A review of Victor Gijsbers’ IF Comp 2020 reviews

As part of Mathbrush’s best-reviewers competition, I offered as a prize a “review of reviews” (credit where it’s due – this is a concept I lifted from Mike Sousa. Since we’re both named Mike, it’s not really stealing!) Victor’s reviews won the Best Individual Review side of the competition and, luckily for me, he chose my prize, so here it is!

Introduction

Victor Gijsbers needs no introduction from the likes of me. With a gameography that stretches from 2006’s seminal The Baron to 2019 IF Comp runner-up Turandot, he’s obviously got a wealth of knowledge about writing IF, and he’s currently IFDB’s number-three reviewer. From the deep research I have done for this piece (I looked at his Twitter bio), I have gleaned that he’s a philosopher in his day job, which also has a clear impact on his mode of analysis. Yet far from stuffy ruminations that alternate between airy abstractions and pointillist commentary on craft, his reviews are readable and engaging, with a lot to offer both players and authors. So what’s good about Victor’s reviews is not just the expertise he brings to bear and the substance of what he discusses, but also his style and the concrete techniques he deploys.

In what follows I’ll examine each of those areas in turn, look at the few places where his approach perhaps can go astray, then wrap up by highlighting a few of his reviews that I think are especially successful.

Before getting to the deeper discussion, though, let’s cover some basics. Despite winning his laurels on the individual side of the review competition, Victor had robust coverage as well, writing 46 reviews out of the 104 games on offer (he reviewed the one that was disqualified). It appears that he used the randomizer, as I see about a 60/40 split between choice and parser games, reflecting the overall distribution in the Comp, and while he covered some games with well-known authors and which got many public reviews, he also provided coverage of some that didn’t get so much attention.

Reviewing games at risk of flying under the radar is a service to the public and also to the hard-working author, but also a risky business, as some of these may be diamonds in the rough, but others, sad to say, have earned their obscurity. So this is an admirably equitable and workmanlike way to choose which games to review, though it does mean that he missed out on playing, or at least reviewing, some higher-profile games, which is too bad: I would have liked to have read his take on Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos, for example, or Tavern Crawler, or the Cursèd Pickle of Shireton. (UPDATE: he added a review of Tavern Crawler while I was writing this, taking the count up to 47. Now that’s a work ethic!)

The other thing to notice before we get down to brass tacks is the presentation Victor employs for his reviews. They’re all in a thread on the Intfiction forums, and he’s chosen to hide them all behind a spoiler-block, using the “details” option to print the name and author of the game but requiring the click of a button to reveal the text of the review. This is certainly punctilious, serving the interests of those who only want to read reviews of games they’ve already played (or have decided they won’t be playing). And it may add to the excitement a reader feels when approaching each review, like unwrapping a present on Christmas morning.

At the same time, in our attention-addled world, might this presentation mean that some people will pick and choose which reviews are worth the effort to expand, potentially missing out on those aforementioned hidden gems? And, of course, is it really helpful to do so much to cater to those with a dislike of spoilers? There are arguments that the culture of spoiler-aversion can have deleterious effects on criticism, as it can give novelty, plot, and surprise a place of privilege, at the expense of approaches more focused on theme and craft. Given that Victor’s reviews land more in the second of these areas, is this presentation choice in some tension with the substance of what he writes?

Approach and substance

While Victor’s reviews are wide-ranging and do a good job of picking out the aspects that are most noteworthy or interesting to discuss about a particular game, there are a few specific areas of focus that tend to recur across the sweep of his reviews.

The first of these is that he often strives to place a work in some kind of context. Often he’ll connect a game to a previous work by the same author, or another game or piece of fiction that boasts similar ideas or mechanics. These are sometimes straightforward linkages, but often show real insight – connecting The Cave’s way of generating character statistics through gameplay to the Traveler lifepath system is obvious enough (at least for gamers of a certain age), but extending the idea to the virtue-based Ultima IV chargen system is less expected. He even goes the extra mile to read Kipling for the first time in order to properly engage with How the Elephant’s Child Who Walked By Himself Got His Wings (and throws in a simply brutal drive-by filleting of the ol’ apologist for imperialism in the bargain). This means that readers who are familiar with those reference points will have a better sense of how the particular work fits into a broader tapestry of culture – and those who aren’t are offered the opportunity to check out some other work that they might enjoy or find edifying.

