Two stories caught my attention recently, regarding the merits of review scores and the current fetish for review aggregation services. The first was about film director and producer Brett Ratner’s dislike for review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes. He contests that “it’s the destruction of our business” due to the way it condenses nuanced reviews into a simple number. Scores below a certain threshold keep “Middle America” away and thus harm business. The other article was about game critic and pundit, Jim Sterling, who gave The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild a review score of 7 out of 10. Once this was added to Metacritic’s number crunching formula, the game in question dropped from an overall score of 98 down to 97. Fans did not care for this “outrage” and a DDoS attack followed as well as the usual comment based flame war.
Both these events got me thinking about difference between long form, detailed criticism and analysis versus the perceived convenience of simple review scores. For me I initially became aware of the difference during the eighties, when reading movie reviews. On one hand, you had old school critics such as Derek Malcolm writing lengthy critiques in the broadsheet newspapers and on the other tabloids that adopted the Siskel and Ebert approach of “two thumbs up”. The former approach to criticism allows for detailed analysis and eschews binary breakdowns. A movie (or a game) is more than just good or bad. The latter style of review, offers readers a simple and quick opinion and thus an opportunity to make a similar choice. Both methodologies have their merits but it would seem that contemporary culture is leaning more towards the review score. It fits the current “spirit”of our digital age.
Personally, I’ve always preferred an in-depth written post that clearly critiques a games merits and flaws. I favour the same approach to movie reviews, as I think that such artistic endeavours cannot adequately be distilled into a numerical breakdown. However, I fully recognise how the review score system has gained traction due to its accessibility and immediacy. Convenience is the buzz word of modern life. Reading an in-depth review takes time and thought. Both are finite commodities these days. Plus, the review score has become an important marketing tool and something that with regard to games, does have an impact upon sales. Sadly, it’s a system that can also be manipulated by the publishers themselves. It is this aspect that tarnishes the review score system and brings score aggregation services into disrepute.
There have been numerous cases in recent years of bogus reviews being used to skew opinion on sites such as Amazon, Trivago and Trip Advisor. You Tube has also become a battle ground of late, with game developers using bogus copyright infringement and other spurious claims to try and take down reviews and criticism that can potentially harm sales. The need to own and control all information regarding a product, has become a common place business aspiration in certain circles. Fans also contribute to this problem, seeing low reviews scores as personal attacks rather than measured criticism. But when you reduce something that is complex to the binary, there is bound to be fallout and dissent. Our societies move away from academia to the fallacy of “all opinions are of equal merit” is also a factor.
Review scores ultimately have an impact upon the way products are made. Movies and games are effectively being conceived and created to meet the criteria of the review score systems, rather than to innovate and push boundaries. Mainstream artistic endeavour has always been tempered with the practicalities of commercial interest but we now seem to be entering an age when new products are genuinely hampered by the need to meet ever increasing marketing requirements. Sooner or later there will be a backlash against the inflexibility of the review score system and potentially a crash within the gaming market. In the meantime, I would encourage all to offset the scores from Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes with lengthier reviews, be they written or video based. Although time is at a premium these days, the old maxim about knowledge being power, still holds true. Therefore it is always to the consumers advantage to know as much about a product as they can.