How I Rate Video Games and Why It Matters

Occasionally on the Retrogame Deconstruction Zone, I like to post reviews to supplement my other analyses.  This is hardly an original thing -- the internet is stuffed with reviews of both old and new games -- but I want to be explicit about my review philosophy and lay out some common mistakes that I think other reviewers make. 

Here are some frequently asked questions about video game reviews, along with my answers to them.

Q: Why don't you break down your ratings into categories?

A:  While it is common for video game reviewers to separately rate things like the graphics, sounds, controls, etc., I think this approach is misguided.  It would be absurd for a food reviewer to separately rate a recipe's ingredients or a music reviewer to separately rate rhythm and melody, so why accept it in a game review?  A video game is a complete experience in which there is a complex interplay between visual and auditory stimuli, not to mention physical interactions.  It is, as they say, much more than the sum of its parts.  Game reviews should treat it as such.

Q: Why does your rating scale have so many levels?  Can you really distinguish between a game that you rate 7.5 and a game that you rate 8.0?

A:  Yes?  For things that I'm passionate about, I often find myself frustrated when I'm forced to rate on a scale with less than 10 levels, and ideally there would be more (I use 20 for the blog).  Having privately rated thousands of movies, albums, and video games, I've found that narrow rating scales become more frustrating with the more things I rate.

If, on the other hand, your concern is with my ability to so finely delineate the truth about video game quality, then I think you need to reevaluate what a video game review is actually doing.  Even if I were to only give thumbs-up/thumbs-down reviews, my opinions would still just be opinions.  A gifted reviewer can communicate the reasons for their love/hate of a particular game in a way that adds to the reader's passion, but that doesn't make them anything more than informed opinions.

Q: Why should I care about your opinion?

A:  That's more a question for you than for me, but I will say that I don't approach my reviews lightly.  Not only do I spend many, many hours playing the games I review, but in most cases I spend time picking them apart, studying their mechanics and carefully considering how the pieces worked together to create the full experience.  Every rating is the product of careful consideration and reflection.


Q: How much do you weigh a game's influence and impact when rating it?

A:  Not at all.  Space Invaders is arguably the most impactful video game in history and I trashed it in my review.  My reviews are a reflection of my experience with a game, intended to give modern gamers an idea of what it's like to play it.  Most of the games to which I devote full reviews were important in video game history and would receive high ratings on impact alone, so it seems redundant to also weigh such factors in my rating.  

I will certainly discuss historical impact and influence in the text of my blog entries, including in the reviews, so if that's your main interest, there will be plenty to see here.  It just doesn't factor into the number at the top.

Q: Your review is unfair to the people who made [insert game here].  This was a major achievement to its time, so why are you being a hater?

A:  My reviews are a judgement of the game, not the developers, and that judgement is made from the standpoint of the 21st century.  Mystery House, for example, was a marvelous achievement for its time and I have nothing but respect for its creator, Roberta Williams.  Her imaginative approach to games laid the seeds for an entire genre, but that doesn't mean I recommend Mystery House to casual retrogamers.  Sometimes a game serves us better as an artifact for study than as a diversion.  All classic games fascinate me, but my reviews are intended to distinguish those that are still worth playing for their own sake.


Q: The games you're rating all used primitive technology.  Doesn't that automatically make them worse than the best modern games?

A:  It's certainly true that early game developers were more limited in what they could do, but that doesn't mean they were unable to achieve greatness.   If you wonder at how I could enjoy Atari Adventure or Pac-Man as much, or even more, than any modern game, then I suggest you read my reviews and try spending more time with them.  Simplicity and complexity, when properly arranged, have equal claims to beauty.


Q: But isn't it true that modern game developers have a much better idea of what hooks gamers?  Even the simplest of puzzle apps is more addictive than these classic games.

A: Addictive, yes, but really satisfying and memorable?  Modern game developers have indeed learned a lot about how to appeal to compulsive appetites, exploiting our craving for rewards, status, completeness, accumulation, and much more.  But a game that only appeals to our basest impulses is worse than no game at all because it drains our time and energy, leaving us with nothing to show for it but some flipped bits in the ether.  

If a game is addictive because it stimulates our imagination and expands our mind, forcing us to think in novel ways, that's good.  If, on the other hand, it's addictive because we get continuously rewarded for completing trivial tasks, that's not so good.  Even the best games will make some use of our compulsions to keep us entertained, but it's the reviewer's job to distinguish when that’s done artfully and when it crosses the line into cheap exploitation.  

Q: I love a game that you trashed and hate a game that you praised.  Should I take this lying down?

A:  Absolutely not!  The most beautiful thing about art is the passion it excites in people.  At the end of the day, a reviewer's rating matters less than their ability to communicate that passion to their readers.  If one person says Citizen Kane is a brilliant masterpiece and the other says it's a turgid slog, it may be that both voices have something significant to express about the human experience.  So comment away.  As long as it doesn't get too personal, vulgar, or spammy, I will leave it up.

Comments

  1. I find Space Invaders' graphics beautiful, the sound perfect, and the game much more fun than Galaxian! (In Galaxian, the huge point bonus for shooting diving enemies over those in-phalanx means I’ll only go after divers, rendering the whole "phalanx" part of the game moot. And picking off the divers is strategically one-dimensional.)

    For me, Space Invaders is a legitimately a fun game to play in 2020, nostalgia or not.

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