A foolproof way to improve games journalism: ban the number 7

It has become meaningless.

What score do you give a game when you like it, and you think it's interesting and important, but you have to admit to yourself that it just isn't very good? It's a seven out of ten, isn't it? And that sucks.

I was at BAFTA event last night about games journalism, alongside Naomi Alderman, Kieron Gillen, Rob Fahey, Keza McDonald and Keith Stuart, and we kicked off by talking about Metacritic, the site which collects reviews - and delivers an average score based on them.

McDonald wrote a great piece asking whether Metacritic is "ruining the games industry" (albeit inadvertently). Games with higher Metacritic scores sell better, and sometimes a development team will only receive a bonus if they get over, say, 85. 

Here's the key paragraph:

A Metacritic average undermines the whole concept of what a review is supposed to be: an experienced critic’s informed and entertaining opinion. Instead it turns reviews into a crowd-sourced number, an average. You can’t average out opinions. If you adore the new Muse album and your Radiohead-loving friend hates it, that doesn’t make it an average album. And yet this is exactly how Metacritic scores are treated by publishers. It punishes divisive games – and honestly, most interesting things are at least a bit divisive.

You can easily apply this to some of the most interesting games of the last few years. Take LA Noire, which made huge strides forward in several really exciting ways (story, motion capture, aesthetics, music), but yet somehow contrived to be less than the sum of its parts. I wrote a short-ish review of it, noting exactly that, then breathed a sigh of pure relief that I didn't have to give it a rating out of ten. (The New Statesman doesn't do 'em, being all highbrow and that.) 

But look at Metacritic. LA Noire scores 83 (in a range from 92 to 60), and I honestly can't say what I think that means. Halo 3: ODST gets that score, too, and that game was a perfectly pleasant (but sliiiiiightly unoriginal) iteration of an established series. Heavy Rain is another example where the Metacritic score seems oddly meaningless: its average of 87 comes from a range that goes between GameCritic's 40 and BoomTown's 100, both of which I rather uncharitably suspect were trolling for hits on a popular game by awarding an outlier mark. (A similar thing sometimes happens when writers are filing to a newspaper: they know that only a 0-star or 5-star review will make the front page; they know that a real hatchet job will get the hits rolling in. It's hard to resist that kind of pressure.) 

The NS's film critic, Ryan Gilbey, is one of many who hates the five-star system on movie reviews - and who says that trying to choose between 92% and 93% would make him go nuts. Here's what he had to say about numerical ratings when I emailed him:

Scoring, whether you're awarding stars or the somehow-even-more-irritating and pompous grades (C+, A-, etc) which are becoming prevalent online, does such a disservice to the complexities and amorphousness of film - of any art form, in fact. Its sole function is as a consumer guide, a short-cut for readers too lazy to discern for themselves what a writer thinks about the subject in hand.

While allowing exemption for those writers who are forced by their paymasters to award ratings (we've all been there), it seems baffling to me that people who write their own blogs or put grades and ratings in their tweets are doing so out of choice - don't they realise it demeans them and the film? It makes it appear that they don't place any value on a film other than a commercial one. It also encourages the reader and writer to play into the whole star-rating pantomime - the reader inevitably relishes the 1-star review, and the writer performs accordingly, while the 3-star review is given only a cursory read. It's a way of pureeing the review in advance for the reader, warning him or her whether the water will be hot, cold or lukewarm.

I don't want to be read by anyone who needs their hand held through a review, or thinks films can be broken so easily into good, bad and ugly. Ratings are full of anomalies and shortcomings anyway. If Citizen Kane and Andrei Rublev and Some Like It Hot are 5-star movies, how can anything else even be worthy of 3 or 4 stars, let alone 5? Maybe we should invent a sixth star for the canon - and therein lies the insanity of Spinal Tap and the dial that goes up to 11.

The star rating system has commercial currency, no doubt - why else would distributors plaster their posters with quote-less stars ("***** - Daily Mail") which make every advertising hoarding resemble a clear summer night? But challenging it is down to the people who profess to care about the art form they're writing about.

Of course, there are many people willing to defend the score system as a service to the hard-pressed reader: if you only have limited time, then what greater shorthand can there be than a number? At one point in the Bafta debate, McDonald pointed out that IGN's readers really like scores - and Rob Fahey reminded her that it was more that the vocal ones do. (Only around 1 per cent of IGN readers are commenters, so it's impossible to guess the feelings of the community at large.) 

My hope, however, is that the mania for scores is just because we're so used to them - and, actually, we wouldn't really miss them if they went. In the short-term, one single step would make games reviews more interesting: BAN THE NUMBER SEVEN (or anything in the 70s, if you're reviewing out of 100).

Most of the panel agreed last night that 7 is shorthand for "this was interesting but had flaws", and therefore was even more meaningless than other arbitrary numbers. There's also some weird voodoo where, even if a score is nominally out of 10, people still regard 5 as a "bad" mark rather than the average. Seven is thus the new 5. 

Oh, and while we're at it, maybe ban 0 and 10 as well, tarty little attention-seekers that they are.

Once we've got used to that, maybe then we can start on 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9.

Obviously, no one is calling for a ban on THIS Seven. Photo: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser