You’re reading my thoughts, and for that I apologise. I’m as qualified to tell you which games you should purchase as I am to advise you on low-yield bonds. It’s your money; you’ve presumably earned or embezzled it to the best of your ability; it’s yours to spend however you like. Besides, verdicts are terribly dull. Can you imagine having a drink with someone who thought so little of conversation, and of games, that they condensed their thoughts into a numerical value, or a singular judgement, before barging onto the next item on the agenda?
It might be like having a drink with Mike Ybarra, corporate vice president of gaming at Microsoft, who said, on Wednesday, ‘I don’t do “reviews” because everyone enjoys different things.’ What a strange and saddening thing to say – like a verbal throwing up of the hands – and one that seems to betray a bubbling belief that games don’t deserve critique, that a yay or nay is the most valuable thing that a review can provide.
The truth, of course, is that it’s the least valuable thing a review can provide. The job of the critic is to sift through the experience of playing a game, refract it through the prism of their own tastes, and fill the reader’s head with ideas. A review should be the start of a discussion, not the final word, and is to be treated with no more gravity than a conversation that wafts between pint glasses. After the review comes the livestream, the podcast, and, when the last breath is loosed, the postmortem feature. The fun of doing a review lies in the clash and clamour of opinion. In short, I do reviews because everyone enjoys different things.
Ybarra’s hackles were raised by a feature published on PC Gamer that criticised the combo mechanics in Anthem, BioWare’s multiplayer shooter. He groused at the ‘lack of knowledge’ he perceived in some reviews, and proffered a bleak and barren vision: ‘I’d suggest “modern reviews” should be watching streamers play a game, doing the demo, listening to what your gaming friends think – and if it seems like something you will enjoy then great.’ The ‘then great’ refers, I imagine, to buying the game in question, at which point all discussion draws comfortably to a close.
Despite the moral hazard of looking to sponsored streams for one’s reviews, it’s not the throb of anger I feel so much as a dull hand at my back, pushing me to the dreary edges of dismay. This feeling was further confounded when Ybarra backpedalled, his wheels churning up a thick spew of mud as he sank lower and lower. ‘Def should also read reviews from your favorite sites/journalists as input,’ he said. ‘Many things to look at to help determine if you will like or dislike a particular game. I reference many of them all the time for my own decision making.’
There is, in those words, a terrifying trace of the algorithmic, as if thought can be threshed through a machine and spat out as a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Not that there’s anything wrong with going by recommendation, but the notion that reviews are there to safeguard one’s wallet is wearying, and the only thing that will, as Ybarra says, ‘determine if you will like or dislike a particular game’ is playing the thing. In fact, reviews are most potent after you have played the game yourself; only then are your own feelings annealed in the heat of another’s.
A review should be its own sort of stream – a mindstream, from someone who overturns and freshens the soil of your thinking. Whether in prose or on video, the work should be tinged by the critic, whose presence permeates one review to the next. There are critics whose brains are like handbags: cavernous, filled with compartments to unclasp, and a thrill to rummage through. And while there’s a mothy joy in the glow of a shared opinion, in seeing the scrawl of your own thoughts delivered with style by someone else, the game grows more exciting when smart people disagree.
It’s this that’s most amusing about Ybarra’s comments: the downward-dragging whinge, like a jumped-up toddler, at the faintest rumble of dissent. In response to a piece of criticism contained in the PC Gamer article, Ybarra said he was ‘amazed at the whining.’ The feeling is entirely mutual. Whilst I should, perhaps, motivate myself toward anger and indignation (as has been pointed out by VG24/7, Microsoft has an exclusive marketing deal with Anthem, and thus a sticky tangle of rotting ethics cocoons the entire affair), I find myself infinitely more irked about the misunderstanding of what reviews are. My verdict: a resounding thumbs down. Anyway, sorry to whine.