Like I said last week, Grand Theft Auto IV is a deeply flawed game. And yet it also landed top marks from critics. How did this happen? How did such a hodgepodge experience wind up being lauded as one of the supposedly best games of all time? Sure, it has great technology. But the graphical technology was undercut by the drab visuals and the more robust gameplay systems were undercut by the straitjacket mission design. Shouldn’t those sorts of shortcomings be reflected in the critical reception?
At the end of my retrospective on Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, I suggested that the generous review scores were the result of a lackluster game suddenly finding itself in tune with the national zeitgeist, and the tight review schedule preventing deep analysis. I’d like to circle back to that article and explore this problem in a little more depth.
When it comes to the problem of obviously flawed games being awarded near-perfect scores, I think the most incisive take is the one Campster gave way back in 2011:
As he says in his video:
So how did an open-world game with so much restraint on the player’s actions and an unresolved conflict between narrative and gameplay mechanics come to be the best-reviewed game of all time? Well, some might blame the fact that the game’s first showing to reviewers happened at one of those posh review events where journalists are invited to a fancy hotel and get to play the game in a controlled environment. Others might argue the gargantuan marketing budget with slick ads and a near omnipresence helped sell the idea that the game was one of the best games of all time. Still others might point to the more direct influence of money, especially in light of the rumors surrounding Gamespot and the firing of Jeff Gerstman over the Kane & Lynch review only a year earlier.
But if I’m being perfectly honest with myself, I think the game got the score it deserved given the metrics we as an audience have set for success. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Gamers love content and polish above all else. And Grand Theft Auto IV has both in spades.
The game is really slick, from its soundtrack selection and quality voice acting, to the high-fidelity rendering of an entire city. And honestly you can’t say that a videogame that features standup from two big-name comedians, 19 radio channels, minigames like bowling, pool, and darts, over 200 vehicles, and an entire open-world metropolis is light on content.
That’s a perfectly good explanation and I don’t feel any need to argue with it, but since we’re here let’s look a little deeper and see if we can’t find some other reasons why GTA IV perhaps scored so high.
Rockstar is clearly fond with the works of Michael Mann, Brian De Palma, Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. (Particularly the last one.) They don’t even make a secret of it. When you look at their influences and reference points you’ll end up with fairly predictable answers: Goodfellas, Heat, Casino, Miami Vice.
So it’s perhaps comically tragic that the filmmaker they most resemble is Michael Bay. Sure, their games focus on the Mann / Scorsese subject matter and cinematography, but when it comes to telling a story they have the same flaws as Mr. Bay:
- Wacky slapstick potty humor, which leads to…
- Tonal whiplash between self-serious scenes and wacky slapstick potty humor. The humor comes mostly from the…
- Grating side characters. The large cast of irrelevant characters results in…
- Tons of plot threads that go nowhere. This in turn leads to…
- Horrendous pacing that loses track of the main plot threads for large sections of the story, which isn’t helped by the…
- Inefficient, overly-verbose dialog, which is all the harder to sit through because of how often we end up with…
- Scenes that don’t need to be in the game / movie. The director had this idea for a scene they wanted to shoot and so they just shoved it in wherever it would fit. (For example: Was the motorcycle chase at all important to the story? Did it advance the plot or tell us anything about our charactersIn a well-told story, you’re ideally always doing both of these.? No. But the director wanted a motorcycle chase, so they put one in for the same reason Michael Bay puts chase scenes in his movies. I’m not saying chase scenes are bad, I’m saying a pointless chase scene that doesn’t advance the plot or tell us about the characters is bad.
As people are eager to remind me when I dump on Michael Bay: Michael Bay movies are immensely popular. Yes, I have noticed.
The thing is, there are lots of good movies that are also popular. There are fun, tightly paced, well-edited, clever movies with witty dialog that are equally popular. It’s not that you need bad pacing to make the story work, it’s that there are plenty of people who don’t care either way. So what we end up with is an incoherent story that gets by on sheer technical prowess and raw sensory stimulation, and lots of people will show up for that regardless of the quality of the rest of the product.
