The Mystifying Hex

I was putting together a game reviewer résumé (laugh out loud) a while ago and in the process I went back and looked at a bunch of my old reviews, including this one. Because I have nothing better to do I also decided to look Elven Legacy up on Metacritic to see which side of the bell curve I was on. Here is the link to that.

A fuctional community is made up of diverse individuals and any abstract 'community opinion' is a summary of diverse opinions. The addition or subtraction of any one member changes the abstract. So conforming to a community opinion means that either the individual is dysfunctional because he doesn't understand what a community is about or it means that the community is dysfunctional because it doesn't allow diversity. Doug Henwood's book on Wall Street partially characterizes Wall Street as this kind of dysfunctional community, where everyone is desperately in search of everyone else's opinion so that they can base their investment decisions on it and profit. If market research, advanced stochastic simulations and MSNBC all point to 'the Street' saying that the Facebook IPO will go crazy, then everyone on 'the Street' will bet against Facebook. But the point is that the community opinion is made up of people guessing what the community opinion is and maneuvering to profit from it. Nobody actually takes stands of their own or reveals their hand.

Metacritic is the same way. They really do 'deal with criticism' in that they reduce it to the same kind of pointless guessing game you see on Wall Street. A score in the seventies, for instance, almost certainly indicates a niche game. A couple people (me, Pelit and Absolute Games, in this case) review it positively, most people don't understand what is going on and don't care and so give it an average score since going either way out of the doldrums would put them at risk, and someone people come right out and admit they don't get it, but, since it's a niche game, think that it's safe to bash without consequence. The average opinion is created (Metacritic averages publications' scores based on an arbitrary and opaque system) by people trying very hard not to stray from the average opinion. By anxious bullshitters' consensus the precise quantification of 'average' has come to rest at somewhere around the mid seventies, and Metacritic obliges by putting these reviews in the middle of the list and giving them a nice neutral color- either green, as if the game were good after all, or yellow, as if it were just kind of alright. For some games this is appropriate, for a game like Elven Legacy it's not appropriate at all.

What I really want to get to is the reviews at the bottom of the list, specifically the very bottom. Here's the money quote:
The whole notion of a scored review seems a little arbitrary in the face of the niche and dedicated fanbase this game will attract, and its attempts at populist window-dressing are virtually pointless because for the rest of us, the whole entity is at its most lenient completely mystifying, and at its most uncompromising utterly impenetrable.
The whole notion of a scored review is actually way more than a little arbitrary when the person doing the reviewing admits in the next sentence that he found the game 'utterly impenetrable.' The bottom side of any mid-seventies game is always a fun place to be because it's the actual object that casts the long shadow of the I-don't-care mid-seventies reviews: people on the bottom just say what everyone else above them was thinking but didn't even have the cojones to put in print. There's no functional difference between a mid-seventies review that says 'it will please fans of the genre' (as in, 'not me') and a mid-forties review that says 'fuck the genre.' The guy on the bottom just has fewer advertising dollars at stake.

Reviewing a game that has not been designated as niche below the mid-seventies Happy Zone is a totally different thing, however. I did that a few times, because I'm a rough-n-ready maverik who plays fast and loose with the rules and isn't afraid to shake things up, and also because I wasn't being paid. My most infamous moment was with Sins of a Solar Empire. I played for about twenty hours, which I'm almost positive was a longer period of time than half of the rest of the reviews invested, and decided that it wasn't worth it to continue and went back to Company of Heroes.

The most common accusation that people made in the emails they sent me and in the forums thread about my review on the official Sins forum was that I was only reviewing it poorly for the advertising revenue that it would generate for my site. Even when I was getting paid to review (I wasn't at the time and wouldn't be for another couple years) I was making a flat rate of thirty whole dollars per article. Not enough to tempt me to sell out. I would do that for maybe 400 dollars.

But people should have known, from looking at the site I was reviewing for, that I was either not getting paid or that it was so little that trolling for views wasn't really going to make a difference. But because of the Metacritic infection the only way people could justify my behavior was by comparing me to everyone else- to the people who reviewed the game in the Happy Zone for a designated non-niche game, which is in the mid eighties to the high nineties. And if you compare me to people who are reviewing for ad revenue after guessing what the consensus will be, then of course I have to be doing the same thing as they are, just taking a different tack: reviewing outside of the consensus for ad revenue. Some people did criticize me for not playing the game that much, and some people did question my knowledge of RTS 4X games (which is nil, because RTS 4X is a marketing term and not an actual genre). Of course the same scrutiny was not applied to, say, the Cheat Code Central review for the same game, which gave it an absurd 96 out of 100 and didn't say anything concrete about it. The crucial difference in each case is where the Street thinks the Street is going to put the game- in the niche pile or in the non-niche pile. A lot of the calculation has to do with who is making the game (as in, a large developer or an indie studio with a lot of profile) and which switches it flicks (puzzle platformer, visible pixels, story, no difficulty). In no case does the quality of the game enter into the decision. And it goes without saying that after the initial decision has been made, deviation is even more ill-advised.