There has been a significant amount of griping over video game review scores recently. Reviewers seem to be on the defensive to readers, publishers, and developers as they attempt to further justify a number that 1,000+ words apparently could not. Games with review scores less than an 80 average on Metacritic are presumed to be bad (or worse), leading to weaker sales and denied bonuses from publishers to developers. A number—not words, opinions, or viewpoints—has become the sole focal point for a game's quality and the discussion revolving around each game.
It's an unfortunate trend that we've allowed ourselves to fall into, in all facets of the community.
I understand that video game reviews serve different purposes to different people. My notion that reviews serve as a tool to assist with purchasing decisions carries over from the days before the World Wide Web and smartphones, when video game magazines like Electronic Gaming Monthly, Video Games & Computer Entertainment, GamePro, and others were the only way we could get any realistic feedback about an upcoming release. There were obvious purchases, of course, but many other games weren't easy to decide on. By taking a look at a couple of each month's gaming magazines, I was able to devise a budget and decide which games to buy and which games to rent or pass over. If there were the theatrics that we see now—such as blacklisting, firing reviewers due to low scores, review embargoes, and other questionable events—readers like me were oblivious to them because they weren't public.
There were numbers back in those days, of course. Some magazines had shorter reviews (like EGM, for example), and others went with longer pieces. The number was only part of the equation back then. The words meant something. Perhaps this was because there weren't thousands of video game magazines, as compared to the huge number of video game review portals and websites that we see today. We read reviews because that's what we had until the following month.
The landscape is different now. It's all about the number, and the words are secondary. The games themselves are tertiary.
Just in the last couple of days, I've seen content from Jim Sterling, Patrick Garratt, and even gaming comedy act Mega64 about the drama surrounding review scores. While the pieces are all interesting (and even amusing at times), the controversy surrounding review scores is pulling attention away from what are supposed to be the main attraction right now. What about the games? In a span of less than three months that has provided so many quality experiences, we're talking about numbers. It's not completely dominating the discussion, of course, but the fact that the topic is sharing the spotlight at this time of year is disappointing.
Discussions pertaining to how to fix the review process have been ongoing for some time, but we're just spinning our wheels. Dropping review scores is an ideal, but isn't realistic. Reviews without scores attached to them tend to have lower credibility than reviews that do, and publishers actively support review portals with scoring to satisfy various metrics. It's also not feasible at this point to demand a wider scoring scale after months of accepting the 7-10 scale that Metacritic has set forth. Rewriting the review scale would lead to potentially damaging results for publishers, developers, and gaming press alike. We can say all we want that 5.0 or 50 is average, but Metacritic just doesn't see it that way. Arguing that Metacritic has too much power won't change anything either, given the importance that all facets of the industry have allowed the aggregator site to build.
I'm not sure that there's a fix for the numbers game, which is a shame because there are lots of great words being written behind those numbers that are generally being ignored. The words are, at least in theory, what keeps the numbers game from being arbitrary… but if nobody reads them, what's the point of the process? That's arguably the biggest flaw of all, and until we can teach people to slow down and equate those words to the numbers like we did years ago, the controversy will never go away. The numbers will win.