Writing about Writing Game Reviews

I was fortunate enough to have a review that I wrote, the Dragon’s Crown review on Tap-Repeatedly, get high praise semi-recently on Quarter to Three from Tom Chick. I admire his review style and candor a lot so this was a real achievement for me. He said he wished he saw more game reviews written the way I wrote that one, and that is really kind.

I liked Dragon’s Crown because it’s my kinda thing. I used to play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons but the campaigns I was in didn’t seem to entirely satisfy me. Eventually I figured out that if I just ran the campaigns, I would enjoy them for sure, because they were pretty guaranteed to be games I would personally like. I have run two successful Fourth Edition campaigns so far. Both had to end because I physically relocated, twice. During the same time period, I’ve been writing things about games.
Like my relationship with Dungeons & Dragons games, I don’t read a lot of game reviews I like. I like the reviews at Rock Paper Shotgun and Quarter to Three. I like the reviews at Action Button. I like the output at Tap-Repeatedly, or I wouldn’t work there, and I like the writing at Electron Dance although things there are rarely labeled as reviews. I think there are systemic problems with the way game reviews have to be written. But that’s just complaining about a Dungeons & Dragons campaign instead of running my own. I generally try to avoid writing about what reviews should be. I just started writing more of the kind of reviews I want to read. It’s nice to know that people find them now and again.
I don’t make a living writing reviews for games. I really like the work that I am doing now, and I write game critique as a side thing. I think my reviews would have a very different character if I made a living writing game reviews. I have to acknowledge that writing for Tap-Repeatedly I am incredibly privileged in my ability to write reviews that are fun to write.
First of all, I mostly review games I’m interested in. If I buy a game with my own cash and play it, but don’t feel like I have material to write a real review, I generally don’t. On the other hand, if I have something to say, I’m free to say it, even if I think an acclaimed game was mediocre or a game people hated was actually excellent. I can report on news if it strikes me as interesting, but I don’t have to engage in a hype machine if it isn’t interesting to me personally. I don’t have a deadline and we’re encouraged to review old games if we feel like it, like Gregg B did earlier this week. No one made me post the Grand Theft Auto V trailer, and when I finally did, it was just to snark about how I don’t give a shit. I am allowed to use the phrase “give a shit.” I also write clunky metaphors involving sex and violence because I made the deliberate decision that I was done with trying to make my writing at all beautiful. Some people seem to like that. All this might not really fly on some game sites.
The fact is, and this is a problem I’ve previously addressed, there is very little commercial value to the kind of games crit writing that I do. Occasionally I toss out a pitch to write something freelance for another site. But I’m much better at writing articles than I am at writing pitches. This really means if I needed to make a living doing this I’d have to be writing a lot more pitches. If I needed to make a living doing this I also would have to be funding my own games consoles at launch and wouldn’t be able to borrow tablets and other things. If I needed to make a living writing games crit I also probably wouldn’t have much time to develop games, even though the fact that I have development experience informs the sort of critique that I can write.
If I could change one thing about game reviews, I think they would be better if they didn’t have to be so immediate. Obvious, banal statement to follow: games are not like movies. Right? Yeah, duh. But in particular, they are not like movies in the sense that they take much longer to consume. In the few situations where games are smaller to consume, such as with Gone Home, I have noticed reviewers seem almost grateful that they actually CAN completely wring everything there is to wring out of the game in less than one afternoon. And then they can actually discuss it more richly because they have time to do that.
A commercial for GTA V was just on TV. “Coming September 17” in case you were wondering, because I am totally your source for breaking news. What I anticipate with GTA V is that reviewers will give it good scores partially on reputation. But it’ll be a long time after embargo before people can really say much of substance about it, regardless of silly numerical scores, because it is designed to be really huge. A huge game can be good, or enjoyable, but a huge game is hard to digest quickly. I wrote an “impressions” article about Skyrim after about 10 hours but I didn’t really feel qualified to truly review it the way I really would like until around hour 200. I certainly don’t think every review I’ve ever written is great or anything. But the ones that felt kinda rushed are my least favorite.
I wrote this mostly to acknowledge my privilege. I’m grateful to be able to do the things that I do. I do not want to pretend that I write the worlds best game reviews. But for those that are reading them: thank you for being out there. I hope you find some value in things I write, as much as I amuse myself by writing them.

4 thoughts on “Writing about Writing Game Reviews”

  1. Thanks for this. I find I write “what I want to write” for better or worse and money would definitely change what I could write. I had a short dream at the beginning about becoming a Game Journalist because I wanted a change of job – but really, it would probably be pretty soul-destroying for me.

  2. The thing is that a lot of people say to me things like “you should always get paid for your writing.” I understand the sentiment and it goes something like if I write really good content for free it devalues the writing that isn’t done for free. (I’m not trying to brag and say my content is necessarily good or anything but that’s necessary for the argument to work.) The thing is that the process of getting paid for writing individual articles is onerous. I just want to write cool shit about games, yo.

    Also I know I’m already down on this game but it’s really hard not to be cynical when faced with something like this: http://www.ign.com/articles/2013/09/03/world-first-hands-on-with-grand-theft-auto-v

    “Playing it for the first time has only served to strengthen my admiration of this game’s unprecedented girth. Not just physical girth.”

    I cannot believe someone got away with that line without comment. How far was it wedged in?

    I know game reviewers aren’t paid off or anything; those accusations are ridiculous. The pressures are more subtle than that. And no one is really immune to them. These articles must exist and they are perfectly understandable but they are not critique.

  3. Your way of and style of looking at game reviews is pretty much 100% similar to the way I do things. Right now I’m playing and review-planning a game from 2007. I do have a self-imposed (weekly) deadline, but that’s just to keep myself going.

    Going to recommend that you make “I just want to write cool shit about games, yo.” a tagline somewhere.

  4. Also, as a sidenote, I’m equally mystified by the GTA V hype I see everywhere.

    Then again, I’m currently playing both Saints Row 3 and Saints Row 4 in coop with different people, so I might be biased.

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