Gaming Reviews and Their Impact on Escapism
When is the last time you were truly awed by a game?
About five years ago, I purchased The Orange Box. Sure, it was five games in one, but I bought it exactly one reason: Half Life. After blowing through all the Half Life content, I decided to try the other stuff on the disc. I started on Portal. At that point in my life, I very rarely read gaming news. I had never heard anything about Portal. As I made my way through the series of puzzles, portal gun in hand, I was completely flabbergasted at how great the game was and how oblivious I was to its existence. After I triumphantly discovered that the cake was, in fact, not a lie, I was determined to tell my friends about this epic game included with The Orange Box. To my surprise, they were all familiar with Portal. "Oh yeah, the cake is a lie!" was the typical response. How had I completely missed the boat?
I've thought a lot about my experience with Portal when I consider how my consumption of gaming news impacts the pleasure I gain from playing video games. My game buying methodology used to be a viral experience. I'd play Gran Turismo at my friends house, then I'd go buy it myself to play on my PS1. My roommates got me hooked on Halo, so I went and bought my own Xbox and game so we could have bigger LAN parties. Vice City was fun, so I bought San Andreas sight unseen, without reading anything about whether the game was a worthy evolution of the franchise etc.
For the past few years, I have rarely purchased a game without checking the Metacritic score and reading a couple reviews. Since I started reading more about games, I find that I have fewer "awe" moments, where I am genuinely blown away by a game. Reading game reviews traps us into categorizing a game as good or bad before we even press the start button. Mass Effect 3 is one of those titles that I pre-ordered, and didn't care what any reviewer said. Despite my avoidance of Mass Effect 3 articles while I plowed my way through the campaign, I still saw the headlines about the "terrible" ending. The whole time I was playing through the campaign, I was bracing myself for a crummy finish. The crummy finish never came, though, since I actually liked it, but it still impacted my playing experience. I kept waiting for the crappy parts etc. It's a far cry from when I bought Mass Effect without knowing anything about it other than it was an RPG set in space.
I decided I would try playing an RPG a few years ago. The two names I heard about were Oblivion and Mass Effect. I had a roommate who played Morrowind, so I chose Oblivion. When I brought home my used copy from the store and the disc wouldn't read, I took it back and traded it for Mass Effect. They didn't have anymore copies of Oblivion. I quickly became hooked on Mass Effect, doing multiple playthroughs and slapping Khalisah Al-Jilani on each and every one of them. It was another moment of awe. I played a game without any knowledge of it and zero expectations.
Metacritic can be a useful tool, but it can also be a curse. We justify Metacritic's existence because of the hefty $60 entrance fee we pay to play a game. However, just like knowing the ending of The Sixth Sense would ruin the experience of watching the movie the first time, over-indulging in reviews can ruin our gaming experience. Lately, I've been trying to avoid reviews, but it is hard to resist the allure of a review for games I'm on the fence about (Max Payne and Ghost Recon.)
Every now and then, I think we ought to take a stand, slap the games journalists, and just enjoy video games for what they are- interactive escapism that can bring people closer together.