Well, it’s been a while.
Those of you who were eagerly anticipating the second part of my article on the wonderful world of game reviews probably lost some of that eagerness a while back, seeing as the first part was posted a month ago now.
The reason is a simple one: I was offered a load of freelance work I wasn’t expecting, and as such paying the bills had to take priority. Apologies, then, for the delay.
Either way, back to business. Since part one was posted so long ago, it may be worth checking it out again to give yourself a wee refresher. That said, let’s proceed.
While part one focused more on the (often frustrating) world of embargoes and the journalist / publisher / PR dialogue that goes on surrounding them, this time I’ll be looking at the actual process of writing a review.
So, for the last time for a while, allow me to once again summon my nameless fake interviewer for some mock Q&A goodness.
Aaaah, it’s good to be alive again. Let’s cut to the chase then, Chris: how do I write a review of a video game?
Sorry, but the short answer is there’s no specific way of doing it. If you’re reading this and have started dabbling in writing your own game reviews and are looking for pointers on how to structure them or what to write about, I’m afraid the answer is “you figure out”.
There are so many different ways to lay out a review, from the tone to the style of language used, to the aspects of the game you choose to focus on, that I’m simply not arrogant enough to say “here’s how I do it, therefore here’s how you should do it”. You have to develop your own style and experiment with it until it becomes something people enjoy reading.
What I can do is tell you my own review process so you can see how I do it. I’ll stress again though, this isn’t me telling you how to review games.
My own personal process depends entirely on the type of game I’m reviewing. If the game has a linear path and/or a storyline (i.e. a third-person action-adventure game, a platformer or an RPG), I’ll usually just play through it first: always on the default difficulty setting, because that’s what most people will play it on.
While I’m playing, should something strike me as particularly notable, I’ll take a note of it in my notebook. Sometimes these notes are as basic as plot points or character names (so I don’t forget them later), sometimes they’ll be specific thoughts that come into my head (like “these save points are too far apart” or “fuck this frame rate”.
How long do you play each game for? Half an hour then you say “7/10”, am I right?
You cheeky bastard. As a rule, I try my best to finish every game I review where possible. This is mainly to keep myself right more than anything.
It’s common sense, after all: 99 times out of 100 when you play a game you already have a good idea after five or six hours whether it’s worth recommending. If a mate came up to you in the pub and asked “is GTA V any good?” you wouldn’t answer “I dunno mate, I’ve put 15 hours into it but haven’t finished the story yet so can’t tell you”.
So why try to finish the game if you know after five or six hours if it’s any good? You were moaning last time about putting 20-30 hours in when you review RPGs, so why not just draw a line under it once you’re sure what score you’re giving it?
Because I said that happens 99 times out of 100. There’ll occasionally be that one-in-a-hundred chance that you’ll be playing a game and enjoying it then, all of sudden, with only a few stages left, it goes downhill fast.
It either starts getting really repetitive, or introduces a new gameplay mechanic you hate, or throws a ridiculously cheap boss at you that ruins the game, or what have you.
Take the original Halo: Combat Evolved, for example. In my opinion it’s a fantastic game… well, the first half of it is. As you progress through the game and eventually start encountering repetitive stages with horrible level design (the Library stage, for example) it starts to feel a little like a chore.
That’s maybe not the best example because shit Halo is still fun, but my point is imagine a review of Halo based on its entire campaign, and imagine one in which the reviewer stopped playing halfway through and thought “yeah, I get the gist, it’s great”.
How do you actually write the reviews though?
I just told you.
No, I mean, you personally. How could I tell from reading a review that it was one of yours?
Oh, you mean my writing style.
Alright egghead, spare me the technical mumbo-jumbo.
But that’s a pretty straightforw… um, never mind. My writing style is fairly laid back and lighthearted. I try to keep my words and sentences relatively simple. That may sound counter-intuitive, that someone paid to write doesn’t show off his abilities fully, but my job isn’t to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, it’s to keep readers informed about the latest games coming out.
