Setting a standard
From reading commercial reviews to user comments, I get the impression that the only games worth playing are at minimum 80% and anything less is not worth your time and money. It's not just my opinion as developers have been denied bonuses based on Metacritic scores. I've played games that were rated in the 70's, even 60's according to Metacritic and I found them quite enjoyable. In fact, I find that the difference between low-rated and high-rated games is surprisingly small; they only differ in subtleties, not in whether the game is actually fun or not.
I find that a lot of reviews focus too much on the author's subjective experience instead of examining more objective elements like mechanical design and narrative logic. The language used comes off as emotional posturing that just isn't very useful to the reader. A good review should give you a factual representation of the game, not just convey a personal narrative. That's not to say that reviews should be devoid of the author's personal touch, it's just that there needs to be a consistent standard of how to evaluate. To establish such a standard, the first place to start is in defining what a game is.
Games are interactive mediums. They empower me, enabling me to do things impractical to do in real-life. They make me feel prideful about my ability to make things happen by having the game respond to my choices and skill. Thus, the quality of gameplay comes from the amount and depth of interaction. A game that gives you more options and enables more meaningful possibilities is a better game. I describe what the game gives you, what it expects you to do, and how far you can take the system.
My gameplay analyses read like strategy guides because gameplay is all about understanding the mechanics and making the right decisions to win consistently. It's too easy to dismiss a game as bad when you keep losing and don't want to figure out what you're supposed to do, so I write a strategy guide to demonstrate my due diligence to understand and appreciate the game for what it is.
Variety and flexibility
A game should provide a variety of mechanics to let you make decisions on how you want to approach a given situation. Things like open-ended levels, variable AI behaviours, and lots of items and abilities that serve different purposes help build a complete ecosystem where you can manipulate the game in creative ways to produce creative solutions.
Depth and balance
Even if a game provides a wide variety of tools and systems, it will not be enough if the game doesn't make them interact with each other in important ways. The best games involve strategic decision-making on multiple levels, from dealing with what's immediately in front of you to thinking about how it will affect you in the long run. Everything should have a significant impact on how well you can do and not exist just for the sake of empty variety. You need to consider different possibilities and change your approach as they come rather than repeat a simple, dominating strategy that renders many strategic possibilities pointless.
The point of games is to be in control. Good button ergonomics and mouse responsiveness are important because controls are what link you to the game world and enable you to manipulate it as you see fit. The game should also be paced to keep you engaged with the mechanics instead of making you walk through long stretches of empty terrain and do mundane things.
Story is not a vital component to a game, but it has a significant enough presence to influence the value of a game, so it is worth examining. Story is the use of a hypothetical context to communicate themes such as power corruption, horror, love, nihilism, etc. A story is not just a sequence of events, it presents perspectives the author has. A story isn't that different from an essay; it tries to convince the audience of a point and it needs to be well-justified to be convincing. The quality of a story is about how logically and deeply the themes are portrayed.
Story analyses contain massive spoilers. I don't bother hiding spoilers because it would be useless, even misleading if I just said the story is good or bad and not give a compelling reason why. Writing out the story helps me understand it in hindsight and represent it fairly. It also allows you to compare your understanding of the story to mine after you experienced it yourself.
A story should describe the how and why of things with step-by-step logic to form a complete and logical narrative. It should be internally consistent, avoid simplifying assumptions, and not leave important questions unanswered. If the setting has a logic that differs from real life (e.g. magic), that logic should be explored as its own theme with its own problems rather than used as a convenient plot device to simplify things.
A story should demonstrate expert knowledge about the subject. It presents the hard questions, makes non-obvious connections, and provides novel solutions. The insight makes the story an educational experience, teaching lessons that stick with you and influence your way of thinking.
Clear, focused narrative
The point should be made concretely and concisely to avoid confusion. Being ambiguous or leaving things open to interpretation is just weaseling out of telling a complete story. Excessive lore, side-tracking, and mundane exchanges stress attention span and makes the story tedious to follow. Everything that is included should be relevant and interesting, not used as padding.
