Being the most fruitful contributor to RPGamer’s Points of View section, it’s only fitting that I write an editorial expressing my views on RPG and game reviewing as a whole, given the number of consistent problems I see with RPGs and reviews. I’ll admit that when I first began, I certainly wasn’t the best reviewer, although as my contributions increased, my writing style matured, ultimately to the point where I feel comfortable using my real name. Given the weakness of my earlier reviews, I have engaged in a relentless crusade to replay various RPGs to perfect my opinion on them, something I feel other reviewers should do if they feel the same.
Certainly, what reviewers actually say about games is more important than the scores themselves, although in score-based reviewing, scores do play a fundamental role in writing style, given the need for what writers actually say about games and their various aspects to match up with the scores they give to each category. Various review scales exist, such as traditional 1/10 scales, 1/5 scales, and 1/100 scales, although great inconsistency sometimes exists among them, accounting for skewed review scores at times. A traditional 1/10 scale, according to Reverend Anthony of Destructoid (with some modifications by Yours Truly), goes as thus:
1 - Has absolutely no redeeming aspects, and could not be any worse.
2 - The idea was kind of good, and fun may be accidental, but everything else is horrendous.
3 - Most aspects are awful, but others are average or slightly enjoyable.
4 - A good effort, but mediocre at best, and slightly below average.
5 - Fun half of the time, not fun the other half. Neither good nor bad.
6 - Decent, but not recommended to most gamers.
7 - Fun, but the game has large flaws that prevent it from being as good as it could’ve been.
8 - Very fun, but game’s mechanisms mightn’t be implemented in the best way.
9 - Has some small flaws, but is very, very good.
10 - Absolutely perfect, and could not be any better.
Yet more often than not, the curse of school grading prevails, and the 1/10 scale is more like this:
10 - Excellent, maybe has some small flaws that will annoy a few gamers.
9 - Very good, most will like it.
8 - Could be good, but many won’t like it.
7 – Average, half will like it, half won’t.
6 – Bad, most won’t like it.
5 to 1 – Awful, almost no one will like it.
For some sites, like RPGFan, the review scale is actually like this, and given the skewed, often inconsistent nature of scoring when it comes to mainstream game reviews, games end up more favorably reviewed than any other form of art like movies, and thus, even bad games end up getting average to decent scores. For instance, on Game Rankings, Beyond the Beyond, widely considered by many a low point of RPGs, has a generous average review score of 44.4%. Moreover, no RPGs at all are in Game Ranking’s “All-Time Worst 20” list, despite two and a half decades of games in the genre. Is it remotely possible that during that lengthy intervention, absolutely no RPGs were *that* bad? Absolutely not.
Why the inflated scores?
There are several reasons and theories for this:
#1: Money - Most “official” reviews from mainstream gaming sites like GameSpot and IGN tend to suffer from the problem of inflated review scores, and given that these sites and their reviews are “brought to you by” the hottest new gaming titles and their companies, one can only ascertain that the sponsorship money has something to do with inflated review scores. Sadly, sites like Wikipedia consider these reviews to be “reliable” sources and their writers to be “experts,” despite the inconvenient truth that money can corrupt and sway opinion.
#2: Reviewers are cowards - Sometimes, reviewers are afraid to give games the scores they truly deserve, sometimes because they’re afraid of community backlash by rabid fans of said games that pay far more attention to scores than the reviews themselves. Furthermore, reviewers might be afraid of giving lower scores because their job depends upon it, and that their superiors and the companies that sponsor them will take offense, as seemed to be the case with Jeff Gerstmann, supposedly fired for his “negative” review of Kane & Lynch.
#3: Games can be greater than the sum of their parts - Sometimes, even when reviewers give only slightly-above average scores to each individual aspect of games, they still give a much higher overall score to the game. This reviewer totally rejects the theory that games can somehow be greater than the sum of their parts because he believes that it’s a potential reason behind inflated review scores. However, he does believe that games can actually be *less* than the sum of their parts, especially if one ruinous aspect, like the gameplay, adversely affects the game in spite of other redeeming qualities.