Like I said before, there’s no right or wrong way to write a review, but my personal belief is that the simpler you’re able to explain the positives and negatives of a game, the more readers you’re going to inform.
If I want to make it look like I’ve swallowed a thesaurus and uploaded the bilious contents of my stomach to a Word document then I may get a few knowing nods from ‘intellectuals’ but that doesn’t help the 12-year-old boy or girl who only wanted to know if Kirby Squeak Squad was as easy as other Kirby games.
I try to keep my reviews as down-to-earth, conversational and (if the publication allows it) humorous as I can, then. After all, the best video games are ones that are fun and accessible, so in my opinion that should extend to articles discussing them.
What I’m basically saying is you won’t see one of my reviews starting with a pretentious 500-word intro explaining why the titles of Pokemon Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby are allegories for an appellation of God in the Book of Revelation, thereby implying that Groudon and Kyogre are the Pokemon that created the land and seas.
God, I hope nobody actually did that. Then it’ll look like a personal attack.
Right, enough of that. Let’s get to the bit everyone cares about. The score.
Sigh. Okay then.
Should reviews have scores at the end?
In my own personal opinion? Yes. But only as a quick guideline, not as a be-all and end-all definitive verdict of the game. The actual review text should be the most important part of the review, but far too much importance is placed on the score.
Does that wind you up?
It really does, because it’s abundantly clear that there are some people who will open the review, immediately scroll to the bottom to see what score it got, then comment on it.
Try to imagine how infuriating it is when I’ve written 1500 words on a game and given it a score of 8/10, only for the first comment (usually posted all of 90 seconds after the review went up) to say: “I can’t believe you only gave it an 8! Why not a 9?”
Naturally, being a professional, I tend not to respond if I can help it, but I’m sure you can understand my temptation to reply: “I’ve already answered your question mate, those thousand and a half fucking words tell you why it isn’t a 9, so try reading them”.
So why do you want a score at all then?
Because not everyone can be arsed to read a lengthy review just to get a general gist of whether a game’s any good. It’s particularly time-consuming if the review is written in an elaborate way that doesn’t make it explicitly clear whether it’s worth buying.
You don’t want to have someone read your review and, by the end of it, still be thinking “so… are you saying I should buy it, then?” A score, in my view, is just a simple way of summarising the text, even though it clearly isn’t anywhere near the full story.
What rating scale do you prefer?
Out of five.
Because the larger the scale gets the trickier it is to assign an accurate score to a game, and the more ridiculous the reader arguments get.
When your rating’s out of five (which is the scale I use on my film site That Was A Bit Mental), it’s simple what each rating means:
0/5 – Broken
1/5 – Shite
2/5 – Okay, bit boring
3/5 – Fun enough, nothing special
4/5 – Really good
5/5 – Absolutely essential
Increase that to a ten-point scale and it gets slightly less obvious. What’s the difference between a 6 and a 7? Is a 2 really that much worse than a 3?
So percentages, then…
Are fucking daft. Because what happens when you give a percentage is, in your head, you’re really thinking out of 10. When you give a game a “high 80s” you’re really thinking 8.5.
This makes for an uneven scale in which some numbers are far more important than others. The difference between a game getting 86 and 87 is, frankly, piss all. But the difference between it getting 79 and 80, even though it’s still only going up by one, is psychologically enormous.
So when you were on Official Nintendo Magazine and you were using a percentage system, how did you decide on whether a game got, say, 83 or 85?
Honestly? I just went with a number that felt right. This may upset some people to hear it but I didn’t actually sit there, head in my hands, trying to weigh up in my head whether Duke Nukem: Critical Mass on DS was worth a score of 28% or 29%.
Not that the scores I gave games didn’t result in me getting regular abusive emails from readers livid that I was, according to them, as little as a few percent out.
Yup. Every month when the new issue of ONM would come out, it was inevitable that within a day or two I’d start getting angry emails, and many of them were literally getting mad over a couple of percentage points.
