Games are objective, players aren’t

So I made the claim that games are about 95% objective, and here’s why that doesn’t mean that games should get a single score when reviewed. We don’t really appreciate games objectively, we each value the different aspects of games with different priorities.

If I play a Japanese RPG, there’s going to be a very good chance that I’ll hate it. It may very well be an absolutely accurate score by me if I give the game a 3/10, whatever that means. On the other hand, someone else might love that same game, and give it a 9/10. When I point out that this game has little to no depth in its combat, what you spend the majority of the game doing, they counter by claiming that they like the character they play as. When I point out that the world is so obviously created for the player (poor dynamism, consistency, inconsistent tone), they agree but say that the game gives them lots of freedom to do whatever they would like, and they like that the game makes them the center of attention.

We might both agree that the combat sucks, but while that’s a deal breaker for me they don’t really mind that much. We might both agree that, since you can just go and do whatever side quests for as long as you like, then come back to the main quest at any time, that the world doesn’t feel real. However, they don’t mind that the world seems fake so much, and they love the freedom that the game gives them in terms of roaming the world map and doing what they would like. While I appreciate that, I don’t want to be in a world that I don’t feel is real.

I could go on for a while, but my point is that we could agree on 99% of the game, but disagree with the importance of each aspect of the game and thus wildly differ in our final evaluation of the product. This is pretty important, since our review scores paint wildly different pictures, and yet our written reviews, although differing in tone, would probably mention very similar things in very similar ways.

This is where some people claim that review scores are ridiculous, and I’m far from disagreeing if they’re talking about specific scores handed out to games. I don’t think the idea of a score for a game is wrong, as long as it’s a conglomeration of scores for the sub-parts of a game, and the readers can see those sub-scores. For example, our two different reviewers might give the game these scores:

Depth: 3/10, 4/10
Simplicity: 7/10, 8/10
Adaptive Difficulty: 5/10, 6/10
Adaptive Punishment: 3/10, 5/10
Feel: 7/10, 8/10
World: 3/10, 9/10
Fantasy: 6/10, 8/10
Promise: 6/10, 9/10
Freedom: 10/10, 10/10
Technical Proficiency: 5/10, 5/10
Menus and Shortcuts: 4/10, 5/10
Social Play: 0/10, 9/10
Score: 5.7/10, 7.0/10

The scores have magically grouped together, but mostly that’s because we’re giving equal weight to all the categories. Consider what the reviews might read like, with one of the reviewers in italics:

Prepare yourself for hours of mindless combat, with only a few meaningful choices ever present. There is no difficulty level, meaning that the only way to make the game easier is to grind levels. Every time you die you go back to your last save, which may be hours away. Only saving grace is that the game is relatively simple, although you need to learn all the bonuses that each power has.

The combat is classic turn based fare, the kind we all know and love, and there are meaningful choices in every combat encounter. While there is no way to change the difficulty, players have the easy option of fighting for more experience and the game therefore has self-balancing gameplay. Saves are fairly well done, with the most time I ever lost on dying about 20 minutes. Some users play the game without saving, which is possible, although hardcore. There are lots of fan-made challenges that are truly fun to take part of, and the game implicitly allows different players to play to the level they want.

The game does have well made controls, although the framerate chugs on my new mid-range computer.

The game has simple controls that anyone can pick up and play with. And while I did notice the occasional dropped frame, for the most part the game ran smoothly for me.

As is standard for the genre the world transparently exists for the player and nothing else. There are no systems to interact with, and nothing seems to make sense. I keep asking myself what the people of this civilization eat, with no clear answer. Halfway through the main quest, despite the game warning us constantly of the impending doom due to the Lavina forces you can start doing sidequests for hundreds of in game days. For some reason the Lavina forces are no further along in their conquest. You can walk into anyone’s home and steal all of their things with no finger raised. For a game set in a supposedly desperate kingdom this is quite jarring.

Right from the stunning faux-Egyptian soundtrack played at the menu screen you know you’re in the world of Ivendor. The murmur of the crowd in Trevalice Square, the quiet of the countryside, truly the sound design in the game is incredible. One of my favourite memories is just standing in the capital city of CITY_NAME, with the trees swaying in the breeze, the loud haggling of the marketplace, and the quiet flow of the waves on the beach far below me, while dragons squawk at each other far overhead. Additionally, the world is brimming with possibilities, and it seems like there are things happening around every corner, with enough side quests to take up a thousand in-game days. Truly this is a land worth visiting, even if eventually some cracks will show in the illusion. What an accomplishment by DEVELOPER_NAME.

If you do pick up RPG_GAME get ready to deal with one of the whiniest, most unlikeable protagonists you’ve ever seen. In the touching opening sequence the protagonist has everything he loves taken from him, and I did enjoy the occasional joke he cracked, but I couldn’t take a guy who constantly mopes in between battles. Inconsistent and whiny. I did enjoy the party members and their personalities, and the interplay between the characters is genuinely well written.

