Objection: The Ballad of CrimsonWing69


I’ve never met CrimsonWing69.

I know more things about CrimsonWing69 than the average video game critic, though. I know he has (at least once) commented on the aggregate site N4G. I know his name is Chris. I know he’s a college student, gearing up to try and become a video game critic himself. I know he thinks reviews should be objective.

And I know he thinks my review wasn’t.

He’s right. A few days into its release, I reviewed Quantic Dream’s Beyond: Two Souls. I gave it a 2/5 on our scale, which, believe it or not, was a pretty difficult decision. I wrote the review intending to give it a 3/5, read it through, and realized that the lower score was more honest to my opinion. I said it was “bad at telling stories,” and that “about half of the stories it has to tell are big, loud, and dumb.” I called it “fascinating,” “sincere,” “propelled by flaw,” and “lazy.” The game provoked an incredibly mixed response, and I tried to provide as efficient a window into my thought processes as possible.

For the record, I stand by my review and the opinions expressed therein vehemently and completely.

I expected my review to be a success for us in terms of traffic — negative scores always are, especially for exclusives or hotly anticipated titles. What I didn’t expect was for it, and its ensuing mini-controversy, to shatter our previous daily record by double. Part of it was anger, part of it was sympathy, and part of it was confusion. It was a hectic demonstration of reviewer/reader vitriol shrunk down to scale; my dollhouse starting living its life to match the big, real people just upstairs.

This is all to say that I’m not IGN. Nor am I GameSpot, or Destructoid, or Game Informer, or Giant Bomb. I write for a modest, tiny site because I enjoy it, and because the couple people who visit seem to enjoy it as well. Shocking, then, that a writer no one cares about on a site no one’s heard of would get comments like these.

“did you even play the game? this game is easily an 8 if not 9/10 but right now its cool to hate on B2S because so many others are doing it, don’t cry when all we get are sequels because when someone tries something new we shoot it down and never let it get a fair chance”

“Of all the things to bash, you want to bash it by saying it can’t tell stories? Yeah, someone’s digging for hits…..”

“No, Beyond: Two Souls is actually quite good at telling stories, you on the other hand are nothing more than a mouth breathing, fps/cod/xblive, lowest common denominator moron. Grats dude, you’re officially become part of the problem.”

“‘Beyond two souls is badat telling stories’ Clearly stated by someone who has never watched a movie or read a book with this type of story structure before and cannot compared information given to them. Anyone who knows Ellen Page might have heard of a movie called the “Tracy Fragments” it’s set up the same exact way and is an amazing movie. It’s not about the Hero’s journey but rather how the events in their life would led up to the end moment. To all bashing the game for the story…. Learn some about different ways stories are told.”

“It’s funny how these no name sites started popping out like mushrooms then giving a game like this a bad review then disappears like they never existed.”

In fairness, a lot of people stuck up for me, too. But often times those comments would be just as logically inane as the ones railing against me. Such is the nature of polemics on the internet, I suppose. One comment stuck out to me, though. It was lengthy, readable, and more aggravating than any one or two sentence toss-off insult.

It was CrimsonWing69.

“Ok, here I go again… I’m kind of getting tired of these opinion pieces being passed off as journalistic reviews. How is his obtuse opinion relevant to the factual analysis and informative aspect of a review? Yea we know some people like one thing while others don’t, that’s what it is to be individualistic. Again, a review is a process to which a “skilled” journalist is to base a score on fact through an objective assessment based on a set of criteria in order to inform an audience on what they WILL perceive, rather than what they MIGHT perceive in order to inform the audience whether they want to make an immediate purchase, wait, rent, or pass. In perspective, I played Heavy Rain over this past summer for the first time and my personal opinion was the game didn’t flow particularly well with my preferences in a game. Factually the controls were clunky, the voice overs had a muffled sound to them, and overall the game didn’t really entertain me as it did many others. I could’ve given the game a low score based on my opinion. If I were reviewing the game I’d have recognized that yes movement in the game could have benefited from higher control fidelity that most games implement. However, visually the game, upon its release, was pretty spectacular. For the most part (not always) the acting was pretty solid. It’s a game trying to blur the lines between cinema and digital interactivity through experimentation and innovation. I could go on, but the bottom line is this, the review score would not be the same as my score would have been based on my opinion. Opinion has a place in a review for comparison, context, and perspective, but in no way should those elements affect the review score because everyone will NOT encounter the same “personal” issues with the game. It should be there as a means to give context for those with similar opinions to understand the game may not be for them, but those with differing opinions pay these rants no mind. If a game controls bad, it controls bad, everyone will encounter it. Some may be able to adapt faster than others but the fact is there will be a slight struggle a player will have to overcome. That is a critique based on fact since we all will encounter this regardless of personal bias or preference. I’ve only played a little of Beyond, but my god what an improvement it is from Heavy Rain visually, audibly, and control wise. There is no way, regardless how someone subjectively feels about the story, this game is a 40% or a 2/5. That is ludicrous and a disgrace to the skill involved in the journalistic review process.”

“…a disgrace to the skill involved in the journalistic review process.”

I don’t really consider myself a journalist. If I’ve said that in the past, it was probably a slip of the tongue. Or an attempt to define something that’s ever-shifting and transient by its very nature. I’m a critic, largely, and I don’t think those two jobs necessarily intertwine. So, obviously, there were concepts and attacks in CrimsonWing69’s piece that I found simply too daft to stomach. Some examples, for posterity’s sake?

  1. Objective assessment of a product does not equal a review of a video game.
  2. He seems to think my only issue with Beyond was its story, which, upon reading the review, is evidently untrue.
  3. His example of an objective fact is that Heavy Rain controls poorly, which is in essence as subjective as every complaint I had with Beyond.

Reading the comment, though, lit up a special, smarmy part of my brain. What he was calling for sounded like the old GameSpot fallacy of “quality first, opinion second,” back when “reviewer’s tilt” was a viable scoring category. I’d been kicking around the idea of writing a review objectively for some time, and this seemed to be the perfect opportunity.

