As long as you keep your finger on the pulse of the gaming industry, it should be fairly obvious what the meat and potatoes of this article is going to be about. Gaming critic and controversy lightning rod Jim Sterling recently posted his review of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and his score of 7/10 – a rating of ‘good’ going by the definition in his personal review policy – garnered a, shall we say, mixed response from some fans of the long running Nintendo franchise.
Despite posting a review full of well reasoned critiques, objective statements regarding the build of the game, and subjective opinions pertaining to game design choices and how they affected his enjoyment of said game – both positive and negative – he was lambasted by some of the more fanatical amongst the hardcore Nintendo fan-base for daring to give their beloved new Zelda game anything less than a stellar grade. The comments section beneath his review was a veritable cornucopia of terrifying idiocy, frantically typed by furious, anonymous, keyboard vigilantes so unprepared to deal with the idea that somebody on the Internet didn’t like something quite as much as they did that they thought it was reasonable to say things like this in response:
While few of the comments went quite as far as to recommend that Sterling commit suicide by drinking the things under the kitchen sink, plenty were obviously, vocally hostile and personally insulting towards the critic, and there were others that were passively aggressive towards him, suggesting that while his review wasn’t worth getting angry about, he had a bias against Nintendo, and that must be the explanation for the earth shattering 7/10 he bestowed upon everyone’s new favourite game of all time. Some conspiracy theorists even suggested that the review score was the result of backhanded payments from Sony – those sneaky bastards.
There’s a problem solving technique known as Occam’s Razor that’s been kicking around for centuries, originally coined by and therefore named after a Franciscan monk named William of Ockham – “Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem,” it says. For those who skipped Latin class, or couldn’t be arsed to Wikipedia it like I did, the phrase is roughly translated to mean that whenever you’re faced with a problem with multiple potential solutions, the one that consists of the least number of assumptions is generally the one you should go for – i.e. the simplest solution is the one most logical to choose.
Now, the simplest solution isn’t always the one that holds true. Sometimes weird things go on behind the scenes and sometimes a story comes out of the woodwork that will surprise or even shock you. But more often than not, the less mental gymnastics you have to do to explain something, the more realistic your proposed solution becomes. It’s possible, say, that the nefarious Sony sent money to Jim Sterling in order to make sure that he gave Breath of the Wild a meagre, a devastating 7/10 in order to hobble the ever-important Metacritic score of the Nintendo Switch’s one and only must-have game by a soul-crushing one point.
Of course, it’s possible, but that solution requires us to assume that a) Sony is so worried about the reception to the new Zelda game that they’re willing to bribe critics but they’re not worried enough to bribe them to review it badly, and b) that for some reason they concluded that they only needed to bribe one critic and not bother with the hundreds of others, including the gargantuan and far more influential media outlets like IGN and Gamespot that were showering the game with praise like piss at one of Donald Trump’s Russian hotel parties*.
It’s equally possible – and that is to say, barely possible at all – that Jim Sterling simply has a vendetta against either Nintendo or their elf-eared mascot, and that explains the awful 7/10 review he gave to Breath of the Wild, which he qualified as good and in which he said lots of nice things about the game while concluding that he just didn’t like it as much as some other people did. As far as vendettas go, it’s not exactly blowing up the houses of parliament, is it?
Arguments like this are, if anything, more insidious than assuming bribery, or flinging shit around in comments sections. Bribery conspiracy theories are actually pretty funny, and watching people lose all sense of pride and revert to their more neanderthal-like tendencies in article comments is always good for a chuckle. Implying bias is a more reasonable, and therefore more worrying argument since people might actually believe it. Perhaps the review was the product of bias, but suggesting that without doing your research is a no-no. History tells us that Jim Sterling has covered Nintendo both positively and negatively over the years, which most sensible people would tell you is what a critic and commentator should do.
Fawning over everything that Nintendo does is bias. Kicking off in the comments of a review because it didn’t get the score you wanted is a reaction due to bias. Liking some things a company does and not others isn’t bias. And to suggest as much, or that there’d been bribery involved, without a scrap of evidence would be tantamount to libel were it said by anybody that actually matters.
