Mike Askounes over at Gamers Press has an editorial about the lack of originality in reviews....
By Mark Asher on Friday, September 7, 2001 - 01:19 am:
Sure, and we could talk about the lack of originality in TV, books, movies, etc.
Reviews are somewhat formulaic because there are a number of bases that need to be touched. Could they be better, sure, and some are.
"Stop insisting that you have to finish a game to review it."
What? Like most web reviewers actually finish the game? I agree in spirit, but what does this have to do with the way the review reads anyway?
"Stop spending too much time covering multiplayer"
I don't see multiplayer getting that much ink in most reviews, unless it's a game that everyone knows multiplayer is key.
"Stop feeling itís necessary to overuse comparisons with other titles"
Good writers know when a comparison is helpful and when not to make one.
What's he basically saying is that most reviews aren't interesting, and I'd agree. But I think the fault is in the lack of real analysis in most reviews.
By Jason McCullough on Friday, September 7, 2001 - 01:27 am:
I'd also it say it's the fault of the average game reviewer not being a very good writer. The field just isn't big enough, not enough prestige, yadda, yadda. Evil Avatar, for example, is taken half-seriously.
By Billy Harms on Friday, September 7, 2001 - 03:08 am:
This is going to sound exceptionally harsh, but this guy doesn't have a clue. He makes sweeping generalizations about how reviews are written without understanding that each publication has its own "template", its own way of explaining things. A review of Game X in PC Gamer is usually quite different from CGW's review of the same game. Publications develop editorial styles that match the tastes and expectations of their readers, and if they fail in that they hear about it.
As for the suggestion that there be more "narrative" in reviews, that doesn't make a lick of sense. Every review I've ever read that used a large amount of "narrative" sucked ass. (Anyone remember Incite's Ultima IX review?)
By Jason McCullough on Friday, September 7, 2001 - 03:46 am:
I read back through that article and I agree I'm not sure what's he talking about. Perfect example of why reviewers should finish games: that stupid Xen level in Half-Life, the last level of the game. I thought the game was average until then.
As for "narrative" reviews: huh? Name another art form with narrative reviews. The example he's given reads exactly like the "old method," too, except not quite as revealing about the gameplay.
I also don't see the point in assigning a "buy" recommendation or not, as gamers' individual marginal propensity to buy varies widely. Why shouldn't you mention the game length, either? What, does the two relevant sentences take up too much valuable space?
Obviously, the Max Payne team paid him to write this. ;0
By Anonymous on Friday, September 7, 2001 - 07:52 am:
Thanks for checking out the article. I've got to go run and spend my Max Payne money now.
By Brian Rucker on Friday, September 7, 2001 - 08:23 am:
As a consumer, I have to say that this guy should probably only be writing reviews for himself.
Running narratives of actual gameplay tend to fail to summarize features we players know we're looking for or trying to avoid in games. They're just too subjective in nature. In addition to the facts they can be helpful but I've seen this technique used far more often as compensation for lack of ability to understand a game in critical terms than as insightful commentary. In some cases, rare ones, it has been useful to explore titles with very original gameplay.
And comparisons to other titles are very important. How else do you set up a mental context for the reader? If someone is reading a game magazine or website odds are they're really interested in games. This means a) they should be able to recognise relevant references or b) they should be curious enough about titles that are mentioned in passing to look up articles on them. This is how we consumers become clueful.
What I don't need are irrelevant preludes and expositions about magnets and wood in an article about games.
By Anonymous on Friday, September 7, 2001 - 08:46 am:
Well... I was going to avoid defending myself, but here goes...
My point with the article was to suggest there are other (maybe better, maybe not) ways to write reviews other than the standard cookie-cutter methods used in most publications. I am very much aware that different pubs have Writer's Guides that people must abide by - I'm saying that these are too stringent in some cases. Why not allow more of the author's personality shine through the review? This doesn't mean they shouldn't convey the necessary information to the reader about the game, just that they could also inject a litlle more "pizzaz" into the proceedings.
And I apologize if my "prelude" about my kids broke some unwritten rule that gaming journalists are only supposed to be interested in games. If I was writing for a magazine and getting paid for my work, I would understand. However, I write for free and have total creative freedom at Gamers' Press. Therefore, if I wish to spend a paragraph or two rambling about life outside gaming - I get to do that! Fortunately, most feedback I've gotten tend to like those little side trips...
