There are many opinions out in the world and when it comes to games, they are no different. Some people like specific genre’s or difficulties while others have a preference for mods and features. Even if a game has what we normally like, what are we to do if they aren’t done well or if the rest of the game is terrible? Most people rely on reviews to see if a game is worth playing or not. However, reviews are a problematic source of information for many reasons.
Reviews have existed for hundreds of years. For as long as entertainment has been consumable there have been critics telling us if it is worth our time and money. When it comes to books, plays, movies, television shows, and what have you, reviews are negligible. I usually only spend ten dollars on these. If something has a bad review, I won’t feel required to miss out if I think it looks good. Plenty of people agree with this view, just look at this list of several movies with terrible reviews but were blockbusters nevertheless. Video game reviews carry much more weight. Since you spend $60+ and hours upon hours of your time, you will want to know if it is worthwhile. Nick Wingfield of the Wall Street Journal wrote an article titled “High Scores Matter To Game Makers, Too” where he says Metacritic “influence[s] the sales of games and the stocks of video game publishers”. You can’t read his article unless you subscribe to the Wall Street Journal. (Ridiculous, I know.)
The fact that reviews impact video games so drastically is actually terrible. If reviews were simple and impartial analysis of the design and fun of a game, the consumer would be given a good picture of what they’d be buying. However, this is not the case. It’s impossible to remain completely impartial, even for the sacred game journalists. The only time bias is beneficial is if you find a reviewer who mirrors your exact taste identically. If this happens, you basically get an advanced look at your own opinion. Otherwise you are forced to view the grades of games through the lens of someone else’s eyes. Bias leads to scores that most will never completely agree with. Game journalists are subject to preferences just as us mortals; they too like specific genre’s or difficulties, or have a fondness for mods and features. There is a particular incident that I wish to cite. Game Informer’s Jeff Marchiafava did a review of Horizon Zero Dawn and it was given a very good rating. The reviewer had this to say about what he didn’t like:
“[M]y only major complaint about Horizon is how closely it clings to the established and increasingly tedious formula of open-world games. […][T]he activities that populate [Horizon Zero Dawn] feel all too familiar. You clear out bandit camps, hunt animals for inventory upgrades, and track down various collectibles that clutter your map. Every trip you undertake is disrupted by the urge to collect more crafting items […], and every exciting skirmish ends with the unexciting and ritualistic looting of enemy corpses.”
This is a fair complaint, Horizon Zero Dawn does faithfully follow the open-world genre and all the aspects that go along with it. It wouldn’t bother me if not for another review in the very same issue. Game Informer’s Kyle Hilliard gave The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild a perfect score even though it has the exact same mechanics that Jeff complained about. You could literally change the quote above by replacing “Horizon Zero Dawn” with “Breath of the Wild” and have a completely accurate paragraph.
How could one game be declared as perfect while another not-quite-so even though the perfect game has the same arguably-detrimental mechanics? Well the answer is clear. Jeff is growing tired of open-world games while Kyle is not. Perhaps Kyle is a staunch Zelda fanboy and would have given it a perfect score anyway? I can’t say to that as I don’t know Kyle personally, plus, being a Zelda fanboy is not a problem. However, if someone would look at these reviews side-by-side, they’d be forgiven for thinking that Breath of the Wild did not have these issues, or any issues for that matter. Alternatively, they’d also must be forgiven for thinking that Horizon Zero Dawn’s implementation of these issues are more severe. Neither of these are the case.
Another problem with game reviews is that giant number made certain to be right at the top (or bottom) of the page. Ultimately, what does a 10/10 actually mean? What about a 40/40? Or how about five stars? Did it get 10 things right? Did it write a convincing essay and show its work? Was it a good boy? No one uses a rubric or grading standard which means these numbers are extremely arbitrary and subjective. Breath of the Wild has several flaws, despite being a great game, it is not perfect. So how can it get a score that indicates that it is perfect? I would not grade any game ever a 10/10 because no game has ever been perfect.
This next complaint of mine has an air of conspiracy about it so please forgive it. I’m pretty sure you can pay certain publications or journalists for better reviews. I’m not going to name names or point fingers but it makes sense. If the reviews of games can impact company stock, of course a company would want to get a bump where it can. Maybe it’s as little as a 9/10 becoming a 10/10, or perhaps an extra gift gets a more lenient reviewer. If this is the case, it’s a terrible practice but a result of the times nonetheless.
What should be done? It’d be nice to have an objective and universal rubric for game reviews but even then grading is subjective. This also doesn’t work due to the nature of genres and that not every game would fall in line with typical standards but have the potential to be good. In an ideal world game reviews would be as negligible as movie reviews. However, that’s not going to change any time soon. So what can be done? For starters, us all as consumers shouldn’t take game reviews as gospel. We should check several reviews, look up screenshots and gameplay, and decide if it’s something we want to get through our own research. Game companies follow the money, so until our dollars stop correlating with the reviews, we are stuck with subjective and arbitrary reviews determining the success of our favorite games.