You’re never going to believe it but, recently, there’s been a bit of drama on the internet. I know, I know, none were as shocked as I. The culprit? The recent Mad Max game, or rather, critical reaction to the game which has, in spite of a decent 70 rating on Metacritic, proved to be less unanimously favourable than perhaps some expected. I’ll add here that I’ve not played Mad Max (it’s a new AAA release and I’ve therefore been priced out) but have looked at the surrounding furor with a mixture of confusion and trepidation as a fledgling games reviewer myself.
In the face of negative criticism, everyone who liked the game recognised that all reviews are opinions and were therefore able to carry on with their lives. And in a system of parallel universes, where an infinite number of timelines run concurrently, somewhere or somewhen, that previous sentence might be true. In our silly little timeline, however, people were unspeakably angry.
It started with Polygon who, after citing a few narrative misgivings alongside general gameplay mediocrity, gave Mad Max a five out of ten rating. Jim Sterling also reviewed the game, saying “it’s not like Mad Max is supremely bad, it’s just numbing in how damn boring it is,” and giving it a four out of ten. These in turn led to furious comment debates. People were completely unwilling to accept that Mad Max would be considered as mediocre by anyone, with no comprehension of the idea that a person could have an opinion that doesn’t exactly correlate with their own. Oh, and obviously there was the usual stuff about those damn SJWs at Polygon having the temerity to discuss their disappointment with the game’s female characters – because if there’s anything we want to discourage in games journalism, it’s worthwhile and thoughtful discussion.
The point I want to pick up on, however, is the one made by Tycho in a blog published on Penny Arcade, in which they write: “I don’t entirely know what purpose it serves giving Mad Max a 5, but I don’t believe it’s correlated in any way with the product,” and, “I could quit the game tomorrow and it wouldn’t be anything akin to a 5.” Here lies the issue and, thankfully seeing as I’m already well into the fourth paragraph of this piece, the entire crux of this article. Why do we have numerical scores on reviews, and what issues do they bring about?
Well, I’ll start off by saying that review scores aren’t inherently bad. I can’t count the number of times I’ve skipped straight to the score to gauge the general opinion of the review. I mean, we’re all busy people here, we need to get right to the meat of the review so we can go out and purchase the next game that we’re going to sink upwards of fifty hours in. The issue, I think, lies in what is perceived as subjective and objective – like that Penny Arcade quote which asserts that Mad Max isn’t ‘anything akin to a 5’. This kind of “your opinion is objectively wrong” nonsense is made possible entirely via that number which kind of begs the question as to whether it’s really worth it.
Let’s not put all the blame on numbers, though, because they are an abstract concept and not sentient beings onto which blame can be attributed. The problem, I think, lies partly in people being overly defensive about products they had no hand in making, but also partly in the tendency we have to aggregate all of these disparate scores. Take Metacritic, for example, a site devoted to finding scores for a game from all across the web and shoving them together to get one supposedly definitive rating. There are a few problems with this, leaving aside the issues of converting myriad grading systems to a standardised percentage scale. It’s a brute force method used here, in which the numbers are taken without the context and are amalgamated to pump out one final value which, terrifyingly, tells us whether a game is worthwhile. This has had real world implications, with publishers using Metacritic scores to hand out rewards or punishments to development teams – Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas, which just missed the target review score, lost the team a one million dollar bonus.
I’ll not linger on the problematic nature of Metacritic, though, as that’s well-trod territory. The salient point is that review scores have taken on a whole importance completely independent of the bulk of words that precedes them. Of course this puts the onus on the reviewer to use scores fairly, but we need to keep a level head when reading reviews and looking at scores, and remember that everyone (even games journalists) are human. When it comes to reviewing games, one person’s mediocre 5 may be another person’s genre-defining 10. Numbers or not, we will form distinct opinions and that’s the way the reviewing scene should work. Imagine if a game were released to unanimous, deafening praise? It’d have the medicinal whiff of Mountain Dew-based corporate review fiddling all over it.
Read reviews, play games, and sometimes disagree profoundly with what you previously read. Have that debate, defend the aspects of games you liked, but let’s not get caught up in the ridiculous monotony of screaming back and forth endlessly about what number should have been slapped at the end.