By: Mark Wilson
There are some of you out there who love the way writers and publishers handle video game reviews. This article is not for you. As far as the author and his sympathisers are concerned, you are the saps stuck as janitors cleaning dirty toilets in The Matrix, the suckers who sit around drinking Diet Coke convinced that it tastes like real Coke, the unfortunate few who were never able to see the rhinos and race cars in those Magic Eye images.
But after reading countless video game reviews over the years, and more recently editing Frankenreviews for both games and gadgets, it's become more and more obvious that the video game review system is dated, limiting and even, at times, unintentionally condescending.
But there's a ton of talent in the game review industry, really. So where are we going wrong? Chapter I: If there's no such thing as a perfect game, then what's with the numbers? I don't think we've ever given any game a 100%...I think the reason is...for us, a perfect 100 would be the perfect game, and I don't think there's any such thing. - Kristen Salvatore, PC Gamer Editor
If there is no such thing as a perfect game, when why the hell are you scoring out of 100? It's not just PC Gamer that thinks this way—most publications, even those who do give out "perfect" scores, do so begrudgingly. It's as if the developer has somehow cheated and broken their system.
The movie reviewers solved this problem a long time ago. That's why most adopted a simpler rating system in which a 4-star movie didn't imply "perfection" but supreme excellence. In most cases, games are penalised through being divided by a sum that they can never possibly reach. What does that make a 94 or a 9.5 then...is that our mortal interpretation of perfection? Is that the closest we can fly to the sun before our wings melt and we're doomed to playing Spongebob Squarepants XVI for eternity?
But even more so, what does this scoring system say to developers? What are they aiming for when they hand over that review disc? Because essentially, they're taking a test with 5 points docked for signing their name.
Chapter II: But it's as much the readers' faults as the writers'. "I'm sure some readers seldom get past the grades/stars. That's a major problem. As a reviewer, you hope that people at least consider your reasoning, and, beyond that, that they're informed and entertained by what you've written." - Bob Denerstein, Film Critic
Not so fast, smug reader. Never forget that you too are completely worthless and wrong, because the public is putting way too much emphasis on these review numbers.
There are reviews that go to the hundredth decimal place, scoring games like 9.45. In such cases, reviewers are essentially scoring out of a thousand. So what separates a 9.45 from a 9.44 or a 9.34. And on that matter, what separates an 82 from an 87? Maybe Yoshi's tongue snapped too quickly back into his mouth. If that were only tweaked, man, Miyamoto could have cleaned up with at least an 88.349. Completely made up rule of thumb: The more numbers a reviewer uses, the more they are trying to authenticate their own bullshit.
If you as a reader can never understand completely the logic behind a number, how could you ever assign it a value? All this numerical scoring is an arbitrary system that we should ignore until it's simplified to a system that actually makes sense. But that's easier said than done when numbers have such high correlations with sales. (Just see this study.)
Chapter III: We should be reviewing art when we're really reviewing products. "Our objective, precise, and repeatable testing methods...provide the comparative data and quantitative results that feed the technical analysis of our product reviews. This, combined with the qualitative analysis from the hands-on evaluations of our expert editors, gives our users everything they need to know to make informed buying decisions." - Gamespot FAQ
Ok, we completely just lied. That quote was actually pulled from the CNET review guide (Gamespot's sister site). But if you believed the attribution even for a moment, we've made our point already.
The fundamental problem with game reviews is that they're analysing products, not pieces of art. Or more clearly stated, art reviews decide if something is worth your time; game reviews decide is something is worth your money.
Let's go back to our convenient film comparison for a moment. When do reviewers ever complain that a movie is only an hour and a half long? They don't, because length as a value proposition is generally never affiliated with art. But Heavenly Sword's 5-hour gameplay reeks of a measurement of my cellphone battery's talk time.
Games are viewed as consumable goods meant to entertain for X hours at X amount per X dollars. There's an interest in durability (replay value, multiplayer), functionality (controls, camera), interface (HUD, menus), sex appeal (graphics) and accessibility (difficulty level).
We've turned Mario into an MP3 player.
Chapter IV: This is all useless, the author is tired/will receive hate mail. "Hey guys, what are you doing with that—Ahhh! Ugh. Thud. Clang. Death." - Mark Wilson, Plant Food
Now for the obnoxious backpedaling.
We really do direly need the video game review industry because there is just too much volume for gamers to get prioritise alone, even with word of mouth, message boards, etc. We need people and organisations that can plow through multitudes of games to pick out the gems and crap on the...crap.
But we need them to analyse the subject in a critical light, judging a game's intrinsic value over its dollar value. And hopefully everyone here is still awake.