Reviewing Ourselves to Death

I want to believe that there are objective ways to judge art. I want to believe that some experiences are objectively good, especially when those experiences reflect real talent, incredible creativity, and honest inspiration. Whether it is a classic game, a well-read book, or some other celebrated medium of expression, does not matter, because I want to believe that all are capable of objective truths which, when perceived, can be communicated to others as a reflection of their relative value. A strong want to believe rarely makes anything true though.

In my own experience, the above quote is true. I would also say it can be applied to more than just books and that ‘good’ is easily replaced with ‘bad’, assuming you are experiencing whatever it may be at the ‘wrong moment’. Too often in my life have I attempted to experience something, only to be turned off or distracted upon my first attempt.

Link’s Awakening is one example. As a game I first owned as a child, it bored me after a relatively few hours of playing it. Despite the game’s critical success when it came to review scores, my own experience did not reflect the opinions of those who had persuaded me to buy the game in the first place. Years later, I played Link’s Awakening to completion, and found it a title certainly worth finishing.

Link’s Awakening is neither the only example nor the last one in my lifetime. While there certainly exists books and television shows and games that grip us so tightly, so quickly, that we marathon through them with no hesitation (I watched the entire run of LOST in the span of a single week), not everything grabs you so violently. Some experiences are designed as a slow-burn toward a great payoff. Others require some initial leeway before they really come into their own. While I have no recommendation for a proper amount of time, I do know that most experiences deserve a chance, and that means a willingness to be open-minded and patient.

More importantly, there are other factors that will affect your final opinion. For instance, the mood you are in.

You could hand me the greatest science fiction novel I have not read, but if I am in a fantasy mood, that book will be a hard sale. I will probably buy it and hoard it away among the vast array of objects of entertainment I already possess. I may even try to read the first chapter or two. Yet, the chances that I will forget it exists or, worse, like it less are far greater. I wanted to read fantasy, dammit!

While mood is the biggest ruiner (or preventer) of things for me, life experiences also have a rather dramatic impact. For one example, take the classic 90’s song, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. When I was a child in the 90’s, I loved the song. After all, it was catchy and great in a distinctly 90’s way that I did not yet understand. The lyrics, however, were meaningless and irrelevant to me. Fast-forward to 2013, just a few months ago, when a chance listen on the radio forced me to re-experience the words. At the time, I had just ended the longest relationship of my life, one that over time dissolved before my very eyes. Like the song, our relationship had come to a point where ‘our lives [had] come between us’ which had ultimately forced its conclusion.

There are other life experiences that shape how I often receive things. My brother died in 2008, after a period where we had gotten a lot closer than we ever had been before. Anytime I experience anything with a well-developed sibling relationship, it hits me a lot harder than I imagine it does for other people. Characters like Fullmetal Alchemist’s Edward and Alphonse remind me of both the brother I lost, as well as a strong bond I wish we had.

While these are important factors when it comes to my opinion, I do believe there are ways to better an objective appreciation of something. Perhaps the most powerful way is gaining a level of expertise over the medium.

If you are going to judge something in a review or critique, it is common sense that you have a familiarity with the object of your opinion. Just as important, you should also be familiar with its context, its history, and things related to it. I believe it is fair for me to discuss MMORPGs critically because I have played many of the major releases quite extensively, over a long period of time. In contrast, my review of the latest Zelda or Mario games might be lessened by the fact that they are the only titles in either series that I have played recently and that I do not have an extensive knowledge of either.

A strong knowledge certainly helps when forming an opinion because it gives you a foundation to rely on. It becomes less about your subjective experience, and more about fitting a new experience into an objective framework. By understanding where a book comes from through its genre or through similar authors, you can compare its relative value to that which has come before it. By understanding current movie trends, you might better understand why the current movie you are reviewing differs greatly from an older movie in the same genre.

It is possible, however, that your objective knowledge can backfire on you. Nostalgia, for instance, may cloud your opinion on something new that doesn’t fit into your preferred paradigms. A prescriptive attitude on how something ought to be done might turn an otherwise inspired work into something alien to your worldview.

Furthermore, I do believe it is difficult, though not impossible, to separate objective opinion from subjective influences. A bad day can easily sway a view that can go either way toward the negative. Forcing yourself to finish something for a deadline might drastically reduce your scoring if the thing in question were intended to be slowly absorbed over a long period of time.