I typed out a fully featured “review update” the morning after, where I reassigned the game a 4/5, and apologized for the previous review. I separated it into categories, with individual scores for story, presentation, controls, value, and fun factor. In conclusion: “My review exists purely to give a reasonable breakdown of what is unassailable about Beyond: Two Souls. I accomplish this by telling the majority of people what they want to hear.”

The article had two perceivable effects. First, it helped communicate my feelings on the matter with a mask of humor and bitterness. Second, it pushed us over the top traffic-wise, as N4G commenters responded with smug satisfaction, confusion, or anger. Almost all of them didn’t click through to see anything but the headline (implied rather than literal): “Contrarian No-Name Backtracks On Beyond Score.” It also drew the attention of CrimsonWing69, who seemed… a little less diplomatic than usual.

“Wow, just wow… So, this is a satirical piece now? Kind of ironic this reviewer can’t handle criticism and felt the need to practically insult a majority of people who called him out on writing an OPINION PIECE rather than an INFORMATIVE REVIEW. I would’ve held more respect for Evan Tognotti as a journalist had he just seriously applied the principles of objective criticism to his reviews rather than spewing diarrhea of the mouth and thinking readers would accept his opinions as credible. Regardless, of how you’ll feel about this statement, reviews are, at their core, a persuasive piece that requires the author to hold credibility as an authority on the subject matter, with expertise, and hold a sense of trustworthiness. Those are the elements that make up credibility and help readers take what you write seriously. What Tognotti has just demonstrated is the decaying of credibility. A review informs an audience of the strengths and weaknesses of a product. It ultimately persuades them with fact to help with a purchasing decision. Is it solely the only means to help with making that decision? No, that’s why there exists “quick-looks”, videos, demos, renting, etc. There is no denying that a review holds a power of persuasion on those who accept you as a person with credibility that isn’t influenced by bias, values, attitudes, or personal experiences. OPINION has its place in a review. Sure we want to know how you personally felt about the game to give us context or a means of comparison to what the game IS and what it IS to YOU. However, what validity do opinions hold if others don’t share the same sentiment? Clearly, the reaction Tognotti received reflects the point that opinion isn’t universally shared nor should it dictate the true value/worth of a product. If “Error! Not Found” wanted people to view them as a credible source and experts on the subject matter then they shouldn’t have written this obvious aggressive piece to attack those who VALUE FACT over OPINION. This satirical review is extremely insulting and obviously shows the site is a joke without any sense of professionalism. Why not have a constructive piece that describes the difference between a REVIEW and an OPINION PIECE? How about not claiming to write a review and change your “reviews” into “What I thought and why it should matter to everyone”? Errornotfound.org is a site I will now personally go out of my way to never give traffic to. Well done, boys…”

Clearly I’d touched a nerve. My piece wasn’t meant to insult (at least, no more than my critics were insulting me), and I began to wonder if I’d actually crossed a line. Maybe I should apologize, or take the piece down entirely? Now, after this whole months-long saga has ended, I feel more confident in that piece than ever. This isn’t because my further communication with the man behind CrimsonWing69 was unpleasant. Quite the opposite. He elucidated his opinion, and I could finally recognize with crystal-clear precision that it was wholly, entirely, diametrically opposed to my own.

In the moment, though, I saw a unique opportunity. I’d dealt with people who had this sort of criticism of my work before (largely thanks to my scathing review of Resident Evil 6), but none were as focused, grammatically reasonable or seemingly angry as CrimsonWing69. What would drive a man to claim I was “spewing diarrhea out of my mouth?” Was it really the same force that compelled me to write the review update in the first place? And furthermore, what would his ideal, “objective” review look like? How would he write it, how would it read, and how would it be different? I decided to find out.

“Hey there,

I don’t know if you’re ever going to pay attention to this comment, but I figured I’d leave it anyway. This review is meant as a joke, yes, but it was also designed to demonstrate the systemic problems I have with the criticism everyone throws at me when I don’t like a game and they do: that I should have been objective.

I, personally, do not believe objectivity has any place in a review. I don’t think it could. If it did, then the result would be something like what I wrote here, and that wasn’t very much fun to read, was it? That being said, I would like to extend an offer to you, and one I hope you’ll take me up on. I’m curious to know what your ideal “objective” review is.

If you wrote one, of Beyond, or any game really, I would be happy to post it on the site and let the readers decide which style they like better. My prediction (and I may be wrong) is that if you DID write that review, it would actually be just as subjective as mine.

There may be a nuance here that I’m missing, and I’d like to further this discussion, even if you think me some manner of hack or hypocrite.

Sincerely hoping for an earnest reply,

Evan T.”

I’d done this before, sending a comment back to someone who would probably never reply. It was always bewildering to me why a person would, say, have the energy to write six paragraphs defecating on my Pikmin 3 review, and then 1) never look at it again, 2) never visit my site again, and 3) never engage me in a conversation when I tried to defend myself. It’s one of those foolhardy, white-knight style things you need to unlearn.

So I broadcast the comment, which is normally (given my popularity, or lack thereof) like throwing a coin into a well so deep you can’t hear the splash. And I waited for a couple days. Nothing came back. I stopped keeping tabs and went on with my life, figuring CrimsonWing69 was another in an ever-lengthening line of people who hated my guts for a day and forgot my name the next.

But CrimsonWing69 just kept proving me wrong.

Around four or five days later, I found a string of about four private messages sent to me through my N4G account, all from him. In the first, he explained he had to send multiple messages because N4G has a 2000 character max in a single one. By the end, he’d complimented me, and the site, and explained his disagreement respectfully.

What changed? Where was the username who said my credibility was decaying? Who is this guy, and why do I know his name is Chris now, and why does that make it so much harder to be sneeringly contemptuous of him?

