One of the newest, hottest trends among video game publications is the “video game review.” If you haven’t seen one before, you’re likely confused about all these new articles being shared in your IRC chatrooms, Yahoo! WebRings, and even on major search sites like Ask Jeeves and AltaVista. It can seem daunting, but don’t worry — we here at Press Space To Jump have studied them all and are here to tell you whether these “video game reviews” fill a need or are just not worth the read.
What is a Video Game Review, Anyway?
Video game reviews exist to solve a problem that has existed for almost as long as the gaming medium itself. Have you ever gone to your local Funcoland or Babbage’s to pick up a shiny new video game but been unsure what to buy? Have you ever bought a game based on its radical box art but popped the cartridge in only to realize you’ve spent your hard-earned money on a buggy pile of junk?
The promise of the review is to eliminate these problems once and for all. And despite what you might think, video game companies are on board too! The way it works is relatively straightforward. For example, Crystal Dynamics might set aside a certain amount of copies of Gex 3D once the game is finished. Then, a certain amount of time before release, Crystal Dynamics might send those games out to members of the press (like us!) so that we can learn about the game before it actually comes out. Then, we “game journalists” can share our opinions on the game so that the larger gaming public has a better idea of what to expect.
Sounds great, right? Well, if only it were that simple in practice.
Too Many Numbers
If you read reviews regularly, even on this very website, you’ll notice that many times, reviews are accompanied by a “score,” usually on a scale from 1-10, 1-100, A+ down to F-, or some other easily understandable rating that can act as an endorsement of the game’s quality or lack thereof.
These scores are meant to help gamers make buying decisions. The prevailing wisdom goes that a game a publication rates a full 10 out of 10 is more worthy of your time and money than one rated, say, 7 out of 10. These scores take into account the entirety of a game, from the music to the graphics to the story to the gameplay, doing the unenviable job of summarizing a 2500+ word article down to a single digit.
Now, that’d be complicated enough on its own, but since every gaming publication has a slightly different review scale and style, it can be even more difficult for gamers to navigate this landscape. An 8 out of 10 from Nintendo Power means something different than an 8 out of 10 from Electronic Gaming Monthly — and this is all before we even start talking about review aggregators, which average out all review scores, stripping them of their original context and meaning.
The overall effect here is a confusing one for a gamer that just wants to know if Ballz 3D is worth the money.
Now, most games journalists know this, which is why they’ll tell you over and over again that in order to make an informed buying decision, you really have to look past the score and read the whole review, or better yet, multiple reviews before you drive to Electronics Boutique.
Most of the time, a review is a balancing act. Since, like everyone else, game journalists have specific likes and dislikes that exist apart from questions of a game’s polish and quality, reviews have to balance personal preferences with how the reviewer imagines a general audience might react to the game in order to affect an air of objectivity.
This also means that reviews often delve into technical issues and other aspects of the game that will affect enjoyment regardless of personal taste. This means that at the end of the day, many review scores are a mix of how the reviewer themselves felt about the game and how they believe a general audience might feel about the game.
But, of course, there really is no “general audience.” We’re all just individuals, too, each with our own personal preferences. There are people out there who, despite all of its issues, love Bubsy 3D. They exist. And if this is true, that means that this kind of criticism, by its nature, cannot be objective. There will be people who prefer the FMV visuals of Night Trap to the crisp 32-bit sprites of Knuckles’ Chaotix — neither group is right; they just have different tastes and look for different things out of their gaming experience.
And now, we have arrived at the paradox at the heart of video game reviewing. There is no consistent, objective rubric to grade a game against, apart from questions around whether the game is broken to the point where it’s not playable. And if we accept that, if it’s true that there are people out there who truly love games that critics consider bad, and people out there that find critically acclaimed games boring and unexciting, we must then conclude that there is no such thing as a good or bad game.
I’ll say it again.
There is no such thing as a good or a bad game.
Well, what the heck???!!?!??
Right? If we accept that truth, we have to start from square one in terms of how we approach reviews.
Since objectivity isn’t the best goal, or even a realistic goal, for a game review to strive for, reviews need to be read that way — as proudly subjective pieces written by people with specific tastes, likes, dislikes, and expectations. Now, paradoxically, framing reviews this way actually makes them more useful. Think about it! If you know the reviewer’s tastes, if they make them clear in the review itself, you have a basis for comparison and can contrast their tastes with your own. In many cases, something the reviewer dislikes might actually be something that draws you to the game!
This framing also solves the problem of parsing what a score actually means coming from a specific outlet. If you know the reviewer’s tastes, you know exactly what a 7 out of 10 from them actually means since you have a better understanding of the actual rubric they’re working from and can then compare their rubric for judging a game with your own.
So are these reviews all they’re cracked up to be? Well, at the end of the day, yes and no. If you wrongly assume reviewers, and reviews, are meant to be objective arbiters of quality in gaming, you’ll be sadly disappointed. But if you meet reviews on their own subjective terms, you’ll likely find a lot to love.
|Helpful for making informed buying decisions||An ill-considered push for objectivity makes review scores hard to contextualize.|
|Sometimes you’ll agree with the reviewer||Sometimes you’ll disagree with the reviewer|
|Applying critical thinking to a review often allows you to enjoy it and the game more.||You have to apply critical thinking to a review|
|Free!||Annoying banner ads|
Related: The Press SPACE to Jump Review Scale