Reviewing and Scoring Video Games
I've been considering writing a few game reviews for my blog, which inevitably leads to thinking about scoring systems. Assigning a concrete score to any creatively produced work isn't something to take lightly. If a grade is assigned, it naturally creates an aura of objectivity and carries the weight of perceived authority. In many cases, the grade assigned carries more weight than the content of the review itself. The final score also opens the critic to criticism as well. If the critic desires the air of authority that concrete scores engender, he must take as much responsibility for the score assigned as he does for the content of his review.
It is for all these reasons that a critic should think carefully about any scoring system that he adopts. It is vital that the system used is consistent with the critic's philosophy of judging the medium in question. For me, the act of assigning a score of some sort is important because I believe that works of art CAN be judged objectively. I wouldn't bother with criticism at all if I didn't feel that this was the case. The challenge is to devise a scoring system which is informative enough to allow readers with their own varying predilections to make their own interpretations of quality without sacrificing the objectivity and finality of assigning a 'final' score. It is difficult to do this with a single, one dimensional metric.
In the old days game magazines would rate games on graphics, sound, difficulty, etc. Breaking the score down to this level of granularity is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, I might not be an expert in every category I might determine is necessary to judge. I feel much more qualified to judge a game's graphical quality than I do its sound design, for example. Second, it is important for a critic to take a stand on excellence, to make a final judgment. A myriad of small judgments certainly doesn't carry the same weight as one definitive score. And finally, the metrics used to describe one work's greatness may not paint an accurate picture of another.
Speaking of video games specifically, academics in the field of game studies can be roughly divided into two different camps, the narrativists and the ludologists(the wikipedia entry for ludology has a brief description of the differences for the uninitiated). I have yet to see a game scoring metric which synthesizes the current academic discussion on games. Therefore, I am proposing the use of a system which consists of two scores, one measuring the game's excellence from a ludological perspective and the other rating the narrative as it applies to the game. For lack of better terminology I will refer to these as the L-Score and N-Score, respectively. I am personally more of a ludologist, but that doesn't obviate the importance of narrative elements. After all, people play games for different reasons.
The L-Score is the score which is most closely related to the uniqueness of the medium. I have argued before that games are different from art because they aren't simply admired, they are also played. It is the interactive nature of games which ludologists emphasize, and so one can think of the L-Score as a metric for gameplay and game design. Mechanics, systems, and level design are the key components measured by the L-Score.
If the L-Score is a measure of a game's design, then the N-Score is a measure of its artistic achievement. The narrative, in this case, is defined rather broadly. It consists of the game's music, writing, visual style, sound design, overall setting, etc. All of these factors influence the player's involvement in the game and are therefore important even if they don't have much of a direct impact on the actual gameplay.
There may be some overlap between the components measured by the L-Score and the N-Score. For instance, the sound design in a first person shooter may provide an increased level of information and awareness to the perceptive player. Such a feature could be considered relevant to both the N-Score and the L-Score. Likewise, in an exploration intensive RPG interesting environments may be necessary to realize the goals of the game's design, making those environments important from a design perspective as well as an artistic one. Despite any overlap between what is being measured by the two metrics, each metric is still able to stand on its own.
All games are scored relative to what they are trying to achieve, with the very highest scores reserved for true innovation. The traits that make a good RPG are simply quite different from those of an action game, and so the game's concept must of course be in mind when considering the quality of the game's design. Similarly, when judging a game's narrative it would be silly to expect the same level of exposition from a shmup as from an RPG. The narrative of a shmup is less about plot and more about evoking a certain feeling through music and visual presentation. Genres which are more narratively focused will in some ways be judged to a higher standard. The fact that many story-focused RPGs require 40+ hours to finish places a huge burden on developers to create a consistently strong narrative and interesting setting. A five stage shmup should not be punished for having less content(unless more content would make for a better shmup.)
There has been a lot of debate recently concerning game review scores, with several print magazines altering or eliminating their review scoring system(EGM and Play, respectively.) I believe the main reason for dissatisfaction with most current game review metrics is that they no longer accurately reflect gamers' increasingly sophisticated view of the medium. Games are simply more complex than other forms of consumer entertainment, and as video game consumers continue to become more sophisticated they will demand more sophistication from video game critics. The solution is for video game critics to draw from the emerging field of game studies. My proposed L/N scoring system is the first step toward applying game studies research to video game review scores.