Without being inside the brain of another critic, it’s impossible to say exactly what he was thinking when he penned his review for Breath of the Wild, but if we follow the old logic that the most reasonable solution is the one most likely to be true, then it stands to reason that he reviewed it as a 7/10 – again, a ‘good’ game by his personal review policy – because he thought it was a good game, and not because of money being passed to him in brown paper envelopes by Shuhei Yoshida, or as part of an elaborate plan to bring about the downfall of Nintendo by reviewing their game slightly lower than everyone else.
The fact is, Jim Sterling, whether you like his routine or not, is perfectly entitled to like a video game as much or as little as he likes, and it goes without saying that he should probably be able to posit his thoughts on that video game without his name being dragged through the mud, and without his livelihood being attacked by spineless curs that are so phenomenally, humiliatingly insecure in their own opinions that they have to lash out at anybody that deigns to feel differently to them. 30% differently to them at that, for Christ’s sake.
Yes, they attacked his livelihood, too. It’s not just morons in the comments section making death threats and posting absurd accusations of backstage skullduggery to explain away a review score that makes them weep salty, hilarious, Navi-shaped tears, but people attacking both his Twitter and his personal website in the forms of attempted hacks and DDOS attacks as well. A DDOS attack, for those unaware of the term, is when people overload a website with traffic in order to crash it and thus prevent other people from accessing it until the problem is solved.
In this instance, it’s being so frightfully upset by something that somebody else said, that not only do you not want to be able to read it, but you want to make sure that nobody else can either. It’s a pathetic, childish, schoolyard tantrum, all fingers in the ears and going “Nar nar na nar nar,” dragged kicking and screaming into the Internet era by cringe-worthy, precious Nintendo fanboys unable to deal with the harsh reality that not everybody is going to like exactly the same things as them for their entire, entitled lives.
I think we can all agree, it’s been a shitshow, people.
The outrage directed at Jim Sterling for his thoughts on Breath of the Wild has been nothing short of ludicrous, especially considering his review of the game wasn’t particularly harsh or mean spirited, and the rating attributed to it meant that he considers the game good by his own personal metric. But even if the review had been a 0/10, and all he did was bitch and moan about every single facet of the game for 5,000 words, the response to his critique wouldn’t have been any more logical or acceptable.
I was talking to our features editor Mike about Persona 4 Golden a while ago. It’s one of my favourite games. He started playing it, and while he said he could see the appeal of the game it turns out it just wasn’t really for him. So I got a flight to Canada, tracked down his abode using Google Maps, knocked on his door, and then punched his fucking lights out when he answered it. That’ll teach him for not liking something as much as I like it, the vile prick.
Of course, that didn’t really happen. First off, he looks bigger than me. And second, it didn’t happen because the notion that somebody might harbour a set of opinions about things that are different to mine isn’t so utterly mind-boggling to me that I feel the need to lash out the second I hear them. It’s quite an amazing philosophy, actually, when you think about it. You hear somebody say something negative about something you like, and rather than instantaneously flinging yourself into apoplectic rage in the comments section, you just have a cup of tea and crack on with life. Inspirational.
While we’ve talked a lot about the spectacularly embarrassing reaction to Jim Sterling’s review here, he’s a big boy and he can look after himself. This isn’t about defending the guy. I don’t even know him, personally. I’m sure he’ll have a lot of fun tormenting the very vocal minority of idiots that have been attacking him this past week, his audience will get some laughs out of it, and ultimately he’ll continue to make a sound living doing what he does. But the wider implications of the outrage are what are more crucial here, and why I think it’s important to make a stand, regardless of how small and insignificant my voice may be within the gaming industry, in order to say that this isn’t okay. It’s unequivocally, unambiguously, incontrovertibly not okay.