Long story short, he took me up on my offer. Below is an objective review of Beyond: Two Souls written by Chris Dass, a full-time student at Kennesaw State University, majoring in Communication. It has been entirely unedited, and while we don’t use half-stars on our official scale, I figured I’d make an exception.

BEYOND: TWO SOULS REVIEW BY CHRIS DASS Beyond: Two Souls is the latest game from visionary game designer David Cage and his development studio, Quantic Dream. This is a game that takes the fundamentals of digital interactivity and fuses game design elements into a cinematic narrative where the player doesn’t passively watch a story unfold, but instead takes control of the main character and influences the events of the story.

This is a unique genre of game that pioneers the next evolution in the storytelling medium. Beyond: Two Souls plays with the expectations of what many consider to be a game and how a game should be played. The game’s primary focus is to tell a story where the gameplay dictates how specific events unfold and help absorb the player into the game’s characters and world.

If you have a specific expectation on what defines a game and any deviation from that norm is off putting, then this game isn’t for you. If you hate sitting through cut-scenes or Quick-Time-Events (QTEs) then chances are you will loathe this game. However, if you love narrative and have an interest in experimental gameplay you might be pleasantly surprised after reading what this game offers.

STORY:

Beyond: Two Souls is a paranormal story about a girl named Jodie Holmes (played by Ellen Page) who has a unique bond with an entity, called Aiden, whom she’s known since birth. Through a non-linear narrative we are introduced to the struggles Jodie has growing up, trying to understand and accept Aiden for self-discovery, all while being forced by the paranormal branch of the CIA to use her gift as a weapon. One of the most interesting aspects of the narrative, for me, was watching the relationship between Jodie and Aiden mature and ultimately discovering the origins of Aiden. Players will be introduced to Nathan Dawkins (Willem Dafoe) and Cole Freeman (Kadeem Hardison), two CIA scientists assigned to Jodie, who eventually become her surrogate fathers. Through a series of events Nathan becomes obsessed in discovering a gateway into Aiden’s universe, referred to as the “Infraworld,” and from there bad shit happens.

I found the story extremely entertaining and the non-linear narrative worked particularly well for me. We, as an audience, piece together the life of Jodie through out of sequence scenarios, which provide context into Jodie’s character while player’s partake in her struggle to accept her bond with Aiden, how she comes to certain points in her life, overcoming challenges, her evolving relationship with Aiden, and her fate.

Unfortunately, I noticed some oddities in character reactions that slightly took me out of the experience. Specifically, without giving spoilers, a character reacted a certain way only to completely change without much happening in the story to give reasons for such a drastic change of character. Also, there’s some serious gaps in the narrative where certain characters aren’t fleshed out well enough to give their motives any believable logic.

Of course, these are only minor instances that affected me personally, but they are worth mentioning as some players may have, “What the hell moments?” when certain events transpire for characters who aren’t given the proper development time to effectively establish their motives and rationale.

All in all, we are taken through a rollercoaster ride of a narrative that introduces intense sequences of action, suspense, romance, mystery, and melodrama with a surprising twist to top it off. Pretty much, there’s something for everyone in this game’s story and most of it is delivered through extremely believable performances by the actors. I never really felt bored with the game’s story. The pacing of the chapters felt pretty spot-on for me and I appreciated the length of most sequences where they never seemed to drag-on more than they needed. Beyond: Two Soulsstoryis a unique take on the paranormal genre that I think many will find to be entertaining even with some of its minor flaws in character development and storytelling.

GRAPHICS:

Graphically, Beyond: Two Souls is a phenomenally beautiful game. The character models are extremely detailed and look true to their real-life counterparts. Quantic Dream needs to be commended for the detail they pulled from the facial capture technology used, as it is extremely effective in making the characters feel real and emotional. Lip-synching and facial expressions are some of the best I’ve seen since L.A. Noire and shows how much skill Quantic Dream has acquired since their production on Heavy Rain.

During cut-scenes character animations are extremely fluid and life-like. However, in the gameplay portions I found the character animations to be noticeably rigid in specific instances. Particularly, this becomes noticeable during walking segments. The characters have a somewhat artificial looking walk that may become rather distracting to some players. By juxtaposition, the characters look and move more realistically than Quantic Dream’s previous title, Heavy Rain. Another thing that looked awkward to me were some of the kissing scenes as the characters are positioned in such a way so they don’t clip into each other’s geometry, so it’s like they’re trying to kiss without pressing against each other. There were times where it looked believable, but man, that’ll be a triumphant day in animation technology when kissing actually looks like kissing in a game.

There were some amazing dynamic weather effects in this game. The scrolling texture of rain over the windows while on the train sequence was spectacular to watch. Snow was also beautiful to watch as it was turbulent in the “Homeless” chapter and gently falling in the “Imaginary Friend”chapter. Effective use of bloom lighting really enriched the environments, giving off a surreal like glow. A particular chapter makes amazing use of volumetric sand effects, which I found surprisingly effective at creating an unnerving feel as I watched an enormous sandstorm develop in the distance.

Environments are confined and linear, but the geometry is extremely detailed as a result adding depth to the believability of Beyond: Two Soul’s world. Quantic Dream’s character modelers and scene designers really pushed the power of the PS3’s Cell Processor to produce, what I feel, is easily one of the best looking games on the PS3 this generation.

Minor flaws in animations aside, there is no denying that Beyond: Two Souls is one of the best looking games on the PS3. Graphics 5/5.

PRESENTATION:

Beyond: Two Souls is probably the best example of a truly “cinematic experience”. The camera angles are used effectively to help add emotion to specific sequences. There is a helicopter chase scenario that was probably one of the more standout sequences in the game. The camera was positioned in such a way that the player was viewing the action from the perspective of someone chasing Jodie in a helicopter rather than the traditional third-person perspective. It’s very dynamic and really delivers more to the scene as you get a sense of direness as the police close in on Jodie.

