Review Scores present sort of a dilemma for me. They essentially assign a numerical value to a game’s quality and then it just sort of creates this situation where you can rank games based on scores. Meta Critic, IGN, and other sites do this. One game is better than the other… weirdly enough, IGN’s console reviews are often better than their PC reviews even though it’s the same game – but hey, that’s not what this post is about, innit?
This post is about comparing games mostly and why my feelings on the matter are conflicted.
Game Comparisons are only natural. When you talk about a game and try to pitch to somebody, you may say stuff like “Kittens Game is the Dark Souls of incremental gaming” or “this game is like X meets Y”. It’s something I see often in e-mails that I get from developers or publishers trying to pitch their game to me so that I review it… and it’s honestly problematic.
The biggest issue for me is that depending on your connotations with a specific game, comparisons don’t work too well.
Note: Since this post will be longer, I decided to put in some screenshots from games that I like, they’re from these titles (in order of appearance):
– Necrobarista (Review)
– Hollow Knight
– NieR Automata
– In Other Waters (Review)
– Still There
- Examples – and problems that arise
- Comparisons can have certain effects
- What does this mean for me as a reviewer or for developers?
- Should we avoid comparisons altogether?
- Just a little more on Comparisons!
- Now, Review Scores…maybe another time?
Examples – and problems that arise
Take Hollow Knight, for instance. If you played it and you loved it like me because of the combat and exploration, then you’ll have fond memories of it and set the bar quite high. The person comparing their game to Hollow Knight may mean the platforming, though, which I didn’t like. Either way, I go into that game expecting Hollow Knights storytelling, exploration and combat but what I get is lots of Pogo-Jumping and that’s not my jam at all.
Take Hollow Knight, again, and someone describes this other game as Hollow Knight meets Starcraft or something like that (idk)… and you hate Hollow Knight. You’re one of those people that couldn’t explore well or get used to the platforming and you got stuck at some rough fight and didn’t know where else to go. Suddenly, this new game is a bad game in your eyes and your expectations of it are quite low.
If you didn’t play Hollow Knight at all, comparing a game to Hollow Knight will make it seem like you’re being gatekept or excluded in the discussion. Frankly, if a review mentions Dishonoured, I’d be lost. I haven’t played it yet as of the time of writing this… I wouldn’t exactly know what they mean as Dishonoured is, afaik, a stealth game (?)… and I heard it’s great but it probably is more than just stealth, right?
This kind of results in problems arising where a certain kind of knowledge (i.e. you have to have played the game) is required to be able to understand the comparison at hand.
Also, different people have different connotations with games, depending on what sort of things they’re into and how they liked the games at hand, meaning that “Zelda meets Hollow Knight” (something I see quite often in e-mails) could mean literally anything to different people.
Comparisons can have certain effects
So, I don’t know if there is one specific name for this but depending on your experiences, comparisons can have different effects.
For starters, you could end up being incredibly hyped because of the game and the expectations that you set end up influencing your experience, possibly resulting in a bad experience – when you would have enjoyed the game had it not been for those expectations.
Similarly, a comparison may end up having the opposite effect where you end up having low expectations and in the process, the game seems much, much better – even though you wouldn’t have liked it if it weren’t for those expectations.
But then there’s also the issue of you possibly imprinting good or bad expectations onto games. “Imprint” may be the wrong word here but what I essentially mean by this is that when you have low expectations or bad connotations with a game, possibly due to comparisons, you end up looking for flaws in a title even if you’re enjoying it.
A good example of this would be Raid: Shadow Legends, a game that I hated because of false advertisements, predatory business models, and the over-sexualization of women. A while ago, I ended up playing it again and even though I used to hate it so much, I actually enjoyed the game… for what it is. It’s a grindy mess with turn-based combat and if you treat it like that with no low or high expectations and take it at face value, it’s a good game to pass time with. It’s not revolutionary or anything… but it’s not “bad”.
So, had it not been for the false advertisement and the overabundance of Raid Shadow Legends sponsorships… the game would probably have been an alright game.
There is a psychological phenomenon called the “Golem Effect” where lower expectations cause poorer performance. It’s not applicable here but in my research, I stumbled upon it. When you expect less of individuals IRL, they will perform less. This is a form of a self-fulfilling prophecy and appears to mostly seen in educational environments but also in other organisations.
If you don’t expect much of people, you’ll see that they’ll perform less – that’s mostly due to the unconscious bias you have towards them.
