A User’s Guide to Media Reviews

Editor’s Note: This is a companion piece to my previous article, “An Objective Review of Dragon’s Crown”  Read it here.

Lately I’ve seen a lot of people who seem to be confused about the purpose of reviews. Specifically video game reviews, but you can apply them to movie reviews, book reviews, really anything involving art. Mostly this confusion stems from the perception that reviews must be “objective”.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Andrew, you sly, sexy thing, reviewers should be unbiased in their work!”

This is wrong. Reporters should be unbiased in their work. Reviewers entire job is bias. There are acceptable and unacceptable biases for reviewers, though. A good reviewer will not allow their review to be unduly affected by any previous perceptions they have about the work, positive or negative. That includes, for example, their personal opinion of the creator, or the system the game is released for. A good review is based entirely on the reviewer’s opinions and observations of the work that they accumulated during their experience with the finished art.

Reviews are objective by nature. This isn’t a problem, this is in fact why they are a useful tool. If you have determined whether or not you like something, or are going to buy something before reading any reviews of it, congratulations, you do not need to read the review. That’s not to say you shouldn’t, I read reviews of things I like, dislike, or have no intention of buying regardless of the quality all the time. It is a form of entertainment, and it can enrich your experience by providing a different perspective from which to appreciate art. A good review of good art will enhance your appreciation of that art.

What you shouldn’t do is use reviews to try and confirm your own biases. We’ve all done it and there’s nothing inherently wrong with this practice either. Who doesn’t love reading an awful movie being eviscerated or a horrible game being pilloried by such masters of the negative review as Jim Sterling and Yahtzee Croshaw? This isn’t what reviews are there for, though. Its a bonus, a treat, and can serve as a validation of your own good taste.

Where people get hung up though is that disagreeing with a reviewer doesn’t make either of you wrong. It just means you disagree. That’s why it is important not to just look at Metacritic aggregates, but to seek out individual reviewers, individual voices who you agree with. Not on score, mind you, but on observation. Different people appreciate different things for different reasons. One reviewer may appreciate a certain kind of game more or less, or a certain style greatly. Find reviewers who appreciate the same things that you do, and if you are unsure as to whether you should or shouldn’t check something out, seek out their opinions.

“But what if the reviewers I usually agree with disagree with me, MSK?”

Well Strawman, it still just means you disagree. Maybe you should think about what you disagree on. If someone who thinks a lot like you do dislikes something that you don’t, odds are you’ll be able to understand their point quite easily. This can improve your enjoyment! Understanding not only that you enjoy something but why you enjoy something is itself enjoyable. Being able to love art not just despite but because of its imperfections is great.

This is why the late lamented Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were so highly valued, not just for their own skills at reviewing movies, but for their wildly different preferences. “Two Thumbs Up” really meant something, because it meant that two colleagues who think differently enjoy the same thing. It was a double positive review, if two people who disagree vehemently on a regular basis like the same movie, odds are it is a really good movie.

All this is not to say there isn’t such a thing as a Bad Review, however. This comes down again to bias, in the case of video games it also involves skill. If someone has made up their mind about something before they have seen it or played it, they have no business reviewing it, and thankfully you can usually tell, because the people who do this are not professionals, but rabid lunatics zero-bombing things on websites that allow for user reviews pre-release. Likewise, if someone just plain isn’t good at a particular game genre, they never play them personally, what have you, they have no business reviewing those games.

Sports games are the most common example, here. For me, its certain 2D fighting games. I am BAD at them. All-Caps BAD. I can’t beat more than three or four levels in Street Fighter IV on the easiest difficulty. That bad. When I see dozens of positive reviews of Street Fighter IV, though, I don’t get upset at the reviewer, though, of course not. I know its not for me, and I can still appreciate their observations with no intent of acting on them.

Which brings me to the current debate going on in the commentariat over at Polygon over their Dragon’s Crown review. A lot of people are going to really enjoy this game and would likely give it a score above 6.5 themselves. That is fine, but it doesn’t mean the author is weighing down the score with her own personal baggage. Some people do not like hypersexualized women and male power fantasies in their games. That detracts from their enjoyment.

