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Pop Culture Corner: Reviews Shouldn’t Have Numbered Scores

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The Cyberpunk 2077 discourse is evidence of it

Cyberpunk 2077, featuring V and Johnny Silverhand

Cyberpunk 2077 is one of the most anticipated video games in recent memory. It’s one of those games where the stars aligned for maximum hype: it’s intriguing in and of itself, yes, but it was announced a long time ago by a development studio—CD Projekt Red—that is coming off its wildly successful release of what is considered one of the greatest games of all time, The Witcher 3. Combine that with a pandemic that has limited recreational activities everywhere, brand new video game consoles, and the most consequential PC graphics cards released in years, and you’ve got the perfect storm.

Oh yeah, and did you hear that Keanu Reeves is in it? There’s that, too.

Finally, after multiple delays, you can now purchase Cyberpunk 2077. Four days earlier, the review embargo lifted, and the reviews for the game started piling up. It was exciting! Here were real life journalists for real life publications reviewing the actual release copy of Cyberpunk 2077, and it was the first time the entire game was available to anyone.

In general, the game has been well received. It is apparently buggy as hell, and there are some complaints that the combat isn’t particularly rewarding, and there are other complaints that the story is disjointed and not cohesive.

But for this game more than ever, I’m disappointed that review scores are a thing. Cyberpunk 2077 currently has a score of 91 on Metacritic, but that information ought to be useless to everyone. That it is not is frustrating to say the least.

Look: I get it. Humans like numbers. Humans like arbitrary numbers and round numbers alike. There are a whole host of reasons for this. We yearn to see the media we like have the highest numbers attached to them because it validates our decisions. We also want to use them to figure out what on earth to consume, because there is simply too much media in the world and how else are we supposed to figure it out?

However, review scores are ultimately meaningless—particularly for video games. This is true for two reasons. First, that games reviews never utilize the full scale available to them. Ostensibly, reviewers and review readers alike are supposed to adhere to a standardized 10-point review scale (or 100, if you prefer not to think in decimals). Realistically, nearly every reviewed video game is scored between a 6 and a 10. From the very start, games are scored on a bizarre and somewhat meaningless scale, warping how we talk about games in the first place. It would be better for everyone if game reviews were more like movie reviews, where critics can and do eviscerate popular movies if they don’t think they are good.

Second, that even in mediums where review scores are broader and therefore carry more information, reducing a piece of art to a singular number is both not indicative of much of anything and hurts the discourse in the process. Is a game with an 8.5 score better than one with an 8.0 score? Is a game with an 8.5 score better than one with an 8.3 score? The answer, in both cases: it doesn’t matter. What does matter is how we talk about entertainment, and paying attention to the score is missing the point. The moment you start worrying about the number attached to a piece of media, you stop thinking critically about it.

Cyberpunk 2077 has some serious flaws, by the way. For Kotaku, Riley MacLeod, a trans man himself, wrote about how he felt the game utilized trans representation as aesthetic color rather than a piece of true diversity. For Gamespot, Kallie Pleggy also noted the superficiality of its diversity as well as the extreme bug-laden nature of the game. And for Game Informer, Liana Ruppert wrote that Cyberpunk 2077 features a recurring visual that purposefully recreates what real life neurologists use to induce seizures, and that she suffered a grand mal seizure while playing the game.

These are real issues to discuss, but if you look in the Twitter replies to those publications’ Tweets about those stories you will very quickly find references to how high the game’s score is, and further arguments that maybe those people should just shut up with their, you know, opinions and experiences.

Personally, I read reviews of games I am interested in on Kotaku and Polygon first precisely because those reviews don’t include a numbered score. And if I do read a review elsewhere, I’ll try not to look at the score at all if I can help it. That’s because I want to hear about why a game is or isn’t good, not an arbitrary figure that tries to explain just how good that game is or isn’t.