UPDATE: It’s been getting harder and harder to write video game reviews. There are personal issues about the pressure to stay current on a limited budget and the time constraints involved in giving every game I play a fair shake. As much as I would like to write a review of every game that lost my interest as I was playing it, I still felt pressure to push through out of fairness (whatever that means at the time). However, video games are still my hobby, and if I’m not having fun, then I have to countenance the waste of precious hours in my day.
Luckily, for my handful of readers, I figured out a way to make video game reviews more interesting to write, and hopefully more interesting to read. On one hand, it involves a change in my intentions, reevaluating how I plan to talk about video games. On the other hand, it involves adjusting my review score system. I still think ranking systems have a useful place in games criticism, but I want to use one that reflects the way I purchase and play games. After implementing these changes, I hope that video game reviews will be 1) appealing for me to write, and 2) interesting for my audience to read.
My first step is to change the way I review video games. The goal is less about providing a superficial assessment of a given title, and more about using my ideas to diversify the conversation, introducing topics that might not currently populate the game’s image. I’ll have more motivation to review games if I don’t spend effort (ink) describing the basic gameplay, world design, and story content. I honestly believe Let’s Plays and demos make traditional “buyer’s guide” review redundant, so deeper analysis and criticism is a place where writers like myself can stand out.
For example, if I want to review the game Agatha Knife, I might not spend too much time explaining how adventure game mechanics work, because anyone who is on the fence about buying that game will just look up a walkthrough. Instead, I will focus on the wild story (a girl in a butcher shop who invents a religion, Carnivorism, to convince animals that being slaughtered is a holy experience), how the mechanics inform that story, and whether the writing is strong enough to prop up an instantly intriguing premise.
This is not to suggest that my Video Game Reviews and Video Game Discussions will start converging on one another. To put it most simply, Discussions are about the concepts in games, rather than the games themselves. The goal of bringing up the overuse of Loot systems, the pervasiveness of Loot Boxes, or the criticisms of misogyny in Persona 5 is to stimulate farther-reaching conversations about trends in gaming. A review of Far Cry 5 might mention how it conforms to those trends, but the focus is still on a deeper examination of Far Cry 5.
The second, and perhaps most noticeable change will be to my review scores. As I mentioned in my Disappointing Games list for 2017, my blog is small, and I don’t make any money off it, so I have no commercial incentive to broadcast terrible games for the sake of traffic. Consequently, I’m never in a financial position where I can spend money on games I’m not already sure will be good. Because I still actively avoid games that look bad, I feel like I can only be disappointed in games that don’t live up to their promise. A 10-point rating system does not reflect that.
The reason so many games I otherwise dislike end up with a 6 or 6.5 is because of the pressure I feel to acknowledge rudimentary functionality, basic playability, and my own high tolerance for glitches. Having such a large scale provides the kind of nuance that I don’t need when any game I spend money on already meets a standard bar for quality. I get so muddled in the details; one half of one point can make too much of a difference in my mind. As such, I have switched to a 5-star system, the same one I use for my movie reviews.
I feel like this more accurately reflects the kinds of games I will play, and the way in which I view them in the context of each other. 3 stars is a much more comfortable average for me, a nice resting point for a game that’s good but not really explosive. From there games can either be uniquely impressive (4-5) or particularly disappointing (1-2). Mathematically, this makes no sense, but I feel much more comfortable giving Mafia III 3/5 stars than I do giving it 6/10 points.
With my new objectives and scoring system disclosed, I feel like I can enjoy making video game reviews again. This will give me a chance to cater to topics that interest me the most, while providing a score report that reflects said interests. I’m going back and calculating new scores for old reviews, just to demonstrate how other titles I’ve played will fit into this system. Below you can find an additional breakdown of the 5-star system, giving a general idea of which games get which scores based on which qualities:
★★★★★ – Phenomenal
A title that stands at the apex of video game quality, a light to which all other ambitious video game projects should be drawn. Mistakes fall to the back of my mind as the best, most exciting, or most interesting parts dominate the experience.
★★★★☆ – Strong
An enjoyable title that stands out for its inventiveness, its polish, or its narrative ideas, providing consistent engagement throughout play time. The missteps do not ruin the experience, but remain unavoidable and noteworthy: awkward mechanics, messy writing, or some other nagging yet tolerable error.
★★★☆☆ – Decent
The benchmark for basic quality in my mind, managing to be fundamentally attention-grabbing without inspiring much lasting admiration. This score can come from either mundane design or from critical issues that dampen otherwise striking experiences. Either way, enjoyment starts to demand some effort.
★★☆☆☆ – Weak
The first rung of genuine disappointment in a video game. These titles tend to be bugged in ways that can’t be avoided (if not necessarily ruinous) or cursed with a tiresome gameplay loop. There are qualities to these games that beg affection, but the effort may be better spent elsewhere.
