Any time that a highly anticipated release is met with less than stellar reviews across the board, a familiar cycle is unleashed into the gaming community. First, people that were looking forward to the release start to discredit any negative reviews in an act of blind fandom. Then a tired and dull conversation about how reviews are subjective rather than objective starts to form. This cycle sadly won’t stop anytime soon but this argument doesn’t usually touch on the unique playing habits between reviewers and consumers. Both audiences play games differently but that’s not inherently a bad thing.
The overall consumption habits of reviewers differ the most regular consumers. Statistically, most people only purchase a few titles every year and only own around 10 games in total. That’s a far cry from a dedicated reviewer, who goes through dozens if not over a hundred titles in the span of 12 months. If you’re playing games that often, you’re likely not going to be wowed as much by something you’ve seen done dozens of times before. However, if playing Marvel’s Spider-Man is the first time you’ve experienced a massive open world in a couple years, you’re far more likely to be wowed. Expectations are inherently different from your average consumer and reviewer.
Another key difference can come in the simple act of completing a game. As already documented, most people that buy games don’t actually complete them. So, if a game drags on or stops being fun, they simply cut their losses and move on. Reviewers don’t have that luxury especially during frustrating parts that halt the player’s progress.
Getting stuck at a puzzle for most people simply means using a guide or video to get past it in seconds. Meanwhile, a reviewer has to battle the definition of insanity as they attempt to figure out a solution on their own while coming up with a series of similar solutions. Often times these moments are overcome in a few minutes, but all reviewers hit a brick wall and get completely lost from time to time and can’t turn to the internet for help.
Finishing games in a limited time span
One of the biggest differences between how a reviewer plays a title and how a regular player consumes it is that critics have a limited time to complete a game. Now more than ever before, it’s rare that reviewers have weeks to get through a game. Instead, they’re likely having to put in long play sessions that can take up the majority of a day. This might be common practice for some hardcore players that spend their weekends immersed in gaming, but most players aren’t completing a 20 or so hour experience in a few days so they can hit a deadline. Even the most die-hard fans aren’t attempting to finish Persona 5 in four days.
All of the stresses of reviewing can also cause what many would consider small flaws into a huge detriment when it comes to enjoying your time with a game. For example, the repetitive loop in Forza Horizon 3 dragged on and on as the game went on when the campaign was crunched together.
This repetitive loop is likely not to bother someone that only plays the game in 40-minute intervals whenever they feel like racing since they’re getting what they want out of it and taking regular breaks away from the game. However, when you’re more than 30 hours into the game in a single weekend and don’t have the ability to step away for a sizable break, it can be downright maddening.
This isn’t an issue, though
These changes can alter how certain types of people look at a game but it’s just one more fold into how video games are different for everyone who plays them. And that’s not an issue. It similar to how two reviewers may look at the same thing differently or how two consumers may not have the same experience. It’s just an inherent quirk of a medium. After all, everyone that watches a film will have the same exact experience delivered to them, but something like a game breaking bug can ruin an entire experience for someone even if it occurs rarely.
Since nobody will ever have the exact same playthrough as another person, we just have accept the fact that not everyone’s experience will be the same. Of course, there’s also the standard degree of subjectivity that goes into all criticism on top of this, so it’s no shock that sometimes critics, and players, can disagree with one another massively.
Plus, the current climate of games coverage doesn’t end with a review. Since many games get updated post-launch and more titles operate as a service, we’re seeing more features and analysis come afterwards. These reviews aren’t always the final appraisal of a title anymore, but they’re still a valuable tool for consumers to use on day one.
As long as players stay invested in brands and have a rooting interest for something they’re anticipating to be good, we’ll never truly get over complaints about reviews that don’t align with expectations. However, we can all acknowledge that individual playthroughs will inevitably vary and that there are certain limitations in place that arise from reviewing a game before it’s actually out. Maybe then, we can start to have more nuanced discussions about criticism rather than beating the same drum about how reviews are inherently subjective and that dismissing someone merely because you disagree with them is childish.