“The critic will certainly be an interpreter, but he will not treat Art as a riddling Sphinx, whose shallow secret may be guessed and revealed by one whose feet are wounded and who knows not his name. Rather, he will look upon Art as a goddess who mystery it is his province to intensify, and whose majesty his privilege to make more marvellous in the eyes of men.”
-Oscar Wilde, The Critic As Artist
Hello, NPCs, and welcome to the genesis of a new series!
I’ve been thinking about moving forward with this idea for a while, the nucleus of which was formed around the time when we put out the question “Are video games art?”. The community participated in sharing their thoughts and it was wonderful to see such a range of opinions and assertions (minus that one person on Twitter who said “Why is anyone even asking this? This question has been settled decades ago!”). As the responses rolled in, I began thinking about gaming’s shaky relationship with other art forms.
I’m the kind of individual who generally wants to make improvements to their craft, so I began listening to audio, watching some videos, and reading some articles about the nature and the ins and outs of art criticism. This to me seemed like an area that was widely different in the art world than it was in the gaming world. I found plenty of videos with concrete ways to render constructive criticism for artists, painters, and filmmakers. I consumed a host of helpful resources discussing ways to investigate and measure objective qualities in works of art. I saw that critics had built a history of critical studies and critical disciplines to apply when critiquing art.
Then I tried to find the same thing for video games. I couldn’t find anything.
That’s when it dawned on me… If video games are an art form (as the majority of those who participated claimed) then why is there this absence of teaching games critique respectfully and if possible correctly such as there is for other art forms. Now of course, I couldn’t survey the entire internet and I’m certain there are many great resources out there for games criticism instruction, but I can at least report that that stuff is comparatively hard to find.
In the spirit of creating the kind of content I want to see in the world, I thought up this series which I can hopefully maintain: Anatomy of a Game Review. Now it’s a given that game reviewing and game critiquing are two different things, though there appears to be some overlap. I’ll make clear that distinction such as it stands in my mind going forward in future entries (which are intended to be monthly). I think reviewing and critiquing share some similarities and maybe you’ll be able to pick out what’s review-ishness and what’s critique-ishness in the content below.
To gather sort of a foundation and basis for this adventure, I went to some of my fellow bloggers, readers, and reviewers. I asked them “What do you look for in a game review? What is the difference between a good review and a bad review?”.
I wanted to do this first off to underscore the fact that I am not creating this series because I consider myself to be the expert or any kind of authority on how to do game reviews. Rather, this is going to be about what we can learn from experts and authorities in the art world and then apply that to games wherever appropriate and wherever possible (with of course a generous dabbling of what I believe works and what I believe doesn’t in making a great game review versus making a bad one). After all, wouldn’t game reviews as a whole benefit from being more constructive, from having a higher standard, from dispensing with the two prevalent categories “this game SUUUUCKS!!!!1” and “best game ever!”, from providing objective evidence where possible for the author’s claims when these are distinct from experiential “to me” statements (“the game is fun to me” vs “the game has replay value with numerous side quests”)?
I think many of us who write reviews would like to learn how to write them better and that definitely includes myself. So here they are: over two dozen descriptions of what people look for in game reviews from those who write them. You may not agree with all of the opinions brought forth here, and indeed some of these opinions contradict others, but that’s okay. Somehow, everything will be fine.
Enjoy and I hope we can learn together.
In a game review, especially for retro games that have been done to the heavens in some cases, I’m usually looking for something comprehensive rather than rote regurgitation. I don’t need to know the developers/publishers and all the different rereleases. That stuff is important, but the meat and potatoes of any review for me are the how-to parts. I ask a lot of questions when I game, especially in older games, and always look forward to some explanation of weird mechanics or other limitations that caused me some struggle. I suppose I look for community in a review, to know that a person actually played the game and had the same frustrations and joys that I did. To be able to relate to someone reviewing makes it feel more credible.
Anyone can write a report and give their opinions on various aspects of a game like graphics and music, but at the core of any review, to me anyway, should be whether or not the experience as a whole was enjoyable, and what specifically made it enjoyable.
So when I look for a review for a game I’m considering buying, the first thing I do is try to read more than one. Generally I’ll try to find middling reviews first (6-8) and then see what folks on the extreme ends are saying (9-10, 5 and below). I pay more attention to text than to the score itself – I use the score to get an idea of how favorable the review will be and then focus primarily on the text.
