Do we really need review scores?

Review scores. Whilst they may not have accompanied videogames since their inception, they have become an intrinsic part after the revival of the industry in the 80s. This in part was because videogames were rebranded as toys in order to help differentiate them from the the previous iteration that had brought the entire industry near collapse.

With videogames seen by the masses as toys, they also took on the representation of products. Products can objectively be marked and judged, and because of the different factors that comprise a videogame, it made it much easier to provide a detailed and objective review of each game. This style of review stayed around for years, with a games overall score being a culmination of different sections such as; graphics, sound, gameplay, and (when applicable) story.

Whilst I think it is ineffective to review games in this manner, I fully accept why this practice was used across the industry for so long, it made perfect sense, for the most part. A game might have terrible sound effects, but look and play brilliantly, although at the same time have a mixed story. In the past this was enough, because on the whole games didn’t have to be a cohesive whole and the wider spectrum of games available weren’t too different. That is not to say that all games were the same, that would be ridiculous. There was a reason why genres used to be so prevalent. They provided an easy way for the developers to determine what kind of game they wanted to make and then work around that to create their take on the genre. For the consumer this made it easier to buy games as they would have some idea of what they likely to get out of their purchase.

Today however that is not the case. Genres are almost meaningless, as the traditional staples that were used to separate the medium no longer apply. For years developers have been merging different genres together to help make their games seem more unique, and this can work, but sometimes it just comes off as gimmicky. Then there are the games which don’t neatly fit into one or even two genres, some don’t really fit any genre. This was the reason why the term “non-games” started to become prevalent a couple of years ago. It is also for me one of the main reasons why reviews scores are now also meaningless.

For a while now in discussions with friends we have discussed that music reviews don’t really “work” because music is very subjective and people tend to have very different tastes. Just because they like one artist in a genre doesn’t mean they will like other artists in the same genre. Although like videogames, music genres can be meaningless, although this has also seen the emergence of “made-up” genres, but these new genres do provide a better indication than the pre-existing ones. With music reviews the best thing to do is to find an outlet/person that tends to favour similar artists to yourself, because at least then their score is going to be more relevant. When reviewing music, many are going on their personal opinion and not necessarily objectively commented on the sound production. That is not to say that they don’t comment on it, but for example one reviewer might objectively criticise the poor production values, whilst another reviewer might subjectively praise the raw lo-fi production style.

Videogames are starting to emulate music in this regard. Hohokum has recently been released on the Sony platforms, and to a certain extent can fall into the category of “non-games” (even though there are objectives in each main area). At the moment on Metacritic its overall score is “mixed”. Some reviewers have given it 9/10 (90/100 and other similar metrics) whilst others have given it 6/10. The thing is Hohokum is not a game for everyone, it is slow paced and ultimately it is up to the player to decide what they want to do, after the first “level” the game leaves you alone. The core gameplay is made up of moving around different stages and interacting with different objects such as breaking pots or bringing clouds to a lake to wake up a flying elephant god. What makes the game stand out (aside from flying elephant gods) is its vibrant art style and its excellent laid back soundtrack. Personally, I think the game is great, I’m enjoying the experience, and to me that is what Hohokum is about, but for someone else who wants a “game” they are not going to find one.

I admit I am guilty of being part of the problem, I still search out review scores and let them influence my decision, and I have written a couple of reviews that have scores at the end. Scores aren’t necessarily redundant, reviewers (for the most part) put great thought into the score they give and that they match what they have written about the game. When I have loved a game I reviewed, the score reflected the enthusiasm in which I wrote about it. Conversely when there has been a game where the very thought of going back to it fills me with anger, the score reflects this, along with a carefully written reason as to why it deserved a low score.

The thing is the score provides a shortcut, not everyone wants to read a long collection of words explaining why something is good or bad, they just want to know whether they should part with their money. This is the problem with media pieces, they are often viewed on the whole as commodities. As someone who respects the art form of videogames I avoid review scores where possible, and if I do have to give a score I stick to a simple 5 point system with no half points. The score should not be the important part, instead it should be the words that should be carefully observed. That is why reviewers can have more freedom to be subjective in their reviews and then people can judge for themselves based on what is written and whether that appeals to them, rather than just going on what number is given.

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