Journalists vs Gamers: Why do we sometimes disagree?

This week Bastion came out on Xbox Live. The previews and early game journalist reviews for the game were crazy positive, but among my friends it isn’t quite as popular. Some of them like it (I personally like it a lot) and some of them don’t. There’s nothing all that unusual about that; but the ‘pros’ seem to be pretty universal in their love for the game.

This reminded me of a conversation from many years ago. Back in the olden times, when we had to use a donkey-wheel to power our computers, I was one of the editors at Strategy Plus Magazine. My fellow editors and I were talking about the disconnect between us and the readers when it came to unusual games. What we decided (or at least, what I remember us deciding… this was 15 years or so ago) was this:

Game journalists look at a ton of games. Some they play for a bit, some they preview, some they just see over the shoulder of their co-workers, and a very few they actually review, but every month they get exposed to dozens of games. And let’s face it, a lot of games aren’t all that original. One military FPS is pretty much like another. Not for hard core enthusiasts who’ll drill into details and demonstrate why his or her favorite is better, but from a casual observer (like the journalist who isn’t assigned to the game) they can all start to feel the same.

So when a quirky or unusual game comes along, it really stands out. Since it stands out, a lot of journalists will check it out; they’ll make time to play it even if it isn’t in their beat. And since it’s something different, they’re going to tend to like it, assuming it is at least a decent game. For them, it’s a breath of fresh air. It’s a sweet crunchy apple handed to them in the middle of the annual Doritos Tasting Marathon. Everyone loves Doritos but if you’ve been eating nothing but Doritos for a long time, an apple is going to seem amazing to you.

For those of us shelling out $50-$60 for every game we play, and who play 4-5 games a month, we might not feel like these games are ‘generic’ at all. If you only play Call of Duty you might not realize that most military FPS are brown, y’know? So we might see a lot more games as being unique than the journalist who looked at 25 games this month does.

And this is why I think Bastion is getting so many rave reviews from the journalists. It doesn’t take a lot to make a game stand out. In this case, it takes a gravelly voiced narrator and a colorful art style. I do really like Bastion a lot, but the actual gameplay isn’t really all that unique, is it? The aesthetics feel fresh and unique, and that has been enough to get the journalist’s attention and to stimulate different parts of their gaming taste buds.

There’s nothing nefarious going on; game journalists are people too, y’know. But I do think this is why so many of us wind up basing purchases on word of mouth, or ‘amateur’ bloggers who have gaming habits more along the lines of those of us who only see a few games every month.

And I think you can apply the same theory to movie reviews, too, but in all honesty I almost never read movie reviews so I may be off base.

One more time: I like Bastion a lot. This isn’t an anti-Bastion post. I’m using Bastion as a tool to talk about the occasional disconnect between people who’re given games to look at as their jobs, and those of us who have jobs so we can buy games to look at.

3 thoughts on “Journalists vs Gamers: Why do we sometimes disagree?

  1. I think there’s something else to the disparity beyond “it’s different, and we crave something different.” From knowing several game journalists, designers, and would-be-industry folks, as well as a ton of regular gamers I think in a lot of cases it comes down to this:

    Gamer by and large don’t analyze the games they play.

    To the average consumer who likes shooters, they can play CoD, Battlefield, Halo, Gears of War etc and for them it’s just about having a consistent experience that’s well executed (or at least executed in a manner similar to the other games they like). Games that fit within that framework are going to be fun for them, even if they’ve played the same game dozens of times in different forms.

    Journalists, designers and more critical players actively analyze what they’re playing and make much more conscious decisions on the titles they pay for and spend their time on. This goes to your point that we look for more unique experiences.

    This actually lends to the Games as Art argument. Bastion is the current “Indie Film” of the medium. If this were a film, it’d be a massive hit at Sundance and other major film festivals that would get limited release in regular theaters and be more or less ignored. As a movie, it’d be the film your movie buff friends would talk endlessly about. However, your friends who love to go to the summer blockbusters and loathe anything with subtitles, will either ignore it or actively dislike it because it’s different enough from what they typically watch.

    We like to pick apart our games and think about what makes them good, or interesting, or fun. A unique feature implemented well in a game that would otherwise be OK at its core can elevate a title to the top of the Must Play list for at least a few weeks. Much like some films are given heavy praise for breathtaking visuals, despite obtuse or uninspired story & dialogue.

    Our different and more critical perspective plays heavily into why games like Bastion are critically acclaimed, but widely unnoticed.

  2. Following the same logic, shouldn’t peer reviews then matter more to gamers. they are most likely in tune with everything they have experienced (individually with a game, and collectively), and will help them make a better, more informed decision. Sure their perspective isn’t as “enlightened” who has played a lot more games in the same genre (and related genres, and other games that provide perspective), but (s)he isn’t there for that perspective, he wants to know how that game stacks up to his or her own expectations.


  3. Peer reviews (assuming some connection between reviewer and the person reading) are almost always more valuable than the reviews of a pro when you’re making a buying decision. When Ebert says a movie sucks, and your friend who knows you says “You’d love this movie,” who are you going to listen to? Same with books, restaurants, music and games.

    A peer review from “Tom’s Hot Gamez Reviews” is going to be a total crap shoot. Maybe Tom only likes games with gerbils in them. But if you ‘know’ the peer reviewer enough to know a little about his likes and dislikes, then yeah, I think that’s a lot more valuable buy/don’t buy indicator than a pro review.

    Pro reviews can be more valuable from a ‘student of the art form’ point of view though, assuming the reviewer is good at what he does. But mostly, I think people just use pro reviews to validate their own opinions.

    In the old days of printed magazines I think people got to ‘know’ pro reviewers in this way, too. “Oh, John Doe never likes JRPGs so when he says a JRPG stinks I’m going to take it with a grain of salt.” Or even “John Doe is a tough critic…he doesn’t like many games.” vs “Jim Blow loves everything…I’m not sure his positive review means much.” I’m not sure people make the same connections with web-based reviews. I guess if you read a specific site regularly you might. I generally use Google to find reviews and read random authors on random sites.

Comments are closed.