I try to look out for specific positive or negative comments and to anticipate how I would feel about that thing. If the reviewer says, for example, that the game feels too linear, I won’t necessarily count that against the game because I’m fine with linearity if it means I’ll experience a good story. So I guess to generalize that a bit more, I like it when reviewers are very specific about what works for them (or doesn’t) because I can then compare that to my particular tastes.
Personally, I look for reviews that are entertaining, but also provide meaningful information about the game in question. I have to want to keep reading or watching, and pure information doesn’t offer much in the way of entertainment.
I think it’s hard to come up with a way to describe what makes a review “good” or “bad”. The notion that reviews can be objective is pretty… misguided I think. The best reviews I’ve read or watched have been those which come from the opinion of the creator. I do, however, prefer reviews that have views which are supported. The worst reviews I’ve read have been those that claim that a game is good or bad, but offer little in the form of supporting evidence to back up the claims.
Generally, I’ve seen those limited to Metacritic user reviews and the odd blog on WordPress that seems to be run by an opinionated 16 year old.
I’d also like to add that I often make up my mind on a game before reading reviews of it. Reviews can sometimes change my mind, but it’s pretty rare. For instance, I probably wouldn’t have tried NieR: Automata if it weren’t for the litany of good reviews for it (that and it was on sale). Part of what I like from reading reviews or watching videos of the game being covered is that it helps me find a different center. It challenges my viewpoint, and can sometimes make it easier for me to branch out.
For me, when I read a game review I want to know a few things. I think the most important part in ensuring that the review is useful is you explain why the game is or isn’t worth my time. The best reviews give me an understanding of what the game is about, how it feels to play, and where possible, even demonstrates this to some degree. I tend to favor video reviews for this reason, but some people, such as yourself and Mr. Panda, are able to capture this in text based posts. I think the worst game reviews just shoot out something generic that anybody who can read the store page could manage. They don’t tell me why I might enjoy the game outside of surface level things, or worse, fail to tell me why the creator of the review did/didn’t like the game. Really, I’m looking for a quick rundown, how it feels, and an honest opinion from the review’s creator. I enjoy depth in the detail where possible but these three elements are primarily what comprises a great review.
Usually the first thing I look for is graphics. And this is not to be prosaic, but because you should please the eye and the graphics are the first thing you see as you start the game. Of course there are wonderful games with mediocre graphics but this is thanks to other parameters.
The second thing I look for is consistent gameplay. A game is mainly entertaining and to be entertained you need to be involved. And the gameplay is affected by a lot of things depending to the genre: a good realism in a driving game for example or an intriguing story in an adventure or in an RPG, speed and dynamism in an FPS and so on. The last among the main things that I check for is the interface/controls: having a good game with good plot and good graphics with an incomprehensible interface and horrible controls make the whole experience a nightmare. However when I write a review it’s mainly a question of heart: games that are bad, cheap and visually poor become immediately bad games if for some strange reason you love them, for example because they are games you played in your youth or with some good friends. I have played a lot of games that mean a lot for me but I recognize they’re not that good…
I look for personal insight above all else. Thought-provoking perspectives that challenge how the game is viewed and played. I generally like optimism over pessimism as well.
A good review is one which manages to strike a balance between being fair and being personal. I want to read something honest that looks at both the positives and negatives of a game, yet doesn’t recycle the same opinions voiced in other reviews because the writer is trying to be ‘safe’. I want to see their personality in the words, but not be subjected to the opinion of an author who’s determined to be ‘different’.
It can be a difficult to achieve that balance but give me those things and I’ll read the entire article, rather than skipping to the end to find out whether I should play or not. And above all: no unannounced spoilers.
I usually have a pretty good eye for what games I know I will enjoy, but when I’m on the fence about one, I turn to reviews. Now, full disclose: I never just read one single review when I’m scouring for info, I flip through a few of them. Because of the fact that human beings are not all alike (thankfully) and we don’t all have the same tastes, I do my best to sift through the text and pull out hard facts, while ignoring the “feelings”. After all, a person can write a glowing exposé about how wonderful the game was and how much they enjoyed it, but if they can’t properly explain why the game was so good, it makes for a worthless review. Looking through multiple reviews and finding the common factors gives me a solid idea of the actual state of the game and if it is the right one for me.