Anyways, I really do appreciate everyone taking time to read the article and offering their opinions. I do wish that the criticism wasn't so "personal" in nature, but that's OK - I guess it should be expected in this type forum. BTW, where have I heard the name Billy Harms before - do he write somewhere... sounds familiar...
I'd also like to try and vindicate myself if the eyes of this group by inviting you to check out one of my lighter articles at http://www.spikescorner.com/editorials/spikescorner/diablo.htm. I think you may enjoy it for what it is...
By Jeff Lackey on Friday, September 7, 2001 - 09:05 am:
"I am very much aware that different pubs have Writer's Guides that people must abide by - I'm saying that these are too stringent in some cases."
Mike, I think you may be surprised if you think these writer's guide define a style or a format. I know that the writer's guides for CGM and CGW are more focussed on general rules and fornatting than style. While they may say "if you have to ask yourself if you're using the name of the game too often, you probably are," they don't outline a review style. In fact, you'll see in the same issue of a CGM or CGW reviews that are very different in style and content.
I do think that your comment that reviewers don't need to finish a game to write an accurate review is flawed. I've just read too many reviews in which it was obvious that the reviewer missed something later in the game that was significant. And we've all read reviews in which it was obvious that the writer had barely played the game at all.
By Anonymous on Friday, September 7, 2001 - 09:23 am:
Actually, I did - at one point - have a copy of the CGM writer's guide (I was on their freelancer's list), and I was amazed at how detailed it was. I suppose that's alright though, as I've always preferred CGM to the other mags.
Regarding finishing games, you're right about reading reviews where the author obviously didn't play more than an hour or so. Before I started writing reviews I MAY have been fooled, but after writing over 80 of the suckers reviews where the author didn't even attempt to play the games are easier to spot.
- Mike Askounes
By Dave Long on Friday, September 7, 2001 - 10:00 am:
This is usually true. The problem is that narrative of any kind about any game can often be positive, even in the worst games. World War II Online is a perfect example. If I relate the story of blasting a Ju87 out of the sky with the main gun on my wounded Char, it's thrilling, entertaining stuff...or how I escaped the clutches of Gordon Berg high over the front lines in my Spitfire that had run out of ammo while he stalked me in his 109. These stories make the game sound like a champ. However, the real truth is that it's a buggy mess that still doesn't work right and possibly never will.
Every review I've ever read that used a large amount of "narrative" sucked ass.
I don't want to spin this into a different topic, but this jumped out at me. I've noticed more and more lately that the sites who have one or more people writing personal stuff throughout their normal editorial seem to always get a ton of sympathy from the readers. Like because they think they "know you", you're somehow better than the guys who write for the print mags or Gamespot. In fact, I'm guessing this is why Gamespot introduced the Gamespotting thing...it's a similar idea.
Fortunately, most feedback I've gotten tend to like those little side trips...
Hmmm...it's pretty clear to me that Evil Avatar is editorializing. I guess if that kind of news site was the only kind of news available, it might not be the best of situations, but there are other sites to choose from.
The thing about portal sites is that most of what they post isn't news.
By Mark Asher on Friday, September 7, 2001 - 12:22 pm:
"And I apologize if my "prelude" about my kids broke some unwritten rule that gaming journalists are only supposed to be interested in games. If I was writing for a magazine and getting paid for my work, I would understand. However, I write for free and have total creative freedom at Gamers' Press. Therefore, if I wish to spend a paragraph or two rambling about life outside gaming - I get to do that! Fortunately, most feedback I've gotten tend to like those little side trips..."
It's just a writer thing. I'm not criticizing what you wrote about your family because I skipped that part, but good writers can make anything interesting and bad writers have trouble holding the interest of the reader even when they stick to the subject.
In other words, if you are your own editor, make sure you're a good editor. :)
By Jeff Atwood (Wumpus) on Friday, September 7, 2001 - 01:10 pm:
"Evil Avatar, for example, is taken half-seriously."
By whom, exactly? I think that's giving him one-half too much credit.
By Billy Harms on Friday, September 7, 2001 - 01:38 pm:
>I've just read too many reviews in which it was obvious that the reviewer missed something later in the game that was significant.
Yep. I remember one major magazine's review of Trespasser that stated you can't kill the T-Rex. However, at one point in the game there is a jeep with a machine gun mounted on the back and you can use to kill a T-Rex. Mistakes like that are why you should always finish a game.
