I’ve been musing for a bit about how to put this nicely, but when I saw this article about Ubisoft demanding a “very good” review of Assassin’s Creed 2, I decided not to hold back. To put it in terms that these companies should understand, “game reviews are broken and they need to be rebalanced.” Today I’m going to lay out what I’d like to see in a high-quality game review and how to go about putting one of those together. Keep in mind that this is just one woman’s opinion – but it’s an opinion heavily influenced by my experience in the world of game development.
First – and most importantly – we need to stop focusing on how things look rather than how they play. I see a critical misunderstanding of the elements of game design in many of the reviews I read, and I’ve essentially reading most of them for this very reason. Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter how a game looks or sounds – the combination of the mechanics and the general play of the game are the important parts. The visual style certainly makes a difference (look at Borderlands for a recent example), but it if the game was god-awful, the visual style wouldn’t matter at all. Borderlands certainly isn’t the first game to look like this, after all. Besides, people still play graphically “inferior” games like Starcraft and terminal-based games such as Nethack!
Game reviewers need to have more than a history of playing games. This is imperative – just because you’ve played a lot of games doesn’t necessarily mean that you have the critical analysis skills necessary to be a good reviewer. On the other hand, if you have those critical analysis skills, playing a lot of games will certainly help. The most important things to look at are the mechanics and the overall way the game comes together. An example of questions I ask when I review games are the following: “What are the mechanics of this game? Are they interesting? Are they well-executed? Is there room for improvement? How well do all of the components of the game fit together – does the visual style match the gameplay elements and the audio? Are there graphics and audio that don’t feel well put-together? Why do I think certain design choices were made? What did these choices influence?” Of course, the questions I ask will vary from game to game, but I’m sure I’ve made the point clear here.
We also need to strip out the broken scoring system that most sites use right now. Games and film are not the same medium (and I make that point because many people treat them similarly), but we should be borrowing from film review to understand how to score our games. As analysis of games improves and reviewers aren’t just saying “this is cool”, I hope that this begins to evolve as well. We only need one score for game reviews, and this score does not always need to be high. A good film critic is not afraid to give a 1 star rating, and a good game reviewer should not be afraid either.
Scoring a game’s individual components does only one thing: get away from the main point. Games are about interaction, much like how films are about narrative. There are a number of things that make up this interactive experience (animation, audio, controls, story, etc), much in the same way that film tells a story using video, audio, camera shots, and visual storytelling techniques. Yet in a film review, you’re not apt to see a separate rating for “Special Effects”. Wouldn’t that just feel ridiculous? Film reviews tend to talk about that sort of thing in the overall discussion of the film, and I propose that high-quality game reviews should do the same. I don’t need my important information lost in the noise surrounding it.
Finally, the large game companies need to stop attempting to strongarm the reviewers. The link above shows one example, but I’d also like to point out how reviews have been steadily inflating over time. These days it seems that anything below a 9.0 is almost unacceptable. That may be partially due to fanboyism regarding a franchise in addition to industry pressure, but that’s a whole different article. The pressure comes from that fact that review scores have almost become binary; above a 9 seems to mean “good” and below a 9 seems to mean “bad”. If your game gets below a 9, its sales tend to suffer – and that’s never a good thing.
It’s going to be difficult, but these things need to change. The system as we have it now is broken, and the only people it helps are the mindless masses who want to be told what to play. I really wish I could come to trust reviews, but unfortunately I can’t bring myself to do so right now. And trust me, I’d really like to.
Also, reviewers? Get rid of fractions of a point. They don’t really mean anything.