Stars In Their Eyes

By Steve Ramsey (November, 2004)
Regular readers of Quandary will know that we recently introduced star ratings for our game reviews. We had got along for many years without them but it became obvious that if we were going to be a part of the game playing community rather than apart from it, then we had to give a score.

By doing so Quandary reviews are now picked up by rating sites such as Game Rankings, Metacritic and others which were previously closed to us. This means that our reviews are now more visible to a wider audience. However, the addition of ratings has caused, and still causes us, much soul-searching, (not to mention hair loss J) because it isn't all as simple as it sounds.

Stars, or a percentage score, or a school exam type A to F rating, or any other rating scale you can think of all have their attractions. They are a quick guide to the relative merit of a game, and when accessed through ranking sites give you an instant and convenient impression of what many reviewers think about a game. 16 out of 20 reviewers rating a game as 3 stars is a better guide than a single 3 star rating. But ratings have their obvious limitations.

Quite clearly, they don't tell you very much about the game. What are its strengths and weaknesses? What type of game is it? Fundamentally, why did it get the rating that it got?

Nor do you get any of the detail. Is the story well told? Does the game even have a story? Are the puzzles well designed? Are they integrated into the game or just tacked on? Are there sliders, mazes or music puzzles? Does it look good? Does it matter? Is there a musical score or elevator music? Importantly, is the game fun?

Gameplay mechanics are beyond the stars. Is it point and click or keyboard? First person or third? Are there action elements, or timed sequences, and can you die? Are saved games limited in number? 360 degree panning or not?

What about options? Are there subtitles, can you tweak the graphics and sound, are there ways to improve performance, will it play in XP? The stars won't tell you.

You can't know all that unless you read the review. It sounds like stating the bleeding obvious, but without the review, reading the stars is about as informative as the age old pastime of the same name. If the stars told you all there was to tell, we wouldn't bother writing the review. Yet the stars given to a game can generate more argument and disagreement than all the words written above it.

Rating a game on a rating scale is also extremely difficult, and it gets harder the more games you play. It is reasonably easy to determine where three games fit on a 5 or 10 point scale; their merits relative to each other are easily discernible. But when it comes to placing more than 100 games, how to differentiate one from another becomes exceedingly difficult. The outstanding extremes still stand out - the gems and the duds pick themselves. The big clump in the middle, though, gets harder with each passing game.

The task is exacerbated by the need to fit all games to the same scale. How do you compare a simple slide show point and click from an independent maker with a real time go anywhere graphic sensation made with big bucks? All things being equal, one can't compete with the other, yet you have to use the same rating scale. But if you allow for that and skew the ratings accordingly, perhaps by rating the game against those in its own class, then you potentially mislead readers that rely on the stars.

It gets harder. Stars are an impression, a feeling about where the game sits relative to all the other games you have played. Games cause different feelings and create impressions in a myriad of ways and for a variety of reasons. I know that I wrestled with a rating because the ending was a letdown, yet everything prior to that was well above average. I marked it down, then reflected and marked it up, then was concerned I hadn't adequately allowed for the ending and marked it down again, then marked it up again because I thought the last impression was out of proportion to what went before. And that was before I tried to rate it relative to other games.

Consider too, a game which might be number 6 in a series, following a tried and true formula, and therefore being pretty much the same as the 5 that came before it. It may have left a less than enthusiastic impression, being more of the same and consequently not as interesting. Yet considered by itself it is as solid and perhaps more polished than its predecessors. By itself, it might be the best of the lot, but you can't unplay the previous 5. They will and do affect your feelings about the game. It can't be helped.

A review can express and discuss and deal with all these conflicting elements. It can describe and articulate the nuances, the differences between games, how a game makes you feel. By being honest and expansive, I can tell you about the game, and why I felt the way I did, and how it sits alongside other games, including those more opulent and more modest.

I would love to have my time over with a couple of the ratings I have given. I stand though by every review I have written.

I know that readers will say "how could you rate a particular game higher than another one". When or if you do, take the time to reflect on the above, and then re-read both reviews. You wouldn't judge the book by the blurb on its cover, so don't let the stars dazzle you.

Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2004. All rights reserved.