Trust, and the nature of reviews

I’ve spent every waking hour the past four days with NieR:Automata and was thinking about how it impacted me and how I’d review and talk about it. I remember hearing somewhere once that everything in the end comes down to “word of mouth”, that all the shiny and flashy marketing campaigns in the world are all just attempts at recreating the same effect with a different structure, so in my mind the least I could do was write about it – for my own memories, and for anyone who reads me or will read me in some other time.

The problem was, going into N:A myself, I didn’t know much anything. I knew

  1. The player character, “2B”, had a phenomenal ass.
  2. It’s made by Platinum, who made another game I enjoyed (MGR)
  3. A short clip of one robot rocking a cradle saying “child. child. child.” and a pair of others, one laying on the ground, the other ramming into it repeatedly, saying “i love you. i love you. i love you.”

I didn’t read the store page on Steam, I might’ve seen a bit of the trailer video and I’ve definitely heard of the weird ball mask guy before, but none of it registered. I went in expecting a corridor-arena action game with stage ratings, literally a MGR with ass and titties.

This expectation directly contributed to my enjoyment of the game and its story.

I had ignored this detail up until this point because it didn’t seem relevant. Yoshimune Kouki’s writing in Muv-Luv Alternative worked in such a way that spoilers didn’t really matter – the tells for things came a mile off, you’d know it was coming, and still it overpowers you – and it’s my favorite story of all time[1]. I’d also seen a lot of my favorite reviewers simply state straight off that the review had spoilers so I copied it and thought nothing more other than trying to not talk about too much. Yoko Taro’s writing though is entirely different and I have to concede. I can’t write or talk about what’s in it with someone who hasn’t played it without directly subtracting from their future enjoyment.

It also made me reconsider just how big a contradiction reviews are. If you are talking about what’s in a game, or anything really, by category it is “spoiling” it.

Without judgment: Attempting to learn about something without getting spoiled is attempting to obtain information without obtaining information.

“Spoil” comes from”spoiled food”, a feeling which is transferred over to hearing about reveals or twists in a game (or anything really, but I’ll be saying “game”) to a person who hasn’t yet had the chance to experience it themselves. It’s a judgment, something that only works in one direction: the other side theoretically could exist but doesn’t, there are few or no complaints against “febrezing” or “microwaving”. The problem is that it doesn’t. Marketing departments everywhere are probably quite glad with this state of affairs, because this means they can sprinkle in as much MSG as they want; people easily understand the difference between eating spoiled food and fresh food, but they easily forget the difference the other way, e.g. between eating fresh food normally and eating fresh food when they’re starving. Since neither the other judgment nor the category have names, I will simply use “spoil” as the name for the category as well, the category of “obtaining information prior to experience“.

I feel this both avoids any fuzzy debates and broadens the concept to greater applicability to a greater number of parties. This means that “this game runs on PC at these certain specs” is also a spoiler. Seemingly pointless, “of course i need to know whether or not i can even play the damn thing”, but it’s not like those specs always make sense. More recently the listed specs for many games have been higher than actually required because it saves the publisher trouble and criticism[2] so it’s possible that people have been turned away when they didn’t have to. The other side, when the listed specs aren’t able to play the game, are generally high profile affairs and result in people trying to play the game when they shouldn’t have.  In both cases, it can be said that those peoples’ experiences have been “spoiled”. These exceptions prove the rule.

The rule means that some “spoiling” is necessary. “Spoil” as a negative judgment refers to the state of the food; “Spoil” as a category refers to the information gathering about the food. Since I don’t have a PS4, I was “spoiled” when I heard that N:A was coming to PC. But it made me want the game, and in turn buy it and play it. Same with 2B’s booty. Same with Platinum. Same with the clip about the machines. The first I probably heard about thanks to Square Enix’s marketing department, the second I don’t remember how it got to me, the last I saw thanks to /v/. Reviews are in the same category. It’s information about the game.

I think the primary problem is people forget why they’re looking for reviews, and some of them why they even play games. There’s a Schaffer Paragraph equivalent that all the average reviewers follow: graphics get a rating, music gets a rating, story gets a rating, gameplay gets a rating, etc. etc. – there’s even one YouTuber’s claim to fame is that he reviews options menus – but I don’t think most people actually care too much about these things. Great looking game with fluid animations for example is certainly better there than not, but most people have had fun or fond memories of games with neither.

The fundamental question is “should I play this game”, the operative word being “play”, a short form for “spend time on”. Reviews generally say the word “get” or “buy” instead and treat it as synonymous with “play”, but they’re not the same[3][4].

The answer is “yes” or “no”.

Taking spoilers the category into account, this means the ideal review is binary.

