By Patrick Young
The digital age has led to profound improvements in allowing people to more publicly share their opinions, and in the world of entertainment criticism, specifically, the rise of the review aggregate Metacritic has totally redefined how media is consumed and reviewed. Launching back in 2001, Metacritic has become a pillar of entertainment journalism; when a new video game, film or album is released, the site collects the reviews of every major review outlet and compiles it into a single score out of 100, known as the Metascore (“About Us”). Metacritic users themselves have no bearing on a title’s Metascore; instead, they contribute directly to its user score (a decimal out of 10) — and sometimes going to heinous extents to do so. In recent years, a trend has emerged on Metacritic (and similar websites like Rotten Tomatoes) called “review bombing,” the targeted assault of low or high scores to change a project’s user score, progressively destroying the reliability of the user score. This act is called ‘review bombing’ because like an explosion, it is driven by anger and spite, not out of fairness and critique. This year’s PS4 title The Last of Us: Part II by Naughty Dog within hours of its launch was massacred by Metacritic users, the majority of which were unqualified to do so. To begin with, though, a little background on Naughty Dog’s generation defining masterpiece.
When Naughty Dog officially revealed the sequel to their 2013 “Game of the Year” The Last of Us back in 2016, fans immediately began speculating what this new game might entail (Druckmann). The father-daughter journey across a post-apocalyptic America depicted in the original game resonated with gamers of many backgrounds and, to many, didn’t seem in need of a sequel, especially due to the game’s captivating yet divisive ending (no spoilers here!). In the years since the reveal, as Naughty Dog provided more glimpses at the sequel, the hype grew to astronomical proportions––and then the leaks started; swathes of gameplay and cinematics were posted to YouTube divulging many of the game’s secrets (Hernandez).
Without knowing the full context of the game, let alone playing it, many fans were immediately outraged, and subsequently wars began raging in comment sections across the internet. This went on for two months until culminating on June 19, 2020, when The Last of Us: Part II was released to a Metacritic bloodbath as the review-bombing began.
As Paul Tassi in his Forbes article eloquently puts it, “Well, we all should have seen this coming.” With the amount of hype surrounding Part II, the drama produced by its leaks, and the dedication of the fanbase to the original game, what happened on Metacritic that day should not have surprised anyone. In just a couple hours after the game’s release, The Last of Us: Part II was sitting at a disrespectful 3.4/10 user score, when, by contrast, it was boasting a triumphant 95/100 critically (Tassi). Immediately, the discrepancy between the average user and the critic raised a polarizing question––why is there such a divide between the two scores? Tassi conjectures later in his article that:
[The Last of Us: Part II] is a 25-30 hour game, so unless people are doing blitzing speed runs and then immediately going to Metacritic to post angry 0/10 reviews, these scores are made up of people who are either only a few hours into the game, or more than likely, have not purchased or played the game at all yet.
While not every piece of media has the benefit of a variable “experience time” (a movie or album obviously have a set length, while people play games at different speeds), the troublesome run up to the game’s release points a finger to those fans who were angry about the direction of the game before release. For perspective, The Last of Us had a total of a little over 9,000 user submitted lifetime reviews while The Last of Us: Part II on release day already had over 5,000 reviews, solidifying this launch as being successfully review-bombed (Tessi). Further complications arise when you consider this situation from a journalistic perspective.
While this situation raises a variety of issues, there are primarily two problems as I see it presented by review-bombing: the discrepancy between the critic score and the user score, and the credibility and authenticity of the user (or citizen) review. Media critics Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel indicate that firstly, journalists themselves are not sovereign entities in the field as “citizens have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news as well––even more so as they become producers and editors themselves” (9). If the user score was not considered an effective review tool, Metacritic would not include such a feature. We therefore cannot dismiss review bombing as being inconsequential to a project’s overall perception because it is coming from the peanut gallery––the people have just as much a right as the journalist to publicize their thoughts and those thoughts do carry weight. Kovach and Rosenstiel go on to add, “In the new open ecosystem of news and information, the role of professional journalists is also smaller, and the role of citizens is larger––but not all voices are equal,” (10). So, while the authors acknowledge the greater presence that citizens now carry in the journalism sphere, they indicate the voices do not share the same weight., I believe, however, this argument becomes invalidated (or at least diminished) when you begin mentioning specific review volumes––at first glance, a hundred positive critic reviews are going to be instantly tainted by thousands of negative reviews. In cases like The Last of Us: Part II with drastic critical acclaim and user outrage a couple hours into release, it is clear then there are other forces at work trying to alter the game’s perception. Through Metacritic’s system, the journalist who is generally paid to write eloquent and thoughtful reviews contributes just as directly to their score as the angry fan who submits a 0/10 score with no qualification.
