Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Some Thoughts On Reviews

It's nice to see superheroes get some love, but full marks?
Videogame reviews are an often contentious subject, their broad significance and final scores usually the biggest topics up for debate. They’re constantly complained about; their integrity is often contested; and it’s not uncommon to find people question the meaning of scores, particularly these days after the creation of aggregate sites like Metacritic. Add in the fanboy ingredient -- where people are so infatuated with their favourite franchises and/or developers that they can’t see things rationally or objectively, nor accept another person’s opinion -- and you have an egregious, somewhat explosive (unnecessarily) subject that does more harm than good, and which causes pointless hostility between people who should be sharing in their passion, videogames, rather than arguing over it.

Personally, it’s a topic that I have mostly avoided because I find the discussion over reviews to be, mostly, redundant, and because I’m open-minded enough to be interested in what other people think about a particular game, and how they felt about their experience with it. I couldn’t care less whether a big blockbuster game scores a perfect ten or only receives a seven; I have no interest in whether a review should be a “buyer’s guide” or if it should approach a game critically; and I certainly don’t care about the perceived narrow spectrum of scoring, where videogames are supposedly only scored between the seven-to-nine range. I’d much prefer to be talking about something else, in other words, so I have kept quiet about reviews because I know which ones are the kind I would like to read, and whose opinions are most likely to represent (or at the very least, correlate with) my own.

But lately, there has been a semi-related issue regarding reviews that I am more interested in, and one that, if I am to be honest, has me feeling somewhat concerned and uncomfortable.

As most gamers would know we are currently in the midst of what I call ‘Onslaught Season’: the period in which most developers and publishers release their biggest titles, and where we as players are insanely excited for these games as well as worried that we’re not going to be able to afford them all. This means that blockbuster franchises like The Elder Scrolls and Uncharted make their return, and publishers like Activision will make a lot of money due to yet another release in their Call Of Duty series. It’s crazy season, basically, and definitely one of the most enjoyable times of the year due to the enthusiasm and anticipation that drives it. A byproduct of this period, however, is the way in which these giant games are reviewed and, more importantly, whether the authors of these evaluations are able to cast aside their personal preferences and elation to make a better informed and more meaningful assessment.

Yet another GOTY in the making?
This year alone, we’ve already seen three titles that have received 10/10s at various publications. And while such scores might not be consistent with every website and magazine, the general perception is that these games -- Batman: Arkham City, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception and, seemingly, The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword -- are the year’s best thus far, and the cream of the crop of modern gaming. Now I have no problem with games receiving full marks and actually believe they should get that level of recognition if they deserve it -- unlike others who believe that the aforementioned spectrum of 7-9 is more applicable -- but I do have some concerns if these scores are seemingly thrown around in a carefree manner.

By giving these titles top marks, whether they deserve it or not (I can’t comment on that since, aside from Uncharted 3, I have not played them), the reviewers of this industry send out a message that suggests that these titles are some of the finest you will ever play. That’s fine if these authors mean it and can justify their opinion, but it isn’t good if the result of that message insinuates something that mightn’t be necessarily true later, once this exciting rush of games has passed. It also suggests that these games are better than some of the big name titles from previous years, the ones that are otherwise agreed upon to be this generation’s defining games.

Are we really sure that -- as a collective industry that includes critics, developers and publishers, and players -- we want to claim that Batman: Arkham City or Skyward Sword is better than, say, Portal* or Assassin's Creed II, both games that are regarded exceptionally highly and yet didn’t necessarily receive those elusive 10/10s on release? What about the reputation that such high scores bestow upon the developers behind these wonderful games -- do we want to imply that Rocksteady or Naughty Dog** are better than a Rockstar or Irrational? If yes to both questions, why? Now I’m not saying that these developers or games don’t deserve such praise and adulation, especially when I haven’t had the pleasure of playing them yet, but what I am saying is that do we really want to convey that message -- that these games are better -- because they’re the ones getting perfect scores when other high profile games may not have received similar recognition? If we do then fair enough, but if we don’t because next year when the insanity has died down and we’ve gotten over the initial awe of playing these brilliant games we’ve realised that maybe they aren’t as good as this generation’s best names, then how are we going to deal with that? How are we going to assess and analyse these games, and their position within the wider medium, when we’ve already sent the message out that they’re so phenomenal that they deserve the best scores. When singing the praises of Portal or BioShock, yet again because they really are that good, will we put them above or below the games that have received full marks this year? And what of next year’s titles which have the potential to go even higher?

I’m not arguing any particular point here nor am I trying to suggest these games -- or any others in the future -- don’t deserve 10/10s. What I am saying, however, is that full marks have been appearing quite frequently lately and I just want to make sure it is for the right reasons, rather than because the people awarding these high scores are influenced by the gorgeous graphics, spectacle and riveting gameplay that these titles have to offer. I’m saying that the industry as a whole needs to be careful, because once it has committed to a perspective there is no changing it and we should be wary of the future whilst we are enjoying the present. You only need to look at games like The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess or BioShock 2 to see an example of the way in which these titles can have a backlash post-release, so just be mindful of what you’re doing when assessing these games and please, ensure that you own your opinion and mean every word you use to convey it -- failure to do so is failure to represent the medium sincerely, and none of us want that.

