games, but also does not deviate from the known formula. Therefore from an objective standpoint I would have to score the game quite highly, because it’s well made all around with solid pacing work etc. Where my opinion comes into play is in how old the formula that the game is using is beginning to feel, how familiar it all is and how it is no longer fresh and new. There’s no truly objective way to view each of these aspects. If I scored the game purely based on the objective points I wrote about, the game would score highly, but to me that would not be right, because that objective score simply cannot account for everything. It is therefore my duty and goal to justify my arguments about the game’s ageing formula and to therefore also justify the final score I gave the game.

Still, opinions within reviews must come within certain criteria to really hold any weight, and just as importantly they must make contextual sense. For example if someone stated in a review that a beat ’em up, such as Mortal Kombat, was repetitive, then that opinion would make very little sense within the context of the genre. Beat ’em ups are by their very nature repetitive games, so criticising such a thing would be akin to criticizing Borderlands for having a lot of guns. Opinions must be informed and well though out to hold any relevance within a review, and it is up to each author to work and construct these frames in which they operate. Even then there ware always questions. For example, should a Call of Duty game be actively criticized for being linear? Is that a fair complaint given that it’s a deliberate choice with certain benefits? Many reviewers always voice the linearity complaint with each new iteration, but at this point it’s clear that Call of Duty is a linear series, and until that changes is it really a valid point of contention?

And what exactly is an informed opinion? I would like to address a point that the author makes (Christ, it really is starting to come off as me writing a direct reply, isn’t it?) is the thorny issue of the ‘informed opinion’. The author makes a succinct point that I heartily agree with: “No matter who told you what, opinions can be, and are often, wrong. Your misinformed opinion is NOT, and never will be, as good as an informed opinion.” But the problem for me lies in what should be classified as an informed opinion. How deep must a reviewers knowledge go? Should a review have a detailed knowledge of gaming history? You don’t need to know everything about film history in order to tell if a film has good writing, pacing and characters, do you? Likewise with games. I’ve seen people argue that reviewers should have knowledge of what influenced the artistic style of a game, such as a specific artist or something of that ilk, but then you open up a door that cannot be closed. If a reviewer should be expected to understand artistic influences, then they would also need to analysis musical influences and more. What is truly an informed opinion? I’d rather have someone who can accurately and clearly talk about a game and it’s aesthetics that someone who can tell me which artist influenced those aesthetics. It’s the end result that should matter, not the influences.

Perhaps one of the most difficult things to grasp for reader and writer alike is the simple fact that  saying something is bad and it being objectively bad are two very different things. You might not like Call of Duty, but there’s a different between you simply not liking it and the game being objectively bad.  I am personally not a fan of the Halo games: the style of gameplay simply doesn’t suit me, but I certainly wouldn’t claim that it’s a bad game, because from an objective standpoint that’s simply not true, even though I could field several arguments from an objective stance why its current standing amongst gamers and the media is slightly exaggerated. It can often be tricky for humans to separate this concept that our dislike for something does not make it bad in an objective sense. Working this in to a review is equally tricky.

I always struggled to fully get into the floaty physics and bullet=sponge enemies of Halo.

I always struggled to fully get into the floaty physics and bullet=sponge enemies of Halo.

This automatically raises the question of whether or not I should review a Halo game. I pointed out earlier that reviewers should be matched up with the title they’re expected to review, so that someone with a dislike of a certain genre never has to try to write about a title within that category. The dilemma comes from the fact that I am a fan of the FPS genre with a good knowledge, but at the same time I’m largely indifferent to the Halo series, neither disliking it or liking it. So, should I attempt to review Halo 5? I don’t have a genuine answer, but I’d like to think that I could be objective enough to provide a fair review, a review that also simply doesn’t bow down to the Halo name like many websites and magazines seem to do. Even though the gameplay isn’t quite my thing (though I do enjoy the multiplayer side of things) I do also understand why it works and why people enjoy it. Maybe I’m wrong, though, and simply shouldn’t go near it. I’m pretty sure when Halo 5 comes around and I give a review a whirl people will let me know.

Those that argue that reviews should be much more objective, if not completely so, often cite movie reviews as an example where we tend to find a much more consistent range of scores, regardless of author. The problem with this example when applied to gaming is that movies are not interactive: they require nothing more from the viewer than a few hours of their time and concentration. Once you begin applying the element of interactivity I believe that much of the objective argument starts to crumble because each gamer can have a very different experience with the game. This effect becomes far more pronounced in large, open-world gamers where the player is free to run and frolic as they see fit. Again, Skyrim is a good example: when I played it, I encountered relatively few bugs in comparison to many others because I went about things in a different manner or simply never went near the quest or area here a particular bug awaited me because the game was so vast. When writing the review I was then face with a quandary: do I write about glitches and problems that I had no personal experience with? Objectively I knew these problems existed because there were legions of people experiencing them, and yet because I did not experience them myself was I truly in a position to try to pass judgement on how they effected the game? The answer I arrived at was no, I could not talk about something that I had not personally encountered.