To properly review any piece of entertainment, I believe there is only one qualification: to have experienced it in its entirety. In the game industry specifically, even if you might know everything about a game––the story beats, how it plays, the art direction and graphics, the sound design––unless you yourself were holding the controller, you are still not qualified. This is the only way to indicate any sort of truthfulness or authenticity in one’s piece, and as Kovach and Rosenstiel indicate, truthfulness is journalism’s first obligation (49). In fairness, media reviews are a unique type of journalism that are in essence, opinion pieces––but to make a convincing argument, you must be truthful with your information. For instance, the review bombers of The Last of Us Part II repeatedly attacked using the same assortment of points: its treatment of fan favorite characters, a narrative specifically catered to “social-justice-workers” (for instance, the main character entering into a lesbian relationship with many scenes in-game showing this romance) and overall tarnishing the legacy of the first game. The lack of specificity in these reviews and the regurgitation of the critical ideas about the game demonstrate the lack of truthfulness all of these reviews share. For example, here is a 2/10 score posted on June 19th:
Gorgeous graphics and sounds, sadly all the rest suffers from political agenda pandering to minorities killing established characters of the franchise and making a 20 hour revenge plot that simply does not delivery and serves only as a medium for pissing off the established fanbase. (EvilNando)
Notice the language––“the rest suffers from political agenda pandering to minorities” and the reductionism of “serves only as a medium for pissing off the established fanbase” (EvilNando).
While acknowledging some of the game’s objectively good components in the visuals and sound design, the author is clearly angry that the game did not align with his preconceived notions of what it was supposed to be. When the user realized the direction of the game conflicted with his views of the real world (for instance, video games should be strictly apolitical and a form of escapism) it was reason enough for them to post. It is also worth noting that EvilNando has only made one review on Metacritic, likely making the account just to participate in the review bombing. Imagine this review thousands of more times and you have an encapsulation of The Last of Us: Part II’s Metacritic war, and a demonstration of the disjointed state of video game criticism. During their discussion of achieving journalistic truth, Kovach and Rosenstiel claim, “In a fragmented media culture, more people may be operating in their own bubbles of self-selected interests and sources,” showing the challenge it is to actually achieve it (60). Are there any reviews that are both “truthful” and “qualified” from that initial bombardment of bombers, then? Perhaps, if only a handful of them. Nonetheless, in the swarm of overwhelming negativity presented by the bombers, both the positive and negative reviews are destroyed.
Since the review fiasco over the summer, The Last of Us: Part II’s user score has climbed up considerably from where it started. It is not like the original’s universal acclaim of a 95 Metascore and 9.2 user score on 118,000 reviews, but a green, 93 Metascore and a yellow 5.6 user score on 144,000 reviews (“The Last of Us: Part II”, “The Last…”). While it is unlikely for the user score to catch the critical score, it is in a way fitting that it has nestled itself in this middle-of-the-road range of scores, the combined efforts of those trying to tarnish the game and those trying to elevate it. Metacritic since has implemented a 36-hour grace period for their user reviews on game releases to help mitigate review bombing (Bankburst). Whether this new system has worked to stop review bombing has yet to be fully seen yet––there will always be devout fans there to just blindly support their favorite franchises and tear down those they hate. At the end of the day, many times that is simply what review bombing comes down to, the sociological drive, or the human impulse, to label our interests as the best and worst. To Kovach & Rosenstiel, in one hand, review bombers are journalists because they perform the duty of the empowerer, “providing audiences tools and information so that they can act for themselves,” (28). Yet, on the other hand, because they are writing from a place where they have flippantly not experienced the game, and are therefore not achieving journalistic truth, review bombers are not journalists and they present a danger to the future of entertainment criticism (Kovach 56). People have the right to their opinion, but where is the line drawn so that the user score is reflective of authentic reviews and not angry fans?
“About Us.” Metacritic, CBS Interactive, www.metacritic.com/about-metacritic.
Bankhurst, Adam. “Metacritic Is Delaying User Reviews Until 36 Hours After a Game Is Released.” IGN, Ziff Davis, LLC, 18 July 2020, www.ign.com/articles/metacritic-is- delaying-user-reviews-until-36-hours-after-a-game-is-released.
Druckmann @Neil_Druckmann, Neil. “The Last of Us Part II.” Naughty Dog, Sony Interactive Entertainment LLC, 3 Dec. 2016, www.naughtydog.com/blog/the_last_of_us_part_ii.
EvilNando. “The Last of Us: Part II Review.” Metacritic, CBS Interactive, 19 June 2020, www.metacritic.com/user/EvilNando?myscore-filter=Game.
Hernandez, Patricia. “The Last of Us Part 2 Leak Seems to Show Massive Spoilers.” Polygon, Vox Media, 27 Apr. 2020, www.polygon.com/2020/4/27/21238104/the-last-of- us-part-2-leak-gameplay-spoilers-ellie-joel-naughty-dog-sony-ps4-story-ending.
Kovach, Bill, and Tom Rosenstiel. The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. Three Rivers Press, 2014.
“The Last of Us Part II.” Metacritic, CBS Interactive, 19 June 2020, www.metacritic.com/game/playstation-4/the-last-of-us-part-ii.
“The Last of Us.” Metacritic, CBS Interactive, 14 June 2013, www.metacritic.com/game/playstation-3/the-last-of-us.
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