**It should be noted that The Orange Box, the package that Portal originally came in, did receive full marks at a variety of publications, but it wasn’t until subsequent rereleases (such as on XBLA) that the game itself got judged individually.

**Disclaimer: I personally do believe that Naughty Dog deserve to be seen in the same light as a Rockstar or a Valve, and can only hope that the success of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception will get them there. Guess time will tell on that one.

7 comments:

Alex V said...

10/10 for that post - a great read, maybe the best of this generation!

Put simply I don't take review scores seriously (particularly at this time of year) unless they are written by names that I trust. The implications of giving one of these blockbuster releases a lower score is absolutely massive for a website or publication - it will affect their circulation/readership and their future advertising. Eurogamer's insistence on 'good but not great' scores this season is laudable, but seems like commercial suicide to me. Simpler just to give it a 90 and move on.

A wider point is that I think games writing simply hasn't matured to a level where reviews can be taken seriously - most read like consumer reviews of domestic appliances, ticks or crosses applied to the game's features, but little attention paid to actual significance.

Lee Kelly said...

I've thought about putting joke scores at the end of all my reviews/critiques.

20 big toes!
60 knots
> 0

etc.

Another idea would be to have an infinite scale, so that all games would each be infinitely far away from perfect, and so the score would only have meaning relative to other reviews rather than some pretend absolute called "10."

Steven O'Dell said...

Alex V -- Holy crap, I wrote my best post ever!!!111

Seriously though, I don't take them seriously either because I prefer reading the text rather than using the score to judge the opinion being expressed. Having said that, I will pop into Metacritic from time to time just to see how titles are faring, even though at the end of the day I don't really care because I know which games I will want anyway. I don't know why I do that.

I agree about the implications. You only need to look at the outcry over Eurogamer's Uncharted 3 score to see an example of the fuss that can be made over a stupid score, rather than the opinion itself which I thought was entirely justified.

I do think games writing has matured a reasonable amount in recent years, but the formula certainly hasn't and so we are stuck in a one step forward, two steps back kind of scenario, it would seem. We're making progress though, I'd argue.

Lee Kelly -- Except for my recent F1 2011 review I've never even thought about conducting reviews before, since there's already so many of them out there. Sure, some of my posts might end up like reviews but I don't write them with the intention of them coming across that way, it just kind of happens sometimes.

But yeah, that was the first time I had to think about a score for a game and I actually found it pretty easy to decide what I wanted to give it. It may exist within that 7-9 spectrum (I gave it an 8) that everyone else loves so much but I thought that's where the game belonged after last year's brilliant title. Looks like I won't have to worry about scores again in the future though, so that's probably a blessing rather than a curse.

Also, how do both of you feel about places that use scores out of 100 rather than out of 10?

As always, thank you both for reading and commenting. It means a lot to me! :)

Retroblique said...

I always liked the way Zzap! 64, Crash and Amtix (Newsfield's Spectrum, C64/Amiga and Amstrad magazines) broke their reviews down into three components: an objective overview of the game's narrative & gameplay mechanics, two or three subjective opinions from multiple reviewers, and a box-out with scores for various categories.

Anyway, I've become considerably disillusioned with the way the commercial gaming web sites handle their reviews. Especially once you consider that most of them are wined and dined by a publisher's marketing people in order to ensure a review score equivalent to 8, 9 or 10. I seem to remember an incident a few years back where a reviewer "dared" to award a triple A title 7 out of 10, only for that publisher to throw a hissy fit and refuse to supply the reviewer's publication with review copies of games in future.

And that's pretty much why I take such reviews -- the whole review, not just the overall score -- with a pinch of salt. Obviously some web sites have a little more integrity than others -- and you can eventually work out whose opinion you can trust -- but usually you have to head over to the fringe gaming sites/forums in order to get a more honest opinion.

So who is the review score actually for? It may help casual gamers, or non-gamers buying a game for someone else, make a purchasing decision. Hardcore gamers are unlikely to be easily swayed, but usually the difference between a 7/10 and a 9/10 usually indicates the the former was a disappointment and the latter was at least "pretty good". If I'm being perfectly honest I suspect the only people who actually give a rat's arse about the review score are the aggregators and the publishers who actually use their data when it comes to budgeting future development.

At the end of the day a friend's recommendation holds infinitely more weight than a number a reviewer pulled out of their ass.

Retroblique said...

Thumbs up! Five stars! 10 out of 10! 100%!

The general rule seems to be that the broader the scoring metric, the more meaningless that metric becomes. There's far too many sites out who give percentage scores but only ever rate things between 70 ("crap!") or 100 ("zomg!"). That poor old 0-69 range never gets touched. And how do you realistically define what separates an 85% game from an 86% game?

I once wrote reviews of games and music for Wired magazine and had to rate them on a 0-10 scale. Even that seemed needlessly expansive. These days, if I do ever find myself having to rate things, I usually do so on a 1-5 star scale. Even that feels wrong and has me screaming, "Just read the review, it tells you what I think!"

Lee Kelly said...

Steven,

I don't like scores, but if I had to, then I'd go with a 1-5 range.

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