Random tips on how to write game reviews

If you’re new to the blog, or haven’t come across my sporadic game review posts, then you may not know that I review games (mostly PC games these days) for the website NZGamer.com. I’ve been writing for them since 2006, and by my count I’ve written something like 130 reviews during that time.

Anyway, background info aside, I was over at NZGamer.com, poking around, and noticed they have a section called “Write For Us.” I don’t usually hang out in the website footer, so I guess that’s my excuse for not noticing it earlier. In any case: there is some great stuff there, and advice that any fledgling game reviewer would do well to read.

The list got me thinking about what I like and dislike in a game review, and some of my own process, and I thought I’d offer up my own list of dos and don’ts of game reviewing.

Without further adieu:

  1. Don’t rant, or make readers’ eyes glaze over. Some of this falls under the “be concise” advice, but I would also hasten to add: “be a bit professional.” You need to write your piece for people who have been playing a game series since day one, as well as the person who has just strolled over to your article and never heard of [Big Game Here]. Ranting about specific aspects of game mechanics (unless you’re talking about a reason for marking down your score), or the behind-the-scenes politics preceding release, can alienate readers. Save it for the forums.
  2. Do be funny. Obviously don’t be Bobo the Clown, but I like it when a reviewer can make me laugh. Yes, the games industry is big business, but there’s nothing wrong with injecting a little lightness now and again. Then again, this is also one of those “don’t overdo it” elements; too much cheese is going to just taste, well, cheesy.
  3. Despite what many people say, a subjective review can be more useful than an objective one. People are arguing about this all the time. I’ve had people post snarky comments about this in articles I’ve written. You know: “journalists are meant to be objective, not subjective.” Maybe if you’re writing for a large newspaper, perhaps. But I write for a gaming website. Yes, they are professional as hell, but there is more than enough room for people to get to understand your tastes and opinions in a slightly less-formal setting. In fact, I’d argue that even if people don’t agree with your tastes, at least once they understand a bit more about you, they’re better able to judge whether your review would align with their own feelings about said game.
  4. Don’t forget the soundtrack. It’s way too easy to get caught up in a discussion of graphics and story, and leave out the “little things”. Voice acting, soundtrack, and the user interface are just a few examples of game elements that often don’t even get mentioned in reviews. Of course if there’s not that much to say, then don’t waste your word count. But don’t forget to look at the little things as well. They can all contribute to a game’s overall vibe.
  5. People love weird details. Well I do, anyway. Speaking of which, please do include some details about your actual gameplay. Give me an anecdote. A review without any attempt to put me “in the scene” can feel too remote. I love reviews where funny experiences and revelations (and yes, weird bugs) are recounted in a way where I feel like I’m the one experiencing them.
  6. You don’t have to know everything. People will still like your review if you’ve never played that series of games before. Just don’t pretend you have. Often a review can be really valuable if you come to it with a “first impressions” sort of angle. It can be handy for people trying to decide if a beloved game would make a good present for someone else – just as a random example.
  7. Bonus points: are you going to finish the game after the review’s done? You don’t always get the chance to finish a game before the review’s due. Deadlines and other obligations are a reality, and this can be frustrating. But people aren’t necessarily looking for endgame spoilers from you. A concise piece on gameplay, setting, story, and all the other goodies, is often all people are looking for. Other times, it’s seriously difficult to drag yourself to the computer to play a game you really dislike. In both of these cases it is worth noting (if only to yourself; you don’t have to broadcast it to the heavens that you didn’t finish the game) whether you’d actually like to keep playing the game once the review has gone out? This can be a useful consideration, if you’re having a bit of trouble with your scoring.

And now I’m having the revelation that all of these things are also important and necessary for my fiction writing. I’ll just tootle off now, mind slightly blown. Adios!

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