Metacritic is weird. Other review aggregation sites are weird too, but for the purposes of ease, just assume that when I say “Metacritic”, I’m casting a net over all the big names in the field: Rotten Tomatoes, Gamerankings etc. Metacritic is the most frequently lambasted of these sites though, at least in the games industry/gaming culture, and there are plenty of reasons as for why. Aggregating reviews muddies the already murky waters of art criticism – when all’s said and done, a 55 or a 72% tells us very little about a game’s place in our society and culture, and it goes without saying that one person’s 1/10 might be another’s 10/10. Games are art, and art operates well outside the realms of the numerical and statistical. How does one assign an arbitrary number to a work of art’s ability to make us cry, laugh or scream? I would argue that Metacritic is weird, but only because review scores are pretty weird too.
Then again, to deny us the opportunity to numerically categorize the worth of something is to strip us of our own stubborn, inquisitive nature as humans. We like to know which things are good, and which things are bad – there’s no getting around this. And when we think of games not only as art, but as products of entertainment (as many big publishers would rather we did), it can be difficult for critics to find a balance between critiquing art and providing Which? product reviews about a something’s mechanical functionality. Games are art, I can’t stress that enough, but they can also cost up to £50, which is a lot of money to ask for a sub-par game.
For me personally, the artistic value of an experience far outweighs its functionality or “polish” as a product. If a game is entirely functional but boring as sin (see recent Medal of Honour games), it probably won’t receive a good score from me, but a game that’s entertaining whilst simultaneously somewhat broken (see Deadly Premonition) will probably fare much better in comparison. But I’m not everyone. Some people prefer a comforting experience, something reliable which will pass the time rather than challenge or broaden horizons. I don’t say that disparagingly either, we need function and predictability as much as adventure – it’s the reason we eat comfort foods, watch Storage Hunters, and don’t all wear silver trousers.
So then what, dear reader, is the purpose of a review score? They help us to categorize the ever-increasing butt-load of games being released into some sort of preferential order. If we see, for example, that The Order 1886 is receiving fairly middling reviews, and that the general consensus is: ‘looks great, plays well, but very short and low on original ideas’, we know where to place it in our own internal “game purchase pecking order”. If we see, conversely, that Hotline Miami 2 is being well received by most for expanding on an already brilliant idea, that too helps us to decided which games take priority when it comes to our purchasing choices. This doesn’t paint the whole picture of course, since some reviewers are being a lot harsher on Hotline Miami 2, and some far kinder towards The Order. This, then, is where aggregate systems come in to play.
In order to really organize the mass of opinions and criticisms out there into something resembling a consensus, we need to find some kind of range or median of “scores”. So we turn to Metacritic, wherein a few minutes of searching gives us a decent idea of a game’s average score, closing snippets from individual reviews, and each review’s score. Essentially, Metacritic and co. act as cheat ways of forming pre-opinions about the many games, films and TV shows we don’t have the time to play/watch. I can look to these sites right now and decide to go see It Follows or play Ori and the Blind Forest over Kingsman or Zombie Army Trilogy, and I can say to my friends: “Let’s not watch Unfinished Business, we should watch Buzzard or something else instead.” It’s a pretty cold way of viewing artistic media, but it helps to separate the wheat from the chaff, and aids us in avoiding the very worst that cinema and gaming has to offer.
Again, we’re not seeing everything we need to, but realistically we never can. Steam spews out so many games these days that reviewers can never hope to keep up and play them all, and the same goes for aggregate sites. It can often be all too easy for critics, myself included, to sniff at the prospect of a game’s monetary worth (ordinarily, we get review codes for free), but it’s important to masses of gaming aficionados who might be strapped for cash. We can point to game’s as artistically important, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that Spec Ops: The Line doesn’t help John Q Everyman unwind after work. It shouldn’t stop us analysing the social, political and cultural connotations of interactive art – nothing should – but it’s something we, as critics, should always consider.
The trouble comes not from review scores or aggregates themselves, but from players’ perceptions of these systems, and the way they affect us psychologically. As I mentioned previously, review scores and aggregates help us to organize a consensus, but they dilute the process of criticism considerably. A game that scores a 75 might be amazing for one person, but might be completely unworthy of another’s time. The only way those folks can discern this is by reading opposing reviews in full, and by constructing a more tangible picture regarding a game’s high points and low points, for want of a better phrase.
This is before we address the more maddening aspects of “score culture”, such as certain publishers giving developers bonuses when they ship an 85 scoring games, or some gamers who like to “Meta-bomb” (deliver low scoring reviews en masse) games in the hope of sabotaging sales. “Meta-bombing” is a bewildering phenomenon, but it happens every time a game or series upsets a group of people in some ways. Ever since it became “uncool” to like Call of Duty, new games in the series receive hundreds of poorly written, low scoring user reviews on Metacritic, out of some desperate attempt to tip the scales. Let’s face it, Call of Duty is going to make millions either way.
This all stems from how reactionary gaming culture has become, and I don’t pretend I haven’t experienced it first hand from both sides either. Some people take great offence at a snarky review that bashes their favourite game, and they leap to defend said game in a whirlwind of insults and passionate vocabulary. But though review scores might be useful, they’re also fairly meaningless. If you loved Singularity and a reviewer didn’t, it really doesn’t matter. That game brought some joy into your life, and that matters more than a silly number on a silly page.
I think a lot of our issues with scores stem from the way they’re presented, and from the notion that many reviewers don’t exercise the full 10 point spectrum of scores. Regarding the former, the way a score or aggregate is presented on a page can play tricks on our minds. “Three Stars” looks a lot better than 60/100, but these scores are actually “worth” the same amount in terms of “points.” Metacritic is the worst for this, since it colours scores using a traffic light system. Again, a 5.9/10 film on IMDB looks a lot more appealing than a 59/100 surrounded by murky yellowness.
This is to say nothing of Metacritic’s bizarre game scoring system, or the way the site weights scores from different sites based on their perceived “popularity” or “respectability” – i.e. a score of 7/10 from IGN is technically “worth” more than a 2/10 from Game Revolution. Metacritic aggregates games differently to movies, TV and music. Any film with a metascore between 40 and 60 is considered to have “Mixed or Average Reviews”, but a game can score as high as 74 and still be awarded the yellow banner of shame. This makes no sense. What makes a Metascore 40 film “Mixed/Average” but a Metascore 49 game “Unfavourable”?
Although many sites have decided to drop review scores entirely, we still use them here at GIZORAMA. I’m glad too, because it helps me to keep scores in mind when I’m reviewing something. It’s trivial and nonsensical, but it is our nature. We can’t go five minutes without analysing things, weighing things, measuring things. But if we don’t look further than the scores, and truly appreciate the breadth of criticism on offer to us, these scores will keep getting taken away.