As a game reviewer, I'm finding it increasingly frustrating to browse forums on virtually any game-centric site only to find that not only are my kind criticized without remorse, but many of the more aggressive dissenters take to insulting the profession as a whole, claiming that game journalism is a joke or that the entire game review model is inherently flawed and therefore has no credibility. I don't really take offense to this, as gamers tend to be more tech savvy and in my experience that seems to lead to more anger (play Call of Duty on Xbox Live to see what I mean), but as someone who has spent many years studying film, television, music, and more recently videogames, I've observed something that is sure to trigger a knee-jerk response from most:
Game reviews are fairer and more credible than any other form of criticism I've ever seen, especially film reviews.
After seeing some of the more heated debates on the matter, I'm quite sure most of you will wholeheartedly disagree with me, but allow me to elaborate on why I feel this way. In college, my major was communications and broadcast technology, so I kept up with movie releases; I browse RottenTomatoes and Metacritic regularly to see how movies, games, music and TV shows are received, and I'm especially fond of keeping up with the Academy Awards and other film or TV awards shows because they showcase excellence in their respective media. Much as I love to cite a movie's RottenTomato score, I can't help but feel that when it comes to passive entertainment review, reviewers just don't get it, or are quick to dismiss an entire product because one key aspect is lacking, even if the rest of the piece is expertly crafted.
For the purposes of this article, I will be comparing videogame and film criticism to explain why I feel that game reviews are objectively more credible and worth reading than movie reviews have been for decades. There are a few key differences between the forms of media that make reviewing them very different affairs. Videogames are interactive entertainment, whereas film is passive; videogames can focus on many aspects of design from visuals to gameplay, whereas film tends to focus heavily on its narrative; videogames are a relatively new form of media, but film has been around for more than a century. All of these factors play a huge role in their respective reviews, and explain why when it comes to review scores, even the most popular movies can easily get what is considered 'bad' reviews and still make a ton of money, but if a game gets bad reviews, it's virtually doomed to failure, and that's why popular games almost always get 7s or higher.
Since videogames are interactive, it completely changes the way they are enjoyed and subsequently reviewed compared to movies. Since movies almost entirely focus on narrative and all the other aspects of the film are just means to an end, a movie with unlikeable characters or a poorly written plot can be deemed poor and worthy of a 2/10 score even if the film is well made. Can you think back to a time you were reading a movie review and saw the author write “Man, Grown-Ups was such a juvenile film and the story was paper thin, but the cinematography was spot on and the set design evoked a wonderful feeling of nostalgia!”? Probably not. What about Transformers? Those movies are universally considered bad even though the three of them received a total of 7 academy award nominations, so in their respective years, they were considered one of the best in visual effects, sound design, and sound editing, yet almost no reviews factored that into their scores. The Pirates of the Caribbean sequels had some of the best production values and best art direction I've ever seen, and they did win academy awards, yet they are torn to pieces thanks to their silliness and confusing plots.
With games, you can't do this; game reviewers have a lot more to consider when writing their reviews, and ignoring any aspect of a game is generally a bad idea. Different games tend to focus on different elements, and for that reason it's hard to easily dismiss a game because it's lacking in one category; even when it fails in one place, it's still likely to succeed in others. When playing and reviewing games, you have to factor in story, characters, gameplay mechanics, controls, graphics, audio, value, innovation, and many other things into your score. The Super Mario series has almost always had poor, repetitive, unoriginal stories, but that's okay because those games have always been about gameplay and level design, and you can still have a blast playing a game even when the plot is no deeper than saving a princess. Heavy Rain may have had clunky controls and unnerving animations, but it's forgiven these faults because it was relatively original and had a fantastic story. This is precisely why games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim can be universally praised in spite of having more glitches and bugs than any one game should ever have. In spite of that one major flaw, it did so many things right that this flaw can be virtually ignored. If any other, lesser game had that many glitches, it would have been blacklisted from the public eye and it never would have made a dime.
For a game to get a low score - perhaps 5 or under - it has to fail in practically all categories and have next to nothing in the way of redeeming factors. The sad fact of this is that major game releases just don't fail in that respect. If they did, they wouldn't be major releases, they'd be shovelware. Because of the fact that games are interactive and they all focus on whichever aspect of design they choose to, it's hard to justify a negative score by targeting its flaws, because there's always someone out there who feels a game is 'about' something different. This is why game reviewers are expected to objectively weigh all aspects of a game in a review rather than focusing on one element and judging it based on that, even if that one element is the primary focus; at least that's how we do it here at gamrReview.
One of the biggest complaints and criticisms of game review is that reviewers supposedly don't use the entire spectrum when reviewing games, and that anything less than a 7 isn't worth playing. Well, that's not entirely true, but when it is there's a good reason for that: a bad movie can be watched and forgotten in a matter of hours, but games require a lot more dedication, time, and money thanks to the fact that even the shortest games take a half dozen hours to complete and they require player input. Games are a much larger financial and emotional investment, so gamers should be pickier with what they pay for. Why would someone want to 'suffer' through a 6/10 game when there are better alternatives for the same price? A 6 isn't a bad score, it's still positive, in fact gamrReview dictates that 6's are 'decent', but when games are as expensive as they are, it makes no sense to get the mediocre or decent game when you could be spending money on an 8 or 9/10. If games were cheaper, then mediocre games could get away with it, which is something we're seeing a lot of with the rise of iOS and Android gaming; one-five dollar games that cost less than a coffee and therefore have next to no emotional or financial investment.
Perhaps the most interesting difference between movie and game reviews is that game critics/reviewers actually tend to be closer to their audience than film critics. How often have you seen old, disenfranchised film critics reviewing stuff that's strictly for kids, or giving poor scores to situational movies such as horrors that are clearly not their cup of tea. Gaming is still a relatively new hobby, so even the older game reviewers are still comfortably within the 18-34 year age demographic, and a game review site tends to hire or enlist the help of people who spread their tastes amongst all genres; it would be silly to make someone who only plays RPG's play a racing or sports game, yet we see that in film review all the time. It's not uncommon for a movie reviewer to have absolutely no interest in the movie he's reviewing but still have to put their head in the mindset of the intended audience, and it often backfires and in the end the film's review scores are completely out of touch with the intended audience. Adam Sandler movies regularly get poor or flat out atrocious reviews, yet almost every one of his comedies has been a blockbuster.
Game review and movie review are two fundamentally different arts, each with their own set of rules and expectations. While it'd be nice to adjust all game review scores to fit on a sine curve with a five as the average, right now the medium operates on a more traditional grading scale that factors in all of a game's successes and failures. While each genre and subgenre has its own balances and checks to weigh different categories, it's hard to focus on one aspect or feature and judge an entire product based on that. This is why most popular games tend to hover between 7-10, and it's generally seen that 6's and lower aren't worth playing; given the emotional and financial investment required to play a AAA game release, why settle for less? Sure, there are certainly games that buck the trend and have that one outstanding feature that make it worth a look, but this rarely happens in the AAA world. If a game isn't the total package, it's likely to be dismissed in lieu of better, more functional titles. The games that utilize the 0-5 scale are called shovelware, and they can be found in your local bargain bin; only parents who don't know any better actually buy them.