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How Possibly To Do Good Games Journalism, Maybe – Part 2: On Reviews

We’re going to do a bit of experimentin’.

I’ve been playing upcoming epic role-player Risen for the past couple of weeks.  At midnight Thursday/Friday, when embargo lifts, I’m going to be publishing my thoughts on Resolution.  I’ve written about 900 words already, and by the looks of things, it’s going to be a sprawling, multi-page thought piece on the very nature of videogames, games journalism, and all sorts of other related aspects.  Er, I might try to review Risen at some point, as well.

Thank goodness I run my own website.  This sort of shit wouldn’t stick anywhere else.

But I like to think I’m doing this for good reason.  If we extrapolate upwards from yesterday’s blog, in which we decided that the only way to write about games for a large audience is to be wholly transparent about your inherent subjectivity and fandom, then we reach my conclusions about what to write in my review of Risen.  I’m trying to be evasive about the specifics of why Risen is the game to make me decide to do this, as I’m under a big fat non-disclosure agreement, but hopefully it’ll become more apparent on Friday when you read the piece.  For now, let’s port all this over to a completely unrelated made-up game of which I have no idea what I think.

This made-up game just so happens to be an expansive, open-world RPG with a heavy element of grey-area decision making, in a land where people remember and respond to your actions throughout the course of the story.  That story is one that never emerges as what you’d expect from a Bethesda-school RPG: it’s always masked, and clouded, and hidden away, and each of the quests you take on builds up a rapport with a particular faction who steadily work you through the game and on something resembling a main story.  This takes many, many hours to appear properly.  It’ll probably lead you to restart on a number of occasions, just like this made-up game has done for me over this last two weeks when I’ve obviously not been playing it because it doesn’t exist.

If I had been playing it, though, I’d probably have realised long ago that I wasn’t really enjoying it, for a difficult-to-pin-down reason, despite admiring a lot of the made-up game’s specifics.  And I’d probably be acutely aware that it could just be me, as there’s a lot to love, and it really does play up to what a lot of people are increasingly demanding out of their open-world games.  So, were I to be reviewing this made-up game instead of Risen, I’d probably feel the only sensible way to approach it would be to discuss all of these conflicting factors, the nature of game reviewing and the idea of a subjective experience that contradicts what most people might get out of the game.

With me?

I hope Risen’s publishers aren’t.

Let’s sidetrack.

I was going to touch on a few of the issues in this blog post in separate ones, but I’ve decided to lump it all together into something more tangible: on reviews.  How do write a good game review is something that’s been discussed at length, at plenty of places.  Shaun Elliot’s Games Journalism Symposium, which sadly never really got off the ground, did deliver a great number of ideas from an array of experienced, admirable journalists, over the two sessions of its short lifespan.  It asked questions such as ‘Should you always finish a game before reviewing it?’ and ‘When do you decide on a score?’ and ‘Should you write for a specific audience or try to be broader?’ and various other big Qs.  The reason it’s so hotly debated, of course, is because it’s still the area of games journalism that draws in the gaming masses.  People flock to magazines and websites with exclusive reviews; people scour Metacritic for responses that agree with their own.  This is the section that generates such fervent discussion.  We need to get it right.

So what is right?  Well, we might say that a good game review will cover all the basics of what playing the game is like, criticially analysing them as the piece goes on so that the reader, by the end, has a good idea of both whether and how a game works.  We might infer from this that the best way to review a game is to first identify what’s at the core of the experience, then extrapolate outwards, establishing how all its themes and mechanics and visuals link together to create some sort of cohesive whole.  We need to be providing some sort of insight that will aid players in their consumer decision-making.  If it doesn’t do that, then surely it’s more a piece of criticism rather than consumer advice, and as such is for a niche market, and as such falls out of the remit of what I’m talking about here, which is: how do we go about our writing in the general videogaming press.

Okay.  So we need to identify with the core of a game, then extrapolate outwards.  So to do this, a while ago, I started all my reviews by first trying to summarise it to myself in a sentence.  What is this game?  Answer in as much detail as possible, with reference to the game’s quality, in no more than a few words.

