Things I Say A Lot When Reviewing Games

5-star or 10-point rating systems for video games are, I think, rightly despised as a review metric, redeemed only accidentally by the existence of Metacritic. While an obsession with Metacritic review scores is unhealthy, Rotten Tomatoes-style averaging of both critic and audience opinion is useful data. The practice of review point scales predates Metacritic by a lot, though, reaching back to the days of magazines and the early internet when this kind of mass data collection to observe general trends wasn’t on anyone’s radar.

Ever since May-ish of this year, I’ve reorganized my games list in such a way as to encourage myself to play more new games to completion, rather than picking at them for an hour or two before falling back on replaying something comfortable, which happens a lot because I’m usually picking a video game to play when I’m tired and picking a new game from a backlog of nearly 200 seems daunting. I started using the blog again as a place to dump my thoughts on these video games, because it turns out once I’m playing new games I actually have new things to say about video games for the first time in a while. Imagine that. And as I’ve spent a few months playing lots of new games, I find myself gravitating towards a few familiar phrases. It’s kind of like a rating system, except without the claim that all games are to be judged on a linear scale of badness to goodness. Indeed, one of the most common ratings I give is “recommended to anyone who thinks the premise sounds cool.”

This ad-hoc, organic rating system is probably not cutting to the core of the human experience of interactive media or anything, but I’m confident it is better than the standard numerical system. Numerical rating systems might’ve made sense as a first try at giving a bottom line on the quality of a video game, but I don’t think it’s hard to improve on that first try.

Play This Video Game. I stress again that these categories aren’t a linear spectrum from best to worst, because we are starting with the category that is “games which are really good” and will be ending with a category that is kind of like “games which are really bad,” and it’s mainly in the middle categories where one category is clearly not better than another. This category, though, is for video games that I recommend to absolutely all gamers, even if I know nothing about them except that they like video games. If the basic concept of a Metroidvania where you play an adorable bug exploring a fallen kingdom full of secrets and lost treasure doesn’t immediately repulse and enrage you, you should play Hollow Knight. Bastion is another game I would put in this category, and Transistor is borderline between this category and “Interesting Enough To Justify Its Playtime.” I haven’t played Hades yet, but given Supergiant Games’ track record, I expect it would also end up here. Games in this category look good, sound good, play good, and don’t overstay their welcome – they’re paragons of their respective genre so good that even people who are usually ambivalent about that genre will probably enjoy the experience.

Janky/Flawed, But It Delivers. If the first category is exemplified by Hollow Knight and XCOM, this one is exemplified by STALKER (for janky) and Assassin’s Creed II, IV, and Syndicate (for flawed). As you can tell from the exemplars, this is really two very similar but still clearly distinct categories. Assassin’s Creed games are safe and same-y but very good representations of their chosen historical eras. If you want historical tourism, Assassin’s Creed delivers, often for eras where there is no competition. Janky games like STALKER and Necromunda: Hired Gun have rough edges resulting from small or medium size teams trying to bring big ambitions to life, but they successfully deliver their core experience of being an illegal scavenger looking for psychic artifacts in the Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion and being a cyborg bounty hunter in the underhive of Warhammer 40k’s Necromunda, respectively. I recommend these games to people who like the idea of the premise, because for those people, the jank/flaws don’t matter as long as it delivers.

Interesting Enough To Justify Its Playtime. The best exemplar of this category is definitely Papers, Please, but the significantly less good Mind Scanners, Not For Broadcast, and Fortune 499 also qualify, so remember that these categories aren’t intended to be a linear scale from best to worst. This category is defined by two things: Being interesting, and being short enough that the interesting thing doesn’t wear out its welcome. That doesn’t necessarily mean these games are short, because maybe the interesting thing is so engaging that it holds my attention for twenty hours, but I can’t think of any games that actually pulled that off from the top of my head. Papers, Please only lasts for about three to five hours, but I went back for second and third playthroughs, so it was much more interesting than it needed to be to justify its playtime. Not For Broadcast and Mind Scanners were starting to test my patience a bit by the time they got to the end, and it was mostly because I could tell I was approaching the end that I carried them through to completion, so it’s a good thing they weren’t any longer than they were and they probably would’ve benefited from being slightly shorter.

