Don’t speculate about the development process.

Speculation about the development of a game is usually wrong. Despite this, video game critics incorporate internet rumors and unverified “common knowledge” into their writing. Even if the information is accurate, it’s useless in reviewing a game. The game is what it is, and reflecting on how it got here is not useful for figuring out how good it is.

Speculating on development can also solidify a narrative around a game that removes nuance from discussion. For example: “Dark Souls II is a terrible game because Miyasaki-san wasn’t involved enough. The developers of Dark Souls II must have thought ‘hard is good,’ and so made this terrible game.” This is a common point made about Dark Souls II. It’s unverified, probably wrong, and distracts from good games discussion and analysis.

Don’t tell me why you decided to review the game, or how you were introduced to the game, or about previous drafts of your review.

I’m here to know whether the game is good, and why. I do not want five minutes of your personal story with the franchise, or to be told how hard it was to make the review. Cut all that out, and leave me with the most essential parts of your analysis or review. Until you are a world-renown genius, people won’t care about the behind-the-scenes minutia of your review.

All of that extra stuff is used as a substitute for a proper introduction. Instead of unnecessary background information, try opening your review with your thesis. In one or two sentences, sum up how good the game is, and why. Then you can begin supporting that claim, leading into the body of the video.

Don’t call music and visual design “subjective.”

This sounds specific, but it’s  a common practice. Game reviewers have learned a formal vocabulary consisting of words like balance, mechanic, hitstun, hitlag, anti-air, and so on. They have learned how to apply these terms to justify why some games are better than others. Reviewers are not familiar with the same types of formal terms for music and visual art, so they assume they don’t exist. They wrongly assume music and visual art are somehow more subjective forms of art than games. Visual art and music have formal vocabulary and critical methods, just like games do.

I am not insisting that reviewers familiarize themselves with music and visual art criticism, because that stuff is irrelevant to games anyway. However, it is presumptuous to call those fields subjective. Just because you don’t know how to argue that one piece of music is better than another, doesn’t mean there is no way to do so. Instead, say you don’t know anything about music or visual art. Then, you can proceed to either ignore the music and visuals, or give your opinions with the caveat that you aren’t really a qualified critic of those subjects.

Don’t be a contrarian or a reactionary.

When you sit down to analyze a game, examine your motivation and feelings. Are you approaching the game trying to justify a view contrary to popular opinion? Are you writing the analysis because of how another analysis made you feel? If you answered yes to these questions and don’t confront that, you may end up with a bad review. Unless you acknowledge these feelings and try to balance out the review, it will be made in bad faith and will be one-sided.

Take Hbomberguy’s Dark Souls II video as an example. It was made in reaction to Matthewmatosis’s popular critique of Dark Souls II. Hbomberguy’s video, because it’s reactionary and because Hbomberguy is a contrarian, is totally one-sided. His analysis is over an hour long, yet he does not mention a single flaw of the game. This one-sidedness caused him to make some errors, which were pointed out in his comment section and by some video responses. The contrarian standpoint he took with Dark Souls II has hurt his credibility, making him come across as a fanboy rather than a level-headed critic.

Contrarianism can be useful as a way to get us to examine first principles. It can be useful to consider things like “What if Superman on N64 is actually the greatest game of all-time, and Tetris is garbage? What evidence could I marshal for that claim? If it were true, what would I be valuing in games?” What’s not useful is dogged, unconscious contrarianism.

Don’t abuse adverbs.

This is one of the most common bits of advice given to people who want to improve their writing, yet it’s very common among amateur game critics. If you are using adverbs to fill up space, to add redundant detail, or to prop up poorly-chosen verbs, then you are abusing them. Critics should comb their writing for adverbs and determine whether each one is really necessary. Could it be removed by replacing the verb it modifies with a more specific verb? Could it be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence?

For more on this topic (including plenty of examples), I encourage you to read this blog post.

Don’t rely on buzzwords.

Immersion, clunky controls, fluid controls, tight controls, responsive controls, visceral combat, artificial difficulty…

The function of buzzwords is to avoid specificity. If you don’t like a game’s controls, you can just call them clunky. If you get pissed off at a part of a game, you can just call it artificially difficult. Instead of relying on these words, try to justify how you feel about the game with precise descriptions and in-game evidence. These words can be useful for summing up many small points, but reviews typically use them without further detail.

In summary…

Don’t waste your audience’s time. Review in good faith, and choose your words carefully.

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