Final Fantasy XIII and the problem with video game reviews: Peter Nowak

Why no one gives bad scores


I had a video game dilemma this weekend. It wasn’t that I was stuck on a certain part, but rather that I didn’t know how to review the latest Final Fantasy game, Lightning Returns. The problem was that, despite having received the game with plenty of lead time, I had played only about a fifth of it and my review had to be in on Monday.

Final Fantasy games – and role-playing games in general – are notoriously long, with this installment apparently taking about 50 hours to complete. The thing is, 10 hours was about all I could stomach, so there arose the dilemma. I spent the weekend struggling with the question of whether I should review the game negatively based on my partial experience of it, or whether I should soldier on through the whole thing and then write a review, possibly weeks later. Neither option seemed good; a partial review was unfair to both the game makers and readers (you wouldn’t review a movie or book after the half-way point, right?), while a delayed review would ultimately be read by no one.

It’s a dilemma that every reviewer has probably experienced at one time or another, and it’s something of an overall problem because it may be contributing to higher game review scores.

I’ve had many conversations with fellow reviewers as to why games tend to score more highly than other media, such as movies. I charted this discrepancy a while back: During a six-month period back in 2012, for example, more than 60% of games scored 70 out of 100 or higher on review aggregation site Metacritic, compared to just 19% of movies.

Part of it is likely because most game reviews covered by Metacritic are coming from so-called enthusiast sites, or what would have been called trade publications back in the days of print. Such outlets are generally less skeptical about their field and, in some cases, there is a grey area between editorial coverage, access and advertising. Stories and accusations abound about how sites have exchanged high marks on a game for exclusive permission to publish a review ahead of everyone else, or even for advertising dollars.

On the other hand, film reviews on Metacritic come mainly from mainstream media – basically the old newspaper guard. While there are certainly many reasons to criticize the old “MSM,” newspapers do tend to uphold ethical standards when it comes to reviewing products and media. The problem is, there aren’t enough of these outlets reviewing games – if there were, overall scores might be more in line with those on films.

But that’s not the whole of it, since part of the problem is also reviewer bias. As several colleagues have suggested in our debates, reviewers tend to gravitate toward games they suspect they will like because they know that reviewing them is going to require a significant investment of time. That makes sense – absolutely no one wants to spend 50 hours doing something they don’t like. This holds doubly true for video game reviewers who, as a rule, tend to get paid rather poorly for their craft.

I wish I was immune to this phenomenon, but anybody who says they are probably isn’t being honest – it’s impossible to approach any reviewable product without some preconceived notion or expectation. Just like the typical film reviewer might go into a Martin Scorsese movie expecting something, so too do game reviewers. The difference, however, is the time involved. A film reviewer who ends up disappointed has lost just a few hours of his or her life. For game reviewers, that’s typically a much bigger investment, which can strengthen that initial subconscious avoidance of titles they suspect they won’t like.

In regards to Lightning Returns, I thought scores would come in high – I figured that the only reviewers who would make it through the whole thing were those predisposed to like it in the first place. To my surprise, the overall Metacritic score came in relatively low for a game, although it should be noted that its rating of 67 is still higher than all but two movies widely released since Christmas.

In the end, I ended up writing a non-review that explained my issues with the game (it’s completely illogical and anachronistic) based on my limited experience with it, and why I couldn’t muster the willpower – or time investment – to follow it through to the end. I’m not sure if that was the correct approach or not, but it is a snapshot of one of the problems game reviewers often face, for whatever that’s worth.