Standards of Review

“Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap” – Theodore Sturgeon (Sturgeon’s Revelation)

This is commonly revised to “Ninety percent of everything is crap,” and simply called Sturgeon’s Law.  Sturgeon was an author and a critic of horror and science fiction and saw that the genres had their faults, but no more so than any other genre.  Starting with the idea that the vast majority of everything we consume artistically is in fact very poor art renders the argument of the quality of the genre to be fairly meaningless.  This was potent when talking about horror or science fiction writing, which were (and in many ways still are) denigrated genres.  It can be equally potent now in a more modern sense when we talk a more modern denigration: video games.

Of course the latest {insert genre game sequel here} is crap.  Most games are crap.  It is not crap because it is a game, or part of a specific genre, or a sequel.  It is crap because it fails to be significantly better than everything else in terms of its artistic merit.  The job of a reviewer, then, is not so much to tell us that a game is good or bad; simple statistics tell us that the answer will usually be, “Crap.”  The reviewer must instead try to filter what makes a game uniquely good or totally crappy compared with its peers.  Reviewing is necessarily subjective and comparative. It is impossible to read and review Moby Dick in a vacuum, divorced from the other novels of the time and similarly removed from the concept of 19th-century whaling commerce. So too, it is impossible to play and review any game in a vacuum.  Each game builds upon technology and mechanics that have been refined in previous generations.  Each game stands on the shoulders of technological giants, and we rarely recognize that.

When I review a game I will attempt to rate it in relation to its position in a historical setting and in relation to the other games released that year–that game’s cohort.  The vast majority of games produced for public consumption are both playable and fun, but they are also completely lacking in artistic merit.  This makes them “crap” artistically, but often they are still fun.  I have a wall of movies that I enjoy watching; I call them my secret shame because I know full well that they are crap, but I enjoy watching them all the same.  I also know that very few people will agree with me on those choices.  Everyone has his own wall of secret shame.

So here is my own scale which I have attempted to use in the past and will continue to do so for all reviews to achieve at least a singular internal consistency.  Because the rating is both a review of my own experience and necessarily a predictive tool of what I think others will think of the game, I will include both elements in my descriptors.

  • 10 Goats: Amazing game.  Not crap.  Genuinely art. Everyone should play this.  A true G.O.A.T.
  • 9 Goats: Great game, minor flaws only.  Has artistic merit.  Widely appealing.
  • 8 Goats: Very good game, but minimal artistic merit. Some more significant flaws such as bugs/glitches, plot holes, etc., but the backbone is extremely enjoyable. Appealing, particularly to genre fans.
  • 7 Goats: Good game. Might have a modicum of artistic merit.  While flawed, it is enjoyable. Appealing, but perhaps narrowly limited to genre fans.
  • 6 Goats: Above average game, but with no artistic merit.  Has a few aspects that put it above the rest in terms of gameplay or mechanics.  This isn’t shovelware, but it lacks anything gripping. If this game seems appealing, it is probably a fun waste of time.
  • 5 Goats: Average game with no artistic merit.  The game lacks anything compelling or suffers from some significant issues.  Largely unappealing, might be a fun waste of time if this genre of game is something you tend to enjoy.
  • 4 Goats: Below average game.  This game is not particularly fun, or is crippled in implementation by bugs or other issues. Unappealing to most gamers. Possibly of interest to genre fans.
  • 3 Goats: Bad game. This game is severely lacking in direction and fun. Unappealing to almost all gamers.
  • 2 Goats: Terrible game. This game should not have been released, is crippled by problems or is broken beyond reasonable repair. Niche appeal only, and probably limited within that scope.
  • 1 Goat: Atrocious game. This is epic-level bad. Not just crap artistically, but might actually be a pile of dung masquerading as a game disc.  Unappealing to all gamers. The only reason to try this game is to experience the awfulness first hand in an attempt to find the video game equivalent of the “so bad it’s good” phenomenon.

In an ideal world, the 9 and 10 Goat reviews are reserved for the top 2% of games, despite being 20% of the ratings.  This is because games tend to follow a normal distribution in terms of quality.  Sturgeon was probably being generous in calling only 90% of everything crap.  But even crap can be acceptable, and some of it is worse than the rest.  Most games meet at least some threshold of playability and enjoyability, but very few are “great”. The majority of games, if reviewed, would fall into the vast middle of review scores.   The great middle of 4-6 Goats is a range of game ratings awash with sequels, tie-ins and the games that developers make to pay the bills.

However, since we never get the time to play every game — and from the selection I do have time to play I will review even fewer — the distribution of reviewed titles will skew very much to the extremes.  Just as you do not need a reviewer to tell you that the game is likely “crap” artistically, you likely do not need a reviewer to tell you that an average seeming game is average.  When a game steps outside of the bounds of the expected, though, that is when the reviewer can do work and point out those uniquely good or bad elements.

I don’t enjoy every game I play, and I don’t expect everyone to enjoy every game I review highly, or hate every game I review poorly.  Part of the predictive power of a review comes from knowing the predilections of the reviewer as well as yourself. My own primary preferences are in a strong narrative and polished gameplay, while the graphical power of the game is something that I can take or leave.  If your games have to have the most cutting-edge textures, you’ll probably find yourself disagreeing with me frequently.  You may not be wrong.  There’s a lot of classically impressive art going into those textures.  Feel free to tell me all about it when I rag on your favorite game.

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Andrew Riley
CFO and Games Blogger at Rampant Discourse
Gaming news, reviews and opinion blogger. Statistics nerd. Achievement whore. Really bad at shooters.

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