Game Reviews: Scores Don't Matter
I've been writing game reviews for many years and one thing I've had very little time for is using review scores. For one thing, they're annoying; stick a number out of ten, or percentage, or grade score, at the bottom of your work and I guarantee you the chances of people reading what you've written will drop substantially. Most will simply scroll down to the bottom, check the score, and they see if they agree with it.
It's even more frustrating when people (and you know who those people are), begin debating your choice of score without even bothering to read the case you've put forward in your review. They don't have to agree with it, but it would be nice if they at least engaged with your points. Some will simply argue that this is the way things are on the internet; people have short attention spans and tend to be more aggressive than they would be in real life. I think, however, that the problem runs a little deeper.
Review scores, ultimately, narrow the debate about games.
They stifle criticism, both good and bad, and reduce the quality of a game to little more than an arbitrary number. They limit criticism by ensuring that most discussion is on the score that a game has been given rather than on its artistic merit. It limits the amount of language we use to discuss games, and, in short, inhibits the discussion of gaming as a whole.
I suspect a lot of this has to do with the early days of video gaming. Gaming has always been seen as "less" than films, books, theatre, and while we've come some way to changing this mainstream assumption, it's still something that holds true. This has lead many game sites to market their reviews as product reviews, much like you'd rate a fridge or TV on its ability to do its job or its cost. In many cases the writing sounds less like articulate criticism and more like a sales pitch.
You see this in game reviews. One place I wrote for (which will remain anonymous), had several categories which were used to calculate your final score and you had to fill them in or else they wouldn't publish the review. There were the usual suspects; graphics, sound, lifespan and... technical competency. I mean, what do you rate for that? Is it how glitch-free it is, the length of the load times, or the quality of the A.I.? If I didn't know what, specifically, I was judging the game on, how on earth were readers supposed to understand when they came to read the review? Note that "gameplay" wasn't listed on the review criteria anywhere.
This shopping list approach to scoring games also infects a lot of the writing. The times I've read reviews that literally sound like a checklist; a paragraph on the graphics, a paragraph on the sound, the lifespan and so on. It's not that these aren't factors that go into a review, they definitely are, and I'm certainly not picking on specific writers or reviewers that have taken this approach, but I do think the fact that many game reviews are written in this way is down to how we've chosen to appraise games as a whole.
Which leads us on to another problem with reviews: objectivity versus subjectivity.
Check a forum, and you will always, without a doubt, have someone shouting bias. Someone's biased because they only gave "Space Death Warrior 30X" a 7 out of 10 when it clearly deserved an 8.5. This isn't "bias", it's simply disagreement.
Let's solve this problem quickly. Game reviews are, by their very nature, subjective. If you read one of my reviews, you're reading my understanding of what games are meant to be, and also my experience playing a particular game. Anyone that makes the claim that good game reviews are made from some kind of objective point of view are either mistaken or lying to you.
Also note that many who love slinging the word objectivity around will almost always be the ones that run to Metacritic or a handful of review scores to prove their point. It's because it's easy to throw some arbitrary numbers around as if they're scientific fact than it is to have an opinion, that may well go against the grain, and be prepared to defend it. Shouting objectivity in this way is intellectual cowardice.
That isn't to say that we don't use facts to support our opinions, or that every opinion is as valid as any other. The "oh, you have your opinion, I have mine, we can't all like the same thing" is just another way that discussion is stifled when we come to discussing video games. For example, I might find a particular game bad and then I'll use evidence, based on my experience of playing that game, to support my argument. This is a very basic concept, I know, but it's surprising in the gaming community how little there is of this, and how subjectivity and objectivity are regularly invoked for completely the wrong reasons.
In the end, my criticism of reviews comes down to one simple thing.
I think games deserve more than being treated as if they're little more than a fridge or a microwave. They have the capacity to move us, immerse us and engage us just as much as any other artistic medium, but unfortunately, the current criticism and language that we use to appraise them simply doesn't do justice.
Amazon will now be displaying Metacritic scores on its website for video games, the giant review aggregate, along with major gaming sites--which holds even greater power in shaping the way people view games and how ordinary people inform themselves. This is not a good thing; games are worth more than an abstract number and a series of checkboxes.
We regularly talk about modern video games being "dumbed down," but I'd argue that it's the critical analysis of games, both as casual consumers and as critics, that is at much greater risk. As the people who play video games, we deserve better and should hold the entire medium, and its community, to a higher standard.
Fathoms_4209April 8, 2014, 11:55 amFeatured ColumnistVideo game reviews are comprised of objective and subjective information. Always.
It is not an opinion to say that the graphics in Gran Turismo 5 were better than the graphics in Driven. It is not opinion to say the camera is faulty in Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z. It is not an opinion to say the voice acting in the Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster is amateurish by today's standards.
These are facts, not opinion, and they're spotted by knowledgeable minds. The "all reviews are all opinion" defense means everyone is qualified to write a review of anything. That is not true; there is such thing as expertise in any given field. I could write a music review for Rolling Stone or a restaurant review for Gourmet; neither of which would be as good as a review written by a professional music and food critic. I don't know enough. I can say what I like, but I'm not an expert on either subject and as such, I would never recommend my reviews over theirs.