It should be highlighted that comments like the one user name Rape All Feminists so colourfully expressed in the example above, and the reaction in this whole sorry episode is not merely confined to Nintendo fans before we delve into the cesspit any further. Sure, this time around it’s a small subset of the Zelda fandom that have been very naughty boys and girls, but it’s not like other fanboys haven’t made us embarrassed to admit that we’re gamers in the past. Whether it’s PlayStation fanboys crying foul because IGN gave Halo a good review, or the worst of the Xbox clergy giving every Sony exclusive zero score reviews on Metacritic out of spite, every fandom in every medium has it’s fair share of wankers. That’s life, kids.
In this instance it’s the worst, angriest, most vocal minority of the Nintendo fandom that will all be getting lumps of coal for Christmas. They’ve been nasty, they’ve been morally and ethically deplorable, and they’ve been legally in the wrong in some cases. It’s not big, and it’s not clever, but where does this sort of nonsense stem from?
Anybody that has been following online video games media for a reasonable length of time will have noticed that there has always been some measure of controversy surrounding the review scores of games, particularly exclusives. Exclusives present their own set of problems when reviewing games because a small number of gamers seem to – for some bewildering reason – fall in love with a console manufacturer and pledge their allegiance to them like a loyal squire ready to ride into battle for their master’s honour in retaliation to any perceived slight. This is something that has always baffled me as a gamer.
It’s not like any of these companies are inherently good or evil. You’re not joining up to the Allies to fight off the Axis Powers. You’re not a crop duster having a go at being a fighter pilot to fend off an alien invasion. You’re arbitrarily deciding which of the three money-grabbing, self-serving corporations is the one you like most and then deciding that everything they do is amazing. These companies care about you because you make them money. They do what they do because it makes them money. That’s how business works. Nintendo, in particular, are often seen as the magical, wonderful video game company that are doing it all for the love of putting smiles on children’s faces and that simply isn’t true. Where was their love for children when child labour was used to manufacture the Wii U? Oh yeah, we don’t talk about that. It really ruins the atmos while we’re trying to have fun in the Mushroom Kingdom.
This isn’t to vilify Nintendo. It’s not their job to police the world, and they’re not alone in their transgressions or questionable business decisions. All companies of that size have skeletons in the closet. And we can turn a blind eye to some of it while we use their products, but let’s not pretend that any of these companies are worthy of our unadulterated adulation. They’re not curing cancer out there. They’re making video games to make money from you.
Nodding along with whatever a company does and saying, “This is great,” to everything they produce achieves absolutely nothing, and criticism, both good and bad, is essential to progress whether you like it or not. If people hadn’t bitched about the PS3 Sony wouldn’t have got their shit together for the PS4, and if people hadn’t stood up to Microsoft upon the original reveal of the Xbox One then that console would be in the toilet right now, and PlayStation would have even more of a monopoly on the AAA space. That’s good for nobody.
Think of it like this; you want an accurate report on a sports game, who do you ask? You don’t ask the fanatical supporter of one of the teams. You ask the neutral. You want want to know what happened, without bias and without exaggerations. People who see only the good in video game manufacturers, who defend them at their every opportunity, even in the face of worthy criticism, are unable to speak with any authority about the matter because their opinions can’t truly be trusted. Would you trust any of the people who attacked Jim Sterling over his Zelda review to give you an honest-to-goodness critique of the very same game?
Trust is an important issue when it comes to how we consume content within games media. If you hate every game that I review well, then it stands to reason that you’d be wary about trusting my opinion when I’m singing the praises of a new release. It’s all about finding out who sings to you, and then keeping an eye on them in future. There are certain reviewers who I know that I trust, and others that I don’t. That’s not because they’re bad reviewers per se, but rather because I know I don’t jive with them, and what they like I often don’t, and vice versa. If you don’t trust a reviewers work, then, quite simply, don’t read it. That’s the choice you’re given. Nobody is holding your family at gunpoint. You don’t like Jim Sterling as reviewer? Don’t follow him.