When answering this question, I found myself drawing a distinct line between an “analysis” and a “review.” For me, I’ll read a review before I play a game when deciding if I want to play it or not. I’m about to speak strictly about games that are heavily story-based. When it comes to those types of games, I want something “quick and dirty,” and not at all like what I write with my “Interesting Case of…” posts, which fall under the “analysis” umbrella a little more than the “review” one.
Before I play a game, I want to know about the mechanics, what general genre the game falls into, and (since I usually look at a few reviews before buying) a short subjective bit about the reviewer’s personal experience or connection with the game. That might sound a little cold, considering how much I blather on about games, but for story-heavy games I try to keep myself as spoiler-free as possible before playing. If I were to cite my own work, I would offer this post on Senua’s Sacrifice (the pre-spoiler bit) as an example of what I look for in a review of a story-heavy game, and this post for what I would look for in a game not driven by its story.
Overall, for a game not as story-based (or for a game that I don’t mind if I spoil the story), I’m a fan of long-form reviews, which two folks I know write immeasurably better than I do. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy The Well-Red Mage’s posts (and encourage him to link to his favorite review here), and why I really appreciate the reviews Red Metal writes over on Extra Life Reviews. They usually give some historical context to the game, along with personal experiences, before rounding it out with a breakdown of what the game mechanically does well (or not). I also appreciate when games are critiqued in the truest sense of that word: looked at objectively for their strengths and stumbles, and all brought to light in a meaningful and helpful way. Not only do they do all this, but considering that “long-form” means, well, long-form, the information is engaging the entire way through with a good balance of wisdom and wit to keep the information from sounding too dry.
So, as per usual, what I look for in a good review centers around the great idea of “it depends,” but I hope this might be helpful to anyone wanting to write a review of a video game.
For me, one thing I look for and do myself is have a well defined conclusion of the game in question. There are those days where I want to read as many reviews as possible for a title but don’t have the time and want to make an impulse buy or something. I’m guilty of it but I sometimes do the whole scrolling to the end, not for a score or numbered rating, but a nice well thought out paragraph of the overall thoughts of the game in general. Is it worth buying? Who’s it for? Even if the reviewer liked one aspect, maybe overall they hated it, is it worth its price? Is there a last appeal? How long will it last? These are the types of things I like to know at a glance and try to incorporate in my own reviews, for those times where people who read my reviews may want to skip ahead and just get the overall tone without depending on a number.
I look for honesty in a review. A fair look at the shortcomings of a game that is reviewed positively does a lot more for me than a rant of endless praise. Something I tend to look for–to avoid–is going on and on about what the game is about. I can get that from the devs’ sites if I don’t get as much as I want from trailers (which is usually more than I want). I want to know whether or not a game is fun and if it is, what makes it fun, what makes it stand out, what makes it something I should or shouldn’t play, what could it do better, what does it do best. I don’t necessarily want to be told to play something, but I want enough info, from a gamer’s perspective, to make an informed decision for myself.
Firstly, I want to come away from the review knowing what type of game it is. I’ve read reviews in the past which have left me none the wiser as to whether I wanted to play it because I didn’t know if it was a shooter, an action adventure or a platformer! Obviously many games have elements of different styles, but I think what I mean is, I want solid examples of what the gameplay actually involves. As well as gameplay, it is good to know if the game has good characters, is it story driven or is it a more abstract kind of game? Spoilers of course are a 100% no-no. If I had a game spoiled by reading a review I would never trust the writer again.
Next, I don’t want the review to have strong elements of ‘personality’. The blogging scene is obviously a bit different from the professional games critic scene in this regard, but often I find too much personal stuff uninteresting. So sometimes I find reviews say things like – ‘this game is great because I can fit it into my schedule’, or ‘my husband loves this game too’. I don’t like that – I want it to be as plain as possible. I recently read a review of a game in Kotaku which opened with the writer saying something I like: ‘I didn’t like the first game in the series, I haven’t played the second one and I don’t like the genre’. They then went on the give the game a terrible review – I thought this was a really poor way to start a review. Obviously it can be difficult to hide your own game preferences in a review but I do feel that when someone knows they won’t like a game because they don’t like the genre, then perhaps they shouldn’t be the one reviewing it – obviously this can work the other way round too, but it strikes me that if people like platformers and want to read a review of a new platformer, then perhaps they would prefer someone who shares their fondness of the genre to review it, as they will have a lot more knowledge, although I think striking a professional balance is the most important thing.
