RE: Thoughts on Review Scores

by Nick

Full disclosure: Jamin Warren’s a cool guy who I like to listen to when he talks about games. I want to use his words as a jumping off point, not a point of petty ridicule. 

Jamin Warren and a bunch of folks put up videos or articles discussing Euro Gamer’s decision to no longer publish scores in their review articles. I’d like to focus on Jamin’s video in particular because it demonstrates one of the fundamental misunderstandings people in the video game industry have about “criticism.” He’s right to point out two general camps: those who see reviews as showing the consumer what to buy and those who want a more analytic review that accounts for wider cultural conversation. One of the main sticking points I have is that many people in the video game press don’t seem to understand the difference between a review of a game versus a piece of criticism about a game. Jamin conflates the words criticism and review in his video. It seems to me that everything would be a lot easier if reviews were exclusively the first camp, while criticism handled analysis and response to titles or industry events, changes, etc.

That said, I’ve written a little bit about what I think about reviews vs analysis:

A review is about showing prospective consumers what a product is, what it’s like, who might enjoy it, and what titles it’s similar to. If you have preferential access to a product before the rest of us, especially in a medium where things are occasionally broken, buggy, etc. you have an obligation to tell the consumer about those issues. The critic also doesn’t have to completely keep their mouth shut about anything that offended them, or struck them as odd so long as it doesn’t eclipse describing the game to anyone who’s interested in it.

Perhaps the only nebulous area one might find themselves in is whether or not a game failed to build up the emotion it tried so hard to push into the player. For example, I didn’t feel bad about the napalm scene in Spec Ops: The Line because all it did was reinforce how the main characters didn’t really know what was going on. It doesn’t devastate me because I’ve killed plenty of people on a screen up to that point and I’d killed plenty of folks in other video games before Spec Ops. The same goes for that games core gameplay. It’s a parody. I get it. But it’s not fun to play. It’s not even interesting because it’s clearly a stripped down version of other third-person and first-person shooter games and that’s one of the ways it communicates to the player. Write it in the review, that game clearly wants the player to be blown away by the atrocities they’ve committed. This is one of a few examples I can think of where different critics will have different responses. But this is different from writing an article that provides a little too much of the game’s synopsis or a little too much analysis of a game viewers/readers haven’t played.

The thing that miffs me is that the critic can choose to write an essay about the use of darkness in Doom II or why GTAV doesn’t allow a single heartfelt moment. This stuff is called criticism in every other medium and doesn’t need to be shoehorned into a review. Literary criticism isn’t about how John Hawke’s latest novel is emotionally unfulfilling or how someone felt cheated at the end of Blood Meridian.

I don’t see why more folks in the video game industry don’t provide a mix of both. I don’t always want a review but when I see “review” it means something specific. Your essay on Foucault and Bioshock Infinite is fine and I might read it, but don’t cram that into the review under the guise of maturing the medium.