John McCarroll
November Editorial: The How and Why of My Reviews
John goes in-depth on his reviewing style.
11.14.11 - 11:57 AM

I've been reviewing games for almost a decade now, and I find that my ideas about games have changed.  Not about the types of games I like or don't, but instead my views about flaws in games have changed.  You see, a couple of years ago, I came to an epiphany about games and how I review them: It's OK to love a game that's not perfect.  There's no shame in it.

Why write now about something I realized years ago?  Because I received several emails after my review of the now-released Persona 2: Innocent Sin.  People claimed that I hadn't played the game, that I had missed what made it great by mentioning the elements that I felt were subpar or hadn't aged well.  The fact of the matter is, I actually enjoyed my time with Innocent Sin quite a bit – but I couldn't judge it as an objectively good RPG.  I enjoyed Innocent Sin because I was able to connect with the characters and with the goofy dialogue, with the bad jokes and everything that came along with it.

I couldn't connect with the encounter rate, slow battle system, or bad character animations.  That doesn't mean, however, that I hate Innocent Sin by any stretch of the imagination.  Innocent Sin is an important part of history for one of my favorite game series and one that shows me just how far ahead of the curve Atlus was when they first released the title.  I still had to look at the title with at least a somewhat-objective eye – and it fails at a lot of things.  Because it objectively fails, though, doesn't mean it can't be fun.  I think that's where game reviews inherently fail from many outlets: they don't identify the market for whom a game will be fun, the market who will love them.

Some of my absolutely favorite games have absolutely abysmal MetaCritic stores.  Miami Law pulls a 56 and was given a mere 66 here... by me.  I found Miami Law to be absolutely charming, an interesting intersection of the worlds of adventure and action, and just a great look at what a smaller team who knows exactly what they want to do can pull off.  The thing that I know, however, is that Miami Law is really not a very good game, objectively.  I can't imagine that the great majority of the people who are reading this editorial would get much out of Miami Law.  It might be labeled obtuse or linear or generic, and all of those labels would be correct.

I also greatly dislike many games that are considered to be paragons of gaming.  For as much joy as I got out of Miami Law, I got almost none out of top-tier titles like Resident Evil 4 and Metal Gear Solid.  The issue here is that the amount of fun or joy or any other number of other emotions that we gain from our time has nothing to do with how objectively good a game is – if there even is such a thing.

There comes the main dilemma for a reviewer: who exactly am I reviewing for?  Am I reviewing purely for myself?  I think that most writers who are first starting their careers do this - I know that I certainly did.  I wanted the world to know exactly how I felt about certain games and didn't care who my audience was.  Am I writing purely from an objective standpoint?  I've written these reviews, too, where, looking back, my personal feelings for a game were greater or less than what I wrote or scored.  I ignored flaws and amplified positives for games that were outside of my comfort zone and toned down positives and emphasized flaws for games that fell well inside of my genres of choice.  There are certainly games that are well-designed that I didn't like, and I think that's where these objective tendencies come from. But how well designed a game isn't a 1:1 ratio for how much enjoyment it gives.  I look back at some of the reviews I've written in years gone by, and I find myself thinking how differently I'd score them today, or even how I'd write about elements I'd never touched.  Games that I loved in the moment no longer hold the same appeal, and games that I'd perhaps given scorn to stood the test of time better than I would have expected.

Where I stand now, I find, is my perfect medium.  I feel as if I'm able to stand back, look at a game as objectively as I can, and realize the market for whom it will be most - or least - entertaining, but still provide an accurate view for how I feel about the game.  That doesn't change the fact that people are going to disagree with me, but as well they should: they're not me.  I never want anyone to feel that a review is some infallible opinion of a game - that because I love a game you despise or that I hate your favorite title that you are somehow wrong.  My reviews are my experience with a game tied with the thoughts on who I think it might fit, and how it will be handled by my general audience - the catch-all RPG fan.  I want to be able to best tell you the games that you might love and the games that you might not, but I also want you to take what I've said and make your own decisions - don't take my words for law.

I'm not you.  I'm not any of the other reviewers on this website.  I can't tell you how you should feel, and I can't tell them how to review their games.  One thing should be clear, though: at the end of the day, how you feel about a game and how we review a game are ultimately subjective: they're just opinions.  Love your favorite games.  No one can take away from you the experiences that you have gained from these titles.  For as much love as I've squeezed out of blockbuster titles, the smiles that I've gotten from titles like Miami Law or DarkStar One or Phantasy Star III are just as important.  I logically know that they're not the most "well-designed" games ever released - each has their flaws that stand out to my "objective eye" - but I still love them for the love that I've gained from them.  In the end, that's all that matters, and nothing can change that.


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