What are authors looking for in reviews? (And other tips for first time judges/reviewers)

With spring thing and a few other comps coming up soon I thought it might be interesting to try and pick at least a few games to try and review. I’m not completely new to reviewing games though I’ve mainly kept my own reviews to opinions shared between friends. I feel I’m mostly interested in what might be considered more “heady” reviews, for example I was a really big fan of the sort of general essay but also partial review about the Death of the Player by Mattie Brice and discussing the ways game design is informed by this implicit catering to certain demographics of players is something that really interests me. But is this what authors want in a review? Should I focus more on discussing how the game performed technically? (How many bugs I encountered, whether the game felt good to play) Or just stick to discussing how I felt about the narrative, whether or not it resonated with me?

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This is a really interesting question! For me, unless the game presented some major issue (like severe bugs or systematic misspelling) and your intent was to warn prospective players about it, I would message the author about that sort of thing instead of putting it in a review.

The most gratifying reviews I received during the last IFComp were from players who had clearly carefully explored my game & thought deeply about what it meant/why it existed, no matter whether they ended up loving it or if their understanding of it was the same as mine. I just like to see that someone has given my game the attention I hope it deserves when I set out writing it, if that makes sense.

Of course, your review is also highly beneficial for other players/authors, and that’s where it helps even more to give details like whether it’s fun, how the narrative hit you, praise or criticism of game design technique, etc (which are also things the author should take to heart, but even if they don’t you can rest assured other people are interested in this secondhand info!). I learned just as much from reviews of other games as I did from reviews of my own. In terms of demographics, who you think the game appeals to is also enormously useful information. :slight_smile:

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My top line thought is the same as @slugzuki’s - the thing that I’ve most enjoyed in reviews of my games is seeing the reviewer identify and engage with what the game’s trying to do, and analyze how the implementation does or doesn’t support those aims.

The piece I’d add is that specificity is really really helpful - hearing “the game was boring” isn’t that helpful; “the prose was hard to get through” is more useful; “the author has adjectivitis and every sentence has multiple dependent clauses” is gold. This extends to typos, bugs, and puzzle design, so it’s really nice when a reviewer saves a transcript with comments or flags when something either works or doesn’t work (this is expecting a lot from a reviewer, and is only really viable for certain parser systems so it’s definitely not an expectation - but it is useful!)

I will say that the sort of critical essay approach you mention doesn’t seem to me like it’d be as useful to a particular author - and a one-off review might not be the best venue for that kind of analysis since often synthesizing trends or contrasting approaches across different games is going to be more interesting. But value to author isn’t the only criterion to what makes a good review, and there currently isn’t an obvious high-profile vehicle for that kind of criticism in the community. As a reader of reviews, my favorites are the ones where the reviewer found the game sparked something for them - an emotional response, an idea, a connection with some other piece of media - and is excited to share that. So if you’re feeling that spark, I wouldn’t shy away from it!

Finally, there’ve been a couple threads on what makes a good review that might be worth checking out:

https://intfiction.org/t/if-you-want-to-write-reviews-but-dont-know-what-to-write/

https://intfiction.org/t/how-can-i-write-better-reviews-of-comp-entries/

EDIT: also occurred to me that some examples might be helpful? I’ve found Mike Spivey’s reviews of my games very useful, with the fact that he liked my first more than the second not having much impact on how much I got out of reading his thoughts:

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FWIW, here’s the reviewing guidelines I used for the last IF Comp: IFComp 2021: Scoring and review rubrics | Jim Nelson

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I really like and endorse Jim’s link – there are a lot of great points made quickly. (Well, everyone’s advice is good. But some of his ideas made me say “Hey, I might’ve said something like that, but I’d have taken too long to.”) I had some of my own–I haven’t participated in Spring Thing for a while, but here’s what I remember from what I gave and got then and with IFComp. While it’s a bit long, I hope it reflects my experiences and gives people ideas of what they want to focus on.

