The Good, the New, and the Problem (. . . with reviews)

So Destiny has released and I’m absolutely loving it (yes, Destiny is why I missed a blog entry last week.  So sorry!)  🙂

The game is AMAZING and I’ve reached the “soft” level cap of 20 just today.  I enjoyed  Mass Effect 2 and 3 on the Playstation 3, but looking at their backgrounds, I said to myself that the verisimilitude just wasn’t there yet.  There was a mission where Commander Shepard goes against an AI and the mission was awesome, but the backgrounds just didn’t sell it.  The backgrounds looked flat, almost painted.  The system just didn’t have enough resources to truly replicate an alien world, plus alien sky, plus character actions and shooting, plus enemy actions and shooting and everything that the Mass Effect 2 and 3 were trying to achieve.  I told myself that the “next” generation of systems would capture that realism much better and that is what Destiny has done.

Yet, many reviews (and reviewers) have called Destiny mediocre.  They say that it is a mediocre shooter that has simply taken some of the trapping of a MMO (massive multiplayer online–like World of Warcraft).  Many reviewers claim that Destiny’s success is simply based on hype and marketing (although I can’t help but remember that Bungie ALSO created Halo for the Xbox and that didn’t get the same criticism, but now that Bungie and Activision have a preferred marketing agreement with Sony, now that criticism is being raised, but that’s a blog entry for another time . . .)

My problem with reviews, and by extension, many critics, is that we the audience want the GOOD, while the reviewers and the critics prize the NEW.  And unfortunately, the new and the good are not necessarily mutually compatible.

Reviews and reviewers face a problem–they live in a world that doesn’t match reality.  You can see it easiest in movie reviews (especially those who are “film” critics as opposed to “movie” reviewers), but many reviewers (professional and amateur) fall into the same trap: they seem to prize the new and innovative irregardless of actual quality.   Reviewers see many more films, are sent (or must purchase) many more games, comics, food, or whatever is being reviewed.  Many (not all) people seem to have problems watching a movie more than once–for them, seeing how the plot will unfold is the gold mine.  Once they’ve watched it, they KNOW what happens and they are satisfied.  Now magnify that for reviewers–they’ve watched the buddy cop movie over and over again (with different actors in different roles), but they are seeing essentially the same movie.  Same with many genre pieces–by default, a Fantasy movie is going to have some element of magic to it, that’s what makes it a fantasy.  Same with Science Fiction–there are certain tropes (robots, aliens, spaceships, future, past, etc) that are associated with Sci-Fi.  Sure, you can vary those tropes, but they still have to be present in some way at some level or you don’t have a Sci-Fi story.  Thus, many reviews note the novelty of something.  It’s doing something new and different from the rest, and that to many reviews seem to be the ultimate goal and that many reviewers seem to prize.

However, most audiences want the good.  Most audiences want to know if the movie is a good representation of whatever type of product or genre of product is being reviewed.  Generally, we don’t get to see movies all day long.  We have finite resources.  We need information from someone who has seen it, played it, read it to make an informed decision.  Is it good, is it worth spending money on?  Yes, it can be innovative, but that by itself doesn’t guarantee quality.  Audiences seem to have a higher tolerance for repeated types of media so long as they are good.  For instance, it has taken years for the Western to go out of favor.  The Western was a staple of the movie industry from its beginnings to well into the ’60s and ’70s, but slowly fell out of favor starting in the ’80s and ’90s.  There are always a few attempts to test the audiences’ reaction to Westerns (Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven are two notable examples), but the Western as a genre is still moribund in movies (although there have been TV series that have become fairly popular and the Western seems to be making a resurgence there).  Right now, thanks to CGI, the genres of Fantasy and Science Fiction have risen to a new prominence.  (Yet there are still critics out there who refuse to give credence to ANY Speculative Genre work–not to slander, but I think the magazine was Film Comment, but I could be mistaken, but if I am correct, I challenge you to read that “magazine’s” review of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.  I couldn’t do it because the reviewer’s prejudices against the fantasy genre were on display (again, if that is the wrong journal, I apologize, I tried to read the review at the library and the library no longer has the paper issues of that particular magazine so I can’t fact check the way I want . . . but based on their feature Trivial Top 20: Worst Winners of the Best Picture Oscar, I’m pretty sure they’re the right magazine–take a look at #22 on the list).

Brandon Sanderson has a great comment on the nature of criticism in an Epilogue entitled “Of Most Worth” in his novel The Way of Kings.  Paraphrasing, one of his characters speculates on what we prize most and, no spoilers, says that it doesn’t matter so much as what is created, but rather what is created first.  This is the same with many critics–they are so busy looking for the new that they overlook the good.

I personally want to know if something is good and I find myself at odds with reviews and reviewers.  I’m using Destiny as an example of something that’s good that critics don’t like, but I do, so I’ll use Bioshock as something that the critics like, but I don’t.  I don’t care for the way it tells its story (through audio logs that you pick up along the way), I don’t care for the grimness of the world, and didn’t much care for the way the story was unfolding.  Another game that I didn’t like was Red Dead Redemption for many of the same reasons (audio logs excepted).  But to the critics, the games were new, innovative–we’d never seen anything like this so it MUST be good and I simply disagree.  Just like I disagree with the assessment that ONLY being great makes a game mediocre.  I just can’t make that leap.  A great game should be great irregardless of whether it is doing something new.  The same is true with other media.

I missed seeing World War Z at the movie theaters because I relied on the reviews saying that the movie was only mediocre, only to buy the Blu-Ray and watching and being BLOWN AWAY by the amazing storyline that was only slightly hampered by its ending (the set pieces were awesome).  I still find myself wondering what it would have looked like in IMAX 3D.  What I learned from that was that there are some things that I’m predisposed to like, so irregardless of the reviews, I’m just going to go and get it (within reason–if the reviews are ALL unanimous and one of the criticisms is incompetence, then it would be foolish to ignore those sentiments.  I’m talking about those things that I like that I already know critics aren’t going to like).  For instance, Guardians of the Galaxy was a movie that I’d made up my mind to see back in the spring when the trailers first started hitting the internet REGARDLESS of the critical reception.  That the critical reception was mostly favorable was a nice surprise, but I was going to see it no matter the reception.  I like Marvel movies, I like Science Fiction, I grew up in the ’80s so I know the songs in the movies, and I like the actors.  I was predisposed to like the movie, so as long as the movie was competently put together, I was going to enjoy GotG on some level.

Please don’t get me wrong–this isn’t a diatribe against reviews, reviewers, and/or professional critics.  I just think there is a disconnect between the ideas of revolution and evolution.  Many critics seem to want revolution while many audiences prefer evolution.  We don’t mind revolution so long as it is good.  Critics seem to eschew evolution for those revolutionary ideas irregardless of the quality of the ideas.  Destiny is a fine game–it merges the old (first person shooter) with the new (MMO elements–not found in shooters) and the makers of the game (Bungie) deserve far more credit than they are currently getting for their efforts.  As much as we value Revolution, our world is an Evolutionary one.  Yes, new ideas are important, but so too are the refinement of the ideas that we already have in order to create a synthesis between the old and the new.