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Video Game Reviews, what are they good for?


This is really a strange topic to write about, mostly because it feels silly that it needs to be written about at all. How a consumer should use a review isn’t complicated. Yet there is some new controversy surrounding reviews every time a big new game releases.

I wrote an article about Video Game Review Scores once already and if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend checking it out. I also have information about how I handle reviews on my FAQ page.

So the elephant in the room is obviously The Last of Us 2, but don’t worry, I’m not talking specifically about the game itself. Thanks to reviews, I haven’t played it!

I got hammered with leaks before release, a lot of which was out of context. I was a big fan of the first game though, so some of those leaks had an impact on me and I chose not to request a review copy of the game. It felt like I would have gone into the review with a bias. (For transparency I’m not guaranteed a copy of any game I request in any case).

Now I do tend to review any game I play, whether I buy it personally or not, whether the game just released or is years old. At that point, however, I was not a game critic, I was a consumer like you.

What does a good money-conscious consumer do? Well, I whistled on over to Open Critic to check out some reviews, and gee jolly willikers the game had a high score. Oh Boy!

Frugality be a cruel mistress indeed though, so unlike many, I did not simply stop at the 94% top critic average, oh no, we must go deeper! Brace yourself, for this next line, is not for the faint of heart, you have been warned. Are you ready?

I. Read. Some. Reviews!

Crazy I know. Interestingly enough, I found some of the following sentiments as I continued this strange phenomenon known as reading the content.

The general comments were that the game is dark, exceptionally violent, and emotionally draining. High scoring reviewers even mentioned that it was uncomfortable to play, others voiced that they would never play it again. I could grab any amount of lines from these reviews and put them out of context next to the score and make some silly remarks about reviewers being hacks. That’s the point in case you missed it, context matters.

I also read about how the gameplay feels tight, the AI is interesting and how the story was incredible for many even if it hurt them. Not just that it was good, but why it was. That even if the game was dark, it was told in masterful ways. I read about the massive amount of detail put into the world and gun animations. Every review justified the score they gave in the end, even if they didn’t win me over.

And, they didn’t. The reviews told me the game wasn’t for me in spite of the praise and scores. Fun fact, I am diagnosed with severe clinical depression and anxiety disorder, and medication has not been effective. On top of that, 2020 hasn’t exactly been kind with natural disasters, the brink of World War 3, a massive pandemic, and nationwide protests.

I don’t like to walk away from an entertainment product that I paid for feeling miserable and misery is the morale of the game’s entire story. It doesn’t matter how high the score is, it’s not for me. If I just looked at the scores and bought the game, I’d have wasted $60.

Yet I am also a gameplay oriented person, the same reviews also told me if I ever have the emotional capacity, it might be worth checking out at some point at the right price. None of which I would have gotten without reading the reviews.

It’s easy to take things out of context though.

“Deliveries are the meat of the game and I could see it becoming a mindless slog.”

“The fact that any little issue can quickly spiral out of control can make it frustrating trying to figure it out by clicking through five ugly menus in the process.”

“If you’re looking to sail the seas in peace, you should look elsewhere.”

All of those quotes are from my own reviews, from my highest scoring section, meaning each of the games scored a 9 or higher. Out of context, things don’t look so hot. Scores are the same way.

A numerical score is more or less a recommendation scale when it boils down to it. A 10 is basically “I give this game my highest recommendation.” That’s completely meaningless without understanding why.

If you asked a friend about a game and they said, “I highly recommend it”, and nothing else. That would be a weird conversation. You would ask for some details, right? Like why do they highly recommend it? Likewise if they said the game was hot garbage, you would ask why.

The fact of the matter is a lot of the controversy surrounding reviews of The Last of Us 2 is from people who simply disagree with the score and never read the reviews at all. If you read them, you may still disagree with them, that’s fine because I do too!

I still disagree with the direction the game took and I honestly feel that what amounts to torture and misery porn is unworthy of my cash. You will at least understand where the reviewer is coming from if you read it, however.

It sounds like the gameplay is great, the game is filled with details and has an excellent voice acting cast. It just happens to be too brutally violent and depressing for my taste. A high score doesn’t mean a game is for everyone. I’m pretty sure those match 3 mobile puzzle games are meant to be for everyone, should they get high scores?

Death Stranding was my game of the year last year, it’s definitely not for everyone. Disco Elysium has the highest praise and I couldn’t give a hoot, I wouldn’t enjoy it. If you go in with the mindset that high score = loved by all and lower scores = unloveable abomination, you are going to be disappointed and you’re misusing the reviews. I really enjoy plenty of games on the lower score spectrum. Heck, I think Metal Gear Survive is pretty rad!

The recommendation concept is also why you should never compare scores to each other, they are different games that do different things with all sorts of variables, including price.

I scored Streets of Rogue a 10 out of 10. Taken at full price the game is only $20 and in addition to being extremely fun, it hits it’s design goals. Which is to be a highly replayable rogue-lite with a heavy emphasis on player choice. I have to dig to find negative things to say about the game and let me assure you, I dug pretty deep.

On the flip side I scored God of War a 9, does that mean that Streets Of Rogue is a better game? Not really. God of War is an entirely different game, the design goals are different, the budget is different and what you pay to play on release, is different. They aren’t really comparable.

God of War is a fantastic game with excellent combat and a stellar story. It also has repetitive reused boss fights, extremely lame puzzles, and backtracking. All of those are things that impacted my enjoyment in some way. Expectation also increases with price.

But what if a game goes on sale? Is the score the same? Absolutely, I don’t need to adjust it because I have faith in your coginitive abilitys. If I highly recomend a game when it’s $60, I obviously recomend it at $20, in fact, you should know that it’s a steal from my perecptive without needing to ask because you have fully functional brain inside your skull. (I hope).

Let’s go back to the friend again, that rascal. let’s call him Jimmy. Hey Jimmy! That game you really love, it’s only $20 should I get it? What would Jimmy say?

So in this crazy age what are reviews good for? If you use them correctly the same thing they have always been good for, helping you make informed purchase decisions. If the rumor of a next-gen price increase turns out to be true, they will be even more important.

So stop being little industry doomers. Find a couple of reviewers you like and learn who they are, what they are into, and how they feel about games. Actually, read what they write. It doesn’t have to be me, I have specific tastes and there are far better writers than I.

The reality is, to some degree reviewers also put faith in your ability to apply common sense and reason when you are consuming our content. Pay the same respect to us and give us the benefit of a doubt. Video games are inherently subjective. The truth is The Last of Us 2 is probably a great game that I am simply too weak to enjoy. That doesn’t mean all other critics were wrong. We all have our reasons. That is perfectly okay.

Feel free to check out my Kofi page if you like the cut of my jib! Or just share my stuff around, that helps too and it’s free.