Two pieces of advice which seem to conflict but are good in general and not related to style are this: 1) don’t feel you owe anyone a review, and 2) if you feel your reviews are getting mechanical, take a step back and recharge. Even if this means you don’t finish reviewing during the comp, that’s okay. If you have games you still want to review after the comp, I think that helps the comp and visibility last a while for the authors. I know I appreciate a post-comp review. Sure, it’s exciting to get a quick review, but it’s more rewarding long-term to see that people took the time to look through what I had to offer.

Here’s a list of other stuff I like. A lot may seem ordinary, but it should give reviewers faith they don’t need to be extraordinary.

list of relatively straightforward stuff
  • this is what I liked. This is what I didn’t. Even a laundry list of points is useful, and even if someone has said it before – sometimes I need several pokes to finally take care of something. Several reviews like this and we gt the wisdom of crowds. Or … if I put in something I liked, and nobody noticed it, that’s a sign I needed to make it more prominent. A simple example of this is learning to put in a line saying “[NOTE: type ABOUT for a general overview, or VERBS to see the verbs used.]” before the first moves – but of course I can and should do more!
  • I don’t understand why the author didn’t try X. Why didn’t they do X, or why didn’t they do X more this way? (Note: markedly different from “Only an idiot would do things this way.”)
  • I think the author was trying to say this, but it wasn’t entirely clear. What do others think?
  • My own biases my affect my appreciation of this game positively/negatively. This game is slanted towards people like/unlike me. Maybe X could ameliorate that.
  • this reminded me of (game x) done right/wrong. (Particularly useful if I haven’t played game x! I love being nudged towards new ideas.)
  • this is what I’ll be thinking about after I play 5 more games. This is what I might want to revisit/don’t want to revisit.
  • this game was hard to get into because X–could the author have tried Y?
Asking questions and helping the author fill in something they may've missed

Even if, say, a reviewer misses something that was actually in the game, that’s good to know, because I can make things clearer. If ten reviewers missed it, and I wanted to make it prominent, I really need to make things clearer. As an author during comp I usually like reviews to be forward-looking, as I usually publish a post-comp release, and anyone able to track down stuff to fix–well, I appreciate their footwork.

I really enjoy reviewers’ open-ended questions, which, when asked in good faith, push me productively more than someone declaiming what they know. That’s not to say I don’t get a lot out of people sharing what they know. I just think, after reading enough reviews, I have a sense of when someone engaged with a game or tried to.

And I know a lot of times when I write something, I know it’s missing something I can’t put my finger on. But I don’t want to admit that in ABOUT or CREDITS, as that sort of apology is a bit in-your-face, and if I really really need to make it, maybe I should wait a bit to submit the work.

I think the above applies a bit extra to the Back Garden, as people submitting there know their works are experimental. I think Robb Sherwin submitted a beta version of Cryptozookeeper before the Back Garden was a thing. Cryptozookeeper was ultimately incomplete, and he said so, and he was looking for feedback, becasue there was way more than enough to poke at. And I think a lot of people enjoyed playing it and offering suggestions. Later he offered thanks to the people who helped him with design issues, etc.

Golden/Platinum Rule stuff

Having gotten reviews, and having reviewed a few games, I also still think the Golden Rule applies as a good start–the Platinum Rule may apply later. What would you want if someone reviewed your entry? The answer is a bit different for everyone. Sure, you’d like praise, but you’d also like guidance or advice how to do a bit better, without anyone being too bossy, whether it’s for a post-comp release or your next effort.

I also think process is important. If I find myself potentially overly critical, I put a review aside for a bit. Sometimes I may even wait until I’ve played something I liked to revisit it. I try to avoid obvious euphemisms that may feel like patting the author on the head and saying “Oh, I’m sure that’s what you like, and people who like that sort of thing will like it well enough” or “See? I said something nice about your game, because I’m a great guy.”

I’m not big on fake sunshine or forced kum-ba-yah. But all the same I do want to give encouragement to works I think may place poorly and that people may miss otherwise, or works people might really appreciate if they can accept a glaring error, and I don’t want to balance that out by being That Guy who says “Durr Durr game X shouldn’t have placed so high.”