Another sequence that demonstrated how well the camera is cinematically utilized was a chase in the woods. Here the camera is so constricted to Jodie’s position that it adds to an uncomfortable feeling of claustrophobia as Jodie runs through the woods at night, there’s use of camera shaking to add the visual sensation of running on an uneven ground. There are many stylized uses of camera angles throughout the game that add so much depth to the scenes and enriches the experience of playing through Beyond: Two Souls.

Sound, holy smokes, the sound. First off, the soundtrack was tip-top for me. Composers Normand Corbeil, Lorne Balfe, and Hans Zimmer provide an extremely powerful soundtrack that gets the emotions going whether it’s on the edge of your seat action or dramatically emotional scenes, Beyond: Two Souls’ soundtrack is brilliantly composed.

Voice acting is probably some of the best you’ll hear in any game to date. Ellen Page runs through a series of convincing emotional performances and the rest of the cast offer equally convincing performances. Now, there’s some parts of the narrative where I felt some of the dialogue came off as hammy like in the party chapter, but for the most part I really was drawn into the characters by their excellent performances.

The audio effects are excellent for the most part and sound organic. When you take control of Aiden there’s a sound like being submerged in water that makes it feel like you’ve transitioned to somewhere ethereal. I did notice one scene that involved SWAT vehicles where upon multiple playthroughs there was no impact sound. There’s also a few minor hiccups in the audio that I encountered, but again these were extremely minor occurrences in the game.

Even with some encountered minor audio glitches, Beyond: Two Soulspresentation is simply phenomenal. PRESENTATION 5/5.

CONTROLS:

Here’s the meat and potatoes of Beyond: Two Souls. If you’re familiar with Quantic Dream’s previous game, Heavy Rain, you’ll have a slight idea of how Jodie controls. Instead of the R2 button functioning as a gas pedal as you steer the character with the analog stick Quantic Dream has conventionally mapped the character control to the left analog stick.

There are two forms of control that I encountered in Beyond: Two Souls and it seems to be based on specific sequences and camera placement. The first, is movement with left analog stick, which produces movement and the right analog stick controls the camera and steers the character, very similar to how Heavy Rain worked. The second way of controlling Jodie was using the left analog stick to move and steer while the right analog stick allows the player to look around.

While the second control scheme sounds conventional it doesn’t give the finite control found in standard third-person games. Both control schemes function adequately for what’s demanded of the player. However, the analog movement and camera steer had a much better sense of fidelity and smoother control for me.

Controlling Aiden is worth mentioning since he has the most freedom of control. It may prove disorientating at first since you will literally be swimming through 3D space, but the sense of vertigo is alleviated with a rise and sink function of control where you move Aiden with the left analog stick as if you’re flying and R1 raises your position while R2 lowers it.

I won’t lie to you, the controls may take a little adapting to on the player’s part, but once you get accustomed to the controls it doesn’t present much of a problem. There are instances I found where there’s fixed camera angles and moving Jodie into position felt awkward and there were delays in her turning around, which got frustrating at times. So, for example let’s say I wanted to get to an item of interest at a desk, getting her into position has a floating feel to it somewhat similar to the older entries in the Resident Evil series. Then trying to get her to face one direction would be different within the 3D environment due to the fixed camera angle. It just feels that a better input control scheme could’ve been adopted that would give Jodie a higher fidelity of control and movement.

Another thing to note is the pace of the character is deliberately controlled by the game. Like, you can’t just run whenever you want to. This works at controlling the pace of the character in conjunction with the mood and ambience of the game in order to establish an emotional connection with the pacing of events in the story. Still, you may find it frustrating to be forced to walk just for the sake of the game’s narrative.

There is a cover system that is simple in design but feels underwhelming compared to other iterations of the cover-based mechanic found in other games. All you do is hold down the X button until Jodie snaps to cover. Hit X to snap off cover. It works but there was a specific part of the game that requires stealth for a extended period of the chapter and it was janky at times. I’d press X for her to stand there only for me to need to slightly move up before it would work. There’s only specific objects and geometry you can take cover on. Also, the camera became problematic when Jodie was snapped to cover. Such as, being on cover and trying to move the camera so I could see to the right of me, yet the camera wouldn’t move, but once I was off cover I could move it to the right. It just seemed counterintuitive at times.

The action of the game takes place in the form of Quick-Time-Events (QTEs), motion controls, and analog stick movement in conjunction with Jodie’s actions. While I don’t mind QTEs at all, the motion controls provided me with some serious frustration. There would be times where I had to waggle the controller up and down to break free only to somehow fail it.

Time slows down during particular action sequences where you must move the analog stick in the direction of Jodie’s movements whether it be her arms, legs, or body. Most work, but the timing for some weren’t enough when her movements became complex. Such an instance was where her body was moving one way but her arms moved another, I opted the body direction when in it should have been the arm direction. The game doesn’t always abide with what the player deems the best direction of movement based on Jodie’s reactions. What looks like a movement upward is actually a movement to the right. It can get confusing at times, but this and the unresponsiveness of the motion controls is an issue some will encounter which will hamper the experience.

Jodie interacts with the environment by moving in the direction of objects of interest highlighted by a small white orb. It’s a rather simplistic game in what it wants from players as it follows a specific narrative template that doesn’t allow for extreme deviation.

It is also worth noting this game does not have a “Game Over”. You have room for error, but repeated failure results in drastic alterations of scenarios, in one instance I completely missed a sequence that involved Aiden going on a rampage because I was caught by police. David Cage explained in a story-driven experience the principle of the “game over” screen doesn’t make sense. Instead the player will be thrown into scenarios that reflect the outcome of success or failure. So, in a sense your failure produces a bad scenario while those who succeed are rewarded with better outcomes and options.

While the controls function with the pacing of the game, the lack of control fidelity in character movement controls, the unresponsiveness of some of the motion controls, and the slow-mo action sequences not being specific enough for players to execute the correct input can be a hindrance to the overall experience of the game. Controls 3/5.

