Review score or how to treat the video game medium as a vulgar copycat.

When browsing any video game-related website or magazine, you may notice something which is now common when it comes to reviewing games, that is to say the final review score. This number is usually a symbolical way to summarize the entire review as well as a final conclusion. Based on a 10 or 20 or 100-points scale, it looks like a school grade. Some can also be a percentage, when it comes to a 100-points scale for example, and they supposedly represent the satisfaction rate, as well as the overall quality of the game. You may think of Metacritic, which is probably one of the biggest reference for review scoring, and not only for video games. Popular video game-related websites such as IGN, Polygon or Giant Bomb use the review score system as well. In fact, almost everyone use it, which is unfortunate in my opinion. Here’s why.

Defined criteria for an undefined medium.

Review score definitely reminds me of school grade, in their very nature and their meaning. A bad score usually summarizes bad quality. High scores, on the contrary, tend to show that the product is excellent and near perfection. An average 5/10 or 10/20 means an average content, and so on. It is hard not to compare review score with school grade. Like them, it often consists in reviewing several criteria and mixing all the scores into an average mark, which is followed with an appreciation. Therefore, any game is treated like an exam sheet which has to be reviewed and corrected. But here’s the problem: while exams are very defined and precise, can we say the same about video games, or about any medium in general?

Let’s analyze what an examination is, first. Both a meaning and an end to something, the trial allows the reviewer to determine if a student seriously followed the courses throughout the year(s). In the end, it rewards or not the student and either allows him to continue or denies him the entrance to the next step of his educational program. The whole thing is precise and planned: students know that exams will deal with some of the notions seen during the year. Usually, there is no surprise. Imagine the exam like a test tube, which fills itself as the student answers the questions. A good answer adds more liquid into the tube, while a wrong answer does nothing. The goal for the reviewer is then to compare the liquid level to some marks written on the glass and see if the students reached them. If it is more than the average, it is usually a success: student filled the test tube enough, and can therefore continue.

Hence, the examination system is strictly organized and detailed. A question is worth a certain number of points, no more, no less. The reviewer expects the correct key words and notions to appear in order to give all the points. Even in domains such as philosophy, where it is believed that the grade greatly depends on the reviewer, there are certain key words and notions which need to be written down. The point is, examination is based on defined and precise criteria, which is not quite the case for media. The whole history of any medium is full of people trying to define and determine what their media can and should be. All the attempts, all the masterpieces have their own vision of the criteria which should be used. It is also the case in video games. For some, the medium is about the game-play in priority, and the interactivity. Others emphasizes on the visual aspect, through aesthetic and graphical content, and so on. All these criteria are certainly not defined, for people still continue to produce video games, trying to grasp the idea of an ideal product. The medium is not written in advance, unlike the examination questions. One cannot and shouldn’t compare a video game with another, like a reviewer would compare an exam sheet with another, to see which one is the best. The universality of the examination system cannot be applied to the diversity of the video game medium.

This is a major problem when it comes to reviewing games: usually, a similar grade on two different sheets mean that they have the same value. Can we say the same about two similar review scores from two different games? The tendency would say yes, but no, I’m sorry, you can’t. You can’t just compare Dear Esther with FTL, both of them being quite good. Contrarily to what the industry wants you to believe, it is not possible to draw parallels between those two games, and the so-called defined criteria used to review them, such as graphic, story or music, are not, in fact, defined and universal. To use them is to acknowledge the existence of a postulate which is so big that it is terrifying to think about it. It would imply that, just like any exam sheet, video games should include key notions and elements in order to be great, and that they should be all the same in the end, just like a perfect copy is identical to another in an examination. This is so wrong. If media are known for something, it is their ability to reinvent themselves and always produce something new and unique. Using review scores to universalize them goes against this crucial characteristic.

One review score to shut them all.

