How Can I Write Better Reviews of Comp Entries?

VictorGijsbers said something that I found interesting here.

The reason I find it interesting is because, uh oh, that’s generally how my reviews go (see, for example, my review of The Wizard Sniffer here).

I’m very much of the “opinions on art are generally just extended ‘yuck’ or ‘yum’ reactions” school of thought, so that style of review makes sense to me. Oh, I said “yum” to a puzzle? Okay, here’s why. Oh, I said “yuck” to a character? Okay, here’s why.

I’ll admit I’m feeling a little insecure about that review style at the moment, so let me ask - how can I do better? Especially, what do IF creators want to see in a review?

Nothing wrong with reaction reviewing, but it’s an annotated playthrough. Playthroughs don’t paint a reliable picture and they have little value to authors who extensively playtested their game.

A list of pros and cons is subjective. A low number of puzzles in a game would not be automatically considered a bad thing today, unlike twenty years ago. Lists are useful for the players who don’t know if they should try the game, but the author would know or suspect all this already.

Or you can take the work and analyze what it tries to convey, dig into the themes and structures, find your meaning. Even a demo can hint at something that can be discussed.

I think the best reviews do one or both of the following:
-Give the author an idea of what they could do better in their next game
-Give other players an idea of whether they would like the game or not

So I feel like “The writing was crappy” isn’t helpful, but “The game was full of grammar errors” or “all the characters had similar dialogue making it hard to distinguish them” is at least a little better, because then they know what to focus on.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this approach.

I agree with craiglocke that specific, actionable feedback is more helpful to an author than very general feedback.

Some other things to think about: What kind of player experience does it seem like this piece of IF is aiming for? Is that the kind of experience I had? What ideas/themes does this piece seem interested in? What does it seem to be saying about those things? Answers to those sorts of questions tell authors whether what they were aiming for, came through or not. It can be nice for authors to know that someone really “got” their game.

I think what VictorGijsbers means is that he’d rather have depth over brevity. So there’s nothing inherently wrong with saying what you liked or disliked about the game - in fact, it’d be challenging not to do that, given that all reviews are subjective. Rather, it’s the degree of consideration that you’re giving to those opinions, and how you present them in your review. Simply rattling off your likes and dislikes as a list, and coming to a simplistic conclusion about the game based on whether the number of likes is greater than the number of dislikes, is much less preferred than delving into, or trying to delve into, the main issues of the game, or at least providing some form of substantiation for your opinions. Of course, this takes for granted that the game has issues to delve into in the first place. Some games don’t, not necessarily because they’re bad but because they aim to provide nothing more than a distraction, and are not meant to be read into too deeply.

Don’t feel insecure. :slight_smile: One thing that should be stressed about my post is that I was pointing out what kind of review I prefer as an author. But the intended audience of your review might not be, or might not be primarily, the author. It could also be prospective players wondering whether they will like this game; ‘retrospective’ players who want to read other people’s opinions after having played the game; and, in the case of the competition, fellow judges who are interested in discussing the games and seeing how other people score them. These audiences have very different needs. For instance, take the following very short review:

Obviously, this is completely worthless for the author. They already knew they made an old-school puzzle game; the review doesn’t teach them anything new; and it doesn’t give them the satisfaction of seeing somebody really understand or enjoy their work. It’s also not very useful to a retrospective player or a fellow judge. But it’s actually quite helpful for a prospective player!

This is perhaps a more typical competition review, and the kind of thing I was mostly thinking of when I wrote my post:

Is there something wrong with this review? No. In a sense, it has something for everyone. It gives prospective players at least some idea of whether they would enjoy it; it allows retrospective readers and fellow judges to determine whether their own reaction to the game matches yours; and the author learns that at least one person enjoyed the game, that she did the hint system well and that she might have to think about the prose style some more for her next game. Nice. If this is the kind of review you’ve been writing, I would say: carry on.

But, if I’m the author, this is not the kind of review that I cherish most; and in the context of the competition, where I can expect a fair number of reviews, this kind of review will tend to blend in with many others that will probably point at more or less the same things. There are, I think, two main things that an author can get from reviews: the satisfaction of your game being fully appreciated, and useful pointers for improving your craft. This review does give me both, but only in small amounts. I get some satisfaction from you liking the game, and I get a useful hint about my prose style.

But I would get much more satisfaction from a review that delves more deeply into the game and really manages to identify the underlying things that made the game tick, for me as well as for the reviewer. As a real life example, I love Sam Ashwell’s review of my game Nemesis Macana. In a sense, I couldn’t have described it better myself, and the fact that somebody played it and my full intention managed to come through gives me immense satisfaction. At that point, it’s not even that important what rating somebody slapped on it.

And I would get much more useful pointers from a review that goes into more details. If I have written pedestrian prose that doesn’t suit my setting very well, I would love to see some examples of where I went wrong and what would have been better. That would allow me to really improve as a writer, rather than just getting the information that I have to improve. (And the same, of course, holds for puzzle design, narrative design, characterisation, and so on.)

Now, again, that is not necessarily your job as a comp judge. But it’s the kind of judging that I most appreciate as an author.

Thanks everyone - this was helpful. I’ll see what of this I can integrate into my reviews this year.

