Scott Sharkey of 1UP.com wrote a list of “tips” for game developers to help improve review scores for their game. I don’t want to sound like I’m on some kind of vendetta – I’m actually quite happy with the review scores for the last title I worked on – but it occurred to me that this exchange of tips might fruitfully go both ways. Just as the 1UP piece isn’t (I hope) meant to implicate all games or all developers, I don’t mean this little response to be a blanket indictment of anyone who has ever written about games, either. Like its companion piece, it is simply a list of pet peeves… except without any funny pictures.
Shaky writing skills.
Grammatical mistakes, leaden or awkward phrases, and blatant typos richly populate the output of the gaming press. It’s arguable that the instantaneous nature of Internet publishing, combined with journalism’s always-tight deadlines, don’t make for an environment where perfectly constructed sentences can be fashioned every moment. But some writers who cover the industry show that it can be successfully done. And while you’re proofreading, how about check for banalities or excising some overused clichés? You may very well indeed cry when you encounter yet another game with those blasted quick-time events. But nobody wants to hear the shopworn wisecrack about your “salty tears,” your “bitter tears,” your “hot tears,” or whatever tears you’re crying today. If you don’t have anything new in your bag of tricks, how can you successfully take game developers to task for the same thing?
Regurgitation of marketing materials.
The big publishers sometimes view the enthusiast press as extensions of their marketing departments, and it’s pretty easy to understand why. If you’re flown out to a studio for a preview, why would you just note down everything the demonstrator says about how awesome the game will be, and publish that as your article? It sounds dumb written out here, but I see this happen with alarming regularity. And if the title genuinely doesn’t look like it’s shaping up, don’t say you are “cautiously excited” for the game, or that “hopefully, these issues will be addressed in time for release.” You know how much time there is left – if it’s just a month or a few weeks before release, you understand as well as anyone in the industry that the game you’re playing is pretty much exactly what will be on store shelves.
Disrespect of opposing viewpoints.
“I was never a fan of this game series,” you say, but here’s a news post about it. If you’re posting news, nobody cares what your personal opinion of the game or game series is, especially if you have nothing good to say. Reviews are one thing, where you can support your arguments with exact details on how the game succeeds or doesn’t. Knee-jerk reactions and flippant comments are another. You’re not some random dude posting on a forum – you’re a journalist, supposedly engendering respect, someone who’s opinions are carefully considered, backed up with evidence, and meant to be taken seriously. If all you really, dearly want is for everyone to just see things exactly the way you do, you’re in the wrong business. Consider a career in auteur film direction.
Skimming the surface.
Don’t lazily write things like “the music is about what you’d expect for this type of game.” Do you realize how silly that sounds? Imagine a wine reviewer saying “this wine tastes about what you would expect for a Cabernet,” or an architectural critic saying “the building looks like what you’d expect a building of this type to look like”. Who’s expectations are you even talking about? How about describing the experience of the music? Was it generic and forgettable, memorable but unevenly produced? You might point out that average consumers, the kind who are going to throw this game into their Wal-Mart shopping carts, just won’t pay that close attention to the music, or any other aspect of the game you glossed over in your review. You’d be right – and that’s precisely the point. You are an expert, someone who is supposed to have deeper and better knowledge of your subject than most.
Don’t be cleverly dogmatic.
A lot of game reviews end up being a list of comparisons to the reviewer’s preconceived notions on what good games are “supposed” to be. Instead of evaluating the game on its own terms, they find and point out pretend flaws by imagining that all games set out to be their version of The Ideal Game and invariably fall short. This isn’t real critique. Unless you can universally define what The Ideal Game is (in which case, please go ahead) then don’t compare the game you are reviewing to The Ideal Game, because no such thing exists. No amount of witty scorn and jokey-jokes will hide the fact that you have no theory on what games should actually be, and thus your clever review actually has no intellectual teeth. If you get mad when people like Roger Ebert say games aren’t art, then step up and start evaluating games like art.