What’s in a review: An in-depth analysis of the nature of game reviews

What is a review? Just about everyone is familiar with these things whether they play games or not. At first the answer seems obvious: it is a personal evaluation and opinion of the quality of a game/movie/novel/work. Is the structure of a review that simple though? It seems that these subjective experiences are often taken as objective evaluations by their translation into various types of scores. Whether the “scores” are a number between 1 and 10, a statement of “buy,” or even a specific painting that encapsulates the opinion, there is the sense that the point of the writing is to turn a personal experience into an objective understanding of it. This process of translation and the intention for which it is done very much affects the way a review is written, approached, and measured.

The Purchasing Decision

One of the most common ways to approach reviews is as an asset for purchasing decisions. Maybe a game that scores a 9/10 from your favorite publication captures your interest even though you hadn’t heard of it before. Perhaps you have been following a game’s development, but wait until your favorite online personality says it’s a worthwhile purchase before you pull the trigger. Essentially, this method of approaching a review, from both reviewer and audience perspectives, is an evaluation of the worth of the game as a commodity. The game is either worth more, or less, than the $60 you might spend on it. In this sense a game becomes a good “buy” when it provides enough of an experience to justify its purchase.

One gamehalo-3-odst that sticks out has having been evaluated more explicitly in this way was Halo 3: ODST. Originally planned to be a small expansion that would cost $40, Microsoft decided to charge a full $60 for the game. This decision came up frequently in reviews as publications noted that while the quality of the game was great it might not feel like a worthwhile purchase given the relatively small amount of content.

These reviews are typified by the “Buy, Rent, Pass” scoring system. This is an explicit reference to the game’s worth in terms of your purchasing power, overtly bringing up your wallet in the conclusion.

The Measuring Stickgears-4

Reviews are also done to measure a game’s quality, generally concluding with a numerical “score.” Review scores seem to be a convention that is constantly up in the air for gaming publications. What does it mean to give a game an 8 instead of an 8.5? Does it make sense to give NBA 2K17 a 92 and Gears of War 4 an 84? Does that mean NBA 2K17 is better than Gears of War 4? Does it make sense to evaluate a game like Flower the same way we evaluate the newest Call of Duty?

Essentially review scores measure a game. This measurement is both an apparent “objective” evaluation that solves the question of “is this game good?” as well as a method of comparing games to one another. The core dissonance at the heart of this trouble is the tension between video games as an art form and as a business. As shown in previous examples, this results in confusion over what exactly the measurement means. Video games need to provide an interesting and engaging experience, like any other form of art. Yet they must also justify their purchase as a commodity. Video games are expensive and not a lot of people can by more than two or three in a year. It’s important then for a consumer to be able to understand how games stack up against each other. Thus, even in spite of the fact that we don’t know what a 67% or a 4 stars out of 5 score really means, there is still the general feeling that it kind of makes sense.

Journey exemplifies providing an artistic experience over an economic one

This is the great aspect of reviews. If you actually read or watch them you understand that the games aren’t just percentages or a list of features. The score only makes sense as a reflection of the game and not as the game itself. As a result, we are able to comprehend the intricacies of the score, despite the system’s inherent problems with communicating a personal experience. Thus, reviews as a form of measurement help to clarify and compartmentalize games. Gears of War 4 is not just an 84 but that number comes to represent the general attitude towards the game, a form of understanding that informs our approach to the game when, say, considering the best games in a given year.

The Body of Knowledge

What if a review doesn’t give a score? What if it is not trying to measure a game’s quality or suggest that it is/isn’t worth purchasing? What if a review is simply a reflection on the personal experience of a player? Why review then if you aren’t explicitly telling people that a game is good or that it is worth your $60? It’s actually pretty simple: to talk about the game.

red-dead-1When someone reviews a game, or when anyone talks to a friend about a game, there is a furthering of the wider discussion within the industry. Reviews, discussions, debates between two strangers, any type of communication that has to do with the experience of video games expands the industry’s understanding of what we like and what we hope to see more of. Even games that receive low scores are important to this ongoing, never ending discussion about what video games are. Do we want more games like the Mighty No. 9? No. Do we want more games like Red Dead Redemption? Yes. Do we love the idea of No Man’s Sky but wish it were executed better? Hell yeah.

That’s the essence of reviews, to communicate about what we like and don’t like. Reviews that eschew the convention of assigning scores aren’t concerned with measuring the games because they want the review’s content itself to be the main focus, not whether it was worth buying or if it is better than another game. That is not to say that they are necessarily “better” than scored reviews, they simply put emphasis in different places.

Reviews are one of the most effective platforms for starting discussions in a community. That’s their essence. It’s present in every kind of review. Scored or unscored, commodity or experience focused, every kind of review is really an invitation into a conversation. In the big picture, that conversation is about where we’re going as an industry. Reviews point us in that direction.

Written by Evan Maier-Zucchino

Evan graduated from Chapman University in 2017 with a BFA in creative writing and a minor in leadership studies. A love of storytelling propels his interest in video games, though he is equally comfortable on the battlefields of multiplayer games as in the middle of an RPG grind. When not gaming he can be found producing music, writing stories, or pondering the big questions in life.

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