Critical Concerns!

When does a restaurant critic write his review? It’s a question that’s been playing on my mind a great deal, of late. The thing I can’t decide is whether he or she rushes straight home to their laptop, as soon as the bill has been settled, and hurriedly types up their assessment while the experience is still fresh in their mind, or if they wait a day or two and use this additional time to “chew” over the entire evening’s events, before passing judgement.

There are advantages to both approaches. Trying to capture the enjoyment of a dining experience, in words, while the impression of a luxurious chocolate soufflé still lingers on the taste-buds, must be a great deal easier than attempting to recollect such sensations 24 hours later. Yet, conversely, isn’t there a need to allow the digestive process to fully run its course? What if the unthinkable happens and that succulent steak bathed in rich red wine jus, which tasted so delicious as it began its descent of the oesophagus, subsequently proves to be the source of a nasty bout of food poisoning? Surely the critic’s misery would be truly compounded if, while he/she spent the following day making continual trips to the bathroom, the glowing evaluation they‘d submitted the night before were being read by thousands online.

Maybe I am speaking in ignorance. Perhaps there is some kind of code of practice, observed by all who are charged with this particular journalistic responsibility, which states that a full 48 hours must elapse before any review can be presented to an editor. Who knows? Sadly, due to the limitations of my palate, in all likelihood, the truth of these matter will always remain a mystery to me. Nevertheless, such musings have not been entirely in vain because they’ve led me to ask another, more pertinent question: “Are game reviews written too quickly?”

You’re probably thinking, at this point, that I must have been enjoying a bit too much of the aforementioned red wine jus: that evaluating games and restaurants are poles apart. Admittedly there are differences. A game reviewer would take several days to fully sample the interactive “feast” placed before him, not just an hour or so. On top of that, unlike a meal featuring undercooked prawns, the full extent of a poor game’s shortfallings will not come to light several hours after it’s been finished: they’ll be apparent throughout.

But wait a minute: are there not times when a piece of software, that initially seemed so palatable to the critic (and thus received a favourable score), proves to be something of a let-down after further play? How often have we read reviews which boldly claim that game X’s online modes are “so addictive that you’re guaranteed to be hooked for months”? Do you honestly believe the writers are still playing all these titles in their free time? Trust me, they’re not. How do I know? Because I’ve been guilty of these crimes myself. It’s so easy to get caught up in the excitement when you’re lavishing praise on the new game that everyone‘s talking about: to promise readers that the multitude of secret areas and hidden trophies will make repeat exploration essential. Then, as soon as playing the game is no longer mandatory, the disc never leaves its box again. I don’t want to be all melodramatic here, but maybe it’s time gaming magazines/websites had the courage to defer their judgements and allow their staff more time to determine the real longevity of new releases.

Let’s no be naïve. Such a change isn’t going to happen. People want to play games as soon as they’re released, but at the same time they want to know how good they are first. That’s not unreasonable: these folks have been bombarded with page after page of previews, they’ve bought into the growing hype and anticipation and now the product has hit the market, they’re keen to experience it firsthand. But at the end of the day, they are handing over £40 of their own money; you can hardly begrudge them wanting assurances that the purchase will be worth their while? I perfectly understand, then, why editors set such tights deadlines for their staff. You’ve got to cater to the needs of your readership. But, at the same time, I do think there needs to be more honesty and flexibility in review scores.

Reviewers should avoid making bold statements which cannot possibly be substantiated so early in a game’s “life”. Yes it might be we’ll all be enjoying the delights of a particular gaming universe in six months time, but then again it might be that after two weeks the novelty has totally worn off. If that is the case, wouldn’t it be great if magazines had the guts to say as much and adjust the mark they gave out accordingly? Of course, it could work the opposite way: a game that a critic thought he’d be only too glad to see the back of, might actually turn out to be something he finds himself coming back to again and again.

Perhaps we’ll never see such changes; perhaps we don’t really need to. Maybe the solution we should be aiming for is altogether less dramatic: we just need to be more savvy as readers: to take some of the more “speculative” declarations penned by gaming critics with a pinch of salt. The crux of the matter is that there will be times when, what seemed like a faultless banquet, ultimately leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Things could be worse though. At least once we turn the console off, the misery of playing a dreadful game is over. For those poor diners/restaurant critics who find themselves on the wrong end of botched meal, sometimes the problems are just beginning.

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