Lastly, and I think this might actually be quite unpopular; I like reviews to have a score. At least, I like them to have a score in publications; in blogs it is less important. My reason for this (largely based on my experience of reading Edge every month), is that my time is precious to me. There are a lot of games I’ll read reviews for no matter what because I’m genuinely thinking of playing the game. However, if I flick through the pages and see a couple of games with really good scores (say 8 or above), then I’ll read the review because it is always interesting to see what makes a game great. Also, I’ll read ones with really low scores as they tend to be quite damning and funny to read. However, if I see a game I have zero interest in with a score of say 5 or 6, I won’t read it because it isn’t worth my time. I don’t have time to read every single review, so I make choices in what I read based on my likes and dislikes and the score given. Well I hope this is in some way useful! Any questions just let me know. Cheers 🙂
For me, I really look to game reviews to help me when I’m on the fence about a game and need to get tipped one way or the other. I don’t generally read reviews for games I’m obviously going to buy. That way I avoid my number 1 biggest issue with reviews: spoilers! So here’s a list of things I do and don’t like in the reviews that help me with decisions!
No spoilers: I hate having the story ruined for me. Even if it’s a game that’s been out for decades if there’s a single spoiler about story I’ll immediately stop reading.
Story: having said that I hate spoilers I do want to know whether the reviewer liked the story. Since it’s so important to me, I need to know how others feel!
Controls: I like to know how the reviewer reacted to the controls of the game. If they were awkward it may dissuade me from purchasing the game. It nearly did for Skyward Sword!
Difficulty: I like to know how difficult a game is. Frankly, if it’s too easy or there’s a lot of handholding I may not buy it. I’d rather spend my time on something with teeth and the only way to know that before you buy it is reviews! I rely on them a lot for that.
No cost analysis: everyone is going to get a different enjoyment level out of a game. Don’t spend a lot of time telling us it was worth it because it was a cheap game or it wasn’t worth the purchase because it cost a lot, since everyone’s perception of worth will be different!
Be completely honest: look, ultimately the reviewers we go back to (I’m looking at you, Well-Red Mage!) are the ones we trust. If you’re true to your feelings, your reactions, and your voice we will keep coming back. In a world run on advertising we need to find those people who think, feel, and act like us to know how we would truly react to a game. Since everyone reacts differently it’s so important to find that kinship. If we find someone like it’ll help us really understand the games they review and the value it could be to us we will always go to them for advice! You won’t catch everyone this way but the people who do interact with you will do it in s more constructive, purposeful, and consistent way than trying to please the masses!
So, as you’re asking…what do I look for in a game review? It’s a little hard to point out depending on what I’m searching or in mood for. However, what I do want to have in a game review is that the critic takes me on a small tour, when ““talking”” about the game. Starting out with a beginning, then having a middle and an end, which can then be either open ended or a closed chapter.
When looking at how this three-act story can be told in a game review, it to me means that there’s a clear view of the critic’s personality shining through every word that has been put down on paper. So, for an open ended ending, what I mean is this can be seen with games that are online only and keeps getting new content in form of DLC, expansions and patch updates. Which in turn is something that the critic can continue to update on his review of the game since first edition. As for a closed ending, it’s something we clearly see with singleplayer games and indies.
Now, what I mean from all this is that it’s like being told a story over the dinner table with a friend who has experienced something you haven’t and therefore will try to tell you his or her story in a way that will make you want to try it yourself.
Another thing I look forward to when a game review comes out from a critic I follow or discovering someone new. It’s the ability to see the cons and flaws from all sides of the coin. We who try to review games or any sort of media while being subjective in our perspectives, shaped by what we have experienced throughout our life, must be able to tell the story as objectively as possible. Which is what I meant from the two sides of a coin, when we’re looking at the games.
This brings me to the next part…what makes a review good or bad, better or worse. I think what makes a review good and better have sort of been answered. So let’s jump all the way to the opposite side of the field.
A bad review to me is hard to find, as there are critics who write negative reviews just because they can. The ones I have read that were bad, were either badly written (spelling like a kid from kindergarten, wording the sentences all over the place) or the structure just wasn’t there. Some will say that a purely subjective review is bad but is not true at all in my opinion, as essentially what makes you a reviewer or critic is that you have found a way to make many people follow in what you write at a professional level.
As I’m writing this, it reminds me of the ending sequence in Disney’s Ratatouille, where Anton Ego the food critic being played by the fantastic actor Peter O’Toole (best known for Lawrence of Arabia), says some lines about being a critic and it really resonates with me, as it essentially describes exactly what can make one a great critic or writer. So I will leave you with the wise words of Peter O’Toole, as I look forward to the next review of any game that might interest me in both the past…as well the upcoming future on the journey we all take in the media industry. ““In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize that only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.””