There is also the “Pygmalion Effect” or “Rosenthal Effect” which occurs when people’s expectations impact both their own behaviour and our own behaviour.
There used to be a study where researchers essentially conducted tests under the pretence of finding students in schools that are “gifted”. Apparently, they then just told the teachers that a bunch of randomly-selected students were gifted. They were supposed to not be told. Only the teachers knew, apparently, and as a result, they ended up being harder on the “gifted” students when they messed up – and they praised them more when they did well… as a result, these students improved A LOT.
Again, self-fulfilling prophecy.
What does this mean for me as a reviewer or for developers?
So, for me as someone that writes reviews this means that I should not make comparisons in reviews unless I can explain sufficiently what that other game does well and how it does it… and why this game is worse/better. I’d have to explain a lot so that people know exactly what I mean even if they haven’t played the game at all… and that’s a hassle, which is why I personally try to avoid comparisons most of the time.
At the same time, this also means that developers and publishers should stop pitching games as “X meets Y” (with X and Y being other games) or “the lovechild of X and Y” or something like that. This creates expectations that may be too hard to meet and as a result, a reviewer may get influenced by it, unconsciously.
On another note, reviewers should “cleanse their palettes” regularly. When you play a game and then play something that you want to review, you may end up having positive or negative feelings because of the previous game… and that affects the game you’re reviewing.
Artichokes, for instance, make food that you eat afterwards taste sweeter which is why cleansing your palette with water isn’t necessarily too effective due to food-science-stuff… It’s weird.
Sometimes, you can’t avoid it with games… but if I were to play a Roguelike-Deckbuilder after I played Slay the Spire, I may subconsciously draw comparisons and then I’d probably judge the game based on the standard of Slay the Spire… but that’s problematic because it’s not Slay the Spire. It’s a different game!
Should we avoid comparisons altogether?
Quite a while ago, I had this discussion with a friend back in November where we talked about this issue in particular and he said:
“Yes, it can be done poorly but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t ever be done. You can provide a lot of meaning in a good comparison that otherwise would’ve taken hundreds of words.”
And he’s basically just uttering facts.
At the time, I was a bit stubborn on this matter or rather… I felt conflicted because this friend is smart whereas I’m not really. What he says makes sense. It’s more convenient, especially on a blog, to make a comparison whereas explaining that comparison or trying to explain what exactly this reminds one of or stuff like that… yeah, that’s a bit much, innit?
So, yes, you can make comparisons and yes, it can be done well… but it can also be done poorly and thus, I find it difficult when I see developers compare their first game to one of the greats like Hollow Knight or Zelda… because it’s hard to live up to that and it causes issues for people that haven’t played those games or that think poorly or highly of those.
My point that it isn’t “fair” to compare games was also about comparing a studio’s game to their previous games, like with Supergiants Games… where Pyre didn’t live up to the hype that surrounds the studio, from what I’ve heard, given that Transistor and Bastion were amazing in terms of combat… but Pyre is still great because of its storytelling. Some people, however, compared it to the other two games and hence, it doesn’t live up to those unfair standards.
They’re different games after all. Apples and Oranges, right?
Or with CD Project Red’s Cyberpunk, many people created hype around it because of their feelings towards The Witcher 3. I mean, I’m sure CDPR is a great studio but I really disliked The Witcher 1 and I hence disliked the comparison. It’d be different if it was The Witcher 4 – but Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t a Witcher game, right? So why compare it.
But one could argue that the hype was revolving around CDPR’s track record overall and not just one game in which case this example is flawed… either way, comparisons can be done well and don’t have to necessarily be avoided but it’s important to be aware of issues they can cause.
Edit (added on January 1st, 00:06 GMT+1): So, since I digressed here and since that may have caused confusion, I want to reiterate that it’s not that we should avoid comparisons but rather that we should think about why we do them or what effects they can have.
Just a little more on Comparisons!
I saw the other day that Razbuten on YT has made a video on this exact topic and I figured I should link it because he’s one of my favourite creators on YouTube. I highly recommend this channel. Give his videos a watch. You won’t regret them!
Now, Review Scores…maybe another time?
Now, review scores aren’t as problematic as one would think.
In and by themselves, they just help people grade games and recommend/not recommend them.
If I were to do review scores, I’d have to implement them for all of my 100+ reviews on the blog… that’s gonna be a hassle… but going forward, I may possibly try to do review scores.
But how to rate games and what kind of scale I’d want for them is a whole post on its own, I reckon. I mean, where would I even start? So that will be basically a post for another day, probably.