If the marketing blitz and wall-to-wall coverage in the games media had somehow passed me by, I think I'd probably have noticed anyway that there was a new Bethesda game on the market; a solid proportion of my friends have disappeared off social media entirely, which barring the possibility of a catastrophic meteor strike on London is generally an indication that they've been utterly engrossed by yet another of Bethesda's remarkable open-world extravaganzas. Indeed, Fallout 4 has landed to quite some fanfare and a thumping great sales figures - with the publisher claiming to have shipped 12 million units of the game for launch, while UK sales figures outstripped the last title in the series, New Vegas, by over 200 percent. The critics almost universally love it; Metacritic, for all its failings, is a reasonable barometer of critical response and places Fallout 4 in the mid to high 80s, with not a single professional review being rated as "negative".
Allow your eyes to drift to the right on Metacritic and you may see something quite different, though. The site allows users to rate games and other media as well as aggregating ratings from professional publications - and here, Fallout 4 scores a meagre 5.3 (out of 10) at the time of writing, with slightly over half of all reviews being firmly negative. The sample size isn't huge - just 1600 user reviews in total - but that still means that over 800 people took the time to head to Metacritic and write negative reviews of the game. The impression that something is amiss is backed up if you look at most of the professional reviews, be they on websites or on YouTube; the comment threads in general seethe with dislike of the game and anger at the positivity displayed by the professional critics.
"Videogames are a very broad church; even if you ignore the massive demographic expansion that's happened...in recent years, games have been around in pretty mass-market form for 35 years, which means that almost every adult is potentially a game consumer"
What's going on? Why this apparent gap between the adulation of professional critics and the anger of outspoken consumers? Many of you, familiar with how the Internet and its cycles of outrage work, are probably already shrugging and saying "that's just how things are"; but is it really? Fallout 4 is a particularly egregious case, but yes, this is an extremely common cycle with videogames - in fact, you can see something very similar happening with Star Wars Battlefront at the moment, with almost universal critical acclaim stacking up against a vocal consumer backlash. In other media, though, this is highly unusual; you may dislike a new album or movie, you may find Game of Thrones confusing and silly or Breaking Bad unlikeable and boring, but the chances are that you've never found yourself compelled to join in with a large-scale online backlash or bashing of popular media. In videogames, we've come to accept this as part of the landscape. Why?
I should declare at this point that I have no idea who's "right" in this discussion. I haven't bought or played Fallout 4; I like Bethesda's games but I also like the idea of actually finishing enough work this side of Christmas to allow myself to actually have a Christmas, so I'm damned if I'm getting sucked into what is, on past experience, almost certainly a very engrossing and time-consuming game. Maybe it's brilliant and deserving of its critical plaudits. Maybe it sucks. I don't know; I haven't played it, and even if I had, I'd be no more qualified to declare a "right" side of the argument than anyone else, because the whole thing is subjective as hell. Even the question of bugginess is subjective; the existence of the bugs themselves can be objectively measured, but how annoying you find them or how much they detract from the experience is entirely subjective. My point is that I'm not saying "why are these wrong consumers arguing with these correct critics?" or "how can these critics be so wrong when gamers are clearly right?" - I don't have a side and I'm not sure there's even any legitimacy to trying to make such a judgment. I just want to understand why this kicks off in the first place.
Here's a theory. Videogames are a very broad church; even if you ignore the massive demographic expansion that's happened as a result of mobile and social games in recent years, games have been around in pretty mass-market form for 35 years, which means that almost every adult is potentially a game consumer. Certainly the majority of people under 50 or so played games when they were young, and many continue to do so; within that huge population, there are many who have very specific preferences in terms of the types and genres of games they enjoy, what they look for from their games (ranging from compelling narrative to aggressive multiplayer and all points in between) and what they find objectionable or acceptable in terms of bugs, graphical defects or other negative points. One player's utterly engrossing experience is another's hellish boredom; one player's infuriating graphical flicker is a barely noticeable annoyance to another. This is only to be expected. There are already more than 40 million current generation consoles on the market; the last generation sold over a quarter of a billion units. That's a hell of a lot of consumers, and that's just console games; of course it's a broad church. It would be absolutely bizarre if all those people had the same tastes, the same preferences and the same dislikes.
