There is a lack of respect from mainstream journalists and their publications in regards to how video game stories are handled. It is not a failure to publish content; the world of video games always offers something exciting to write about. The failure is in how video game stories are handled by writers of mainstream publications. It is time for journalism to change how it approaches video games.
The most common video game stories are reviews. When a game is launched, prospective buyers look to reviews from video game news outlets to determine how they should spend their money. Unfortunately, video game reviewers have demonstrated a propensity to write biased or completely incompetent reviews.
While it is inherently impossible for a review to be objective, the problem is exacerbated in the world of video game reviews. Too often, writers fail to base their reviews on the merit of the actual product. Publishers ensure that review copies of games are delivered to publications with gifts or swag that is meant to sway the writer’s opinion.
In a 2012 interview with Kotaku, an anonymous insider from a large video game publisher stated, “We bring out media to a fancy location, wine and dine them, show them the best parts of our game, and generally build anticipation for release.” These reviews are meant to sell games, not to provide consumers with a fair analysis. The practice is unethical, but bribery will remain commonplace in video game journalism until the writers themselves remember what it means to have integrity.
Sometimes, the problem with a review stems from the journalist themselves. An essential part of reviewing video games is playing the game. Playing and enjoying a game requires skill that not everyone has, and the difficulty of a game can act as a barrier to entry for the enjoyment of some games. Thus, it is implied that video game journalists must be able to play video games skillfully. What happens then, when someone who is unskilled attempts to review games?
Dean Takahashi is a prime example of an unskilled video game reviewer. His most infamous incident was his 2017 video review of Cuphead, a platformer known for its higher-than-average difficulty. In the 26 minute video, Takahashi struggles to complete the tutorial and fails to even beat the first level.
Watching the video, it is abundantly clear that Takahashi simply refuses to adapt to the game’s mechanics, repeatedly attempting to jump on top of enemies instead of using Cuphead’s shooting attacks, which were explained in the tutorial. He ultimately decried the game as simply too difficult. This was not the first time, however, that he gave a poor review to a game because he couldn’t play it properly.
Takahashi panned Mass Effect on release, calling it “Mass Defect,” because he skipped the tutorial and consequently never learned how to play the game properly. For context, Mass Effect is one of the most critically acclaimed games of its time and is well-respected by gamers, even today. His reviews show a pattern of an inability to adapt to innovations in gaming and an unwillingness to meet video games on the terms of the developers who made them.
Unfortunately, Mr. Takahashi is not the only video game journalist who isn’t good at video games, and the plague of unskilled journalists who refuse to recuse themselves from reviews that they cannot adequately perform hurts the quality of the reviews and the perception of video game journalism as a whole.
The most recent evidence of journalistic disrespect comes from the reactions of the launch of Sekiro, a game known for its brutal difficulty and punishing mechanics. Several journalists have come forth claiming that the game should have an “easy mode” offered, as the normal difficulty is too hard for many to overcome. While this might be a valid complaint for other games, it falls flat in the face of Sekiro.
Sekiro is not simply a video game in the same way that Citizen Kane or Blade Runner 2049 are not simply movies. The reaction to Sekiro is proof that video game journalists refuse to take into account the artistic worth of the games they are playing. They review all games as though each is a “popcorn movie,” meant only to deliver cheap thrills to any person to whom the game looks interesting.
Reviewers do not entertain the idea that a game’s developers can have motives outside of selling as many copies as possible. This collective blind eye to artistic merit hurts developers, journalists and players alike, as it shoe-horns the identity of video games into a mindless waste of time instead of the complex artistic format it can be.
Video game journalists have failed their readers, the developers, and even the video games themselves. The industry deserves better, and it will require work from the consumers in order to get more credible reviewers in the spotlight.