Bias-Buster: Mainstream reviewers speak out! interview

Bias-Buster interview
Bias-Buster interview

“Mainstream reviewers are all biased against the genre.”

“They’re all just twitch jockeys over there; what do they know?”

“They hate anything that doesn’t involve mindless action.”

These are imaginary quotes, but spend any time in the adventure community and you’ll soon hear sentiments like this every time a new adventure gets a low grade from a mainstream magazine. But are any of these claims actually correct? Are adventure games today really doomed to fail in the popular press through the poisoned pens of biased writers?

The easy answer is yes, but easy is not the same as true. Certainly there are valid examples of anti-adventure diatribes to be found online, where anyone with an Internet connection can pass their opinions off as reviews, however worthless and ill-informed some of them may be. But does that apply to the bigger, more respected publications with (supposedly) real journalistic standards as well? Many still say it does, though the reasoning is often vague and conveniently selective.

Perhaps this reaction is really more of a defense mechanism to preserve our own dignity under the guise of protecting our once-thriving genre. After all, there’s consolation to be found in dismissing negative commentary of our favourite pastime as the unfounded rantings of haters, and there’s strength in defining “us vs. them” battle lines – we the plucky, never-say-die underdog; they the ignorant, oafish behemoth that steamrolls anything it doesn’t understand. There’s nothing like a common cause to rally behind and make us feel good about ourselves.

Maybe the answer is a little of both, somewhere in between? Either way, everyone seems to have an opinion one way or the other. Personally I’ve always defended the mainstream media from the more specious accusations, perhaps because I’ve enjoyed (and reviewed) shooters, RPGs, and strategy games myself, so I know first-hand that one’s broad gaming interests do not limit the ability to be open-minded and fair. That said, I do believe there’s a faint but discernible bias that contributes to the anti-adventure perception, though it’s far less damaging, far more subtle than many proclaim.

But for all the debates, all the certainty of our own beliefs, the one opinion we consistently never seek is that of the reviewers themselves. Until now. It’s impossible to ask them all, of course, but I recently discussed the issue with three key members of the mainstream gaming press: editors Ashley Day from games™ and Chris Watters from GameSpot, and Logan Decker, Editor-in-Chief of PC Gamer (US). If you’re among those who believe in widespread reviewer bias, chances are you’ve railed against one of these three magazines, if not these men in particular. So set aside what you THINK you know, and let’s find out what they have to say (along with a follow-up commentary of my own).


 

Adventure Gamers: First of all, why are you such a doodyhead that hates adventure games?

 

 
Ashley Day

Ashley Day (games™): I am rubber you are glue! Hopefully that answers your question. If not: I've been playing adventure games ever since I discovered The Secret Of Monkey Island on the Amiga sometime in the mid-Nineties. That game pretty much defined my relationship with the genre and my tastes very much lean toward SCUMM-style adventures, particularly the LucasArts catalogue, Beneath A Steel Sky and Simon The Sorcerer. The past decade hasn't quite been as satisfying for me but I love almost everything Telltale does, as well as some of the better quality Japanese adventures like Phoenix Wright or 999. This is definitely reflected in the reviews and scores we've given out during my five years on games™.

Chris Watters (GameSpot): An accusation as tenuous as your hairline! Not my best riposte, but my insult swordfighting skills are a bit rusty. While I won’t deny that I have, at times, hated adventure games (playing King’s Quest II without a walkthrough nearly broke my tender young spirit), my bouts with frustration have been far outweighed by my enjoyment of the genre. I’ve had the good fortune to review a number of adventure games for GameSpot (most recently Tales of Monkey Island) and I think you’d be hard pressed to call me a hater after reading my reviews.

 

 
Logan Decker

Logan Decker (PC Gamer): I can’t address the doodyhead issue: obviously I am biased in that respect. But I'm a huge fan of adventure games. I was weaned on Scott Adams' text adventures, and I remember being dazzled by the "hi-res" line drawings of Roberta Williams' Mystery House on the Apple II+. My love for adventure games matured during the golden age of LucasArts adventures: Day of the Tentacle, through The Dig, Loom, and Grim Fandango – which is to this day my most beloved game of all time. It was the first time I responded to a game the same way I do with my favorite books: with that ache in my chest upon saying goodbye to all these wonderful characters and the journey I'd taken with them.