Perhaps it is wrong then to focus on objective and subjective truths. Instead of reviews and scores being some sort of attempt to quantify an experience in an objectively comparable way, maybe we should focus more on the experience itself. The review should include both our subjective, or emotional views, as well as attempts to objectively place it among peers. Ultimately for me, this also means a removal of a score, because if your final opinion owes any portion of itself to a subjective view then it is rendered false immediately when that subjective view is altered. In other words, even if your objective opinion stands firm, your score will be altered depending on its context due to your subjective view always being somewhat in flux.

“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

― Oscar Wilde

Why this long-winded and semi-complicated ramble? Because I have chosen to no longer call my game reviews, reviews. If anything, they are a reflection of my current objective knowledge of the game and its peers, as well as my current subjective self. The word ‘review’, when it comes to game journalism, is a loaded term with connotations that I would never intend. My opinion is not your opinion, for instance. My reviews, therefore, are not intended to be a reflection of how a game is, but rather a reflection of what the game is to me.

The value of my opinion is entirely up to you. If I influence you to purchase or try something, then that is your choice. All I aim to do is share my opinion of something I loved or hated. In return, I want argument and agreement, criticism and mutual opinion. Many people look at game reviews like they are immutable and eternal. Often that is because the scores, once given, rarely change. It is a sad fact of reality that people will weigh a single person’s judgement so strongly that they will not risk their own. Even worse, we allow these reviews and scores to penalize the artists and workers who put their talent and effort on the line.

At the end of the day, whether you believe in objective truth or deny the value of subjective viewpoints, you should always strive to experience something for yourself. You are, after all, the only judge that matters.

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7 thoughts on “Reviewing Ourselves to Death”

  1. I completely agree with your sentiment towards reviews. Your example of how Fullmetal Alchemist affected you in understandable to me, as I sort of went through a similar experience. When I was 16, way back in 2009, I lost my father to a freak accident on the operating table. I went through some really dark and oppressive times and it became difficult to find the reasons to keep going. Eventually my friends around me, the games and music I went to, and my own spirituality pulled me back out. When the movie “The Grey” came out, I thought it was going to be a Liam Neeson vs. Wolves flick (which I was all for) but it turned out to be so much more for me. Neeson’s character was having to find a reason to keep living in the face of a horrible situation (one he was facing in real life, he wasn’t really acting in that film.) I found myself easily attached to the film because I saw some of the same struggles that went through.

    When it comes to any form of interactive media, which in my opinion includes music and film since it’s being processed through your individual and unique filter of experiences, there can’t be any form of objective rating. This makes it so that a rating system is required that strips out all of the objective qualities and leave only the things that almost everyone can see. I can’t tell someone that the ending of The Last of Us WILL leave you quieted, but I can say that it for me.

    I guess that in the end the best thing we can do is find people as similar as us and see how they “rate” something, thus coming as close as we can to how we might experience it.

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    1. Thanks for sharing. Yeah, to me, a really meaningful review is one that explains why an experience was important. Often, that involves personal insight such as your’s and why you took more away from The Grey than someone else may have. Other times, it is simply a great quote or a great idea that you will carry with you, whether that particular piece of entertainment was overall good to you or universalizably-good.

      I do think an objective review of something can exist and that such a thing has value, but I also believe far too many strive for that unreachable standard and end up writing a loose regurgitation of an experience with a score tacked on.

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  2. I spent a lot of time in college trying to convince people of this general point – that there’s no such thing as one standard number you can stick on a show to determine its true worth. Things can be ballparked by metacritic, sales numbers, and what have you, but not exactly quantified. I still rate things, but I’ve gone back and changed those scores from time to time. It’s a major reason I don’t bother ranking my top 50 anime from 50 to 1 – why bother when the difference between ten spots is my mood on a given day?

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    1. True. I usually say something is in my Top 5, but if you pressed me, I’d almost always have more than 5 things in that Top 5.

      I mean, how do I really compare Death Note to Brotherhood to Ippo to Trigun to G Gundam to Guren Lagan to Gun X Sword? I love them all for such distinctly different reasons, not because of what they represent in the medium as distinguished by some self-appointed expertise in the category.

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