Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

I Can’t Tell Great from Good

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 22, 2014

I’ve been playing video games for… um, a long time, okay? Seriously, when I was little we had one of those Telstar  game consoles with the built-in knobs that had three variations on Pong. So… yeah. Been a while.

And in that time, I have (occasionally) reviewed games, made games, had my games reviewed, and played a lot of games. I think critically about games. I like to believe that I think deeply on games. But I have a confession – perhaps not a new one, as it’s not exactly a new realization, but something I keep getting reminded of as time goes by:

I can’t tell a great game from a good game.

Seriously. I mean, I can generally tell a bad game from a mediocre one. I can maybe tell the difference between mediocre and good. But it gets harder, especially when a game is not consistently bad or consistently competent. I mean, what if a game has poor graphics but good gameplay? Or vice versa? What if it has a lot of great ideas but execution doesn’t meet the ideas’ potential? That’s bad enough.

But aside from clear production value differences (which I feel are artificial and clearly designed to sway people like me who have the same problem), it’s difficult for me to put my finger on what really sets the “great” games apart from their merely “good” counterparts. I can identify some parts that seem brilliant, but whether or not that really sets a game above the others is something I can’t answer.

For me, Super Mario Brothers was a “good” game. It wasn’t really my thing, but I could see how it was well-executed. When my girlfriend introduced me to it and was singing its praises, she was mainly going on about the quality of the graphics. (Yes, how’s that for a switch?)  I thought, “cool,” and I enjoyed playing it, but it wasn’t until years later that I discovered how well it had aged, and began to really understand what made it “great.” Likewise the original Legend of Zelda. I had a blast playing it, even though I would have preferred something that was more of a “real” RPG. Super Meat Boy is an indie example where I can recognize the skill that went into the game, and I have to admit that I end up playing way too much of it even though it’s a style of game I don’t usually prefer (which I should probably treat as a clue for future estimations). But I don’t love it.

Likewise, there were a few games I really thought of as impressive that haven’t strongly resonated among gamers the way I’d expect a “great” game to do. Like Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, which has kind of become more of a cult classic, although I recognized at the time that some of its flaws and bugs held it back from true greatness. I’m still a major fan of the indie RPGs Din’s Curse and Knights of the Chalice, which I consider absolutely great games that few people have ever played (and even fewer share my opinion of them).

Not that becoming a mainstream “hit” is required for a game to be considered “great,” but I do end up doubting my tastes sometimes. I know I’m not entirely lined up with the average joe gamer.

So…  I guess I’m not destined for a career in games journalism. Or something. Beyond certain clear thresholds of quality, my opinion of a game becomes highly dependent of my own biases and preferences.

But I have a sneaking suspicion I’m not entirely alone in this. Why is there such pressure among game reviewers (or from their editors) to make sure that their reviews don’t deviate too far from the norm established by GameRankings or whatever? Is it because they are not confident of their own ability to determine subtle shades of quality?

That’s why – if I were ever in charge of rating games – I’d like to limit it to three possible ratings: Bad, Okay, and Good.  Or, “Hated it”,”Liked it,” and “Loved it.” I just don’t know that I could really nail things down to a greater level of detail than that.

Filed Under: General - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • Felix said,

    No, it’s because gaming publications get free stuff from game publishers: free review copies, various presents such as fancy controllers, invitations to events and so on. If they ever wrote something inconvenient, they’d be promptly cut off from the stream of goodies…

    That said, I suspect most people can only tell the great games in retrospect. Some masterpieces get rave reviews at launch; others don’t. Some sell lots of copies early on, others need more time, or never sell much at all and become cult classics. (Planescape: Torment, anyone?)

    And why are you trying to tell masterpieces apart at launch, anyway? Think you can make a masterpiece on purpose? It doesn’t work that way. Make what you like, and make it as good as you can; and if you end up with a masterpiece, rest assured that it will find its own way to success. As for becoming a game journalist, seeing what’s going on in the field today, are you sure you’d want that?

  • McTeddy said,

    Rule #1 of game design. Audience is everything.

    Once we reach the level of “It functions”, our opinion of a game depends on our personal needs. Games that perfectly match what we look for are “Great” while things that fail us are “I guess I can see why people would like it” aka good.

    I’ll try to be tasteful in my comments on game journalists.

    The reason they are similar is that they hire their friends… who have a similar tastes. That’s why they friends and that’s why they work closely together. It’s a… umm… tight knit community of like-minded thinkers.

    Personally, I feel reviews should have more emphasis on the reviewer themselves and it’s why I rely on youtubers.

    – I know that Angry Joe has a lower tolerance for lack of polish… so I judge his opinion and add 30%.
    – I know Yatzhee hates everything and I tend to agree with his opinions. I judge his opinion at face value.

    The standard metacritic rating system doesn’t give players what they need to make decisions. How the reviewer feels is only HALF the required data.

  • The Old Farmer said,

    I have to agree with you, most games fall in to those 3 catigories for me as well. I do find it interesting how most games with less than a 75% score are considered crap though. If our schools had the pasing grade set at that point we would have a lot more droup outs or a lot smarter population.

    I too feel the game journalist of today has lost all credability. I remember eagerly awaiting my arrival of Computer Gaming World back in the 90’s to see the reviews of what was new. Once you knew what a reviewer liked and that his tastes matched yours if they said it was good then chances are I would like it too. May be it is just that the turnaround is so much faster in our digital only age but I find random critics on steam more credable than most “professional” reviewers.

    Or may be I am turning in to an old kermudgen!

    Hope you all have a Merry Christmas!

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    LOL! Yeah, I might be in the curmudgeon category myself. Same deal, though – I remember turning through the pages of Computer Gaming World, and hoping that my favorite reviewer for a given category of games would review the one I was most interested in, because I knew what they liked and I knew where our tastes were similar.

    And for a while, they resisted putting a rating on games. Because they predicted (correctly) that once they did that, people would quit paying attention to the nuanced review and just read how many stars it gets.

    But ultimately, that percentage scale some sites use today doesn’t have too many meanings either. 90% or better is “really good” (or “really good advertisers”), 70% – 89% is “okay” (albeit maybe with varying shades of “okay”), and then anything less than that is horrible.