The relationship between objective and subjective is symbiotic – they must work in beautiful tandem to create a fitting review. Let say’s for, example, I declare in a review that a game is too hard. That is, of course, a subjective opinion, and a not very helpful one at that. I doesn’t tell the reader very much. As such it makes far more sense for me to attempt to reinforce my opinion by presenting some objective information. Thus, “The game is made far too difficult, in my view, because the block mechanic has a small delay which can often leave you vulnerable, while hit detection is rather inconsistent.” My opinion is that the game is too difficult, but I’ve backed up that argument by presenting some factual information to help the reader understand my position. I could have simply presented the factual evidence and left out my opinion, but then would the reader have been any wiser, left to wonder if this delay and hit detection issue impacted the game significantly or slightly. Therefore I argue that objectivity and subjectivity are both vitally important in any review, and that the score should also be a mixture of the two in order to properly reflect the text.

DmC got a lot of flak from fans, and so did I for giving it a 4/5.

DmC got a lot of flak from fans, and so did I for giving it a 4/5.

An interesting example of when objectivity and subjectivity clash is Capcom’s reboot of their Devil May Cry franchise from this year. For the most parts critics gave it good reviews, and that’s because, I believe, from an objective standpoint the game was rather well made. The combat was slick and the technical aspects of the game were good. Where opinion came in was with the reinvention of the main character and of series lore: some reviewers influenced their final score more than others based on their opinion of this recreation. Meanwhile, fans of the franchise began to tear the game apart, with many of them declaring it a bad game, many of whom hadn’t even played it. But why? Again, if I attempt to rinse my mind and view it from an objective stance I certain could not declare DmC to be a bad game, no matter how strongly I feel about the way the reboot was done. This is again the difference between somebody not liking something and it being objectively bad. The problem these people had was with the way the new game had been styled and the main character and lore changed around, and that effected their opinion of the rest of the game, to the point where they simply blanked out many of its merits and accused a lot reviewers of, amusingly, being paid off or biased.

But were they wrong to let their feelings color their view of the game that much? We again arrive at question of how much an opinion should color a reviewers verdict of a game. More importantly, was the strange depiction of women in Dragon’s Crown something that should have been brought up in a review? Yes, I certainly feel that there’s no reason why it should not be. But should it have influenced the final scoring? That’s a difficult question, because if you say no then that raises the even more difficult question of which opinions should influence the score and which should not. How do you decide that? Of course if something like the depiction of women in a game bothers you enough then that obviously does color your overall experience with the game, which in turn the may result in the score being altered accordingly, perhaps without the author even being aware of having done so.

Dragon's Crown sparked a hell of a debate, one that in my view got blown way out of proportion.

Dragon’s Crown sparked a hell of a debate, one that in my view got blown way out of proportion.

From my viewpoint, as limited as it may be, that bringing in anything such as religion, sexism etc. into a review is always a difficult task. That’s not because they shouldn’t be brought up in certain situations, but because such topics have somehow become hidden behind red tape over the years, especially if you intend to criticize them or question them in any way. I’ve got a review coming up of Killer is Dead, and while I can’t say much about it at the moment due to a NDA, within the review I intend to talk about a portion of the game pertaining to women. Usually I do not do this, but in this instance I feel that it does indeed tarnish the overall quality of the game slightly. As such I feel it must be talked about, and to refrain from doing so would be something of an injustice.

I also don’t believe that refraining from allowing your opinions to influence the final score does justice to certain games, because certain games defy objective reasoning to a degree. Minecraft is the best example that I can pull from the recesses of my mind, but there are many, many other fine examples of games that manage to defy reason. If I sat down and attempted to pick Minecraft apart and objectively weight up its strengths and weaknesses then it would come out with a pretty low score, because the standards we tend to judge games by these days are not met. Objectively the graphics are poor, regardless of whether or not it’s a deliberate aesthetic choice. The gameplay is simplistic, combat is clumsy and the minute to minute action is mundane. Minecraft is all of these things, but as the millions who play it can attest once you mesh everything together Minecraft becomes something else entirely. There’s just a certain something that is hard to put into words, let along quantify from an objective stance, and Minecraft isn’t the only game.

Who would have thought this simple game would become the juggernaut that it has?

Who would have thought this simple game would become the juggernaut that it has?

The simple fact of the matter is that I have no answer to this great question. In my view opinions are an important and integral part of videogame reviews because they allow us to read a broader spectrum of viewpoints that dissect the game. Reviews are a beautiful mixture of the objective and the subjective, a mix that mystifies me and intrigues me. I have no answer to how much an opinion should color a score or, for that matter, many of the points I raised here, because I don’t think there really is a right answer. It’s a topic wide open for debate, and I see no end to that debate any time soon.

Ultimately I believe it’s up to the reviewer to voice his opinion in an eloquent and well thought and manner while still remaining as objective as they can. It’s up to the reviewer to justify those opinions using objective means when possible, and by doing so the final score should also feel justified to those viewing it. Much like the relationship between the subjective and objective,  a review score and the text itself share a symbiotic relationship, and neither should ever be taken out of context of the other, which is sadly something people often tend to do, glancing at the number and not the text which explains it.

And thus ends my inane rambling and guided tour through my attention deprived mind. Please do let me know how you guys feel about reviews, whether you think they should remain as objective as possible, or even entirely objective. Do you agree that opinions are integral? Should some opinions never be raised in a review? Am I just plain wrong about everything? If you answered yes to that final one then don’t worry, I’ve thought the same thing a few times and wound up wondering if this piece was good enough to publish.

Until next time.

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