The Whole Sum of the Parts.

It’s been a tradition for as far back as I can remember, and it continues to this day. Almost every review site and pretty much any review worth reading (and a number of them that aren’t) use the same standardish layout for reviewing games: take a number of categories (like Graphics, Sound, Gameplay, Story, etc, etc) and break down a game by analyzing each of these. Give each a score. At the end of the review, average the scores in all categories to get an overall score, that’s the rank, and that’s all she wrote.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. Well, except for one teeny-tiny little problem: for a significant number of games, it doesn’t actually work.

We’ve all played games that had crappy graphics — even for the systems that were out — basic gameplay and little to no story that were somehow incredibly addictive in spite of that. The old game “Scorched Earth” on the PC was basically a number of immobile tanks trying to figure out geometric angles to drop a number of creative — and not so creative, but certainly explodey — bombs on each other. The graphics were terrible (the Amiga version “Scorched Tanks” had better graphics in addition to the normal far better sound), the gameplay trivial, and the only story was the one you gave it. And yet, I — and others — found it an amazingly fun and addictive game.

But the best example — and the one that was more mainstream — might be Tetris. Think about it. Break Tetris down into graphics, sound, gameplay and all of that good stuff, and add them all up. You’ll probably end up ranking it lower than its massive popularity would suggest it should be ranked, because unless you add a category of “Addictiveness” and make that count for half the score you won’t be able to capture that, somehow, that game is incredibly addictive even though at an objective level it really shouldn’t be.

Also, we’ve all had games that had great graphics, gameplay, story and yet all that didn’t really add up to a good game. A minor example on this very site is my review of “Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love”. I talk about how I like the graphics, like the sound, love the music, and like the story and the gameplay. Taking all my scores together, it comes out to 4 out of 5 stars, which translates to about 8/10. And yet, in my subjective score at the end, I give it 7/10, because to me how it all fit together was about there. While the sum of the parts looks good to me, the whole isn’t quite at that level.

So, are gaming review sites doing it wrong? Should they be giving out subjective overall scores and ignoring the categories, like my subjective overall score at the end of my review?

I’m going to say “No”, for two reasons:

1) The parts are, in fact, important and useful gauges in determining how good a game is and if someone will like it. Despite them not really determining that a game will be good or bad, they definitely matter. Games with bad graphics will tend to have a worse overall feeling than games that have good graphics. And tired, trite gameplay generally leads to a more boring game than new and well-executed gameplay. The fact that it doesn’t always work doesn’t mean that it never works, or that that summary isn’t useful.

2) The subjective overall thing I do and that some others do is just that: subjective. It’s what I think of the game. Some people might be raving over the game and think it definitely deserves at least an 8. Some people might hate it and think that my 7 was too generous. The objective, sum of the parts ratings are my best attempt to analyze the categories objectively and thus start with an objective base. The sum, then, is the sum of the reviewer — at least for me — being as objective as they possibly can. So that’s what they feel is an objective score. The subjective is just “Okay, how do I feel about this game?” Without the objective breakdown, all you’d get is my impression, and in order to decide if you’re going to spend your hard-earned money on a game you need more than that from a review.

Thus, I say that gaming review sites get it right to do that breakdown. And, also, that’s why I toss my subjective impression score in at the bottom of all my reviews. I’m giving you as much information as I possibly can, and leaving it up to you to decide what matters to you.

You’re welcome.

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2 Responses to “The Whole Sum of the Parts.”

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    It also matters to state (and I’m sure you agree) WHY you think the whole is less than the sum of its parts, or more.

    As an example – in my recent review of season 5 of “Justified” and its final episode, I commented (and from reading other reviews my opinion was generally shared) that the season whole seemed to be a bit less than the sum of its parts.

    The trick was to give why – yes, the characters were entertaining, and there were fantastic individual episodes and scenes, and the payoffs were satisfying, BUT…the stakes didn’t seem as high, and one of the storylines seemed slightly weaker than the others, and the general story arc of the season seemed disorganized.

    So sometimes you really can quantify why individual parts of a game or media in general don’t add up to the whole like you’d expect.

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