I probably wouldn’t be a console gamer if it wasn’t for Halo. The 2001 classic—oh, God, things from 2001 can be “classic”—hit all the grace notes of operatic military sci-fi, mixed it with some deep ancient astronaut mojo, and wrapped it up with a control scheme that made intuitive sense.
In so many different ways it was just fun.
Before I go any further I should note that this isn’t a review of Destiny, the latest game from Bungie, creators of Halo. That’s because I haven’t bought Destiny, and at the moment I’m not sure if I will.
Oh, I did my due diligence as a fan and put a $5 deposit on the game at the GameStop near work. I would have just gone for a digital download, but I want to off-load my copy of the supremely disappointing Watch Dogs. I was all set to pick up the game, but decided to check the reviews first.
The legitimate game sites are savaging the thing. Polygon sicked two reviewers, including their review editor on it, and came up with a 6.0 out of ten.
For those of you who don’t follow video games, the only acceptable review score is a 9.0. It is silly, but that’s where “hit” games hover. Anything under a 9.0 is considered questionable at best. Under an 8.0 and you’re dealing with a piece of shit.
At least that’s how the scores are interpreted by the commentariat. Often violently so. Game reviewers have been known to get death threats for low scores from readers on games those folks have not played. Have not played, but have bought. There’s nothing worse, after all, than another kid letting you know that the Red Ryder B.B. Gun you think you’re getting for Christmas is actually a lump of coal.
In the comments section of the Polygon review one of the readers says that anything under a 7.0 is “unprofessional.” This statement is so damn ridiculous that it actually merits serious contemplation.
Over the weekend, while I wasn’t buying/playing Destiny, I found myself at BBQ with a guy who works for Riot Games, makers of League of Legends. He’s loving Destiny and thinks that the low scores are indicative of a the gaming media being out of touch dinosaurs.
I don’t think that’s what’s going on, either. There are two forces at work, and the first is the problem with review scores.
While every site has their own set of metrics for review scores—Polygon is very transparent about what each number “means”—the whole of the review score ecosystem is ruled by the average of all scores as tabulated by the site Metacritic. I do not say this in a metaphorical fashion. In the past Metacritic scores were actually used to calculate the financial bonuses of development studios.
Not sales. Metacritic scores. The difference between a 9.0 and an 8.5 meant whether or not there was Christmas in the Joe and Jane Dev household.
Those are the stakes, but the problem with review scores are existential in nature, because those little numbers aren’t just an abstraction, they’re a cultural heuristic—a shortcut for disciion making and discussion—and the meaning of that heuristic is not controlled by the press or Metacritic, but by the collective unconscious of gamers.
It all starts with elementary school, and two very visercal experiences of numbers: lines and grades.
Take a look:
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
What’s in the middle?
Let’s look at another line.
-5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4 5
On a ten point scale 5 = 0.
This visual is lurking under every encounter with a ten-point scale. A 6.0 causes revulsion because it isn’t six steps up from the void, it’s one step away from the mid-point and the middle is the threshold between positive and negative value.
Here’s another heuristic: letter grades.
90 - 100 = A
80 - 89 = B
70 - 79 = C
60 - 69 = D
0 - 59 = F
A 7.0 is a “C” score. A “C” is still a passing grade. To give a game a “D” score, which is what Polygon gave Destiny is to say that it is not “passing,” that it basically “doesn’t work.”
For some people that translates into “actually broken.” The reader will look at the accomplishments of the game systems and art and say “this is recognizable as a game, it should pass.”
From that point of view, the reader is right.
The critic, of course, is working with a broader palate of perception and—perhaps foolishly—believes that they have the full range of a ten point scale to get into the subtleties of the matter. In theory it should work, and when one is mindful of what a robust ten-point scale can can mean it does.
The problem is that people aren’t mindful when they encounter these little mental crutches. The presence of the score is a signal that they don’t have to think. The ten-point scale is broken, and it won’t recover unless children are introduced to number theory in a different way.
The worst part is that converting subjective, well researched opinions, into numeric values creates a false impression of algorithmic objectivity where none exists. This encourages people to actually argue the merits of a score when they should be arguing the merits of a review’s observations and interpretations. Added benefit: no one really argues online, they just make hyperbolic death threats.
As gaming glides into its third generation of players we also run into what I call “the blockbuster problem.” Think of the last big Hollywood blockbuster that wasn’t Guardians of the Galaxy you can remember. Now think of, or look up, a newspaper reviewer’s take on that film. What you are likely to recall—or find—is an informed dissection of the material that is completely out of synch with box office take and popular opinion.
Is the critic wrong? No. The critic is—by dint of their profession—jaded. They have seen it all, and they are fucking sick of the same tired tropes and the same tired tricks and long for something new.
Regular folk don’t have that problem because they are not forced to sit through the majority of movies or play every game that comes over the corporate transom. They have the luxury of ignorance.
The jaded vs. the ignorant. There’s probably a less bleak and judgmental way to frame the divide, but right now I can’t be arsed to come up with one.
Okay, I’ll be fairer: it’s the generational thing. Younger gamers haven’t had their Halo yet. Or their Halo is League of Legends, and something like Destiny is similar-yet-different enough to hit their happy buttons. They are not valuing story from their games, not yet. They are looking for a different set of experiences from older gamers like myself. As different from my generation as we both are from those who are sinking money into Bubble Witch IX: The Bubbling.
Games are no longer a monoculture, this summer has proved that in grotesque fashion. Review scores are meaningless in a world where there’s little common ground.
As for my copy of Destiny? Odds are it will stay on the GameStop shelf. There are things I need to accomplish out here in meatspace and I don’t have a ready gaming group for raids and whatnot, which is what it seems to take to make the game fun.
Too bad. I was looking forward to seeing what Bungie had cooked up.