All the things I said I knew about N:A were great motivators for me going into the game, but it would’ve been even better if I didn’t know about it. Spoilers are necessary to sell the game, but they also necessarily dampen playing it. I already knew 2B had a great butt and had a bunch of lewds on her, so I wasn’t as amazed when I actually saw it in-game. I wasn’t as appreciative of the input fluidity because I knew it was Platinum. The machine scene had negligible impact on me because the overall writing style of the game wasn’t like MLA. I did appreciate some things more because I expected basically a reskin of MGR, but if I had to choose knowing what I knew and knowing nothing, I would choose to know nothing.

Nothing except the “yes”.

All the other stuff talked about in a review are just supporting material for the one bit of info which says “yes” or “no”, and the one meta-bit: whether or not they in particular can be trusted, whether their opinion makes sense. I bought Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun off of a reviewer who gave it a thumbs-down because I read his reasoning: ‘it doesn’t have levelling/experience or customizable skill trees and you can’t choose who to play for each level’. To me this spelled out that the game developers must have had great confidence in their level design, and I was not disappointed. I wish I got his name so I could look him up; I’d take him again any day over wading through more “my score for this game’s graphics is x/10” garbage. If it were possible somehow for him to have exactly the opposite opinion on exactly everything, all I’d need to do is look for things he thumbs-down and I’d have a good time.

The dream setup would be if someone took care of everything for me and made sure it worked on my computer beforehand[5]. If I didn’t know who made it, hadn’t seen any trailers or even any cover art, if all I needed to do was buy and wait to download what I was told to, it’d be the ideal case[6]. Or, less fluorished: be able to select with no prior information a game that is worth the time. Even less fluorished: Remove the necessity of selection skill.

Most of these things really are just a dream and won’t ever happen due to some fundamentally unchangeable logistics, but I think some things could be massively improved and we could get pretty close. From the topics discussed in this post, I can think of two:

– The more positive a review, the less information it contains.

If it’s a bad game, people will want to know why to avoid it. If it’s a good game, people will want to experience it for themselves, so beyond the “yes” it should basically be praises of tiny things, or rebuttals/clarifications of misconceptions.

I think there should be a new, separate “analysis” category (or some other word which people inherently understand “includes spoilers”) which currently barely exists and are usually called “reviews”, probably for SEO purposes. I’m certainly interested in why a game feels phenomenal, but it’s not something I want to think about at all before I’ve tried it out for myself. I do want to know why a game is absolute shit though, if it’s shit. Alternatively,”reviews” should be called “previews” instead, because that’s what they generally are to the intended audience.

– The review starts with the conclusion.

If a person already trusts you, they don’t need to be spoiled with 30+ minutes of gameplay footage and some guy talking, or be bothered to scroll to the bottom to find the score. If they don’t already trust you, why do you think they’d trudge through your review to find out what you thought of it?

Why would they even look at it? Because you have a flashy thumbnail or title? Wouldn’t a score go even better with it, so they get tempted to find out wh-???

…oh. They’ve probably run the numbers and found out they get fewer clicks if the score is revealed upfront haven’t they. And if a review contains fewer words then our friendly neighborhood gaming journalism advocate gets fewer dollarydoos…

Well I don’t run on that system, at least not for reviews, so I’m not going to worry about it.

____________________________________

[6] in terms of the playing experience. i do enjoy ‘shopping around’ reviewers and various materials, and hype is fun too, but i don’t think they’ve ever actually increased my enjoyment of the game. at best, some increased my enjoyment of buying.

[5] i expected to be able to do 1080/medium because that’s what i was able to do with The Witcher 3, which looks significantly better, but in the end i had to settle for 900/low. not a big deal, but i can’t say i had zero negative feelings. yes, they are below the listed “minimum specs”. no, i don’t care.

[4] i think this with the “keeping up with the joneses” effect is a large contributor to all the games people buy and don’t play. which is perfectly fine for the publishers. i wouldn’t be surprised if some major reviewer first used the word because they were bought to.

[3] also one of the ways politics snuck in. “I can’t enjoy this because it’s fast paced but also limited in framerate” is different from “If you buy this game, then you support shitty developers who make shitty graphics”. now, if you’re interested in politics then this is valuable information about the game. but if you’re interested in politics, you want more spoilers at all costs. perhaps there are more people interested in politics than i’d like to believe, and that’s the actual reason for all these shitty reviewers.

[2] paralleled in engineering, there’s always a Safety Factor (SF) in everything that gets built. if you buy a shelf that says maximum load is 100 pounds, you can bet that it’ll hold 120 no problem – just don’t expect to get past warranty with that argument. for reference, aerospace standard SF is ~1.5, civil/structure SF ~2.0.

[1] except maybe N:A, but I’ll have to think about it.

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