Each year (this being the third) that I review IFComp games, I start out by writing a page or so of introductory text. I revised this more for 2006 than I did last year, and at one point, I realized part of it was more “rant” than “rational”. I have actually enclosed that bit in fake “rant” tags, because I recognize how preachy if may sound. I considered omitting it entirely, but it really should be part of the introduction.
[RANT] I play interactive fiction because it’s fun. Playing and reviewing this many games may seem like a chore at times, but it really shouldn’t. These are the creations of real people, not emotionless robots. The feedback (especially when it’s brutally negative and lacks tact) can be a major slam to hopeful entrants. Let the score we assign be our stamp of approval (or disapproval). In reviews of amateur, hobbyist games, we need not be so callous and cavalier. Perhaps a review can be honest and critical without merely slapping the faces of these authors. This is the philosophy I try to use when I review interactive fiction. [/RANT]
This was before I started browsing old IFComp reviews this morning. At the opposite end are these:
So this got me thinking… what is your review philosophy? Do you offer advice to the author within a review, or do you stick to the merits of the game as it was written? Do you hold anything back when you criticize a game? Do you consider the effort put into a game when reviewing it, or merely the end result? Is my approach too coddling? Is Bond’s approach too disparaging? Should the authors of bad games be discouraged from ever trying again, or do you think reviews (good or bad) sway their future plans at all? Does a brutally critical review show a deeper level of descernment, while a more polite and encouraging review is merely naive?
I think I have a tendency to go for the jugular with reviews, mainly when I come across a game that’s so obviously bad and so buggy that even the writer doesn’t think it’s much cop. There’s recently been a game uploaded to the main Adrift site (please spare yourself the agony of playing it) of which the author has this to say about it:
Really makes you want to play it, doesn’t it? If I ever decide to write a review of that game, I’m going to hammer it like never before. If even the author can’t think of anything better to say about his game than what I’ve quoted above, then he deserves every bit of criticism he gets.
For my IFComp reviews this year, I’ve actually written quite a lengthy intro (1361 words and counting) about my general thoughts on the IFComp, the domination of Inform over all the other systems and how no one seems to like writing games in Hugo, Alan and Quest (the first two surprising, the third not surprising). Then I’ve gone on to list all the games I’m not planning to review and why I’m not reviewing them.
For the reviews, I’ve tried to avoid being too disparaging, but there are some games that it’s hard to hold back on. One game starts without me being able to examine almost anything I can see and I needed to make progress by referring to an NPC who isn’t even there (and who I only discovered the existence of due to the walkthrough). A game like that bugs me because I wasted my time playing it when I could have been playing a game that had actually been tested instead.
With all that in mind, I realise that quite a few of the games entered in the Comp are by newcomers who probably haven’t played that many IF games and don’t realise what’s required. Part of me is tempted to give them a break and try to point out in my reviews what they’ve done wrong and the things they ought to look out for; another part of me wonders why people enter the IFComp with a game that even they realise isn’t up to much, hasn’t been tested properly and probably hasn’t even been proofread. After considering all that, I find it easier to bash the obvious errors in their games because even newcomers to the scene should know enough to use a spellcheck.
Still, this year I think I’ve been less critical of the majority of the games than in previous years. Mainly on account of the fact that the really atrocious games I gave up with after two minutes and didn’t bother reviewing.
You'll notice one thing about my reviews (two, if you notice that I spend much time doing them)- that I don't look for anything in particular. For most games, I'll just read the introduction. If I like what I see, I play the game, if I don't, I just close it (without giving a score) and try something else. Games that don't work to begin with don't get a score either, for similar reasons. If I start a game with high expectations and it disappoints me in some way, I'll usually be critical. This might not sound fair, but I'll give more credit to a game that tries something simple and suceeds than something complicated that fails. Also, I'll usually be critical of games that required me to be psychic for whatever reason, make unreasonable demands on me, or fail to take me into consideration altogether.
I’ve spoken to Stephen Bond in the past and he’s admitted that he writes his reviews primarily for entertainment value, although I’ll admit that I do find myself agreeing with him about a great many things. It depends on who you’re writing the reviews for, I suppose.
It depends on the problems I find. Some things annoy me more than others, especially if I encounter them at the beginning. It’s not difficult to tell if care has been taken with the implementation, which is why, if I encounter errors which I think could have been spotted with cursory beta testing, I tend to penalise such games heavily. I tend to go easy on the occasional spelling error or grammatical error if it doesn’t ruin the flow of the text, especially if the author in question doesn’t speak English as a first language (and providing the errors aren’t pervasive, of course). I tend to lay off the personal attacks when reviewing, although I’ve seen some people write reviews that contain so much mendacity that they practically amount to a personal attack. Another thing that annoys me, (and I’m guilty of this at times), is “psychologising”- guessing the character of the author from the contents of their game (Bond’s review of Kurusu City is an extreme example of this), It’s possible that you’re right, but I recommend everyone avoid it; if you’re wrong, it can be embarrasing for you and insulting to the author.
Unfortunately, if bad reviews do discourage, they’re not discouraging the right people as some of them don’t seem to have any interest in improving. I’m pretty sure you know who I’m talking about. It’s hard to say if anyone was encouraged by positive reviews or not, but there’s bound to have been one or two over the years.
I tend to spend the most time in reviews discussing the flaws of the games I did like (or, if they were really good, why I thought they worked). My longest reviews are usually for games in the 6-8 range, where I thought the author made a sincere effort and had some good ideas but didn’t quite achieve greatness, because I find it interesting to analyze what failed and why. Things that just weren’t to my taste at all, I don’t talk about much.
I try not to be mean to any author who seemed to be making a genuine effort; the couple of times I’ve really ripped into something it has been because I felt my time was wasted intentionally or I was given a deliberately unpleasant experience by someone who could have done better. And that does annoy me.