As for game length, if someone buys three games a year, game length can be very important to them. I know there is an argument that quality matters over quantity, but that's PR hogwash. I want my games to be a blast to play and to last twenty hours or so.
By Tom Ohle on Friday, September 7, 2001 - 01:48 pm:
Since I've gotten back into gaming (I needed a good month away from my computer), I've found that long games just don't really appeal to me. I tried getting into Arcanum, but there wasn't any immediate satisfaction. I've never been fond of first-person shooters, so a quick little action-romp through Max Payne wouldn't quench my gaming thirst. Any suggestions for a quick game that isn't an FPS? I can't really think of any.
Anyway, back to the point. Reviews can often be formulaic, but they don't have to be. If this industry had the same caliber of writers as, say, the movie industry, we wouldn't really see complaints like this. The fact of the matter is that, like someone mentioned earlier, most web journalists are mediocre at best. Most of the magazine guys can hold someone's interest throughout an article, and make it seem like more of an entertainment piece than a review.
By Mark Asher on Friday, September 7, 2001 - 02:44 pm:
"As for game length, if someone buys three games a year, game length can be very important to them. I know there is an argument that quality matters over quantity, but that's PR hogwash. I want my games to be a blast to play and to last twenty hours or so."
I agree. I enjoyed Max Payne, but I wanted more, and there really wasn't any. I wish they had included a dozen or so individual scenarios. That would have been about right.
By Bill Hiles on Friday, September 7, 2001 - 03:01 pm:
I'm almost sorry that I introduced Mike's article here. You guys are a tough bunch. Personally I thought the article was well-meant. I don't know if some of you guys feel threatened by the article but I'm noticing a rather nasty personal streak creeping into some of the comments. I think Mike brought up a few interesting points that could use some constructive discussion, after all the art and craft of game reviewing is not set in stone...if it is then the whole business is in deep kimchee.
By Jeff Lackey on Friday, September 7, 2001 - 03:54 pm:
Oh, I agree with the heading - a lot of game reviews are formulaic. I just disagree with the comments that there's no need to finish a game when reviewing it, and as the folks here can attest, the problem really isn't due to writers' guides. Heck, I've seen at least one manifesto from an EIC asking the freelancing staff to experiment with different styles of reviews that were anti-formalaic.
Plus - anyone who writes in this industry expects to get flack! :) Just look at how much we give each other in here!
By Jason McCullough on Friday, September 7, 2001 - 05:09 pm:
Yeah, What Lackey said.
"Evil Avatar, for example, is taken half-seriously."
"By whom, exactly? I think that's giving him one-half too much credit."
The fact people actually discuss him? Amusingly, his website appears to be down at the moment so I can't speculate as to traffic numbers.
By William Abner on Saturday, September 8, 2001 - 12:13 pm:
What about games that can't be "finished", though? Sports games, for example.
Come on folks, we all know 90-95% of the writing being published (print and online) in this entire industry is substandard--from a critical and technical level. I'm not excluding myself from that list, either, (we've all penned stinker reviews) but the overall snobbery and general ineptness of a lot of critics in this industry amazes me to no end.
But as far as finishing a game, I don't think it's 100% vital, but a LOT of reviewers don't even try. Go read the Far Gate review at Intelgamer. (http://www.intelgamer.com/reviews/fargatereview1.asp) That fella played 3 missions of the 17 mission campaign. If a guy plays 13 or 14 missions and is stuck on mission 15 I'll take his word that the game is good/bad over someone that fiddled with the interface and read the press fact sheet. And that happens way too oftwn in this biz.
By Jeff Lackey on Saturday, September 8, 2001 - 12:31 pm:
For sports games I try to at least play through a season and playoffs (if offered) to make sure they get that "right." If there are career options, I'll try to make sure that I play at least couple of seasons or so to make sure the off-season stuff, like trading, free agency, etc. works as advertised (or not.)
For some games, you may miss something significant if you don't finish the game. I reviewed a flight sim (Typhoon) that had the most ridiculous, out of place ending mission I've seen in a flight sim. It didn't effect the overall rating, since it was one mission (and there were other nits to pick) but it was significant, since this is the same mission at the end of every campaign and readers should be warned.
By William Abner on Saturday, September 8, 2001 - 01:05 pm:
Sure, finishing a game is better than not, but you know as well as I that it can be tough to complete a long game with a 7 day deadline (which is becoming more and more common) in which to play and write a review. I think deadlines like that only hurt the reader. Flying through a game at warp speed makes it easy to miss stuff.
