Blogs & Comment

Video game reviews and the world of low standards

While gamers want games to be taken seriously, reviews that downplay their artistic merits aren't helping.


For many gamers around the world, Tuesday is Gears of Wars day—the day the long-awaited third installment of the Xbox 360 sci-fi shooter goes on sale. If you’re a non-gamer reader, you’re probably already thinking about giving this post a pass, but stick around—it may yet interest you.

My review of Gears of War 3 went up over on MSN last Thursday, the day Microsoft officially released the muzzle on the game. The fact that reviewers were allowed to make their impressions known before the game was officially launched was an interesting and rare PR move. It usually only happens when the publisher is confident of the game’s quality and hopeful that advance reviews will help build buzz and therefore sales.

The release strategy looks to be working as the game has, as of this writing, garnered a score of 91 out of 100 on review aggregation site Metacritic. That averaged score means the game is getting “universal acclaim.”

I liked it too but, after much deliberation, gave it only seven out of 10, or what Metacritic would consider a 70. While I thought it was a top-shelf shooting action game, I felt the writing—which means the story and especially the dialogue—was terrible, or “dumb, dumb, dumb.” The characters talk in eye-rolling cliches and, while this could be overlooked in the first two games because of the new ground that was being broken, by the third one the stilted dialogue proved distracting if not outright annoying.

I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Take IGN, for example. The website, one of the biggest games reviewers online, gave Gears 3 nine out of 10. Yet of the writing, it said:

“Shakespeare this ain’t, and Gears 3 struggles at times with its forced attempts at heart-string pluckery, but I can forgive it as much; gore-starved guns adorned with toothy chainsaws easily atone for any cheesiness suffered along the way… the Gears 3 story continues with what amounts to a blood-drenched tale of woe, suffering, loss and absolution, cathartica that stands out in harsh relief when framed by the ’80s era Schwarzenegger-ness of most of the dialogue. Cue the attendant grimaces, bro-vado and non-stop X-TREME one-liners. Translation: Gears 3 delivers exactly what you’d expect on the story side, ironically good news for longtime fans. For the rest of you, roll your eyes, chuckle and carry on. It’s not Gears of War and Peace, people!”

Really? That sounds like a major cop-out. Why should gamers be willing to accept poor dialogue and cheerily move on to the gore?

Here’s the point: No game that counts on a storyline to drive it should score that highly if it has bad writing. By giving Gears of War 3 such a high average score, reviewers are setting the bar low for what a great game should be and are doing a disservice to an industry that is struggling to be taken seriously by the mainstream.

Games are often compared to movies, yet the review standards of the two media are very different. No film with bad writing is likely to ever score in the 90th percentile on Metacritic, nor will it ever win a Best Picture Oscar. One look at the site’s highest-scoring films of all time confirms this.

As many reviewers including IGN suggest, Gears 3 is a terrific action game that should be judged on those terms. Yet, great action movies rarely score in the top percentile without great writing. Even X-Men: First Class, one of the better summer blockbusters this year, scored only 65 on Metacritic. Dumb, poorly written action movies are more likely to score significantly lower, like Transformers: Dark of the Moon and its 42 rating.

Action games, like action movies, don’t have to be dumb and badly written. Metacritic’s best-rated games of all time turns up a number of them: Grand Theft Auto IV, BioShock, Mass Effect 2, Red Dead Redemption and so on.

So why do reviewers excuse bad writing in games? Well, to be fair, things like story, character and dialogue aren’t as important in games as they are in movies because they don’t make up as much of the experience. While a film may need to hold the audience’s attention for two hours or so, games often have to go much longer than that. Good or bad writing is much more noticeable when it comes in shorter chunks.

Moreover, games also don’t often need good writing because of their interactive nature. Some of the best non-action games ever, such as Rock Band, barely have any.

But the issue goes deeper than that. Much of the problem stems from the fact that video games still aren’t taken seriously by the mainstream media. While most newspapers and big new outlets employ full-time writers to cover music, movies, theatre and other arts and entertainment, few if any have any staff devoted to just games. That means Metacritic scores—which can determine financial bonuses for executives at studios and publishers—are compiled by trade and industry press, all of whom often depend on those same companies for their very livelihood. Whether it’s advertising dollars or simple review copies of the games, these websites don’t exist without the video game industry’s support.

This is why the Metacritic entry for Transformers: Dark of the Moon lists reviews from the likes of the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and The Globe and Mail while Gears of War 3 has reviews from the Official Xbox Magazine, Totally360 and Joystiq. Indeed, of the 55 reviews listed for the game so far, only two are from mainstream newspapers.

While it’s not exactly a conspiracy, where trade press give good reviews to games in exchange for lucre, there is something to be said about fans of a product reviewing the product. While on the surface it does the industry good to have high marks attached to their games, in the long run it doesn’t do much to broaden their acceptance in the mainstream. Ironically, if more of the supposedly objective mainstream press reviewed video games, chances are good the overall scores would be lower. Perhaps the general public would then take them more seriously and bad writing wouldn’t be excused to the extent that it is.

Gamers get pretty upset when they’re the victims of double standards. The problem is, those double standards will continue to exist as long as reviewers continue to feed into them by excusing bad writing in favour of chainsaw gore. I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way—Mark Wilson over at gaming site Kotaku lamented on this a few years back, as did Games Are Fun ages ago. The bottom line is, the industry is still pretty young and reviews have as much maturing to do as the games themselves.

In the meantime, don’t get me wrong: Gears of War 3 is a very fun game. It’s excellent value for the money and it’s a title that almost every Xbox 360 owner will probably want. It’s just not something that should be held up as a paragon of the medium. At least I hope not.

ADDENDUM: A colleague forwarded me a piece written by author Chuck Klosterman a few years back on pretty much the same topic. Check it out as Chuck is right on the money.