Games journalism: What Not To Say pt. 4

Let’s put a lid on this. I’ll close with the three golden rules.

16.  Play Everything

Play demos and new releases. Play old releases. Play the oldest releases. Play mods of mods of mods. Play fan translations, but also untranslated games. Play games you know you wouldn’t like, and play them on Hard. Play German WW2 hex-based strategy games. Play Japanese visual novels. Play existential Russian games where you control a kidney who believes he is a man.

It almost doesn’t matter how bad your writing is if you possess that rare guru-level knowedge of games, and no games journalism is more agonising than the stuff written by dazzling professional writers who know fuck-all about the medium. Whether you’re writing it will benefit from you knowing your shit. So play everything, and don’t ever stop. There are always more games to play. Aren’t you lucky!

17. Read Everything

Reading is secretly a pretty important part of being able to write! Really!

Flowing copy, conciseness, proficiency with different tones, being able to tell jokes or stories in text, all of these are skills that reading will help you to develop. The good news is, you read a lot already, right? Of course you do. What kind of journalist wouldn’t enjoy reading. Except the kind that should kill themselves immediately.

Rock Paper Shotgun editor Jim “Sly Dog” Rossignol particularly advises reading other kinds of journalism, then working out how to steal their tricks.

18. Write with Conviction

Feelings and opinions will lose something in transit from your brain to text because written words simply aren’t as good at holding subtext and emotions as a human voice is. This means there’s no room whatsoever for restraint in your writing. If you’re angry then your copy needs to seethe and spit, and if you want people to buy some unknown game you need to put both your hands in the air and wave them like you just don’t care. You need to write knowing you’re right. To borrow a few lines from the Neil Kulkarni guide to being a record reviewer:

“If you don’t regret what you’ve written after you’ve written it, or find in revisiting past work an occasional INTENSE embarassment (and equally intense pride) you’re probably not doing your job properly. But if ALL you feel is a faint embarrassment (and equally faint pride) then you’ve been writing needily, you’ve been writing to get friends you’re never going to meet, and you’re the next editor of the NME. Congratulations.”

For games journalism, replace NME with IGN. Voilá.

Okay. Done. I’m going to bundle all these rules into their own little page on this blog and call it a day.

Class: Dismissed.


Games journalism: What Not To Say pt. 3

Rules 11 through 14 are an editor special!

That’s a bit like a detective special, except instead of being a gun it’s where I interview Tim Edwards, editor of PC Gamer UK, and try and make use of his advice. Of all the magazines, sites and ezines I’ve worked for (around, uh, 21 in total), PCG is the only outlet which has combined consistent high standards in games journalism with a desire to experiment and push the envelope. The most interesting paid work I’ve ever done has all been for PCG.

And so:

11.  Do not think a single element of the template is somehow less important

Great body copy is useless if a page, digital or otherwise, doesn’t draw a reader in, and in print journalism you’re kidding yourself if you think the reader is going to read the title first, then the article proper, then any boxouts. Think about how you read magazines. Your eyes bounce around a page like a fly caught in a bottle. So, any element of a template can let you down, and there’s no benefit to any one part of what you hand in being better than anything else. Screenshots are particularly easy to phone in, especially if you’re taking shots of a bad or ugly game in the first place.

Tim says: “Basic rule – if you miss anything out entirely, you’re incompetent. If you start thinking about boxouts, screenshot captions or titles once you’ve written the article, you’re not very good. If you start planning them while you’re still working up your ideas, you’re good.”

12.  Don’t think coming within 10% of the wordcount is okay

Disobeying an editor sounds like a pretty bad idea, no? And yet in handing in something that’s under or, more likely, over the wordcount we’re bucking orders all the time. Remember, we’re given wordcounts for a reason, and when we fail to hit them somebody has to spend time cleaning up our mess.

Tim says: “In order of sin – highest to lowest. Under the wordcount by more than 20 words – ridiculous. Shoot yourself in the face immediately. Over the wordcount by more than 200. Man! Over the wordcount by more than 50 – okay, we’ve got to cut it, but you’ve probably written a shit intro anyway. Hitting the wordcount. YOU THE MAN.”

13.  Don’t take offense at edits or requests for changes

You ever noticed that the same beginner journalists who often ask for feedback on something they’ve written often clam up in agony the moment you tell them to change something? That’s because they’re not used to the hurtin’ that comes from being told their creative work isn’t good enough. Well, that’s something you have to get good at.