My second point is less theoretical and more psychological. Review score, by their nature, naturally attract people. The fact is, people love numbers, as long as they are imaginable. Whether they are single or double digits, numbers speak to the ordinary guy. When someone says to you “we spend 1/3 of our life sleeping” or “this car costs 15,000$”, you immediately picture what is implied behind the numbers. They are simple, direct way for you to realize something: in the first example, you simply cut your life into three parts, and you imagine one part being entirely dedicated to your bed. In the second example, you compare the price with your monthly salary or your bank account, and you conclude that it is quite expensive for you at the moment. I like to think that the famous adage “A picture is worth a thousand words” should be rephrased into “A number is worth a thousand words”. Numbers control our lives, and companies know it. Something which is extremely costly has to be good, right? Congratulations, you just explained the majority of the Apple product sales; 80% off for a sale, it is a unique opportunity for you to buy something for less than its original value, right? As if any sane company would let you acquire something for less than its production cost.

When it comes to video games, the numbers’ latent power fully expresses itself in the review score. Have you ever wondered why the score is at the end? It is not because it is the least important thing on the page. On the contrary, review score is supposedly the key notion to look at. And video game-related website knows well their psychological techniques. Just like a conclusion to an essay, the review score at the end of a review is the last thing your eyes will see, and therefore it becomes your most recent memory of everything you could have read before. If there is one thing which will be remembered, it is the big “10 out of 10” after scrolling the page to see the verdict. The same “10 out of 10” which will be used out of its context in an attempt to seduce the potential consumer in the product page. Steam loves this technique, for example.

I get it, but what about the game?

And here lies the problem, in my opinion. Knowing that people love numbers, companies and publishers try to put them both as a meaningful proof of quality and a strong marketing argument, and people fall for it way too often. Review scores have arguably become the first thing which comes to mind when evoking a video game in a discussion. By telling that one game is rated 95% on Metacritic, one literally shuts the discussion down and transform a number into an uncontested figure of authority in the discourse. It doesn’t matter that the review is short, long, detailed or not, for everything above will be put away with the big, visible score which tries to capitalize on both the significance of numbers in people’s mind and the old tradition of examination grades. Review scores are supposed to be a visual representation of the written arguments, but instead become the unique element looked at and shown, eclipsing the numerous paragraphs.

I copy therefore I am.

My final point explores the peculiar relationship that the video game medium has with other media, and especially with cinema. To say that modern mainstream video game industry wants desperately to imitate cinema is an understatement. In its way of telling stories, showing action and constructing it, modern video game medium borrows more and more from cinema, to the point where interactive movie is often appropriate to qualify most of the recent releases. But the link between those two media is stronger than a simple imitation in the form. It passes also through the way in which the products of the medium are evaluated and reviewed.

If it is true that review scores remind of examination grades, they also recall the way movies are traditionally rated with stars (usually movie critics use the 4 stars system, but it changed a lot since then). And if you think it is merely a coincidence, I suggest you take a look at other media. Except cinema, can you think of any other medium which is evaluated with a rating and a specific number? Have you ever seen a “4 out of 5” for a painting or a sculpture? What about a play or a book? (again, things changed a lot, and some websites now evaluate literature, which is as wrong as rating video games by the way). Truth is, you never see this except for cinema and video games. The reason for cinema to be rated is completely unknown to me, for I don’t claim to be a movie expert, but for video games it is crystal clear: the whole medium is driven with an urge to be recognized as a major medium, or even art. It wants to be taken seriously, and therefore copies its major influential model. I copy therefore I am. Quite sad in my opinion.

By reviewing games and giving them a score similar to those applied to movies, video game journalists and reviewers want to say to the world “See, we do something important, and it needs to be taken seriously. We are reviewing important pieces of a major medium, using criteria and such, just like our big brother, the cinema medium.” The whole process of justifying the time wasted playing video games is evident. It can be found also with the gamers which embrace vigorously the review scoring system. Whether they are aware of it or not, it allows them to say “See, I’m doing something important, I play something which has been evaluated and reviewed. It is not a game for children. It is serious business for adults. It is part of a culture, and it is worth something. It is worth a 10 out of 10, and you should definitely try it. It’s like a good movie, but it’s a game!”

Hard not to notice the big black-on-red score in a white page. More than an graphical choice, it is a marketing one.

