Writing A Game Review: The Other Side Of The Fence

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So yeah, I’m 37 years old, and I write videogame reviews.

*pause for the audience to point and laugh*

One funny thing about the video game culture (I think it’s big enough that I don’t have to call it a sub-culture anymore) is that the whole no-lifer geek stereotype image is damnably pervasive. It’s pretty amazing too, because if you actually explore the relationships you form with gaming buds, you find that under the shared interest there’s… an actual living person there, in every case. I think many people, especially those who aren’t longtime gamers, still typify those with a gaming habit as pimply, overweight social maladroits who’ve never mentally evolved past the age of 13. It’s funny. That subset exists, but I’d lay odds it’s no more than a strong minority anymore. Gaming’s just been around too long.

Bear in mind, I’m not saying we aren’t geeks. I’m saying we aren’t just geeks. There’s a distinction.

So yeah, I’m 37 years old, and I write videogame reviews. Didn’t we start here? Sorry, old people ramble sometimes. 😛

I think I started playing video games when I was about 10 years old (if you’re curious, that was in the 70s). I’ve seen most of the show – pretty nearly from Pong to PS3, and it’s been a hell of a ride. For someone who’s been into video games that long, and loves them as much now as then (correction, more), you’d think the job of reviewer would be a dream gig, surely. Even if it’s just a moonlighting thing, as it is for all of us at TBB (we get to keep the software we review, but there’s no other pay involved). Funny thing is, it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to go on a crying jag about how play has become work – that’s a crock. Playing a game is still playing a game. But there is a difference, a really really big difference, in playing a game for your own enjoyment and auditing it with intent to publish your experience to others. If nothing else, the mere fact that you may be influencing how people spend their money is pretty significant.

The other (big) thing though, is timeframes. It’s been a clich? in corporate America for as long as… there’s been corporate America, but deadlines really are a bitch. Using myself as an example: I work a 40-plus hour week; I’m raising two medium-sized, very active dogs who need lots of care, affection and active play; I keep the house clean; and I usually exercise about half an hour daily. In short, while I remember when I’d spend days on end detached from the real world, hurling my mind far into the twisty pathways of some game designer’s creation, that time is years in the past. Life happens.

Just having a deadline changes the experience. That’s inescapable. Does it diminish the fun that I, personally, get from a game? No, not over the long term. I went into Tenchu-Z expecting really nothing at all and wound up enjoying the experience enough to play the game quite a bit more after reviewing it. But then you get into the whole “slice of a pie” issue. With a deadline and a full daily schedule, can you really get everything out of a game in time for the review? Can you finish it at all? What if you miss something, and how does cramming your way through the game in a short time affect your experience of it? I think Penny Arcade’s Gabe spoke rather eloquently to that last point in his recent piece on Assassin’s Creed.

It would be very different if we had the luxury of getting the game weeks before street date like bigger publications. Then, deadlines could be weeks instead of days, and I really think the reviews would profit from that. At this point, such things are sadly impossible, so we basically have to cram and crib and write with what we have (or at least I do, guess I can’t speak for others). I didn’t have BioShock beaten by the time the review was due, and as a result, even though I knew the entire plot by getting it from people who had beaten the game, I missed what was probably one of the most chilling and emotionally poignant moments in the entire narrative. Given the overall excellence of BioShock’s story, that’s a pretty grandiose statement; just trust me when I say the sheer gut-wrenching quality of the moment was probably unique to my personal neuroses, but no less viscerally gripping for that. When I did personally experience it, a short time ago, it was so profound that it literally put me off of finishing the game for a while. As a reviewer, I guess I feel torn between the need to share the power of a moment like that with the readership, and the desire to tease them enough about the game to have them want to experience it without preconceptions, undiluted by my perceptual overlays and preferences. (Tangentially, this is why I hate my writeup on BioShock – I didn’t tell the reader enough!) That’s what I mean about a pie slice. At best, you can give impressions of a game. Trying to shoehorn the entire experience, or even the highlight reel, into a few paragraphs would be impossible for Avon’s Bard. A humble English major from middle Tennessee sure can’t manage it.

But then, that’s sort of the point. Really, the whole word “review” contains a rather laughable hauteur when applied to so subjective a medium as videogaming. Ask ten devotees of Naruto which is the best Naruto game out there and you’re liable to get ten different responses (oversimplified, but you get the point). What a “review” should do – if you asked me, or if you’re attentive enough to still be reading – is to be as objective as possible in discussing, basically, the question: “If you enjoy videogames as a general rule, will you be able to get enjoyment out of this one?” A perfect example is The Orange Box. I’m a huge dissident against the whole idea of the FPV as a default in any sort of game (I’m fine with it being there as an option, just don’t force me into it – give me the alternative of 3PV), but TOB is such a totally awesome product that I can’t not like it, even as I wish I could see where my freaking feet are. That’s the purpose of a “review:” to tell you, is this game really a trip worth taking? If so, do you rent or purchase?

So in a nutshell, that’s reviewing games. Did you follow that? You’re on limited time; you’re helping people choose how to spend their money; you’ve got to tell enough to keep it relevant and interesting, but you shouldn’t blow the whole plot. Oh – and your audience is a spiked Bell curve of rugged individualists, all of whom are convinced that their views are right.

Did I mention I love this job? 😆

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