Certainly in IFComp there were a lot of works that placed in the bottom half that felt like they didn’t deserve to. But over half of the games (at least) were worthy efforts, so a few of them had to place in the bottom half. I think having people say “You should really look at X because it provides something positive a bunch of other games don’t (optional: even if there is a clear flaw.)” has been a big boost for my games that placed in the bottom half, and I think it helped for others. Of course, people will sniff out if you fake it.

I think my reviews flow best when I ask, “what can I write that will most efficiently 1) help people appreciate this work more or 2) help the author boost this work post-comp or 3) let people enjoy a work even if it may have clear holes, and how do I not harp on said holes to make the author feel like a jerk? or (after the first draft) 4) is there something I noticed or was concerned about that other reviews did not?”

I’d like to be both useful and creative, if possible, and I also keep in mind that I don’t want my creativity to be at the expense of the author’s sanity. I remember reviews from 10+ years where people just tried to make a point. They don’t bother me now, but they’re firmly quarantined in a “don’t pass that nonsense on” pen.

potentially bad baseball analogy

These are all general points and ones you’ve considered. I’d like to add one more–Victor Gijsbers mentioned he valued 1 home-run review more highly than 10 plain old reviews. And I agree with him! They will be the most memorable. But I’d take the analogy further–whether or not it confuses or annoys people, it works for me.

Trying for a home-run swing every time may result in an abnormal amount of strikeouts and giving up. Don’t try for a home-run swing if it isn’t there.

Sometimes a game might surprise you and throw you a hittable ball. Keep making contact. Don’t worry about your batting average or slugging percentage or (stathead alert) BABIP. And don’t swing at anything out of the strike zone. Home runs are rare. Sometimes you’ll strike out looking at pitches you couldn’t hit very hard anyway, and sometimes you’ll get a base on balls.

I also think that for some games, there may just need to be a few reviews before someone says “Wait, these reviews aren’t really looking into things. Maybe I can. I’d like to say something new, at least.” So you may not be hitting the home run, but you might prepare the next person to. Or someone else’s review might prepare you.

Others have mentioned that sending a transcript for a parser game is helpful, and I agree! The best part of this is, there’s no judgement involved, and you can just make comment commands starting with *, and you can let the author decide what to do or assess how important your concerns are.

As with pointing out typos in private, giving an author a transcript is a way to show you invested time in their game, and they don’t have to respond to any questions you have, but they’re there, if the author wants them…

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Most authors are looking for a tangible record of someone interacting with their artwork in a meaningful way. Reviews transform the art experience into a conversation, generating that kind of tangibility which makes art resonate and settle into a context, into a community. Even just a single thoughtful review can make an artwork’s existence real for the writer, the community, and even the reviewer, who may not have had such a deep engagement with the work were their experiences not processed through a review.

A lot of what matters in a review derives from what matters to you. Just try to be present in the experience, then congeal that somehow into a review, without some necessary compunction to make sure the review does x, y, and z. Hopefully there will be other reviews that do x, y, and z, but there won’t be another review that does u!

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What I personally wouldn’t like to read is something like “the game is underimplemented, the parsing could have been better, not enough item descriptions, several guess-the-word situations”. What I’d instead like to read is “the game is underimplemented, the parsing could have been better, not enough item descriptions, several guess-the-word situations - I mailed my transcript to the author so that he can improve the game.”. Because I’d like to polish the game with regards to the situations justifiably criticized, which is a bit difficult without knowing where to begin.

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While everyone (except the author) might like reading and writing snarky reviews, the best reviews for non-commercial works are constructive. They don’t need to be exhaustively comprehensive, but if there’s something wrong, hearing exactly why it didn’t work for the player is better than just being told “the puzzles are bad.”

A subjective tone in reviews is usually preferable: “I didn’t care for XXX” as opposed to “XXX is bad.” This can’t always hold but for most instances, reviewers should try to keep in mind they’re speaking to an individual person who will likely read what they write, not a faceless game company who is just making money.

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As a reader, looking at a review as a means of deciding whether I’d like to play the game or not, I really liked @Stian’s habit of attaching a transcript to his review when he posted it to this site. It meant that I was able to pop open the zip file and scroll down to see if I agreed with what he was saying. Plus, I was surprised to find that I actually liked reading transcripts and seeing the thought processes of other players.

