Not every game, movie, or any other piece of entertainment can be universally agreed upon. Sometimes, a piece of entertainment comes out and the reviews for it are all over the place. Usually, that disconnect happens between the critics and public. Critics go one way, and the public goes the other, and things usually get messy from there. There are plenty of examples of this happening throughout entertainment, and certainly throughout the history of video games, but two recent game releases just may be the most polarizing yet.
The Last of Us Part Two was a universally anticipated sequel to a beloved game by what many considered a great developer. All of that changed, however, when a massive dump of leaks happened months before the game’s release. Many of the people who read the leaks were disappointed with the game for a variety of reasons. Over the course of those few months between the leaks and the release, hatred of the game began to bubble up for the game and the direction Naughty Dog was taking it. Despite this, the game received universal praise by the critics, with many of them giving the game a perfect score. These reviews made people even more upset, and they are once again portraying their distrust of game critics. When the game released a week after the critic reviews, the game was review bombed on Metacritic by the public.
On the other end of the spectrum is Spongebob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom - Rehydrated. While the controversy surrounding this game isn’t as strong as The Last of Us, its disconnect between the critics and the public mixed with the disconnect of Naughty Dog’s game is starting to put this game into a bigger spotlight. The critics found the game to be just okay, while the public found it to be a more enjoyable experience. The gap between the critics and the public isn’t as large here, but the public is using that gap as another way to form more of a distrust of game critics.
Before I get any farther into this topic, I should describe myself so you can have a sense of who is writing this. I have been doing reviews, features, and other forms of writing for close to four years. While I have received a few review copies, I have not made a single dollar off of any of my content, and I do not freelance. I am also not that popular at all, so I wouldn’t really consider myself an outlet, though whether or not popularity is a factor into being considered an outlet is up to you. Am I considered a critic, or part of the public? That is up to you.
I should also briefly go over my “stance” on these two games for context. For me, I do not have much interest in playing The Last of Us Part 2. This feeling began in 2018 when I first watched its showing at E3 2018 and felt doubt about the game because of how well the first game ended. My lack of interest and even a bit of hatred intensified with the leaks, as for I felt the story was weak and having no sequel would be better than this. As for Spongebob, my feelings are more neutral. I didn’t really pay this game much mind until shortly before its release. I don’t have any nostalgia for the game, but I do have lots of nostalgia for the show, and it’s on that reason alone why I have any interest in the game.
So, the ultimate question. Who is right? Who is wrong? That answer is up to you, but I think neither are absolutely right or wrong. Both groups are right in certain areas and wrong in others, but what those areas are is up to you. The main issue at hand, though, is that I think people have lost what a review is meant to be.
Can I speak for every person part of the “public” or for every critic? No, but I can at least speak for myself. One big issue I’ve noticed in regards to a review score is what people think it means. Some people think giving a game a perfect score is wrong because there is no such thing as a perfect game. This is partially true. There is no such thing as a perfect game, as for perfection is ultimately subjective. Sure, there are things that can be objectively great about a game such as how well it runs, but how could there be such thing as a perfect story or perfect gameplay when everyone’s tastes are different? Since there is no such thing as an objectively perfect game, that means a review score shouldn’t be seen as an objective statement about the game. Like I said, I can’t speak for other critics, but I believe a review should be considered as a recommendation (or a condemnation). I have given perfect scores to a few games, and those perfect scores should be considered as the highest possible recommendation I could give, not as me saying those games are objectively perfect. Reviews should be considered a recommendation over an objective statement about the quality of a game, because that is what a review is.
IGN states that their reviews are “the inherently subjective perspective of an individual critic.” This means two things. The first is that a review is subjective, and the second is that the review isn’t reflective of the entire outlet. I think a lot of people think that IGN giving a game a certain score means the entire outlet believes in that score, but it doesn’t. While IGN does present that score, it doesn’t mean everyone who works at IGN is in complete agreement with score and every point made about the game. Instead, look at the person who wrote the review. This also leads to aggregate websites, who lump all the reviews into a single score. While it isn’t a useless number, it shouldn’t the number you consider. It should be more of a guide as you look through each review and see what each critic liked or disliked.