By Jeff Lackey on Saturday, September 8, 2001 - 01:36 pm:
Awe, c'mon Bill, you and I know you write all of your reviews with data from the EA press sheets. LOL! Of course, you're right - finishing a long game can be tough to impossible (without cheats.) It's why I never even try to review RPGS - I'm just amazed that anyone can play an RPG enough in the time required for a review.
BTW - you gonna give me Akron and 53 points against your Buckeyes today? -G-
By Bub (Bub) on Saturday, September 8, 2001 - 01:39 pm:
"For sports games I try to at least play through a season and playoffs (if offered)"
I'm sure you prefer reviewing Football games then, eh? ;> Seriously though, I loved your College Years review in this month's CGW Jeff.
By Jeff Lackey on Saturday, September 8, 2001 - 02:09 pm:
"I'm sure you prefer reviewing Football games then, eh?"
LOL! Yeah, that's a lot easier than a 162 game baseball season!
Thanks for the kind words on the TCY review, Andrew. :)
By Bub (Bub) on Saturday, September 8, 2001 - 02:53 pm:
You're welcome Jeff, that's not an easy type of game to review, and it's even harder to make a review about that kind of game a good read. But then I'm easily baffled and fearful of statistics.
By Jeff Lackey on Saturday, September 8, 2001 - 03:39 pm:
Oh yeah, you pinko commie!?! Oh - sorry, that's our other board... ;)
By Johan Freeberg on Sunday, September 9, 2001 - 03:10 am:
"I'm easily baffled and fearful of statistics"
Numbers are very important to me. When you say that you don't know them, it means to me that your reviews don't consider them, and therefore is bad. I think that is the problem a lot of people had with Max Payne.
By Johan Freeberg on Sunday, September 9, 2001 - 03:14 am:
"I enjoyed Max Payne, but I wanted more"
A lot of people say that about us Finns! :>
By Johan Freeberg on Sunday, September 9, 2001 - 03:16 am:
"I wish they had included a dozen or so individual scenarios"
There was no need. Max Payne is the kind of games that keeps giving. The more you play, the more you learn! Plus with all the mods, the designers had their work cut out for them by other people.
By Anonymous on Sunday, September 9, 2001 - 01:41 pm:
"Numbers are very important to me. When you say that you don't know them, it means to me that your reviews don't consider them, and therefore is bad. I think that is the problem a lot of people had with Max Payne."
You're right...Max had too many words and not enough numbers.
By Jason McCullough on Sunday, September 9, 2001 - 04:13 pm:
Max Payne had too many *badly-written* words. Numbers tend to be hard to screw up, which is why the game needed more of them.
By Johan Freeberg on Monday, September 10, 2001 - 02:08 am:
"Max had too many words and not enough numbers."
The only numbers Max Payne needs is Max Payne 2!
By Johan Freeberg on Monday, September 10, 2001 - 02:12 am:
"Max Payne had too many *badly-written* words."
Are you madman? The words in Max Payne are *supposed* to be *funny*. Maybe they do not sound this way in your English but I assure you that the words in Max Payne are very good!
By Jason McCullough on Monday, September 10, 2001 - 02:56 am:
"Maybe they do not sound this way in your English"
No, do not sound certainly they. Language perhaps original do?
By Bub (Bub) on Monday, September 10, 2001 - 10:38 am:
"The words in Max Payne are *supposed* to be *funny*. Maybe they do not sound this way in your English but I assure you that the words in Max Payne are very good!"
Really? First I've heard of that. What's your source Freeberg? Are you sure it wasn't funny because it was inept? Rather than trying to be funny, BUT inept? I mean, why not have comedy in a noir like Max Payne, right? I mean, that dead and bloody baby in the crib shot that etched itself in my mind? Hilarious.
By Johan Freeberg on Monday, September 10, 2001 - 11:55 am:
"I mean, why not have comedy in a noir like Max Payne, right? I mean, that dead and bloody baby in the crib shot that etched itself in my mind? Hilarious."
The writing is a Finnish interpretation of American English! Which is always a source of amusement for us. The crib scene if I remebered it right is a referance to the finnish detective novels of Matti Joensuu. The character Harjunpaa at one point loses a baby to his enemies but later loses another one on the bus. He is always losing babies, and it is not always hilarious. But the books are :). And so Max Payne is a referance.