VALUE:

The replay value of Beyond: Two Souls will be determined by your enjoyment in re-watching a movie with different scenes and alternate endings. You are able to replay any chapter you’ve completed and most of the trophies are mainly about making alternative choices in specific scenarios. It is worth mentioning to trophy hunters that this game contains extremely easy trophies to unlock that will require multiple playthroughs. There is a “good” ending and a “bad” ending with three variations of each depending on specific characters saved, choices made near the conclusion, and slight decisions brought about throughout the game.

Beyond: Two Souls also contains a myriad of collectible orbs that only Aiden can interact with, which unlock bonus content such as trailers, pre-production art, and other pieces for those interested in the production of the game. DLC also seems to be in the works, as the Gamestop exclusive steelbook case contains a downloadable bonus chapter titled “Advanced Experiments.”

Beyond: Two Souls collectibles, multiple endings, alternate scenes and scenarios, bonus downloadable chapters, production art and trailers to unlock, and easy to gain trophies give a variety of incentives for the player to replay the game. Value 5/5.

CONCLUSION:

Beyond: Two Souls is an extremely accessible game, which challenges the expectations of what a game is and can be. This is a game that is a genre unto itself, experimenting with merging film narrative and gameplay interactivity. There may be plenty of room for Quantic Dream to expand and refine the genre — especially with better controls, but in my opinion this game was an improvement over Quantic Dream’s previous PS3 game, Heavy Rain, as it does control better, looks better, sounds better, and the acting is extremely compelling.

You must remember this is a game that wants to tell a story primarily while allowing the player to influence the events for the illusion of a dynamic story that evolves based on performance and decisions. Think of it as the evolution of a “choose your own adventure” book. While Beyond: Two Souls may not be a game for everyone, those willing to give it a try may be taken beyond their expectations and find themselves absorbed in a truly fun ride with a great twist on the paranormal genre.

Beyond: Two Souls gets a 4.5/5.

I read that review a couple times, just working my way to the end and starting right back at the beginning. Finally, here was a window into the mind of someone who thought about reviews in a way exactly opposite from my own opinion. And what’s so fascinating about the review aren’t the ways in which it’s different from something I’d write — it’s the ways in which it’s so very, very similar.

My information, though, was still inconclusive. I didn’t know enough. What kinds of video games does CrimsonWing69 normally play? Which critics does he admire? Who is this guy? So I interviewed him over Facebook. This, too, has been entirely unedited. I haven’t monkeyed with it to make me look better, is all I’m saying. As if I look good at all in the first place.

EVAN TOGNOTTI: How are you feeling coming out of the review process? It seemed like you had a pretty rigid schedule?

CHRIS DASS: Coming out of the review process I have a new respect for time management. What many probably are unaware of is how a deadline really can constrict a thorough review as well as the overall enjoyment of playing the game.

I had to sit with my laptop open, quickly jumping back and forth between playing and jotting down notes. At first, it was interrupting the immersive experience of playing a game, but once I got into a rhythm it was actually enjoyable on a different level because the process was analytical and deconstructing a game to interpret designer intent gave me a new found appreciation and understanding for the game.

I did have a pretty rigid schedule as writing a review is not the only job I have. I’m a full-time student at Kennesaw State University as well as a full-time employee at Starbucks Coffee. So, most of my game time comes on Saturday when I have a complete day off from everything, but whereas normally I play at a leisurely pace, having a deadline for a review put an extra bit of pressure on top of my shoulders to get the game done as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

That extra pressure can have a negative effect on the gaming experience as a reviewer doesn’t get that sense of leisurely enjoyment to just sit down and play a game at their desirable pace. It’s important to be aware of these outside influences that may produce a skewed view of the gaming experience that won’t fairly reflect what the game actually brings to a player without that sense of urgency.

"In no way should a review give a game a "9" while another gives it a '3'."

“In no way should a review give a game a “9” while another gives it a ‘3’.”

ET: Do you think you would have scored Beyond differently if you had more time to finish it? How do you try to account for that skew while maintaining objectivity? 

CD: Well, the reality of reviewing a game is you’re probably never going to be as thorough as you’d really want to be. I think at some point the reviewer has to make the judgment call that they’ve seen enough of the game to base a fair criticism with enough evidence grounded in fact. This is where trying to stay objective becomes a conscious effort on the reviewer’s part. Let’s be honest here, credibility is one of the most important factors when you want an audience to take you seriously. In order to maintain that sense of credibility it’s important to use evidence and examples for juxtaposition in order to strengthen the argument of the review.

I honestly feel while a review is injected with opinion, the core of the review needs to be reinforced by fact rather than opinion. Because without that sense of credibility and evidence what is someone’s opinion really worth? We have to ask ourselves what is the intention of the review, is it to inform an audience or are we trying to persuade readers to adopt our personal feelings on a game, which in turns almost feels like agenda setting?

Let’s take into account the case of Ryse: Son of Rome. On Metacritic the critic reviews score the game in the average to below average range. The reception was already against this title from its official gameplay unveil at E3 2013. The Quick-Time-Events seemed to have put the nails in the coffin, which baffled me since we’ve seen this form of gameplay in titles like God of War and other games that have reviewed extremely well. Yet, for some reason, critics and the public seemed to drop the hammer on Ryse calling it a “boring looking game”. When it came to the reviews I feel many reviewers already brought that expectation of the game to the table and never gave it that fair critical analysis. The reason I claim this to be the case is there were a handful of reviews claiming the game was above average despite being repetitive. Being repetitive seemed to be the reason most critics felt the game deserved scores in the 70s to low 60s range. Yet, games like Killzone: Shadow Fall scored significantly better despite having the same “flaw”. Now, let’s look at the audience scores from the very people who these critics are trying to inform. The difference in opinions are staggeringly different where users like the game way more than the critics, which leads me to question whether the reviewers are merely stating an opinion or are they objectively deconstructing the game, analyzing designer intent, identifying the audience of the game, and basing judgement on fact rather than subjective influences.