#4: Solid presentation can compensate for lousy gameplay - Most mainstream gamers play video games for the gameplay, although things like the story are essential to RPGs, and thus, a niche audience has developed that plays games for their plots. However, this reviewer believes that more people read Playboy for the articles than play games, including RPGs, for their stories, and that things like a great story, music, and graphics can’t compensate for weak gameplay. Granted, they can *partially* redeem the game, although this reviewer typically makes it a point not to give games a higher score than what he rates the battle system/gameplay, always a central aspect to RPGs.
#5: Most RPGs *are* above average - On Game Rankings, RPGs that have an average score of lower than 50% or 60% are about as rare as giant pandas. Most of the titles in that percent range tend to not be fun at all and have very few redeeming aspects, even though theoretically, 50% would mean the game is fun half of the time and not fun the other half. It is ludicrous to assume that all RPGs are above average, since there are many horrendous titles out there that sadly get overrated by the mainstream gaming press.
The Reviews Themselves
This reviewer’s school of thought is that game reviewing is a public service intended to give gamers a fair picture of what to expect when playing games. Therefore, it is almost always a good idea to give some sort of decent explanation about the actual gameplay mechanisms. What kind of battle system does the game have? What’s good about it, and what’s bad about it? What about the gameplay outside of battle? Are there minigames, an overworld where characters magically enlarge to get from place to place, and so forth? Are the controls tight, or are they annoying? Is a guide necessary to play the game? What kind of visual style does the game have and what kind of soundtrack? Give some concrete details on each part of the game.
When each aspect of a game is scored, it is always a necessity for the review text of each part to actually justify the scores. If a reviewer doesn’t give a perfect score to a certain aspect, then obviously something is wrong with it. Thus, it’s a good idea to explain exactly what’s wrong with a particular aspect, and how it could have been improved. Is turn order in battle random or unpredictable? Can field movement not be undone? Is there no warp magic or a pause button? Are save points infrequent? Is there graphical slowdown? Is the music or voice acting annoying? It’s always a good idea to give readers some idea on the good and bad things about each of a game’s aspect instead of outright whining about them or adulating them.
Sadly, especially in most mainstream game reviews, deep technical flaws are often underplayed, and trivial flaws sometimes exaggerated. The lack of any real helpful explanation about the actual flaws of gameplay, sometimes the gameplay itself, in this reviewer’s opinion renders many mainstream game reviews useless. Sometimes, moreover, reviewers tend to not get their facts straight, for instance, saying that a game is based on Chinese mythology when really based on Japanese mythology, saying that there are no magical elements when there *are* magical elements, and so forth. It’s always a good idea to do some research before writing a review to confirm certain aspects of a game.
There are also many titles that some will enjoy, and others will not, and enjoyment tends to depend upon how well the player grasps a game’s mechanics. If a reviewer really enjoys a game, it might actually be a good idea to give a potential buyer actual gameplay hints and tips to help them enjoy it as much as the reviewer did. Are there some helpful tricks that a player can easily overlook that could help get them through the game? Is there a “right” way to play the game and a “wrong” way to play it? Sometimes, rebutting criticism might be a good idea (or praise, if an over-venerated game actually isn’t that good), and decently justifying said rebuttal, as well.
Games should be reviewed harshly, like any other form of art, but fairly, as well. If a game is positively reviewed, the reviewer should refrain from relentlessly gushing over the game, and point out the things, even if minor, it does wrong, in addition to what it does right. If a game is negatively reviewed, moreover, the reviewer should refrain from libeling and destructively criticizing the game, but rather constructively criticize it and civilly indicate its shortcomings (although a little humor still wouldn’t hurt), and how the game could have been better, which is part of being “fair.” Don’t exaggerate trivial flaws, and don’t underplay serious ones. Remember, what a reviewer says about games can say far more about the reviewer than the games.
