The review score itself is of debatable usefulness and importance. It is a divisive instrument: some people love the concise, instantaneous quantification of value, others detest it. I would like to approach that from a slightly different perspective, that is to say that for the reviewer it can be much the same. Assigning a numerical stamp of judgement often forces us to focus in more on a rather binary balancing of positives and negatives. The role of the consumer is such that it essentially embodies a very binary decision: Am I going to spend my time and money on this game or not? Using our own criteria to either warn or recommend can be further refined by consideration of a scalable value judgement.
The converse argument is that review scores can often promote lazy writing. An unfinished review can hide behind the significance of a numerical value and hope that in bringing the two together whatever substance that has been unable to convey through words is conveyed by this generally accepted form. Problems arise, however, when the two seem not to fit properly, often as a result of feeling on the reader's part that the reviewer has not quite justified their score in the main body text.
That happens in every medium, though, so why are games journalists seemingly more positive about their medium than others...
Games Scoring In Relation To Other Media
Fanpages, in a recent comment, referred to a chat with a writer from The Average Gamer, a site we're on rather good terms with and one I heartily recommend. A recent piece there asked if we were overscoring blockbuster games, comparing the trends of industry's scores on Metacritic, to those of blockbuster films.
The brief introduction ran as follows:
When trying to decide where they should spend their hard earned cash, where else would a video game consumer look for guidance, than the scores handed out by the gaming press? But when all the blockbuster titles are picking up near identical 8/10 or 9/10 scores, how is anyone supposed to differentiate between them?
It is a question that, although somewhat flawed (and acknowledged as such within the original article), is worth looking at from a critical perspective. That it is true is beyond question - the original article makes excellent use of readily available statistics to prove that - but we should be asking not only 'Why?', but 'Is that actually important?'
For my money, games have been compared to films for far too long, but then our industry is nothing if not impatient. It moves very quickly, the technological leaps and bounds progress rapidly year upon year and, frankly, sections of this industry have difficulty keeping up. Criticism is one such industry. Development - making the most of what you have before the next generational leap - is perhaps another. Such speediness breeds occasional laziness - in this case, wholesale borrowing from our sister industries. But it is not really enough, we cannot simply look to Hollywood for all of our answers, we have to find our own way there.
There are a number of reasons for this, which tie into the scoring disparity. The first we might broadly outline as Commitment. By this I mean, simply, time and money. Films typically require a commitment of maybe two hours and under £10; games, on the other hand, often ask for four or five times the money and, hopefully, exponentially more time. A film will technically always remain the same, no matter how many times you watch it, many games will not. Moreover, rushing through a game can have potentially disastrous consequences for one's appreciation of the thing, particularly if you are reviewing it. Video games are, in many ways, an investment.
With that in mind, you're giving yourself far more over to a video game than you might a film. Not only in terms of time and money, but also with regard to the experience. The Gamer's Experience is something that is incredibly important, across a widespread audience. Films tend to reflect directorial sensibilities, presenting stories into which audiences might peer for a little while. Games go further than that: they allow you to actively participate in that story and, often, create your own emergent narratives. A game like Call of Duty isn't really about the gloss: it's about giving gamers the best tools to engage in blockbuster experiences of their own. Most films tell a story, be that a romantic, thrilling, comedic or action-packed tale. But not all games tell stories, some of them simply let you work out what happens for yourself. How do you quantify that?
Some journalists will say that they try to strive for objectivity when writing a review. In this industry, this is utter bollocks. You can pick a game apart technically, breaking down its core components, but at the end of the day it is an experiential medium, more so than any other and that makes it wholly subjective. To pretend otherwise is pure folly. But that doesn't stop us arguing about the things that we love as if we're right, dammit! New Games Journalism went some way towards delivering this: games writing almost as travel writing, reviews extolling descriptive experiences rather than robotic gospel truth. In giving numerical scores to our reviews we do try and quantify that, we do try and gauge an incredibly vague concept that might simply be termed Fun. It is, after all, where we started.
