Review guidelines?

I have been thinking about the responsibility of reviewers after having read some of the reviews placed on the net, and it has struck me that the reviewer has a pretty powerful weapon where as the author is more or less a sitting duck.
Many of the reviews are actually quite discouraging for anyone who’s been working hard on his/her game, and does absolutely NOTHING to spur the want to do better.
In my opinion reviewing in the “amateur” world of IF should be a help, constructive criticism that the author can use to improve his/her next game. ( I am talking about games where it’s evident that the author has put a fair amount of work, and not the fast 30 minute, slap-together thingy that’s not worth even opening.)

There are guidelines and articles for almost any aspect of IF writing published, but none (that I could find) when it comes to reviewing a game.
I have thought this over and come up with some guidelines for reviewing a game.
Reviewing an IF game is not at all like reviewing a movie or a theater play. Mostly the making of the game is a hobby and done in the authors spare time, without the financial backup of a well established software company. S/he is very much dependent on volunteers when it comes to testing the game, and their thoroughness.
I’ve had quite a few testers myself, who were all “gung ho” to test the game, but after some weeks I never heard anything from them.
But that aside, let’s assume that the game has been tested and released.

[*] First of all, before you even start reviewing a game.

[*] Make it clear that this is YOUR opinion, and keep in mind that other may like or dislike the game, although you did/did not.

[*] State whether you are reviewing the use of the IF program or the game itself, and if you are doing both, separate the two.

[*] Take into consideration the nationality of the author. Give some slack to a “foreigner” for whom English isn’t his/her native language. (but expect at least the use of a text editor)

[*] If the author has provided an e-mail address, take time to write him/her and ask if there are things you have problems with. This way you at least give him/her the chance to explain his/her actions.

When it comes to the reviewing itself, I realize that each of us have our own standards regarding games, and the following is only meant to be a guide line for those who’d like to give a review but don’t want to write an essay about the game they’ve just played.

Atmosphere: Was the game catching on?

Puzzles: How was the puzzles, too hard, illogical, too easy, was there a fair amount of them?

Descriptions: How was the various descriptions? Did the author use too many fancy words, was the descriptions sufficient, too much or too little.

Objects: Was all essential objects mentioned in the text or picture, examinable? And was the object examinable to a satisfying degree?

Cruelty: The Andrew Plotkin cruelty index is very useful:

Merciful: Cannot get stuck.
Polite: Can get stuck or die, but it’s immediately obvious that you’re stuck or dead.
Tough: Can get stuck, but it’s immediately obvious that you’re about to do something irrevocable.
Nasty: Can get stuck, but when you do something irrevocable, it’s clear.
Cruel: Can get stuck by doing something which isn’t obviously irrevocable (even after the act).

Overall game play: ( A short summery of the game, maybe things you liked and things you didn’t like.)

Recommendation. (Is this a game you would recommend to other people?)

Feel free to add to this list. The more the better…

As with all writing, the audience is one of the most important factors to keep in mind. Are you writing the review for the potential player of the game, or are you writing a critical analysis for the author to learn from when writing his or her next game? If it is the later, I think it is better served as private feedback sent directly to the author, a public review should really be focused on informing, well… the public.

I believe it’s redundant to explicitly state in a review that it is your personal opinion. Of course it is; who’s opinion would it be? Although I think the better reviews focus less on your own personal feeling toward the game, but more on telling the readers about what they can expect in the game so they can make an informed decision on if they want to play it. I think you did a good job outlining some of the bases that should be covered.

The author’s personal feelings should not be left out entirely, because they can be a good measuring stick to a reader who feels his or her interests align well with that of the review author. I may find that I tend to really like the games that Alice reviews positively, and not like the things Bob* likes and ignore what he says. That doesn’t necessarily mean I think Bob is a bad person or writes bad reviews, I would just recognize that he likes different things. In fact, there are a few “Bob” reviewers on IFDB whose 1-star reviews translate as a glowing recommendation in my eyes.

*(My apologizes to anyone named Bob.)

:laughing: I’m sure Bob will forgive you …
I was thinking about a review intended for a potential player of the game. The critical analysis would, in my world, go under the term feedback (which is equally important, I admit.)
The reason I wrote about the personal view is that when I read reviews of movies, books, or theater plays. I very often find the reviewer making him/herself the judge and opinion maker as to whether the object of the review is worth seeing / reading. I personally find this very wrong since there are as many opinions as there are human beings, and like you put it yourself, Bob doesn’t necessarily like the same things Alice does.

That’s inherent in reviews, though. There are no unbiased reviews, and there is no objective scale against which art can be measured. If you read enough of someone’s reviews, you can figure out where their tastes overlap with yours and calibrate accordingly.

From what I’ve learned, a critical review can focus on any or all of three questions:

  1. What did the author say? (interpretation)
  2. How did the author say it? (analysis)
  3. Was what the author said worthwhile? (evaluation)

It sounds like you don’t like reviews that are heavy on the evaluation element. I agree that it’s not appropriate for a reviewer to be extremely judgmental in evaluation. Even though evaluation is somewhat subjective, it should have an objective basis for the way in which the work is either worthwhile or not worthwhile. For instance, I think it would be perfectly fair to conclude that an IF game with extremely difficult puzzles, or very amateur writing, etc., is not likely a very satisfying or worthwhile thing to spend an afternoon playing. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be fair to say that the game should never have been written in the first place, and that the author was stupid to have released it.

Also, all criticism should center on the work rather than on the author. I’m honestly not sure whether it’s fair to comment on the quality of the work based on the author’s past history in other works, which I think is frequently done.

Well, it’s a bit subjective, that. While it’s true that a certain game should stand alone, it’s also true that, in order to get where it was (if it’s not the author’s first game), the author had to go through certain steps, in other certain games. If a review made comparisons with the author’s previous game/s and bashed/praised accordingly, it would also be helpful for the author AND for players. In fact, players would know more about the author. If reviews can have a bit of context to them, doesn’t that make them a bit richer? A review of Adventure might well have the summary of the Bishop story, which would be fine. Wouldn’t it be fine for a review of A Mind Forever Voyaging to mention Spellbreaker or Zork Zero as “typical” Meretzky games, and then explain what AMFV does that is so unlike (and what it does that is so like) those two games?

I thought of adding my two cents to the discussion, but on the other hand, I’ve written plenty of reviews - and it should be obvious from reading them what I think a review should do. For the record, though, I do believe reviews must be impartial and polite. And if the game was exasperating, the review has the right to sound exasperated. The reviewer should give the game a fair shot. The reviewer should also be aware that he’s writing a) for people who never heard of the work, and so there is some basic info he has to give out; b) for people who heard about it and want to know more, and so he has to, well, review the thing; and c) for the author, letting him know what he did that was great and what he did that was not so great. And yes, letting him know how better/worse he’s gotten in puzzles/prose/whatever.

Sure, c) is not all that important if you review for a gaming magazine, but here we’re revieweing games we’re making ourselves. We’re in direct contact with the authors. We might as well show them the courtesy of acknowladging that we’re all sitting at the same table, praising/criticising whatever the guy next to us has written while he’s still sitting right beside us.