Today The Escapist published an issue that’s all about games journalism, and there are a number of fascinating articles. I particularly liked “1984 out of 10”, a piece by Peter Parrish that examined the current game-reviewing scene through the lens of George Orwell’s 1936 essay “In Defence of the Novel”. It’s a sharp take, and shows how the inflation of praise (not just scores) results in the apotheosis of mediocrity, and thousands of crummy games walking around with Metascores in the high 70s.
Most of the commenters and linkers have focused on the idea of score inflation, which is ironic since the article is critical of readers’ obsession with and passionate screaming about scores. When I write a review, of course, I generally think about the score for a little less than a minute, and with few exceptions this has served me well. It’s almost amusing to see how obsessed people can be with the 5 I gave Shattered Memories or the 4 I gave Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, without devoting a moment’s concern to the actual content of the review. Fortunately, the comment policy at GameCritics.com allows me to give these kinds of comments a much-deserved summary deletion.
Seeing as Parrish’s article concludes with his hope that intelligent writers can rescue game reviews from the dustbin of advertorial content, I thought it might be time to look back over my own stuff and ask how I’ve been doing. So, I went back to GameCritics.com and reviewed my reviews. I’m intelligent, and I’m a writer, but am I writing intelligently about games? And how inflated are those scores I don’t think about?
I feel like this was generally a success. Nostalgia was out to mine older games and stories to produce a familiar-feeling RPG and it succeeded at that, which I think I conveyed. I also managed to get across that I didn’t think this was a particularly interesting or memorable thing for a game to be doing. I got bogged down discussing the uneven difficulty, though. That’s important information that needs to be in the review, but it needed some lens so it would fit in with the discussion of the bland story elements. This is a pretty good effort.
My score: 6.0 / 10
Metascore: 72 / 100
Review grade: B
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories
This is a passable review. I think I got a bit too caught up in particular shortcomings, when my real problem with the game was that the exploration was too boring and the nightmares were too frenetic. I failed to adequately convey my feeling that Climax had really strong and worthwhile ideas for the gameplay and the story, but that their execution was too far off the mark. I also didn’t really get enough into what the game was about.
My score: 5.0
Review grade: C+
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days
Well, this game isn’t really about anything, so it’s no sin that I didn’t get into that. I’m pretty successful here at conveying my core problem with the story, which is that it feels like it’s just filling up time (the title is very appropriate). I simply failed to explain that the game always feels like it’s about to start going somewhere interesting, and then lets you down. The paragraph about the panel system feels like a digression. I needed to do more with the lens about how this game isn’t really something that will appeal to anyone.
My score: 4.0
Review grade: B-
Well, The Saboteur is a game about blowing up Nazis, which I think I managed to get across. I should have done more to emphasize that the game is more about play than about immersivity. I got a touch too bogged down in details and didn’t sufficiently convey how the game felt in the process of play. This is the only game where my score is significantly higher than the Metascore, but I feel secure that I’m right about this.
My score: 8.5
Review grade: B
No More Heroes 2
This was not one of my better efforts, on any level. I clearly got hung up on comparing this game to its predecessor. That may have been unavoidable, given how much I loved No More Heroes, but the end result speaks for itself. I didn’t discuss this game enough on its own merits, and I forgave it too much for its difficulty and execution issues. This is one case where, in retrospect, I scored a game too highly. Were I to try again it would probably land in the 6-7 range.
My score: 8.0
Review grade: D
I think I nailed it. Either this or my Fable II review from this blog is the best review I’ve written. I got hold of everything the game made me think of, what the game seems to be about, what it’s really about, and why it succeeded at the latter. I wish every review I wrote was this good.
My score: 9.0
Review grade: A
I think I did a pretty good job here, too, although I didn’t really succeed in conveying what the game is about or how empty it felt. I should have done more to discuss the tension problem this game had, which was much like the problem for Shattered Memories. I think I succeeded, though, in explaining what didn’t work in this game on a level more fundamental than just saying that the shooting wasn’t any fun.
My score: 4.0
Review grade: B+
I’m not satisfied with this one. I mention a whole host of different problems and successes, but I never really build them into a coherent picture of the game’s ideas or themes. Of course, the game itself is somewhat incoherent in this regard. In particular I failed to really deal with whether and how the gameplay related to the narrative. I recall that the early drafts of this essay were really bogged down in details. The final form still has too many, and is a bit lost in the weeds as a result.
My score: 7.5
Review grade: C-
This game is about desperation and privation, and I managed to get that across. I got bogged down in some details about the plot and the mechanics, and I didn’t talk enough about the strange transition from FPS to first-person platformer in the last parts of the game. A stronger lens around the Artyom-as-ghost idea could have really tied this review together strongly.
My score: 6.5
Resonance of Fate
This is a lame, workaday review for a lame game. I probably scored this one too high. There’s not much else to say, except maybe that I didn’t fully capture my loathing for these characters.
My score: 3.5
Review grade: C-
Red Dead Redemption
I’m slightly ambivalent about this one. I feel like I nailed what the game was about at its core. I’m a bit less certain that I properly conveyed the experience of playing the game. The information is in there, but I think it might be pushed a bit too much into the background. If I’m going to miss the mark, though, I’d much rather miss in this direction, swinging too far towards conceptual contemplation, than by clinging too close to detail-oriented reviewing.
My score: 8.5
Review grade: A-
This is not my best. It feels very close to traditional software review where I take various features and just examine them in isolation. I really should have lensed this whole thing around the question of the game’s identity crisis and examined its competence from that angle.
My score: 6.5
Review grade: D+
I feel like I did a good job on this one, because I really thought the game was a failure in every way, and “every” involves a lot in a game this complex. So the criticism comes in pretty densely, but I needed to address that this was a bad idea that Obsidian did a crummy job of turning into an poorly-designed game. Still, late in the review it starts to turn into a bit of a hit list, which it probably shouldn’t have done.
My score: 1.0
Review grade: B-
Converting the scales so they match, my reviews come to an average score of 60 (median of 65) with a standard deviation of 24. That’s a pretty decent spread. For the same group of games, the average Metascore was 77 (median 75) and the standard deviation was 8.8, which makes the point about score inflation better than I could hope to. The games I’ve reviewed vary wildly in every aspect of quality, from narrative to design to basic coding, and they simply should not have landed so closely together on any scale. That these games averaged nearly an 80 is also a sign of trouble, to my mind.
From my perspective, the thing I need to work on most in the writing is formulating a high-level view of the games I’m reviewing, rather than getting caught up in their details. I’m tending to miss the mark on the side of getting too far into the details. Like I said above, if I have to miss, I’d rather screw up by being too concept-oriented, rather than the other way around. There are about 8000 sites on the internet where you can learn about a game’s graphics or mechanics in the review. What’s needed, and what I want to provide, is discussion of a game’s ideas and how its design informs, develops, and supports those ideas. The goal is to convey in a review what a game is about and how it is about it.