Jack Allin (Adventure Gamers): I can be a doodyhead for other reasons, but obviously not for hating adventures. My experience goes all the way back to the original Zork (but it was a few years old at the time!), and I was captivated by this fantastically imaginative, interactive world. I slipped away from the genre after that though, and some of its best years passed me by while I was busy playing Nintendo. I’m really glad I branched out, though, or I’d have missed out on some tremendous gaming experiences. Even now, outside of work for the site I play all different sorts of games, preferring a wide range of styles and platforms and regular changes of pace. I get bored easily, so I really value the diversity. As a reviewer, I also think it helps to have a broader exposure to other games. Adventures don’t just compete with other adventures, but other games of all types, and it’s important to know what else is out there and how the genre is stacking up against them.

AG: Okay, so either we picked the few rare exceptions to the rule, or there’s a disconnect between perception and reality. Why do you think there’s a belief among adventure gamers that mainstream reviewers have a bias against their favourite games?

Ashley: It's not just adventure games, actually. As a multiformat magazine aimed at a wide audience, we cater to lots of different tastes and you just can't please all of them at once. Every week we receive feedback from readers complaining about all sorts of bias. They complain that we choose to review too many multiformat games on Xbox rather than PlayStation, that we rate Street Fighter so high it's warped our view of Mortal Kombat, and that we have an anti-Nintendo stance (a criticism you'd find completely absurd if you ever took a look at my games collection). The reason for this? Every reader approaches a publication looking for the things that interest them in particular and if they don't get what they're looking for then they understandably feel misrepresented. As a magazine games™ certainly doesn't prioritise one genre or format over another outside of commercial realities – you can't ignore the popularity of the FPS for example, so you'd be crazy not to give the genre lots of coverage. Having said that, you can't eliminate the personal tastes of each writer. Which is where responsible editors become necessary.

 

 
Chris Watters

Chris: Because adventure gamers are doodyheads that hate mainstream reviewers? I’m not familiar with that perception myself, but I can hazard a few guesses about its genesis. Perhaps avid fans of adventure games look at sites like Adventure Gamers and sites like GameSpot and see that AG has extensive coverage on games that can’t even be found in the GS database. This might be perceived as disinterest in, or worse, a slight against adventure games. The truth is, as much as we strive for extensive coverage across all genres, there is a limit to our resources and how many games we can actually cover in a given week. Or perhaps this belief stems from the perception that we review adventure games harshly. While it’s true that GameSpot has scored adventure games lower than, say, Adventure Gamers (Black Mirror III, for example), we’ve also agreed on high scores as well (Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective). We regularly get accused of being biased both for and against a given genre/platform/publisher, so it’s really hard to pin down where these perceptions get started.

Logan: One reason is that it might be true. Though of course there are many exceptions, there's a sense that adventure games in the classic point-and-click tradition have not progressed in the way that other genres have. Look at the complexity and maturity of strategy games like Civilization V, RPGs like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and action-adventure games like Mass Effect with its winding, interlocking stories and epic scale. These games have evolved with each release, becoming more sophisticated, more polished, more responsive to our desires as gamers. Whereas nonsensical puzzles and threadbare dialog still show up in so many contemporary adventure games. In other words, there seems to be too much chaff and not enough wheat in the genre. These are legitimate complaints.

But writers undermine the credibility of the games press when they appear to dismiss an entire genre on the basis of a single – or even a number – of current games: "oh no, more of this again." These kinds of sneers signal that a game's not being judged on its own merits, but that it is expected to redeem the failings of other games. That's not fair, and adventure gamers are right to be suspicious of media, including PC Gamer, when we reflect these attitudes, and call us out on it.

Another reason is that adventure gamers are enthusiasts, and this means that they're often willing to overlook many of the flaws of the genre as they exist today in a way that general reviewers – who must necessarily represent all their readers – do not. This is not to say that adventure gamers are biased, or that reviewers aren't being fair. This is to say that both parties are representing their constituencies fairly and vigorously. That's the way it should be, really.

The last reason, and the one that really resonates with me personally, is that criticism is often dismissed as a rejection of the genre, when in fact it's more often just the opposite: we criticize because reviewers and editors like myself think extremely highly of the genre, and we want to see it grow and evolve and become better, moving toward greatness. And when we play lackluster adventure games, we sense the disrespect for the player and adventure game fan, and criticize the lack of ambition. And because adventure games are technically less complex than other games, they are easier to make than other types of games. And because they are easier to make, there are far more of them. And because there are far more of them, there's more crap.

