There’s nothing more ridiculous, in the abstract, than taking a creative work and assigning it a number. And yet the review score has historically dominated the landscape, a collective agreement of value that grants easy simplicity to the audience and a sense of power to the critic. We’ve all been guilty of scanning past all those dry, wise words to get to that number at the bottom before closing the tab. In an era of review aggregation sites like Metacritic and Opencritic, which scrape those numbers and fold them together into a different number, it hardly seems necessary to write (or read) those individual perspectives at all.
It’s difficult to imagine a world without aggregation, to an antidemocratic time when a few voices could control the discourse on a particular topic of taste, the way that the New Yorker still imagines it does. But at the same time, sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes create as many problems as they solve, and the ones they help might not have been problems at all.
The first problem lies in how each site tallies up the numbers and arrives at its own score. Rotten Tomatoes reduces everything to a binary: “fresh” or “rotten.” It leads to results based not on whether a film is good or bad, but whether it’s not good, or not bad. A safe, predictable film, or one that sits firmly in the trappings of its genre, can collect a lot of 2.5-star reviews, the equivalent of the ordinarily-damning 7/10. These will perform better than a brilliant but inconsistent film, or one whose artistry or politics is bound to rub a certain percentage of viewers the wrong way. Metacritic, by averaging the pure scores together, attempts to add nuance but still mechanically rewards the outlier votes, on both ends of the spectrum. It’s why so many Marvel and Disney films, books by established names, and Triple-A games tend to score the same no matter what.
This homogenizing impulse is strange and sad, but the outlook is arguably worse for video games because, for them, these numbers don’t just work badly: they don’t even work. Games are often provided to the media mere days ahead of launch, if at all, and yet they can require dozens of hours to complete, forcing an unreasonable crunch on reviewers who, then, are likely to miss or intentionally avoid inessential content. They’re forced to do this because public attention gets diverted toward the earliest voices on a subject, a reality that companies have learned to manipulate to their advantage. Meanwhile, for long games like JRPGs, reviews are likely to frontload their concentration on the early stages of a game, ignoring the repetition that often mars the back nine of such titles.
But those are issues that haunted video game reviews a decade ago. Now, the problem is even worse, because with the modern era of gaming, there is no such thing as an objective, shared experience known as a video game. We still approach every creation from our own biases and perspectives, as with any book or movie, but with differing hardware, internet, and online matchmaking, no two experiences are alike. And then the game itself shifts over time: Beyond the increasingly massive day one patches, the invisible balancing, and the fading distinction between expansion pack, DLC, and automatic updates, video games are constantly revising themselves, adding content and fixing bugs and burying microtransactions.
A memorable example of this phenomenon is the original IGN review of Prey, wherein the reviewer, John Stapleton, ran into a game-breaking bug and, in light of it, scored the game 40/100, reporting his experience as essentially unplayable. There were three problems: One, John’s experience was, as it turned out, fairly unique; two, there was no time to confirm that fact, because of the economic pressures of the quick review; and three, when IGN did revise its score from 40 to 80, it didn’t ultimately matter. MetaCritic refuses to alter its scores after the fact, so IGN’s original, retracted number stuck.
Even games that aren’t delisted can be nearly unrecognizable from their original selves. Diablo 3’s famously troubled launch has no relation to the Diablo 3 that exists now. The quality of service games like PUBG and Fortnite have almost nothing to do with the game itself, and only on the activity of their userbases. Steam has recently taken measures to ask players with early reviews and long playtimes if they’d like to revisit their early opinions of games, which is a good first step. But it’s unlikely that the same can be asked of professionals, who have limited time and a new day’s work to take care of.
The other major problem of reviews is a function of the medium itself. The review has always been the most difficult form of criticism, because it requires the individual to act as a universal. If art is a connection between artist and audience, how can any one person interact with a work of art and tell other people how to feel about it? Political and aesthetic criticism is difficult in its own right, but at the very least it’s persuasive: the critic is making their own connection, providing their own thesis, and then drawing the reader to their own point of view. But when it comes to how enjoyable a thing is, a mentality of “you should like this as much as I do” generally comes off as ridiculous. How can a critic perform such a task with any level of certainty, let alone the level of objectivity that can be calculated to a decimal point?
