How great was God Hand, a 2006 PlayStation 2 game that IGN gave a 3.0 out of 10 to? Very, very great, Kotaku reader Bondage Zombie finally realized. And with that eureka he has sworn off looking at review scores, as he explains in today's Speak Up on Kotaku.
Whenever a new game is released, I go through a ritual. First, I check my favorite blogs and journals for reviews, then I comb metacritic entries for dissenting opinons. If I'm still undecided about a purchase, I carefully grill friends and co-workers with pointed questions about my concerns before making my ultimate decision.
If I had already intended to pick up the game, I can skip these steps, because i've done this beforehand. For me, picking a game means I look for the things I prefer and make an informed decision. Whether someone else likes it would be nice, but not even the most scathing review score can turn me away once i've made up my mind.
However, On October 10, 2006, I read a review for the Clover Studios game God Hand on IGN.com. The reviewer liked almost nothing about the game. The finished game was given a dismal 3 out of 10, with 'awful' as the byline. The IGN review was so one-sided that I only remembered it as something best avoided at all costs. Had I searched a little bit more, I would have found wildly different impressions from other reviewers; so much so, that it eventually generated a Devil's Advocate second opinion, but the damage was already done.
IGN readers immediately railed at the score, angrily lashing out in great detail about why they loved the game and why the reviewer should be fired. Many professional reviewers were shocked that a game so different from Clover's critically acclaimed hit, Okami, could be so rough different in it's presentation. When compared to it, they were right; God Hand is not Okami, not even close, but that did not mean it had no appeal. The largely polarized reviews underscored something that is easy to forget about all of the entertainment we consume: what makes a game 'good' is entirely subjective.
While I was studiously avoiding it, many people who were playing God Hand and having a great time, even going so far as to beat it multiple times and resolve to never sell their copies. Even now, it enjoys nigh cult status. It wasn't until a year later that I picked it up, after a friend's recommendation and enjoyed every badly-voiced, clunkily-controlled minute, but I still did not think the IGN reviewer was not wrong. He gave his opinion as a critic and stuck to his guns, detailing why he felt the way he did. While many sites rank individual aspects of the game numerically, the 'overall' score given to a title is almost never an average, but an arbitrary grade dictated by the reviewer's personal taste.
So, what happened? Why did I not simply dig deeper? Most likely it was simply that I took a passing interest in the title. It seemed curious to me, but not curious enough to change my skepticism. Each negative note the reviewer belted out, the more nails in the game's coffin. After i finished reading it, I had no real reason to take a chance on the title; the fault was all mine!
Often, we get so bogged down by what a game is not (not Halo, not Bayonetta) that we forget that many people enjoyed games like True Crime: New York and God Hand for all of their poor execution and low production values, just like we enjoy a good B or C movie when we are in the mood for one. We know it's bad, but there is something about comfort food that lets us know that the stakes aren't always so high and that a little bit of bad CAN sometimes be a good thing.
Doing a better job explaining what a game is goes a long way towards defining it's target audience. Relying on the sanctity of our opinion alone does a great disservice to the reader, because sometimes it's okay if we personally do not like a game. Being careful to realize that even the most virtuous bastions of programming and presentation have detractors, can keep us humble even if our aim is to shock and titilate.
That, and other examples, are why I no longer believe in reviewing on a numerical scale and why I no longer obnoxiously rant about Farmville at parties. There is never any excuse for a broken game, though. Those people should be strung up by the heels.