 

 

Jack Allin

Jack: I can actually relate to the perception though the opposite end of the spectrum. For Adventure Gamers, there’s at least a mild belief that we overrate games simply because of our appreciation of the genre. I don’t think that’s true, and professional impartiality is something that all our writers fully understand. And yet every time we give a half-star more than someone thinks a game is worth, out come the accusations of being apologists afraid to criticize the genre for fear of burying it forever. It’s nonsense. So it doesn’t at all surprise me when people overreact to low scores elsewhere. It’s safer to shoot the messenger than face a message you may not want to hear.

A few notable exceptions aside, I really don’t see anti-adventure bias as a widespread problem. Where some reviewers do contribute to the perception themselves is in their failure to properly articulate the nature of their criticisms, instead choosing to lazily cite traditional genre staples as being fundamentally flawed. They may not say that, but the implication is there, and it's so easy to carelessly cross the line into condemning what people actually enjoy. I’ve read so many reviewers who shoot themselves in the foot with half-hearted analyses even though I understood where the writer was coming from.

I also think some reviewers are overly negative towards games that don’t innovate or push any kind of technological envelope. Both are perfectly valid observations to note, and neither is the adventure genre’s forte by any stretch, but just hammer the nail in, don’t beat it to a pulp. And for the love of all that’s holy, everyone needs to stop harping on point-and-click as a control scheme. So what if it’s been around for two decades? I love direct control games, but P&C is good enough for Diablo, The Sims, and nearly every RTS game in existence. Shut up about it already (unless it’s done badly).

Continued on the next page...


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Comments

Ascovel Ascovel
Sep 23, 2011

Great choice of topics, questions and data, and consequently a very valuable analysis of the mainstream’s approach.  Thank you for preparing it!

cbman
Sep 23, 2011

“Adventures are very high-demand/low-reward games for the most part. We don’t even have the old point-scoring systems anymore, as random as many of those were. Far too often I’ve solved a puzzle only to… get stuck on another puzzle right away.”

This is one of the biggest problems with so many adventure games - they don’t understand that the gamer wants reward. I refer to these kinds of situations as locked chest inside a locked chest syndrome and they’re te biggest thing I would always look to avoid when designing a game. Solving a puzzle should always do at least one of the following things:

Trigger a meaningful cutscene

Open up a new area to explore

Or, at the least, meaningfully advance the plot or gameplay (ie provide a clear clue to solving another puzzle). It should never leave the player no better off than they were because then they just feel as though they are being strung along.

I get very unforgiving with games that don’t do this. Am I solving the game or jumping through hoops?

These problems are excerbated in very linear games because the player doesn’t even have the option of trying something else. That is the other big problem: not enough freedom. I don’t mind being stumped; what i don’t like is being stumped with nothing to even try.

Martin Gantefoehr Martin Gantefoehr
Sep 23, 2011

Great article.
Plus, now I know Logan Decker’s face.

stuboy
Sep 23, 2011

Excellent article. One big thing that didn’t get pointed out is that often, in terms of metacritic, we’re actually HARSHER at AG on our beloved genre than mainstream publications. For starters, we rank out of five stars, so where as a game might get 95 on mainstreamgames.com an equally growing review only gets 90 from us based on 4.5 stars, same with 89%/4 stars at 80% etc.

I think personally, I’m a lot less tolerant of stock types of puzzle than mainstream reviews. I found myself reviewing a game recently that I didn’t really warm to but had got glowing user reviews and 4/5 star reviews from non-adventure outlets as well. Maybe we’re all just a bit jaded. I suspect that the people throwing praise at this particular game were used to more “casual” fare, so a lot of dull and cliche tasks and characters felt new to them; I could certainly imagine that title being heralded as a classic if Sierra had made it in 1990. Maybe the modern adventure reviewer is really the fussiest breed!

stuboy
Sep 23, 2011

glowing. facepalm.

MoonBird MoonBird
Sep 24, 2011

“Though of course there are many exceptions, there’s a sense that adventure games in the classic point-and-click tradition have not progressed in the way that other genres have”

Why fix something that isn’t broken?