This is perhaps even more true for video games than other forms of media, because of the wide spectrum of what can be considered a game. There are lines in literature and films that people often avoid crossing; your average airport-paperback fan is unlikely to hit the poetry section of the bookstore, and there are plenty of film-lovers who are going to balk at even the finest available slasher flick. But for the most part, the quality of these works will tend to transcend genre. Not so for games, where people who play shooters are more likely to devote their time to an average game that scratches that particular itch, say, a Borderlands 3, over a finely crafted and well-respected puzzler like Baba is You. Certainly, gaming has its polyglots as well, but the divide, I think, is greater, among both the consumer and among the reviewers themselves.
What we see, then, is a reviewing convention based not on the actual connection of the critic, this personal and untranslatable thing, and instead one that tends to focus on very formulaic, very compartmentalized standards. Graphics. Sound. Gameplay. Bugginess. And the greatest and most dreaded of them all, value, the unspoken (and to me, horrific) concept that an 80-hour game is better than a 20-hour equivalent, that has dominated industry thinking since the days when twenty games were released each year. Reviewing becomes a series of boxes to check, and the implicit values that go along with them, that each of these arbitrary boxes is equally important, gets fed into that final review score. It’s a system designed to reward competence over brilliance: Rotten Tomatoes’ thumbs up, only with so much more work to get there.
And yet as flawed and useless as the system is, jobs rely on it. Even consumers trust it and wage battles over it, not because it’s right, but because it’s the only obvious way.
So game reviews are meant to be both highly objective and extraordinarily temporary. What’s to be done?
For the latter, not much. It would be nice to have a website specifically devoted to reviewing video games exactly one year after their release, to serve as a retrospective and summation. It’s especially true in this era of backlogs and Steam sales, when players are likely to wait out a difficult launch or a $60 price tag to get the final product when they’re ready. But in this particular economic climate, it’s hard to imagine such a site being viable, particularly with metacritic and its attractive, fake numbers posting up at the top of the search engine results.
If we do nothing, and accept aggregation is inevitable, reviews will continue to be the battleground for ideological warfare, as parties wield their power the only way they can. After all, this isn’t just the way things shook out; culture is a series of riverbeds cut by money. Review bombing will beget strategic overcorrection, leading everything to return to a binary state: good or bad, Good or Bad. It won’t be long before we see the concept ascend to its logical and most precise extreme. If Metacritic is an expansion on the binary, the next step, once the necessary venture capital accumulates, is MetaMetacritic. Here’s how it would work:
The user creates a profile, and the aggregator supplies that person with a list of attributes for them to rank from important to unimportant. Then as each reviewer rates those same categories, graphics and $/hour and the like, the site would adjust the score, based on the weights provided, to personalize the outcome. Suddenly, college students with no money and endless free time and tired fathers with an hour before bed after the kids are down no longer have to fight over the same sense of value.
Essentially, the result is similar to the work of the algorithms, Amazon’s “you may like” and Steam’s ridiculous attempt at automated curation, but with enough manual customization (not, naturally, customized by the platform holder themselves) to feel personalized. It’ll have to create a system that essentially punishes critics for not conforming to your uncompromising compartmentalization, but given how the internet works in 2019, it’s hardly impossible; just funnel enough money into the project that it becomes every user’s crutch, and force cooperation. Or, as metacritic sometimes does, extract the words from a review and make up a score based on the language.
There is one benefit to such a step, probably a happy accident: By killing the single review score, it tears away at the false objectivity it connotes. The assumptions of what makes a “good” game, value and production and safety over storytelling and experimentation, would at least come under question. And as that power structure crumbles, the constant war to control it can be diverted toward other energies, perhaps even constructive ones.
But probably not, because the battle would move on from the reviews themselves to the formula that creates them. It is, always, metaphysics all the way down. And in the process, more of the control over what we value, and what we are allowed to value, is ceded to those wealthy few.
That leaves one alternative: Opt out. Don’t use aggregators. Delete them from your bookmarks, resist the urge to check. Don’t base your feelings about products on how the rest of the world feels about them. Don’t give up the power of curation to anyone, computer or person. Find a critic, or perhaps a site, who aligns well with your personal perspective on games, who you trust to be authentic about their experiences, who you enjoy reading. Find communities. Don’t skip to the score. Let them talk about the game. Let them criticize, instead of review.
Also, to critics: there is a system in place. We would be better off without it, but we can’t undo it overnight. Instead, the best thing to do is make your own perspectives as clear as possible. Be fair, be personal, and don’t try to be the median voter, or speak as the universal. There is so much pressure to work within the bounds that have been set for us, some of which we set ourselves. Do what you can, and be authentic. The best that any of us can do, when we talk about art, is to approach it with honesty.