A Review of Penny Arcade’s Review of Polygon’s Review of Mad Max

From time to time, one or both of the gormless gasbags that comprise the creative aspect of Penny Arcade opens his stinking maw and declaims upon some subject he has little or no idea about in order to remind you, in case you had somehow forgotten, that theirs is an idiotic and reprehensible brand that does not deserve your clicks. In this case, it’s Jerry Holkins[1], usually the more reserved of the two, who has chosen to speak, taking Polygon’s Phil Kollar to task for his Mad Max review, which he deems an abject failure of criticism.

Holkins’s default prose is a shade of purple that normally makes someone wonder if you should have a doctor look at that. It’s the kind of thing you might forgive if you liked him enough, but it’s so much worse when it couches such aggressively incorrect observations. Besides investing far more in the concept of numerical review scores than any level-headed human being should, Holkins posits the quite serious accusation that the review was scored as it was merely as a trolling maneuver, dismisses subjectivity as so much fooforah, and submits that arriving at the conclusion that Mad Max merits a 5/10 on one’s own suggests a lack of qualification for the profession of video game critic.

Of course, this hot mess has got us all talking about review scores again, which is always a total drag. Forbes limply threw their hat into the ring, essentially saying Holkins was definitely way off base but that also maybe Polygon brought this on themselves a little by committing to using the full scope of the review scale when they know the average reader is mentally hewing to a more “seven as average”-oriented school-type scale. Paul Tassi, the contributor, says this:

The problem here is that Polygon, and occasionally other outlets who do this, are bucking the informally established system, which creates a series of disconnects between the review and the score, the score and the reader, and the reader and the review.

This is completely dumb, because if the system is “informally established”, how can they be bucking anything? There is no universal standard for video game review scores. Such a thing is not remotely close to possible. If you’re reading Polygon and you’re consciously choosing to engage with their brand of criticism, then you as the reader have an obligation to determine and comprehend the meanings of their ratings before commenting on them. And wouldn’t you know it, they lay all of that out in no uncertain terms on their “About Reviews” page. Mad Max was given a five, and this is what the page has to say about fives:

A score of five indicates a bland, underwhelming game that’s functional but little else. These games might still possess quirks or aspects that appeal to certain players.

You can read the review at the link I provided above. The tone of the text seems to me to align pretty closely with what Polygon would consider a five. Basically, the game works, but it’s shallow and bloated and boring. The score even fits Jerry under its umbrella, since clearly he is one of the “certain players” to which many aspects of the game appealed. So what’s his problem?

Well, for one, as stated above, he clearly believes way too hard in the power of numerical scores. Almost every website that hosts game reviews has accepted that scores are a necessary evil. The only site I can think of offhand that attempted to eschew them entirely is Gameological, and it lasted less than two years before returning to the warmth of the AV Club’s womb. (But oh, what a glorious two years it was.) Polygon has reconciled with the concept just about as well as you could ask of a mainstream gaming journalism website in 2015. The problem is that of all the many categories of pop culture, gaming is the one with the most obnoxious dissenters, and even its most successful and ostensibly high-minded paragons do not feel like the onus to decouple the review grade spectrum from the report cards they got in high school is on them.

The most appalling idea advanced here is the notion that the score is, in Holkins’s words, a “tool designed to make [him] talk about the review”. Only a masochist would actively court this kind of discussion, and only a jerk would use a platform as far-reaching as Polygon to goose people for laffs. As far as I can tell, Phil Kollar is neither. When someone lays out their true opinions in such a well-spoken and civil manner, dismissing it as mere trolling is grossly offensive.

My other favorite sentence is this one: “If the number only refers to the interior geometry of your skull, unmoored from any shared consciousness, maybe numbers are not for you.” Oh! I get it. The score is stupid because it came from inside Phil’s brain and doesn’t reflect the opinions of “regular” gamers (among which Holkins risibly attempts to position himself) or huddle together with all the other little dots on an aggregate graph. Silly Phil! Never mind that he didn’t even come up with the score himself, since according to that handy-dandy About Reviews page, “the reviewer meets with a group of senior editors to determine which score on our scale properly reflects the text as written”. No, he must have been spoiling to cheese off his audience from the first keystroke. That is the only way a boy’s beloved Mad Max could receive a score as ignominious as a five.

That it took three days for Holkins’s post to even reach Kollar’s awareness testifies to the diminishing power of the Penny Arcade brand. One presumes that it got as little attention as it did because he managed to muster the restraint not to suggest that anyone get raped. In any event, if he must preface his denouncement of a legitimate piece of writing by diminishing the form as a whole and he reads reviews when he is tired and grumpy and thinks they are baiting him and that no one should or can write a good and proper review without tapping into the Metacritic hive mind, then I would suggest maybe opinions are not for him.

[1] I refuse to indulge them in their silly nicknames.

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