Review scores are silly
I hate review scores and I always have since the age of, oh, let’s just say ten. Don’t get me wrong; I understand the why behind them. I know full well why people have felt it necessary to append a whole written review with a score at the very end, a quick and easy sound bite. But I think that anything more ornate than a thumb up or down is gilding the lily, and even that has a central problem of obscuring the most valuable part of the review: the actual review.
What I do here could not be construed as “reviewing” beyond demos and the occasional Patron-sponsored piece. I have no temptation to do scored reviews, and we’ve already seen a few high-profile gaming news sites yank scores from their reviews. But this is an issue that goes beyond just video games. It’s something that we’ve had to deal with for years in movies, comics, shows, and almost everything else. It’s trying to boil a whole lot of factors down to a number. It’s silly, and it’s destructive, and it’ll be best if we can get rid of it.
On the face of it, review scores make a certain amount of sense. It’s fun to rank things, after all. Guardians of the Galaxy is, in every way, shape, and form, a better film than Man of Steel. I wouldn’t feel any shame about giving one film a higher score than the other, and if I was reviewing them both in the same publication, it’d be an easy way to tell at a glance which one was a better film. That’s the simplest scoring system, where you either recommend something or don’t.
What it lacks is nuance. There are two ways to add nuance, of course. You could spend a great deal of time carefully detailing your opinions, or you could simply add in a score at the end with more points than “recommend” or “do not recommend.” And herein begin the problems.
There is no movie in the world that can successfully be graded on a five-point scale. In fact, this is actually less useful than having a simple recommendation. There’s no way to properly calibrate that scale; the whole reason you write a review in the first place is to provide a clear picture of what you did or didn’t like, and hopefully to entertain someone in the process. Yet by putting a scale there at all you’re implying that there is some calibration, that there is some tool that makes this four-star film better than a three-star film and worse than a five-star film.
If this doesn’t strike you as unbelievably dumb, ask yourself this: is Big Hero 6 a better or worse film than Citizen Kane? I mean, no one needs to ever write another word about Kane, it’s basically the critical darling of all history if you ever wanted to write a film about a rich old white guy who was really sad about a cheap sled. But it’s a pretty terrible film if what you want to watch is a brightly colored group of characters have a fun romp with dealing with issues of loss, identity, and sacrifice.
Sure, I enjoyed Spec Ops: The Line and Nier and Dragon Age: Origins. But if I just want to play something for a little while and have fun, I am not reaching for any of those games.
There are all kinds of different enjoyment that you can get out of movies, out of games, out of everything. Those types of enjoyment cannot be qualified as better or worse than one another. Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy IV are both not terribly good, but Final Fantasy II‘s broken systems have more charm for me than the equally stiff presentation of Final Fantasy IV‘s story. Both games would probably deserve the same score if I were going to score them, but I know which one I’d be more interested in playing again.
In game reviews, this led to the uncomfortable point of trying to leverage more factors into a final score, which is ludicrous at face value. Oh, great, that game scores a 10 for sound and this other one only scores a 7! Except that the former game was an RPG where sound is nice but purely for setting, while the latter is a rhythm game where the occasional audio hiccups produce a huge problem. It’s creating more uncalibrated scales, not fixing the central issue.
Worst of all, scores draw attention to the wrong part of the review. I’ve seen loving reviews of films, shows, and games that wound up with low ratings because of some very obvious flaws – but the reviewer clearly thought that the media in question was worth experiencing. By the same token, there are games that I play and can think, objectively, that they’re very good, while at the same time giving me no motivation to actually play them. I am certain that Skyrim is a deep, rich, and involved game, and I don’t argue a single 10/10 the game has gotten, but it lacks the soul and purpose that keeps me playing video games.
A review is not there to grade creative works. Critical feedback is not, in fact, a final evaluation of whether or not something is worth liking; it’s a way to evaluate creative efforts in a larger context and think about it. Sometimes, yes, it comes down to “this is a bad game and not worth your time,” but in all but the most shoveled pieces of software and cinematography does something exist without anything worth discussing. All of which is nuance that gets lost if you’re chasing the number at the end to validate or demonize a work.
The one thing review scores could theoretically offer is the satisfaction of stating that one thing is objectively better than another similar thing, but even that is rarely possible. Mass Effect 3, in pure gameplay terms, is better than either of its predecessors, yet you can’t just jump in on the third game without the story of the first two. Doom II is better than its predecessor in nearly every way… but it doesn’t have the first game’s stages. And so on. Something always changes.
So review scores are silly. If you’re interested in seeing whether or not something is worth your time, read the review. And if you’re reviewing… well, write a review that’s worth reading, not a thousand words justifying the score at the end. Because no one’s going to care about that in five years.
About expostninjaI've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.
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