Game Reviews by the Numbers

You visit Gamespot, IGN, or Ploygon and see a game has been reviewed and given a score of 8. But what does that mean? Is 8 a good score? Should I play it? I think an 8 is a very positive score, but others, who feel that big gaming sites work mainly within a 7-10 scale for big budget titles may think an 8 is not all that hot. First, I don’t think it’s necessarily true that big gaming sites only use the 7-10 part of the scale. Take Polygon’s reviews for XBox One titles, there are a number of scores for big budget games in the 4-6 range. Same with Gamespot.

The issue is that everything about a game review is subjective. From what aspects of the game a reviewer chooses to focus on, to how they ultimately score the game, to which games they review in the first place. A rating of 8 can and will mean different things to different people. Despite the dubious worth of a numerical score, most sites use them. I use them when I write reviews as well. Why? I like numbers.  I don’t think people should pay attention to numbers exclusively but if I want to know, quickly, how much a reviewer enjoyed a game, it’s a good place to start.

An argument could also be made to say that numerical scores are more trouble than they’re worth. Look at any average 7-rated gamed review and the comments will undoubtedly be filled with exclamations such as “7!? You’re obviously a shill, this game is a 6 at most” or “Are you fucking kidding me, 7? Ridiculous, this game is a solid 7.5.” Of course, a stronger argument could be made that we just shouldn’t read the comments on big gaming sites.

I’m obviously not a professional reviewer, but I use numbers as a way to cap off my reviews and give people a quick idea of what I thought of a game. I’ve only written 9 reviews here, but I think I’ve done a good job at using most of the 1-10 scale.

The Swapper – 10/10
Remember Me – 9/10
The Last of Us (Remastered) – 9/10
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter – 9/10
Revolution 60 – 8/10
Murdered: Soul Suspect – 7/10
The Walking Dead: Season 2 – 6/10
Contrast – 5/10
Moebius: Empire Rising – 4/10

Looking back, I stand by how I’ve scored games. I enjoyed Contrast (5) more than Moebius (4). I enjoyed The Walking Dead S2 (6) more than Contrast. The place where things get a bit tricky is at the top of the ratings. I gave The Swapper, a short indie puzzler a 10, while I gave The Last of Us a 9. These two games are hard to compare, and I’m not really even making the claim that The Swapper is a better game than The Last of Us, but rather that I enjoyed it more. Though The Last of Us has top-notch writing and quality going for it, I enjoyed the 4 hours I spent with The Swapper more than I enjoyed the 12 hours I spent with The Last of Us.

I’d find it difficult to award a 10 to a AAA title, because there’s just so much going on in them, and so many places to find fault. I’m very critical of bad/unnatural feeling controls, and AAA titles are more likely to have complex control schemes. Their stories can be sprawling, with tons of dialogue and voice acting, which is also a place where fault is often found. They’re more likely to rely on tropes that get overused which makes me think the writing is lazy. Gameplay is varied, from conversation systems, to mini-games, to combat, to crafting, and generally some of those systems work better than others. I’m replaying Mass Effect 3 right now, and though I love it, it would be very easy for me to point out 10 things about it that bug me and could be improved, from holding A to run to having to do multiplayer to optimize galactic readiness. So I couldn’t award it a perfect score. On the other end of the spectrum if you took a game like Limbo, there’s very little to complain about there. The art style is simple, yet effective. Gameplay and controls are not complex, but are very well done. There’s no dialogue, the story is simple and the game gets elevated by  fantastically dark atmosphere. The scope of Limbo is small, but it gave me a great gaming experience and I had nothing to complain about. I could give Limbo a 10.

I think every reviewer looks for different things in games, and puts greater weight on some aspects than others. As I said, I’m very critical of controls. Smooth, seemless controls will make me look very favourably on a game. I also focus a lot on the narrative. I like games that tell a good story and give me characters I can either relate to feel strongly about. Entertainment value is the most important thing though. If a game is a lot of fun, I can overlook a number of issues. Take Saint’s Row 4 for example, there are some annoying technical things, but the game is so damn fun that I don’t care. Likewise, a game can have strong mechanics and look great, but if it doesn’t keep me engaged, that’s worth very little.