Does having more time and being thorough with a game enough to be objectively fair when critiquing a game? It might, but that’s not a luxury many reviewers get to have. It’s a skill to be able to deconstruct a game critically in a short amount of time while not letting personal feelings influence the final score of a game’s quality and worth to a consumer. However, that’s not to say a reviewer’s opinion doesn’t hold weight as well. That opinion is worth noting in order to give the readers a personal view that may reflect their own bias. In this sense a reviewer gives personal feelings in order to give more depth to the review and opposition. It is important to realize that not everyone will share the same sentiment as the reviewer and in that case one can’t justify scoring those subjective perspectives.

"...I feel some reviewers went completely bat-shit crazy when reviewing Resident Evil 6."

“…I feel some reviewers went completely bat-shit crazy when reviewing Resident Evil 6.”

ET: What are some of your favorite games, of recent years and all time? How does your opinion of those games match with critical consensus, and how do you feel that consensus could’ve been fairer, if at all?

CD: What are my favorite games of recent years and all time…whew, what a question. I grew up playing games from 1989 till now and let me tell you, I was seriously into them hardcore. My first system was a Nintendo Entertainment System and I got two games with it, Super Mario Bros. 3 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

I was obsessed with anything Squaresoft did. Of course Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars, Xenogears, Parasite Eve, the Final Fantasy series and geez really most of the what came out from the in the PS1 generation was gold to me. I’d have to say the Metal Gear Solid series and the Resident Evil series are probably the two series I really get hyped for on a consecutive basis.

This segues me into my opinion matching with the critical consensus and how they could be fairer, with Resident Evil 6 in particular. Now, this one’s been beaten to death so I won’t go into great lengths with this topic, but I feel some reviewers went completely bat-shit crazy when reviewing Resident Evil 6. Expectations played a great deal in what went down with the negative reviews, which again is a huge “no-no” when you’re trying to be fair with criticism. It’s ok to state your opinion, even necessary for the most part, but to ground it as fact and try to persuade an audience that a game is bad because of your opinion diminishes any credibility you have as a “subject matter expert.” Reviewers should incorporate evidence from games of the same genere that raised the bar in the games industry. It’s that juxtaposition that supports claims.

I liked that statement Wombat from Cheapassgamer.com said and it was how opinions may be valid for an individual, but that doesn’t make them a true statement. He used the example of someone with the opinion that all bald people are unintelligent. That may be a “valid opinion” to that individual based on personal experiences and bias, but it is NOT a TRUE statement. I could say The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a bad game because I was bored to tears with it and personally couldn’t get into it at all. Again, a “valid opinion” but not a true statement. I didn’t like Skyrim, but regardless that game is a monumental achievement to game design and an incredible game in every facet, a true 10 out of 10 game. However, I’d still inject my opinion into the review as a way of giving personal insight and to let others know that despite the game being beyond excellent on a technical and design level if there are those who share a similar mindset in game preference they may not get into even though I’m giving it the highest score possible. Let me be clear though, my opinion in no way would influence my review score unless it was supported by fact.

Credibility is maintained by displaying that kind of objective criticism. What’s the point in shoving my opinion down readers’ throats and forcing them to take my feelings and views unique to me as fact that may never represent the experience they may have with the game? Like it or not, reviews are extremely influential on many consumers’ purchasing decisions, which in turn dictate whether sequels get made or developer studios stay open. I read a review on Giantbomb.com by Jeff Gerstmann (who is a huge inspiration to me) on Catherine giving it a 2 out of 5. Yet, we see these types of reviews and in the comments people mention canceling pre-orders and waiting on discounted prices as a result.

As reviewers and professionals in the game industry it is our duty and courtesy to those who put in everything they have into making a game to give them that bit of fair criticism and objectivity. We may not like a game personally, but if it’s a technically solid game then why in the hell don’t we grade it on those merits? Honestly, there needs to be a reform to the review writing process, as it stands there’s game media personnel who are poisonous in what they write and I’m glad the internet has given their audience a voice to call them out on it.

ET: You mentioned Giant Bomb’s Jeff Gerstmann as an inspiration. How do you reconcile that site’s clear personality-driven motives with your own feelings on objectivity? Do you think Giant Bomb is objective? And as a follow-up question before I lose this train of thought, do you see much tangible distinction between a review and, say, a piece of news?

CD: I love the guys over at Giantbomb and I miss the hell out of Ryan Davis. To answer your question I hate their reviews. I don’t go to their site for their reviews at all, but rather their other pieces of content such as “Quick Looks” and the Bombcast. Giantbomb is the epitome of subjective games media, but maybe that’s what they’re selling, their personalities. So, in a sense, most come on there to hear their opinions and interact with the Giantbomb community.

It’s disturbing that their opinion pieces still influence consumer decisions. Again, read comments of those who respond to games that receive low scores by them. You’ll notice a few who say they’re cancelling their pre-orders. It’s a damn shame, but that’s the power individuals have when many value one’s opinion and view them as a subject matter expert.

If the Giantbomb crew told me a game you really liked was a piece of utter garbage does that make you wrong about the game and does it make them right about the game? No it doesn’t, because opinions are unique to the individual. If that’s the case, does an opinion necessarily reflect the pros and cons of the product in an accurate way?

That’s not to say some or many won’t share another’s opinion, but how accurate is an opinion to those who don’t share it? This is where objectivity needs to be maintained in order to effectively inform that audience of the strengths and weaknesses of the product. Again, we have to ask ourselves, what is the worth of one’s opinion against the facts.

Let me ask you this, what is the point of a review? If your audience doesn’t agree with your “review” then what does that say about the validity of the review and the process?