One of my personal favourites was a reader (who will remain anonymous) who emailed me and said, and I’m quoting this exactly because I keep all my emails:
“Chris, I recently bought issue 25 of ONM and read your review of Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground on DS. I can’t believe you only gave it 80%. It’s like having my own portable version of the Xbox version and I’ve been playing it constantly since I got it. I would have given it at least 81% instead.”
Right. I see what you mean then.
Yup. Still, it could have been worse. At least I didn’t write for ’80s Future Publishing magazine ACE (Advanced Computer Entertainment).
See for yourself.
Is that… is that a rating of…
702. Out of 1000.
I don’t understand how you could possibly come up with a score that precise.
I have a rough idea, but I won’t go into too much detail because it involves pulling numbers out of an arse.
Hmm. Right. So that’s the most annoying thing then? When people call you out on your scores?
Actually, the most annoying thing is when people think each publication is some sort of hivemind.
How do you mean?
Well, for (a made-up) example, say I review a new Zelda game and give it 92%. Then a reader says “but you gave the last Zelda game 94% and it’s not as good! Boooooo etc.”
My answer, almost always, is “no I didn’t.” Then they’ll inevitably link me to the publication’s score for the last Zelda game and, sure enough, it’ll have scored 94%.
But then I’d point out the name of the person who reviewed the game and, inevitably, it wouldn’t have been me.
People need to get out of the mindset of thinking magazines and websites review games. Magazines and websites aren’t people, they don’t have minds, they aren’t capable of reviewing games because they don’t have a human form.
Publications don’t review games, their writers do. And, obviously, each writer has their own likes and dislikes. The lovely Joe Skrebels adores Dynasty Warriors, I just can’t get into it. So if we worked on the same publication and we both reviewed Dynasty Warriors games, chances are his score would be higher. It doesn’t mean our publication suddenly changed its mind for some reason.
We need to stop this habit of “OXM gave it a 7, but IGN gave it an 8” and start getting into the habit of “Matthew Castle gave it a 7, but Dan Stapleton gave it an 8”. By identifying individual reviewers rather than their publications, it makes it easier to find a reviewer whose opinions tend to match yours more often. Saying “I trust IGN’s reviews” simply doesn’t make sense, because IGN isn’t a single person.
Out of everything you did as a games journalist, be it previews, features, what have you, where did reviewing games rank?
Right at the top. It was the reason I wanted to get into this industry and it was my absolute favourite thing to do, with comedy list features in second. But more about those in my next article.
What was your favourite review ever?
Super Mario Galaxy. Looking back it wasn’t the best written review I’ve ever done but the full story surrounding that review will always be immensely special to me.
Go on then.
Ah, right. Okay. Well, when Super Mario Galaxy was coming out I was still fairly new to games journalism. I had only been living in London for a little over a year and I was still a little overwhelmed by it all.
As I said in a previous article, all this stemmed from me playing Super Mario Bros when I was four years old and falling in love with it. Each Mario game was a point in the timeline of my life: I can think back to Super Mario Bros 3 and I instantly remember 8-year-old Chris sitting in the living room, marvelling at Mario flying for the first time.
At this point in my life though, living in London, I was at that age where I was struggling to come to terms with being an adult. I’d like to think loads of people still consider themselves young long after they’re no longer children: to this day I still feel weird when a wee kid’s annoying me on the Tube and their mum tells them to “leave the man alone”, because in my mind ‘man’ means ‘old, adult’ and I still feel young.
So here I was, 24 years old and not really wanting to grow up, which is particularly difficult to accept when your job is to write about video games.
Deadline was approaching for issue 23 of ONM and it was touch and go as to whether we’d be able to squeeze in a review of Mario Galaxy on time. It was looking like we might have to go with a big preview of it instead, but Nintendo UK got in touch with us at the eleventh hour and told us the game had literally just been completed and was ready to play at its HQ.