There are some things that I don’t care much about at all. Replayability is one. I like games that complete a story, then end. If I replay a game it depends entirely on how much I enjoyed it. I replay games that change based on decisions (like Dragon Age), and I replay games that will be the exactly same the second time around (like Gabriel Knight). Whether the game has multi-player or something tacked on to extend the experience past the main single player game has no impact on how much I enjoy the game. Also, I generally won’t harp on game length or cost except in extreme situations. $10- $20 for a 4 hour indie game seems totally reasonable to me. The only review where I thought a short game length was a major negative was Murdered: Soul Suspect. Full price ($69.99) for an 8 hour game did seem excessive. Otherwise, I won’t complain about a game being short as long as the cost is somewhat in line. I’m actually more likely to complain when a game’s length drags on past its welcome.

Here’s a general rundown of what the 1-10 scale means to me.

  • 10 – This game is special! I got great enjoyment from this game and found very little to criticize.
  • 9 – Excellent, an amazing gaming experience. Probably a couple faults, but nothing major.
  • 8 – Very good. I enjoyed this game but it didn’t blow my mind.
  • 7 – Good. I’m glad I played this game but it did have one or two major (but not game breaking) problems.
  • 6 – Okay. Game had some major problems. The one time I awarded a 6 it was because the first half of the game was very good, and the last half was poor. Probably still worth playing.
  • 5 – Needs improvement. The game had as many negatives as positives going for it. Probably not worth playing unless you really like the genre.
  • 4 – Poor. While not totally without merit, the game gave more frustration or boredom than enjoyment. Not recommended.
  • 1-3 – Honestly, if a game was looking worse than a 4 I would probably stop playing and not write a review. This would likely be due to game-breaking issues, bad gameplay, or hugely offensive content.

What do you think of game reviews and scores? How much weight do you give them when deciding whether to play a game?

5 responses to “Game Reviews by the Numbers

  1. Personally, I think they are a throwback to a simpler time of quick-fire, magazine-based criticism that has more than worn out its welcome in the Internet Age. Even with your explanation, I find it much easier to read Special/Excellent/Very Good/Good than I do 10, 9, 8, 7.

    I don’t need numbers to help me compare games and I think that’s a destructive attitude to take anyway. Each game comes with its own expectations, context, etc. For example, you rated The Swapper, a tiny but fun game higher than The Last of Us, a game largely hailed as a cinematic masterpiece as far as game’s goes and one with a deeply engrossing setting/story that’s only reinforced by the gameplay mechanics and features. If you called The Swapper ‘Something Special’ and The Last of Us ‘Excellent’, I wouldn’t immediately think to compare the two of them, but by scoring them, I do.

    I would rather see reviewers abandon the 10-point scale entirely, and instead focus more on a bible to what they look for, expect, and hope to see in the games they review. At least then I have a standard and a baseline that actually communicates something to me as the reader. This post in general was a good start of that for you, and I learned more about your reviews than I ever would by looking at a chart of what your numbers mean.
    Murf recently posted..Mark & Recall: The Mystical Mesmer’s “A World Without Levels”

    • I guess it’s just an idea stuck in my head that reviews need scores. I think of them more as a summary/culmination of all the points brought up in the review. I don’t necessarily think that comparing games based on scores is destructive, at least not in the way I review games, because reviews are about how much I personally enjoyed something.

      I agree that it would be nice if every reviewer laid out what they’re looking for, it would make reviews much more meaningful, and let me know whose reviews to put stock in and who looks for game aspects that don’t matter as much to me.

  2. Some day i would like if you do a review on Child of Light. But this one are good too, thank you for sharing!

    • I actually just got Child of Light for my birthday. I might review when I get around to playing it, but I’ve already got another dozen or so games on the go.

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