When an editor tells you to change something, there is no room for you to get offended. This is because you’re the one who fucked up. If you get offended, or worse, argue your case, you’re making the most difficult part of an editor’s job even harder. Remember, editors might not have time to write much now but they did write an awful lot to get where they are. Don’t think them unsympathetic.

One more reason to take your editing like a man: if you’re busy being offended at changes to your piece then you’re missing out on the most genuine feedback on your writing will ever receive.

Tim says: “No-one likes to be edited, and every writer thinks that an editor is ruining their copy. But we’re not being dicks. We have an idea of how the mag should read and feel, and we’re asking you to essentially psychically understand that. It’s not easy.”

14.  Don’t go into this half-cocked

I’ll just let Tim outline this one:

“One thing I want to say, to those seriously thinking about getting a job writing about games: have a back-up plan in place now. I think there are probably more news-presenters working in the UK today, than there are games journalists. Probably more judges. The house of commons has more working MPs than the games industry has journalists. Our field is tiny, but because games are awesome, and nice articulate boys want to write about them, the competition for spots is ridiculous.”

15.  Don’t use “we” when you mean “I”

“We went to Epic to take a look!”  “We think Squenix could have done better”  “We’ll believe that when we see it!”

There’s two reasons to hate this. The first is that it makes no sense. Who is ‘we’? Is everyone on the magazine or website sat around your monitor, agreeing with you as you type and slapping you on the back? No. So what on Earth are you talking about?

The other reason to hate this is that it’s cowardly. By swapping your statement from the first person singular to the first person plural you no longer have to bravely venture opinions. Suddenly it’s what your whole team thinks. And because you’re in the clear it becomes easier to fall into the terrible habit of voicing insubstantial opinions without the arguments to back them up.

Obviously if you’re writing for a magazine where the tone demands it, fine. But if you’re creating a website or similar, don’t get into this habit.

COOL. Okay, that’s us nearly done. I’ve been saving some good ones for the final five. Then I’ll get on compiling this.


Games journalism: What Not To Say pt. 2

You guys did a pretty good job of responding, so let’s keep this rolling.

6.  Don’t write a score that doesn’t fit your copy

Thanks to Jaz McDougall for reminding me of this one.

Every games journalist pops this cherry at some point, whether it’s writing a scathing article then wussing out when it comes to branding a low score into the game’s flesh, or praising a game for hundreds of words then unthinkingly giving it an above-average instead of exceptional score. In either case you’re being soft when we have to be hardest. Don’t let it happen.

Two things worth remembering when it comes to scoring: First, with the rise in importance of Metacritic and other review aggregators, that number, letter or series of stars at the end of your text will have more of an effect on the game’s sales and will cause more waves at the publisher and developer than anything you say. Don’t just bash it out. Second, when you fail to give a game the score it deserves, you’re not just fucking up with regards to that game. You’re discrediting that magazine or website’s entire scoring system.

7.  Don’t do anything but the job

Again, thanks to Jaz.

Never get lost. If you’re writing a preview, don’t try and be entertaining, try and tell people about this game. If you’re conducting an interview, don’t try and be chummy, try and get the most out of your interviewee. If you’re writing a feature or column then always be orbiting the subject matter that people will be reading it for, and for the love of God if you’re writing a review don’t ever think you’re just chatting about the game.

As Jaz was told: “Don’t try to be funny. Just do the job, the funny will come naturally, unless you’re a robot, in which case, awesome.”

8.  Do not let contact with developers, publishers and PRs affect you, ever, at all, I mean it

As a games journalist you will meet the people behind the games. They will have faces, and those faces will often have smiles, and your hand will be shaken. You’ll probably get drunk with these people, whereupon you’re really fucked because then they’ll have favourite songs and dogs and first kisses too.

It is a fact that meeting anyone in the industry will affect how you view their games, and you won’t notice it happening. It is a disease. Simply knowing what the developers were “trying” to do with a game is enough to make you more leniant, and knowing what Victorian novel a game’s plot is making refences to will make you quicker to call it clever.

Another point: It takes a total bastard to be flown all-expenses-paid to another country, take a look at a game, smile, tell the developers who’ve been working on it for three years it looks very interesting, let them buy you dinner and drinks, then fly home and give the game 5/10 in review. You must be this bastard. To be anything but this bastard is to be a prick to every single game which didn’t bribe you.