We were told this on the evening of 8 October, 2007. The magazine’s final deadline was noon on 10 October. It was as close to last-minute as you could get.
The next day I left at the crack of dawn and travelled to Nintendo’s HQ in Windsor to essentially speed-run Super Mario Galaxy, despite being one of the first people outside of Nintendo to play the final game.
Incidentally, there have been a lot of rumours suggesting that when journalists are taken somewhere else to review a company’s game, they’re given lavish treatment to soften them up and encourage them to give a better review. Maybe that’s the case in the US or something, I don’t know, but it isn’t the case at Nintendo UK. There you’re placed in a quiet room with a telly, the game and that’s it. Which is exactly how I like it.
I sat there, on my own, and started the game. Within about an hour, no word of a lie, I was genuinely in tears.
I was four years old again, discovering Super Mario Bros and falling in love. I was eight, playing Super Mario Bros 3 and seeing Mario fly for the first time. I was nine, getting Super Mario World and drawing pictures of Yoshi on the covers of my school books. I was 14, trading in my 90 or so Mega Drive games for a Nintendo 64 and one game: Super Mario 64, and realising it was completely worth it.
I was 24, playing Super Mario Galaxy a month before anyone else and in tears because I realised it was okay to not have to grow up when you’re playing a Mario game. I was a child again and I was so happy.
I spent all day at Nintendo, skipping lunch and finishing Galaxy in the space of about nine hours. I got the train back to London, starting to write the review on my laptop on the way (it was a big six-page bastard, being such an important game).
Meanwhile, while I was being deeply touched by a plumber (steady on), the art team at ONM in London was frantically laying out a last-minute six page review, making it look all lovely and ready for my text.
On Friday morning I got into the office, shattered after a late night writing up the review, and my text was dumped into the already laid out page. We sent the mag to the printers and the result was a review that some former ONM readers still mention to me more than seven years later. Easily my proudest moment.
So will you continue to review stuff?
Well, as I said at the top of this article, I was recently working on some freelance, some of which involved reviewing games for magazines. So follow me on Twitter and I’ll let you know where to read my reviews in various publications as and when I’m allowed to do so.
Freelance work aside, I plan on reviewing games on this blog too. Don’t expect me to have the same access as before, though.
Well, PRs only have a limited number of review codes for each game, and naturally they prioritise who gets them depending on their audience reach. Considering this is a brand new blog starting from scratch, there’s no way I’m going to get, say, review code for Project Cars before it’s released or anything like that.
Instead then, expect my reviews to arrive a little later than you’d expect. They’ll come after launch, after I’ve personally bought the games and played through them.
I’ll also try to focus on less conventional games, the ones that get less coverage on larger multi-format sites. After all, nobody will care about my review of Mortal Kombat X a fortnight after it’s come out and 80 other sites have already covered it, but I dare say the likes of the upcoming Her Story will be criminally overlooked by some bigger sites, so I’ll be looking at that sort of thing.
I’ll also be doing retrospective reviews on some memorable games from the past few years. This’ll either be because I feel they’re hidden gems that were roundly ignored, or because I have something to say about them for whatever reason.
And yes, it’ll be a five-point review scale.
You never know, you might end up on Metacritic eventually!
Not if I can help it!
Finally, why did ONM never give a game 100%? That always annoyed me.
We were never going to give any game 100%.
Why? Don’t tell me it was some bullshit reason like “there’s no such thing as an absolutely perfect game” or bollocks like that.
Nah. The verdict box was just too small to fit three digits into it.
That’s all for reviews, then. Like I said, expect to see me posting brand new reviews on Tired Old Hack in the near future for all manner of weird and wonderful games. Though obviously they won’t all be wonderful. Otherwise it’d be a bit pointless reviewing them.
If there’s anything you feel I’ve missed out regarding the reviews process or anything else – if you want to have a go at me for giving Mario Kart Wii 94% instead of 95% – feel free to voice your mindwords in the comments below.