Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Video Game Review Scores

If there's anything more boring than articles about writing articles about video games, then I don't want to know about it. But there is one subject that I've always found interesting, and that's video game review scores.

Before I launched this blog, I had two personal websites named Electric Dilintia, both filled with my video game reviews. The first site had completely unstructured reviews, like the ones on this blog. The second had very structured reviews, with sections for initial impressions, gameplay description, favorite and least favorite elements broken down by (often windy) bullet points, final impressions, and an integer score of 1 to 10.

Even back then, there was some debate about what a review score even means. There were a hell of a lot of video game sites thanks to the dot com boom, and they all had different schemes and algorithms to arrive at a final score. My favorite at the time was the one at Nintendorks. They had a ten-point scale for all of the usual elements, and then they had suggestions for renting or buying, and finally, they had Mr. Face, essentially a five-point scale -- terrible, bad, okay, good, awesome.

So in the end, I decided to try putting a score system in place because, when it comes right down to it, categorizing things is fun. I did one to ten because it's a pretty popular system, and I went with integers because decimal scores basically just stretch the scale out to one to twenty or one to a hundred. And, as so many who came before me, I discovered the ugly truth.

The rating scale starts at 6.

I was completely independent, beholden to neither an editor nor the generosity of publishers. But every time I weighed in with my final analysis, my thoughts were about the same. "Well, it wasn't a great game, but... you know, it wasn't an offensive piece of crap either. Ehhhhh, 6. Slightly above average."

Yes, I actually dipped down into the sub-five categories a few times, but by and large, 6 was the magic number. It doesn't help that internet nerds put so much weight on a video game score, ripping into anything that isn't a 9 or a 10. So I dumped the structure and the score when I relaunched Electric Dilintia as a blog.

Which is a shame, because I still think it's fun and useful to categorize a game's quality. We just need a different sort of metric.

A Proposed Scale for Video Game Ratings

First of all, let's do away with the numbers. Numbers suggest that quality is rigidly quantifiable, and that a lower score implies less value, and that simply isn't the case.

When I think of video games and how I would classify them, this is what comes to mind:

Just like it says. These are the games that stick with you, the ones you can't get enough of, the ones you'll play over and over again for years to come. These are your desert island games. Super Mario Brothers 3. Samba de Amigo. Shiren the Wanderer. Retro Game Challenge. Pokemon. Super Smash Brothers. Phoenix Wright. Every single aspect of the game is exactly right, and it's so fun and addictive that you'll never ever ever really get sick of it.

Yeah, these are pretty good games. Well-made, fun to play, just a class act all around. New Super Mario Brothers. The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures. Custom Robo. Chibi Robo. The Typing of the Dead. Karaoke Revolution. What separates the Solid games from the Outstanding? The intangibles. The difference is in the level of emotional attachment the player has. Some games are enjoyable, but they just don't grab you the same way a classic does. This isn't a failing on the game's part; it often comes down to a personal preference. A solid game is always going to be worth playing, but it may get old after a while.

These are very specifically-targeted games. Cooking Mama. Master of Illusion. Earthbound. Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People. Dragon's Lair. Rampage: Total Destruction. These games are usually Solid -- maybe even Outstanding -- but their appeal is very limited, and opinions can be very polarized. These games rely on the strength of a particular element, and they execute that element flawlessly. People who aren't fans of that element probably won't get as much out of the game -- so either you'll love it or you'll hate it.

Guilty Pleasure
At first glance, these games look Bad. They're unpolished, or they have terrible concepts, or the gameplay is completely broken, or it otherwise leaves the impression that not a lot of effort was put into it. And yet, something keeps you coming back to them. Pokemon Channel. Merchant Galactic. Duck Amuck. Battle of the Bands. Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law. The difference between a Guilty Pleasure and a Niche game is that even the fans recognize that there's something wrong with it. But somehow, a gleam of charm shines through, and to a very particular set of people, that may make all the difference in the world.

This is the opposite of a Guilty Pleasure. A lot of time and effort has obviously been put into these games -- and indeed, many people may consider them to be Solid or even Outstanding -- but when it gets right down to it, you have to admit that you're just not enjoying yourself. The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. Metroid. Rhythm Heaven. Blast Works. There's nothing wrong with these games, exactly -- they just didn't have your needs in mind when they were making it. It's like looking at a Niche game from the point of view of someone who doesn't "get it". The reviewer's basically throwing up his hands and saying, "Yeah, I really don't have any business playing this."

And finally, Bad games. Games with nothing to redeem them. Dragon's Lair: The Legend. The Great Waldo Search. Mario is Missing. Fun! Fun! Minigolf. They aren't fun to play, they look like they were phoned in by the B squad, they're just a waste of money all around. The very best a game like this can hope to offer is a Guilty Pleasure. I don't think of a lot of games as Bad these days -- I understand the appeal of most games even if I don't "get it" myself, and I've gotten better at wringing a Guilty Pleasure out of just about everything I play.

I don't expect anyone to adopt this system -- hell, I know I'm not going to. But I think it's a lot more useful to start thinking about games in these sorts of terms than it is to make everything a number.


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