A second characteristic concern in Victor’s reviews is the work’s theme, and how that theme is expressed through gameplay. He has a talent for pithily cutting to the heart of what a game is ultimately “about”, in a way that I often found revelatory even after playing and analyzing these games in my own, admittedly more superficial, fashion. The Sonder Snippets review zeroes in on failed communication, and he extracts an anti-bullying message from Andrew Schultz’s games that I never would have noticed, concealed as it is under the fog of fusillades of wordplay. But typically he’ll go beyond simply identifying the theme to discuss the extent to which it is connected to the interactivity and mechanics of the game. For example, the analysis of the internal tensions of Savor is quite insightful – and includes this gem of a tossed-off aphorism:

To juxtapose so crudely the emotional state of despairing suicide to the game mechanics of finding items makes it far too easy to see that the mechanic is, at bottom, ridiculous. (Most mechanics are! Good game design often consists of making the player not think about that).

Finally, Victor has a tendency to take a game quite seriously, especially when this allows him to engage with philosophical questions. By “seriously” I don’t mean that he’s humorless, but rather that he thinks through what the game is saying and engages with, it assuming that it’s making a meaningful statement, rather than just providing a jumping-off point that we’re not meant to think too hard about. The Quintessence review is a highlight here, as he efficiently lays out the key tensions and questions raised by the game’s conception of causality and time, even while pointing out the ways that it doesn’t quite live up to its premise. I also enjoyed seeing him muse about what was lost as our ape-like predecessors became intelligent in the Stoned Ape Hypothesis review, despite the fact that the mechanic of the protagonist getting smarter largely functions to allow for more complicated board games to be played.

These broader, more abstract areas of focus don’t come at the expense of more grounded approaches to reviewing – he also provides a public service announcement about how to access the menus in Savor, for example, and gives very detailed, concrete feedback on the interfaces in Sense of Harmony and Creatures. But it does mean that reading Victor’s reviews made me understand a bit more about the game he was talking about, while giving me food for thought that went beyond any particular piece of IF.

Technique and style

Everything I just laid out might make it seem like these reviews are a bit of a snooze-fest – analyzing the nature of causality is all well and good, but sometimes a reader just wants to know if the weird fish-computer game is worth playing! Fortunately, Victor’s writing is actually quite engaging. Part of this is his disarming, informal prose that always feels conversational no matter how highfalutin’ the subject matter. For example, here, from his review of Saint Simon’s Saw, is his description of how tarot works:

I have little experience with tarot, but I fancy that I understand the basic mechanics. One does not (need to) suppose that the cards ‘foretell the future’. Rather, by contemplating a particular sequence of meaning-laden pictures, one sets in motion thought processes that allow one to plumb the depths of one’s own mind. What is crucial to this is that the cards themselves combine polysemy (having a multitude of meanings, and thus being applicable to many situations) with unity (being a single strong symbol or archetype rather than a loose collection of ideas). And if one wants to create an alternate deck, this is going to be the big challenge.

There are some big words to unpack here, but by putting in a somewhat self-deprecating comment and eschewing over-complicated syntax or vocabulary other than the key concepts he’s working with, it’s all quite accessible and good-natured.

In fact his writing is good-natured pretty much throughout, helping his negative feedback – which he doesn’t shy away from – go down easy. The harshest he gets (well, other than the Kipling takedown mentioned above) is when he complains about the obtuse interface in Creatures, saying “I found this incredibly irritating.” But even when noting that he thinks a game doesn’t really work, as with Quintessence, he takes it on its own terms and tries to tease out what the game is trying to do or say. This is valuable to authors, since negative feedback is often the most important for fostering growth, but if it’s too harsh it’s easy to dismiss the criticism rather than take heed of it.

There’s one more major aspect of Victor’s style that make his reviews really engaging, which is that he likes to ask questions. Here, for example, is a bit of his review of Sonder Snippets:

Dadi certainly tells a story. But perhaps not quite the story that we read? Or not quite in the way that we read it? Perhaps this is the story as Dadi hears it, not as she tells it to the child?

I had the impression that this is a go-to technique for Victor, so I decided to see if I could quantify it. Using the admittedly not-very-scientific method of counting the different punctuation marks followed by a space in his reviews (this includes the text he quotes from games so it’s not fully accurate), I found that about 12% of his sentences are actually questions. I tried the same analysis on the reviews I wrote since I have those handy, and my number was under 4% – I am probably not a perfect baseline for comparison, but it’s still clear that Victor really likes to ask questions!

