Daily Elysium: The Score
Unburdened by such malignities as inimical viruses or even an itchy rash, I'd like to talk for a moment about one of the most common reasons people read game sites: the review. Of course every reviewer across the pallid landscape of the ever smartly written internet has to undergo extensive training before carefully penning his own gaming critique. And certainly every review is objectively written with a wide swath of gaming styles in mind and a careful eye placed on the accurace of reportage. Less, what would the value of amateur review writings be, if not erudite independent thoughts built on the foundation of unbiased reporting.
In the sarcastic words of Edna Crabapple, "Hah!"More often than not even professionally written reviews are a mish-mash of half related thoughts as written by people with their own unavoidable biases and arbitrary values. And, should you think otherwise, I happily indict many of my own attempts at the craft. The question in many ways still left largely unanswered is, what should a review be? Should it be personal or strive for universality, should it be a recommendation or a caveat, and how does one pass final judgment?
These really are the kinds of questions I ask myself before I put fingertip to keyboard and write a review. Honestly, I think my process is probably a lot more introspective than most peoples, which is not necessarily a good thing. However, I read a lot of reviews out there, and wonder if the reviewer is remotely aware that other people with different experiences and expectations actually exist. All too often an internet review is barely more than a personal diatribe, a critical indictment of the 'flaws' that interfered with the reviewers own enjoyment of the game rather than a critical look at the mechanics of the software itself. Or, worse still, a blind proclamation of greatness even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Too many reviews are little more than expressions of personal bias with a target. I always wonder how someone who begins a review for an RPG by saying 'I don't really like RPGs' expects to maintain credibility when complaining about the pace, the combat system, or even the graphics. But, are these supposedly bad examples just being more honest with their articles than the rest of us who pretend detachment?
I once read an article by Greg Kasavin of Gamespot that dictated his personal review style. In the article Greg talked about how a review is not a personal opinion, should all but eliminate the actual preferences of the individual reviewer and instead look at the software from a wholly objective point of view. I thought this was a very nice, if entirely unrealistic thing to say. At the risk of becoming unnecessarily philosophical on the matter, there's simply no way to make an intrinsically subjective commentary from a completely subjective perspective wholly objective. One can be objective about math because the results of a mathematical equation are not subject to a mathematician's experience. Reviewing games is not math, nor is it science.
So, it occurs to me that there is simply no way to extract the reviewer from the review, that as a reader or writer of reviews, one must accept that bias and interpretation are intrinsic to the process. Is that a flaw in the design? Possibly, and particularly if you've not become used to a given reviewers style and preferences.
I further recall Gabe or Tycho of Penny-Arcade (if one is to believe they are individuals and don't join in a very Voltron style when it comes time to make their comics) speaking once about the same issues. As I recall they came to the conclusion that a reader could only find value in a review if they had come to know and trust a certain writer's recommendations of the past, and even then it was still hit and miss. Consider, after all, how often even your best friend will assume you will like a given song, television show, or movie, leaving you reeling in disgust at the recommendation, wondering if your friend has any clue who you actually are. If your best friend is wrong about you part of the time, how the hell am I supposed to know whether you'll like a game or not?
Which really begs the question of, what is the point of a review? Most people seem to be of the mind that a review should tell them whether they will enjoy a certain piece of software. I contend that this is impossible, and to try and write a review on that premise is doomed to failure. What a review can do is make a reader aware of the game's mechanics, can extrapolate on the reviewers subjective experience playing the game, and can make people aware of technical, mechanical, or fundamental flaws in the game itself.
Which, as it happens, are precisely the parts of the review people are most likely to skim.
I'm as guilty as anyone else when it comes to reading reviews. I see a page of carefully detailed thoughts on the game I'm considering, and really who has the time to read all that? I jump straight to the good stuff, the score. And, of course, these scores are scientifically extracted from complicated formulas that balance objective values in weighing subtly conflicting variables across a statistically described spectrum of intertwining ... oh come on! Scores are derived pretty much the way anyone might expect, they are pulled from the air like a mime climbing a rope.
Can someone tell me precisely what the difference between a game that ranks 8.4 and one that ranks 8.5 is? What is the mathematical value of that tenth? Certainly scores have some purpose in the review, as they roughly describe a general sense the reviewer had of how he values the game as a whole, but without the context of the actual text what is the point of that value? Isn't the real worth of a review the elements that approach a more real sense of objectivity, which random numbers are, as a rule, not a set member of?
And after all, how often have you read a review where, by and large, the reviewer panned the software and yet still ultimately rewards the game with an apparently bloated score? Or vice versa? It's been my experience that, when written by someone with both hemispheres of their brain functioning simultaneously, a review's text usually describes the experience of the game far more accurately than the quick and easy score. So why do we keep the scores around?
Unfortunately the answer is a matter of simplicity and acquiescence on the part of most sites. I think you'd find a substantial number of reviewers who would readily admit that a quick score doesn't begin to accurately describe the story of a given game, and yet they keep them because more often than not, it's all readers seem to want. Scores get hits, or sell magazines, or keep people watching. Scores give way to rank, make specific and uncomplicated statements, and they take a stand. People don't want to hear that your enjoyment of a given game depends on various factors, and they don't want to get muddied in the subtleties. They want direct and accountable statements. They want to be able to say that game X scored higher than Half-Life or lower than Panty Raider, and when they think you're full of sh*t - as they often do - they haul out that score like they're presenting evidence at Nuremberg.
But, in the end, the score devalues the review. It unnecessarily simplifies the complex, and codifies the subjective.
Which, as some of you may have noticed, is why we haven't been putting scores on our reviews lately. I'm not sure how it's going to play out, but for now we're hanging our random number generator on the shelves, and forcing people to make a choice. If they want quick easy and arbitrary numbers, then they'll have no trouble finding them, but if they want a serious and hopefully even-handed consideration of a game, then we'll try and provide that. At least you can take heart that we've thought long and hard on the issue.