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I agree about kindness. I have ended up regretting almost every mean thing I’ve said in a review, some of it leading to long term regrets. I’m not talking about criticism; there are ways to absolutely tear apart a game in a way that’s friendly and helps authors. This is actually what the best beta testers do, so I guess a good ‘critical review’ is similar to good beta tester feedback. What’s bad is putting in value judgments against the author or the game (the person who wrote this is lazy/dumb/messed up, etc.), which I have done before and regret.

Also I think everyone wants to be acknowledged and ‘seen’. It really helps to try to summarize what you thought the game was about, since it lets the author see how other people perceived their game and is often quite different than the author’s intent. (For instance, Chandler Groover, author of the game Eat Me where your first move can be devouring an entire child’s skeleton, was surprised that people saw his game as dark, as he had written it as a lighter alternative to his earlier games).

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Same. I found the ClubFloyd Transcripts to be even more helpful in understanding thought process, because a group of players with varied experience will weigh their options and discuss their reactions and thoughts simultaneous with the gameplay. Often times, a more inexperienced player will ask a question mid-transcript and you’ll receive an instant and in-context answer. Highly recommend to anyone looking to get up to speed on 50 years of interactive fiction conventions.

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As an author, I’ve only submitted one game, but I was very pleased with the reviews I got. The positive ones made me feel great, of course, and the negative ones did a really good job of explaining exactly why the reviewers bounced off the game. The criticisms weren’t necessarily stuff I could easily fix in a post-comp release - some of them were about fundamental design/writing decisions - but knowing why they were an issue to some people means that I can take that feedback forward into the next project.

I’ve tried to capture some of that as a reviewer recently, especially when I hit something in a game that really bugs me, that I think is a bad design decision. When I criticise it, I try to ask: is this something likely to bother other people, or is it just my own hang-ups? Why would the author make this decision? Would the game be better, worse, or fundamentally different if the author did this thing the way I would have done it?

Asking these questions, in my opinion, makes for a more useful review. It encourages me to engage more deeply with the game as a whole, and to respect the author as someone who is making deliberate and considered design decisions. This overlaps with the kindness thing mentioned above - it’s the difference between “X is a bad idea” and “I can see X is trying to do Y but I bounced off it because…” and “X is successful at doing Y, even though it’s not the kind of thing I like because…” And of course, sometimes it really is just a bad design decision, but at least I’ve thought about it and I can write about it more constructively. I don’t know how much this approach helps authors, but it helps me.

As for the original question, about writing essay-like reviews or more technical reviews… Don’t worry about it. I wanted to write lots of essay-style reviews when I started, but I’ve found I often just don’t have anything insightful to say. Which is fine! Sometimes I’m not in a position to have any insight to begin with. @aschultz’s baseball analogy is absolutely right - you might not have much to say about many games, but just sometimes a game comes along which is just for you, and you’ll be glad if you’ve saved your mental energy for those.

And anyway, sometimes you have to talk about the technical stuff. You can’t evaluate the deep themes of the game’s epilogue if you’re locked in the starting room because the author forgot to put the key in the player’s inventory.

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Ah, but then you have BREAK DOOR. That always works…

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I’m more used to reviews in the context of writing groups (usually leaning literary, sometimes commercial with a bent towards a particular genre- romance novelists don’t play around!) or in a more academic setting.

Still, similar to those venues, I think the context a review’s being written in matters- if it’s meant to be a commercial work, constructive feedback tends to be quite welcome. In more amateur or hobbyish circles, though- I’ve noticed people will often state their preferences. (I think you could perhaps imagine that competitions are a bit more of an open-season for that than say, festivals, or showcases.) Either way- being kind is important, I think- and pondering what you, in their shoes, would like to see in a review.

That doesn’t mean you have to grade everything out there as a 10- everyone will have their own preferences, and somethings just are objectively not great- (for example, completely incoherent text neither you or spell check can make sense of), but it does mean there’s more constructive and tactful ways of approaching critique than ‘your game SUCKS and you SUCK.’

