I follow a fair few game journalists on Twitter. This is helpful because I can network with them through devious social means*, and because some of them dole out nifty free writing tips. Things like (and I’m paraphrasing here): “Adverbs like ‘pretty,’ ‘really,’ and ‘actually’ are disposable”; “Let’s try and settle down from hyperbole, alright?”; “For f@$#’s sake, stop using the term ‘mixed-bag’.”
One tweet that caught my attention came from Rick Curnutte of Area 5, who posted this gem on April 28:
I grow bored with game-criticism-as-consumer-report. I want to read about art not software appraisals. Fewer and fewer options for this.
Man, that’s an awesome idea, isn’t it? Makes a hell of a lot of sense, too. I’m not going to get into the whole “are games art” thing, because I work in a little less than an hour, and it would greatly inconvenience my shift manager if I didn’t show because I cast myself from the top of my apartment into a dumpster full of broken glass and Lyme disease. Accepting that games are art, though, the idea of extolling a game’s artistry, rather than its bullet-point selling features piques my interest, and I’ve been mulling over how I write my reviews and how I can steer them away from back-of-box checklists.
I readily admit my reviews have a tinge of checklist about them. Mostly it’s because I want to be thorough in describing everything about the game, and what to expect from it when plunking down $60 at Target. I feel I’m being informative by doing so. Paragraph about play control? Check? Brief synopsis of the game’s storyline? Roger. Small list of major features or selling points for the game? Good to go. It’s what consumers want and what they’re used to; it’s certainly what I’m used to, from the time I picked up my first issue of Nintendo Power back in 1996.
Gaming journalism has come a long way since 1996, though. Video games are hardly the stuff of toys and quarter-draining diversions that they were back in the ’70s and ’80s, constantly upping their level of artistry* and delivering emotional experiences in ways not possible through avenues like film, television, or books. More than ever, they deserve analysis on par with the mediums I mentioned, and the discussions around them need to grow away from the conventions of past reviews (e.g. writing about a product rather than a piece of art).
Except those conventions aren’t always unwelcome. One function of a review is to inform consumers about the game, and players looking to dig dirt about new releases should be able to glean whether or not the game is worth their time. High-level criticism and analysis certainly have their place in the gaming journalism pantheon, but they shouldn’t be the only thing.
The trick, I think, is not getting caught up in the list-making portion of the review. I tend to separate my paragraphs by a certain facet of the game (graphics, sound, etc.), which is organizationally sound but hardly compelling to read. Perhaps instead, I need to write about the experience as a whole, and keep an eye towards the incidental details.
This is the sort of criticism that can be expected for other forms of media like movies, books, music, etc. In a film review, critics often discuss aspects of the film naturally, calling out things like actor chemistry, musical score, and quality of dialogue as the piece requires, rather than from some invisible checklist (“Oop! I didn’t mention the cinematography yet. Better find a way to work it in.”). The same goes for music, and I find it unlikely that music reviewers would start picking on an album because it should have been longer (“Only 8 songs for $17.98 at Tower Records? Oh, Boston, how you disappoint me.”).
I think I need to go back to my mantra of when I wrote movie reviews in college: “A man goes to the movies. The critic’s job is to admit that he is that man.” The particular man who wrote that was Roger Ebert, a critic I’ve held in highest esteem from the time I was in high school up through present day. It was through him that I formed my idea of what criticism vis-à-vis reviews should be: regardless of whether or not I liked the finished product, readers should come away feeling as though they’ve experienced a piece of the game/movie/whatever for themselves, or at least have enough information to decide if it’s right for them. It’s been too long since I’ve read ol’ Eb’s at length, and I’ve had it in my head to rifle through his The Great Movies anthologies for a few years now.
Anyway, just some simple musings from a guy who likes to write about video games. Believe it or not, I’m still trying to find my writing voice, and little thought-snacks like Mr. Curnutte’s tweet will help me uncover my inner kickass word-slinging self. In the meantime, I’ll be here hammering out my prosal style in front of a live studio audience (love you, readers!).