Is it time for videogame reviews to drop scores?

Let's look at this picture, and realise that it says more about dishonest scores than any amount of words would.


I raise this question (which is not a new one) here and now in response to the reaction – from some quarters – to Ian’s piece on L.A. Noire published last week. It was an unfavourable yet entirely honest review. Though he received some support for his observations, they were deeply unpopular with a vocal minority. Interestingly, none of his critics denied the existence of any of the flaws he highlighted in this review, instead resorting to personal insults – and quoting scores that Critical Gamer have awarded in the past to completely different games.

The argument put forward by waving numbers around in this way is that we at CG aren’t prepared to give a game a chance if it isn’t an action FPS. At a brief glance, this seems to hold water; until you remember that a) virtually all the sites which scored L.A. Noire highly also scored, say, Modern Warfare 2 highly (usually higher); and b) we gave Heavy Rain a positive review and a score of 8/10. Incidentally, we also scored Super Mario Galaxy 2 and LittleBigPlanet 2 10/10 each. I’m not here to defend our site against people with the IQ of a fresh cucumber, however. I want to ask: Should we still be using scores in videogame reviews?

"lmao u r epic fail lol"

We’re not the first website or magazine to suffer under score comparisons in this way, nor shall we be the last. If there were no scores to be compared, this problem would (in theory) disappear instantly. Rather than snatch a look at what number appears at the bottom of each review, people would be forced to – shock, horror – read the words to find out exactly what the reviewer did and did not like about each title. Of course, we know that all of our lovely regular readers do this, but we also know that a certain type of person does not.

Much as I’d enjoy watching people try to discredit a review by comparing similies, metaphors and superlatives in the comments section, the chances of that happening are slim. With no big bright numbers to cling on to, those who would ordinarily try to dent one review by hitting it with another would be much less likely to do so. It would require a lot more effort on their part, for one thing. Dropping scores in order to raise a firewall against childish, illogical criticism is tempting – but not sufficient justification.

Could the death of scores improve the author’s writing, and even the reader’s reading? As hinted at in the previous paragraph, taking scores out of the equation would drop 100% of the focus onto the writing. On the reader’s side, this would remove the option of jumping straight to the score at the end. It would encourage at least some of those who ordinarily skim the text at best to pay more attention to what is written, and therefore better understand how much the reviewer does or does not like the game, and why.

The potential benefits and drawbacks for reviewers vary, depending on how polished their writing already is. The lack of a scoring system would, in a way, mean less work and worry. The whole question of how you should decide which number is appropriate would vanish in a puff of relief. On top of that, the reviewer would be forced to consider each review in isolation just as much as their audience. For some people, this would result in a noticeable improvement in their writing. It seems that not everybody who thinks they can review in this industry realises that the question should not be ‘How does Game X compare to titles awarded score Y?’, but simply ‘Is Game X any good?’.

Some writers are just in it feather money.

Scores could also be seen as a safety net for less capable writers, and taking them away could in some cases be a good thing. No longer would there be the ability to think ‘I’ll bash out a quick review, it’ll be obvious from the number at the bottom what I think of it’. After all, if your audience has no idea how much you enjoyed playing a game without a number, you’ve failed as a reviewer.

That said, the inclusion of such pitfalls will improve writing more than removing them. A good writer is well aware of such potential failures, and works hard to avoid them. Push traps such as this out of an author’s way, and you come full circle by encouraging lazy writing; just in a different way. A score also works as a nice piece of punctuation to what has just been said. Not to override what has been written, but to support it.

Careful scoring can also help hammer home the point that there are not simply good games and bad games; there are very good games, very bad games, average games, poor games, mildly amusing games, and so on and so forth. Let’s take our scoring system here at CG as an example; 1-10, where 1 is the minimum score and 10 is the maximum score. No decimal points or half marks.

Yes, the numbers 7, 8, and 9 are lovely to look at – but there are seven other numbers to use. And while we’re on the subject I’d like to remind everybody that 7 is not a bad score. It’s a good score. Even 6 isn’t a bad score. You probably wouldn’t want to pay full price for a game that scores just 6 (I know I wouldn’t), but it may well be worth renting, borrowing, or rescuing from the bargain bins in the future. Why isn’t 6 a terrible score? Because it’s higher than 5. 5 is smack bang in the middle, meaning average. Not particularly good, not particularly bad – average. Okay. So-so.

"I don't want to embarrass you darlin', but you're holding the book the wrong way up."

The fact that numbers exist at both ends of the scale means that it’s perfectly acceptable to use them. We’ve never scored a game lower than 3, and I hope to the god of your choice that none of us ever has to play a game so bad it deserves a score of 1; but we have handed out a few 10s. Because those games were perfect? No. The perfect game does not exist, and it never will. But if you say only a literally perfect game deserves a score of 10, why on earth have that score available at all? It’s like buying a flashy suit and keeping it in the cupboard for years in immaculate condition, swearing you’ll never use it.

“Take the suit out Dave!”

“The suit? The suit? No way! It’s too good to wear! It’s for a special occasion.”

“But you’re getting married today! Isn’t that special enough?”

“Well yeah, I’m getting married; but I’m not getting married to the queen of the universe in The Land of Everlasting Joy, am I? So it’s not that special.”

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

One comment

  1. Stephen K /

    You bring up some very good points, many of which I’ve mulled over in the past. Numbered scores certainly have their place, of course, and can be a handy indicator for someone browsing for notable games or checking up on general information. If a game gets a 3, for example, there’s a good chance it’s not worth investigating in the first place.

    But still, scores can be a damaging crutch. I think a large part of the problem is the perspective on what counts as a “good” score. I know that I’ve been trained, for better or worse, to stay away from something scoring 5 or under; even 6 is dicey. But why have half the scale dedicated to games that don’t deserve any attention?

    Like you said, 5 is a middle-of-the-road average score, and I think that’s the way it should be. The trick is getting everyone on the same page.

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