"I don't have a solid answer," he says. "It's too baffling. I think the problem [with accountability] stems from the fact that hardly anyone even pays attention to who is writing [reviews]. So when a name actually pops up, they tend to stand out in a huge way."
Which is another reason why, for this story, Arthur prefers to remain anonymous. Journalists prefer to report the news, not become it. Once you develop a stigma as a problem or unethical reporter, it's hard to shake it. Especially once the developers know your name, too.
"Reviewers Want Every Game to be Zelda"
"A review serves one purpose and one purpose only," says Warren Spector, the legendary designer of System Shock, Thief and Deus Ex, "to give readers data they need to make a buy/no buy decision. End of story. To do that, the reviewer has to have a consistent editorial stance. It doesn't matter if you agree with a reviewer on a particular game or movie or book or record as long as they're consistent enough that you can determine from reading the review whether you would like the game, movie, book or record yourself. Reviewers and readers have to develop an ongoing relationship of sorts. I don't see that happening much in the world of game reviews."
From the developer's point of view, reviews are simple: They're either good or bad. If the review is good, chances are sales will be good, too (exception: Psychonauts). If the review is bad, all is not quite lost, as sometimes even a bad review will move copies (see: most EA games), but it's usually bad news. So, as far as a developer is concerned, there's a lot riding on whether or not the person his PR flak sends a review copy to likes it. The frustrating part - for developers - is that no matter how much effort they put into a game, no matter how perfectly they polish it, there's no guarantee they'll receive a good review - or any review at all.
"Game reviewers want every game to be Zelda," says Game Daily's anonymous game journalism critic, Mr. Media Coverage. "That's what one developer told me. He said that the reality of game development is that most developers make games for a very specific target audience, and the developers do their best to find and meet the needs of those specific gamers. It's a frustration, then, when game reviewers complain that the game is too 'kiddie' or too 'redneck' or too targeted to one group. That, after all, was the entire purpose of the game."
In spite of the fact you can do it in your underwear, reviewing games as a career doesn't appeal to everyone, and the nature of the business, the requirement that reviewers be able to play (and often finish) hundreds of games per year, limits the available pool of talent considerably. This often means the folks reviewing most of the games are the people to whom most games are targeted, leaving niche games like Electroplankton and fl0w out in the cold.
"I'm starting to doubt whether games journalists should be the ones doing this job," writes "Michael" at Tale of Tales, reviewing a review of fl0w, the game in which the player takes the role of a microorganism, instead of a beefy, armored space marine. "It's a bit like having sports commentators criticizing a fine art exhibition."
"In defense of the game reviewers," writes Game Daily's Mr. Media Coverage, "developers must understand that reviewers are writing for a target audience, as well. They have to target their content accordingly, and that occasionally means making fun of kids' games."
And, one assumes, experiential tech demos putting players in the role of a microorganism.
"I Don't Know You"
"I don't read game reviews," writes Mike "Gabe" Krahulik (the artist half of artist and writer duo at Penny Arcade), in an article entitled "I Review a Review," in which he utterly destroys a review of Enchanted Arms. "Regardless of how long [the reviewer] played Enchanted Arms it's a worthless review. He didn't like it for all the reasons I like it. At the end he attaches the number five like that's supposed to tell me anything useful."
Adding another wrinkle to the would-be simple system of game reviews is the issue of trust. In an age when nearly anyone can start a website and write about games, and most every type of gamer can find at least one popular message board (full of other people who are also playing games, and writing about them) to suit his needs, the need for formal reviews would seem to be diminishing. Or at least the need to trust the opinions of people you don't know.