I review video games for a living. This is what impresses me

Review embargo day for any big video game is always an exciting event. Some players have turned “score watching” into a spectator sport, sharing their predictions for how they think a game’s Metacritic average will even out. It’s all fun and games … until it becomes incredibly annoying.

That was the case last week when the review embargo for Starfield finally lifted. Fans eagerly waited to see if Xbox’s biggest exclusive in years — if not ever — was worth the hype. Despite garnering some high praise (it currently sits at a respectable 86 average on Metacritic), one look at social media may have convinced you that critics unfairly hated it. Irate gamers spent a long holiday weekend dragging sites like IGN who dared to award Starfield a 7/10, a “Good” score by the site’s review rubric. That criticism wasn’t just from Xbox warriors out for blood either, but high-profile critics from other publications who questioned how anyone could score such a masterpiece so low.

It’s a sore spot for me personally. My own 3.5/5 Starfield review echoed many thoughts present in IGN’s review, which also popped up at publications like Gamespot and Paste. It’s not an uncommon perspective, but it hasn’t stopped angry fans from accusing sites of writing cynical reviews built to farm outrage clicks. Though I was spared from the internet’s fury this time, I’ve been on the receiving end of it plenty of times for critical takes on games likeFinal Fantasy XVI (one reader wished I’d be impaled for it). That can be a deflating experience for critics just trying to do honest work in the face of a hype-driven industry.

Rather than feeding into blind rage, the discourse around Starfield opens the door for some transparency into our review process. If something as big and awe-inspiring as Starfield is a “7/10” to us at Digital Trends, then what impresses us as critics who spend nearly every day playing and thinking about games?

Looking for meaning

Let’s be clear from the start: There’s no singular answer as to what I think makes for a great game. The beautiful thing about the industry right now is that it’s so full of diverse, unpredictable experiences at every level. Before Your Eyes is a heart-wrenching indie anchored by an ingenious eye-tracking control scheme, while Street Fighter 6 is simply an ultra-slick fighter that gave me a newfound appreciation for a genre I’ve always found intimidating. Both of those experiences are miles apart in what they accomplish for me, but each is meaningful in its own way.

For me, that’s ultimately what sets a great game apart from a good one. My favorites, the ones that really stick with me, tend to go a step beyond escapist fun — and there’s a variety of ways they accomplish that. Likely the most obvious one comes from games that communicate ideas through story and writing. Indie visual novel Videoverse is currently my favorite game of 2023 thanks to a sharply written script that explores the beauty of online communities and the grief that comes from losing them. It’s a timely story amid Elon Musk’s X (formerly Twitter) deterioration, one that’s helped me better understand my own relationship to social media and digital friendships.

A page for a fictional game called Feudal Fantasy appears in Videoverse.

A thematically rich story isn’t the only way games can impress, though. One thing that I’m always hungry for is games that communicate ideas through the act of play. After all, it’s an interactive medium. I was high on Pikmin 4 in my review earlier this summer specifically because of how Nintendo uses streamlined strategy gameplay to illustrate how Dandori works. Pikmin 4 might not seem like it’s “about” anything on paper, but that’s not the case; it teaches players how to effectively organize complicated tasks entirely through the act of play.

A lot of my favorite games find a way to bring those two ideas together. Take this year’s exceptional Venba, for instance. The sharply written narrative game centers around a South Indian mother who’s anxious that she’s losing touch with her Tamil culture as she settles with her family in Canada. The heart of that story comes in the form of puzzle-like cooking segments where players need to put together Indian recipes using a family cookbook. It’s a tattered book with missing pages and smudged steps, a perfect mirror of the titular Venba, who feels her connection with her roots slowly fading.

Venba, Paavaran, and Kavin enjoy dinner together.
Visai Games

In order to complete recipes, players need to learn why South Indian food is made the way it is and remember that for later puzzles. In one late-game recipe, Venba’s son, Kavin, finds himself trying to make a dish from his childhood despite not having any idea how his mother did it. I’m able to complete that dish by recalling an earlier moment where I learned when to put tomatoes into a dish to get the most out of their moisture. In that moment, it feels like Kavin is holding on to both his mother and his culture through a small cooking detail. It’s a beautiful moment that perfectly bridges narrative and play.

Scope isn’t everything

Venba is an important touchpoint in this conversation for another reason. The indie game is very short, only taking less than two hours to complete. For some, that might seem like a negative. However, not a moment of Venba’s runtime goes wasted. Every line of dialogue matters. Even small details like how text boxes are presented have meaning, as they visually represent a growing distance between Venba and her son. It’s a thoughtfully crafted experience that will reward anyone looking to do a close reading of it.

All that’s to say that bigger doesn’t always mean better; in fact, scope can be a detriment. Sure, there’s hundreds of hours of content in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, but how much of that feels meaningful? I spent countless hours raiding camps and completing open-world activities, but I could barely tell you about most of them. Much of it feels like filler made to give players “more” and not much else. I often call content like that “air in a bag of chips.” It makes the bag look bigger, but I only care about those tasty chips at the bottom of the bag.

