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Hello. My name is Travis Arbon and welcome to Game Flow, a collection of audio essays about the culture of video games and experiences with gaming. Today’s essay is: Reviews and Rankings - Chasing the Dragon. If you have an essay you’d like to submit to the collection, head over to gameflowpod.com or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reviews and Rankings - Chasing the Dragon
Tetris is arguably a perfect game.
Its mechanics are simple, intuitive and addictive. Its controls uncomplicated and its skill ceiling practically limitless. Even the music is critical to the experience as it’s is spun to add to the feeling of rising tension as your tetrominoes fall faster and faster. Each constituent piece of the game is so well designed that removing one of them would cause the entire game to collapse.
You can add layers and additional mechanics to Tetris, but the core game remains the same: a perfect system of finely tuned rules.
Tetris is arguably a perfect game. But is it a 10/10? And if Tetris, a perfect game, isn’t - then what is?
There’s an undercurrent to the discourse surrounding games that is the foundation of many online discussions - the hunt for the perfect game, or rather, the hunt for the ultimate gaming experience.
Like many aspects of the culture surrounding video games, I believe this obsession with finding and playing the greatest game of all time starts in childhood - when you find the first game that truly speaks to you.
You may have played games before, but this game grabs you in a way you didn’t know games could grab you. Suddenly you’re not just playing it, you’re devouring it, gorging yourself on the mechanics or the story or the graphics.
And then it ends. You’ve squeezed every ounce of enjoyment you possibly could out of that game. And now, armed with the knowledge that similar experiences are out there, you set out on your eternal hunt.
For me, that game was Pokemon Gold Version. It was the deepest, most intricate, most intoxicating experience my six-year-old brain could handle, and it kickstarted my love of the medium. I still have every inch of the Johto Region memorized.
I’ve played hundreds of games in the time between I finally set down Pokemon Gold and today, but none of them have grabbed me the exact same way it did, and only a handful have come close.
Because what we’re actually chasing is not the best or most perfect game.
We’re chasing our past selves who came into gaming at a moment when every experience was at its most intense.
We’re chasing the form of “fun” itself.
And that’s also what we’re being sold.
Reviews exist at the nexus of our personal quest for pure fun and companies’ desire to sell us their product.
Which is why I think, by and large, the average launch day score on say, Metacritic has next to no bearing on how well a game will be received in the marketplace. For many of us, we’ve already decided to buy. What difference does a 79 make versus an 85?
Increasingly, the actual critical conversation surrounding videogames happens long after launch, after the sales have already occurred. Video essayists like Joseph Anderson make their name creating longform critical analyses of games. These are the true “reviews” in the classic sense. Most of what leads up to launch is more akin to pre-launch hype and product details.
Additionally, in this increasingly connected world, games are often entirely different experiences six months to a year after launch. The classic example is Destiny. Most hardcore players who stuck with the game would tell you that what came out in 2014 is not at all the same game that it is today.
So if launch reviews are often surpassed critically by post-launch critics, and rendered irrelevant by patches, what sparks the fervor that surrounds the initial rush of reviews?
It all comes back to that eternal quest for the greatest, most perfect game of all time.
While the average game’s Metacritic score ultimately means very little, in exceptional cases, scores can ignite a frenzy of activity. A series of high reviews will have people asking: “Is this the one? Is this the greatest game of all time?”
Even if we all know that launch reviews border on meaningless, there’s something about seeing 10/10 after 10/10 that gets people going. And because we so desperately want to believe that if we buy this game, this one game, we’ll have maximum fun, we’ll often go to great lengths to justify and protect that decision.
Take The Last of Us. For my money, it’s an excellent, gripping game. It received sky-high reviews on launch, but there were a few outliers. Notably, Polygon’s critic gave the game a 7.5/10. The review relayed the critic’s perspective on the game’s oppressive tone and embrace of violence, which the reviewer didn’t always find necessary for the narrative and characters.
Polygon was savaged online for this review. They were called “contrarians” who were “desperate for clicks.”
The reason for the outrage was not because people had played the game and formed their own opinions. In fact, no one had yet. The outrage was based entirely around the score. A 7.5 isn’t a “good” score you see. And worse, it brings down the Metacritic average, preventing the game from reaching the coveted “best game of all time status.”
All this for a 7.5/10, and a generally positive review that praised the game’s characters and technical excellence. A 7.5. Or, if you convert it: 3.75/5, or 3 stars out of 4. Put in perspective, it’s easy to see that a 7.5/10 is nowhere near the ballpark of a bad review.
But placed next to an array of 9, 9.5 and 10/10s, it looks out of place and stirs something inside people. “This is clearly one of the greatest games of all time!” people say. “If this reviewer gave the game a 7.5 when everyone else insists it’s a 10, well there must be something wrong with the reviewer, not the game.”
This same scenario repeats itself with every game that receives high praise on launch. In 2017, critic Jim Sterling got intense backlash for his less than adoring review of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Because reviews aren’t really reviews to many people, they’re a metric of how much distilled fun they can expect to obtain for their dollar. There’s very little examination of games criticism, and, honestly with a lot of game reviews, there’s very little substantive critique to be found. It’s largely spin, ensuring you that yes, you’ll have fun if you just give us your money.
And a 95 on Metacritic? Well that’s about as close to pure fun as you can get, right? Or so we’ve been conditioned to believe.
In the NBA fandom, there’s a debate raging over whether Michael Jordan or LeBron James is the best player ever. Young people in particular are desperate to believe that they’re living in the time of the greatest.
No one wants to believe that they missed out on the best. And so we’re constantly searching for it in video games. Everyone wants to say “I was there” when the Mario 64-level paradigm shift comes out.
We’re constantly chasing the shadow of pure fun. Companies know this, and they will leverage reviews to get you to buy.
For my part, I believe this chase after the greatest prevents us from actually understanding what we have and what we want. Your self worth, or the quality of your personal experiences, is not defined by a Metacritic score. And you will probably never achieve the same emotional heights as when you sat down with your favorite childhood game.
And that’s okay. We should keep our minds grounded in the real world, and not the kind of fantasies that lead us to buy mindlessly into corporate product pushes.
And if you really want to play a perfect game? Well, there’s always Tetris.
That’s it for this edition of Game Flow. Thank you to Sylendanna on Soundcloud for letting me use the track “Last May” on this show. If you have an audio essay that you’d like to submit to the podcast, send an email to email@example.com. Feel free to head to the website gameflowpod.com to leave a comment, or reach out on twitter through @TravisArbon. And make sure to subscribe and leave a review via your podcatcher of choice.
Next Week: What is, and isn’t, gaming journalism?
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