By Bub (Bub) on Monday, September 10, 2001 - 12:20 pm:
Dunno, the scene you're discribing with a detective losing babies sounds more like slapstick than the scenes created in Payne. Sounds like a pretty ineffective reference even if more than 3% of the world's population (an estimate based on a guess of Finland's population that read those books) could be expected to "get it."
Still, this is very interesting stuff Johan. Getting a Fin perspective. Since this is a Finnish game that according to you is filled with humor that works in Finnish, but seems awful in English, and depends upon literary references that, according to Amazon, are rare Helsinki noir fiction... perhaps Max Payne should have been set in Finland?
I know, we Americans are notably intolerant of things like this. The rest of the world cocks their collective head at our art exports like the neighbor's dog when my baby hits a high note. But this was a huge American release, set in New York, and paying (what looked like serious) homage to American noir fiction.
We might cut it a bit more slack if we knew it was supposed to be taken as a foreign movie.
By Dave Long on Monday, September 10, 2001 - 12:21 pm:
That's pretty fucking kooky, man.
The character Harjunpaa at one point loses a baby to his enemies but later loses another one on the bus. He is always losing babies, and it is not always hilarious. But the books are :).
"Dunno, the scene you're discribing with a detective losing babies sounds more like slapstick"
How can it be slapstick, like the Stooges, when you see what happens to the baby? Have you no heart?
"like a pretty ineffective reference even if more than 3% of the world's population" Still, this is very interesting stuff Johan. Getting a Fin perspective"
Thank you!! I think that you think Finland is bigger than it is though. Just in spirit! Please also use double-ns with *Finn*, or you make us sound like dolphins, or even sharks.
Max Payne is very similar to American movies, only better than most of those movies, since the action is more available and very beautiful
By Johan Freeberg on Monday, September 10, 2001 - 02:41 pm:
"Maybe the designers, in making a game apparently aimed at American audiences, should have considered that no one would "get" many of their references?"
Max Payne is a game for everyone, including Americans and Belgians! Most people do get Max Payne though as it is selling very well and most people have loved it and sold more to their friends. The craftors worked it very well!
By Robert Mayer on Monday, September 10, 2001 - 03:51 pm:
We've always operated on the assumption that reviews should be about the game, not the reviewer. To that end our style, such as you can identify it, eschews the first-person approach, frowns on too many personal reminiscences, and generally avoids being too familiar. At the same time, we try to avoid excessive narrative, for most of the reasons offered here--a linear description of gameplay is usually less valuable than analysis of same.
However...I see great value in a more personal style sometimes. There have been cases where the best way I could see to convey something about a game would have been in the first person. Reviews with personality, where the reviewer becomes part of the product and the process, can often be wonderfully engaging and entertaining. The trick is to balance the entertaining with the analytical. Not to say that analysis has to be boring, or that first-person noodling is always entertaining, either.
In an ideal world, where Tom Wolfe or Joseph Heller or Thomas Pynchon wrote our game reviews, we could probably turn out articles that touched all the bases. In the real world, despite having access to excellent writers, we have to work with limited word and dollar budgets, under tight time constraints. So, we compromise. In most cases I've seen, across the spectrum from print to web, reviews that shoot for hip, personal, informal and narrative styles don't work as well as those that take a more distant analytical approach. Not 100%, but enough so that we have felt pretty comfortable doing things our way.
Things change, and I'm sure reviews will evolve in a variety of ways. I hope the gee-whiz and l33t do0Dz varieties will die off, along with the tomes of unrelieved narrative you sometimese find on the web. Between those two extremes there's a lot to be savored.
As for finishing a game, that's a toughie. We've always had a policy of demanding that reviewers finish the game, and by and large we've held to it. Over the past ten years, I'm sure there have been reviews we've published that were not based on completed play throughs, but mostly we've been good boys and girls. Did it matter? That's tough to say. You can make a good argument that seasoned reviewers can give you a dead-on assessment of a game 99% of the time, without finishing it. But that 1% can bite you in the ass.
I think the best approach to take may be to adhere to a policy of always finishing games, but to also remain flexible. Who the hell finished Daggerfall, for example? EverQuest? How can you "finish" Combat Mission? That sort of thing.
As for buying advice to readers, I'm against it. I see our reviews as entertainment first, game analysis second. If you want to use them to inform a purchasing decision, by all means go ahead, but none of us are going to say "buy this game!" How the hell do we know if it's worth the bucks you you? We can say it's good, or bad, but ultimately only you can determine whether it's worth buying.