Welcome to The Alexander Letters of Ludology (TALL), a weekly column with a stretch of a name dedicated to the study of play, community, digital literacy and good ol’ fashioned video games.
Over the summer, I had the remarkable pleasure of visiting an old friend who now lives in Tokyo. I had been in Japan for six weeks, completed nine college credits and hit almost every bucket list item I could afford. When I finally saw him, I was free as a bird. He, on the other hand, still had finals. This meant I spent several days locked alone in his lovely apartment with nothing but myself, his PS4 and lots of time.
Out of the small library he brought with him to Japan, the title that caught my attention most was “Nier: Automata”, the 2017 action-RPG cult hit from PlatinumGames. The game garnered a reputation for fast-paced action, wacky story beats and creative storytelling design.
For those of you unfamiliar with the title, the most intriguing aspect for me was the requirement to play the game several times in order to piece together the story. I don’t mean additional post credits scenes or new item descriptions. The game offers widely different experiences between each playthrough, changing gameplay and characters, adding and altering entire story arcs that weren’t in the first playthrough. In fact, the game has 26 endings, each a letter of the alphabet, with endings A-E weaving together the complete story. The game is nontraditional in its storytelling to say the least: its greatest asset for many fans.
But despite my devotion and freetime, I only managed to complete ending A, a fraction of the true game experience. Despite loving the title, I believe I’m objectively unqualified to review this game. So what does this have to do with video game reviews?
When Nier: Automata first was released, there were a series of reviewers that released their response after completing just this first section of the game. Arguably, they published an incomplete review, covering less than a quarter of the product. Fans were outraged, justifiably so. A movie critic stopping the film 30 minutes in and going to print seems ludicrous. So why did this happen?
Particularly for big titles, there’s fierce competition to have your review out as soon as possible. Your article releasing first means you get the first views and you start building momentum before your competitors. Even with ideal publisher embargoes and early access review copies, the pressure is on and time is short. For games like Nier with playtimes upwards of 40+ hours, the job is that much harder.
Which brings up an interesting point: how much playtime is enough to review a game?
This is a question that no other medium has had to face. Watching a movie once offers the viewer the complete experience, usually lasting several hours at most. You can begin your book review when you finished its story. Don’t get me wrong, many games, particularly those with clear linear story progression, make it obvious when you finished. But what about other genres?
Roguelikes, sandboxes, MMOs, multiplayer and party games all sport potentially limitless play times. How much time is enough to say something is bad? How much of the game depends on the people you’re playing with? Should the player base be taken into account when rating the game itself? If the reviewer hates the game, does that mean it deserves a bad review? What if a rare glitch ruins the reviewer’s playthrough, but is patched upon release? Such questions bring into mind various review scandals, specifically IGN’s reviews of “Prey” or “Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire.”
Some of these issues can be addressed when splitting a numerical rating into categories. Spare the designers and composers for a messy programming glitch, or praise the player base for making a mediocre game great. Or take Kotaku’s approach: remove the number rating entirely, and let the reviewer express these nuances in their article. In either case, understanding the journalist as an individual, with a set of preferences just like everyone else, helps readers identify the voices and critics they trust, rather than blindly following numbers promoted by faceless businesses.
At the end of the day, journalism comes with obstacles, from capitalistic corruption to objectivity, and the entertainment business is no different. So think twice the next time you see a three star rating, or a 7 out of 10. Get to know the critics you listen to and think about how much weight their opinion holds. If you don’t, you might miss out on the next cult classic.
Alexander Schmidt is a fourth-year student majoring in English with a minor in communications studies. ✉ AS849426@wcupa.edu.