Toefur Toefur
Sep 24, 2011

Did Ashley just say they’re revealing screenshots for a SEQUEL TO LOOM???????????

stepurhan stepurhan
Sep 24, 2011

What a thoroughly fascinating read. Good to know we’re not really having to defend the battlements of the genre from a horde of slavering hate-mongers/ Not that I ever thought we were anyway.

Ascovel Ascovel
Sep 24, 2011

Well, some amount of eloquent defending would be useful once in a while, as sadly many past proponents of the genre turned against it.

For example, in the course of last year I’ve watched Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw explain why it’s good that adventure games died and read John Walker calling them “one of the stupidest genres in existence”.

Those are quite some blows considering these guys were once widely known enthusiasts of adventure games.

Interplay Interplay
Sep 24, 2011

What a great idea for an article.  I thought the answers were very insightful.

rtrooney rtrooney
Sep 24, 2011

While an excellent article, a few points were missed.

The first being the issue of reward. I think of an adventure game being similar to a horse race. An FPS is similar to a slot machine. In the first instance, even if you win a bet, or solve a puzzle, you are going to wait for your reward. In a FPS, you shoot the ogre, see blood, see a score tally, instant reward.

That’s the way it’s always been with adventure games. The reward for doing something right has always been resolved somewhere down the line. That can be boring when the alternative is instant gratification.

Another point was the statement you made about AG positive reviews getting negative critiques.

You should have addressed that directly. AG has a limited amount of bandwidth. To take up that valuable space to negatively review a game would serve no purpose.

My thoughts only.

mszv
Sep 24, 2011

Really good article, great read.

after a brisk nap
Sep 25, 2011

@rtrooney

Well, a negative would serve the purpose - DOES serve the purpose - of letting players know that the game isn’t very good, and they might be better off spending their time and money on something else. And it may serve as feedback for the developers that what they’re doing isn’t cutting it, prodding them to improve.

I thought this was a really great feature, despite the slight cheesiness of interviewing yourself. Clearly people are going to have different opinions (e.g. the view that modern adventure games don’t measure up because unlike other genres they haven’t developed in twenty years), but it’s nice to see that the mainstream press does have a soft spot for the genre.

Few things here that haven’t been said before on the forums, but these responses seem more thoughtful and articulate than what you usually get in an online debate. I’m curious about how the interviews were conducted.

darthmaul
Sep 25, 2011

Sorry, but the mainstream magazines only cover the mainstream adventure games like telltale games.  They can’t claim to be anything but ridiculously anti adventure if the best they can do is review friggin puzzle agent 1-2 like pcgamer while ignoring the serious and much much better games released regularly.

orient orient
Sep 26, 2011

Great read. One of the main issues for me, which was brought up briefly in the article, is adventure game developer’s biting off more than they can chew in regards to production. If you can’t afford to animate your characters properly or hire quality voice actors then try a different approach. We’d get far more interesting games for it—just look at the indie space.

The biggest problem of all as far as I’m concerned is creative stagnation, in the narrative design and in the puzzles. It feels like most adventure developers are such big fans of 90s adventures that they’re more interested in making the next Broken Sword or Monkey Island, as opposed to something fresh and different.

Interplay Interplay
Sep 26, 2011

I think the lack of money (and therefore big-budget AAA titles) in the adventure genre is due to more than a potentially limited audience size.  When someone pays $50 or $60 for a new game like Call of Duty, they can reliably count on potentially endless hours of enjoyment.  After they finish the single-player campaign, they can play online multiplayer.  Add on to that DLC and such, and these games turn out to be a great value (expensive but worth it).  On the other hand, I rarely replay adventure games (unless it’s a classic and I wait enough years to hopefully forget the puzzles).  So, after you finish the game in 12 hours or so, you’re done.  So, adventure games have to charge less, which limits their budget (and their AAA potential), or they have to aim for a more affordable price point which also limits the budget.  So, I end up waiting for the game to go on the inevitable $5 or less Steam sale (which I’m sure the developer sees little of), and the cycle perpetuates.  So, for this reason, I think it is unlikely we will ever again see big budget AAA pure adventure titles (without action added in, a la Heavy Rain or LA Noire).  Thus, thank God for indie designers and the creativity they bring.

Kolorabi Kolorabi
Sep 26, 2011

Interesting article, thanks.

I think that people who think mainstream sites are giving adventure games in particular unfair treatment should visit http://www.matrixgames.com and then count how many of _their_ games that get reviewed by the mainstream sites they read.

