Tuesday, June 8, 2010

In search of the perfect 10

I began to think about this a couple weeks ago, when I recommended Red Dead Redemption to a customer, citing a perfect ten-out-of-ten review as evidence of its quality.  His response was dismissive: "There's no such thing as a perfect ten," he claimed.  Touché, I thought.  Even I can only think of a handful of games I would give a ten-out-of-ten score.  Does that mean those games are perfect?  Are they without flaws, glitches, or frustrating moments?  Do they exceed expectations in everything they attempt to do?  Put simply, no, they do not.  So how do I justify giving a 10/10 to a game that is not absolutely perfect?  Because it really is not that simple.

Looking at a game objectively, it is impossible to make it perfect.  There will always be a pixel or a polygon out of place, AI that behaves questionably, sections of gameplay that take a few too many tries to complete, or any other potential problems you face when dealing with user-controlled media.  The unpredictable nature of video games makes it impossible to prevent every scenario that could detract from the experience.  But video games are not objective, are they?  Unless you are reviewing a puzzle game or a simulated card game, there are very subjective elements that are necessary to game design.  (One could even argue that the aesthetic of a puzzle game can affect the player's enjoyment.)  A video game should be visually pleasing, a factor that cannot be considered objectively.  In addition, most games strive to generate an emotional response in the player — a feeling of joy, fear, excitement, etc.  Certainly emotions cannot be judged objectively.

My point is, there is no such thing as an "objective game review."  You cannot judge a game based solely on its technical aspects any more than any other media.  When you read a movie review, do you want it judged solely on the run time and type of filming equipment used?  Do you want music judged solely on chord progression and time signature?  Do you want literature judged solely on spelling and grammar?  Of course not.  Then why do gamers demand a purely objective review of a video game?

When a reviewer scores a game 10/10, he is not claiming the game is absolutely perfect.  Rather, he is asserting that, from his experience, the game's technical blemishes are so sparse and minute that they do not significantly affect the quality of the overall experience.  A 10/10 can also imply that, despite advancements in technology, years from now the reviewer may still find the same amount of enjoyment in the game.

GameSpot once utilized as part of its scoring process — along with gameplay, graphics, sound, and value — a "Reviewer's Tilt."  This was a score ranging from one to ten that was averaged into the other scores to give the reviewer an influence over the final score.  It allowed the reviewer to account for unquantifiable factors such as aesthetic appeal, emotional response, or in some cases, the cinematic qualities like story and acting.  If a game was average in all of its technical aspects, but had a charming presentation and high replay value, the reviewer can reflect that in his "tilt."  In contrast, if a game had exceptional technical aspects, but an unengaging story and unoriginal gameplay, the "tilt" can be lowered to reflect that.  I think it was a great system and really exemplified the point that gaming is a very personal and subjective experience, and not a purely technical one.

Many movie buffs consider films like The Godfather, The Empire Strikes Back, and Psycho to be "perfect films," earning the conventional four (out of four) star ratings typically given to films of their caliber, despite long lists of continuity errors and technical goofs.  Heck, even Citizen Kane, universally hailed as "the greatest film of all time," has its own list of flubs to challenge its place at the top of the list.   If film critics are permitted to heap such praise on technically imperfect movies, shouldn't we grant video game critics the same privilege?  After all, a ten-out-of-ten game is like a loved one: you know they have flaws, but you love them so much it doesn't matter.

By the way, in case you are wondering which games I'd give a "perfect 10," they are Super Mario Bros. 3The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the PastSuper Mario 64Metal Gear Solid, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

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