This is even more true for open-world videogames because the audience experience can vary so wildly. Someone like me will sit down and play for hours every day until they beat the game. Other people just spend a few hours with the game on the weekends and skip half the cutscenes because they just want to go through the scripted missions. Tonal and thematic problems are a lot harder to notice when you’re so disengaged from the narrative. Moreover, some people really don’t care or even notice. They’re just looking for a couple of hours of cheap sensory stimulation.
I should make it clear that I’m not looking down on these people. I’m the same way with fighting games. I don’t care if the gameplay is balanced or the controls are tight. I just put the game on the lowest difficulty and button-mash my way through the content. That probably seems childish and obnoxious to people who take these games seriously on a mechanical level. I’m not looking down on the fans of gasoline explosions, I’m just acknowledging they exist. The world isn’t neatly divided into snobs vs. slobs, and many of us can be picky about one kind of entertainment and completely undiscriminating with another. This becomes important to the topic of review scores, because…
Review Scores Are Speculation, Not Appraisal
I’ve gotten to know quite a few game journos over the years, and despite the low pay, unstable employers, frequent travel, and tight deadlines, the most common source of stress and aggravation is the dreaded “community backlash”.
Rate a game too low, and you’re a biased hater. Rate it too high, and you’re a shill for the publishers. The audience has already decided what the correct score is, and they believe it’s your job to parrot their opinion back at them, enshrining their preferences as the “correct” viewpoint by way of a definitive concrete score. It’s a terrible system that brings out the worst of the internet.
Sure, the backlash might only come from a small percentage of the audience. But when “the audience” is tens of millions of people, even a small percentage can ruin your day and make a mess of your site. If a game sells ten million copies and just 0.01% of those people show up to your website to hate on your review, that’s still 1,000 haters. That’s a lot of negativity.
Do critics adjust their scores up or down to anticipate what the public will think, even if doing so means overlooking glaring problems within the work itself? Probably. But to certain extent, isn’t that their job? I dunno. It depends on who you ask.
The problem here is that game reviews are not like movie reviews. Movie reviews exist firmly in the realm of artistic criticism, while game reviews are often viewed more in terms of being consumer advice. Sure, people use movie reviews to guide purchasing decisions and some people consume game reviews for the artistic critique, but in the gaming realm the demand for clear and quantifiable purchasing advice is much stronger.
Partly this is due to general toxic fanboy cultureNote that this is “fanboy culture” not “gamer culture”. I think it’s important to draw a clear line between the two. Not everyone who disagrees with a review is a toxic hater. Usually they’re just someone with a different perspective., but it’s also caused by the steep price of games in terms of money and hours. A bad movie sets me back two hours and $10. A bad game sets me back $60 and can eat a lot of hours of my free time before I finally overcome the problems or give up on it. On top of this, AAA games are spread out over multiple editions. Movie tickets are a straightforward purchase, but when I’m buying the game I need to know if this is a great game and worthy of the $100 price tag for the collector’s edition, or if it’s merely a good game and worth $60 for the standard edition, or if it’s seriously flawed and I need to wait for a sale. There’s a lot of money on the line here, and so a big chunk of the audience is less interested in the fine details more more interested in practical matters: Is it stable, does it play well, is it full of jank, and is it going to waste my time?
A huge portion of the audience just doesn’t care about story, pacing, themes, tone, and art style, and they just want to know if the product will function. So they see game reviews as information to guide their decision-making and predict if they will like something. Can you imagine Roger Ebert doing that?
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a horrible experience of unbearable length, briefly punctuated by three or four amusing moments. On the other hand it’s got fireball explosions and I know lots of people will pay to see those. The film didn’t break halfway through and require us to restart from the beginning. Most of it was in focus. The theater never caught fire. Five stars. ★★★★★
On one hand, I see the need for the consumer advice style reviews. This hobby is just too damn expensive and time-consuming to be reckless with our purchases. On the other hand, I think the “just the facts” style reviews do an incredible disservice to the medium, because it creates an environment where craft doesn’t matter. I’m a big believer in the idea that you don’t need five hours of cutscenes in your game, but if you do put those cutscenes in your game then you can’t claim the story “doesn’t matter”. If you jam a movie into a videogame, then I really do believe the quality of that movie should impact the final rating on the product.
So what is a reviewer supposed to do? Should they just accept that videogames don’t ever need to be more than a terrible movie with funLet’s just assume the gunplay is fun for the sake of argument. shooting galleries between the scenes? Or should they review a game based on how well it accomplishes what it sets out to do, even though this isn’t what the audience wants and would slam a lot of popular sound & fury flagship titles, which is a sure-fire way to generate a ton a hate mail and harassment?
