Although this is an article about how to write reviews, I’m going to have to flagrantly break my “don’t blog about blogging” rule again for what must be at least the twentieth time. As usual, there’s a good reason for this and I hope that this article will be useful or interesting to you 🙂 But, if you don’t want to read about my blog, then it might be worth skipping the next few paragraphs.
As regular readers of this site have probably noticed, there have been a lot of obscure computer game reviews here this month. Seriously, there have been about five so far (four reviews of fan-made levels for “Doom II” and one review of a game called “Rise Of The Triad: Dark War”).
Whilst it didn’t quite reach the heights of say, the early days of this blog, where – for a while, I used to alternate between reviews and regular articles literally every other day for longer periods of time, there have at least been slightly more reviews than there were in either of the last couple of months.
Since I’ve had more recent experience with writing game reviews than with writing any other type of reviews, I’ll mostly be focusing on this type of review here – although some of the advice here may also be useful if you are writing other types of reviews.
So, how do you write a review? Here are a few tips:
1) Full Disclosure: The first thing you should do if you’re reviewing something online is, to some level or other, talk about the circumstances of your review. This also gives you the opportunity to write an interesting introductory section to your review too.
For example, if you’re reviewing a game, you should talk about how much of the game you’ve played, where you (legally) downloaded the game, where you bought the game or if you just played it at a friend’s house. Most of the time, this stuff is just good practice rather than a formal rule – so, use your common sense here.
However, and I’m not a lawyer, I think that the only circumstances where you’re legally obliged to disclose this information is if a game company has given you a free review copy of a game or if you have been paid to review or promote a game. So, do your research here or at least err on the side of caution about disclosure.
Unlike other entertainment media, like films or books, you don’t have to have played an entire game before you review it. Yes, it’s best practice to play the whole game but – let’s be realistic – you may not have time to do this, especially if you’re writing to a deadline.
Since games are a non-linear medium and you can get a good impression of things like gameplay mechanics, graphics design etc… within a relatively short time, you don’t have to play the whole game before you review it. However, you owe it to your audience to be honest about how much of the game you have played before you wrote your review.
In other words, if you’ve only played the first level of a game then point this fact out and state clearly that your article is more of a “first impressions” article than a full review. Although some purists think that the term “review” should only be used when you’ve played through the whole game, I’d argue that as long as you disclose how much of the game you’ve played, then you can call it a “review”. Personally, for things like short fan made levels and for reviews where I haven’t played the whole game I’ll usually use the title “Mini Review” rather than “Review”.
Likewise, it can sometimes be a good idea to talk about your opinions during the review too, if you think that it is relevant. Whilst the idea of a totally unbiased review is a good one, it’s also unrealistic. When it comes to entertainment media, everyone has their own pre-existing opinions about things, so be as honest about this as you can. For example, when I reviewed a “Star Wars” game a while back, I made a point of stating that I was more of a “Star Trek” fan at the beginning of the review.
2) Quotes and Screenshots: Again, I am not a lawyer, but copyright laws in most parts of the world make specific exemptions for things like reviews.
What this means is that it’s usually perfectly ok to include things like screenshots, quotes etc… in your reviews. As long as it isn’t wildly excessive, then you can include some parts of the thing that you’re reviewing in your review.
On the other hand, things like screenshots and quotes aren’t mandatory. So, you don’t have to include them if you don’t want to – I mean, many of my earlier game reviews (and all of my film/TV show reviews) didn’t include screenshots. But, if you can include screenshots, then they can both make your review more informative and more interesting to read.
However, if a game contains controversial, extremely gruesome or shocking imagery then it might not always be a good idea to include screenshots of this in your review. If this is the case, then you probably should either include written references to these parts of the game, add a content warning to the beginning of your review, only show screenshots of the less shocking examples of this or only include one or two shocking screenshots in your review.
Finally, if you’re taking screenshots, then try to give a good impression of the game as a whole. Yes, screenshots of the more visually-appealing/interesting parts of a game might make your review look more interesting, but if the game contains a lot of visually boring parts then you either need to mention these or – even better – include a few screenshots of them.
Remember, your job as a reviewer is to inform your audience about a particular game and this includes the crappier parts of it, which brings me on to…..
3) Criticism: During the earlier days of writing this blog, I was often wary about criticising things too harshly. In my inexperience, I’d often err on the side of praise rather than criticism.
Even now, I can only think of four or five truly – and justifiably – harsh game reviews I’ve ever posted on here. But, sometimes something is crap and you owe it to your audience to tell them this fact, especially if you are reviewing a commercially-sold product.
At the end of the day, when it comes to writing a review, you need to talk about both the things you liked about something and the things you disliked about something. As long as you can justify or explain any criticisms you have of a game, then include these criticisms in your review. In other words, if you really hated a game, then explain why you hated it.
Criticism for the sake of criticism and praise for the sake of praise are things you should try to avoid, if at all possible.
4) Humour: Let’s face it, reviews can be dry and boring things to read. So, if possible, try to add a bit of humour to your review to make it more interesting for your audience.
If you’re writing to a deadline, then you may not always have time to think of lots of jokes, but at least try to include a few light-hearted remarks if possible.
If you’re including screenshots in your review, then one place to add a bit of humour to your review is in the captions beneath the screenshots (I learnt this trick from a brilliant – and much missed- game review magazine called “CVG” that I read when I was a kid). This has the advantage of allowing you to include humour, whilst also making sure that the main body of your review is still fairly “serious”.
5) Politics: This is one of those topics where there are no real right or wrong answers (or, rather, every answer is a wrong answer to someone somewhere), but it’s worth thinking about how much of your own political views you wish to express in your reviews. However, since reviews are opinion-based things, your political opinions are probably going to end up in there whether you want them to or not.
One view on this subject is that game reviews should aim to be as apolitical as possible. The main merits of this approach are that this places the emphasis firmly on the game itself and it also ensures that your review appeals to a wider audience. Most (but not all) of the time, I try to take this approach.
On the other hand, especially these days, some people make a point of explicitly reviewing games from a particular political viewpoint (eg: conservative, liberal, religious, feminist etc…).
When they are writing for an audience who shares this political viewpoint or if their political views are a large part of their life, then this makes a lot of sense. After all, everyone is entitled to their opinions and reviewers should be free to state how they reacted to a game. Likewise, throughout history, critics have always debated with each other about all sorts of topics.
Of course, there’s also something of a middle ground between these two approaches. But, as I said earlier, there’s no real “right” or “wrong” way to handle this subject.
6) Mistakes: Finally, if you’ve never had any journalistic training and you’re writing reviews online – you’re going to screw up occasionally. It happens to us all. If you make a mistake, then it’s usually a good idea to acknowledge it (like in this review and this review), correct it if possible and learn from it.
If you’re just correcting small grammatical or phrasing errors in your reviews after they have been posted online, then you don’t really have to acknowledge it. However, if you’ve made a major mistake and you correct it after online publication, then it’s usually good practice to write a small explanation at the beginning of your review explaining what you’ve changed and why you did it.
A good way to avoid major mistakes in your reviews is to, if possible, write them at least a few days before you post them online. This way, if you spot a mistake, then you can correct it quickly and silently before you post your review online (where it could be archived, downloaded, saved etc… by members of your audience).
Personally, I’ve got to the point where there’s a delay of a few months between writing anything and posting it online but this can take quite a while to do. But, even so, unless you’re reviewing very current stuff – then wait a while before you post your reviews online.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