Review Culture and How It Hampers Video Games

This is a seven out of ten game.

What image does that conjure in your mind?

Unfortunately, it probably doesn’t give you a great view. An OK game, likely plagued with bland segments and problems, that never really goes anywhere and isn’t worth your time. Movies and television suffer from similar problems but I feel that it is much worse in the game sphere…why is this?

To understand this, we have to go back to the advent of video game journalism. We have to look at reviews and how people consumed media. Video games appeared right when written media began to become a little less important. People wanted to know about how good or bad a game was but they didn’t want to really sit down and read an entire article about whatever the game was. People wanted a quick, concise measure about what to expect from a game. Writers saw this and knew the best way to capture an audience was to cut down the entire review into something that could fit into a single sentence. Thus, we moved to a system of numerical basis. We would rate out of five stars or ten points. Sometimes more, sometimes less.

Yet most video games cost more money (at least the console or PC versions) than your standard book or movie ticket. They’re pricey purchases by comparison. The counterpoint might be that video games offer longer experiences by default than a movie or book but a game is still a hard purchase for someone whose entertainment budget might just be a hundred dollars a month, for example. We’ve slightly moved away from this with things like Steam, the indie market and free-to-play games but your standard AAA title will still set you back a pretty penny.

This had the unintended side-effect of skewing the game’s review weight. When we think about games, our views on what a ten-out-of-ten game is versus a seven-out-of-ten game are further apart than the T-rex and the stegosaurus. A perfect game that cannot be missed versus a meh experience that might be worth a rental at best. In truth, this is a growing problem with metacritic sites as well.

Take, for example, Rotten Tomatoes. An aggregation of all reviews might sound good on paper but the line gets blurred when you consider not all movies fall under “flawless masterpiece” or “garbage we filmed for two hours”. Media that lands in the middle suffers the most because of this; a five-out-of-ten film or game can have redeeming qualities about it but we are too quick to dismiss it as not worth the time. Likewise, we praise things that hit the higher echelon of gaming too highly. That eight-star game might be decent but those glaring flaws ARE glaring flaws.

But how we respond to reviews also dictates an immense amount of what we consider a good or bad score. Jim Sterling recently gave the new Legend of Zelda the score you see at the top. By all means, not a terrible score, but the fact that it was not a perfect was seen as a besmirching of the series. People thought he was viciously attacking the franchise and spitting on what they thought a perfect game was…for an “It’s pretty good” review. It goes back to the point that we’ve skewed the review system too much.

So what can be done about this review system? Using my own experiences, Fortis Core uses a different brand of scoring; rather than stars or numbers, its recommended in the form of a “yes/no/maybe” system. It’s not perfect but it does encourage reading deeper when you get to the “recommend with exception” rule. The flaw there is that you might be pigeonholing games even deeper. I’d rather recommend/not recommend a game though. Giving it an arbitrary score might actually hurt a game I genuinely enjoyed.

Review culture has become too caught up in TL;DRs. We focus too much on the end result and not on the nuances. While it is understandable due to how reviewers often have to try a lot of games over a year with only a few hours for each, this style of reviewing has polluted the idea of the review. Good games are slipping through the cracks into the trash because the crack has widened. While I wish that we could take a step back and earnestly give each game the time and review it deserved, we live in a world that is increasingly concerned about the “now”, not the “later”. If you take one thing away from this; Don’t let flaws dissuade you. That seven-out-of-ten game might be perfect for you.

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