Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate was released last week. As someone interested in the game and franchise, I did what many others had done, and decided to read some reviews before the game was actually released. I set off to Metacritic’s page for the game, and as I am wont to do, I opened a handful of posts, running the gamut from high scores to lower scores. Well, I found this review by Chapel Collins on Gaming Nexus, a site I haven’t heard of before, and as I read the piece, I knew what the comments would be like. There were only two at the time (there are 151 right now), and they did not disappoint. A classic circling of the wagons by an indignant cult (or fandom), an all-out attack on the outsider.
(While this post is somewhat of a rant on fandoms and the search for “objectivity”, it’s also an editorial on the nature of reviews.)
Before we proceed further, a couple of words on what I look for in a review, specifically of something such as a video game, headphones, or a computer mouse, which is often not what I wish out of a “review” of a narrative, though video games can also incorporate that “other” part (see Austin Walker’s post on Darkest Dungeon as an example). What I look for in a review of this sort is enough information on the product to tell me what it’s like – what qualities it has, what it focuses on, what it actually plays like.
It may sound as if I’m looking for the “objective qualities” of the game, and to a degree one could argue that I am. I definitely am looking for the objective qualities of a gaming mouse or a pair of headphones, but even there, it’s looking for personal experiences, which hopefully will be useful for me to tell what I would think of the product – is the mouse large? Is it useful for people who look for a palm grip? Are the cups on these headphones good for people who dislike bass, or who have large and sensitive ears?
If all I cared for were the so-called “objective qualities”, I’d merely look at photos, and read the technical spec. I don’t. I do care for what people actually thought of the product. When I read multiple reviews, it has two contradictory and complementary uses, especially relevant for video games. The first is that by reading multiple reviews, I can somewhat “eliminate” the variance for each reviewer, what they care for, and get a better composite picture, which might not exactly be what I care for. I get to see the same thing from multiple angles. That brings me to the other reason for reading multiple reviews, the fact that I do care to see multiple subjective perspectives on the product, that I do care to see what people like and dislike, and what they think overshadows the rest of the things.
And in a nutshell, that is the purpose of a review, for those who mistakenly thought that it’s to give you an objective breakdown of a product, describing, as if in a list, its components. A review also does that, but that’s not the true focus, the true focus is the judgment rendered by the reviewer, how everything the game does is filtered by the person who plays it. A game isn’t really a game until it’s played, it’s just a set of rules and mechanics. The reviewer’s baggage isn’t an unfortunate baggage that comes along for the ride and must be eliminated, but the reason we actually pay someone to tell us what they thought, in their words, with our time, if nothing else.
And then we have the fandoms who turn on said reviewers, and some who accuse the reviewer for bringing their subjectivity front and center, making the review about them, rather than about what is reviewed. Two examples from recent years that had made waves are Carolyn Petit’s review of GTA V on Gamespot and Danielle Riendeau’s review of Dragon’s Crown on Polygon. These reviews criticized the games about things they found personally troubling, not merely as part of a game, but as part of the world we live in, and got attacked for it. The nature of attacks on them was personal, and often referenced the fact they were female (and a transgender, in one case). This is where we slowly circle back to the Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate review in question.
It’s hard not to focus on the supposed call for “objectivity”, especially after GamerGate’s part in the online discussion of games and reviews in the past year. But it’s not a coincidence that just like some people who comment on some of my critiques with, “That’s just your opinion” and “That’s subjective”, it only really happens when you’re negative about something. So long you laud it, it’s all peachy. It’s also not a coincidence that the criticism levied against those three reviews focused on the reviewers. The “problem” is two-fold. First, their subjectivity’s focus was negative (because had they been positive, it’s merely the objective strengths of the game, right?), second, and most important – they’re outsiders.
Some would argue outsiders are more likely to be able to give an objective analysis of something we take for granted (see defamiliarization), but there’s always a subjective angle everything is seen as, which isn’t a bug, but a feature, or at least a fact we have to live with. In game reviews, and especially the case of the aforementioned MH4U review (which was linked on the Monster Hunter subreddit, which further ties into the tribalism), where the most common complaint leveled against the reviewer could be (and often was by the “critics”) summarized as “Git Good”, or “Casual”. But in its slightly more elaborate, and utterly nonsensical framing was, “You can’t let a new player review this game!”
Wait, what?! A new video game, that doesn’t have any real story ties to the previous ones, shouldn’t it stand on its own merits? Especially for new players? That was actually one of the things that drew me to said review, as most reviews were basically, “This is mostly the same thing as prior Monster Hunter games, and this is where it differs, and why I still care for it,” while very little was actually said about the experience as a whole. Most reviews, in other words, are almost useless if you’re not already a fan of the series. That situation isn’t healthy for the series, but fans don’t really care about that.
As far as I’m concerned, this review is “objectively good”, through my subjective definition of what a review “should” do earlier. It explores that strikes have weight to them, that drinking a potion leaves you open for an extended period of time, that the camera controls aren’t as easy as they could’ve been. The “problem”? He thought of them as bugs, while the rest of the fandom thinks of them as features. The lengthy attack forces you to plan your attack sequence and not mash the button. The potion? You can’t get help whenever you’d like. There’s no real excuse for the camera, though it’s been improved over time, but mostly by you buying better or supplementary hardware.
But why is it an “objectively good review”? Because he presented the data. He presented how the game plays. Had he mentioned all those things and given them a positive spin, then no one would’ve been bothered. It’s not a lack of objectivity or perspective that’s being attacked here, but not adhering to the way the game is “understood” by its fandom. I wonder how many of these aspects were accidents or mediocre design that gave rise to emergent gameplay and then kept as a form of the game’s “identity”. But even if something “works”, it doesn’t mean that it couldn’t work better, and that it works, doesn’t mean some people won’t dislike it, and these people should know going in what they’re going to get, which this review tells them.
There are two more points about tribalism that I’d like to reference here, as they arise in this discussion. The first is that this is very much what Howard Becker discussed in his paper, “Becoming a Marihuana User” (1953, American Journal of Sociology): If you smoke marijuana on your own, you may dislike it, because you’ll ascribe a negative connotation to what is supposedly the draw of it. It’s the same “feature/bug” divide. There is no “right” way to see things, there are points of view, and differing tastes.
The other is a memory I have from the 1993 movie Dave, where a common Joe has to step in as the President of the United States. At one section of the film the need for a budget-cut arises, and Dave, as the president, cuts out millions dedicated to assuring people who already purchased cars that they made the right call. The fandom’s attack on the review is similarly telling, why do people who’ve already purchased, or will purchase it for sure, need to read reviews of something they aren’t on the fence of? While you could say, “To put matters right,” and some of the comments indeed try to do that, most don’t. Most comments are a classic circling of the wagons, they’re an attempt to constantly reaffirm one’s love for something, one’s fandom, as being worthy, of having been worthy all up to now.
These reviews attack outsiders, because they’re not part of the “inducted”, they’re not part of the cult that many fandoms are. To question the fandom is to question one’s life as a devotee up to this point, and outsiders are scrubs, outsiders are women, outsiders are subjective, and are to be shouted down. There’s no call for objectivity in reviews, and honestly, there never is, merely the shouting down of dissenting voices. Dissenting negative voices, who dare put their different subjectivity in the spotlight.
Or, to put it simply, git gud scrub, and you wouldn’t complain.