Something Is Wrong With Video Game Reviews

A month or so ago I was interviewed by ABC2’s Good Game on the topic of video game reviews and, more specifically, review scores. You can watch their feature on the issue tonight at 8.30, but I thought I’d take the time to outline some of my own thoughts on the matter. Something seems to be wrong with video game reviews and, personally, I’d like to see them change.

By most measures Super 8 is a good movie. I thoroughly enjoyed it. My wife cried at the end, while I thought the ending was a teensy bit underwhelming. My friend, who watched with us at the cinema, complained afterwards about the plot. My brother in-law wondered why every single shot in the entire movie had lens-flare – a legitimate complaint.

At the moment, on Metacritic, Super 8 is sitting at around 72. A resounding success – an apt reflection of a well made movie with a handful of flaws.

Compare that to L.A. Noire – a game I did not enjoy. My wife thought it had an interesting concept. My friend loved it and is currently on his second playthough. My brother said it was the worst game he has ever played and has since traded the game in.

At the moment L.A. Noire is sitting at 89 on Metacritic. This is not an apt reflection of opinion. Not in my experience, at least.

There is something wrong with video game reviews.

Roughly a month ago I was interviewed by the TV show Good Game about MetaCritic and the issue of reviews – why do video game reviews skew so highly when compared to music or cinema. Are game journalists pressured by publishers to give high scores to mediocre games, have I ever been excessively pestered for giving a game a low score, what have the consequences been… stuff like that.

Good Game airs tonight at 8.30pm on ABC2, so I’ll leave it to the show to answer those questions – but it occurred to me during the interview that the act of reviewing a video game, based on a number of factors – some within our control, some not – is a broken process that needs to be reworked from the ground up if they are to retain any real value to consumers.
Because, in their current state, video game reviews are practically worthless.

I could spend hours going into specifics – the publisher/editorial relationship, the price of games, the expectations of readers, the language we use, the curious hivemind thinking that plagues MetaCritic – but mainly, ultimately, I think the issue with reviews is one of perspective.

We have to start treating video games as an experience. Not a product.

Games are inherently more complicated than any other medium. There are far more parts holding the experience together compared with any other medium you could name – mechanics, visuals, design. With that in mind I think reviewers, and gamers in general, have been more likely to discuss video games in the same way they would discuss a TV or a brand new car. A game is ‘polished’. Mechanics are ‘fundamentally sound’. Reviews are scientific almost – the discrete parts of the product are taken apart and discussed using the same language used to review a brand new toaster.

But a game is not a toaster. It doesn’t perform a function in that cold clinical way, it won’t help you make a delicious sandwich – it is a video game, it is an experience.

If L.A. Noire was a toaster – I would recommend that appliance. Thoroughly. That toaster has had plenty of money invested in its development. It is fundamentally sound. If I were to take that toaster apart it would be made up of the finest components money can buy. What an incredible toaster L.A. Noire would make.

L.A. Noire is not a toaster, it is an experience. It’s entertainment – it’s a video game. But when we discuss video games there is very little attempt to engage with it as such. Why aren’t we asking these questions: does it make sense? Is this engaging? Is anyone having any fun here?

Because at the end of the day, L.A. Noire is not a toaster – Super 8 is not a toaster. They’re both subjective experiences. But the difference is this: I could walk out of the cinema, hop onto Rotten Tomatoes and find a million different reviews that reflect that experience. I’d have a far more difficult time doing that with L.A. Noire.

I didn’t enjoy L.A. Noire. It’s probably unfair to use that game as an example, but look at it from this perspective: ex-Gizmodo Editor Nick Broughall thinks it’s the game of the year so far. So do plenty of my friends. My brother? He hates it with the fury of a thousand angry suns. You probably have your own perspective.

But that’s the point – the video game reviews that you and I read do not reflect that variety. They skew towards an almost clinically similar conclusion, almost universally. That makes them practically worthless to you and I as consumers.

There is something wrong with video game reviews.

And I’d like to see them change.


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