Why review scores are ruining gaming.
Today's art world is dominated by merchandising and consumerism; we buy art from the movie theater, iTunes, and GameStop. Because today's popular art is recordable, and therefore reproducible, it can be sent to as many locations as need demands. This has put a glut of art at our fingertips. No other era can claim to be as drowned in aesthetic objects as our image dominated and Internet-savvy culture. With a wealth of choices, the role of the art critic has been downgraded to that of the art reviewer, and with that comes a multitude of art reviews and art ratings.
This is a crisis moment for modern art, where the melding of consumerism and artistry has created a group of movie-goers, musicheads, and gamers who believe that art can be rated on an objective scale. The idea of applying ratings to paintings or sculptures (even modern ones) is pretty unthinkable. Though it has taken thousands of years, no one today would question the cultural validity of paintings or sculptures as a medium.
Video games are subject to the shackles of ratings more so than other arts due to a couple reasons: one is their high cost. A gamer may only be able to purchase one game every paycheck, or every month, and the difference between a 9.0 and a 9.5 suddenly becomes important. Another reason for excessive ratings in the game world is their status as software. Since they are a program that must perform certain functions, problems like a lack of polish in graphical presentation, poorly designed controls, or simple bugs and errors can all be treated as quantifiable leaps that the user should or should not have to make, in the reviewer's mind. Yet when a journalist reviews a game under our current system, he must also attempt to apply numbers to the game's artistry and his overall level of satisfaction, in the hopes of giving a solid purchase recommendation to the video game world.
Most reviewers would admit to being concerned more with the artistry of a game than with its functionality as software; these two pieces are necessary parts of a review, but by this time in gaming history, functionality should be a non-issue. Slowdown and control glitches will always be with us, but a reviewer must comment on them only insofar as they hinder the experience of playing the game. The game's goals as an aesthetic experience must be paramount in the reviewer's mind.
Yet numbers dominate our discourse; if a reviewer rates a game lower than his peers, he is seen as having an incorrect position. And though every journalist may strive to write about a game before applying a rating, the overall score that comes at the end of the review can never fully be out of his mind. It is supposed to be a reflection of where he thinks the game falls on a scale of 1 (for terrible) to 10 (for incredible). It can supposedly be compared to his other reviews: if he gave a 9.0 to a game I didn't like, then I have no reason to believe that his 6.0 for a different game is accurate.
Reviews can never be fully separated from their rating: the philosophy of numerical scales forces reviewers to give reasons why the game is better than an 8.0 but less than a 9.0. Though this may aid the purchase recommendation part of the review, it does little to encourage dialog about a game's actual merits. The score is a straw man to argue against, with the game's aesthetic qualities mere support for why it was deserved.
Even Roger Ebert (who has no doubt that movies are art and most video games aren't) claims that his stars and his thumb are worth less than his written review, yet he will only put four-star movies on his top ten list each year. Similarly, when the “Game of the Year" hype contests roll around, scores are a main part of the debate. Is it possible for a 9.0 average game to pull ahead of all the 9.5s and 10s to steal the contest? Does anyone truly believe that these year-end lists are anything more than phoned in months in advance?
Reviews without ratings are less satisfying for readers because they do not supply the tidy summary of a game's worth that is expected under the current conditions. A review without a number cannot be compared to another review instantly, and the reviewer cannot be looked down upon by the public until his words are read. Many reviewers may feel pressure to not give the “wrong" score for a beloved franchise installment, hoping instead to say things that are in line with other reviewers. If he is the standalone aberration on MetaCritic, he will be fighting consensus and dismissed.
Yet ratings never make sense. The Bit Generations titles are so simple that a rating of 8.5 doesn't mean the same thing as an 8.5 given to a Zelda game; the first may be too high for a simple game, while the second too low for a much more complex game. Does any reviewer honestly look at Tetris and Zelda and say “Zelda is better" as if the two could be compared? When Nintendo releases the next console Zelda or Mario game, is a score of 9.0 going to dissuade you from purchasing it? Do journalists ever give 10s to games outside of established franchises? Even within genres, comparing two very similar games like Okami and Zelda seems fruitless if we must conclude that one is superior over the other. The only comparison that seems appropriate is whether a new Zelda game is as good as the previous ones (in which case I may have to revise my score for Twilight Princess).
Reviewing a game's graphics, sound, or control too is a nonsensical idea: does a high polygon count within the framework of realism look better than a simple and striking fantasy design? No game is worth less for having blocky graphics if it works in context with the story; not all games can have their graphics measured in the same way.
Instead of writing about whether a game fulfills my preconceptions for what a good game looks like, sounds like, and plays like, I should be compelled as a reviewer to rate the aesthetic experience I had. Though this is a subjective statement of my opinion, it can be qualified by my appraisal of a game's graphical and aural design, as well as my opinion of how successful the game was at creating a world, delivering a feeling of suspense, showing me beautiful images, giving me a sandbox to play in, telling a story, or whatever else the game may have tried to do. No single philosophy of game design is correct, and with as many artists as there are in the game industry we ought to encourage them to take their individual ideals as far as possible. This is why games like Metal Gear Solid and Super Mario 64 can both be praised for their different visions of what video games can do.
Removing scores from reviews will not prevent us from discussing games, comparing disparate genres, or discussing objective quality. Instead, it will allow journalists the freedom to examine a game as a holistic and inclusive experience, an exercise that has been constricted for decades by universal participation in scoring. Having to quantify a game's graphics, sound, control, and fun factor are roadblocks to true discussion. The best art you will ever see cannot be summed up in an essay, or a review. To this day people are discussing the aesthetic experience known as Michaelangelo's La Pieta, or Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. As soon as we believe that we can fully know and understand these works of art, we have lost the ability to ever know anything about them. Only in the ongoing discussion of how video games affect us, and what keeps us coming back for more, can we break through the meaningless numbers and make gaming journalism into something more than just software reviews and purchase recommendations.