I’m not afraid to admit that I cried when CHARACTER_NAME’s parents were slaughtered right in front of him, and from that moment on I felt blessed that I was given the option to see this wonderful world through his eyes. Although there is not as much character development as I would like through the story, the interplay between CHARACTER_NAME_2 and CHARACTER_NAME_3 brought me breathless with laughter. Each of the characters that can be recruited, and there are up to 13, has a wonderful and unique personality. Some of the best writing in games is found in the procedurally triggered party dialogue, which makes the whole party feel so alive. Finally, although moving sometimes at a slow pace, I feel like the Protagonists journey from someone understandably upset at the world to someone who found his place within it a truly moving experience, which reminded me of my time growing up, and many others feel the same way.

The story is solid, and is probably the reason to play this game. The unfortunate truth though, is that the game could be 10 hours long and still have more of this repetitive combat than I could stomach. I had to actually psych myself up mentally before dealing with the tedium of another 2 hour long dungeon. Those rare, and admittedly well done, story moments were far from enough of a carrot for me to see this game through.

One night I never went to bed, so enthralling is the story. Although I came to curse some of the dungeons, which run a tad on the long side. Still, this is a game that knows that when you build things up you need to make them payoff, and it’s rare to encounter a game that is so well written that it manages to keep me hooked for hours upon hours, through those long dungeons, and past the next point in the game. This without ever resorting to a single cliffhanger.

The game offers a wide variety of customization. It also lets the user visit whatever town they would like from the start of the game.

This game is the gold standard for customization in games. For a game with a story this good to allow the player to change the names of not just the PC, not just the party members, but literally every named NPC in the entire game is nothing short of a gift. You can personalize every aspect of your characters appearance, including their facial features. If you feel like it, you can have your character run around in a pink tutu. RPG_GAME even lets the player upload their own music, and create playlists for certain areas, although the soundtrack is so good most won’t bother.
Finally, there’s the freedom. The tagline for the game was “Anywhere. Anytime”, and they were not kidding. This is not a game that ever restricts what you can do. Want to visit TOWN_NAME and DO_THING? You can do it. Want to visit the mountain of NAME and steal a vase of precious monk-water? Done, and right from level 1. Although it might be a bit silly, I even appreciated that you could still walk into people’s houses and steal what you would like. Too many games going for realism these days, sometimes it’s nice for a little freedom instead.

The game is poorly, but functionally put together. There was some trouble on install, but you’re looking at a standard AAA game.

There are a few technical hitches, but otherwise nothing to report. Knowing the care that DEVELOPER_NAME has put into this product, I can’t imagine they won’t fix anything. EDIT: They’ve confirmed they already have a patch on the way. It should be released by Monday.

You’re by yourself this whole time, and there is a totally irrelevant forum that they invite you to.

Half of the fun of this game, and I don’t say that lightly, is in the loving community that DEVELOPER_NAME has fostered. When you purchase the game you get access to an exclusive forum on the developers website, and, after I had beaten the game twice, I came back to share my experiences with other people.

If you like games with irritating protagonists, shallow and forced combat, and nonsensical worlds. If you like games that shamelessly pad out their runtime, and that run poorly for no good reason, then you have found the game for you.
Otherwise don’t bother.
3/10

This is truly one of those classic games that everyone should experience. I never say magical in a review, but this is truly a magical adventure. Even after beating the game, the community and customization, not to mention endless sidequests will bring you hours more enjoyment.
9/10

Do we see how these people can be honestly talking about the same game? Do we see how they can even totally agree on everything, except the importance of anything? Do we see why the sub-group scores they are forced to give, add up to give a more accurate picture of the game? Instead of 3/10 and 9/10 we get 5.7/10 and 7/10, and can clearly see the pros and cons of the game. Frankly I would appreciate a score that delved even deeper into the sub-groups of the game. That would explain the difference in the World score, as reviewer A hated the lack of Consistency and Dynamism, where reviewer B loved the Ambiance and seemingly endless Possibilities of the world, and both reviewers seem to care very much about those things and little about the others. This is why it frustrates me so much when I hear game critics talk about “how we don’t need objective reviews”, to a chorus of nods and agreement. They’re completely wrong.

Anyway, the whole point of this post was that it is entirely possible to create a game that is intentionally poor in some area, in exchange for being good in another area. If I created a horror game, I might put quicktime events and button mashing combat in there. I hate those things, but you don’t want the player to love combat or it’s not scary. You’re sacrificing depth for tone and promise, and that’s a worthy pursuit for scariness. On the other hand, people should know what they’re getting themselves into, since some people don’t care so much about tone and others care very much about depth, and so on.

Probably the best real world example is The Last of Us, a game that I hated. Everyone seemed to love talking about the story and characters, which was very solid. Nobody told me about the horrible aliasing, inconsistent framerate, consistently more implausible world, horrible latency controls, and extremely shallow stealth and gunplay. I felt almost like I’d been lied to. I wouldn’t have minded so much if reviewers mentioned all of these, and said “this doesn’t matter, because story yo”. To be clear, I’m not saying that The Last of Us is a bad game. All I’m saying is that The Last of Us does some things objectively poorly, which is fine because it did the things some people love quite well, it just did the things I love abysmally horribly.

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