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What Makes A Review Useful?

My frustration with Bubsy: Paws on Fire! reviews has me thinking about what makes for a good review in the first place.

The term “review” is a bit overloaded, but let’s leave aside critical analysis and close readings and focus on the traditional consumer-advice-style review. The goal of such a review is to give potential consumers the information they need to make a purchasing decision - on top of information that comes from elsewhere, such as the product’s current price and the consumer’s current life situation. So what is that missing information that the review should provide?

It’s tempting to say that it’s the game’s quality level. The review should convey whether the game is good or bad - often by providing a number indicating where it falls on the spectrum.

The problem is that once you’re above a fairly low baseline, this isn’t universally-applicable. As long as a game basically works, then people will react to the experience it provides in widely different ways. I have played and disliked many popular and acclaimed games - and while I believe Graham Banas is honest when he gives Bubsy: Paws on Fire! a 2/10 on Push Square, using that site’s own scoring policy I’d easily give Paws an 8 or 9. There’s no way to objectively say that one (or both!) of us is wrong in our assessment of the game’s quality, so it doesn’t seem like that could be reasonably considered the core of the review.

I think the actual core - the missing information that a review should provide - is the game’s audience. Most games that basically work and the vast majority of games that get reviewed would be enjoyed by some group of people out there. A useful review is one that makes it clear who is in this group so that readers can determine whether they are a member. A high quality level for a game suggests that the group is large but doesn’t mean any given reader is necessarily a part of it or that they would like the game.

This is easier said than done, of course. It’s simple to say “If you like Bit.Trip Runner’s gameplay and the Bubsy characters, you’ll like Paws on Fire!” but that won’t be much help to someone unfamiliar with those franchises. Finding the right balance of specificity and brevity is tough. But it’s a worthy goal, and it’s what I try to keep in mind when writing my own reviews.