Every game site or magazine essentially uses a score to give games they review an overall grade. At TBGSE, we use a 5-star rating system that shows up at the top of game reviews to give the reader an overall picture of a game. When we began the site, there was a great deal of discussion about what system we should use. Should we have a 1-10 scale or a 1-100 scale? Should we evaluate individual aspects of the game such as graphics or controls or maybe creativity? In the end, we made the decision to use a 5-star system because it is both visual, simple and also can be easily ignored.
I think gamers frequently place too much emphasis on the numeric value of the score a game gets rather than on the value of the opinions that make up the review. The reason this happens is because games are essentially both an entertainment medium and an artistic medium, and the numerical score is meant to be a reflection of the game’s entertainment value. Just because one game scores higher than another doesn’t inherently make it more enjoyable. It’s like comparing art done by different artists. You can compare art, but putting a numerical score on it would be ridiculous. Who was the better artist, Leonardo da Vinci or Pablo Picasso? I can tell you my favorite between the two (Leonardo) but what would make him better? I could say The Last Supper has a five-star rating, but so would Massacre in Korea.
I know that comparing Super Mario Bros. 3, which would get 5 stars for entertainment value, to The Last Supper sounds strange, but that is essentially what we are talking about. Giving Super Mario Bros. 3 a rating is fine as entertainment, but as a piece of art? What if we rated Halo alongside Kashmir by Led Zeppelin? It sounds silly, but would it make you angry if I rated one of those things as 4.5 stars and one as a 5? I thought some of the levels in Halo were repetitive and I could make that argument. Would that bother you if I did. This is where we arrive at why people get upset: our ego.
When I tell you in my opinion as a game journalist that I think Modern Warfare 3 is better than Battlefield 3 do you get upset? Do you agree with me and think people who disagree with me are idiots? That’s the ego speaking, and those scores are eventually going to piss you off, because somebody is eventually going to disagree with you. I have a few examples in my head that I think of from time to time of games that received a much lower score than I think they should have. X-Play gave The Darkness a 2/5. One of the reviewers at Electronic Gaming Monthly gave The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker a 9.5/10. I keep all these things in a file in the back of my head where most people keep important information about their loved one’s birthdays and I should let it go. The reason I remember them is because someone disagreed with me on something I know a lot about. They gave me their honest opinion about those games, but what stuck in my head wasn’t any details from their reviews, it was the numerical value they attached to it. I don’t remember why I disagreed with them other than a stupid number.
I think the reason this has become an issue lately is because sites like Metacritic have garnered a great deal of influence in the gaming industry. Publishers and gamers look at those scores and they can affect sales. When a smaller Indie game gets a bad score, it hurts their sales. And when a struggling development company doesn’t get a perfect score, it becomes fodder for their publishers. These numbers can do serious damage if they are taken too seriously. What should be the biggest factor are the opinions that make up that number. The number is just a quick and dirty summation of those opinions.
The real use of the numbers should be for quickly checking in on how a game did and giving you an idea of what the reviewer thinks. They should be part of the headline. They are for reference only. A 2.5 star rating is average. A 3- or 3.5-star rating is better than average. A 4- or 4.5-star game is great and a 5-star game is excellent. Maybe the reviewer didn’t like the music, but you did. That would affect his opinion. That’s why we don’t release just numbers. We release entire reviews so if you’ve played the game, you can disagree and if you are considering playing the game, you can read about it and see what you think. Our job is to be honest about what we think.
Most game journalists are more interested in giving their honest opinions than trying to be popular. We take our jobs seriously and when people disagree that’s fine, but we need to have a dialogue about why we disagree. We need to have an adult discussion about what elements of a game worked or didn’t work and maybe how it could be done better. We need to put thought into our games and rationalize why we enjoy what elements of them and have an open dialogue that promotes these discussions. We want to promote the discussion on the artistic elements that went into it, but we also need to rationalize it as a piece of entertainment and doing both of those things at the same time is very hard. It’s just a job hazard that sometimes ends up pissing someone off.