Which I’ve found a really healthy way of doing things.  It helps to cement a notion in my mind, and helps me to understand where I’m going with the review.  But recently, I’ve been thinking… if I can do this, if I can carefully and succinctly explain a game in a single-sentence, with reference to the game’s quality and in reasonable detail… why the bloody bloody hell am I writing 1500 words about it for general release?

George Orwell famously wrote that you should always aim to churn out the minimum number of words required to convey a message.  It’s increasingly my belief that this should be games reviewing’s overall aim.  Take this review of The Godfather II (pardon the nastiness of the formatting – it’s a relic of the previous site design), something I was very pleased with at the time of writing, and a piece I still believe flows beautifully.  Yeah, I’m modest.  Have a read, and then have a read of this.

The Godfather II is a game in which you’re encouraged to beat up women, yet one that responds with worrying distain when you run over a pedestrian. The result is that there’s always a strange disconnect between its juvenile sense of humour and its more realistic mechanics, which spoils a game that otherwise looks, sounds and plays in at least a satisfactory manner.

Alright, so that’s two sentences, not one.  Maybe we should be looking at two-sentence reviews.  And okay, there are a few things I missed out – like the strategy elements that probably aren’t really worth mentioning anyway.  But I’m pretty sure I managed to say just as much meaty stuff about The Godfather II in that short paragraph as I did in that whole intro-vomiting session I linked above.  So why didn’t I?

A love of my own voice, perhaps?  Probably in my case, but maybe not in someone else’s.  A desire to communicate adequate information?  As games reviewers, we’re always screaming at readers to NOT JUST BLOODY SKIP TO THE FUCKING SCORE AND ACTUALLY READ ALL THOSE WORDS WE MADE.  That’s because we rightly feel we’ve said more in that 2000 word essay than we did in that single-digit number.  But do we ever really stop to think about why people skip to the score?  The summary at the end?  Heck, to Metacritic?

People don’t have time for this shit.  People need to know whether they should buy that title NOW!, as they wander into Game browsing the internet on their flashy, new-fangled mobile telephonic device.  If this is our audience, and we established yesterday that we need to actually become that audience in order to effectively do good games journalism, then we need to be ruthlessly efficient with our words.  Do we want people to stop skipping to the score?  Yes?  Then we need to give people a reason not to skip to the score.  A real one, that’s practical and useful, and still conveys all the necessary information about a game.

It’s doable.  Honestly.  Try me.

Deus Ex?  An action-stealth-role-playing hybrid in which players follow a compelling*, conspiracy-laden story that remains stunning despite ropey voice acting.  The level design and RPG mechanics meld seamlessly together, allowing you to carve your own path through the game and play in a style that suits you; and the narrative responds innovatively to your choices as you progress through this definitive masterpiece.

BioShock? A mostly-linear FPS that encourages dynamic combat and exploration, despite occasionally not demanding it enough.  It hits absolute brilliance through a masterfully told and deeply intelligent story, which borrows heavily from the work of Ayn Rand as players venture through the once-grand underwater city of Rapture, driven onwards by the harrowing tales of its history and that of its formerly-human inhabitants.

Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust? A terrible, sex-crazed slop of an adventure game that’s not even worth thinking about.

See?  I can do a single sentence review.

Of course, now you’re going to ask me why I’ve decided to write a million words on Risen.  And I’m going to tell you to stop being such a dick, and also that I’m not actually reviewing it.

Orwell also wrote that you should be prepared to break any of his rules of efficient writing if necessary.  It’s necessary here.  I can’t review Risen.  My experience of it has been too tempestuous and confused for me to deliver a definitive verdict.  In fact, just by that alone, no one is going to deliver a definitive verdict on the game.  If you’re reviewing it, and you think you have, you’re wrong, because I’ll almost definitely disagree with what you write.  So what’s the point in pretending?

So, instead of writing a review for the masses, I’m going to write a think-piece for that little niche market we’ve not really discussed so far.  But we will, soon.  And it’s going to be fucking brilliant.  Just you wait.


2 responses »

  1. It’s easy to do single-sentence reviews, because their very nature is limiting. What’s difficult is writing a long-form review (say, 500 words or more), where you have to mention specifics while staying concise and avoiding bland description.

    But I dig Orwell. A lot of game journalists could learn from his concise-above-all mentality.

  2. I reviewed Risen for PC Gamer, it’ll be in Issue 207. I’m intrigued as to how you’ll receive it!


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