Every year, upon surviving another holiday season in which I do my best to play through and review as many as 50 games in just a few months, I sit back, reflect on my job, and pour my thoughts into a lightly philosophical post. In years past I’ve written about such things as difficult publishers who restrict access to their wares and how, contrary to popular belief, being a game reviewer rarely means you get to play games during your workday.
This year I’m going to focus on a hot-button topic in the world of video game journalism: Review scores.
I began my career 15 years ago adamantly opposed to applying scores to my reviews. Assigning a simple number or letter grade to a review of any form of media seems to me to be a clumsy, inelegant, and unfair way of judging an artistic work. Taken on its own – and this happens frequently – a score lacks any sort of context and fails to do justice to games that, more often than not, large teams of people have slaved over for months or years.
That said, I’ve come to view review scores as a necessary evil.
Viewed in practical business terms, scores are essential to growing a game review Web site. Without them, reviews would never be picked up on aggregation sites, rarely be included in meta-reviews posted on popular blogs, and have less of a chance of being used as source material on sites like Wikipedia. Put plainly, they drive traffic in a variety of ways.
More importantly, they serve a purpose to readers. Not everyone is willing to devote time to reading thoughtful critiques. All they want to know is if a game is good or bad. In this sense, assigning a very high or very low score provides value to readers in a rush. They instantly know whether to invest or avoid, and – at least in the case of the former – can discover for themselves why a particular work is worthy of their time and money.
Where this argument breaks down is in games that receive mediocre scores. Someone might see my review of a game like Rage , for example, note that I assigned it a middling score of six out of ten, and move on without reading why. If they dive into the text, however, they might discover that Rage has just the sort of things they crave in a game – great graphics and polished action – and that the reason I gave it a lower score is because it failed to meet my expectations in terms of storytelling and innovation, elements that may turn out to be of minor importance to our theoretical reader. It could, in fact, be just the sort of game she’s looking for, but, thanks to the score, she may never know.
Scores also tend to bring out the worst in fanatics. It seems to me that many people who browse reviews are simply in search of a story that validates their opinion. It doesn’t matter if they’ve played the game or not; they just want to read something that conforms to and confirms their beliefs.
This is easily illustrated in the growing war between fans of Battlefield and Call of Duty. Having sworn loyalty to one series or the other (and acting under the misguided assumption that most other gamers have done so, too), these readers see review scores as evidence betraying the camp in which the author resides. They’re not interested in reading an opinion that might make them reflect on their own views; they just want the reviewer to be on their side. Giant Bomb has a nice post on this phenomenon – formally known as confirmation bias – written after Eurogamer's honest review of Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception caused a minor ruckus among fans.
My experience suggests that the need for opinion validation occurs less – or is at least less visible – when a review is offered sans score. Without a grade, readers are forced to take the time to read through the review and digest the author’s arguments. Regardless of whether they agree, they may at least see the rationale behind the score and respect it as a reflection of the author's experience. One of the reasons that I place scores at the bottom rather than the top of reviews that appear on this blog is with the hope that the review will be read prior to the reader viewing the score.
The last thing I want to discuss in this post is scoring rationale. It’s no secret that game reviewers have a history of assigning higher scores than reviewers of other forms of media. In fact, we seem to have reached a point where games that earn an average of less than eight out of ten on review aggregation sites are somehow considered critical failures by both publishers and fans.
A frequently cited reason for these seemingly inflated scores is that many game reviewers are fanboys prone to gushing a little too heavily over the titles they like.
Another is that game reviewers fear the retribution of publishers, who, when riled, may decide to withhold early access to their releases, thus impeding the reviewer’s ability to offer timely critiques.
There is some truth in both of these explanations. But there are other reasons as well.
I, for one, usually choose to review games based on whether I expect or hope to enjoy them. I’m paid for my review, not the time I spend playing the game. This marks an important difference between people who review games and those who review other forms of media, including films and music. Throwing away a couple of hours on the latest Adam Sandler train wreck or Justin Bieber Christmas album is much less repellent than spending 20 hours of my spare time plodding through a generic shooter that, for various reasons, I’m pretty confident will be a stinker. Consequently, I review few truly bad games.
What’s more, the process of reviewing a game requires an evaluation of qualities different than those in other media. For example, if a game manages to provide a solid interface and mechanics – by which I mean the controls feel good and the actions we perform in the game work as expected – I’ll generally give it at least a four or five out ten. It's already achieved the bare minimum required to have potential to be enjoyed by its target audience.
Point being, I reserve the very lowest numbers on the ten-point scale for titles that I find to be essentially unplayable (like this fall's MotionSports Adrenaline). So, so long as a game passes some basic technical criteria it starts at a base score of five. Whether its grade grows – or, in rare cases, decreases – is a function of its originality, presentation, cleverness, accessibility, themes, immersiveness, and other subjective elements that affect my level of engagement and enjoyment.
And now we're back to the notion of scoring art. As much as I might not enjoy using numbers, letters, or stars to assess the value of creative work, I understand and submit to arguments that insist grading systems are necessary. Review scores have a place, and it's alongside thoughtful criticism.