What both Ego and I mean is that for a game review to be good and bad is all from the reviewer or critic as they write a piece of opinion to that in the end can make a review better or worse for the reader. It’s this kind of writing – pleasant, pointed, profound – that in my opinion will go to show that not all can write a review, but that good writing that makes a good review can come from just anywhere.
First off, I think that everyone has their own style, and that’s a wonderful thing! I embrace unique voices, so it doesn’t usually matter to me how a review is written, as long as it tells me the following things: what the game is and what they thought of the game. I know it sounds basic, but that’s what I look for! Obviously, I need to know what the game is for context, so I value that information in a review. I also think a good review backs up their overall thoughts or score, no matter what it is. If I understand a reviewer’s opinion based on what they wrote, then it was effective for me. More can be good, but less isn’t. I want to know at least those two things so that I can evaluate whether a game is for me, or if I’ve played the game, how their thoughts compare to my own.
Well obviously I want a brief description of the game. Screenshots are nice so I have s feel of it and of course video is a great medium for, er, video games hehe. I like explained and informed opinions. So I don’t want to just hear “I don’t like this.” Why don’t you like it? True objectivity is arguably impossible, but at least explain your point of view. I like eating numbers too to go along with the review but if I’m rushed I can skim and see that assessment.
I typically look for a review that details the player’s experience, rather than just listing off features (since I can get that from the back of a box). Knowing what the game is, how it functions, and how well it does these things are all super important, but I also want to know how the game impacted the player if it has a strong focus on narrative. “Why should someone want to play this over something else in the same genre?” is a question that’s always in the back of my mind when reading reviews. What makes a review worse are generic claims that aren’t explained – “I didn’t like the story,” versus explaining WHY they didn’t, for example.
The Valiant Vision Mage aka Lodestar_Valor
Some things I’ve learned when playing/reviewing games: Remember: Everyone has different opinions. It’s best to include somewhere in your review, website, or YouTube channel, that your review is based off of how YOU felt. Put the level of fun (or any other emotion) you had somewhere in the review. An important part of any form of media is how it emotionally connected with the one experiencing it. Who is this game/movie/whatever for? I don’t want to have to assume it’s my style if it really isn’t.
The Evergreen Sage Mage aka Wakalapi
Basically there are two kinds of reviews that I read: short ones and long ones.
Do you get bit by the video game buying bug? Seemingly out of nowhere I get into a mood where I just need to throw my money away on a game. It’s as if I have been hypnotized to respond to a trigger, and the response is to spend spend spend. I’m thrown into a frothing consumptive rampage that seems almost insatiable. Thoughts race through my mind: “What are those games hidden in plain sight I’m missing out on right now!? Is PUBG really actually fun or is just everybody playing it because everybody is playing it?! I bet you there are hundreds if not thousands of indie games that would blow my mind out there right now waiting to be discovered!” I begin scrounching the interwebs in my madness to find something, and where do I turn?
I turn to short reviews. The ones that I gravitate towards are where the reviewer has similar taste to me, doesn’t posture and gets to the point. If you don’t like the games I like, I’ll move on to the next review. How could they help me scratch my itch if they don’t know what it feels like? As for posturing, don’t make Dark Souls references if you were never really into it. We can all see through that pretty darned easily. And honestly, I’ll spend 3-4 minutes tops, on a review when I’m on the hunt. I need to see gameplay too. In this mode I tend to seek out only video reviews. A bit of objectivity is pretty useful in these kinds of reviews as it tends to reduce the data to bite-sized chunks that the lizard-brain likes.
Then there are the long-form reviews. 99.99% of the time, I’m not obsessed with buying games. I appreciate games, and long-form reviews are where I go for appreciation. I want to be introduced to new ways of looking at a game or games in general. I want the nitty gritty details. I want analysis. I want the back story of how the game was made. I want research done. This is where I am most open to games outside of my normal gaming spectrum, and open to perspectives that don’t necessarily align with my aesthetic tastes.
For long form reviews, don’t be objective or neutral. Bring your whole self to the table. Before I play a game, I don’t tell myself to set aside my emotions. I don’t hang my past up at the front door. I take all my background, history, culture, and politics – everything, into these fandangled contraptions when I choose to engage with them. I hope you do too when you play and when you write up something longer form.