Of course, the Internet in recent years has put an extra emphasis on reviewers that you might not appreciate, because of the relatively new trend of online review collation. Websites like Metacritic and Rottentomatoes pay no mind to which reviewers you like and which you don’t, and instead give you a score for a movie or game based on every review for that movie or game that qualifies for the site. This has created an entirely new set of problems when it comes to review score controversy, and the implications of that can directly be felt in the reaction to Jim Sterling’s review of Breath of the Wild.
Nintendo fans would, almost certainly, not have gone quite as turbo in a world in which Metacritic did not exist. Some of the livid commenters even went as far as to directly reference how the Metascore of Breath of the Wild would be affected by Jim’s relatively low score, accusing him of – seriously, I’m not making this shit up – ruining the video game industry by robbing it of Zelda’s amazing 98 out of 100 that it would have got, instead forcing it to settle for the paltry score of 97 out of 100. Reviewers whose differing opinions might have managed to remain unscathed in years gone by are now thrust into the limelight if their view directly damages or boosts the Metascore of a game because the score they gave to the game is different enough to that of their peers.
Many reviewers see being asked to apply a numbered score to their reviews as a somewhat trite condensation of their opinions into one, fairly arbitrary digit. It’s not hard to see why. When you’re writing a review of a game, you spend time playing it, and that’s not always as fun as you’d think. Then you’ve got to write up 1,000 words or whatever, attempting to convey, clearly and concisely, what that game does well and what it doesn’t do well. Then you’ve got to take all of your subjective opinions about a piece of art and apply a definitive, almost scientific score to it. And that’s never sat quite right with me, on some levels.
Review scores are a complicated matter because not every magazine or website uses the same scale to review their games. Some use letter grades like in the American school system, others use stars – sometimes five, sometimes four – and others use numbers. Numbers can be broken down to the simple 1-10 ten point scale, but the others will add the .5s and make it a twenty point scale. Others still will break it down to .1s in a hundred point scale, as though anybody can even begin to attempt to explain to me what the Christ the difference is between an 8.5 game and an 8.6 game. And then others will take the hundred point scale and score games as a per centage, rather than just a number, as though they’ve applied some kind of elaborate scientific method to their review scoring and that’s the result.
It’s kinda silly, and while scores are useful because they serve as a way to succinctly let everyone know how much you liked a game, the problem is that the score becomes more important than the written word in the eyes of many. That’s annoying after you’ve spent hours writing a review, but it’s even more annoying when the score is honed in on in attacks against you despite what you may have said in the prose of the review. Look at Jim Sterling’s review of Zelda and you’ll see that he wrote lots of nice things about it. He just had problems with some of the systems in place that ruined his enjoyment a bit. And that’s why it got a 7. A good score.
Metacritic and Rottentomatoes further exacerbate the review score problem. Both sites use metrics to attempt to encapsulate all of the reviews of a game or movie into one, all encompassing number. This is an issue on two fronts.
First, this number is yet another step removed from the written review. Not only are we now not reading the reviews of the games, we’re not even reading the scores of the games. We’re just lumping them all together and coming up with a new score based on that. Second is that while the written word can be used to put your opinions across, and if you do it properly, there can be no real dispute about what you’re saying, statistics without context are malleable and can be twisted to fit an agenda.
If a movie is given one hundred 7/10 reviews on Rottentomatoes out of one hundred reviews, then the score it’ll be given on the site is 100%. If another movie is given ninety-nine ten out of ten reviews and one 4/10 review then the score it’ll be given is 99%. Rottentomatoes doesn’t measure the quality of a movie, but rather whether it got positive or negative reviews. In this instance, the movie with the 99% appears to be a lesser movie than the one with 100% because of the scores, but given context, all of the 10/10 reviews for the second movie would likely be far more glowing than the ones for the first movie, with the 4/10 review being an anomaly.
Metacritic throws another spanner into the works. You’d think that collating a bunch of review scores together and then just giving you an average based on those review scores would be easy, right? Nope. Metacritic has two notable problems when it comes to the creation of the score you see on their site. First, all review outlets use different review scales when scoring games. So a 7/10 from one site doesn’t mean the same as a 7/10 on another. The second problem is that Metacritic doesn’t actually use the mean method of coming up with an average of all of the review scores like a lot of people suspect it does. It uses a weighted averaging system, which is a little more complicated.
