Jason Schreier: Are Critics’ Game Scores Inflated?

Last week’s NYGCC panel tackled a ton of interesting topics, but there was one point in particular that resonated with me: Evan Narcisse’s comment that this year, we saw a lot of good games, but not a lot of great games. It was a solid year, Evan said, but we saw too many sequels and more than a handful of publishers decided to “play it safe.”

While I’m inclined to agree with Evan, Metacritic tells a different tale. In fact, according to the site’s game review aggregations, twenty-one games of 2010 scored 90 or higher, which seems to indicate that they were all pretty great.

Most of other the panelists and audience members agreed with Evan, as do I – this year was speckled with more good games than great ones. So how do we explain the Metacritic discrepancy? What if maybe, in retrospect, some of the 8s and 9s we gave out this year really weren’t all that accurate? What if some of those scores were inflated? What if, after spending 10-20 hours with a given game, our brains were too immersed in wonder to give accurate scores?

Take Super Mario Galaxy 2. It’s the highest game on the list, ranked 97 overall. In fact, it’s the one of the best-rated games of all time according to Metacritic – beating out BioShock, Baldur’s Gate II, Half-Life II, and a host of other classic titles that often come up in conversation when gamers discuss the greatest games in history.

But do people really think Super Mario Galaxy 2 is one of the best videogames ever? Sure, it was a lot of fun to play, but looking back, does it even come close to achieving the kind of transcendent experience that StarCraft (88 on Metacritic) or Metal Gear Solid 2 (96) can offer? Hell, I can barely even remember which levels were in Super Mario Galaxy 2 and which were in the first.

To me, Super Mario Galaxy 2 was just another good game released this year – not a great game, but a good one. Several years from now, I can’t imagine anyone replaying it and thinking “wow, this is one of the best games of all time.” Could it be that when some reviewers played through Super Mario Galaxy 2, they were enamored by the game’s charm – which is pretty damned alluring – and had trouble staying distant enough to grade it fairly? It’s happened to me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Look, it’s okay to enjoy playing games – we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t love gaming. But as game reviewers, we have a responsibility to be honest and critical with our scores – there’s a big difference between a fun game and a great game. And if every fun game is worth an 8 or a 9, how do we grade the great ones?

It’s essential to try to balance immersion with critique – to stay fair while also staying fans. If we want to be able to talk about games on any sort of critical level, we have to stop tacking high scores on every fun game that comes along. We have to recognize what games are great – and what games just seem to be. We have to reward innovation and lambaste lazy design.

Let’s make scores mean something.

-Jason Schreier

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