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The Star-Maker Machinery

Written By mista sense on Monday, March 24, 2008 | 9:42 AM

So over the weekend, Aberrant Gamer elaborated on just how powerful fanboyism is in the game industry -- how none of us can escape it, and how we can't help it being a factor in review scores, either. I used Smash Bros. as an example, whose value lies entirely in the fan response to the characters, and by itself as a game is nothing to call home about.

We can't divest ourselves of this emotional response to iconography, or of our carefully-cultivated cultural positions. And in Smash Bros., that's more than half the strength of the game. My point was that a game like that makes it impossible to separate personal bias from the more technical aspects of a game -- and so, it can't be reviewed in the traditional fashion. Some commenters said there were better examples to use than Smash Bros. -- Twilight Princess, maybe even Galaxy, and they're probably right, in retrospect.

Ultimately my point was that, given that nobody can extricate themselves from a level of completely illogical and arbitrary emotional response to franchise titles, review scores should be disposed of -- in the age of Metacritic, why should reviewers' emotional biases drive a game company's stock prices, and why should developers be encouraged to manipulate that any further than they already do? Lots of people missed my point, though, and were just pissed because they thought I said Smash Bros. is a bad game. Though, I suppose that kind of response only reinforces my point, so I should thank them.

I courted fanboy ire, of course, by stating that Brawl might be a 7 game (or a 3-star game, or whatever) without the Nintendo characters in it. "But that's the whole point," some commenters said. If that's the case, the audience is really telling me that a review weighted largest on my personal emotional feeling for a franchise is okay? Is that for Nintendo, or for everyone?

I notice that when I'm reviewing, I tend to have a critical opinion of a game separate from my personal opinion. I could theoretically give a low score or a poor review to a game and still enjoy it. Similarly, if pressed, I'd review, say, Half Life 2 higher than most games I've ever written about. It's a fantastic game. I don't enjoy it much, though; that's just me.

When it comes down to it, though, my critical opinion is still "I like" versus "I don't like." You'd think that even things like graphics and user interface were cut-and-dried yes-and-nos, but while Brawl's UI and controls bother me, they don't bother other people. I thought Devil May 4's graphics were breathtaking; one of my friends was less impressed. I'm more willing to overlook technical gaffes in games where I'm more pleased about other elements of it; I think people were more technically forgiving with BioShock just because they were so on board with what it stood for and what it was trying to do for games, as another example.

So given that even for "black and white" technical issues there is subjectivity, maybe I can feel free to synthesize my personal enjoyment together with my wider-lens criticism. Reviews editors, we writers are going to need a higher word count; sorry!

Anyway, I wouldn't mind a world where the value of reviews lies in how they communicate, not in how they evaluate.

During the Smash Bros.-and-Fanboyism discussion I've been kicking around here at SVGL all week, I asked you guys what you'd expect from me when it's my turn to have the fandom-colored-glasses on. I was referring to MGS4, but I also realized that the Crisis Core release date has just rushed up on me with a flurry of black and melodramatic angel feathers. I pre-ordered it like, ages ago.

I guess I am a Square-Enix fangirl. I recognize the problems with the formula. I realize that I am exploited through the very conventions of repetition that I'm always condemning as cheap and manipulative. But man, I'm one of those people for whom FFVII injected new life into the gaming experience, even if it seems just a bit trite in retrospect. I'm one of those people who thinks cruel detractors to the Final Fantasy series are all people who cried when Aeris died and now feel stupid about it. Either that, or they don't like any JRPGs and are attacking the poster child.

Anyway, this is a case where I have an emotional, favorable response to the subject matter and admit I've lost my objectivity on it -- I'll still buy Final Fantasy games, particularly FF7-universe stuff, no matter what people say about it. I make fun of FF7 fandom all the time; I'm making fun of myself. Or maybe that vague, nagging little voice in my peripheral urging me to be more skeptical and more responsible is all that's left of my "objectivity.". Or maybe everyone else's anti-FF negativity has just made me self-conscious. I don't know. I give up! Really, I do!

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