It’s all in the title.
Though it is communicated more at the level of murmur than full-blown discourse, I have read, heard, and seen numerous members of the games press consider what role crunch has to play in the crafting of a review. In cases where we know a game has been built by crunch (Red Dead—as confirmed by Dan Houser and the open secret of Rockstar’s history of labor abuse), do you dedicate a body paragraph to discuss the implications of (*throws up hands*) shrinking horse testicles? Put it in a sidebar? Counter-arguments invoke the nature of reviews needing to take a work as a work, as well as the perhaps too-neat stylistic choice of the sidebar as ‘problematic box,’ respectively.
I find the first counter-argument silly. Games reviews are, by and large, not “””pure””” criticism. Some reviews still assign number scores to ‘replayability’, for godsake. The lion’s share of game reviews are consumer-faced, and several of those still seem to completely disregard the fact that games contain ideas and themes. I’m sorry, but I refuse to believe that talking about the conditions that a game was made in is somehow muddying the ‘purity’ of a review style that often still has an interest in how many hours you get for your dollar and how ‘good’ the ‘graphics’ are.
The second argument speaks to me in a way that the first does not. A ‘crunch sidebar’, while contextually different, does feel like it contains strokes of the sloppy ‘bigotry sidebar’ that’s begun to crop up as games websites try to more directly address social issues present in games. It’s a little too pat—‘hey, this is part of the game, but—if you think about it—it’s separate, really.’ This is a problem. The labor that makes the game is the game, just as much as a problematic scene/theme/etc. is the game. They’re not some separate slice of the pie, let’s not kid ourselves.
I feel like the conclusion here is a simple one—just talk about the damn thing in the body. Actually talk about it. If your next question is ‘but how does it affect the score’:
- I’ll get there—I titled this piece the way I did for a reason
- I know I have my answer, but, honestly, who cares. It’s a number. Score a game however the hell you please. Frankly, I’m not sure it much matters (and also, it’s not really my business) whether you subtract 0 points or 90. Just talk about crunch.
This does leave another question unanswered. What do we do with games that are huge—games that are so fucking huge that it seems impossible that they weren’t made in a crunch factory? Call of Duty games are made in two years. TWO YEARS. I actually interviewed for a QA position at Activision a little while ago. There were…telltale signs. “Would you be willing to work overtime?” I actually directly addressed crunch—used that literal word—and asked if that’s what the interviewer meant. He didn’t say yes, but…he didn’t say no.
And what about small games—lord knows there’s crunch in indie. We’re practically just off the heels of the whole MidBoss debacle. I think the sad truth of the matter is that no one is safe.
I don’t know how I feel about this, for sure. Perhaps it would be for the best to remind every single reading gamer, all the time, about crunch. Maybe if we shout it at them constantly, we can change a few minds. But it also feels a little pod-people to me—wildly pointing at everyone in the room, asking “Are you?? Are you safe???” God, this industry. The fucking state of it.
Hey, here’s what I think: give every single game a 10/10. Review scores are absurd, meaningless. Some outlets don’t even use them. We’re all sitting here, hands in our pockets, unsure if or how crunch should affect a review score. Fuck it. Until companies start treating their employees better (and game labor unionizes), why not. Until this industry treats its laborers as more than expendable meat, they don’t get to compare their output against one another. Made the same, seen the same. Maybe it’ll even encourage games companies to not tie bonuses to Metacritic scores (a despicable practice, a fucking horrible practice), and instead base them off of revenue like literally every single other industry, ever. Wild, I know.
If this is a bad take, I want you to roast me, absolutely turn me into toast, on twitter, please and thank you.