I read long-form reviews to learn about a game as much as I read it to learn about you, and I bet you’re a wonderful person. Hey! It’s cool, if you haven’t played the original Metroid or beat all the Soulsborne games. Be up front about it. Be you. If this happens to be the case, feel free to show in your writing, “I’m young and have no clue about all the amazing games out there, but I liked this one! And here’s why…” Fine. I might actually read you. You have a fresh and upfront outlook.
The Hopeful Handheld Mage aka Retro Redress
What do I look for in a game review? Probably the scoring system – it helps me form my opinion of a game. It’s one of the reasons I like writing for Well Red Mage, to rate each aspect of the game then form an overall based on an average makes sense to me. You have to take all aspects into account.
The Spoony Bard Mage aka Nerd Speaker
I tend to just find aggregated scores and leave it at that.
The Moronic Cheese Mage aka Mr. Wapojif
I grew up reading Digitiser (a hugely popular, bizarre daily Teletext page which ran between ’93 and ‘03), which was never afraid to speak its mind. These were pithy analyses which didn’t hold anything back and this regularly infuriated the million strong reader base, but Digitiser was always brilliant in its appreciation of what made a great game.
Compare this with the site I stumbled across last year, Slant Magazine, which is notorious for clickbait posts and pretentious nonsense. Throughout 2017, it only gave a handful of games a score above 3/5. The main problem here is it commits the cardinal sin of promoting its viewpoint as utter, undisputable fact.
My mortal enemy Lightning Ellen sums this up perfectly: “The only bad reviews for me are the ones that arrogantly state their personal opinions as the facts they are not. Innit, wikki wikki wah wah west! Aiiiie.”
Opinions are fine, just express them with self-awareness – your thought patterns aren’t fact. It’s this sense of humility I often look for, alongside a genuine passion for all of gaming (any sign of fanboying and I’m off) – its history and beyond – which is why I tend to include “in my opinion” during my game reviews, to reiterate it’s just my point of view and not trigger off flame wars with NOOBS!
The Infernal Accountant Mage (Popzara)
The Badly Backlogged Mage aka Mr. Backlog
A good review should tell me two things – does this game work? And why/why not?
Neither of these questions is quite as obvious as it sounds. “Does it work?” does not mean “Is it fun?” or “Did you like it?”. It requires you to consider what experience the game is trying to deliver, whether it succeeds and whether it accidentally delivers an entirely different, but equally engaging experience.
“Why/why not” requires an analysis of how the different aspects of the game work together to achieve (or not achieve) the game experience. A good analysis talks specifics, and keeps hooking back into how the various items affect the player. “This game has good graphics” is not an analysis. “This game’s campy art style creates a fun and silly atmosphere” is.
The Livid Lightning Mage aka Lightning Ellen
I think the definition of a good video game review depends on what the reader of said review is looking for. Some people may want to read detailed technical descriptions of a game they have already played. Others may want a brief overview of a game to get a feel for if it’s something they want to play, or not. I’m sure many people out there on the wild web just look at the numbered scores, and then go troll mainstream media forums about how the game is a flop… n00bz. Kidding… mostly.
I guess it really depends on what individual readers want to read, the reviewer’s target audience, and the person’s own review goals (i.e. is reviewing just a fun hobby, or something they want to turn into a career?). To me, all reviews are just someone else’s opinion that I may or may not agree with. I tend to trust reviewers more if we share opinions on other games. If it’s a game I already decided I’m playing, I’m not going to read any reviews for it and go in with my own fresh perspective. I’ve be disappointed by AAA games many people declare the “best game ever”. I’ve also been blessed to play many awesome games the rest of the internet seems to hate. We all like what we like, and we should all respect each other for it. The only bad reviews for me are the ones that arrogantly state their personal opinions as the facts they are not.
The Midnight Mystic Mage aka Sublime Reviews
Although it has nothing to do with the author I would like to include that the review has to be on a game that I am interested in. When I get my mind stuck on one I will go around searching for as many opinions and thoughts on a particular game as I can possibly find. As far as what I personally enjoy from the reviews that I read though, I would have to say things that make it feel more personal. Such as a personal experience the author might have had with the game or when their own sense of humor or their personality traits seep through into the writing. I like to feel like I am reading something that is about the same as talking with a friend about video games. I want to hear that person’s raw unfiltered opinion of the game just the same as if we were talking about it face to face. I tend to enjoy positivity more and lean towards reading and writing reviews of that nature just because I see it as an escape from the hardships of everyday life and do not like to focus too much on anything that would put me in a bad mood or leave a bad taste in my mouth afterwards. That being said it is always good to get a heads up about problems in a game before buying which I’m sure is a huge part about why all of us read and write our game reviews in the first place. Those would be just a few of my humble opinions on the subject, I look forward to hearing what the rest of you feel makes up a great review!