Long story short, consumers and journalists reviewing the products feel like they need to make it important. And numbers are powerful elements that make anything they represent important. People who play video games don’t want to be taken for children toying with childish game in front of their television of computer. They want to go out, and be proud of the video game culture by showing that they know their classics, the masterpieces, the “10 out of 10”, just like any movie connoisseur would appreciate a fine movie and have a discussion about it. But here lies the paradox for the video game medium: numbers are not meant to engage the discussion but rather close it. They are not the beginning of something, but the end of the debate. Bioshock Infinite is rated 95% on Metacritic and if you disagree then you are definitely wrong. End of the story. This is not what review scores were supposed to do. By taking a system inherent to cinema and transposing it in video game medium, the former confirms itself as a major medium and art while the latter just poses itself as a vulgar copycat which try desperately to become something more than a childish hobby, through numbers and ratings.

There is no identity behind the review scoring system. Only a sad “wannabe major medium” distress call. If video game journalists and reviewers want their favorite activity to be taken as something serious and worth exploring, they need to stop imitating and start creating a whole new way to talk about the medium. Something different than a bunch of meaningless numbers.

My suggestions.

If you browsed through my reviews and articles, you probably noticed that I personally never use the review scoring system, and the wall of text above expose my opinion about it. Instead, I prefer some simple but straight-to-the-point sentences, which summarize well in my opinion the value of a video game. My system is not perfect, but I’m working on that. At its current state, it requires to read at least the conclusion below the final verdict, if not the entire review, which should be mandatory in fact, if someone wants to get a global vision of the game. But I admit that the final verdict itself may be a little bit confusing: upon reading “Play it once”, readers may wonder if it is a sign that the game is average and one playthrough is largely enough or on the contrary that it is excellent but suffer from a lack of replay value.

For the moment my very own opinions are entitled to the number of times one should play the game in order to grasp what it is about. It is not quite focused on the quality per se, but the amount of playthrough needed to comprehend it. It relates in some way, but lacks something important, and I am aware of that. I will intend to improve the final verdict by adding one more sentence, which would be summarizing my opinion overall. This sentence would vary for each game, and would add details to the number of playthrough needed regarding the quality and the experience retrieved from a game.

Sentences used in this blog regarding the number of playthroughs:

Play it once: 

– This statement has two meanings: the first concludes a review of a game which is average or worse. You would have avoided the game that you wouldn’t have missed anything. Nevertheless, playing it once may offer you some distractions and fill your time.

Example: Darksiders 2

– The second meaning is for games which are good and decent, but lacks a certain replay value. It is typically the “once in a lifetime” experience. You enjoy it a lot, but going again through the whole game wouldn’t give you more than it already gave you during the first playthrough. Playing again is purely due to nostalgia or a wish to play a specific sequence one more time.

Example: To the Moon

Play it twice:

– When a game needs two playthroughs, it usually implies that the second time will bring something more to the experience, and that you need it in order to fully appreciate what the game creators wanted to give you. It is often caused by an ending which reveals a second layer of comprehension, and makes you see the game in a different way, more profound, more understandable. You can play it once, sure, but you definitely miss something by not playing it again.

Example: Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP

Play it from time to time:

– This sentence qualifies games which may or may not be good, but to which you feel bound in some way. You often surprise yourself launching the game again, even though you finished it and have no valid reason other than “I miss it” to play it. Another playthrough will give you nothing more, except the enjoyment of playing and amaze yourself with some features of the game. It is highly related to nostalgia.

Example: Reus

Play it over and over:

– It is probably one of the best recommendation I can say about any game, but it does not mean that games without this sentence are bad. It just defines specific games which can be played indefinitely and still give lot of pleasure and enjoyment. Usually it applies to games relying heavily on their unique gameplays which never age.

Example: Super Hexagon

Do not play it:

– It applies for a game which is not only very average or bad at best, but reveals to be also terribly boring and tedious. Playing them brings nothing new to the table, and it is purely a chore to do. Most of the times, it insults your intelligence. To play them is to waste time, essentially.

Example: The Uncharted series


About Maratz

Ludophilophage. Explorateur de mondes pixelisés. Coucheur de mots sur écran. English. French.

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