A vast majority of game reviews are done methodically. Games have been broken down into a handful of components and each of these is generally given a numeral rating. The bare set of qualities examined is typically gameplay, graphics, sound, and control but more elaborate reviews may include music and sound effects separately as well as longevity, difficulty, and tilt or slant. Some reviews even attempt to quantify fun.
Other art is generally not torn apart in such a mechanical way. Aspects of a painting, novel or film that are particularly good or bad are usually mentioned but very few movie critics give individual ratings to screen play, dialog, acting, camera work, sets, lighting, editing, costume, stunt choreography, etc. So why do we review games the way we do?
I think there are primarily two reasons, one based on where games come from and the other where they are going. Video games came from creative but scientifically minded people, not the traditional artistic types. Hardcore gamers have always tended to be a bit nerdy and nerds are usually logical people (much like the Klingons). Gaming culture, specifically review methods, is still influenced by these origins and the hardcore. A cold piece by piece examination may not seem right at Inside the Actor’s Studio but it would not look out of place in an engineering magazine. So nerds make the games, then what?
People buy the games. A new game costs something like five times more than a new paperback and two or three times as much as a new DVD. Although now that movies are selling on DVD you may have noticed many review sites have begun to break down reviews into categories like movie, sound quality, video quality, menus, and extras. It makes sense that DVD reviews would begin to mimic video game reviews. A high enough price and some fancy technology tend to make people want to think about their purchases logically. Game and DVD reviews often look like it could be on a page in Consumer Reports.
I don’t think a game (or DVD) should be judged nearly the same way a washing machine is judged. The objectives we rate against are often hard to pinpoint, if they even exist at all, but the perfect spin cycle is less prone to debate than the perfect color contrast, perfect dialog, or perfect control layout. Video games are art and should be respected as such by reviewers. We like certain film reviewers because they have good taste so when they subjectively tell us they liked a movie, we look into it. I do not think video games should be reviewed any differently.
There are some other reasons games are reviewed as they are. The industry currently has few big name writers and without that draw, magazines and sites often attempt to replace an excellent subjective review with an attempt at an objective review, hoping it’ll appeal to the widest base. Then there is the odd idea that some games are good even if the reviewer doesn’t like it. This phenomenon is what makes sure that every single person who reviews the new Final Fantasy or Resident Evil gives it a great review. Pick any great movie and you’re very likely to see at least a few reviewers didn’t enjoy it. Games don’t usually work this way; opinions tend to be more concentrated either at the positive or negative. When a reviewer gives a game he doesn’t like a good write up sometimes it’s because he doesn’t want to rock the boat, but usually it’s that he sees the high production values and understands why the game should work, despite it not doing so for him. This is similar to movie critics being wowed by special effects, scenery, camera work, etc. but thinking the overall movie didn’t work and still giving it a good review. Movie critics have been around a lot longer than game reviewers so they are used to seeing things that should be good but suck.
I have seen too many reviews that say they like the game, think it’s a lot of fun but have to give it an average score because x was not good enough. If you like a game it should get a pretty good review. Your audience wants to know if they will enjoy the game, not how the control ranks compared to every other game you have ever played. Game scholars can spend time perfecting their scoring systems, deciding exactly when to give a 4 versus a 4.5 for “fun factor,” or the 78 versus the 77 for overall game score, but people reviewing for gamers should focus on subjective analysis.