★☆☆☆☆ – Vile
Even in this new system, I doubt I will play games this broken, unfun, or deliberately nasty, but the ranking needs a bottom all the same. I have to emphasize the “or” because not all ruination is borne of technical issues. Sometimes terrible gameplay and a rancid premise can help bring a title down too.
No matter how immersed in gaming culture you are, the amount of controversy within it will always manage to surprise you. One such controversy is the use of a scoring system in video game reviews and the problems scored reviews have caused and can continue to cause within the culture. Some video game critics have taken a stance against using them, offering up a different type of review or satirically creating a send-up of the score system as a whole. Others support the use of review scores in their own critique. I do not feel that they are detrimental to games criticism. I like having a hierarchical structure understand how certain games will be perceived in the eventual “gaming canon.” I like having that shorthand for understanding what a company’s track record is; because review scores are a supplementary shorthand. I have never used review scores as the sole determinant for finding out which games are worth my time and money, and I encourage others to treat them similarly: Useful, interesting, but ultimately insufficient. With that said, I am not indifferent to the concerns of people who avoid review scores. They can reduce the complex opinions into a simplified gradient of objectively better and objectively worse games. Some people identify strongly with certain series for personal or philosophical reasons and will lash out against their critics. Some companies withhold money from their developers if the game does not reach a certain Metacritic score, incentivizing fans to go after critics “responsible” for low scores. Review scores ranking systems are also inconsistent among critics, meaning that aggregate sites like Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes are taking an average of scores that are being measured on completely different scales by critics with different expectations for art. Critics who seek fundamentally different experiences in a game will see faults where others see triumphs, and mashing their opinions together is not advisable. In explaining how I use review scores, I hope to alleviate some contention surrounding them. The score I give a game represents my personal perspective of the game within my hierarchy of opinion. That subjective score will come after a written review designed to put that score into context. Since every game is different and will need to be talked about differently, how I contextualize my score will vary from game to game. Two games with the same score will be similar insofar as both of them contain something I like to an equal degree. The things I like about a game are also relative. What I like about a game may be something that another person does not like, and vice versa. I encourage people to compare and contrast what I praise/critique with their own interests, and utilize those similarities or differences to make a decision. Ultimately, you should come here if you want to read my opinion and put that opinion into your own context. 10 – The Pinnacle This is why I care. This is the kind of game that makes me proud to call myself a gamer. When I play a game like this, I am reminded that video games are a medium capable of boundless creativity and artistic impact. Every moment I’m not reminding people to play this game is a moment of joy that I am selfishly hording. It will not be perfect, but it is among the best that video games have to offer. 9 – Outstanding This is an extraordinary gaming experience, despite possessing only a handful of flaws. These games leave you brimming with excitement and anxious to play more when doing anything else. Through its uniquely engaging, impactful or thought-provoking design, this game demands to be noticed. 8 – Damn Good This is a solid game that can provide thoroughly reliable enjoyment while it holds your attention. The flaws are more apparent and can hold the game back, but they are still outnumbered by positive qualities. If you can handle the noteworthy annoyances, then you are left with an experience you can be proud to have had. 7 – Pretty Good There are a lot of things about this game that deserved praise, but the flaws start to weigh more heavily on the experience. There is still fun to be had, but this is a recommendation that needs to be qualified, and your expectations need to be kept in check for the enjoyable bits to really stick out. 6 – Sad A game with glimmers of a valuable experience that just do not reach their full potential, and the strongest emotion you feel is disappointment for the experience that could have been. Something fundamental to the experience is missing, and pulling out the enjoyment may require deliberate effort. 5 – Unremarkable This game is competent and functional (not just mechanically, but also narratively and ludologically – words are funny), but cannot offer more than that. A balance of slight enjoyment and consistent failings puts this game right in the gray area for me: nothing to rail against, but nothing to inspire. It exists, I get through it, then I move on. 4 – Weak There is little to convince the player that their attention is well placed, and there are several deficits in any of the components that make a good game. It never worsens to the point of actually offending, but it has little else to sell itself on. 3 – Sour Barely functioning and poorly designed, this game is a few flaws away from being fundamentally broken. The poorly functioning gameplay makes the less-than-appealing or outwardly negative portions of the narrative, tone and characters much uglier. 2 – Bad This is a disastrous game. It makes you wonder why someone would ever want their name associated with the production. Brought to its knees by an overwhelming deficit in entertainment value, the only redeeming quality is that the game’s poor quality can be remembered humorously in hindsight. 1 – Rancid Going above and beyond just being bad, this game in almost hostile in the way its flaws assault you. Everything about this video game manages to be repulsive, and that repulsion affects you on an emotional level. This is the kind of experience that can only be offset by spending an hour or two with a better video game. I recommend Bayonetta 2. 0 – The Antithesis Perhaps even more abstract than a “10” and most likely to be based on my personal principals, this is the kind of work that makes me hate video games; the absolute worst they have to offer. Steeped in cynicism and ill-will, this is the toilet bowl bolted to the wall of an art museum: a cruel joke played by a scumbag designed to mock people whose only crime was trying to appreciate artistic expression.