I suppose what it mostly boils down to is “put more effort into it” which, okay, that’s fair. :stuck_out_tongue:

With 77 games in the comp this year, and with a toddler living in my house and demanding a lot of attention, I plan to try to keep my reviews on the shorter side in the interests of still playing and reviewing as many games as possible. If I could take a six-week vacation from work and just play IF, I’d love to write deep thoughtful reviews about every game, with something for all the possible audiences. But I know that realistically my time is going to be rather dear, so I’m going to have to prioritize. And I think part of that for me is that I think it’s better to write a greater number of shorter reviews instead of two or three brilliant essays, not to mention voting on more games. I’m mostly thinking about other retrospective readers, as that’s the biggest reason why I read other people’s reviews, but even from an author’s point of view I’d assume having a short review is better than none at all.

I guess what I’m saying could really be boiled down to “I think it’s fair to take the rest of your life into account.”

As an author, I’m happy if anyone takes notice of my game. That having been said, what I really want is constructive, actionable criticism: things I can fix, or at least specific things (style, characters, puzzles, etc.) that don’t work as intended. It’s not particularly useful when someone gives me feedback that’s (to take a real example) simply the one sentence, “This is not the kind of game I like,” and I have to admit that I’m genuinely annoyed when a reviewer summarily dismissed something I write as not capitalizedly Serious Interactive Fiction and therefore not worth the time to play. (I write puzzle-centric parser-based games, but I’m sure those who write choice-based dramatic games are justifiably annoyed when their work is reflexively dismissed as not being the Proper Thing to Write.) In the opposite direction, it’s not useful— and is rather condescending— to be treated with kid gloves and given only a scrupulously complimentary and positive review, like being patted on the head by an elementary school teacher. In short, I just want someone to seriously consider the game and tell me with specific details what they thought worked and what didn’t.

As a (new) reviewer, I have no idea what to do; I only opened this thread to steal ideas from other people.

Spitballing a few thoughts here…

I think Victor has a good point, but I’ll take a mushy middle stance. I am happy with 1 review per year that figures out what I meant to do. But having reviews that say “The intro was bumpy because X” or “I spun out in the middlegame” is helpful, because sometimes it pokes me to straighten out something where I thought I did things as well as I could. “I liked/disliked X/Y” can also start my next project in motion. So – let’s say I get 10-15 reviews. I want one of them to be the home run that sees what I’m trying to do. Then that’s 7-10% of all reviews. So if “only” 7-10% of all YOUR reviews are like that, you’re doing a good job.

BTW, if you want to give detail, emailing transcripts is very helpful for parser authors. You can use any punctuation to start a comment e.g.

(save to any file name)
; “Today was the big day, there was no way he woud loose” better as “Today was the big day. There was no way he could lose.”

and so forth.

I don’t know if Twine has a mechanism to write down notes, but cutting-pasting the relevant passages to highlight the details, like typos and such, would be valuable to them, too.

I’ve never done full reviews for IFComp, but I look at it this way. There’ll be games you are surprised you have so much to say about and games you can’t find much or anything to say about. But something with “Here are a few things I liked. Here are a few I’d change, maybe for a post comp release. Here are a few I wish I’d seen more of. Here is something that bothered me, but I don’t know why. Here is a place where I feel I missed something deeper” is good, and I’ve found “Maybe the author could’ve tried X?” comments can give me an a-ha moment.

You don’t want or need to score a touchdown or hit a home run every review. Some games you’ll just naturally have a lot to say about. Some, well, you can and should have a basic formula for getting a 5 yard gain or a single, which is perfectly good. And if you can’t even list likes/dislikes for a game, maybe it’s a good idea to pass on it for later, or for good. There’s nothing wrong with that.

As for setting goals of how many to review, I think 10 reviews is a good total for any reviewer, regardless of detail. And once you are through 10, go for another 5. Then another 5. It’s less intimidating that way than saying “Boy, I’d like to do em all if I can.”

I’m with you on the relative uselessness of vague compliments and “THIS IS NOT INTERACTIVE FICTION” … I mean, it’s ok to say, I enjoyed this but I didn’t find it memorable. But I think certain things like, I was surprised I enjoyed X, which I usually don’t, or I was disappointed I didn’t enjoy Y, which I usually do, are helpful.

It sounds like you recognize that your opinion as a reviewer is worthwhile and should matter, but it shouldn’t overtly try to be the most important one. That’s the perspective I’ve taken when testing others’ games, and if you try to make sure you have one likely unique thing to say per game you reviewe, then that may be enough.

You also may just need to let a review sit a bit if it feels too generic. That’s okay, too.

As a comp reviewer writing mostly that sort of short review: while I realize it’s asking authors to do work in asking, I’d be happy to (on request, post-comp) dig in to a few games more deeply if I knew it would be helpful and appreciated. Sometimes authors don’t want a laundry list of specific problems because they’re not doing a second release of the game, it’s a fair bit of work to collect that stuff, and I’d rather get through more games during the comp.

(Also, I spend a lot of my time in the parts of fandom where unsolicited criticism, no matter how constructive, is seen as rude/inappropriate, so it feels weird to say anything negative at all outside of a solicited, private-feedback, beta-reader/tester role. Especially about any game where it feels like it’s the author’s first finished game; there’s a lot of new-writer mistakes they’ve probably learned not to make by the end of writing it and they don’t need them pointed out again.)