Some magazines and websites try and make a policy of not giving reviews to anyone involved in reporting on that game beforehand, but even then you might find a bias towards your new friends leaking into something else you’re writing. Don’t let it happen. Remember, the developers might make the games, but your readers, listeners and viewers pay your wages. Don’t betray their trust.

9.  Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want your best friend to read

Thanks to Simon Parkin.

This is a nice shortcut to the jovial, respectful, confident and informed tone you should be aiming for. And besides, if you don’t think your copy would be funny or interesting to your best friend, it’s baseless optimism to think it would be to anybody else.

10.  Don’t assume you need an introduction or conclusion

One of my editors has a technique for cropping overlong articles in his magazines, which is to lop off the entire first paragraph. The man commands his word processor like a guillotine.

But you know what? It works! That’s because first paragraphs are often rambling, inconsequential things made up of a joke or background information, and the second paragraph is where our writing reaches terminal velocity. Likewise, that highfaluting conclusion of yours will be next for the chop because it’s that much slower than the rest of your copy.

This is worth remembering even if you enjoy the infinite wordcounts of web journalism, because these are also the weakest parts of your articles. Either make them as punchy as the rest of your copy or don’t include them at all.

Alright, cool! That’s Numbers 1 through 10 done. You guys have any more ideas or pet peeves? I still think we can get up to 20.

Games journalism: What Not To Say

I found out last night that the University of Michigan-Flint offers a course teaching “The Analysis and Criticism of Videogames”. A games journalism course! The first of its kind! Colour me inspired.

I know that some of you who visit here want to earn a living as games journalists, and that others are already neophytes in my strange trade. Well, this is your lucky day! I’m playing professor for the next few minutes.

The following are five of my most ancient and magical techniques. You can use any one of these to improve the quality of all the writing about games you will ever do. Listen well.

1.  Do not use the word “Gameplay”

Articles saturated with this word read like they have trapped gas. More often than not “gameplay” can be replaced with the word “game”, unless it’s part of a horrible fucking sentence like “Gameplay-wise, Far Cry 2 is more of the same” or “The gameplay on offer is solid and a lot of fun.”

Good journalism uses a minimum of words. The word gameplay should not be surviving the cull that occurs when you read over what you’re written to see if you can convey a fact, opinion or emotion in less time.

2.  Don’t ever duck an explanation

This is more common than you’d think. A reviewer might, for example, say “It seems tedious at first, but for some reason the turn-based combat sucks you in.” They might also drop an “It’s hard to explain” or “It’s tricky to put your finger on why the…”

I don’t care if it’s hard to explain why a mechanic works or doesn’t work, or if it’s taxing to think about why a game brings out a particular emotion. Saying “It’s hard to explain” is an admission of defeat. Jesus, as a games journalist you should feel a burning need to understand why a gun in a game feels good to shoot, or why a level’s atmosphere makes you feel lonely. You should be capable of disassembling design and figuring out how it works.

3.  Do not comment that a game is “Trying too hard to be clever”

A game cannot try too hard to be clever. What you’re saying is that the game somehow purposely devotes itself to being clever, and that’s a statement which tells the reader very little but does carry the obnoxious subtext that you hold no sympathy for people who try to make smart games. If a game doesn’t work how it’s intended to, drop straight into an explanation of why.

4.  Do not, when writing a strapline, subheader or image caption use a variation of “Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my”

Officially the “War! What is it good for?” of 08/09.

5.  Do not say “If you like x kind of thing you’ll probably like this, because it is x”

So you’re reviewing an old-school RPG. For your concluding sentence you write “Fans of traditional RPGs will probably find some meat on these bones. The rest of you should probably steer clear.”

What you’re doing here is addressing everyone who knows they like traditional RPGs and telling them that they will probably like this because it’s a traditional RPG. See also: Mentioning a game is very hard, then saying people who love hard games will probably have a really good time.

Let’s say you were reviewing a pizza. At no point in that review would you point out the people who find pizzas delicious would probably enjoy eating this pizza. Nor would you mention that fans of spicy beef will take great pleasure in the spicy beef topping. So don’t do it in your games writing.

Alright, done. I’ll see if I can come up with another five of these rules in the near future. If I can get a total of 20 good ones then I’ll package it as a .pdf and try and distribute it. Suggestions are very welcome.