Good But Not The Best. One of the defining traits of the Janky/Flawed But It Delivers category is that, despite its jank/flaws, the game is the best at the specific thing it’s doing. The Good But Not The Best category is for games whose main flaw is not any specific thing it does wrong, but that other games are doing the same thing but better. It’s rare that one game is so exactly the same as another that there isn’t some amount of apples-to-oranges comparison, but generally speaking you shouldn’t bother with the Dwarves unless you’ve already played Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter and you want more vaguely D&D-esque singleplayer RPGs, you shouldn’t bother with Iron Harvest unless you’ve already played Brood War and Age of Empires II until you’re bored with them, you shouldn’t bother with Minoria unless you’ve already played Hollow Knight, Blasphemous, Symphony of the Night, and so on. If you’re in the very narrow category of people who really like dwarves and want to play an RPG where more than half your party is dwarves, you might go for the Dwarves before Baldur’s Gate, but that’s gotta be a pretty small demographic.

Regrets. This game is bad and you shouldn’t play it. It found its way onto my backlog by some kind of trickery, I wish I had not played it, and I expect most other people would also wish not to play it. I’m generally of the opinion that most video games that aren’t obviously bad can probably find a niche of some sort, even if that niche is “people who’ve already played games that are like this, but better, and still want more.” But there are exceptions, and this category is for those games. Sunset Overdrive is in Regrets because it was so busy making every single gun wacky that it totally loses the basic, visceral fun of shooting things with an assault rifle. Hello Neighbor is in Regrets because it pivoted from being a stealth game against an adaptive AI to trying to chase the Five Nights at Freddy’s secret lore Game Theory crowd, and now all its gameplay is mostly adventure game bullshit puzzles. The Secret World is in Regrets because it’s a really good conspiracy action-adventure game that for some reason decided to be a mediocre MMORPG instead, and has five times as much bad MMO content as it has good conspiracy action-adventure content. I tend to not make blog posts about these games, because I find they’re not interesting enough to justify a full post, but the Regrets category has an important role in how I keep myself playing new games, in that banishing a game to this category is the only alternative to playing it all the way through.

This does lead to two other categories that are technically sent to the Regrets folder, but for reasons that I expect wouldn’t send them to most people’s Regrets folders: First, I Hate Your Video Game for video games that I dislike, but for reasons that I would not expect to be common. Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 are in Regrets because I can’t enjoy these games knowing that it isn’t going anywhere satisfying. People say that a bad sequel can’t ruin the original, but I think that’s only true if the original isn’t depending on its sequels to maintain its pace. The first Robocop is a self-contained story and can’t be ruined by its sequels or reboot, and the original Star Wars trilogy is a self-contained story that can’t be ruined by its prequels or sequels, but the early seasons of Game of Thrones actually are worse for knowing that the intrigue and suspense fall apart without a satisfying resolution. Still, a lot of people still like Mass Effect and/or Mass Effect 2 despite the negative reception of the third game. The Banner Saga 2 was even more personal – I realized several years after buying the game that as much as I like the art style, I don’t actually want to play this video game, not because of flaws I was unaware of, but because I don’t like its combat system very much and find its setting to be kind of bland.

And second, some games end up in Regrets because they are Unplayable. Like, literally, I cannot play them to completion due to technical problems. I had a perfectly good time wtih Star Wars: The Force Unleashed until it crashed on the second to last level. I couldn’t fix the crash, so now it’s in my Regrets folder, but if your specific machine doesn’t have that problem, any randomly selected gamer has decent odds of enjoying the game.

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