Today I ran across the question about why when searching through Metacritic there are more high scoring reviews on video games as opposed to other entertainment mediums. It’s a good question on face value, but there’s actually more to the answer then you might think.
Say that you are writing a review of a game on a scale of 1-10. In 1986 a game like Ulitma IV might have easily garnered a 9 or 10 because it was the pinnacle of that genre, remarkable as a video game in general and an overall exceptional game. It had many notable “new” features such as an exceptionally large game world, lots of NPC interactions for the time, a morality system of sorts, etc… It was also cutting edge in the use of audio technology (on the Apple it supported dual Mockingboards allowing 12 channel audio, which was simply unprecedented at the time as most games of this era might only use a computer’s built in speaker, if that to generate clicks and buzzes).
Ultima IV released exactly as it is today as a new game might only garner anywhere from a 5 to a 7 because while it is still a well done game it is now an overused concept and unoriginal by current standards and expectations.
In contrast, an exceptionally filmed movie from 1930 can still be just as visually compelling and artistically comparative to a contemporary film made now. Consider the movie Metropolis. Even today this movie is visually impressive and story wise, quite contemporary in its subjects of worker oppression, class elitism and surprisingly… A.I.. Granted, while the silent presentation and slower pacing may prove difficult for some to watch, it can be quite enjoyable for a modern viewer and it is easy to both acquire and watch without much trouble. The only options for variation in experiencing this movie are between watching in a theater or on a TV. Granted those experience differences can be significant they are typically not considered a factor in a review.
To carry our analogy, Ultima IV may be enjoyable for modern players but they must also endure the added burden of many significant technological barriers to overcome before they can even try to experience the game in a way that in the end almost certainly will not be the same as the experience of 30 years ago. You can still potentially go to a movie theater and watch Metropolis with a live pianist. Finding a complete, working Apple //e with Mockingboards and functional game media is more of a challenge, and that’s if you decided you want to try and play the Apple version and not the MSDOS-PC or Commodore-64 ports (most people these days only play the PC port via DOS emulation). Which takes us to our next topic…
Ratings in video games unlike any other medium are highly context sensitive to the technology used and moment in time they were written for which is why a review generated in 1986 for Ultima IV is more relevant than a review written for that same game today. The prevailing attitude in video gaming culture is that there is literally no way a contemporary reviewer could write a review with the same level of enthusiasm or appreciation and recognition as a period reviewer. To that end, “retro reviews” are typically considered of lower value than period reviews. Another aspect of retro reviews to keep in mind is that many of them now are performed under emulation using non-standard controllers which may effect the overall experience (eg, NES games played on a PC via an emulator using a PS2 style gamepad controller. This is simply not even the same experience.). Even things like up-scaled pixel resolutions or the lack of scan-lines on modern displays (an artifact of CRT based display technology) can effect the visual experience of a game when the designer incorporated something about that legacy viewing system into the visual aesthetics of a game’s art design.
Let’s consider another example… Stunt Race FX for the Super Nintendo. My magazine at the time gave this game a combined review score of 94.0/100 spread between four reviewers. I distinctly remember this game being visually impressive and I spent hours playing and enjoying the game.
Recently, based on those fond memories I dug out the SNES, dusted off the controller, loaded up the game cartridge and tried to play it. I found the game almost impossible to view let alone play. It was an incredibly jarring experience. If a game like that had been released right now on a modern platform and I was reviewing it, I probably would have tanked it.
As I eluded to above, video game scores take into consideration aspects such as the player interface as part of a review (eg, the responsiveness of the controller, the screen resolution of the video output, etc…). For the most part movie reviewers do not consider popcorn quality or sticky floors as a relevant element in a movie rating (granted, the quality of the camera and projection format may impact movie reviews but that’s generally the exception, not the norm), yet in video games, interface elements of the user experience are generally intrinsic to a reviewers scoring.
Lastly, you can’t look at gaming scores as a spread spectrum the same as other mediums. You really need to quantify your data, be it by era, platform, etc… as those extra parameters are just as relevant to the nature of the score beyond the raw play experience itself. I suppose movies and music have similar strata but the differences between eras in technologies aren’t typically as critical to the content as they are with video games.