Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Sauce | Gaming | Critical Accountability Online

"A sauce is a lie told to stifle the truth of badly-cooked meat."
Guglielmo Quarenghi 1

"When Frenchmen want to be snide, they say that Englishmen drench their food in all kinds of sauces to disguise the taste, because they're such poor cooks. When Frenchmen want to be superior, they say that Englishmen have only one kind of sauce, because they're such poor cooks."
Robert Milton Johnson 2

Critical accountability is an interesting thing. I remember noting something with fascination, when a list of famed 'contrarian critic' Armond White's reviews of various films was posted online. The man's famous tendency to praise films that had been scoffed at by the critical in-crowd and scoff at films that had been praised had a curious sort of rhythm to it. A few examples of really quite awful trash such as Hitman, Transporter 3 and Taken (look, we can argue about that piece of po-faced, hyper-destructive absurdity posing as a serious thriller in order to take advantage of the Bourne phenomenon and rebrand Liam Neeson as an action star later. The first two you can agree with, right? Thought so) that got some pretty high praise from White were all films produced under the aegis of Luc Besson. Coincidental? Could well be, I suppose.

I still remember my reaction upon being tricked into buying a copy of Michael Smith's study of Reilly, Cumming & co. during the formative years of MI6, entirely on the basis of the overwhelmingly positive review it got in the Sunday Times ("Engrossing...rollicking...impeccable...while perfectly scholarly, often reads like a real-life James Bond thriller"). Not that 6: A History Of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service was a bad read at all; in fact, I do recommend it, though not as a 'James Bond thriller', whatever that cheap piece of buzzword-marketing's supposed to mean - but nevertheless, I groaned just a little as I opened up the cover jacket and read that Michael Smith was a writer for the Sunday Times. I'm usually cannier than that, especially when it comes to the ST, which has had the gall before now to publish extracts of one of its writers' books in its News Review section, then praise it to the hilt elsewhere. But that's just the woes of journalists having to live with one another, I suppose. You have to look after your own, so you make sure you publish a review of a book that might not get attention elsewhere.

This sort of thing is bad enough - though it is, perhaps, the petty corruption individuals can always justify to themselves as just being a necessary part of a working system. Where we run into problems is with the online rush. I don't believe whatsoever that the rise of blogger-critics (as has been claimed now with surprising frequency, quite recently in one of the Guardian's many online articles that seems to have been put up as deliberately provocative trolling in order to fish for traffic and comments.) threatens criticism - because clearly, they argue, an articulate writer who's being paid by the FT has more critical worth than an articulate writer who isn't. Where we do run into problems is with accountability, and the ability of the Internet to mask ulterior motives. Head onto Amazon or Metacritic or any other site that allows 'user reviews' and you may well find some consumers complaining that the product in question is dreadful, but that it's being given ecstatic, top-marks reviews by people with a stake in the product pretending to be independent amateur critics. We actually noted such allegations a little while back, you may remember, against Kate Mosse's critically-lauded Labyrinth.

You could call this sort of thing conspiracy theorising...and, probably, some of it is. Heaven knows there are enough people out there who'd write things like 'MUST READ!! 10/10! Go out and buy it now!' 3 because they genuinely believe that the product is perfect and deserves uncritical endorsement. But we all remember Orlando Figes, don't we? The historian who praised his own books and damned others on Amazon, secure as Superman in the knowledge that nobody would ever see through his secret identity as 'orlando-birkbeck'? (And what an appropriate name, both in terms of Woolf's shape-shifting protagonist and the equally shape-shifting critic who haunts her steps).

Gaming, in equal parts as the newest medium, the one least accepted by 'respectable' print supplements, and the one with (arguably) the audience most involved with online technology, suffers the most out of all of this. I was in equal parts distressed, pleased, and unsurprised, to see an article in online 'zine Destructoid announcing a series of allegations from various sauces against the Nevada-based publisher TopWare regarding the critical reception of its game Two Worlds II, noting the following (reproduced in full) 4

European reviewers have accepted ad buys from Topware in exchange for favorable reviews.

Topware was caught by (influential gaming and pop media website) IGN attempting to influence the rating score of IGN's GameStats and inflating Two Worlds II's ranking.

GameReactor was pressured to take down its Two Worlds II review because it used preview code to write it. The rub is that more favorable reviews released at the same time as GameReactor's were not asked to remove their reviews, despite being based on the same code.

Topware employees have been writing Amazon reviews, posting YouTube comments, and posing elsewhere as members of the public to generate positive feedback on its own products. (The article also prints an alleged copy of an internal email - "Please post one favorable review of the new trailer daily for the next two weeks on youtube with different user names. Please make this a priority I want your user names and comments posted in your weekly reports -- reports that are still coming late or not at all. I would appreciate not having to be a jerk and start fining people so get them in on Friday. Make this a priority." J.)

Threats of legal action against one reviewer were made without the permission of management, and rest entirely on the head of the PR department. A reviewer was accused of pirating a copy of Two Worlds II for his negative review, despite having been sent code.

Destructoid itself was planned to be approached with a bribe. Topware paid for a Two Worlds II site skin, but withheld half the pay. The other half was allegedly planned to be paid in exchange for an 8.5/10 review from us.

Sadly, the implications are that this is one publisher that got caught, rather than one publisher that went wrong. (A running joke has developed in online circles about publications that give widely-hyped, imperfect games perfect scores, then bitch about the flaws in 'editorials' later on) The troubling problem is that gaming - which dearly needs validation as it is - seems to have accepted this sort of corruption (alleged. ALLEGED!) into its ethos; so much so that you'll find many aficionados dismissing supposedly objective critical sauces as promotional tools for big companies. The problem is, if you like, that an entire industry is based on a system where Kevin Smith doesn't let the nasty critical critics see his films early ever again or get cash from advertising it unless they're nice about the one that's currently out - and the critics simply don't have the clout or the income to resist. And so the gaming industry exists in a bizarre netherworld where remarkably few titles manage 'scores' of less than 7 out of 10.

Really puts the Sunday Times bigging up its own people into perspective, doesn't it? You'd hope the issue could be resolved as the medium becomes more and more integrated into the mainstream - I was rather pleased, as it happens, to see the Guardian announcing its intention to follow a dozen independent developers for a year - but 'respectable' journalism has been slow to catch up, and the publishers now have an extraordinary amount of money at their disposal. What's required is individual critics rather than sites and magazines who can keep their moral compass intact...and better methods of holding those accountable who try to use the veil of the Internet to disguise their shady intentions and dilute the good intentions of word-by-mouth amateur reviewing. And artistic validation of the medium as a whole by the rest of us in the other 'established' media is only going to help to speed the process.

Right, I'm off to post comments beneath this article posing as enthralled and over-awed readers praising me for my insight and my enormous, all-consuming genitalia. Because you never can tell, online, can you?

Jon Ware
Fiction Editor


1 UEI Academy of Italian Cellist History Archives
2 Centre for Canadian Bibliophilia: Political Figures
3. user reviews for Dave Speaks Out
4. Destructoid

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