Reviews Are Different From Recommendations

When I was a kid, I ate game review scores for breakfast. When I wasn’t playing games, I read about them. My brother’s subscription to PC Gamer enabled me to seek out which critically-acclaimed titles demanded my attention. Titles that scored ninety-four percent or better received their coveted Editor’s Choice award as well as my full attention. Thankfully younger me afforded a measure of grace to lower-scoring titles and I at least considered the possibility of games that scored a measly eighty-four percent. Anything lower than that just didn’t make the cut. Three out of five stars? Seventy percent? Please, I’d rather not waste my time on anything mediocre!

My reliance on critical acclaim allowed me to shun any gaming experience that wasn’t guaranteed to be enthralling in every way. This attitude stuck with me through my college years, and my gaming catalog became very one-dimensional. Critically-acclaimed games and nothing else. Eventually I noticed I owned quite a lot of “good” games that I’d never played through to completion. As good as they might have been, they just didn’t drag me into their world. Editors Choice or Game of the Year; accolades didn’t matter if I wasn’t interested in playing it. That’s when it dawned on me: Just because a game is considered “good” doesn’t mean I’ll have fun with it.

But everyone will have fun playing this, right? Right!?!

While the quality of a game might be able to be quantified with some objective measure, a player’s response to said game will be subjectively variable. One man’s compelling adventure is another man’s exercise in tedium. Let’s look at Alien Isolation for a case study. I personally consider it to be one of the best video games ever made. The atmosphere and tension hooked me into an immersive, stressful, and unforgettable experience. One of my friends played it recently and shocked me with the following statement: “Sure Alien: Isolation is a good game, but it just wasn’t much fun for me.” He couldn’t bring himself to finish it! It took my brain a few minutes to process this information. My initial reaction was that there must be something wrong with my friend. It’s him right?

After all, Alien Isolation is indeed a well-made game that perfectly encapsulates the experience being hunted by H.R. Gieger’s Alien. It received mostly positive reviews from gaming critics and fans alike. Yet in spite of all those things, it clearly wasn’t a game for him. The same can be said for a lot of people! Being chased around a space station by a scary xenomorph for twenty hours is my idea of a good time. The same was not true of my friend. One game. Two people. Great reviews. Two very different reactions.

My version of “play” and his version of “play” are two different things, I think.

And therein lies one of the cold truths about game reviews: A statement of quality is not a prescription for fun. And that’s the key, isn’t it? Games are supposed to be fun! Thankfully, we now live in an age where most games are “good”. By that I mean we don’t usually have to worry about developers releasing unfinished, buggy, messes of code; which was surprisingly common twenty years ago. Casually browsing game review websites reveals that most contemporary games seem to be considered “good” in the sense that they’re well-made and don’t have critical errors that render them broken.

So if most games are “good”, how do you know if a game will be fun for you? That’s not something a review score can tell you. For that matter, I find myself valuing review scores less and less as time goes on. Is a game that receives four stars so different from one that receives four and a half stars? Ultimately, it seems that almost all games can be divided into two major pools: “worth playing” and “waste of time”. The difficult part about placing games into either category is that the reasons for each are subjective, because no two gamers are exactly alike. A good review, therefore, is one that will help players of all types decide if a game is for them or not.

But if you’re not interested in Homeworld, there’s just something wrong with you. Seriously.

I still read a lot of game reviews. It’s one of my favorite things to do. More and more I find myself reviewing game reviews. When I do so, I notice that some are more helpful than others. I want RavingLuhn to be helpful. To that end, I’m refocusing how I make game recommendations. Each review I write will have my final call about whether or not a game is recommended:

  • Full Endorsement – A defining moment in gaming history. Everyone needs to play this for at least an hour to see what the fuss is all about.
  • Qualified Recommendation – If you’re a fan of similar games or enjoy other defining characteristics contained in this title, there’s a chance you’ll love it. If you’re not a fan of similar games and genres, consider skipping it.
  • Don’t Bother – I have a hard time justifying it to anyone.

Each one of those recommendations must be accompanied by appropriate justification. This might include:

  • A description of a typical gameplay cycle. What is it like to play?
  • Identification of some core characteristics that make the game worth playing. What is its hook?
  • What are some reasons why people might not like playing this game?
  • Are there similar games to the one being reviewed that might indicate if a game is a good fit for certain players?

Hopefully this will help give a more accurate picture of what each game is like, so you can decide for yourself it it’s something you’d have fun playing. In the end, that’s why we play games, right?

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