"The belief that there's a single, coherent and homogenous identity for people who play videogames is peculiar and clearly wrong... Its effects, though, are hugely damaging"
That's now, however, what it looks like when you read through the rhetoric of people who find themselves at odds with critical consensus. Their comments almost uniformly lay claim to a shared identity - often "gamers", sometimes "fans" and sometimes even just "consumers" - accusing game developer and professional critic alike of offending or abusing not just the individual commenting right now, but the entire, seemingly homogenous "community" implied by that identity. "This isn't what gamers want"; "this company doesn't listen to the fans"; "this is an insult to consumers"; this kind of rhetoric is incredibly common and seems to suggest an underlying belief that there truly is one true, coherent identity shared by people who play videogames. Sometimes, in the face of incontrovertible proof that other gamers or consumers are of a different view, these categories are further refined by narrowing them to "true" or "real" gamers or fans, implying an ideological or normatively defined set of opinions and suggesting that everyone whose opinions or preferences fall outside that scope must be a "fake" or fraudulent gamer / fan.
You can identify similar strands of thought and rhetoric in other fields, of course - but nowhere do they come across as powerfully as in videogames. By and large, even the most hardcore metal fan still accepts that what Lady Gaga makes is "music", and won't accuse someone who just bought a Kanye West album of being a "fake music fan"; they may deplore the tastes of others, but there's an underlying recognition that it's still music and its fans (however misguided they may be) are entitled to be such. Game of Thrones fans don't toss toys out of their prams at Sex And The City fans; fans of The Expendables (I'm sure such people probably exist) don't roll their eyes at the "fake cinema fans" turning up to see romantic comedies. Moreover, when a romantic comedy or a pop album gets good reviews, fans of horror movies or black metal don't flood into the comment threads to berate the authors for their failure to adhere to the "correct" viewpoints required of a movie or music fan. We accept this as ordinary in videogames. It's not ordinary. It's bizarre and deeply unhealthy.
The belief that there's a single, coherent and homogenous identity for people who play videogames is peculiar and clearly wrong, and probably forms an interesting (if exhausting and not for the faint of heart or easily offended) ethnographic study topic for some enterprising researcher. Its effects, though, are hugely damaging. It feeds a self-sustaining narrative about corruption (all gamers hold the same views, so divergence from those views must be evidence of corruption) and victimisation (gamers are an attacked minority, and opposing views from other gamers are proof of infiltration and assault) and, in extreme cases, has led to harassment and criminal activity; even without those extremes, it spreads toxicity around what can and should be an open and welcoming community based on mutual interest in the videogames so many of us love.
The media is quick (though often not quick enough) to decry that toxicity, but the Fallout 4 coverage this week has made me wonder if the media itself doesn't feed the very misconception that creates that toxicity in the first place - the idea of gamers as a coherent identity, as a narrow group with clearly defined tastes, views and norms. Lots of journalism likes to throw around the term "gamers" as a group noun; "gamers like this"; "gamers hate this"; "gamers think this" - a daft way of grossly over-generalising about a group of people comfortably larger than the entire population of the United States, and significantly more diverse, to boot. Moreover, there's something a little peculiar about games journalism, or games reviewing, specifically, which is not found in many other fields of media - it's remarkably consistent across multiple publications. Review scores vary little, occasional outliers aside, from publication to publication. Critical acclaim is usually damned-near universal.
"By pandering to the very notion of this identity being coherent, and (unintentionally yet systematically) enforcing coherence in its own criticism, the media continues to feed the very beast that so often lashes out at it"
Divisive games, when they exist, are indie titles, not AAA games; AAA games receive broadly the same reaction from across the whole spectrum of media. I don't think this is down to collusion or corruption (though I am aware that publishers can get very, very antsy about a reviewer giving a markedly "lower than average" score), but rather down to the existence of an unspoken understanding of what's accepted as good or bad in an AAA game, utterly independent of whether the reviewer found it fun, enjoyable, inspiring or delightful. As a result, there's a real lack of variety among critics - something that's generally not true at all among critics of film, music, literature or other art forms, the better of whom often disagree severely among themselves as to the merits of specific works.
That kind of critical disagreement might help to cut out some of the nastiness that surrounds games, by halting the lip service to the notion that there is a single, objective standard of quality that can be measured according to the normatively correct views shared by all "real gamers" and instead acknowledging the breadth and variety of different tastes and preferences out there. At the moment we have a largely homogenous approach to criticism, which regularly finds it in contrast with the existence of a demographic of consumers who are convinced of their centrality, of their right to claim the identity of all gamers, or at least all "true" gamers, and thus to be outraged on behalf of this "silent majority" when their preferences are not met or catered to. By pandering to the very notion of this identity being coherent, and (unintentionally yet systematically) enforcing coherence in its own criticism, the media continues to feed the very beast that so often lashes out at it.
The only way to break this loop is to embrace a wider variety of voices, to bite the bullet and force the world of gaming to get used to hearing criticism from many perspectives - and if that means that the next AAA blockbuster gets scores ranging all across the board for a host of different reasons, rather than an echo chamber of eerily similar scores based on eerily similar perspectives, then gamers and our medium will be all the better off for it.