A weighted average in this instance means that certain websites are attributed more ‘weight’ when Metacritic calculates their score than other sites are. For example, if a game got two tens and two zeroes, you’d expect the Metacritic score to be a 50, but that wouldn’t necessarily be the case. If the two tens were from IGN and Gamespot and the two zeroes were from two sites nobody has ever heard of, Metacritic would take the opinion of IGN and Gamespot more seriously, and their reviews would pull the ‘average’ score up, maybe to a 60 or a 72 or a who the hell knows. How are sites weighted, and how does it change the score on Metacritic? Nobody except Metacritic knows, further muddying the water.
Regardless of the complicated methods involved in generating a score on Metacritic, what invariably happens is people will have a quick glance at the score a game gets and then base their opinions of that game on that one score. Some people working in the games development industry even get bonuses based on the Metascore their game gets. Metacritic has, for a lot of people, become the de facto mark of quality or condemnation of a piece of art. A lot of people see the Metacritic score as all that matters when it comes to reviews, and so when you’re the guy that drags the score down by one whole point, it’s easy to see why the fanboys ready to fight for their chosen system will be gathering their pitchforks and torches.
Does that make it right? No. Absolutely not. And that’s why I’m kind of torn on what I would do with review scores, generally. On the one hand, I detest that what I’ve written will be ignored in favour of a number. I think that games reviewing would be in a much better place if we all just abolished review scores and people were forced to actually read what we said about games. But on the other hand, I do see the value in a score for people keeping records, people in a hurry, parents looking for a good game for their kid for Christmas who don’t want to read a couple of thousand words about a game they know nothing about. Scores can be useful, but they’re also used as ammunition by the dregs of the Internet in the incessant console wars that wage, and occasionally against those that upset the applecart by daring to not adhere to the norm. They’re a double-edged sword, but we shouldn’t have to change what we do because a few people on the Internet – a few terribly tragic, underdeveloped, insecure, embarrassing people – can’t deal with things in an adult manner.
No, the problem isn’t review scores – it’s fanboys. It’s the Internet. It’s outrage culture. It’s being outraged, and angry, about absolutely everything. The problem is that a small subset of fans already have scores for games in their heads before they’ve even been reviewed and if something doesn’t match up with that, tantrums will be thrown. The problem is that instead of looking at different opinions and celebrating them for perhaps bringing something to light that we hadn’t thought of before, and sitting and having conversations about it, people see a good-but-not-quite-good-enough review and go absolutely batshit because their petty, fragile egos can’t handle the idea of someone thinking differently to them.
It’s terribly sad. That’s what I feel most about this whole Jim Sterling debacle. Not angry – sad. It’s sad that a guy was attacked in comments, and had his business under threat because a minority – and it is a very vocal, very nasty minority – of fans were upset about a number. A fucking number. A number that means basically nothing, and matters not one iota to how much those people, or anybody else, will enjoy playing the game. It’s sad that criticism can’t be celebrated as a valuable and necessary part of the industry, and is instead seen as something that must be assaulted when it doesn’t conform to people’s preconceptions or prejudices. And it’s sad that the angry voices of the few often appear to outweigh the more rational, more receptive, but quieter voices of the many.
So while many might see Jim posting a video attacking those who attacked him over his review – link here – as feeding the trolls like our old friend, Rape All Feminists, I think it’s a necessary, and admirable reaction. These people should be challenged on their behaviour and they should be called out for it. But it shouldn’t just be Jim Sterling standing up for himself. Other critics and writers are attacked every single day online, and the silent majority, the reasonable people who follow games media stand by. I say challenge them. Stand up. Say something. Let people know that’s okay to have a different opinion, and let people know that it’s not okay to behave like this when someone gives you that opinion.
It’s unequivocally, unambiguously, incontrovertibly not okay.