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A few months ago, the Jimquisition had an episode about gamers criticizing game reviews and reviewers for "not finishing the game". James/Stephanie Sterling correctly points out that this complaint with a game review is most often employed to deflect from valid criticism of a game -- usually because the person complaining likes the game and gets overly defensive in response to any criticism. While I agree with James/Stephanie Sterling's response in the original video, I also have strong feelings about other practical concerns regarding whether a video game reviewer should need to finish a game in order to review it. As an amateur game critic and YouTube essayist, this particular brand of attack against reviews and reviewers is relevant to me, my gaming habits, and my content creation, so I hope that I have a worthwhile perspective about this topic.

This essay was inspired by a recent episode of The Jimquisition.

As for the underlying issue of whether a game reviewer should have to finish a game before reviewing it: the answer to that question is a resounding, absolute, unequivocal "no".

As an amateur, who plays games and creates written reviews and video essays, all on my free time, outside of a full-time job, I cannot play every game to end credits -- let alone to 100% completion or a Platinum Trophy.

And you know what? Neither do most players.

This essay is available in video format on YouTube.

Go ahead, take a look at the achievement or trophy metrics for any game you play. You'll probably find that the achievement for beating almost any game will be owned by well below half of all players, and might actually be less than a quarter of players for many longer games like RPGs. And while there are certainly some players who play offline and don't report their stats to Steam, Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo, the achievement stats for the vast, overwhelming majority of games is very closely representative of the population, since most players don't go to the trouble of playing "off the grid".

Finishing a game is a relatively rare thing for the average gamer to do, which means the average gamer isn't going to care if a particular review finished the game or not. That average gamer is probably not going to see the end of the game anyway, so a review that only covers the first half or so of the game will still be perfectly adequate and informative for such a player.

Most games are completed by well under than half of all players.

So as an "average gamer" who plays as a hobby and writes reviews and other content on the side, as an un-paid amateur, not finishing a game is good enough for me too. Yes, I will try to finish the main campaign of a game that I review, if it's possible and practical. For most shorter games (with campaigns up to 20 hours), I do, indeed, almost always hit the end credits before I publish a review. It will usually take me a few weeks to do it, which is why, even if I bought the game on release day, my reviews will still be several weeks late, or longer. Most of my reviews are practically retro reviews by the time I get them out.

Patreon

This is because I'm an amateur who does all my playing and reviewing outside of a full-time, non-video-gaming job. I do not get free review copies of games, and I certainly don't get early press releases to play before the game even comes out. I buy the games with my own money, after they release to the general public, just like everybody else. Which is why I have a Patreon campaign to help offset the costs. Well, sometimes I also wait a week or 2 and buy the game used, if I don't want to give money to the publisher.

But this does have its perks. I'm not beholden to embargoes, nor do I have to worry about being black-listed if I write a negative review (which has happened to James/Stephanie Sterling and other professional critics). I also don't have to sign NDAs prohibiting me from discussing potential spoilers. I'm free to spoil a game to my heart's content if that spoiler dramatically affected my perception of the game -- or if I think the game is not worth playing and I might actively be trying to spoil it in order to deter my audience from playing it. I'm also not pressured to rush through a game in order to get a review out by release day or a publication deadline. I'm free to take my time, really soak up the game, and give my honest thoughts after plenty of time for deliberation. If it takes me a month to play enough of a game to feel comfortable reviewing it, then that's when I'll write the review.

As an amateur, I am not subject to being black-listed, embargoed, or signing NDAs regarding spoilers.

As an independent creator with my own blog, I'm also free to go back and update my written reviews. So if my opinions of a game change upon further reflection, or if I posted a review prematurely, and my opinion changes as a result of going back and finishing the game, or if the game itself is changed by post-release patches or updates, I can and have gone back and revised some of my reviews. I've either updated the old review with my new opinions, or I've written a completely new review that links back to the original. Professional game critics often don't have that luxury. That's also a big benefit of making written reviews instead of video reviews. It's a lot easier to add a couple paragraphs to a web page than to re-edit and re-upload a video.

A work week

Even for a full-time, professional reviewer, being expected to finish a game before reviewing it might be an un-realistic expectation. Most reviewers are expected to review at least one new game each week. A full-time work week is usually 40 hours. Working more than that should be rare, especially if the employee isn't being paid extra for those extra hours. If a company expects an employee to work 60 or more hours in a week on a regular basis, or without additional compensation, that is just flat-out abusive and toxic, and those employees should probably quit with extreme prejudice.

Anyway, back when big-budget games had 10 to 40-ish-hour campaign play times as the standard, finishing a whole game (to the end of the main campaign) within a professional work week was realistic. But now that more and more games have shifted towards being live services or having 60-hour, 100-hour, or longer campaigns, the idea of finishing that game's campaign in a single 40-hour work week is no longer realistic -- even for full-time, professional, reviewers. Even with overtime, a full-time reviewer cannot be realistically expected to finish such a long game in a single week -- not even close!

Many recent games have campaigns longer than a 40-hour work week.

