“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 (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 (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: 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: 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...