The Purple Prose Mage aka Alex Sigsworth
Be positive first
Write with personal voice –> feelings connect with reader
Ignore context for dating
Don’t try to be liked/honesty>popularity
Video games are important, reviews are important
Rating within genre
Earlier this week, the Well-Red Mage raised the subject of what makes a good video game review. This has been a topic of great interest for me lately, because I’ve written so many film reviews over the years that reviewing video games was an experiment I wanted to take, and that’s part of the reason I joined the Well-Red Mage party.
Beginning with a review, I like to provide a synopsis of the game. Sometimes this is what the story is about – if story is a major factor of the game – or sometimes what the objective is. I then explain how the game is physically played, in terms of how the controller/device input changes what you’re doing. For instance, if a video game being reviewed were played with a joystick, the introduction would explain how the joystick influences the game: for Space Invaders (1978), this would be that it can move the laser cannon horizontally and fire the lasers; similarly, Pac-Man (1980) would be the ability to move Pac-Man horizontally and vertically. These gameplay elements would then be discussed further in the Gameplay section, where I give my experience of actually playing the game in such way and whether or not it “worked” as a digital interface. The introduction would provide an overview of what those gameplay controls are in order to make things simpler when it comes to evaluating them.
Starting with an overview first and providing more specific information later is part of another thing that I consider important: creating a good first impression to the reader. A review of anything is an opinion, and any reviewer’s sustainability is determined by whether the reader can remain interested. Why should they care about what I think? There are hundreds of video game reviews online, so it’s a very competitive field. That’s why beginning a review with impartially is important. If the reader is to read our opinion, they need to be convinced that it’s informed, and the best way to do that is by appearing to be separate from the crowd of fanboys or haters; to say “This is what it is, here’s what I think” as opposed to (the more common) “This is what I wanted it to be, so I’ll pretend that it is or criticise it for not being that”. There’s already too many people writing reviews with agendas, and that’s damaging to our culture and to the art of criticism, so opening a review by providing a description that is neither biased toward positivity or negativity will (hopefully) show that we’re not intending to contribute to that environment of paranoia. That won’t always happen – there will be those that already think that way, and the reasons for that are a whole other post – but if we fulfill our part of the deal, that we prove to them our lack of interest in side-taking, and they still think that we are, then that’s on them. And we don’t want those people reading our reviews or infecting our community anyway.
A further way of doing this is to begin with the positives. Almost every video game I’ve played has had some positives, and we must begin with those first. Once you’ve shown the reader that you are, in fact, engaging with what it is you’re reviewing instead of mindlessly enjoying it because of the logo, starting with the positives will develop that. You are, after all, giving an opinion, and starting with the positive ones can help with that transition between describing the game and criticising it. Furthermore, if someone reading a review of a game you didn’t enjoy themselves hasn’t played it, failing to acknowledge redeeming features is unfair to them, because some of those may be the elements they seek in a video game. If a review is being published, it has to work for other people, not just yourself (because otherwise, why bother publishing it?). Which means that, while you can provide your own opinion, there needs to be a place for the reader. Otherwise, why should the reader care? If they feel as if a review was written in order to begin a conversation, they’re more likely to read your review all the way through, and to read further reviews you publish. Plus, only providing the points that support your conclusion is polarisation; it’s either a thumbs-up/thumbs-down with a “here’s why”. But if you remember that things are more complex than that, you’ll open opportunities for yourself to discuss more, which will be more fulfilling. The reviewers who are capable of this are able to comprehend the world around them more deeply, and can see the advantages to contradictory things. Also, it will allow commenters to engage with you as a person by seeing that you’re giving a subjective opinion about something you’ve otherwise described objectively – this will always be a better way of reviewing anything, because it means that any further discourse is being had about something with the pros and cons on the table together. Thus, you’re not only reminding the reader that it’s just your opinion (and anyone who pretends otherwise is part of the toxic partisanship that’s somewhat out of control at the moment), you’re writing a more accurate review by considering a game as a whole created from parts, which they are.