The problem with the guy you’re talking about is that he thinks his games are masterpieces and isn’t willing to listen to anyone tell him otherwise. No matter how often it’s pointed out to him that people don’t like this games, he just can’t see it. All he sees are people making personal attacks and then he reacts in the worst possible way and before you know it it’s all gone to hell. I’m expecting some longwinded rant on RAIF come the end of the IFComp when he falls foul of everyone who writes a bad review of his entries.
Nice reviews always encourage me. And let’s face it, you don’t get paid for your game writing (aside from any prizes you might pick up in one competition or another), so feedback and reviews are pretty much the only incentive you get to finish a game.
I love reading reviews that contain insightful comments, helpful suggestions, clear analyses of what went wrong and why, etc. - things I can learn from. One of the most helpful reviewers in this respect I have found is Paul O’Brian (ucsu.colorado.edu/~obrian/IF.htm).
So, you reviewer-type-people … thank you for all of your insights and comments. Even if the authors are neither corrected nor encouraged (though I’m sure they would be), others are learning good stuff from your writing.
There’s a difference between reviews of competition entries and, say, reviewing work in a workshop or critique group. I’ve never reviewed competition entries before now, but when reviewing crit group work I have gone out of my way to be a little more friendly and positive. I don’t feel that’s necessary for comp reviews.
On the other hand there is a method of critique where you don’t say something is good or bad, but describe it in more objective terms and leave it up to the reader to make their own judgement. You’ll see this a lot in art critiques and art history texts. In any case it allows you to dig a little deeper into the differences between works and maybe reach a new understanding of what the artists’ intentions were.
Of course it’s easier to do that looking at a Picasso and a De Kooning than a couple of suck-a-riffic comp entries.
I don’t see IF criticism as a subservient art form to IF; I see it as an
art form in its own right. What I look for in an IF review is what I would
look for in any piece of art – I look for something that moves, entertains,
provokes, stimulates, or in some other way makes life a little more
beautiful, for a while. (And I have to say, I find that IF reviews tend to hit
these marks more often than IF games.)
Not that I’m saying that any of my reviews do any such thing – but
that is what I aim for. And I think such didactic notions as
“being helpful to the game author” and “writing a playing guide for
potential players” are entirely orthogonal to the purposes of IF
criticism as art. I’d rather read a brief, witty, “unfairly” dismissive
review – and I’d believe such a review is a better piece of art –
than a long, tedious review which politely points out all the flaws in
a game, mediated with a few paragraphs of faint praise so that its
author won’t feel so bad.
In fact, the most annoying review of my own work I’ve seen is not one
of the (many) sarcastic dismissals, but a polite, mildly positive and
entirely witless review some guy mailed me privately, prefaced by a note
about how I should read his review for my own good, how he was going
out of his way to do me a favour, how he would make me understand where
I was going wrong and learn how to write better IF games…
I see your point about discouraging first-time authors; but at the same time,
I care more about producing the kind of criticism I like than I care about
the feelings of Random. T. Hackwriter, which will no doubt recover in time.
And besides, I think if someone is so easily discouraged by criticism that
a bad review would make him give up entirely, then he probably doesn’t have
much artistic impulse in the first place. If you really have the urge to
express yourself in IF, then you’ll express yourself in IF, no matter what
people say about your work.
It really does depend on who you’re writing for. Are you writing your reviews as reviews? That is, are you writing for potential players of the game? Are you writing a true critique? If so, it’s easier to strive for that other Stephen’s goal of reviews as art. Are you writing to guide authors, both the one who wrote the game and others? Then you’re moving into a more didactic role. Any and all of these goals are good ones, but you have to decide what you want out of what you’re writing.
On a slight tangent, I may completely rethink my scoring system so that it’s a composite of story, writing, technical implementation, etc. At soonest, I’d do it for next year’s competition. I think I’d like to get more analytical. What I use now does well enough, but it attempts to describe these things in combinations. When they’re out of balance (really great on a couple points, really bad on a couple others), my definitions don’t exactly cover it. I end up picking an in-between score, which is probably right, but may not carry an accurate description.
I have yet to see a scoring-breakdown system that I don’t find artificial. Some games turn on their puzzles, others on the NPCs, others on other things; so I find it most interesting to ask how well a given piece did at what it was trying to accomplish (and whether I thought that was a worthy goal).
I may do a composite of different scores in different categories next year. My current rankings assume that all aspects of a game are at a certain level (i.e., “very good” writing, puzzles, story, coding, etc). When these are out of balance, it gets hard to assign a score.
Even a composite may seem artificial, but I can’t think of any other way I can play 40+ games over 6 weeks and be reasonably sure that my scores aren’t schizophenic.
I used to do that a while ago with reviews but it often left me with an overall score that wasn’t an accurate reflection of the game. A game could have poor NPCs, not very interesting puzzles, minor bugs and yet still be a good game. Likewise, you could have a game which had NPCs with real depth, interesting puzzles and no bugs but isn’t much fun to play.
So I scrapped the dividing idea and just use a system similar to Merk’s, although I’ve never given a 10 because no matter how good a game is something better could come along and then what would I rate that?
I’ve seen that thread. Can’t see it working myself. Getting people to stagger their reviews in order to prompt discussion isn’t likely to succeed unless everyone takes part. If even one person, and I suspect there’ll be quite a few, decides to post their reviews early, the idea fails. And since when have the RAIF crowd been able to agree on anything? Not to mention that I don’t think it’s fair for the authors of games that came in X position to have to wait a month to see the reviews for their games. I certainly wouldn’t want to wait.
Mine will be posted in one bit lump as soon as the Comp is over.