If you want to write reviews but don't know what to write

Many people here already feel comfortable writing reviews, and many of them have deep insights and analysis that I can’t really advise on, as I can’t match them.

But I know there are a few people that are interested in writing reviews and giving feedback but aren’t sure where to start.

The first thing to think about is the purpose of your review. Reviews have many roles, including (but not limited to):

  • A way to let the author know you experienced their game and had some meaningful interaction with it.
  • A way for potential players to know what’s in the game and what to expect
  • A way to evaluate the game and rank it against other games
  • A way to connect a game with similar games or other famous works

Below I have some tips on how to fulfill the role that you choose.

Review as message to the author
One thing I hear over and over again, from new authors and experienced, in private messages and on public blogs, is that their biggest hope is that people will play their games and then discuss it publicly.

When writing this type of review, it is helpful to point out your emotional response to different parts of the game. What was exciting? What was less exciting?

Write what you think the game is ‘about’. Either you’ll end up being right, pleasing the author, or provide a connection they never thought of, or help them realize that they might have expressed themselves differently.

If the author is new, it can be helpful to point out things that could have improved your experience.

Overall, remember that authors, even ‘famous authors’, are human and have feelings. When I started IF reviewing, I had a chip on my shoulder against ‘the cabal’ and wrote somewhat snarky reviews against big authors, and when I later learned more about them, I regretted it. It’s okay to say you don’t like something, but know that someone’s going to read that and may be upset.

Review as description of a game

Things people are interested in knowing about a game:

  • Its length
  • Content warnings
  • What kind of person would enjoy it? (Jim Kaplan wrote many reviews with this in mind)
  • The general genre
  • The presence and type of bugs and typos

Reviews as evaluation

Having well-defined criteria for your reviews can help with this quite a bit. My criteria are polish, descriptiveness, emotional impact, interactivity, and would I play it again?

Sobol is another reviewer with an explicit system:

“1 star: I don’t like it.
2 stars: I sort of like it.
3 stars: I really like it.
4 stars: I like it very, very much.
5 stars: I’m bedazzled, flabbergasted and awestruck.”

Having a system in place makes it easier to make meaningful statements about games. Being easily amused, I quickly ran out of ways to say “This is one of the best games ever”, so this gives me a framework when I’m stuck on what to say.

Reviews as connection

Many people have games that they loved, and reviews help them find similar games that they might also like. IFDB has a ‘recommend similar games’ feature that can be useful for this.

Beyond just suggesting similar games, you can also mention general movements or styles. Many people are on the lookout for Zork-like games, so you can mention if a game is like that. If it’s a mystery game, is it more like Hercule Poirot or Jason Bourne?

Anyway, I hope this useful. Thanks for reading!

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Thanks for the tips, they are a good useful guide.

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These are really good comments, Brian! I did not notice this post until now, and wish I had seen it before starting writing this year.

One thing that has bothered me with regards to my own reviews is how much my mood affects my focus, especially during an intense reviewing period like IFComp. If I’m in a good mood, I may focus on the small thing I enjoyed in a game I otherwise did not really like. If not, I may express myself more critically. This is one of the reasons I usually don’t write IFComp reviews directly on IFDB. After the comp is over I can revisit the reviews with some hindsight and rewrite them for IFDB if needed.

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I really appreciate the reviews you’ve been writing this year, it means a lot to each person you review the game of.

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Others mentioned they missed this topic, but I somehow took it for granted once it got pinned.

I often worry both that 1) I might be repeating what others said and 2) what I say may be off-base. I often have some worry that I tend to review games I like and I’m putting my thumb on the scale for them.

But I think having a formula works for me. It’s my formula, and it helps me get going, and if I still feel my review is formulated when I reread it, I know it needs a bit more. You may have your own formula, but don’t worry, others won’t call you out on it. I find often I just need to find one or two things I surprisingly enjoyed/didn’t enjoy about a game, and then I have enough to work with.

I’d also say if you feel uncomfortable giving ratings (I do, now I’ve written something,) don’t give them.

Also don’t get down on yourself if you fail to review anything for a month, or if you feel you should have a review for something you read, but nothing original turns up. Others will come along. Keep poking around. Eventually, you’ll have something different to say.

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I would add one more role to your list (which, to be fair, you said is “not limited to” your four):

  • As a way for the reviewer to understand the game more thoroughly

To me, writing a review (or just about anything involving opinions) is a little like writing a contract: Putting words on a screen or paper makes them more real than when they’re floating around in my head. I feel I’m committing to something. I work a little harder to shape and buttress my perspective. That forces me to consider the work a bit harder, and attempt to understand what the author was attempting to achieve.

Personally, when I read a great review or essay, it almost always involves the writer discovering something along the way (rather than them holding a firm opinion from the outset). Communicating their discoveries informs me in turn. It might even make me look at other work in a new light.

I suppose this falls into the “let the author know what you experienced” category, but not all reviews will be read by the author. When I write one, I try not to “aim” the review toward the author, but rather to other readers / players.

If you want to read formulaic review writing, read movie reviews, especially if the reviewer works for a daily newspaper (and hence is under constant deadline). When read in order, back-to-back, even some big-name movie reviewers start to wear thin. You begin to recognize their patterns and strategies. (Paragraph one opens with a world-weary summary of the movie, paragraph two introduces the character, paragraph three explains the conflict…)

Keeping one’s writing fresh is difficult!

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