We’ve established with math that this is one of Victor’s idiosyncracies, but it’s a nice one, because it helps the reader feel like they’re in dialogue with the writer, and Victor also uses it to open up multiple possible interpretations, allowing the reader to them try out to see which resonate most strongly. It’s a powerful approach, and I like it so much that I actually stole it for my paragraph above about spoiler-blocks (between this and the Mike Sousa thing, there’s getting to be a lot of theft in this piece. Let’s move along).

A half-hearted recitation of flaws

Of course, I came here to review Victor, not to praise him, and yet I’ve done almost nothing but. I want to satisfy my prize’s brief, though, so before I close, here are some places where Victor’s reviewing game could perhaps be improved, or at least areas that aren’t particular strengths.

First, Victor is clearly unafraid to bail on a game if it’s not clicking – the sunk costs fallacy does not have its hooks into him. There are many reviews where he notes that a too-hard puzzle or a bug requiring a restart has drained him of the desire to go back to that well. This is probably part of what enabled him to play so many games and write so many reviews, and most of the time it’s hard for me to say that he’s missing much – in fact, I gave up on several of the same games at the same points (and I also brute-forced the chess puzzle in Flattened London by abusing the UNDO command). But there are a few exceptions – I’m not sure he gave Chorus a fair chance since it really comes into its own when you replay it a couple times and see the different ways the optimization puzzle plays out, and get more familiar with the initially-bizarre characters. And but for a comment from Mathbrush he might not have fully worked his way through the Knot.

Second, sometimes he gets carried away by a tangent that’s interesting in itself, but doesn’t really shed any light on the game notionally being discussed. The first quarter of his review of The Place, for example, riffs on the blurb to discuss how and whether choices can be meaningful, then admits “these questions do not seem particularly important when we play The Place.” And almost half of the review for Stand Up / Stay Silent is given over to musings on the impossibility of separating the concept of human rights from politics, which again he acknowledges are “perfectly irrelevant” to the matter at hand. As someone who can’t get enough of digression (you will pry my copy of Tristram Shandy from my cold dead hands) I didn’t myself find this a flaw, but objectively these bits of fat should probably have been trimmed.

Third, on the flip side of the previous critique, very infrequently it’s clear that he just hasn’t found much of interest in a game, or at least not much to talk about. The Deus Ex Ceviche review is rather perfunctory and mostly just describes the gameplay, as is the one for Sage Sanctum Scramble. In the context of the Comp, it’s better to write a review than not to write a review, of course, since it rewards the authors with feedback and ensures we’ll have more games and better games in years to come. But perhaps it’d be worth taking a moment at the end of these more quotidian reviews to see whether there’s an opportunity to add a fresh perspective or engaging insight that might come after a little more reflection.

Conclusion and greatest hits

Rather than keep straining to discover minor points over which to cavil, let’s bring this to a close. Victor’s mastered a particular method of reviewing that is specific to him, his knowledge, and his interests, while also illustrating techniques and approaches that any of us can work into our toolboxes – and in some small ways, he can also keep refining them, too. His efforts certainly helped me get more out of the games of the 2020 Comp, and for that I thank him!

I’ll close with a curated list of some of his standout reviews:

A Rope of Chalk: I couldn’t figure out how to fit a discussion of this review in, since it’s so different from all of the others, but it’s just delightful, and zeroes in on the best joke in the game.
Quintessence: Perhaps the quintessential (sorry!) example of Victor’s way with a rhetorical question.
Savor: A deep look at the mechanics here, and the ways they are in tension with the plot and theme, is the highlight, with good analysis of the interface and aesthetics as well.
Academic Pursuits (As Opposed To Regular Pursuits): Reflections on the challenges of IF storytelling undergird a clear analysis of the techniques the game uses to achieve its ends.
Captain Graybeard’s Plunder: This is certainly an example of what I lifted up as the second of Victor’s flaws, but I very much enjoyed reading his thoughts on the love for and uses of literature.

19 Likes

That’s all well and good but like, what is it out of ten?

5 Likes

An 8.11, according to the competition. :wink:

Thanks for the review Mike! I’ll definitely post something more substantial in this topic later.