Considering the context of the situation and the people involved is also something to keep in the back of your mind, I think. If I’m in a writing group full of people quite dedicated to the craft, a few with publishing deals under their belts and many with portfolios of polished pieces, there is a bit of a higher standard of work that’s expected, and I’m more open to being a bit harsher.

If it’s a bunch of amateur noobs who’ve just figured out they too “can write stories just like the ones they love to read!” then I’d lean more encouraging, and while I would still point out room for improvement and possible steps to take to get there- I’m not going to walk in there expecting any of them to have suddenly dreamt up the next great American novel overnight, or anything. I’d also probably be more confident about suggesting works for them to try out and read or play- I’d expect more experienced authors to have already done their dues in terms of reading the greats and all those tedious grammar exercises and what not.

Writing is a skill, and it can take people years to really find their voice- in the beginning, it’s really (to me, anyways) more about getting them to commit and to find out for themselves how much they enjoy the process, not just daydreaming about the results. Improvement tends to just sort of come around with time, (and mindful critiques, and fanciful experimentation, and thousands on thousands of words…) Not everything will be great, and that’s okay! People grow into it eventually, but kicking a newcomer who’s made a good faith effort in the teeth is just kind of… mean.

There’s also the matter of fluency: English is my second language, (I know a bit of three in total) and while I feel fairly solid in it- (and have won several awards, a few scholarships) sometimes there are weird little awkward turns of phrase in my work that a native speaker might not stumble over like I would, or they wouldn’t think to arrange things together that way even if it does make a sort of unorthodox sense. Small things like affect/effect, sometimes vs some times are also bits I struggle with. Whose/who’s (and contractions in general) are also hard! Other non-native speakers should have that taken into consideration, I think- there’s a difference in approaching a language that isn’t your mother tongue, as compared to being a bit lazy.

Personally- I would love to hear if my work resonates with people. I also love it when people have pointed out what really worked for them in terms of particular lines or sections. What would be most rewarding for me would be to have a piece of mine make someone not only feel something, but be able to pinpoint how/why it had that effect on them. I’ve had the distinct pleasure of making an equestrian temporarily terrified of horses with a memoir fragment she reviewed, and that’s the good stuff- when you can shake someone momentarily, and really get them to feel, even if how they relate to your work isn’t at all how you intended it. My writing is often an exercise in empathy- especially my poetry. (Love the Confessional poets!) I find it deeply fulfilling to be able to put myself into a character’s shoes for a bit- and even if I don’t like them, or they’re not very at all like me- being able to feel like for a moment, you can really understand and make sense of what propels them: that’s the most magical bit of reading or playing games for me.

I also am a bit choosy with my reviews- I only write them for games that really spoke to me, that lingered in my head for awhile and made me want to return to engage with them, or suggest them to people I know to share in the experience. I figure one or two passionate, detailed reviews, and a pointer at to who else might enjoy them, is better than half a dozen half baked tepid ones.

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I’d encourage reviewers to take special note of whether the author of the game they’re reviewing is new or established. Getting your first reviews is very nerve-wracking, so I think it’s important to be very constructive in your criticism to newbies. Of course it’s always important to be a constructive critic, but especially so when you’re criticizing people who are just learning-- and to be explicit in your criticism.

I wrote my first game for IFComp last year, and going in I was terrified of the reviews, but that terror was unjustified, because although I got plenty of criticism, none of it was mean and all of it was helpful. That gave me a lot of confidence, and will make me a better writer.

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That is true - context does matter. In a group setting in-person feedback is often more direct notes to the author and not a formal review written for public consumption, so there is more potential for a back and forth conversation. When you know the person, “here’s what’s wrong” can fly a bit better and the preference to be subjective and constructive may not apply.

It’s always good when you know who’s giving you feedback in advance, and I’ve been directed by writers to “don’t hold back; tear it apart and tell me everything” which is a much different context than an unsolicited review.