Following basic rules of composition wouldn’t kill, either, and maybe having taken some classes in English could be a decent asset for reviewing. Avoid using redundant terms like “added bonus,” “end result,” and “bits and pieces.” Ensure that sentences make actual sense and are grammatically correct. Proof the review, perhaps by reading it backwards, a technique this reviewer learned can actually pick up errors better than reading it naturally from beginning to end. Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to explain deep gameplay mechanisms clearly or in plain English, and this reviewer certainly isn’t perfect in this respect. However, game reviews should still be taken seriously like any other form of writing.
RPGamer’s Review System
RPGamer formerly had a 1/10 review scale before moving to a 1/5 scale on account of the curse of school prevailing in the former scale, with five different scores, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, initially available. However, since there was and still is sufficient enough difference in the quality of RPGs to justify more specific scores, RPGamer ultimately allowed for overall scores of 1.5, 2.5, 3.5, and 4.5, yet kept whole number scoring for the specific elements of RPGs. This reviewer believes that there is sufficient enough difference in the specific elements of RPGs, in addition to RPGs as a whole, to justify the more specific scores for the various categories of RPGs, including the Battle System, Interaction, Originality, Story, Music/Sound, and Visuals.
Speaking of these categories, this reviewer also believes that the Originality category is completely unnecessary, and should be abolished, for several reasons. First, no reviewer (yes, including myself) has played every RPG in existence, and thus, they cannot fully gauge creativity and make extensive comparisons to previous titles in the genre, sometimes even series, if they haven’t played all previous installments. Second, the category is unfair in many instances, such as remakes and ports, which are in essence “unoriginal,” and series that tend to reuse the same basic mechanisms, such as Fire Emblem, Pokémon, and the Tales franchise.
Third, “unoriginal” doesn’t always mean “bad,” and “original” doesn’t always mean “good.” For instance, RPGs can borrow *good* elements from other games and be very enjoyable and thus deserving of a high score, but conversely, RPGs can be innovative yet unplayable and thus deserving of a low score. Finally, many other things outside of games could be considered “unoriginal,” such as many spoken languages, certain religions, mythologically-rooted fantasy novels, movies based on books, and so forth. Most mainstream gaming sites, regardless of the quality of their reviews, don’t gauge game creativity, anyway, so RPGamer should follow suit.
All in all, since gaming is an expensive hobby, it is imperative that gamers know which titles they absolutely must play, which they should avoid, and which they should maybe rent first. As this reviewer mentioned, game reviews are in essence a public service, and thus, they must be reliable, informative sources for games old and new. Things like money, cowardice, and even a reviewer’s personal slant can skew scores and opinion, and as long as those things exist, mainstream game reviews likely won’t improve, and if reviewers continue to downplay deep flaws in games, developers will continue to repeat them. Thus, it is largely up to gamers themselves to separate good reviews from bad reviews, and good reviewers from bad reviewers, maybe become reviewers themselves.
“Beyond the Beyond Reviews.” Game Rankings. Accessed 31 August 2008. http://www.gamerankings.com/htmlpages2/196754.asp?q=beyond%20the%20beyond
“Game Rakings – Best and Worst.” Game Rankings. Accessed 31 August 2008 http://www.gamerankings.com/itemrankings/bestworst.asp
“Jeff Gerstmann.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Accessed 3 September 2008 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeff_Gerstmann
Reverend Anthony. “Why video game reviews suck: part one.” 12 March 2007. Destructoid. Accessed 31 August 2008 http://www.destructoid.com/why-video-game-reviews-suck-part-one-30369.phtml
Reverend Anthony. “Why video game reviews suck: part two.” 14 March 2007. Destructoid. Accessed 31 August 2008 http://www.destructoid.com/why-video-game-reviews-suck-part-two-30412.phtml