And that says nothing about having to play through the campaign on multiple difficulties, or with multiple characters, or to see multiple plot branches, or to get different endings (if the game supports any of those things). A game like Dark Souls or Elden Ring may take 40-60 hours for a first playthrough, but that's just with one character build and achieving one ending. A reviewer might spend the entire work week grinding out the game through the final boss and end credits with a melee build, and never even engage with systems like magic or stealth.

Or what about content like the Chalice Dungeons of Bloodborne? Is a reviewer allowed to review Bloodborne if they didn't play through all the Chalice Dungeons? I mean, the Chalice Dungeons do provide some extra lore and context for the rest of the game's story. And that lore and story content is hidden deep within the Chalice Dungeons, and takes hours and hours of grinding to reach.

And that's assuming that the game even has a single campaign with a clearly-defined start and finish. Epic-scale games like Civilization, Crusader Kings, Cities: Skylines, and so forth could take much longer. A reviewer of Civilization might spend 20 hours on the standard game speed and map size playing a single faction's campaign through to a victory screen. But that's just one faction out of like 20 that the game ships with, each with its own unique gameplay mechanics and associated strategies. And that one campaign might have been played on an "easy" difficulty like Warlord or Prince. If the reviewer wants to play multiple factions across multiple matches, they might have to do so on the faster game speeds and on smaller maps, which might not be representative of how most people play the game, and which may fail to expose balance, pacing, stability, or performance problems on longer matches on larger maps. If you expect that reviewer to complete a campaign with all 20 or so civilizations, each probably taking 10 hours or longer, that will easily be over 200 hours! Which is ... hold on, let me do some math ... let's see, carry the one, divide by pi, multiply by c-squared ... yeah, that's a little bit longer than one work week. In fact, it's longer than a work month!

The same can be said about an upcoming game like Cities: Skylines II. City-builders are more of a free-form sandbox game. Will I have "finished" Cities Skylines II, and be allowed to review it, after I've grown a single city up to the final milestone? Is 100,000 population sufficient for "completing the game"? Or will I need to build 2 cities? Or 10 cities? Or build a city on every map? And what if Colossal Order adds new maps before I get around to publishing the review?

When will I have "finished" Cities Skylines II, and be allowed to write a review?

And then there's procedural games like Binding of Isaac, Speelunky, Terraria, FTL, and so forth. These games have randomized content that a player may not experience in a single playthrough, or even after multiple playthroughs.

What about a game like Minecraft or The Sims that doesn't even necessarily have a formal win state? Or competitive online games like Call of Duty or Fortnite that are meant to be played and re-played indefinitely? Is it fair for a reviewer to play a single match of Hell Let Loose and then write a scathing review about how hard the game is, and how he couldn't take 10 steps without being headshot by an enemy a mile away that he couldn't even see? Does completing a single match count as "completing" such a game? Or should that reviewer have to level up every class to max, and play every class with every faction on every map? And does the reviewer need to win all those matches for it to count?

What even is "complete" for games like those?!

For those kinds of games, I usually spend months playing them and trying to get a good feel for them before I write a review. And even then, I will still find that there are things that I miss in those games after further play. Thankfully, I don't have publication deadlines, so I can play at my own pace and release the review whenever it's ready -- even if it's 6 months after the game's launch.

How many rounds of dying in Hell Let Loose must a reviewer suffer through?

Know your audience

And this brings me to the key point: a reviewer doesn't need to play an entire game through to completion; instead, the reviewer only needs to play a representative sample of the game, in order to write a representative review. Sure, the definition of "representative sample" is up for debate, and reasonable people may disagree about what qualifies as "representative". But art, by its very nature, is subjective. A reviewer can only communicate their own experience with the material. Well, unless the reviewer is a corporate shill who just regurgitates the publisher's marketing material and propaganda, in which case, they might write a glowing review without ever playing the game at all -- let alone completing it!

If a person plays Demon's Souls for an hour, and gives up because the game is too hard, and they aren't enjoying themself, that person is more than welcome to write a review and say that they didn't enjoy the game. That review is surely going to be useful to someone. Players who don't have the patience or the time for such a grueling game will know to stay away from it. Yeah sure, they might miss the reward and satisfaction of conquering that challenge, and that's a shame. But you know what? Most of those players probably wouldn't stick with the game long enough to get to that point anyway, and nobody should feel obligated to subject themselves to dozens of hours of a game they don't actually enjoy playing.

Reviewers can only review their own experience with the material.

And that's another key point: a good reviewer knows their audience, and writes to that audience. If you disagree with a reviewer's review of a game, or don't relate to it, it doesn't necessarily mean that the reviewer didn't "get the game", or didn't play enough of it. Nor does it mean the reviewer is a liar, or a hater, or a shill, or too woke, or not woke enough, or whatever else you might want to accuse them of being in order to invalidate their opinion. It might just be that the reviewer is addressing an honest, heartfelt review to their specific audience. And maybe you aren't part of that audience. Hell, maybe the reviewer is the only person in that audience! It doesn't make the review any less valid.

