What Doth Stars Mean?
Quick and Dirty:
★ One star: A bad game. Not “awful”, “terrible”, or even “abysmal” — just plain old, homegrown, bad. These games technically work, but they’re so unpleasant that nobody would want them to. These games show the type of incompetency you might find in your very own workplace, oooooh…
★★ Two stars: Below par. They have some redeeming features, and you might be able to enjoy them, but their design flaws are so grand and numerous that they remain a constant distraction. Either that, or they’re devoid of enough interesting content to be considered a full game.
★★★ Three stars: Good. The bad is outweighed by the good, and this is where we see the games that are worth playing. Games with interesting design elements and innovative ways of doing things may end up here, as long as they’re executed well and are remarkable enough to praise.
★★★★ Four stars: Great. If you make it here, you’ve won. This is where we see the cream of the crop, the game – changers that inspire great work, developers who care about their medium, and which make you think “Wow, I wish I did that!”. Straight – up damn good, without needing any qualifiers.
★★★★★ Five stars: Life – changing. That’s not an exaggeration; you’re not supposed to get this far. For work that makes you change your worldview, appreciate the arts in a brand new way, want to change yourself for the better, and does it all in one of the best packages the world has ever seen.
The star system is subjective, based on precedent, and contained… anything that would earn a theoretical zero stars is too garbage to be featured, and violates the Kratzen philosophy of “seeing games worth playing”. It is also impossible to earn six stars; the system is explicitly biased towards lower ratings, and any game that earns five stars is already assumed to be a masterpiece.
The practical reason is that I bowed down to peer pressure, or more accurately, the hand of Search Engine Optimisation. My Google results just look prettier when they have that juicy star rating next to them, Froge all next to it as the author, with the meta tag being a cheeky – breeky way to sum up an opinion. I made this website as a marketing exercise to see if I could make a popular games review site. It hasn’t worked out yet, but at least I’ve done all the right things! Well, except for Neocities hosting, nyeh – heh – heh.
But I’ve also noticed some practical benefits to the system. Organisation, for one. Going onto the archives and seeing those numbers on the very right helps me remember if I liked a game or not, and lets me adjust my review accordingly. It also helps my audience understand my tastes and biases without having them read through every single review, which are at least a thousand words long each, sometimes three thousand. If I see that Matt Zoller Seitz reviewed “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie”, then I wouldn’t care. But if I see that he gave the film three and a half stars, then that’s going to draw my attention! Same for all my four – star reviews. They’re so hecking rare that if you see one pop up, you know it’s something special.
The second one is precedent. If I give Gun Godz three stars and call it a generic DOOM clone, then it stands to reason that other generic DOOM clones would get a similar rating. If I say that one of NomNomNami’s visual novels is cute fluff with nothing fulfilling involved, and then she releases another visual novel just like that, then I can’t rate the same thing higher! The star system has helped me look over my biases in a — day I say? — objective point of view, instead of forcing me to look through each title and think about how I felt about it manually each time. Of course, I always think about the reasons why I gave it that star rating, but it’s a mental shortcut I enjoy.
And the third reason is that, more or less, my star system circumvents many of the issues surrounding traditional numbering systems, which are worthless due to a combination of no reviewer ever using the full scale, a lack of central philosophy as to how to use the scale, and allowing for too many different ratings rather than just a few solid ones… if you have a 0 – 10 scale, and you allow ratings like 8.8, you no longer have a ten – point scale: you have a hundred point scale! What is a reviewer supposed to do with a hundred different levels of opinions? It’s worthless.
Why didn’t I always use it?
In the first place, I couldn’t be arsed. Froghand was not set up specifically for reviews, so appending a little number on top of each article would be embarrassingly trite. In the second place, I had many objections to the star system, many of which you’ve probably heard before and were alluded to last paragraph, and indeed did a good deal of raving regarding any sort of numbering system. I have spent much of my life devising a compromise system that isn’t a worthless one, and I believe this is the closest attempt I’ll ever get to a perfect system.
I actually use the entire system, unlike your traditional reviewer which would have to, at a minimum, review a hundred different games to use the hundred – point scale. I managed to get from four to one star in just eight games. The reason that 8.8 is a meme is because traditional scales have been inflated to the point where a five out of ten is no longer an “average” game — and some might argue never has been. Reviewers who feel they need to “break the ratings scale” have been working with a broken scale since they started! Not to ban the hilariously subversive gag of giving a game a six out of five (the madman!), but if I’m going to make a system that will be the centerpiece of every review I ever do, wouldn’t it be groovy to make it right the first time?
Indeed, my old article, “Review of Game Reviewers”, talks about not only the failures of rating systems, but the failures of video games journalism as a whole. Look at me now, Froge! Look at what meme’ve become! But the point about not being able to distill an opinion into a number, an old point that has yet to be fully disproved, is still true. I don’t believe one can invest a significant amount of their life playing something just on the basis that I gave it four stars out of five — at least, not without understanding why I did so. Maybe I was wrong when I gave it that score. Maybe I secretly regret it, who knows? But I’ve come to understand that just because I designate something as having a certain amount of stars, it doesn’t discount everything else I’ve written. The convenience listed above is too much for me to give up… it’s a privilege of mine at this point.
(also, I’m enjoying reading my old works, because they’re the only things that make me laugh anymore. choice quote: “Write like you're God, and edit like you're a mad mother [Whoops! Can’t show that in a Christian manga!] with something to prove”).
You know, I could talk on and on about this little scale I’ve developed, the philosophy of reviewing in general, and all the exceptions. But why bother? It’s a subjective thing that I give to games based on, simply, how many stars I think they deserve. Roger Ebert complained how he felt the four – star scale (really a ten – point scale with a fancy haircut) was too limiting. I believe this shows someone who never understood what his scale was supposed to represent, never developing a unified theory in regards to that scale, and not giving either himself or his audience much feedback as to what the stars meant. So we ask ourselves: “what do the stars mean?”. And the answer, simply, is that they mean the reviewer gave the work that many stars.
I’ve imbued meaning into my stars, and I’m proud of having done that, where each rating means something distinct rather than being arbitrary, and where I allow myself the freedom to rate games without adhering to super – strict criteria as some systems attempting to “fix” reviewing attempts. At the end of the day, though, the star system really only means something to somebody who has to deal with it on a daily basis, considering what the final verdict of the game will be even as he writes the hecking review. As it stands, though, I feel this is the only rating system that has ever made sense to me, and I am glad to use it.
Of course, it would make a lot more sense to the audience if I had published the rating key earlier. Oops!