My ratings provide a shorthand of how well games fit my criteria. Even though rating systems get a bad reputation for being over-simplifying and easily manipulated, I find it hard to deny that games differ in how much they offer. Sometimes, games may intentionally have weak gameplay in order to tell a story or vice versa, so a single averaged score is a poor representation. Therefore, I give two separate scores.
- N/A — No gameplay.
- ★ — Lacking thoughtful design or game-breakingly buggy.
- ★★ — Basic, limited gameplay.
- ★★★ — Significant design limitations or flaws that make the game frustrating.
- ★★★★ — Solid, straightforward design.
- ★★★★★ — Deep gameplay with a wide range of non-trivial possibilities.
- N/A — No story.
- ★ — Nonsensical or incomplete.
- ★★ — Basic story that barely makes a point.
- ★★★ — Significant errors that undermine its central themes.
- ★★★★ — Solid, straightforward portrayal.
- ★★★★★ — Presents an in-depth understanding with insightful perspectives.
My ratings are not an average of good and bad points. They are more like prioritized categories in which games fit into. Games that have significant problems even though they are otherwise deep will get 3-stars rather than averaged to 4-stars. This is because I prioritize smooth, focused experiences over raw complexity. My ratings are broad to avoid hair-splitting, so different games with the same rating may still differ in nuance. However, because games are a form of art, each game is a unique experience with limited scope. High-rated games do not strictly supersede that of low-rated games, and you may be missing out on experiences that low-rated games provide.
This does not mean that ratings are useless. Not many games actually make you worse off from playing them, but a low rated game is more likely to exhaust its novelty quickly. A 2-star rating is not bad by my standards, just limited. On the other hand, 5-star experiences are not perfect games that must be played. There are no must-plays because your own genre preference is a major factor in whether you will enjoy a game. A 5-star rating just means you will find a game that gives you a lot of meaningful possibilities you can exploit to your advantage. I also do not presume there exists some hypothetically perfect game that the highest rating is reserved for. Chances are, if a developer hasn't created a perfect game already, there is no perfect game since all developers have presumably tried to make the best game they can.
Graphics won't do much to affect my evaluation. Fancy graphics look good on the surface, but it says nothing about how interactive and flexible the game world actually is. A lot of older games are still fun to play today and games with simplistic graphics can still have deep mechanics. Evaluating graphics would result in shifting goal posts as newer technologies get developed, and sometimes graphics are deliberately "bad" to promote an art style (e.g. cartoon graphics). Graphics can even harm the experience with frame rate drops, long loading times, and distracting effects. This is not to say that graphics don't have an effect on my enjoyment of a game, it's just that it is difficult to fairly evaluate due to how subjective it is.
The length of a single playthrough isn't a useful measure because good gameplay is replayable and different people will get more or less out of a game. Shallow or poorly paced gameplay will cause a long game to drag on and become boring, especially if grinding is involved. As long as the story is complete and the levels stress the gameplay depth enough, length isn't important to measure.
Originality is not a concern to me because if it works, there's no need to change it. Criticizing a game for being done before is a type of double-standard evaluation; similar games should get similar evaluations. A game would get unfairly judged if I happened to play it after I play something similar regardless of which game actually came out first. I don't care who did it first, just who does it best. If you're a young, inexperienced gamer, even a derivative game will be original, so originality is subjective. A work is only as original as you are ignorant of its origins.
Difficulty isn't a major factor because difficulty and mechanical depth are not the same, but the former can accentuate the latter. Most games give you difficulty options, but some games, such as realistic tactical shooters, are naturally harder than others by design. Difficulty is something best applied in moderation, and it's safer to be too easy than too hard because a hard game makes you feel less in control due to needing to play a specific way.
Despite all this, my reviews aren't so much buying guides as they are for psychological reinforcement for people who already played the games and want someone else's perspective to verify their own feelings. Jim Sterling wouldn't have been DDOS'd for his Zelda: Breath of the Wild review if there wasn't an ounce of truth to this. Personally, I base my purchasing decisions more on let's plays and user reviews than professional reviews. My reviews are mainly critical thinking exercises to gain a better understanding and appreciation for games.