"Bloodborne may be off limits to all but a tiny fraction even of people that play a lot of video games, but we as gaming journalists just don’t seem to care. It makes me wonder: since when have we stopped giving a damn about 'everyone?'"
Forbes contributor Dave Thier doesn't seem very happy with his peers on the subject of Bloodborne. The above quote comes from a recent piece he wrote about how the game's underlying difficulty and inaccessibility stands in direct opposition to the nearly universal praise it's received from game critics worldwide. His tone might have been polite, but the message bordered on condemnation: Apparently, in our rush to fawn over Bloodborne, we neglected to keep in mind the people who just might not like it.
While I take issue with Thier's "echo chamber" comment—I wrote my review while intentionally avoiding others in my week of Bloodborne sequestration—it's plain to see what he's getting at. If an uninformed consumer takes all of those 9s and 10s at face value—and without reading the text supporting these high scores—it's entirely possible for them to feel misled if Bloodborne isn't their thing. Now, I don't think Thier is calling for more "objectivity" in reviews; if anything, he feels that Bloodborne's critical consensus suffers from a lack of perspective. He states, "When Bloodborne review copies arrived, most outlets trotted out their 'Souls' expert to do the review, but in doing so they’ve locked out the less-informed opinions that could actually end up being more valuable to more people."
In the Court of Dave Thier, we at USgamer are guilty as charged: Our editorial direction ensures that, in most cases, review assignments are based on who has the most experience and/or interest in that particular game, genre, or series. If you've been reading the site for a while, you should know who we are by now, but even if you haven't, we always do our best to describe the experience as best we can to let you know where we're coming from. And sometimes, we offer a second opinion within our reviews for more of an outsider's perspective—I'm honestly looking forward to seeing what Mike Williams writes about Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin, since he's not quite as steeped in the ways of FromSoftware RPGs.
When I write reviews, I write from my perspective and my perspective alone, though I fully recognize everyone doesn't share my tastes—a fact I'm basically reminded of every waking second of my life. Still, when I review something that requires an extraordinary amount of time, patience, or planning, I try to state this fact as early as possible; basically, "This is the kind of person you have to be to to enjoy this game, and I am, so if you're on board, here are the reasons you'll like it." That's about as much of a disclaimer as I can give, and, contrary to popular opinion, it's not a matter of elitism. When I reviewed the original Dark Souls at 1UP, I had a co-worker tell me, "I don't have much time to play games, so when I do, I want to win." Ultimately, video games should be fun, but if the means of achieving this goal aren't realistic for your particular lifestyle, that's nothing to be ashamed of.
And that's what makes game reviews such a complex beast: There's just so many perspectives out there, it's impossible to take all of them into account. I assume some sites set out to write these one-size-fits-all reviews, but really, the idea of the "universal gamer" is a complete fallacy. Long ago, Game Informer shot themselves in the foot with an attempt to address this nebulous entity known only as "Gamer" with their review of Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door—which still stands as the perfect example of why this goal isn't very realistic. This 2004 GameCube release netted a 6.5 out of 10 from the magazine, simply because reviewers Jeremy Zoss and Lisa Mason felt it was too "kiddie" for GI's audience. Needless to say, the responding echoes of rage can still be heard on the Internet to this very day.
In an e-mail to disgruntled subscribers (subsequently posted to all corners of the web), Zoss tries to justify the magazine's decision, which underlines my issue with this take on reviews: "Yes, we know that many people out there will love [Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door]. We also know that it is a well-made game. However, it also WILL NOT appeal to many people - I would safely say that more people will dislike it than like it. Why? Like we said in the review, it's a very kiddie game - it's [sic] target audience is clearly young gamers - I would say 10 and under. For that reason, we had to score it low. Remember, we aren't scoring games strictly on our personal opinions, we're also scoring them based on how much we think THE GAMING PUBLIC will like them. We've all played games that we personally disliked and scored them well because we've known that most people will like them, and we've also scored games low that we love, because most people won't enjoy them."
To be fair, I'm not sure if Game Informer's editorial direction has shifted away from this approach in the passing decade, and it's very possible that Zoss and Mason's perspectives could have changed, too. Still, I feel GI's approach to this issue comes close to Thier's ideal: GI's editors published their review in the best interests of the readers, and not just as a platform for personal opinions. Personally, when I read a video game review, I want nothing but personal opinions, and the same goes for other types of media. I'm a huge fan of Roger Ebert, and, as I read his work over the years (and dived into the archives), I grew to know him best through our many "agree to disagree" moments. One of his most infamous pieces took the form of a one-star review for David Lynch's Blue Velvet; in it, he attempts to justify his low score by explaining just how repulsed he was by the exploitive scenes featuring Isabella Rossellini's character. (And yet, Ebert wasn't immediately declared an "SJW" and bullied out of the industry by an angry mob—funny, that.)
I don't think Blue Velvet is an amazing film, but I feel it deserves much higher praise than Ebert's one-star analysis. Still, his review makes for an interesting read, and I would have lost a lot of respect for him if he came out and said, "This film sickened me, but I bumped my final score up to two-and-a-half stars because I figure some of you out there will probably like it." Obviously, Ebert's case is a bit different; people had the chance to know him over the passing decades, and we game journalists aren't really given the opportunity to become institutions—most likely, we'll write for a solid five years or so before the industry bucks us off and we ascend to PR heaven.
Most importantly, just as all movies (like Blue Velvet) "aren't for everyone," the same can be said of games. Assassin's Creed bores the tears out of me, but I'm happy our own Mike Williams really likes the series; and Kat may be in a Madden league, but I wouldn't know the first thing to do if you shoved a copy of that game under my nose. While I'd be happy to offer a second opinion, making me the main reviewer of games like these would do a disservice to our readers, because I'm definitely not the target audience. In the passing years, games have moved far beyond pieces of content to be analyzed like appliances in Consumer Reports, and the rise of indies has made it so wonderfully unique creations can find a small audience to make them financially viable—not everyone wants to date pigeons, after all.
Regardless of the amount of hand-wringing we do, video game reviews will forever be imperfect analyses filtered through the unique life experiences of the writer in question. Our obligation, of course, lies in explaining these circumstances, and how they led us to our final evaluation. If you're in the market for contrary opinions, this is the Internet, so a cursory search will bring you a bounty of them; but asking us to warp our writing to conform to the demands of the "public" is misguided, and frankly, impossible. There's just no way for us to determine a common denominator among the thousands of people who read USgamer daily, and any attempts to discover such a mythical unicorn would be absolutely fruitless. The best we can do is try to justify our criticism as best we can, and we hope you stick with us as our great journey into the world of published opinions continues.