Game reviews are, arguably, one of the most important wheels in the giant machine that is the gaming industry. Many people make their purchasing decisions based upon reviews or previews of games, which is why shows such as E3 and PAX are so important and monumental to games journalists. But as our attention spans grow ever shorter, and our reliance upon visual indicators grows stronger, are we actually reading reviews and understanding them? In fact, do people even know how to read game reviews?
The problem with 1-5 and 1-10 scales is that they lead to the dangers of uncorrelated data. Let’s use Brian’s review of Uncharted, as an example. Brian gave the Sony-exclusive title a shocking 2/5; so shocking that we received a legion of comments wondering how dare we give the majestic Drake a 2/5, which is, essentially, an F (see below). Well, looking at Brian’s review, he begins to qualify his feelings on his dislike of upgraded quick time events, his distaste of the predictable gun play, and various other factors. After reading the review, you begin to see why he did not like it. But therein lies the operative word: he.
Likewise, Chris recently gave Zelda a 5/5. Does that mean the game was utterly flawless and perfect? Of course not because there is no such thing, but it does mean that Chris thought Zelda was so mindblowingly amazing, it will permanently be etched into his gaming psyche. He quantifies in his review that he has always loved the Zelda franchise, and it becomes clear by reading it that this game had little chance of not being a 5/5 for him.
Reviews are excellent ways to gather information on a game and see if it’s something you would like to purchase. But you have to remember that reviews are inherently personal. Realize that every game the reviewer has ever played is at work in their psyche, and on some level, this game is being compared and categorized in relation to this information. “Oh it has this feature? That’s like this game.” Also, a gamer’s particular tastes weigh heavily upon their review. While you can certainly look at games objectively, and ultimately decide whether or not someone out there may like a particular game, in the end, a review is based on the reviewer’s experience with it.
And that is a great thing. Just as a reviewer’s experience of a game is personal, so too is a reader’s opinion of the review personal. You may be thinking “what the hell does that mean?” I’m so glad you asked. The reason so many multitudes of game review sites exist is that not everyone is going to review a game the exact same way. The key to reading reviews is not just looking at the score or what Person A thought of the game, the important thing is to read between the lines and say “this person seems to like the same things I do, I’m probably safe to listen to their opinion,” or “I do not agree with this person, therefore, I should find another review,” or even better, “what features do I look for in a game, and what does this person think about them?:
Only when we truly begin to analyze reviews do we start to move away from the impact of a number. Really, 8/10 means nothing about a game if you don’t know how they arrived at that conclusion.
We’re not in elementary school anymore.
Of course the current number system also leads to another problem within gaming culture and that is the thought that anything below a 7/10 or 3/5 is not worth playing. At all. Recently, I rated Hunted: The Demon’s Forgeat a 2.5/5. I received a number of comments wondering how I could give this title an ‘F,’ and I spent a great deal of time reminding people to put aside the number-to-letter system we had ingrained in us as school kids, and look upon the broader scale. A fifty-percent is exactly in the middle of the road. This means the game wasn’t great, but it wasn’t horrible either; it was a monument to mediocrity. Some people can find a great deal of joy in games such as this, while others find nothing but pain and misery. Others, such as I, found it to be entirely “meh.”
Because of this ingrained letter conversion, gamers tend to fume over low scores, and write them off as not worthy of my money. But wait a minute! Zookeeper, a movie that has received a whopping 30/100 on Metacritic, and has been widely panned by multiple sources, grossed over $43million so far at the box office. So why do movie consumers fork out money to see low-rated movies, but we scoff at buying low-rated games?
The Money Trap
Many people will argue the price. Let’s say, for example, you go to a Friday evening showing of Zookeeper. You shell out $10 for a movie that runs 104 minutes. This works out to approximately $6/hr of entertainment. If you enjoyed the movie, that’s $10 well spent. If you didn’t, well, then, that’s $10 you may as well have flushed down the toilet. On the other hand, let’s say you spent $60 for Duke Nukem Forever. Duke’s campaign lasts about 14 hours, depending on your play style which works out to approximately $4.28/hr of entertainment. If you had any inkling of fun playing Duke, that’s a pretty damn good value in entertainment. If you didn’t enjoy it, sell it on eBay or back to GameStop and trade for something you’d rather play. This, to me, makes the price point argument moot.
I chose these two titles for a very specific reason. Both titles were widely panned and loathed by reviewers, but did well in sales numbers and have had pretty decent user reviews. Likewise, both titles have these high sales and user ratings because of an important thing: fanbase. Chances are if you went to see Zookeeper, it was because you like Kevin James. If you bought Duke Nukem Forever, chances were you were an oldschool Duke fan. For diehard fans of a developer or series, you need to ask yourself whether or not reviews have any effect on your purchases. If not, chances are you read reviews to know that someone else out there agrees with you, or you like being angered by people not agreeing with you. Believe it or not, this is part of the fun of reviews.
It ain’t easy bein’ an elitist.
Writing a game review is a rather tricky process. Reviewers strive to walk the line between producer and consumer — that is to say we are middlemen of sorts. We want to play and enjoy, but also to inform and dissect. This is why, so often, video games, movies and books can be loathed by critics but loved by fans, and vice versa. (Back when Psychonauts was released, it met with critical acclaim and lackluster sales, just as Homefront met with critical panning and decent sales.)
We here at VGW do something called a Postscript. You may have read Brian’s postscript on Duke Nukem Forever, and my postscript on Dragon Age II. The point of a postscript is to allow for the candor that reviews do not. From a critical perspective, Brian found DNF to be pretty damn bad, but when he decided to just sit back and let himself enjoy it as a fan, he found more enjoyment. Mostly because he wasn’t under the burden of looking for flaws in order to warn potential players what they were getting into. Adversely, I was a little more lenient in my review of DAII because most of my niggling postscript annoyances were that of a fan, and I didn’t want my review to sound like the ravings of a fanboy. Because no one wants that.
So remember, when you read a review, look beyond the number, and read both the meat of the article, and between the lines. What is the reviewer actually telling you? What can you gleam from that reviewer as a gamer? Take these factors into account and realize that no review is The One True Review (except for my review of Kill Team, obviously). It’s why so many of our sites grow and thrive — so you can find reviewers you like and follow them. And for reviews you don’t like or agree with, figure out why you disagree, beyond the number, and you may find a truly engaging conversation in the making.