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Side-note - not so much for reviews, but for testing from @CogsAndSpanners on Twitter:

This is especially useful in choice-narrative with no transcript function. I’ve had people send me notes like “There’s a typo when you’re talking to Jim and he says “what is” and it should be “what are”…” - often searching for that can be impossible especially if there’s text-variation or sentence construction madness happening behind the scenes.

At minimum for choice-narratives, don’t just say “it should be your not you’re” because that could be anywhere. Try to supply at least a full sentence for context and searchability. Even if you say “While you’re talking to Jim…” that might occur in nine different locations in the code.

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This is all very interesting to me from a writing studies perspective. I appreciate the thorough take from @sophia since it acknowledges multiple situations in which feedback occurs.

I’m not talking about IF here, since there is clearly a practice/tradition that people value and enjoy, but if I were to enter a poetry contest, I would not necessarily be seeking a public conversation about the merits of my poetry or a quantification of its craft. I would not necessarily want to workshop it.

I did not have to do a pedagogy paper for my PhD (because I had to drop out), but it would have been about power dynamics in the workshop space. I personally have always felt disadvantaged in such spaces. An open, online discussion of a piece of writing is workshop-like in at least some ways, isn’t it?

It is often said that writing–poetry particularly but not exclusively–requires the practice of empathy. It unfortunately can go unsaid that reading requires empathy, too. The writer must attempt to meet the subject where it is, while the reader must be willing to meet the author halfway there. Many meetings and comings and goings.

I personally would say that the least useful sort of feedback is the suggestion that the story/game/song/etc. should have been about something else entirely. This isn’t so uncommon as it sounds. It’s never stated directly. In fact, it is usually innocuous: “I was curious about the baby’s father. Where is he? Why aren’t he and the mother together?” While there is room for this kind of comment, the danger is making the writer feel like a short-order cook.

I think the best feedback focuses on the writer’s own goals. State your understanding of the goals, then assess the poem/story/game/etc. in terms of those goals. If the writer doesn’t care about the father (as above), don’t try and change their mind. As a teacher and an editor, I was most successful when I gave writer-centered feedback.

It’s never constructive to be a jerk. Consider the power dynamics of public critique. The person is likely under social pressure to accept feedback graciously, so it isn’t “fair” to pick fights. In many workshop environments (my MFA program, for instance), it was expected that you as a writer would behave as though you wanted truthful, unflinching criticism whether you actually did or not. It’s hard to know how such things will play out, but you probably don’t have a good reason to act out.

Reader-centered reviews are totally fine, but that’s a different writing situation/audience. Everything on Gold Machine is reader-centered.

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We are talking about judging feedback specifically when referring to “review,” yes? If not, and we’re including all types of IF reviews, then advice gets a little murkier. As a piece of writing, a review has at least two distinct audiences: the author of the game and prospective players. These audiences are not necessarily interested in the same things and a review trying to simultaneously satisfy both audiences will be hard-pressed to do it well without ostensibly addressing each audience in detail.

If the review is being written for a personal blog or as a game review for the interactive fiction database, then the primary audience should be prospective players, with author-directed remarks made as an aside if at all. This sort of review is primarily a service to the IF community at large and is only indirectly author-feedback.

If the review is being written as part of the judging process for a competition or game jam, it is primarily a form of direct feedback, and this is where author-directed remarks seem most appropriate.

Both audiences can, and some likely will, read both types of reviews, but I think it’s important to keep in mind which audience we’re writing for at the time.

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This is a very important remark.

My review style is prospective-player-oriented by default. A big reason is that I mostly happen to play older games, where updating or revising the game seems improbable at the very least.

Reading this discussion made me realize that I have probably written some reviews for last year’s Spring Thing, ParserComp or IFComp that were not at all helpful for authors who are still in the process of gathering feedback for mid-comp fixes and post-comp editions. I’ll try to keep this in mind this season.

The reverse of this is true also: I sometimes come across reviews on IFDB that were written during a Comp three or eight or twelve years ago. These can feel out of place, seeing that people browsing the database are most likely looking for information that tells them whether they would like to play a certain game. Author-directed criticisms and comments can distract from this function of reviews.

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