The Way Things Used to Be
I’ve been writing reviews for a few years at this point, but I’ve been reading them for more than two decades. For many years, video game reviews were often framed under story, gameplay, graphics, and music, with some variation therein. Many outlets even included separate scores for those sections, with the final score being a weighted aggregate of the disparate pieces.
This structural framework made sense in creating an ability to compare games of all genres to one another, but it really lacked qualitative reasoning when one game’s music scored a 7 compared to another game’s 8. Similarly, comparing game scores often became an arbitrary exercise when one game beat out another by .25 points because the graphics score was slightly higher. Does that really tell you anything about either game?
Modern Scoring Problems
We now live in a world where most games live in multiple genres, where storytelling has advanced to film comparability, and where graphics often cross that uncanny valley of realism. Does it make sense to continue looking at games as if they’re all on the same playing field? That the music and sound in Street Fighter V matter as much as they do in Journey? Or at least matter in the same way?
In the past, I’ve advocated for removing scores entirely. I think they fail to capture the nuance of a review and readers all too often skip all text and go straight to the number. That partially comes from our desire as modern humans to get what we want as quickly as we can, but it also comes from a pre-conceived notion of what we think the game should be.
I see a trailer for a game that looks bad, and when reviews start to hit, I want to see if my assumption was right in base terms. Or, I pre-order a game and before I load it up, I want to see positive review scores that justify the money I just spent. If those scores don’t line up with my pre-conceived notions, then those reviews must be biased.
This isn’t a problem that will go away, unfortunately. I stopped using review scores for a while and saw engagement with my posts plummet. Once I caved and added them back in, engagement returned. People will always want that summation more than the explanation.
No Consistency in Scoring
Review scores dumb down the personal experience of the player into an arbitrary number, and one that often can’t even be compared to another outlet’s number. Is a 3-star game a 6 out of 10 in all instances? If one outlet uses a 10-point scale and gives a game a 9 out of 10 and another outlet uses a 100-point scale and gives the game a 9.3 out of 10, which is truly the better score?
I don’t think scores should be comparable between games, because each game is going for something different. A final score, to me, is about quantifying how well the game makers achieved what they were trying to achieve.
Sure, there are some technical aspects to this. If the game runs smoothly, it might be better than a game that crashes constantly. But primarily, “what the game achieves” is personal to my perspective and no one else’s. I don’t care if I score a game an 8.5 while IGN scores it a 9.5 and GameInformer scores it a 7.5. We’re all coming from different perspectives, and all of them are valid.
The Way Forward
So, how do we curb this scoring issue while still meeting the clear desires of video game consumers?
I don’t have an easy answer. To start, I think we should put less emphasis on scores altogether. Many publishers dole out bonuses to developers based on a final Metacritic score. That is putting financial compensation for creators in the hands of gaming journalists. That isn’t something that should happen.
There’s so much subjectivity inherent to a review that even an aggregated score can’t possibly speak to the full breadth of player experiences. That’s also why you’ll typically see an “audience” score higher than a “critic” score.
If a new Dragonball game releases with a Metacritic score of 70, I might still enjoy the game if I’m a big fan of Dragonball and fighting games. I might not, and the game might be bad, but why would I care about someone’s opinion that isn’t a Dragonball or fighting game fan? What would mean something to me is reading a full review from someone that’s coming from a similar perspective as I am.
That’s why it’s so important to find multiple voices that you trust, whose perspectives align with yours. I’m not advocating for filtering your worldview with only people that agree with you. That happens enough in the political arena and it’s scary. But if I find someone whose opinion typically aligns with mine, I’ll trust them even more when they say a game is good — or bad. And that makes the instances where we don’t agree even more useful.
I’m not here to change the world of video game review scores. As I said, they aren’t going anywhere. All I can do is what works for me and my audience, and that’s acknowledge upfront that the final score is less meaningful than the words that come before it.
You just need to decide which perspectives align most with yours. Click here to read my video game reviews and find out if we’re a match.