Review scores, and review readers, are fickle things. We’ve seen this in full recently: the Eurogamer Uncharted 3 review, the Batman: Arkham City 6/5 review from Yahoo, and the response every time Jim Sterling gives a famous game an 8/10.
Focusing on the Uncharted 3 review and the Arkham City one, these two reviews represent the divergence of philosophy in game reviewing: one heading forward, the other back. Simon Parkin’s review represents a move forward into a space where we, as critics, question the games we’re playing. The Arkham City without a by-line represents the cold, faceless reviews of yore, where companies paid for their reviews and reviewers treated their products like tractors for sale in a magazine.
Parkin’s review feels like a film critic review followed by one and a half star out of four. It criticizes the experience for being The Same Game Again, a technically proficient work of duplication. It’s a Michael Bay blockbuster, and the critical reception of those types of movies does not matter. No one really cares what Uncharted 3 scores with critics so long as it sells a billion copies.
Except that’s not how video games work. Video game companies act under this assumption that critical and commercial acclaim have to be one in the same. Do you see how ludicrous this is? Game companies have cut out the middle man: instead of making “prestige games” (in film, serious movies that raise the reputation of the company through awards wins; the big budgets rarely win awards, after all, because people are dumb) they’ve decided that, since mainstream game reviewers adore graphics and fun above all else that the big blockbuster has to be the prestige game, too. Or, rather, that they don’t need to make good games, just ones that are received properly. Game “critics” like explosions and guns, so they don’t need to make other games. “Even when we do,” they say, “they end up like Catherine, coolly received, or they sell no copies like Beyond Good and Evil.” “They should do the second thing,” we respond, “because they’re supposed to generate goodwill.” “You rated the game less than Battlefield: Madden Edition,” the publishers retort, “so why should we give a fuck?”
I read Parkin’s review as a breath of fresh air. This game is what you think it is, he says, but it’s not a particularly good game. It’s The Same Game you played a couple years ago, it has no replay value, its multiplayer mode is pretty good for that sort of thing, but it is a formulaic action blockbuster. It’s emblematic of our broken system that he gave it an 8/10 after this: I imagine an earlier draft had a lower score attached until editors brought it up (but this is just speculation). An eight represents, to us, an average game. Eight is average. We’ve seen this in Jim SterlingGate after SterlingGate: he reads Destructoid’s review system to the letter, and an 8 is a very good game. 9’s and 10’s are superlative.
What the hell is a twelve, then? There’s been significantly less backlash over the Arkham City score, except among serious critical types. Here’s a review with no fucking by line (really surprised how little this has been brought up) that says the game has major problems left unfixed from the previous game, reads the plethora of slurs directed at Catwoman as a positive, and gives it a six out of five. It’s a sickening reminder both of how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go, where publishers and petty journalists can give games absurd ratings to “counter-balance” other sites.
Go to the Metacritic front page for me now. Look at films. Excluding the two outliers (the four review Adventures of Tintin in films and the supposedly dreadful Cursed Crusade in games), the highest rated film is lower than the lowest rated game. “Blockbuster” films like Paranormal Activity 3, The Thing, and The Three Musketeers are getting shit reviews for good reason: they’re probably bad films. Battlefield 3, a dumb, big budget shooter, and Batman: Arkham City, a superhero game that, even according to the 6/5 has a lot of niggling problems, have gotten reviews only Oscar winners would get. And there’s no dissension in video games. The median scores are always much higher in games because everyone has the same opinion. If you slag a game in text you still give it an 8/10 to not alienate a publisher. In film criticism, you give a movie a half star and if the publisher doesn’t like it, there’s nothing they can really do about it. Look at it, and marvel how far we have to go.
How do we fix it? The common consensus among games reviewing types is that gamers have to be better, but this is a crock of shit. When Roger Ebert gives Transformers half a star, people flip out but he doesn’t care. The good reviewers don’t care what people think, because they’re giving an honest assessment of the title. And they get more hits with negativity. No, at heart, the problem is twofold. The first is publisher attitude, which cannot change. The second is the big publications, which need to offer better support to their reviewers. This, too, is unlikely.
So how do we deal with it? I honestly don’t know. Rebellious internet users have decided that swarming game pages with negative user reviews is an option, but it’s an awful option that allows for classy, intelligent games like Bastion to be unfairly targeted*. The thing that will really help is for small sites, whose reviews make up surprisingly the bulk of Metacritic’s rankings, to become more honest in their reviews. Give a major title a six if that’s how good you think it is. Don’t be afraid of gamer reaction or publisher reaction. You can use all that ad revenue you made from ten thousand angry page views to buy that developer’s next game, and you’ll feel better at night having honestly given an assessment of a game.
Of course, you could still do that with an 8/10 review, just to be safe. Christ.
*For the record, preempting the comment, I do not think bad reviews of good games from semi/professional reviewers aren’t bad. Christ, Jim Sterling wrote the second lowest scored review for Bastion.