There’s no good way to handle this. I think the messy system we have now is probably the least horrible of the available options.
I know I wouldn’t give Grand Theft Auto IV anything higher than a middling scoreAnd let’s not even get into the fact that scores are on some goofball curve where a “middling” score is 75 rather than 50., and I know exactly what kind of response I’d get out of the gaming public. If I had slapped this legendary best-seller with a score of (say) 52 back in 2008, then I’d still be getting hate mail today.
“He’s just a hater. He should go back to Animal Crossing.”
“Read his bullshit and tell me he wasn’t paid off by the Saints Row people.”
“This isn’t a review. It’s a plea for attention by an irrelevant nobody.”
“Look how old this guy is. No wonder he didn’t like the game. He probably didn’t even play it. At best he watched his kids play it.”
“Guy tries to make himself sound smart by dumping on the best game ever made. Fails.”
“Dude thinks he’s a movie critic. Spends all this time reviewing the STORY of a VIDEOGAME. It’s a GAME. Nobody cares about your precious story. Idiot.”
Most of those messages would have more profanity and less proofreading, but you get the idea.
Reviews Take Time
Even ignoring all of that, it’s not surprising how shallow initial reviews are. Even if you find you’re not enjoying a game, it takes time to drill down and figure out why. Aimless plots and thematic incoherence aren’t the kind of mistakes that leap out at you because they usually don’t have a singular visible origin. You might notice the jokes aren’t landing or that you’re not really emotionally invested as the story enters the climax, but it’s easy to chalk these sorts of things up to your own mood.
If you want to figure out why you smiled during Saints Row 2 and sat stone-faced through a similar class of humor in Grand Theft Auto, then you need to look back through the story and find out where the disconnect began. That’s really hard to do when you’re just given a few days to review a game this enormous. Heck, it’s hard to just finish a game this big in that timeframe, let alone complete the story, take in the side content, reflect, build a thesis, gather screenshots, and hammer out your thoughts in 2,000 words. In my reviews I have the freedom to play through a game multiple times, and I give the review weeks or even months of reflection. Mainstream game critics don’t have that luxury. Their review schedules don’t afford them time to pick apart issues like tonal inconsistency or internal dissonance.
I think this explains why the deeply flawed Grand Theft Auto IV got such high marks. In a strictly mechanical “consumer advice” style review, it’s the perfect game. Awesome graphics, lots of content, and great polishAside from the jank-ass PC port. There’s no way to excuse that getting a 90% no matter how you look at it.. Reviewers don’t get enough time to do a deep dive on the game in a holistic sense, and a huge part of the audience doesn’t want them to because they’re just looking for consumer advice and not artistic analysis. And even ignoring all that, low scores on popular games just earns you a bunch of stupid abuse from internet randos.
Thankfully, my site is mostly insulated from this sort of problem on account of me not handing out scores. When people send you hate mail, they’re usually arguing with the score, not the text. The kind of person who thinks it’s normal to mount personal attacks against critics with different opinions is not the kind of person who will hang around to read 2,000 (much less 120,000) words to find out if they need to send you hate mailAlthough I do get a tiny bit now and again..
In any case, I have no idea what sort of score I’d assign to something as monumentally popular and culturally important as Grand Theft Auto IV, but I know it wouldn’t be a 98. This game doesn’t leverage its best assets (the open world) and instead the overwhelming focus is placed on a story that fails more often than it succeeds.
That’s it for the franchise-level retrospective. Next week we’re going to begin picking at Grand Theft Auto V.
 In a well-told story, you’re ideally always doing both of these.
 Note that this is “fanboy culture” not “gamer culture”. I think it’s important to draw a clear line between the two. Not everyone who disagrees with a review is a toxic hater. Usually they’re just someone with a different perspective.
 Let’s just assume the gunplay is fun for the sake of argument.
 And let’s not even get into the fact that scores are on some goofball curve where a “middling” score is 75 rather than 50.
 Aside from the jank-ass PC port. There’s no way to excuse that getting a 90% no matter how you look at it.
 Although I do get a tiny bit now and again.
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