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Let’s talk about that ‘bad review’ of Breath of the Wild

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It’s not about praise for those who made it, it’s about praise for those who bought it

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Nintendo

This morning brought news that Jim Sterling, the well known video games raconteur who definitely does not participate in groupthink, was under attack. Jim could bait someone by reading a phone book in the wrong tone of voice, and everyone expects this so, dear God, what did he say this time.

He gave The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild a 7 out of 10. Metacritic then folded that into whatever mumbo-jumbo informs its aggregation formula. Now the game is no longer tied for second place (with three others) at 98. It stands at 97, a score shared by eight over the long skein of video games history.

Heaven forfend.

Jim Sterling has forgotten more than I know about more games than I have ever played. We could do worse than to grant people the sincerity of their beliefs. And Jim isn't out there on Brexit, immigration, world trade or climate change. He just didn't rave about Breath of the Wild. That's his crime.

Two weeks ago, Jim beat a meritless lawsuit brought against his righteous, informative, appropriately scathing — and consumer-advocating — set of reviews of terrible games dumped onto Steam, which gives bullshit the prestige of its nameplate every single day through things like Greenlight and Early Access. Jim did that duty, with risk of financial exposure, to tremendous (and deserved) public applause.

Today, Jim gets a DDoS on his website because he didn't kiss Breath of the Wild’s ass enough.

Time and again, we have seen this kind of reaction. It happened two weeks ago when Brad Gallaway of GameCritics.com thumbed down Horizon: Zero Dawn and, to his credit, acknowledged he didn't finish the game, either. What in the final 12 hours of content would change his mind about the first 18, anyway.

We saw the same kind of thing here when we gave The Last Guardian a 7.5. Readers complain about grade inflation without understanding that the instant and constant allegiance they project for certain games, especially years in advance of their launch, sets the critical floor around 8 unless someone really wants to get dirt under their nails.

These kinds of stupid temper tantrums practically define pop culture and the commentary industry surrounding it today, especially as it depends upon channels that are easily attacked, such as website or social media.

Still, even when a reader complains about a "bad review," which echoes the tone-policing nonsense of "bad tweet" or "bad opinion" that I read in other blogs, I try to find some understanding of it: Does a video game's $60 price tag require more articulated scrutiny than the review of a $12 movie? Does the time investment a video game demands above other reviewed entertainment, like movies and TV shows, require some greater analysis?

No. Not at all. People who gripe about a "bad review" aren't doing so because they were cheated out of their time or money by putting trust in the laziness or inarticulateness of another. In the tone of their complaint you can see a mind already made up. Instead, it's about affirmation they expected and didn’t receive.

It's not about the game getting universal praise from every writer reviewing it. It's about getting universal praise for buying it. Because God damn, if someone, anyone, says your $60 wasn't well spent, then someone else is responsible for that waste, either the maker or the reviewer.

In my nine years on this beat (my third year anniversary at Polygon is today!) I have come to understand this mentality with crystal clarity: "I paid a lot for this thing, so it had better please me." Twenty-five years ago, a 25-cent newspaper whose editorial page pissed you off could still wrap a fish or line a birdcage. Reading the same thing, for free, in your intimate space on your $1,000 (or more?) rig, the consumer indignation escalates geometrically. We see this in the comments, every day.

So when outsiders complain of a toxic culture in video gaming, movie or comic book fandom, I agree, but not because of the usual suspects. I think of the zero-sum mentality that makes everything in the subject into a horse race. Hell, we ran a recap of a single episode of The Walking Dead today that ended with a winners and losers roundup, after all.

Functionaries like Metacritic — whose aggregated scores actually do impact monetary bonuses and job opportunities for developers — harden this attitude even more. I really have to ask what the hell Metacritic is doing aggregating the score of a self-published writer, instead of one writing under the banner of a publication. The latter usually means the criticism was edited by someone else, and that usually tempers highly personal disappointments or frustrations, which are the reasons Jim is so entertaining and so many people read him.

In the end, it really doesn't matter. Jim's opinion is just that. I remember covering criminal trials and indulging in the judge's stern admonishment to the jury that an indictment is proof of nothing. Well, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, that too is a review: proof of nothing. I confess to going to The New York Times to read a review of the latest summer super-hero shit slog just because it's funny to see it torn apart by an actual film studies major who isn't impressed by marketing or the words "cinematic universe." That reviewer is the judge for their jurisdiction. I can always seek another venue.

So the same thing goes for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Jim Sterling is specimen A in the angry/annoyed/pissed-off gamer YouTube personality mold, going back about a decade, but he makes his money by communicating that disparagement with intelligence (and wit) rather than volume. Still, what, if anything, has he ever actually raved about? Go to him not for your 10/10 thumbs-up good-purchase approval; go to him to highlight the areas in which a great game may still have fallen short, and modulate your expectations when you encounter them. Have we lost all sense of judgment?


When I was 15, I'd go down to the drugstore and buy magazines about comic books. Todd McFarlane is drawing this; Jon Sable might kind of maybe get a TV show for that; here's an interview with The Rocketeer's creator; and there's the current value of what you own. My father thought I was an idiot. "I can't understand why you spend money to read about what you pay money to read."

When I started working this beat nine years ago, Dad found the subject idiotic, too. "I can't understand how your readers have so much time to complain about others' complaints," he said, "and still play their fucking games."

I have no good answer to that.