I'm an amateur blogger, YouTuber, and game critic in my late 30's. I'm also a parent. And I work a full-time job. And I have other hobbies and obligations both personal and professional. If I'm lucky, I get a couple hours a night, several nights a week, to play games (and maybe a little more on the weekend). Sometimes, things work out so that I don't get to play any video games at all for a whole week because I just have other stuff going on. That is the perspective from which I approach video games, and it's the experience that informs my reviews and critiques. Whether I want them to be or not, my reviews are going to be tailored to people in similar circumstances: people who have real-world obligations, and who have limited time and budget to play games. My reviews are also going to be tailored toward people with similar interests, because those people are most likely to relate to my experiences with the game, whether positive or negative.

I always wait and buy Madden used,
so my reviews of the game are always late.

If you're a 14-year-old living in your mom's basement, using her credit card to buy all your Ultimate Team packs, and have nothing else to do all day after school except play Madden Ultimate Team to the point that you can call a hot route for every single defender, by sheer muscle memory, before the opponent or CPU snaps the ball, then my Madden reviews are not for you. Maybe you might still get something out of my reviews though, if you chose to read them. At the very least, you might better understand someone else's perspective on the game and why it works or doesn't work for them with their life and priorities. But at the end of the day, my Madden review (which will probably be published in late September or early October anyway) isn't going to sway your purchase decision. But it doesn't make my review any less valid.

A changing experience

And this is all assuming an ideal launch for a game. Which is a big assumption. Most video games these days, especially big-budget ones, release with a multitude of bugs and problems that have to be patched in the coming weeks or months. Someone who rushes through the game on release day, or before, isn't even going to be playing a version of the game that most players will be playing later down the road. Hell, nowadays we even have publishers who will deliberately withhold content, such as a micro-transaction store, so that mainstream media reviewers can't complain about a pay-to-win economy or exploitative loot boxes, and so that the ESRB can't put disclaimers on the box warning parents of such features. And then they patch such content in a week or 2 after the game's release.

So once again, I ask, what constitutes "completing" a game? If I 100% complete the game and earn a Platinum Trophy within a day or 2 of the game releasing, and I write a supposedly "objective" review based on my "completion" of the game, but then a week later, the publisher patches in a pay-to-win micro-transaction economy and completely rebalances the game's progression systems and pacing, then does it even matter that I "completed" the game? At that point, my review is no more relevant that the review of someone who played for an hour.

Games can be completely changed or re-balanced after release.

And what if a game is horribly buggy, unstable, and incomplete at launch? A reviewer might "complete" that version of the game and write a negative review that reflects the state of the game at release. But then the developer might spend weeks, months, or even years updating the game until it's eventually good. And those updates might not only be bug fixes. Those changes may include substantive changes to the game itself, including rebalancing of mechanics, new levels or quests, completely new game systems or modes of play, and so forth.

Just look at a game like No Man's Sky. It was panned at release for being unstable and lacking features that the lead developer kept promising (or at least implying) would be in the game. But after years of updates and new features, the general consensus seems to be that No Man's Sky is actually good now. It is much closer to living up to the expectations that it had at release. It has a wider variety of alien worlds and biomes to explore. It has the promised multiplayer and faction-based space battles. It has the ability to craft your own custom space ships, planetary bases, and space stations. And it has the ability to easily return to places you've already explored, including places on which you've built custom structures. None of that was in the game when it released. So did anybody who actually played or reviewed No Man's Sky at release even truly "complete" the game?

And hell, what about people who liked the game back when it first launched? The game they liked doesn't even exist anymore! Are their reviews valid?

What about Cyberpunk 2077? Is that game good now?

Civ V didn't really start to get good
until its Gods & Kings expansion.

An example that hits closer to home for me was Civilization V. That game was kind of a mess when it first released. It was painfully slowly-paced and horribly balanced. It took 6 months of post-release patches for Firaxis to even start to get it to a point that it felt truly good to play, and it didn't really get good until the first expansion Gods & Kings released more than a year after that.

So for any given video game, the game that I play on release day might not even be the same game that a reader might play 6 months or a year later.

And to be perfectly frank, if the game's publisher can't be bothered to finish developing the game before selling it, then why should I be obligated to finish playing the game before reviewing it?!

Anyone who expects completion has unrealistic expectations

Long story short: no, a reviewer does not need to complete a game in order to write an informative review. And that is true regardless of whether the reviewer is a paid, professional critic working full-time at an established media outlet, or if they are just a measly amateur with a blog and a YouTube channel.

At the end of the day, any given reviewer is going to review the game based on the experience they had playing it, and with the cultural and socio-political context of the time in which they played the game and wrote the review. No one should be expected to 100% complete games that are often, by design, supposed to provide endless content. No one should be expected to be able to give a 100% objective, un-biased opinion of a subjective artistic work. No one can be expected to be 100% accurate in a review of any product, if the source material itself is literally changing every few weeks or months.

Anyone who expects those things from a reviewer has unrealistic expectations.

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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