5 Likes

Again, thanks for the review! I’ll post some thoughts about things you say.

I did use the randomiser for the first two thirds or so of my reviews. Then I was looking at a whole slew of “longer than 2 hour” games while I didn’t have much time to spare, so I decided to instead focus on some games I really wanted to play as well as some shorter games that I could easily play in a small time slot. This is actually my usual strategy: I like to give all games a chance through the randomiser, but I also like to end up having played most of the high-ranking games, so that the Comp results are meaningful to me. I didn’t really succeed at that second goal this year!

I suppose the way I present my reviews has a lot to do with the way I read other people’s reviews. Basically, my flow in the competition is like this: I play a game, then I go to the review spreadsheet and click on all the links to reviews of that game, read them, and then I start writing my own review. So I read reviews after I’ve played the game, and so I prefer spoilery analyses. But I also prefer to not see anything about other games. (And note that even knowing whether someone’s review of a particular game is long or short can be quite spoilery!) If people find my way of presenting the reviews cumbersome, I’m of course willing to rethink it.

I think this section captures quite nicely what I’m trying to do! In general, I think it’s fine for an analysis of a game to go into all kinds of directions, as long as the game informs what is written; as long as the analysis could not have been written without the game. But in the context of the competition, I’m aiming for a somewhat narrower goal: I want my review/analysis to get at the heart of the game. I want to understand what the game is doing, whether it succeeds at doing that, and then write about it in such a way that the author may feel understood and other players may achieve greater understanding.

As an author, what I really dig are the reviews that show me that the reviewer understood me; more than the reviews that are positive. (Of course, one review can be both!) One of my favourite reviews of Turandot is that by Carl Muckenhoupt. He writes:

There’s that little phrase, “that’s really what this work is about,” which I too tend to use variations of in my reviews. Of course you’re taking a risk as a reviewer when you use it. Do you really understand what the work is about? Well, here Carl gets it absolutely right. There are perhaps other ways of getting it right too, but this is one way to get it absolutely right. And that is perhaps what I most hope to achieve in my own reviews.

Of course, some of this depends on the game! I like Seasonal Apocalypse Disorder, for instance, but I don’t think it necessarily requires much in the way of interpretation. I call it “a solid and sympathetic puzzle game”; I say a few things about the puzzle design; and that’s it. I hope it’s useful, but it’s not the kind of game that caters to my strengths as a reviewer. On the other hand, I was really happy with my review of Quintessence, and I’m glad you picked up on that. I thought about that, I think I got quite close to it’s far-from-trivial underlying essence, and the author seemed to like it too… so I guess I did something right!

My reviews that I like least are the ones of games that didn’t work for me at all. When I reread them, I tend to feel they are mean-spirited and that perhaps I should not have written them at all. On the other hand, similarly exasperated reviews by others can sometimes help me when I’m struggling with a game… so, I don’t know, that’s something I’m conflicted about. (Examples of this might be my reviews of #VanLife and You Will Thank Me As Fast As You Thank A Werewolf.)

To be honest, I didn’t really understand that game, and asking questions was my rhetorical way of nevertheless saying something about it! The fact that what I did understand is that the game is about failed communication, made it seem doubly appropriate to do so. Otherwise, do I use questions in order to give myself the opportunity to answer them? And do I do so frequently? Indeed!

Yeah. Sage Sanctum Scramble I just didn’t have much to say about. The only way to analyse it is to go into things like the different kinds of wordplay that were used, the difficulty level, and so on. But that didn’t really interest me. And I also felt that as a non-native speaker of English, I was very badly equipped to do so. Deus Ex Ceviche, on the other hand, might well be my biggest failure this competition. I admire Chandler Groover… and I just didn’t get much out of this game. Which makes me believe I didn’t dig deep enough to find the gold.

Here I’ll politely disagree with you. I think what I say here about literature is not a tangent at all; my entire assessment of the game is based on it. It can only feel like a tangent if one doesn’t take the game seriously. If one thinks: well, it was fun, we shouldn’t think beyond that. But we should! Or at least, that’s my conviction, although I don’t have a major quarrel with people who come to IFComp just to have some fun. I’m not here to grind ideological axes. :slight_smile:

Thanks!

4 Likes

This review of reviews reminds me of this quote from Tom Townsend in the film Metropolitan (1990): “I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking.”

3 Likes