Roger Ebert didn't earn a Pulitzer Prize just because he was lucky enough to issue his own opinion and get paid for it.
This is just a pet peeve of mine. Everyone can have an opinion. This really doesn't qualify everyone to be a critic. There is expertise required.
As for the scores, they're essential from the business angle, as any developer or publisher will tell you. I would also assume that not everybody has the time to sit and read ten different reviews, so scores are a very big time-saver for everyone. This is why there are star ratings for other forms of entertainment.
LudoLogicApril 8, 2014, 5:05 pmContributor"It is not an opinion to say that the graphics in Gran Turismo 5 were better than the graphics in Driven. It is not opinion to say the camera is faulty in Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z. It is not an opinion to say the voice acting in the Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster is amateurish by today's standards.
These are facts, not opinion, and they're spotted by knowledgeable minds."
Absolutely, this is, in a sense, what I stress in the middle section of the article. These are factual observations that you use to support a review. The review is still subjective in the sense that it's the writer's personal experience, but the facts are used to bolster and give strength to that opinion, making it an informed one.
"The "all reviews are all opinion" defense means everyone is qualified to write a review of anything."
Again, I agree with you, and make a case for this in the article. My point is that all reviews are inherently subjective, not that they're all complete opinion, or that everyone is equally qualified.
I'm not trying to say that all reviews are equal, that is why I made a point of critiquing the argument that you see a lot in game forums of "well, we all have our own tastes, now you go off to your corner and I'll go back to mine". Your example of critiquing areas that you have no knowledge of is an apt one. Informed reviews carry more weight precisely because they're informed and aren't just some random opinion.
"Roger Ebert didn't earn a Pulitzer Prize just because he was lucky enough to issue his own opinion and get paid for it."
Definitely, but I don't think it changes the fact that his reviews are subjective; they come from his own concept of what films are meant to be. It isn't as if he concurred with every other popular critic on every film. But again, what he did do is take a stance, and provide a convincing argument (in most cases), as to why he thought the way he did. You might not necessarily have agreed with him by the end of every review but were able to go, "ok, I see where he's coming from".
Coincidently, that's why everyone rightly ignored him when he came out with that nonsense about video games not having any artistic value. He's a film critic who admitted he had very little knowledge of video games, in this instance, his opinion carried very little weight, and he didn't come up with any convincing support for his position either.
"As for the scores, they're essential from the business angle, as any developer or publisher will tell you. I would also assume that not everybody has the time to sit and read ten different reviews, so scores are a very big time-saver for everyone. This is why there are star ratings for other forms of entertainment."
Exactly, it's important for developers and publishers, not for game critics. Ultimately, it's publishers that benefit from review scores because they get to stick them on the game boxes and advertise that their game has a 91 on Metacritic or whatever. My issue is that many reviewers/sites are too quick to follow the model laid out by the publishers and the heavy hitting sites which creates a downward spiral in terms of how reviews are carried out, and the heavy focus on final scores. Not to mention most sites inflate scores as well, so it's not even as if the score system is used properly. Most games, even ones that receive an average review, will garner a 7 out of 10 from IGN and the other big sites.
Obviously, there has to be a degree of compromise, I'm not suggesting that we all suddenly refuse to score games, and I understand that they give people access to speedy information and a general overview of the critical response. It's the weight that's placed on them that is the problem, so much so that it dominates the discussion almost to the point that it takes precedence over the game. It also, in many cases, reduces games to being talked about as nothing more than a score or arbitrary value, much like your average kitchen appliance.
As for other forms of entertainment, sure they use score systems, but none of them have as unhealthy relationship with scoring like video games do. You find nowhere near as many people shouting at Empire magazine for giving a lower score than the Rotten Tomato average. Similarly, EA, Activision and the like place far more emphasis on Metacritic than film distribution companies do with aggregate websites.
Fathoms_4209April 8, 2014, 8:02 pmFeatured ColumnistI see we certainly agree on a lot.
Just wondering what your take is on a universal rating system for games. It exists in all other forms of entertainment (mostly) but in games, we've got 10-point scales, 100-point scales, grades (A, B, C), stars, etc. Do you think we should have a universal scale, too?
LudoLogicApril 9, 2014, 5:58 amContributorIt'd certainly clear up a lot of the complexity wouldn't it. From my experience a lot of websites seem to be moving away from things like grades and stars, which I think is a good thing.
If a site must have a scoring system (which is most of them), I think a simple 0-10 works best. It's certainly the one I prefer using when I'm asked to put a final score.
Fathoms_4209April 9, 2014, 1:29 pmFeatured ColumnistI have noticed that a lot of places are going with the 10-point scale, and they're eliminating the tenths of points. So, no more 8.3 or 5.7; they're all even or .5. GameSpot and IGN do that now, I believe.
That's probably the best way to do it; as a critic, it was always difficult for me to tell the difference between a 7.3 and a 7.4. I mean, really, how big of a difference can that tenth make? :)