I do see a distinction between news and a review. When posting a news story it should only contain the facts without reflecting the reporters bias or opinion, in short, “just the facts, jack!” A review should have opinion, we as an audience are interested in how the reviewer personally felt about the game, but in the end the review needs to be grounded in fact not opinion. Credibility is an important element for a reviewer, but if a reviewer keeps telling me games I like are bad, then all credibility is lost.

I like Bullet Witch for the Xbox 360, I um, actually like it a lot. If I were to review that game it would get a low score because the reality of the game is that it’s not a very good game by any stretch of the imagination, especially in comparison to others of its genre. That’s where my opinion would be injected into the review to give it a sense of enrichment and inform those who may share my opinion and can tolerate the negative aspects of the game. In no way would it be justified to score that game solely on my opinion because those who don’t share my opinion, yet trust my review, would go out there to buy the game, play the game, and once that happens they’ll think I’ve lost my damn mind.

So basically, news stories should be just the facts, but a review can have the author’s opinion injected into it. While a review can sustain opinion it’s important the review states the facts for those who are more interested in what the product offers but could care less what the author personally felt about the product.

"I love the guys over at Giantbomb and I miss the hell out of Ryan Davis. To answer your question I hate their reviews."

“I love the guys over at Giantbomb and I miss the hell out of Ryan Davis. To answer your question I hate their reviews.”

ET: You’ve mentioned a couple examples (like Skyrim and Bullet Witch) of games where your opinion deviates from what you’d consider to be their objective quality. Now that there are aggregate sites like Metacritic, it’s easier than ever to see the range of review scores on a single game. In your perfect world, would all scores on a single game be identical? Wouldn’t that be the natural result of grading games without factoring in an individual reviewer’s opinion?

CD: Absolutely. Look, the reality of the situation is this, if a game is good it’s good, if it’s average in quality then it’s average in quality, and if it’s bad then there’s no denying it no matter how you, as the reviewer, feel about it. Now, there’s a particular range that a reviewer could go by if evidence is presented. Maybe the range of variance would be by two digits…possibly three, if again, supporting evidence is included in the review. In no way should a review give a game a “9” while another gives it a “3.”

The injection of opinion in the review would be the information that examines an intrapersonal reflection and experience of the based on the reviewer’s bias and preference on the game that may hit home with other readers who can relate, which in turn let’s them know that the game is a good game, just not the game for them.

In this sense, the review process has been successful. It has given an evaluation of the product based on fact, but depending on the reviewers’ personalities and the attachment an audience has with their opinions it can also inform others of an opposing view point that in no way manipulates the score of the game.

Evidence to claims is crucial in the review process. Gametrailers.com does a good job showing evidence of faults in a game through recorded documentation. Again, what is an opinion worth? Nobody agrees to everything and those in understanding of this will realize that every reviewer will have a degree of variance in their opinion, but the fact still remains that the game is what it is despite that variance in opinion.

It’s not an easy task to separate personal feelings and bias when criticizing a game. It’s a learned skill, just like “good” writing is. Not everyone can be a reviewer in that sense, however, anybody can voice an opinion. This is the distinction between objective criticism and subjective criticism. The World Dictionary defines objectivity as existing independently of perception or an individual’s conceptions and being undistorted by emotion or personal bias. The game being reviewed is not in flux, but rather a static product as a whole. It conceptually cannot be good and bad.

Some reviewers seem to come off as agenda setters in that they shape an audiences way of thinking about a game. This is done through framing reviews and persuasive writing. As I have explained before, some reviewers are very influential and if they deem a game “bad” or “good” a percentage of the audience will base their purchasing decision around that rather than seeking out the truth for themselves. This has a ripple effect and can determine the success of a game and the future of a developer studio.

I’m not saying opinion should not exist in a review, I’m saying it should not have any basis on the rating of the quality of the specific game.

So yes, the review scores of the game should be very similar, but the personal reflections and opinions of the reviewers will be quite different based on their bias and preferences.

ET: Do you think there’s any reason to discuss or debate opinion in the public square? Or is that just pointless?

CD: There is absolutely a reason to discuss and debate opinion in the public square. In fact, opinion is crucial to the growth of creativity. I’m not against opinion at all, it’s an extremely important component to the growth of the games industry in terms of evolving ideas and game design.

However, we’re discussing reviews. A review by the very definition is a formal examination. A review is not an opinion it is an assessment. A review determines the worth and value of a product. Since opinions vary basing a review on opinion voids the validity of the review.

As I mentioned before opinions are a vital piece of the review, but in no way should it be the basis of the review. It should be placed in the review to give personal insight that may be relevant to other readers’ preferences, but again it is too subjective to be stated as fact.

I believe there should be a synergy of public forum and reviews. Allow people to vent if there are certain aspects of the game that the audience doesn’t appreciate, regardless if they work or not. Developers can listen to the feedback and adjust aspects for future games to appease the audiences demands.

Don’t call a review a “review” if opinion is valued over fact. Call it an opinion on the game or an impression. In this way, if someone doesn’t value the author’s opinion they know they’re not going to get criticism based on fact, rather they will get criticism based on preference and personal bias.

ET: So if I had retitled my original Beyond review as an opinion piece, you wouldn’t have had any objections? 

CD:  Yea, for sure. Look, if you would have labeled it as your impressions of the game I wouldn’t have different expectations on what I’m about to read. I’d be going in with the mindset that I’m going to read what you felt about the game, not an assessment of the game.

I hate using this as an example, but I feel like it’s an example many can understand and it’s if I claimed to have written a “review” on Skyrim, but basically said it’s the worst game I’ve ever played.

Now again, everybody, and I mean e-v-e-r-y-b-o-d-y, knows Skyrim is an amazing achievement in game design in every facet. So, what validity does a “review” hold that states otherwise?

Now, if I told you “My Skyrim Impressions”, you can’t really argue against those negative claims since those are my impressions and not a review. So, if you came in expecting a review when I’ve claimed that these are my impressions, then you need to check your expectations.