But providing opinion of any sort means that you’re writing from your own personal experience. This can be an advantage if you allow it to be so. That’s why you should write with a personal voice. A deconstruction of a video game is less likely to be read if it isn’t entertaining – and there’s nothing wrong with entertainment – so why shouldn’t your reviews be so? Unless your readers don’t find video games fun, they don’t want to read a clinical diagnosis. If you write a review of an entertainment product in an entertaining way, you’ll also be conveying in the very manner of your language how entertaining you felt the game was. And even if you didn’t enjoy playing it, the entertainment factor of a review will communicate to your audience will still feel invited to be involved. Nothing has ever been diminished by the entertainment factor.
Something that’s especially important is to ignore current events when calculating a verdict. Writing about development contexts can make for a thoughtful article, and there’s no reason not to bring them up when providing information about a game, but they can absolutely not be included in a score or rating. If a developer has been involved in a scandal or controversy, feel free to bring it up and explain it to the reader. But do remember that they are not the only person who made the game. Those many others don’t deserve to be judged for someone else’s actions. Plus, current events can date a review to readers in the future. There are reviews of games that can be read now which were published in the 1990s, so it would be a bit confusing and disinteresting to readers from today for one of them to be influenced by contemporary politics that has no relevance anymore. One day, a review of one of this year’s best-selling games will retrospectively be a retro review – would you include contemporary events when writing a retro review today? It’s the same principle, because the Internet transcends time, and the games that we remember stand that test, even if their controversies are forgotten. By all means, acknowledge things that have happened involving the developer or the publisher, but remember that condemning an artist and praising their art is to be mutually understanding two contradictory ideas, and that is the true meaning of intelligence. So if you can demonstrate that to your reader, the intelligent ones will appreciate it and value what you have to say.
The Timely Mage
When it comes to content game reviews, to be honest I only check one out if I want to get a sense of how the actual game compares to my expectations and to find any major flaws that I’m not aware of. I don’t take their score or conclusions as gospel but they are a decent summary of what one person (who generally represents the majority casual gamer) thinks about the experience. I try to skim it because the more I read, the more tainted my experience will be going in.
When it comes to layout, some of the things that help make reviews more accessible for me are:
-Well titled sections and clear concise summaries at the end
-Quality screenshots and/or clips that help visualize a point being made
-Credible overall rating
The Brave Blue Mage aka 924COLLECTIVE
The Well-Red Mage
Hey, that’s me! What I look for in a game review is something that tells me what the game is about, what the premise is, and how it functions. I want to know the details. I also want to know the reviewer’s personal take on the game but that’s secondary to me compared to what can factually be discovered about the game, meaning I like informative reviews. I prefer longer reviews of course, since I primarily write them in this style, but a good first impressions review that’s more manageable can supply the information I’m looking for…
I guess what I mean is that I expect certain things from the articles I read if they’re marketed as analyses, reviews, critiques, or passing thoughts. This is my luxury as a consumer and reader but I basically want the piece I’m reading to fulfill my expectations for it based on the author’s body of work and how they present it.
Finally, one MAJOR thing I look for in a game review is the attitude and personality of the reviewer. We all gravitate naturally to the reviewers we trust and whose styles we appreciate, but for me, if the person comes off as condescending to myself as their reader or to a particular group then that’s enough for me to pass. Likewise, if there’s a high degree of contrived boisterousness, knowledgeable arrogance, or alternatively a kind of “90’s cool” indifference, then I likely won’t invest the time it takes to consume the review. The way the reviewer comes off is as important sometimes as the review itself.
There’s a lot to take in and consider in this first Anatomy of a Game Review post but there’s still so much more to talk about! In future entries in this series I plan to discuss things like the structure of a review, different kinds of reviews, what a spoiler is, fact vs opinion, objective vs subjective, critiquing and reviewing compared, interpreting the developer’s original message vs adding our own (what I sometimes like to call “politicization”).
Share your own thoughts on game reviews with us! I’m open to anything else you’d like to see us discuss, any other subject in this field you’d like to see brought to light, because if we’re going to see the gaming community and games writing improve (if indeed you want it to), then let the change begin in ourselves.
As always, thanks for reading! And thank you to everyone who participated and for the kind words you had to say about my work. This is much bigger than my work and my ardent wish is to highlight that.
In your service,
-The Well-Red Mage
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