See, these sites have limited resources. They even have limited space, as odd as that may seem about a website. So naturally they have to limit the amount of games they review, and naturally that means that games in niche genres (and indie PC games in general) won’t be covered as widely as games with more mainstream appeal. This isn’t a problem limited to adventure games.

fov fov
Sep 27, 2011

@darthmaul - Seriously? All three of these mainstream publications reviewed Gemini Rue.

threerings threerings
Sep 29, 2011

Good feature.  I think that while all the interviewees make good points, ultimately, it comes down to the fact that adventure game fans are sometimes honestly different from fans of other game genres.  I’ve been playing AGs since the early 80s, and to some extent, AGs are ALL I care to play and all I CAN play.  I have a very different reaction to AGs than your average person on the street because the genre is like a language to me, one that is native.  And even a mediocre game can be comforting and stress-reducing in the familiarity of the plot conventions or puzzles. 

That’s not to say I think AGs are lesser quality than other games, but I think they really are a breed apart.  They have different goals than many/most games.  For me, an AG is an alternative to a movie or a book, not Mario or a zombie shooter.

UPtimist UPtimist
Sep 30, 2011

Good article, interesting to read “outside” people’s opinions on these things (of course, all said they actually were AG fans, so the actual outsider opinion is questionable). Agreed with most, didn’t agree with a few points, but that is just good.

Anyways, a few of my thoughts (sorry if this is excessively long, it’s laaate and I tend to ramble anyways).

First of all, in regards to the whole appealing to a larger market (and why Laytons and FPS and all that are more successful than the traditional p&c), there is a question of attention span. It’s the same as in other forms of entertainment, the trend is towards more short-term amusement (this can be clearly seen for example in news - people are nowadays only looking for scoops, not in-depth analysis). AGs are very much story driven and basically are like books in that they require the full experience from beginning to end to be fully satisfactory. You need to really dive in.

Most gamers don’t finish their games nowadays, I don’t remember the exact %s but it was often the majority of players that didn’t finish a game. Laytons have (I understand, I haven’t played them) logic puzzles that reward you simply for having finished the puzzle, as they’re isolated objectives (I’m having a hard time putting this to words) where the story is simply an underlying theme to hold the puzzles together - in regular AGs puzzles are simply a means to forwarding the story (or should be). The actual reward comes like in books through the storyline, which can only fully reward through completion.

As for the question of the key for success, everyone focused on the inner qualities of the game, while, as already hinted many times earlier, a vital part is also the external things - mainly marketing. Of course, you can’t blow money you don’t have, so it’s not like you can just market more.

So, you need some way to reach out. Amanita games has been hugely succesful and become widely recognized without much of a funding. Still, in many cases casual(ish) games tend to also very much come by chance into public awareness. There’s a huge flood of indie games nowadays on the market, and it’s way too easy to just get lost in the flood (basically, you need something or someone to clearly raise you from the masses and seen by everyone).

For AGs specifically, we need innovation. Companies need to realize how important marketing is and do it well with what funds they have. But one thing that has recently come up is that there is most likely a large market out there of people who haven’t a clue AGs exist - that there even are games out there that only require an inquisitive mind, so to say, and that are intended to first and foremost give you a story (again, having a hard time saying what I mean). Reach out to new demographics, I think AGs have the most to gain like this. AGs have stories parallel to the usual mediums - books and movies (the whole comparison of GK3 and Da Vinci Code comes into mind - in fact much of this idea comes from Jane Jensen who has a few times talked about people who AGs could reach out to). Another thing is of course using the internet properly - it has an immense potential for huge visibility through minimal input. Make the best of it (instead of just a couple ads on AG websites).

Well, that sounds like it’s just so easy, but still, it often seems like they don’t even try.

Oh, and AGs should try to re-introduce themselves to players who aren’t accustomed to the genre (new ones, mainly). I’ve spoken to many people who are active gamers but didn’t have a clue anything to the slightest extent like AGs existed. Some of which whom could’ve been very interested (and were).

Whew, that’s more than I meant to write… Sorry!

darthmaul
Oct 2, 2011

Yes, seriously.  I have a PCgamer subscription.  They only review the crappy Telltale games.  There are dozens of much better AGs that are released each year and they get no coverage.  Hell, PCgamer spends more time on games released 10 years ago and on mods than on AGs.

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