“But MSK, if they don’t like sexy babes in their games, they shouldn’t review games with sexy babes in them! That’s your logic!”

No its not, Strawman. That’s a perversion of my logic. Dragon’s Crown is a beat-em-up, a brawler, with a heavy emphasis on its art style as a primary selling point. Naturally, critique of the art style is not only fair game in a review, but a necessity in a review. We’re not talking about someone who just hates brawlers, here, and besides, Strawman, and since I created you, we both know that isn’t your actual problem with the review.

This is the nature of criticism, people will always disagree. I have never had a problem with a little cheesecake here and there, but to me, Dragon’s Crown seems to be rather obnoxious with the way it presents its particular flavor. That’s my opinion. Is yours different? That’s fine with me.

And it should be fine with you, too.

Dream Casts (no pun intended)

All this recent hoopla in my head over the convergence of film and gaming, my two most beloved things, has led me to draw up a few ideal casting choices for some upcoming games-to-movies, namely BioShock and Metal Gear Solid, which has the added benefit of being 90% movie anyway.

Bioshock:

Protagonist Jack: You want someone who’s fairly young, and capable of a dark, tragic heroism of a sort.  With that language most people would jump to the Dark Knight himself, Christian Bale, but I’m going for Nathan Fillion, far less of a name and a face, except to Whedonite zealots.  The hammer is his penis.

Andrew Ryan: Daniel Day Lewis.  No second choices, at all.  The alpha-objectivist whose empire has crumbled around the very structures he built it on, the gravitas of the Milkshake will be needed for his climactic moment.

Atlas: James MacAvoy, this rising star has all the right characteristics.  Right accent, right attitude.

Frank Fontaine: Jack Nicholson.  No one can do arrogant sleaze better.  He could just read everything in his normal voice and it would be pitch-perfect.  Alternatively Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Dr. Tenenbaum: Sarah Polley.  She’s best known for her work as the female protagonist of 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake, but is a fierce actress and talent in her own right.

Dr. Suchong: None other than Sulu himself, George Takei.  Right age, right look, just enough villainous potential.

Sander Cohen: Robin Williams, no second choice.  The man can act serious when you give him a chance, but can anyone think of a better option for a manic psychotic artist?

Dr. Steinman: John Noble.  Look at his performance as Denethor in Return of the King.  That sort of psychotic behavior could be very easily and very artfully translated to this plastic-surgeon gone batshit.

Now how about a Metal Gear Solid movie?  Laden with its didactic style of Japanese storytelling, you’ll need a good editor and screenwriter before anything else, really.  But what about those characters?  I’ve got some ideas here, too.

Solid Snake/Solidus/Big Boss: Viggo Mortensen.  In various stages of makeup he can play all of them, and play the hell out of all of them.  He is quite possibly one of the five greatest living actors, in my opinion.

Liquid Snake: I’m going to go back to James MacAvoy for this one, too.  A younger, more vital, slightly deranged character, I think he’d excel as Liquid.

Otacon: I’d cast outside of appearance on this one, cast to character and not to looks, that said, I’d go with Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Another one of my favorites, he could very easily play a nerdy, closeted homosexual atomic scientist.

Raiden: Jake Gyllenhaal.  Young, unsure of himself, naive, I think he’s played all these characteristics already.

Revolver Ocelot: David Carradine, yes, Bill.  He’s got just the right quality for Ocelot.

Naomi Hunter: Nicole Kidman.  She can do ice queen, she can do everything the character needs to do.

Meryl Silverburgh: Say it with me now: Evangeline Lilly.  KATE.  She can kick ass, she can play vulnerable, she can play sneaky, slippery, sultry.  Don’t even change her hair color, the red anime-hair is ridiculous, give her a cut and put her to work.  Give her a bigger part than she has in the games, and ratchet up the tension with Snake.

Sure there are other characters in both games (especially the bloated Metal Gear saga) but for film translations, I’d take it down a bit.  There would of course be other supporting characters, but those are your core.  Bioshock I think lends itself to a more direct translation, oddly enough, as Metal Gear Solid’s story needs some heavy pruning.  I’d probably combine elements of 1, 2, and 4.