What's wrong with an 8.8? You can round that up to 9!

Put a Score on It

Patrick Klepek & Rob Zacny

Rob and Patrick have been writing about video games for a long time—too long, arguably. They've also reviewed a lot of video games. Over the years, review scores come in and out of style, and approached in myriad ways. Remember the old GamePro review system, which became increasingly frenzied, the more a reviewer was into a game? We used to be a proper society, folks!

Waypoint never had review scores, and neither does Remap. Maybe we should? Five stars? 10 stars? Rated on a scale from Dark Souls to Dragon's Dogma?

Rob's had reviews on the brain lately, which got the two of them looking back at how they've approached criticism, review scores, and everything else that goes into the process of crafting a piece of writing that's often reduced to a number.

The reality is of reviewing a game is, naturally, a little more complicated.

Rob: Patrick, I have a confession to make: I think review scores are good, actually. I miss assigning them.

I worked as a freelance critic for ages and I hear all the arguments about how a score reduces the nuance and texture of a critical piece to a crude approximation, how it encourages a negative way of engaging with the critical process, etc. Those are all valid points but I'd respond to them by saying that scores are fun. That I liked having an at-a-glance encapsulation of how a game was reviewed. A score forces a critic to give their most direct answer to the crudest but most common question people ask about a game: “Is this good?”

I used to read a ton of reviews. I'd go to Metacritic to see how a game was broadly received, and click out to the reviews that caught my eye or the outlets that I tended to trust the most. During a Steam sale I might read dozens of reviews of different games, all vying for the honor of being purchased at a heavy discount and promptly ignored for years on end. For a lot of games, my experience of them would be those reviews, the collected and various impressions they made on the writers assigned to them. But the score was the thumbnail that drew me toward the whole picture.

By the time I was established as a writer, there was increasing concern that review scores weren't just silly and reductive but actively harmful, facilitating the worst tendencies of fan culture and giving cudgels to publishing execs that they could wield against studios. A lot of outlets got away from the practice of assigning scores at all, for those and other good reasons, and we followed suit at Waypoint.

As a critic I'll admit I was relieved by the shift at the time. I certainly didn't want to think the review I was writing was actually going to affect someone's livelihood, and I didn't want Metacritic averages and publisher bonuses lurking in the back of my mind as I debated between a 6 or a 7. It was actively scarring the very few times developers got in my mentions to complain about a review and then got their fans fired up to complain about me

But at the risk of further implicating myself, I am absolutely certain the result of an increasing number of outlets moving away from review scores was that I read fewer reviews. Doubtless, the fact that tons of outlets closed and the remainder started getting much choosier about which games they would review at all did not help the situation, but either way I started to notice that when I went to check how a game was reviewed, suddenly there weren't many entries showing up on Metacritic. I’d have remember to do a separate search for what Eurogamer was saying, or RPS, but a lot of other places that didn't run review scores just dropped off my radar.

A screen shot from the video game Kane & Lynch.
6.0? Some people would kill to get a 6.0 on a test.

In hindsight, I also kind of feel like a lot of scores discourse was driven by a desire to prevent bad actors from doing the things that bad actors always find a way to do. It's not like the video game publishers lost the means to punish studios and fire workers when they stopped using Metacritic scores as a performance indicator. The toxic fandoms that weaponized review scores to wage online vendettas have proven beyond all doubt that they will find a way to be toxic regardless of what people like us decide to do.

In the meantime, I'm not sure I love what has filled the void. I’ve certainly noticed that on our own show, we refer to Steam user ratings as our litmus test for how a game is doing. Partly to fill in gaps about sales data, but not entirely. Sometimes I think that review score discourse mostly succeeded in decoupling game criticism from what made it useful to its audience: informing people about a game’s character and assist people in making decisions about how they spend their time and money. I don’t think Eurogamer’s reviews got better when they ditched scores, and I don’t think they lost anything when they went back to them.

Or is this just how my reactionary turn begins and in a few weeks I'll be sanctimoniously declaring my allegiance and solidarity with The Consumer?

Patrick: Is this where I confess that when I’m reading a review, even from a critic I admire, I scroll to the bottom to figure out where they landed on a thing, and then work backwards? In some sense, that’s just me using a concluding paragraph to arrive at a soft review score, or at least tone, before I really dig in.

Library, Zeal or Foundation tier

Sign up for Library, Zeal or Foundation tier or above to access "Put a Score on It". You'll also get access to the full back catalog of that tier's content.

Sign up now Already have an account? Sign in
Success! Your email is updated.
Your link has expired
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.