Promotional art for Bethesda's Starfield.

That takes me to Starfield and our 3.5/5 review of it. Bethesda’s sci-fi epic is easy to marvel at thanks to its sheer size and scope. It’s undeniably a technical achievement that the developer deserves applause for. However, much of my experience with it revolved around its blank space. Yes, it has over 1,000 planets to explore. No, those planets are largely not worth exploring. I spent hours slowly walking across the surface of flat planets only to stumble into a cave I’d already been to elsewhere or lay eyes on a stray asset that had been pasted into the world. Starfield may look enormous, but it doesn’t feel that much bigger than 2019’s sleeker The Outer Worlds.

Like many big-budget games of its size, Starfield primarily deals in spectacle at the expense of meaningful gameplay. It wants to wow players with marvelous sights in-between action-packed shootouts. It’s all well and fun, but there’s a notable disconnect between what the game is about and what players actually do. The main quest revolves around the noble pursuit of discovery, as a group called Constellation sets out to uncover the wonders of the universe. Yet so little of my adventure revolves around observing the universe and finding surprises in it. I don’t even have a compendium where I can catalog all the aliens and plants I come across. Instead, the focus is more on looting guns from caves and shooting humans.

Polygon’s Nicole Carpenter succinctly explains that problem in her review: “In these crucial early hours of the game, where it’s essential to hook a player, Starfield opts for the standard gameplay loop I can find in so many other places: Kill everything on sight, then collect whatever you came for. For all of the game’s invocations of wonder and discovery, I rarely felt as if I was discovering anything wonderful.”

For me, games like Starfield are akin to Hollywood blockbusters. They’re big, loud popcorn experiences that I have a blast with, but not the kind of art that sticks with me. I’ll remember this year’s excellent Humanity, a striking indie puzzler about human beings and their incredible ability to organize, much longer than I do Final Fantasy XVI, a perfectly fun action game burdened with a disjointed story that went in one ear and out the other.

Humans jump over a gap in Humanity.
Enhance Games

That’s not to say that I only love small narrative indie games. Some of my favorite games elevate and subvert the “summer blockbuster” formula to great effect. Final Fantasy VII Remake is gleefully silly, providing larger-than-life set pieces that had my jaw firmly planted on the floor. It’s not an empty-headed game, though. It’s a remarkable adventure about characters trying to break free from their predetermined paths in life. That’s represented through an ingenious meta layer in which the game’s characters try to literally break free from the rigid script of the original Final Fantasy VII, culminating in a battle against destiny itself.

It’s as close to perfect as video games get for me, bringing together pleasurable gameplay, astonishing spectacle, and a thematically rich story that hasn’t left my mind since I played it. Former Digital Trends contributor Josh Brown did not feel the same way when he reviewed it in 2020, and I have nothing but respect for his thoughtful critique of it. Our differences give us a space to share our thoughts on the game and see one another’s perspectives.

An emotional response

As I said at the top of this article, there are no hard and fast rules. Look through my reviews and you’ll likely find critiques that might seem at odds with what I’ve said here. Last year’s Kirby and the Forgotten Land ranked high on my “game of the year” list despite not having a grand meaning. It’s a slice of light comedy, but one that evokes childlike wonder and treats me to a wealth of delightful surprises at every turn. There’s a strong emotional response there, and sometimes that visceral feeling can capture me as much as any high-concept idea.

Kirby fishes with a waddle dee in Kirby and the Forgotten Lands.

That’s a nuance that the tiresome discourse around game reviews and scores misses. There is no objective truth, because the very point of art is interpretation. Art means different things to different people. Movies, games, paintings — they’re all meant to be poked and prodded from every angle. Some critics have found Starfield to be an awe-inspiring experience about the endless possibilities in our universe. Others have found a restrictive sci-fi game that distills player freedom down to looting and shooting.

Both of those takes paint a wider picture of Starfield, helping readers reinforce or challenge their own views. We can come out of any review cycle with a diverse range of opinions that help us understand what each of us values in art and entertainment. It’s a difference of opinion we should embrace and celebrate, not go to war over.

Any professional review you read comes from a place of passion. I personally love video games as a creative medium and always want to see them pushed in exciting and unexpected new directions. The worst thing we can do as critics is to cast our honest feelings to the side just to escape the wrath of fanboys, sweeten Metacritic scores for studios, or simply avoid being the one outlier review in a sea of praise. That’s how we wind up with stagnant genres and franchises that feel like they never change for the better.

I want games to deliver deeper experiences where not a moment feels wasted. I want them to teach me a new skill, challenge my worldview, surprise me, or simply transport me to a world I’ve never seen before. Every review I write – positive, negative, or middling – is reflective of that goal. And there’s nothing cynical about that.

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