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.

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Comments

  1. I think one of the other important, and almost necessary parts of being a journalist is not to ignore when games do something bad just because it’s an accepted evil. Examples like placing checkpoints before cutscenes, rather than after them, and then making the cutscenes unskippable. If we don’t flag them when we see them, they won’t get changed, simple as that, really.

  2. That’s a set of surprisingly non-obvious rules, actually. I heartily approve of all of them. Although I do use the word gameplay a lot. And I’m not even ashamed of it. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT, QUINNS!?

  3. How about “make sure the last paragraph is a recap”?
    Don’t leave the reader hanging with a detail as the last thought.

  4. I’d happily take the strap in 4 as long as it was actually bloody there.

    Rule 6: When writing for a publication that uses strap lines, crossheads and captions, it’s often an idea to include a strap line, crossheads and captions with your draft.

  5. What are your views on scores for games?

  6. I put gameplay in a strapline recently. Embarrassing. Totally slipped through. I recommend removing it from your WP’s dictionary.

    Now, say you’re trying to tell RPG fans that even they won’t like it. You could probably do without the RPG stuff and just say why it’s bad in plain descriptive terms, right?

    Very useful stuff, especially point 2. It’s that aspect that gives us our “journalist” title, after all. I can’t remember who pointed out recently that we aren’t getting shot at in Iraq (observant chap), but yeah, we need to be the truth-tellers, even if it’s a subjective truth.

    Making sure that your score reflects the weight of your article? Making sure your screenshots are sexy? Making sure you don’t have your shirt tucked into your underpants?

    The most useful starter tip I got was: Don’t try to be funny. Just do the job, the funny will come naturally, unless you’re a robot, in which case, awesome.

    • Excellent points. I can use this…

      • “The most useful starter tip I got was: Don’t try to be funny. Just do the job, the funny will come naturally, unless you’re a robot, in which case, awesome.”

        Pure genius. Laughed and laughed. Thank you.

  7. Don’t mentally substitute ‘game mechanics’ for ‘gameplay’ and then use it five times in one review.

    Oops.

  8. Mechanics isn’t as bad though. It’s guilty of the same crime, but the motivation is to describe the ludological and how it contrasts with/supports/detracts from the other elements.

  9. Attach a value judgment to every piece of descriptive text.

    Write something I want to read because it’s good writing, not solely because the subject matter is relevant. Soon enough, the subject matter will be irrelevant. All that will be left is the writing.

    Write to please yourself or, perhaps, your best friend.

    Write thinking that your words are important and enduring. Write knowing that neither is true.

    Write half a million words. Then write your review. This way, there’s a sliver of a chance it might be good.

  10. Never use the phrase “mixed bag.” What the hell is a mixed bag? A substitute for good analysis, that’s what.

    • As long as you detail what’s in the bag, and what the mix is, but yet again, you could just say those things and do without the bag entirely.

      Writing: where it’s better to not use a bag and just carry everything on its own. Not at all like Pick n Mix, then.

  11. ‘Gameplay’ is what exceptionally uncreative people* use when they can’t think of a way to describe the interaction between rules (objective) and experience (subjective).

    Also: the word ‘hardcore’ is just fucking ridiculous.

    *Yeah, I’ve used it before. So what.

  12. Well, I’m barely out of school and I would have thought each of these points embarassingly obvious. What does this signify?

    Should I follow through with plans of a journalism degree, bringing terrible shame upon my family in the process?

    Is the pool of talented gaming journalists much smaller than I had previously thought? (don’t read that the wrong way; I love this site!)

    Will the gaming intelligentsia be able to overcome the evil terror of IGN’s forces before it’s too late?

    The day of reckoning is upon us!

    NB Have you considered adding “delivering a multiplayer/singleplayer experience” to the list? I’m amazed they didn’t realise they sounded exactly like a PR rep and edit that out.

  13. Don’t mention Citizen Kane.

  14. I wish all reviewers would remember that saying “I like it” is completely different than saying “It is good.” In the first the reviewer is the subject, in the second the thing being reviewed is.

