The controversial question that many gamers have been recently asking is this: do reviewers have to be good at the games that they review? This all started from the DOOM Polygon disaster last year, in which a Polygon reviewer was sent to preview the new DOOM game and record some footage. Here is that footage. Whoever Polygon chose to send to this event and preview DOOM for the world to see clearly has never played an FPS before and it showed in their anemic gameplay. This sparked a bit of a controversy and led to this question at hand. This question has recently shown its face again, similarly it is from a 30-minute preview of an upcoming game, this time the game is Cuphead. WARNING, this video is painful to watch for anyone who as ever played a video game. In the 30-minute-long video, the games journalist fails to even complete the first level of Cuphead and does not seem to grasp the basics. Hell, he spends 2 minutes trying to complete a single jump in the tutorial. This shameful display has resurfaced and reignited the debate if game journalists should be good at the games that they play.
To me, the answer to the question is fairly obvious. People who review games for a living absolutely need to be good at them. In the two previously mentioned examples, it would be very unfair for those 2 journalists to give their opinion on games that they clearly have no business playing. The games would be horribly misrepresented, as the reviewers would give their perspective from somebody who does not even know how to play the game. Now to be fair, people may be more experienced with certain genres of games, but if that is the case, do not review a game from a genre that you are clearly bad at. I think most people would tend to agree that reviewers have to have a decent level of competency to review a game.
The real question for me is, can reviewers be just average at games, or do they actually have to be fairly good? My mentality at first was “just don’t suck”, but my opinion has changed let me explain why. Originally, I figured that as long as journalist had a basic level of skill and were average at the game, they could give an accurate review of a game. I mean, most people are average, so a reviewer who is also average would have opinions that tend to align with the majority, right? Probably, but that does not qualify them to explain what makes the games they are discussing good or bad. Sure, they could talk about some surface level stuff, but a lot of games are great because of the small details, because of the things an average player would not notice, but they are still there.
Just like in movies, an average viewer like myself could tell you if a movie was good or bad. But if you ask me about narratives, cinematography, lighting, audio design, CGI, editing, the director, etc., I would be completely lost. I can view it as the whole, but I cannot break it down and explain what makes it successful. The same applies to video games. A casual player cannot pick apart a game and explain the minutiae that all come together to make one cohesive experience. Dark Souls for instance may seem to be just an average fantasy RPG at first glance, but most people who play it agree that it is one of the best and most influential games ever made. The leveling system, lore, enemy design, visuals, world building, level design, unforgiving attitude, and the online aspects make for an extraordinary experience. I will not go into details as that is for my upcoming Dark Souls review, but many reviewers and average players just glance over these details and what makes them work so effectively.
As a sort of aside note, I wish everyone would stop referring to hard games as “Dark Souls of X-genre”. Yes, Dark Souls is notorious for its difficulty, but that isn’t the only factor about the game. When I see games like Cuphead, which has no similarities to Dark Souls other than its difficulty, being referred to as the “Dark Souls of run-and-guns” my soul hurts a little bit. Game comparisons can be valid, but they actually have to make sense and be more related than just the difficulty level of the game. For example, Hollow Knight is Dark Souls-esque because of its looping level design, checkpoint system, visuals, ambiguous lore, intense boss fights, death and soul system, unforgiving and hostile world, and its difficulty. So please stop calling everything “similar to Dark Souls” just because it is hard.
I think games journalists these days are mainly hired for their writing skills or their personalities, rather than their expertise of video games. This is becoming abundantly clear. Harder games often get flak for being too hard, and game reviews do not explain the in-depth mechanics of games and what makes them work. I do not consider myself to be one of the best video game players or an expert, but I do feel like I am good enough to give a valid opinion on the games that I play. People who are paid to professionally play and review games should be experienced enough to understand the inner workings of a game and dissect it, rather than viewing it as a whole. Just like what a professional film critic might do. At the very least, websites like Polygon need stop using people who are wholly incompetent and unable to play games, let alone review them.