Another issue that comes up with reviews are the circumstances that sometimes come up, though whether or not you see this as an issue is up to you. Take a Telltale game for example. They are known for their stories, not for their gameplay. Do you then put more weight and focus on the story over gameplay, or do you weigh everything evenly. Then there are other issues too. If you need a review of a game that is part of a long-running franchise, do you get a person who doesn’t have any experience with that franchise, or someone with a lot of experience with that franchise? There are a bunch of scenarios you can run with a review, and they could all have wildly different results.
With all of that said, do I think critics are immune to criticism because it is ultimately their opinion? Absolutely not. People have different opinions, and I think it is more than okay to disagree with people. If anything, a constructive disagreement could lead to more refined and more balanced opinions. With that said, however, I think both critics and the public have flaws, and it’s these flaws where the disconnect between the two happen.
So, what are the issues I have with critics? I believe many critics of any medium are beholden to either clicks or to fulfill an agenda (often a political one). Actually, a lot of the more polarizing clashes between the public and the critics are over politics (or lack thereof), or at the very least is a part of it. Some critics believe their review is more important than the public’s, some critics are really bad at games and criticize the game instead of themselves, some critics lack consistency, some critics don’t take criticism well, some tend to be ass-kissers to certain developers or companies, and other things. It’s ultimately up to the individual critic, but these issues can be seen time and time again.
What about the public? Just like the critics, they can hyper-focus on one or two aspects of a game instead of the whole picture. The vocal minority often also has a political agenda that is opposite of the critics, and their criticisms of a polarizing game usually ends up with a review bomb. The public also usually ends up attaching themselves to a critic’s review if they go against the grain, and that is the only review they take seriously. They too can lack consistency, be ass-kissers, and not take criticism well. Again, it’s up to the individual, but these themes are recurring.
What about The Last of Us and Spongebob? Well, I believe some of the critics are being easy on The Last of Us because they are ass-kissers for Naughty Dog as well as agreeing with the game’s politics. As a result, the public, who largely disagrees with the game’s politics or direction, are review bombing the game on Metacritic. As for Spongebob, the disconnect is a bit different. Many critics are being a bit harsh on the game for being dated, but they don’t realize why. The public want this game as a nostalgia trip, dated gameplay and all, which is why the public is liking this game more than the critics. The public is then taking this disconnect and using it as a comparison to The Last of Us.
I would love to sit here and tell how lumping people into these two groups is problematic and how I am impartial to them, but I can’t. To tell you the truth, I lean more towards the public than the critics on both games. I think some critics are beholden to clicks and politics more than a review’s integrity, and I think they fail to see who the audience is for these polarizing games. I think the public can have a mob mentality, and review bombing is unproductive, but I believe it is easier to see who are ones giving each game their fair due versus the ones who aren’t.
So, is there a solution? I can’t say any of mine will work, but I thought of a few worth trying. The first is that aggregate sites should get rid of their aggregated score, and instead just be a hub for reviews. The second is that large outlets should have multiple people review the same game, and each make a mini review without aggregating their scores. As for what the reader can do, I would recommend finding one or a few people you trust and follow them. Personally, I trust Angry Centaur Gaming on Youtube, as for I am fond of his review structure and his opinion on games, but that’s just me. I know some of my suggestions range from impractical to improbable, but these are the things I would try in my perfect world.
At the end of the day, though, all of this is my opinion. I think the disconnect is different from game-to-game, and I think whoever is “more right” can change. I want to end this blog by leaving it open to you though. I’m sure there are other factors and more nuance to the situation that I didn’t go over, and I want to hear from you. What are your thoughts about this? Who do you side with, or do you think painting this issue as two-sided isn’t fair? Tell me how I’m right or wrong, or anything in between. I would love to hear from you about this topic. And with all of that said, thank you for reading.