The Death of First Impressions: Why One Must Always Review Unfinished Games

“Impressions” pieces are a regular feature here at GameLuster, and serve as a timelier albeit less thorough means of relaying what a game is like. Here, writer Jorge Van de Sompel offers his opinion on the idea.

Whenever the act of reviewing comes up in any discussion, inevitably the idea of reviewing unfinished games comes up. This idea has recently become even more matter of factual since early access releases are essentially commonplace. New developments like this have necessitated a seemingly useful distinction in language used where people refer to a review of an unfinished game as a “first impressions.” However, I’d argue that this distinction is merely one without a difference, and hardly a very useful linguistic spell at all. Instead, we should do away with the category of “first impressions” and just call them reviews regardless.

There’s a few reasons why I think such a distinction is nonsensical. The first, and most important as always, has to do with language. Gaming is completely unique in even allowing for a distinction in categories of this nature. “First impressions” are words a reviewer of any other medium utters simply to refer to the actual first impressions he had when enjoying the medium. In short, a first impressions is part of the review, not a replacement for the review yet to come, and may be mentioned explicitly at certain points in the review before elaborating and evaluating the whole. In this manner of means, “first impressions” has already become a distinct metaphor in gaming discourse. That, in itself, is no reason to wish to be rid of it, however.

What is reason plenty is the fact that “first impressions” and “review” are actually synonymous. Words are traditionally divided into two constituent parts: signifier and signified. This is a fancy way of saying “form” and “content,” only in the mind and not physically so. Literally, a linguistic sign needs to be made up of these two components. What we see when we compare these two signs is that they share the same signified, the same content, while only differing in signifier, in form. Functionally, both signs mean the exact same thing: an evaluation of a product enjoyed. Only, rather obviously, “first impressions” refers to the state of the product as being in some sense unfinished.

Hands up, I concede. I suppose “first impressions” is a useful subcategory of “review” after all. Only, not at all once you stop to pay attention to the word at the end of my previous paragraph. I don’t suppose it to be any sort of uncomfortable or disingenuous strain on logic to really ask: what does it mean to be unfinished? Can such a state truly exist? Without needing to invoke a popular Da Vinci saying, I reckon there is more work in arguing the contrary: does something like “finished” exist? Since the rise of early access, it has become hard to argue in favor of deeming any game as being finished. Indeed, anyone can name several games, possibly off the top of their heads, that started out as early access games, or that still are, and many of these games see content updates after leaving early access.

It goes beyond early access, however, and even predates the concept entirely. Patching a game may well be a common occurrence today. Many games, especially online and MMO games, see updates, frequent or otherwise, but this in itself has been commonplace for several decades. Famously, games like Fallout (1998) received a patch that would alter the game in such a way as to improve the player’s experience. Black Isle Studios disagreed with the second in-game timer imposed upon the player as they felt it would limit exploration and hamper their freedom to take their time. Even console games were updated, sometimes more than once, to provide a better playing experience. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) is one such game. Speedrunners still, to this day, carefully bear the game versions in mind when they decide to run a specific version since some allow for specific glitches and exploits when others don’t.

Paradoxically, the rise in early access as a viable and all too common game state has made it even harder to argue in favor of upholding such a distinction. Early access may be a common–even useful–label nowadays, but game creators have certainly never acted as though their games were finished upon release. Not only have gamers seen content updates as mentioned above, but many games, don’t let us forget, have been released only for players to run into huge bugs and problems of various stripes that made the game unenjoyable to play, or even completely unplayable. Simcity (2013) is one such example that I bet you no one has since forgotten about. With its requirement that gamers be always online to play it, the game proved inaccessible on day one due to server limitations.

One predictable reaction would be to positively assert the foolishness in reviewing unplayable games, or only playing games for a few hours before writing a review. Sadly, in practice, these seemingly healthy reactions become somewhat naïeve. With the former, it’s all too common to come across unplayable games in the indie market. In my time at GameLuster, I have attempted to review two games that would either bug out in the first few minutes consistently, rendering the game unplayable, or was only able to spend 15 minutes on a game before “experiencing the whole game,” the rest appearing locked behind glitches or future paywalls. Similarly, expecting people to play every game for 100 hours before making a decision is expecting far too much. In today’s over-saturated market, it’s hard even for professional reviewers to spend days upon days, weeks upon weeks deliberating. Games certainly haven’t become shorter experiences, and the pressure to release a review on day one, sometimes even before then, makes it hard to play a game, sit on your thoughts for a week, and then write a full review. For an obvious example, see Angry Joe on YouTube, harshly criticized for the lack of reviews by his fans, when the reality of video reviews is working long hours editing and gathering game footage for many many days.

The preceding point bears repeating: reviewers are expected to make up their mind on a time limit, to be ready with a written review on day one or days or weeks before. This rat race highlights one important conceptual issue amongst many others, namely the question of where the game really starts for the player. Does the game start on the title screen, the menu screen, the Steam store or library page? Does it start on the install menu, the opening of the disc, the checkout at your local, soon to be defunct, GameStop? Does it maybe start at E3 or Gamescom or even the initial teaser trailer that lasts all of 37 seconds, Elder Scrolls VI (Soon™)? In discussing the “true start” of the game, you’ll find that any of these previously listed possibilities, as well as many others, can be argued equally convincingly to be the genuine starting point of the gaming experience. Just like the end of a game isn’t inherently defined, so, too, is the start completely arbitrary. Speedrunners acknowledge this by agreeing on the outset where the game begins and ends, or rather where a speedrun in a specific category ends. (YouTuber EZScape discusses the arbitrary nature of these starts and stops in a recent video called Should Intro Cutscenes be Skipped in Speedrunning?)

Now, I’m not here to argue that one should open up a new game, play for five minutes, and have a review ready. I’m also not going to argue that we should groan about the term “first impressions” and continue to do nothing about it. Instead, I want to argue for standards that can be applied universally that signal an almost unambiguous and mutual understanding between reviewer and reader. Instead of using vague terminology like “first impression,” we should just call a spade a spade, a review a review. First impressions as a term is far too often used as a cover for laziness and lack of due diligence. Playing a game for an hour and collecting your thoughts in a “first impressions piece” is ample reason to not revisit the game afterwards. Again, it signals vagueness: where does a game start, where does it end, etc. And the solution to our very real problem of categories for categories is painlessly simple.

Instead of dividing thoughts up into one or the other, we should take the 20 seconds it takes to check and report on the actual build of the game. An overwhelmingly large number of games indicate their current state with a handy build number, usually somewhere on the bottom of the screen in the left or right corner, if not on a pre-built launcher. These numbers are not there simply for the game developers to know the state of the software they’re working on. Rather, that should not be its sole purpose. We should make use of those numbers to clearly communicate which version of the game we played; not only to avoid the initial confusion of the time of writing, but also to prevent a review from becoming obsolete in future when a game is updated long after its release. Paradoxically, dating a review in this meaningful way is the exact way to render it timeless.

Reporting on the game’s state is completely trivial and simultaneously invaluable as an indicator of what game version the reviewer had access to. An all too similar thing occurs when reviewers talk about games as early access titles or beta or alpha states. Why not treat fully released titles with the same level of respect? Indeed, why not treat reviewing games as a practice with the same level of sincerity it so desperately needs, especially in today’s environment of the rat race? I know I’ll be doing my part in future, and maybe even harass my editor to retroactively update my reviews, supplying them with the correct build number at the bottom of the page.

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