Game Reviews: Critique, Subjectivity and the 10 Point Scale

July 4th, 2008

I have already put forth my own frustrations with game reviews but I would like to add a little more as I feel that there is still a substantial amount of work that still needs to be done on fixing the current make up of video game assessment.

The Reviewing Vs Critiquing Framework

another code nintendo ds ashleyFor a long time this has been (and no surprises here, still remains) the crux of my argument for improving game reviews. The word ‘review’ doesn’t really work in this context as I am comparing ‘reviews’ to critique and the final product will still classified as a review. So lets give it a name like ‘Check Box Review’.

Check box reviews are reviews where a game is judged based on a preconceived set of builds that determine where the game falls on the scale of good or bad. There is a “standardized” set of these prerequisites which are often clearly labeled in the reviews such as graphics, gameplay and sound .

More importantly are other controls which are not spoken of but still greatly affect the outcome of a review’s text. This is the company’s/reviewer’s perception as to what formula and framework make a perfect game. This is a little tough to explain, what I am referring are the opinions that speak to you as:

“I’m a reviewer and for this I know what a great game should consist of and these variables are what I am going to measure my games on”.

Basically, as the quotation says, the reviewer is the person whom defines what video games are and he reviews based on that judgment. Unfortunately the reviewer is wrong as he should have no role in defining the experience, the experience defines itself. So when we add the already familiar variables (gameplay, sound etc.) in with this pre-purposed idea as to what exactly defines a video game then the result is this broken set of rules for analyzing games with the narrowest of perspectives.

It is all well and good me throwing these unsubstantiated claims around so to prove my case I need some data. Fortunately for me there is plenty of this available. I will start off with some of my own commentaries regarding reviews of Wii Fit, all around the industry many reviewers have struggled at prince of persia artworkpinning a score and the accommodating opinions onto Wii Fit (which is why the game received so many comfortable 8/10s). This struggle falls directly in line with the above quotation and argument being that, Wii Fit is not a typical game so when assessed on a fixed representation of what game experiences are meant to deliver, the whole system falls apart because there is not enough scope for a game like Wii Fit. So what do reviewers do in this awkward situation? Well they retreat back to other techniques (like reading off the press release!).

Furthermore, additional examples can be seen with MGS4 reviews or in Michael Abbott’s commentaries regarding GameSpot and Wii Ware titles. As soon as games differ from the reviewer’s norm then things start to get a little messy and this is exactly what we are starting to see.

Critique on the other hand has no such quams because critique only requires that reviewers discuss their experiences with the game. In critique there are no preconceived set of builds to obey just a description of how you found the game. A good example of the contrast is that in critique you don’t even need to mention anything about graphics if you didn’t find them to be relevant enough to the experience (and hence worth discussing). I think that such critique would work well with a game like MegaMan 9 which is a new 8 bit MegaMan coming to WiiWare and so to it should.

Critique allows reviewers to focus the review around what they felt mattered in the game. So if I was critiquing Metal Gear Solid 4 (ignoring my past critique) I could focus more on the cinematics, story and animation because these were important part of my experience.

One may refer back to my quotation and ask whether what was said is relevant to critique in which case I feel that we are crossing a fine line between ‘rules of the critical analysis method’ and ‘personal preference’. While critique has none of those rules, personal preference and subjectivity undoubtedly come into play.

Subjectivity Vs Objectivity

Segueing into subjectivity (zing!), as referred to in the last installment; subjectivity is natural and an unavoidable factor of game opinions. Review outlets which claim 100% objectivity not only kid themselves but kid their readers. How can someone be 100% objective when critiquing any game, let alone one from a franchise with legacy and lore? These review require context of the franchise, company, hardware, fan base etc. to be credible and you can’t get any of those without previous first hand experience hence some form of exposure to subjectivity. Otherwise your review would just fall apart because what grounds to you have to formulate your critique if you have no prior video gaming experience (which is actually 100% objective BTW).

10 Point Scale

Moving right along, game reviews have consistently been plagued over the years by this 100 point scale where games are rated out of a 100%. The problem with such a wide open scale is that it is far too precise, there is too much subjectivity involved in calculating that final score that the difference between a 95% and a 96% is means absolutely nothing.

Think of some games that you yourself have played recently? Now try and score them out of 100.

king of fighters xi artworkSee what the problem is? Putting all of your chips on one number is difficult and in fact you could very easily hedge your bets and increase or decrease the number by at least 5%, right? Converting complicated thoughts into an equivalent numeric value is difficult if not impossible, doing it on a larger scale is then worsened.

Beyond these quibbles though the 100 point scale has other significant implications. The larger scale (and higher “precision”) removes attention away from the text and places a stronger emphasis on that final number. Even though the number can’t replace the text people often take to the assumption that it does (because the number is so large and hence an “good” representation of the text). I think that this in turn has taken the gaming community’s perspective away from reading reviews as someone’s own opinion and focusing it on whether the percentage matches the user’s hopes and expectations. The higher number only fuels people’s frustration as there is more opportunity for a score which doesn’t exactly match the user’s expectations.

This whole system has also conditioned us, so while critics may not see a significant difference between a 91% and a 94% to the fan who has grown up on this system it is significant. This is where we launch into petty arguments regarding score discrepancies. On the flipside a 10 point scale is more distinct representation of the reviewers opinion and allows less room for debate.

Another side effect from the precision of the 100 point scale is that the larger room for precision opts for more questions regarding what made a game (particularly a high profile title) lose a certain percentage from 100%? This has opened us up to a mountain of critical reaction and places the focus on the negative aspects of a game rather than the positive. Sadly this perception only seems to be growing as games become ever more complex.

To fix these issues and to bring the focus back onto the critics opinion, the scale demands to be smaller. With less of a focus on numeric value, this would hopefully steer us into a more positive direction.