The way I write reviews
Anyone who knows me knows that I am “a tad” opinionated. Someone once said that opinion are like nipples, we all have one. I must be the heck of a freak of nature, because I have a ton of opinions. In fact, there are very few things I don’t have an opinion on. Whether I choose to voice it or not is a different matter all together, of course. I mostly do, though.
One of the reasons I started G*M*S Magazine is because I wanted to voice my opinions without having them belittled by people who can’t bear the thought of other people’s opinions. You have met that sort of people before, I am sure.
However, when opinions are written down, something else happens. They become lasting and with them, their effects. And opinions have effects, some better than others.
Since I wanted to voice my opinions on things that matter to me a lot, games, I also wanted to make sure I voiced them in a way that was as constructive and objective as possible. I know, that is an oxymoron. How can I be objective if I am giving my own opinion, that HAS to be subjective.
Well, yes, but there is subjective and there is subjective. You see, if you reason your subjectivity and apply a consisting pattern of reasoning, your opinions become more powerful because they are more genuine. And more difficult to argue with.
Having said all that, how do I go about writing down one of my opinions?
First of all I try to make it based on things I know about. Because of my job and my training, I understand fairly well the application of art and graphic design to games. I can tell when a book has been well laid out, when the font works, when the artwork is appropriate… Now you are going to tell me that it can be a matter of taste, and you are right. However, not everything is according to taste, and finding those is the trick.
I have some dyslexia. It’s not mayor, but it is strong enough to make me read very slowly and thank every day for the human being who invented the spell-checker. It also makes me lose my flow of reading very easily. So if I am reading something, I have to stop and then come back to my reading, to find the place where I left off is not easy.
Well, I read some books faster than others. In fact, if you gave me the same book written in two different fonts, same words, one of them would be easier to read for me than the other (I know, it’s mental!). So I use that benchmark to base my opinion on the layout and font use of a book. It so happens that knowing the meaning of the words “kerning”, “gutter”, “pica” and a few others, help me identify where the problems might be, and refer to those accordingly.
Something similar happens with the artwork. I don’t like all types of artwork (ask me about Miro!) but I don’t have to like it to know if it has been well used. I might comment on the style of the painting or illustration not being to my liking, but I will never (or almost never) put it down. However, what I can look into is if the style is consistent and/or complimentary throughout the book/game. That is the job of the art director. To make sure that all the components of the game fit and are visually congruent. There is more to it, but that is not what this article is all about.
Then there is the rules. There is one thing rules have to do: inform. If, at the end of you reading them, you don’t feel fully informed, the rules haven’t been well written. That is my benchmark. I don’t care how good they look – well, I do, but it’s not the main thing – I care how well they read and how easily they convey the information you are meant to absorb. Being the picky man I am, though, I also look into how easy it is to reference them, if they have been well indexed and if they have a good flow.
Lastly I comment on whether I feel they work or not. And this is the trickiest part for me. The reason being that, at least for RPGs, the word “rule” always reads as “guideline”. So I don’t really care what they say, since I will probably change it anyway. However with boardgames, where the rules system is a lot more inflexible (if at all!) I have to pay a bit more attention to how they actually work in gameplay.
Even that I approach in a different way. If a game doesn’t play well and get you to like it on first play, I won’t consider the rules have done their job and I will mark it down. Some people will tell you that it takes a few sessions to get to grips with the game, and that is fair enough; some of the games we play are fairly complex, so that makes sense. However, if the game leaves you wanting to play again because you had fun and you think you can get more out of it, then that’s fine. If you feel you have to play again because it left you wondering if you had done everything right and thus you could be doing things wrong, I don’t like that.
To give you an example, we played (yes, we. My friends and I) Cave Evil recently. The rules are not very well laid out. We knew we were doing a few things wrong and we had difficulties with some aspects of the game. However we’re looking forward to playing again. Not because we want to stop doing whatever it is wrong, but because we had such fun, that those things don’t really matter. Even though we will try to get things right next time, it will be for the sake of fun, not for the sake of the rules.
Lastly is the game itself. I like to take a look at who has written the game. Who has published it. How much money has been invested in it. Then I frame my opinion around that too.
Although some people don’t feel is important, I pay a lot of attention to the publishers and designers. A game with mediocre publishing standards or components from a large company will always get a much harsher review from me than one that comes from the back room of a small team of people. I expect every game to be the best it can be, but I understand that the best people/companies can produce differs greatly. I also keep in mind the love and effort, not to mention the risk, that goes into creating and publishing something.
This is not to say that I am lenient to small companies and harsh on big ones. Not at all. In fact, I do firmly believe that, with the Internet at everyone’s fingertips, there is no excuse to produce a bad book or illustrate a game badly. But if the best you can do is a simple thing without clever or extravagant features, then that is fine. After all is the best you can do. If it feels, though, like you just didn’t care what it looked like and you just wanted to make a statement for the sake of it, and the statement doesn’t work in my eyes, I will probably give you a bad review.
OK, so we have the principles that guide my opinions. Now I have to write them down. This is the tricky bit.
You see, the language you use matters a lot. There is a difference between being nice and being an idiot: Constructive criticism.
You will very rarely read me saying “this looks like an inferior version of *blank*”, “it looks like crap” or “it was a waste of space”. I can’t see the point to that sort of comments. They only say the writer is an idiot, quite frankly.
Believe it or not, every game designer and/writer out there is out and about to do their best and create quality. That doesn’t mean it can always be achieved, though. When it is not, to say it is fine. To back it up is better. To “constructivise” is even better.
I much rather say “I can see what the writer was trying to do here, but I didn’t get the feeling of nostalgia”, rather than “the language failed to convey the nostalgia mark”. After all, someone else might. I might be opinionated, but I don’t have the authority to decree on something that is subjective to everyone else.
Of course, if something is REALLY bad, like a poorly crafted map in an expensive product, or spelling mistakes all over a book, that is a different thing altogether. And I will not hesitate to say it. Strongly.
Lastly I will offer my opinion on how it could work better. I can’t see any problem with anyone saying how having the artwork changed in this or that manner, or the layout reworked in this or that way could make things easier for you. However if you’re going to do that, make sure the results would really live up to the expectations you’re setting for yourself.
Anyway, I am going too long on how I write reviews and this is probably getting boring by now, so I will stop here.
Now, how do you write reviews?