Uncharted 4: The People vs. Michael Thomsen
In case you don’t keep up on current events in the game industry, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End came out on PlayStation 4 to universal critical acclaim. It sits at 93 on Metacritic being declared a technological powerhouse for the console and the thrilling conclusion to an illustrious series. But there’s one negative review for the game The Washington Post published that’s gotten a lot of bile and drama.
In an ideal world of game criticism this one unfavorable review of a successful major release could simply be looked over and forgotten, but the internet overreacted in such a way that is both embarrassing and dangerous for not just future critics but the rest of our community as well.
First, a brief look at this inflammatory review by Michael Thomsen. His prose is solid to say the least. It’s a refreshing outsider perspective when compared to a gaming press that can become quite self-ingrained. He brought up more than a few flaws with past Uncharted games: shallow stock characters and meandering plots meant to facilitate a harmless yet action-packed romp meant to reflect a Hollywood movie.
This review was put on the aggregate site, Metacritic, but since the review didn’t have a score, a number had to be contributed in order to be put into the aggregate. Because of the tone of the piece, the review was quantified as a 40 percent, marking it as the lowest review Uncharted 4 has received. This caused the game’s universally acclaimed score of 94 percent to drop to a pitifully low 93. So, with the internet being the internet, hundreds of people began to harass Thomsen on his social media, throwing out the usual accusatory and elitist notions that he has no right to criticize Uncharted 4 because he “didn’t get it.”
If the story ended there, this would just be another day in the life of passionate Uncharted fans trying to take down what they see as a hater hating, but then a Change.org petition wanted to remove the Uncharted 4 review from Metacritic (unfortunately, not all petitions can be as hilarious as getting Danny DeVito to voice Pikachu). The problem lies with why the review should be pulled, there are some comments regarding how Metacritic handles scoreless reviews and how it can be seen as a gross misrepresentation of critical voice, but this intention is betrayed by one sentence in the petition’s description.
“Gene [Park], because you were the only respectable staff that responded to this nonsense, you should remove this review from Metacritic and post a new, sensible one that can justify its existence,” said dimitris xorikos, the one who started the petition.
It isn’t just that Thomsen’s review should be removed but that a perceived “better” one can take its place on Metacritic. Say what you will, this is still silencing criticism, regardless of how questionable the review may be. It’s the exact opposite of treating video games as an artistic medium. It’s a path to stagnation and toxic miasma where nothing gets better and everyone keeps their down because no one wants to rock the boat.
Despite what some think, criticism is powerful, necessary and mostly comes from a place of passion. So what if you don’t agree with Thomsen’s taste in video games? A critic doesn’t have to like everything and a review is not a platform of catharsis but a carefully worded opinion on why something works even after certain objective facts are examined. This is why critics can disagree with each other over the same thing and still be right.
Furthermore, Change.org’s form of unified activism is a powerful tool. Compare using the voices of thousands to help reunite a broken family to what amounts to fans of a piece of entertainment demanding a negative review get taken down. In the broadest terms, this is the definition of internet outrage culture getting out of hand and using what is usually a solemn but impactful means of social change into an organized angry rant at a reputable news outlet.
Considering how The Washington Post has its own section dedicated to covering nerd culture and video games when a few short years ago they weren’t even protected as artistic expression under the US Constitution, this petition is an embarrassing reaction from a bygone age when gamer culture was mostly defensive about any condescending or demonizing action against their beloved medium.
But, like a detective drama another twist in the plot occurred: prolific video game voice-actor and mocap performer, Troy Baker, who worked on Uncharted 4 as main character Nathan Drake’s brother Sam, signed and circulated the petition on his Twitter feed, effectively boosting the petition well past 8,000 signatures within three short days. Naturally, this gave the holder of the petition newfound resolve that they were doing something right, after all if someone who worked on a video game gave his approval to something that must mean that the entire venture has merit.
Except that the very notion that someone in the industry is, albeit in a small way, trying to quash criticism by using their pull through social media should be more cause for suspicion and caution, not less. As mentioned before, Baker is a very successful voice-actor, he’s second only to Nolan North when it comes to recognizable voice personalities in video games. He gets plenty of work and chances are he’s already in a studio working on something else so is it right for someone who has vested interest in this title to use his clout to silence criticism?
Imagine if Ben Affleck rallied his social media connections to try to get reviews of Batman v Superman pulled because they “didn’t get it.” He’d be laughed out of the room, and the world would have a lesser opinion of him, the movie and the standards the community settled on.
Turns out a single point difference can be devastating to those in the industry. In 2012, GameSpot covered a story regarding the critical reception of Obsidian Entertainment’s Fallout: New Vegas. Obsidian’s Co-Founder Chris Avellone responded to a fan via Twitter regarding whether or not New Vegas was a money maker by stating that since the game got an 84 on Metacritic instead of an 85 or higher, he and the studio were denied an unspecified amount of bonus pay. The studio had to lay off employees, an Xbox One project codenamed “North Carolina” was cancelled. There is also the fact that video game voice-actor contracts haven’t been reformed as a whole since the 1990s, so certain benefits like royalties or residuals are lost even on those who work hard.
But while Baker has not directly mentioned these instances as cause for his signing this petition and pulling attention to it, it is the recklessness of his actions and tone of the petition holder where the beginning of a dangerous trend can be seen. Every single update made on this petition’s progress has gotten continuously muddled and more spiteful towards Thomsen’s Uncharted 4 review. The argument comes down dimitris xorikos saying he wants the review removed from Metacritic, and that’s not silencing Thomsen’s opinion about Uncharted 4 because his opinion is either wrong or his tastes don’t align with the mainstream. In actuality, such tastes are almost as pivotal in spreading critical awareness of video game criticism as The Washington Post itself, and to demand such radical action be taken is akin to suppressing Thomsen’s freedom of speech.
The antiquated perspective that gaming needs to be defended because it’s a marginalized niche community is more than just a little outdated. Video games are mainstream. There was a Super Bowl ad for Pokemon for crying out loud. When something is mainstream, the critical voices from outside a community should not be suppressed but embraced.