Yes, those impressions can be included in a review and should be, but again, they shouldn’t have an affect on the review score unless there’s evidence supporting those claims.

"I didn't like Skyrim, but regardless that game is a monumental achievement to game design and an incredible game in every facet, a true 10 out of 10 game."

“I didn’t like Skyrim, but regardless that game is a monumental achievement to game design and an incredible game in every facet, a true 10 out of 10 game.”

ET: Who in the industry do you think is writing reviews the way you’d argue is fair? Is there anyone, or do you think we need a total sea change?

CD: Oh that is a good question.

Honestly, it varies. For the most part (there have been exceptions) I feel Gametrailers.com does really well on their reviews. The reason is they always show evidence supporting their claims, which I feel is crucial in a review.

Believe it or not, IGN.com has done some extremely decent reviews at times. Case in point would be their Deadlight review. Even then, there’s a flux between fair reviews and extremely subjective opinion pieces.

In my honest opinion, there should be a total sea change. Or at least a synergy between a factual assessment and subjective impressions. One of my favorite forms of written reviews was when GameInformer magazine had three people reviewing a single game. It was interesting when one would give a game a high score while another gave it a low score. In a sense, maybe a publication could get one person to do an objective review while letting two or more give their impressions and weigh them against the review score.

I think in that way the audience really gets a full spectrum of what works factually and what works based on different preferences.

ET: Okay, one last major question: are you still at all bitter about my facetious “review update” for Beyond? How has this opportunity and interview changed your opinion of me or the site, if at all?

CD: No, I’m not bitter at all, but you have to admit it that “facetious review” was kind of a spiteful act, which was geared toward your audience who called you out on a review being way too opinionated. You have to remember why and who you’re doing all this game media for, it’s for them. Instead of insulting your audience you should take their feedback and try to understand what works for them and what doesn’t.

I mean if the majority of your audience disagrees with your “review” that doesn’t hold strong supporting evidence to back up your claims…there might be something wrong with the review.

I think you’re a good guy and I’ll be visiting Error! Not Found to check out your reviews or opinions on games. Just remember credibility and fact is important to a review as well as opinion, but a written piece saturated in opinion without any supporting evidence is a bit harder to accept as credible.

I’m thankful to be given this opportunity and who knows what’ll happen down the line, but I respect you as a professional and I’m interested in seeing how you evolve as a critic and to see what the future has in store for Error! Not Found.

Thank you again for this interview and experience.

I think CrimsonWing69 is full of shit.

I think his opinion, that subjectivity does not belong in a review of a product (much less an art product) is ridiculous and grounded in silly semantics. I think the sooner we destroy the wall separating “opinion pieces” and “reviews,” the sooner we tap into a greater, wealthier mine of criticism, which is an art unto itself. I think the review I wrote, and the update I provided are both effective in communicating what I believe and what I wanted to say. I think the review he wrote was, as predicted, just as subjective as my own.

But I don’t care anymore.

The person who wrote that review update — hell, the person who initiated this contact and interview in the first place — is dead now. And he probably isn’t ever coming back. Erasing the username of CrimsonWing69 and replacing it with the real name Chris Dass has proven transcendent. I disagree with him more than ever, but I’m not frustrated. I get it.

I mean, look, did talking with Chris change my opinion? Nah. Of course not. I don’t know how his argument could be made to persuade me. But the amazing thing is that when I peeled back a layer of anonymity and vagueness, I found a person with an argument to be made. It wasn’t just someone shouting into a vacuum. It was someone who’d clearly thought about this for a long time, and constructed an argument that, while entirely opposed to my own mindset, is actually pretty consistent in its belief.

The messy things that Chris absolutely needs to believe to have any integrity… he does believe them, without hesitation. Here are some really fucking crazy examples, in case you missed them: he loves Bullet Witch but wouldn’t review it well. He hates Skyrim but would give it a 10 out of 10. He thinks Giant Bomb is great but can’t stand their reviews. He’s flawless.

We’re supposed to be using the internet to communicate, and become closer in some grander cosmic sense. I think we largely succeed at doing just that. It’s all a giant swirling pot of feelings — the rough equivalent of sticking a couple billion people in a hotel’s conference room. There’s great beauty in that, and there’s great misery in that. It comes with the territory.

The thing I understand now that I didn’t understand before, and the thing I hope Chris will learn too, is that the person at the other end of the tin can phone isn’t just an idea. Back when Chris was just CrimsonWing69, that’s all he was to me. An idea. A thing that needed to be torn apart and ridiculed. I’d suspect I was the same thing to him. Some faceless guy leaning back in his chair, smoking a cigar, writing shitty opinion pieces that he was trying to pass off as “reviews.”

Now we understand each other. Our disagreement is fierce, but our integrity is intact. That is the beauty of the internet. Funnily enough, it’s also the beauty of base human communication.

I’ve never met CrimsonWing69, but as far as I’m concerned, I’ve met Chris Dass. And it is a pleasure to know him.

You can follow Evan Tognotti on Twitter — @evantognotti. 

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Comments

  1. CageCantDesignForShitEnjoyYourMovies says:

    “VISIONARY GAME DESIGNER DAVID CAGE”

    HAHHAHAHAHAHA
    HAHAHAAHA

    Why would I bother to read anything after that horseshit, what a moron

  2. We think Chris/CrimsonWing69 would very much enjoy our website, Objective Game Reviews (http://www.objectivegamereviews.com). As a reflection on objectivity in game reviewing we very much enjoyed this piece, Evan.

  3. “I found the story extremely entertaining and the non-linear narrative worked particularly well for me.”

    Yup, completely objective, that.

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Disclaimer

Error! Not Found has many articles of opinion. Every editor has different tastes and beliefs, and one point of view does not necessarily reflect the group as a whole.

(c) Evan Tognotti, Editor-In-Chief. 2011

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