The Perfect Score
If we take into account the fact that no review can be truly objective in this industry, not to mention the experiential nature of gaming itself, it stands to reason that a 'perfect' score is something of a misnomer, that a perfect score does not (and cannot) indicate a perfect game. To get really pedantic about things, there is absolutely no way that there can be a universally 'perfect game'. Perfection is rather a matter of opinion when it comes to any form of media, even more so when the assessing party is directly and actively engaged in the action. When playing a game, the player is not simply an audience member but an arbitrator of many roles.
To continue down this route could lead to a suggestion that all 'reviews' as such are in fact a bit pointless, but this is why it's important for critical sources to have a criteria of sorts. This is almost always historical and technical as you can only really review according to precedent. The trouble is that we tend to dock points only for technical issues, for aspects of games take away from the craft of the product, rather than its value as art. Games bridge the gap between both, which is something that I think we've only really worked out recently. That games can be art. It doesn't mean that they all are, though.
This industry has its roots in competition, empowerment and achievement. Striving to be the best, beat the game, beat your friends etc. But gaming offers a staggeringly vast array of experiences these days, painting them all with one brush would be churlish. Although the vast majority of our blockbuster titles deal with empowerment and the fantasies that come with it, we can only really judge how successful those games are in delivering such experiences. In the end, the best films, the best books, the best plays are the ones you return to again and again. And it's the same with games.
The Wider Picture
I'm not saying that there aren't issues. Placing gaming in a wider cultural context, for example, is still pretty impossible. The ability of our medium to deal with sensitive material is still the subject of great debate. In spite of today's breadth of experience, we are still very narrow-minded and conservative in many ways, not strong enough to proceed without consideration of what a wider public might think. The paths of the disappointing Medal of Honor and the non-existent Six Days In Fallujah have shown that this industry (or, perhaps, this industry's audience) is still not trusted in the wider world to be able to handle anything that really probes deeper than the seemingly facetious or melodramatic. But should that come into consideration in our scores? We cannot review in anticipation of a great shift, only what is directly and immediately in front of us with regard to the present context and precedent.
Here, the comparison to film returns.When Heavy Rain is held up as the best we can do in dealing with difficult themes (and we did it ourselves), we know that it does so by using cinema as a crutch. But the interactive experience it provides is hugely compelling and it gives us an element that cinema can never produce: direct narrative choice, and the consequences are felt as much as in any film.
Do we review games too highly? Perhaps. Part of that may be unconsciously driven by publishers going out of their minds if a game scores below an 8, which really isn't healthy. There's a chicken and egg scenario somewhere in there. Who made the number 7 the bad guy? Cowardly journalists or hysterical publishers? At the end of the day, we're reviewing the way games make us feel and using technical knowledge and critiquing criteria to break that rather vague concept down and explain why Gears of War 3 thrills us, why Shadow of the Colossus stuns us into silence, why Mario Kart puts such a large smile on our faces, why Superman 64 is an aggravating pile of poo. As this industry finds new emotions to provoke, new ways to engage its audience and new dynamics to allow gamers to change and affect the virtual worlds around them we have to evolve and shift our criticism.
One final thought, critics in other fields position themselves almost as cultural gatekeepers. These are critics as experts, elevating themselves above the industries in which they work, answering to neither audience nor artist (although both use them as critical benchmarks), but instead to their cultural field in general. I would posit that it is much harder to achieve this in the games industry, for the multitude of reasons mentioned above. But it's not a question of objectivity, but rather priorities. Who are we, as games journalists, writing for? In many cases that answer may be consumers. In some cases others might say that reviews are written for developers and publishers. Most, I feel, recognise those two audiences, but few (and I would not say that we do it here) write for 'Gaming'. In order to do that, you have to believe in constant improvement and have the knowledge base to back it up. You have to be authoritative, aloof and never compromise yourself. But most of all, you have to believe in the cultural significance of the thing that you are reviewing and have the balls to position yourself as a shaper of that culture within your field.
And that doesn't happen very often in this industry.