How to Review a Video Game

On July 8th, 2018 I started reviewing and discussing video games on the internet. This week marks the 4th anniversary of my blog. I don’t want to toot my own horn too much, but I believe I’ve learned a lot over the years about how to review this goofy interactive medium. I wanted to offer some advice to people who may want to do the same. May I offer for you 4 lessons I’ve learned about writing a review. Whether you’re making an hour-long video essay on YouTube or a paragraph-long “hot take” on social media, these are some things to consider when you’re reviewing a game:

Honestly, Steam reviews are much more helpful in convincing me to purchase a game than Metacritic scores.

Lesson #1: Know What Questions You’ll Be Answering

Before you type your first word, it’s important to ask yourself, “What do I want to get out of this review?” That may sound like an odd question, but hear me out. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you have a set list of questions in your head that your review is going to answer. Your readers, on the other hand, may have an entirely different set of questions and concerns about the game. You need to be aware of these questions and structure your review accordingly; otherwise, the reader may end up confused about why you wrote your review.

Anya L. Archer’s discussion about Pokemon Crystal and being trans was eye-opening to me.

I’ve found that there are three ways to review a game: First, a Commercial Review, in which you state whether or not the game is a product worth buying; Second, an Artistic Review, in which you discuss the artistic merits of the game, such as its level design, soundtrack, or story; Third, a Social Review, in which you interpret the game and say what it means to you. For example, Anya L. Archer isn’t concerned if you buy Pokemon Crystal or not in her recent article on Wired.com, nor is she interested in its route design; she simply talks about what it meant to her that, as a trans person, Pokemon Crystal offered her the choice to play as a girl for the first time back when it was first released. That’s what I mean by a Social Review. The purposes for your reviews may be entirely different. If you’re aware of your goal, then you can frame it so that your audience understands as well.

Something tells me there’s a disconnect.

Lesson #2: It’s Okay To Be Subjective

You are not Metacritic — this is your review. The best opinion you can express is… your own. And in the end, hearing an individual person’s take on the game with their own unique perspectives and tastes is what makes a review worth reading anyway.

From Polygon’s recent video where the staff had to review the best games of 2021 in 7 words or less.

After a year or so of writing on this blog, I noticed that I’m almost always positive about the games I review, even games that sold poorly like Starlink Battle for Atlas, or games that disappointed others like Octopath Traveler. I realized that, as a game reviewer, I’m easy to please, but hard to impress. For a while I fretted that I was going too easy on these games, that maybe I should be more critical. However, despite acquiring better perception for a game’s flaws, I still find myself rarely in a place where I dislike a game. It’s just who I am. At first I thought I was a bad reviewer, but now I realize that this mindset is still useful for readers. It means if I complain about something, it’s probably a big deal; and in the opposite direction, games that float to the top are going to be the cream of the cream of the crop.

People understand that you’re going have bias. What you need to do is make sure you support your claim with clear, distinct evidence. That’s how you achieve “objectivity.” Think of it as a court room. You need to present your case clearly and logically, stringing one element to the next. “I feel XYZ about this game, and this is why…”

Notes from my playthrough of Fire Emblem Warriors Three Hopes. Sometimes I need to write on physical paper to help organize my thoughts.

Lesson #3: Your Second Paragraph Is The Most Important Paragraph

I actually took this piece of advice a few years ago from a Game Informer interview with the website’s chief editor, and so I’m passing it on to you. After you introduce the game, or set your hook, you then need to carry that momentum going and discuss the most appealing or interesting part of the game. Lead with your best foot, so to speak. For a JRPG or Graphic Novel, you’ll likely talk about the story first. For an Action game, you’ll likely start with the gameplay. Even better, you can begin by discussing a mechanic that sets the game apart from others in its genre.

Of course, it doesn’t always have to be the second paragraph every single time, but it’s important to follow the spirit of this advice. Once you capture your reader’s interest with the game’s coolest feature, then you can follow up with the other important aspects of the game.

If I want to know whether or not I’d buy a game, I go to reviewers that I know and trust. IGN and other corporations are just… too inconsistent to offer helpful information.

Lesson #4: Consistency Is Key

If you take any lesson home, it’s this: a reliable reviewer is better than a good reviewer. What I mean is, don’t worry too much about how polished or perfect your reviews are. You’ll build an audience simply because you cover the games that they are interested in, and eventually your audience will build trust and understanding of what kind of person you are and what you look for in video games.

A consistent portfolio of reviews is highly helpful for a consumer. It’s the one advantage you have over the big-name websites like Polygon or Kotaku. I actually like those websites, especially for their behind-the-scenes journalism. However, I struggle with their review process. For example: one of my biggest frustrations with IGN is how Travis Northup reviewed Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition, and even though he said it’s the best version of the game to date… he scored it an 8/10. It’s a decently-composed review (for the most part), but the words don’t match up with the final verdict, and it’s actually a lower score than IGN’s review of the original Wii version. Keza MacDonald, the reviewer back in 2012, awarded it a 9/10. If you didn’t follow the author bylines, you’d think that Definitive Edition was somehow the worse version.

It’s more useful to follow the authors on sites like Polygon or IGN rather than take it as some faceless entity, but it’s a hard habit to break.

You, a game reviewer, can decide what games you review and how you do them. You can offer a continuous logical thread that a reader can follow from post to post. They’d understand that, if you’re a JRPG fan, you’d likely want to review the upcoming Live A Live remake, and you’d be able to give it the nuance and care that it would deserve. And if a game outside a reviewer’s normal genre preferences manages to capture their attention and even score high marks, then you know that that game must be something special. Consistency is always helpful.

I don’t have any other advice for you other than: write. Write as much as you reasonably can. I made a schedule (uploading one post every Monday) and I stuck to it for so long that it’s just part of my routine. Let yourself make mistakes. It’s only after you look back and see the flaws that you can become a better writer, and the fastest way to do that is to just write, write, write… and put it out there.

Thank you! If you like this kind of post, then maybe I’ll make another one for most in-depth advice later on. Thanks for a wonderful 4 years!

One thought on “How to Review a Video Game

  1. Really great read! Especially liked tip number 3, I’ll try and follow these closely for my next review.
    I think my issue is feeling that some of my takes may be redundant when compared to other creators like Matthewmatosis who put so much into all of their content, but hopefully I can get over that in time.

    Like

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