The Dord of Darien

Musings from the Mayor of the Internet

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How to review video games

I’ve been reviewing video games for a few years now, and I think I’ve broadly gotten the hang of it. I’ve learned this by reading lots of other reviews and evaluating them in terms of what’s good and bad about them – in essence, reviewing other reviews (wait, where have I heard that…).

One thing I’ve learned is that a good review shouldn’t go into too much detail. Paint in broad strokes – readers don’t need or generally desire to hear low-level information about every single level in the game. If there’s anything in particular that sticks out ("level three was especially good because…"), highlight it, but there’s no reason to try to "prove" that level three was the best by explaining everything that was wrong with levels one, two, four, five, and six. Give the general tenor of the game and call out the exceptions and you’re good.

Reviews should avoid spoilers whenever possible, and clearly demarkate them when not. Now, some things it’s safe to spoil – you mean the final boss in the new Mario game is Bowser? No shit? – but it’s really tacky to give away the solutions to any mysteries or describe the ending or any major plot twists in detail.

Use a rating system, and make it sensible. Some places try to be all iconoclastic and eschew ratings. That’s all swell and post-modern and probably ultimately better for the art of game journalism, but it’s a disservice to your readers for two reasons: one, readers sometimes want to read you harshing on something and can use low ratings as sort of an index to find the harshest reviews, and two, they make it clear even when your language is ambiguous exactly what you actually thought about a game. So I advise using a system of ratings, but not an insane one; you seen Gamespot? You see how the ratings they give games have 101 discrete possible scores? Bullshit it’s possible to rate video games with anything resembling that much precision. I mean, I sometimes wonder if I can justify the eleven possible states I use, and these twits have a hundred and one. There’s just no way.

Also on that note, avoid saddling yourself with a weird rating "formula." I assign a rating to each game based mainly on how much fun it was. A game that was really kickass fun will never score lower than a 4 from me, no matter how ugly and blocky the graphics are, and even if it doesn’t have any sound at all. Meanwhile, ship a beautiful, state-of-the-art, orchestrally-scored, packed-with-bells-and-whistles steaming log of poop and I won’t rate it higher than 1. Gamespot was notorious for a horribly unbalanced "system" that had them giving equal weight to a game’s graphics, sound, gameplay, and "value," along with a truly bogus "tilt" number that could be set to whatever the reviewer desired if the average of the other four didn’t whip up a score he liked for the game. Now, the existence of the tilt category is sufficient evidence that this system is horribly flawed. Ignoring that for a moment, consider this: which matters more to you when you’re evaluating a game? The gameplay, or the sound? If you can’t decide, well then hell, this is the system to use. But if you’re a non-retard, you can probably see why this is stupid. (Note: Gamespot has, probably due to many years of me making fun of them about this, finally changed their idiot rating system. But I wrote this whole article and then found out about that, so I just went back and made it sound like I already knew. Hell if I was erasing it.)

Most importantly, try to make your reviews entertaining. Get a few jokes in there, work on writing prose that doesn’t suck, and try not to get too dry and technical. You’re reviewing games here, not industrial equipment; people reading this stuff can be expected to be at least passingly interested in entertainment. I mean, the least you can do is swear a lot, amirite?


January 13th, 2008 Posted by | Games | no comments