No, this isn’t me fishing for compliments – I’m considering submitting a piece to the Rosebush that looks at the craft of reviewing via a roundtable discussion among half a dozen or so currently-active reviewers, digging into their approach, their process, what games are trickiest to review and how to deal with the challenges, and so on. With this year’s Comp the best-reviewed in history, it seems an opportune moment for this kind of conversation, to see if there are any pitfalls, best practices, or opportunities around reviewing that might be of interest to the broader community.
I suppose a threshold question is just “does this sound worthwhile?”, but assuming it does I’d also like to get a sense of any reviewers y’all would be interested in hearing from as part of an article like this. I can come up with my own list, of course, or just go down the top-rated folks on IFDB, but I’d rather try to get a broader sense of folks who resonate and seem to be doing something distinctive. I’m especially interested in newer reviewers and those covering less-standard niches, to hopefully bring a broader perspective to bear.
No promises that any suggestions will be acted on, since I’ll need to curate things to ensure we do have a good mix of folks, and of course people will need to say yes (“you will possibly be 1/6 part of a possible Rosebush article” opens many doors, but perhaps not all…) But would very much appreciate any thoughts folks have! And if there are any topics or questions you think would be cool to include, feel free to share those too. Thanks!
(Oh, and if for some reason it feels awkward to name anybody publicly, feel free to drop me a private message).
Rovarsson, for the breadth of games he plays: he often brings to my attention games I’d have never otherwise stumbled across. His explanations are quite straightforward: and while browsing through play logs of games he’s done by other people, or puttering around one myself, I can confirm his summaries really do capture the games well- making it easier to narrow down if its a title I’m interested in spending time with myself, or not. He’s very good at leaving enough room left for the story to breathe- summarizing enough to intrigue, but not to ruin the pleasure of investigating the game further.
Your reviews, Mike- these are much more personal, though still in the same conversational style as Rovarsson’s. His feel a bit like discussing a novel at a bookclub together, whereas your reviews feel a bit more like when I used to sit down beside my dad and listen to him live commentate on the games he was playing: weaving in stories about his life and relating it to all sorts of abstract floaty concepts that were new and sparkly and interesting. You bring a lot of yourself to the table in your reviews, and it really makes them a pleasure to read.
Kaemi’s are worth an honourable mention. They’re quite dense, difficult to decipher, and the language is used in quite interesting and pretty ways. It makes me feel a bit like I’ve just been given a tarot card reading- you kind of sit there in stupefied silence and try to pick through the threads for meaning.
I’m also biased, because Manon is a dear friend, but the sheer volume and consistency is impressive, especially when compressed into the shorter frame of gamejams. She’s quite pleasant to read- cheerful, kind, and makes it much easier to sift through the large volume of games when you aren’t sure where to begin.
Mathbrush. He’s notable just for having an order of magnitude more IFDB reviews than anyone else (including many for obscure games where he is the only reviewer), but from a purely practical perspective, when I’m trying to decide whether to play a game, I usually read Brian’s review first. The consistency and breadth of perspective from having played almost literally everything is useful, and his reviews do exactly what I need them to: give me the key information to decide whether I will probably enjoy a game or not.
Mathbrush for sure. Other people write more in-depth commentary about games, which it’s good to read after playing, but Mathbrush’s reviews are perhaps the most useful to read before playing. I don’t always agree with him. We have different tastes. But it’s easy to see that if Mathbrush thought X, then I’ll probably think Y.
In addition to the many that are listed here, @aschultz. The depth and feelings conveyed in those reviews are so sincere. I also really appreciated all comments and insight from @vivdunstan, @EJoyce, @rovarsson, @VictorGijsbers and @manonamora. I am in utter awe of the time and effort spent playing, reviewing and then writing about that by so many.
A good review should tell you what the game is about, its strengths and weaknesses, and anything that is unique or unusual. For a parser-based game, it may additionally suggest some overall game-playing strategies.
I don’t normally read reviews for games that I haven’t played, as there may be spoilers. I do read reviews for games that I have played, as I’m curious whether other people thought the same as me. Similarly, I read reviews of my own games, as I want to know what people thought of them and whether they struck any issues.
The thing that surprises me is that the majority of the reviews that I’ve read do not cover the basics mentioned in the first paragraph. In fact, many of them are just long flowery essays that try to highlight how well read the reviewer is, typically referring to books that I haven’t read and games that I haven’t played, so I have no idea what they’re talking about. More often than not, I’ll tune out partway through, because I can’t see any relationship between the essay they’re writing and the game that I’ve played and am familiar with.
Maybe it’s just me, but I feel that a review should be a review, not an essay on some unrelated topic and, for this reason, I don’t have any favourite reviewers. I know I’ve read some good reviews, but I don’t recall the names of the reviewers.
I think modern-day reviewers would do well to read proper reviews from computer magazines from the 80s and 90s. These determined whether or not we would spend money on those games.
Thanks for your perspective Garry. I don’t think I can convert you to my own favourite style of reviews, but I think I can at least explain why people like me write them the way we do! As you point out, the 80s and 90s reviews were usually written to help people decide whether or not to spend money on a game. For that purpose, you want a spoiler-free review that gives you a factual account of the game and, of course, an indication of how good it is.
But this is usually not the situation we’re in today. We don’t spend money on games. We spend time on games, of course, and so it’s still useful to have this kind of factual review; IFDB reviews written outside of a competition contest often still have this form, or at least come close to it. But when we’re in the middle of something like IF Comp, the situation is different. What you write about yourself is true for almost everyone:
When I write a game during IF Comp, my audience is people who have already played the game and, also very important in my mind, the author. Neither group needs a review that explains the basics of the game to them. They already know the basics. So I sometimes don’t even mention the basics, but go straight to… well, it could be a lot of things, it just depends on what I think I have something interesting to say about! Sometimes I’ll talk about the interface, or the plot, or the puzzles. Sometimes I’ll talk about the theme. And sometimes, often in order to talk about one of these things, I find it helpful to show where the game is located in a broader cultural space. If someone makes a game where there’s a turn limit and you have to collect as many treasures as possible within the turn limit, then in order to understand how this puzzle was designed it’s going to be useful to compare it to Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder and Sugarlawn. You won’t get as much out of my review if you haven’t played those two games, that’s true. But then I hope it’s still useful, because now you know about these other two games.
So, here’s an especially egregious example of what you complain about: my review of LAKE Adventure. Most aspects of the game aren’t mentioned or explained, and there is me, quoting poems by Hardy and Dickinson! But you’ve got to see this review in a certain context. When I wrote it, there were already about 15 reviews of LAKE Adventure. I had read all of them. I felt no need to repeat what those other reviewers had already talked about. But I felt a strong need to talk about what I found touching, interesting, emotional, about LAKE Adventure: it’s steadfast refusal to see the death of the sister as in any sense positive, not even in terms of something that made the protagonist grow or that they managed to ‘give a place’ in their lives. That’s a tough, tough theme; and it reminded me of those poems; and I felt that those poems expressed my point at least as good, maybe better, than I could. And I hope that at least some readers of the review will read it and think: yes, yes, that’s what I felt when I played this game, that’s what I couldn’t put into precise words. And if so, mission of the review accomplished. Because I’m not here to tell you whether or not to buy that game, but to help you make sense of the experience of playing the game, or even, which happens to me with the reviews I love most, to enrich that experience after the fact.
Maybe it doesn’t work for you, and that’s okay! But I don’t think any of us is in the surely rather stupid business of writing essays
I promise you that I’m not rubbing my hands cackling, “ha ha, those guys and gals over at intfiction.org will be really impressed by my literary knowledge”!