  15. Don’t move to Canada just as you’re getting good.

  16. I’m conflicted about ‘Gameplay’.

    Yes, it can be used lazily, but it does describe a critical concept: How you play the game, including it’s mechanics, and what the player does, y’know what makes games different from other media. It doesn’t seem any worse a term than ‘Artwork’ or ‘Music’.

    There is such a job as a ‘Gameplay programmer’, you know.

    • I much prefer the music-listen. Or the book-read. Or the film-watch.

      If you’re using the word gameplay, you’re failing to explain what is going on, on-screen. Precision is everything. What is the gameplay of, say, Command and Conquer 3?

  17. What about Strunk and White’s classic ‘Omit needless words’. Previously just a way to ensure unbloated text, the advice can be applied more directly to a world of online journalism where the cause and effect of

    More words = More pages = More hits = More money

    is pretty direct and can be the failing point of many writers. Including me. Rather than having to write 15 pages that will do, it’s always best to just do the 5 pages that count.

  18. Gameplay
    Just wanted to add that this is a bad word when used in relation to development as well as journalism. Too many developers start up an announce that they will focus on “gameplay” – but gameplay isn’t a thing you do, it is the result of all the other elements of development, such as difficulty curve, level design, pacing, etc.

    Gameplay is just an all round bad word and need to be deleted from usage.

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

    Brilliant. As exhibit A, I offer you Rock Paper Shotgun’s review of Borderlands.

    http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2009/10/20/the-rps-verdict-borderlands/

    In the first 300 words, we have references to: Diablo, Far Cry 2, World of Warcraft, Gauntlet and Halo.

  20. I only realised what a ridiculous word gameplay was when I read this. My god. You’re right. It’s like saying “Watching the movie was a great experience” or “The reading was the best part of this book.” I can’t believe I took phrases like “The best part of the game is its Gameplay” seriously.

    On consideration, using the word to denote times when you’re playing the game, as apposed to cutscenes, is probably alright. As in, Gameplay/Story segregation.

    But good advice, anyway- opened my eyes.

  21. This article seems very lost on me. Starting at the top, gameplay is an integral part of games as an overall. The key word there is part. Many things make up the game; the visuals, the audio, the story, and the gameplay all make up the game as a whole, so yes, writing the word specifically makes sense. It would be like coming up with a different word for cinematography, or acting, because you think they’re too obvious when discussing a film.

    As to your last point, another one that just seems not thought out. Why not clarify a final verdict for specific audience? If a game is a great JRPG, why would you bill it as a great game to everybody? JRPG’s are a very niche game type, so if you make everybody think that it’s just a great game that will appeal to everyone, you are being misleading.

    Why don’t we start making points that can lead to actual journalistic credibility? For example, let’s stop giving misleading hands-on previews that praise the game when in the end, it ends up getting a score of a 2. Let’s stop asking developers and publishers good questions when we get the opportunity instead of, ‘When is this game coming out?’. These are things that will make us better journalists and more respected. Honest, hard-hitting journalism, the way it’s meant to be.

    http://www.fourplayercoop.com

    • Cinematography and acting are specific theories within film though, and we can very easily export them to games – Uncharted has great acting, fact.

      Tim’s covered this, but the game is nothing but ‘gameplay’. If you’re breaking it down to graphics, story, sound, etc., you’re splitting the entire event. Noone goes through a game thinking “this level, I will focus on the graphics of this game”, and noone will continue with the prettiest game on the planet if it makes you count the prettiest iron filings for nine solid hours.

      There’s an underlying checklist every writer goes through in concocting an article, but by making it explicit, you’re simply conforming to task. Making games writing explode off the page is our aim: we shouldn’t take our cues from the mechanical side of game development – “does this game have good sound/yes this game has good sound” – but the visceral, sparkling finished product.

      Linking these disparate elements is a tough part of the job, but it’s only in ducking lazy, catch-all terms like ‘gameplay’ that we can turn a still-nascent area of writing into something experimental and authoritative.

  22. Gameplay as a word is fine. We know what it means. It means that if you make Ikaruga but replace the graphics with blocky square things or vector outlines (rRootage), it’s still fun to play because it has the same *good* gameplay. Just saying “game” is unclear as the “game” is the entire bundle. The game can have inconsistent controls and a not very fun while having amazing graphics, writing, music and other immersive qualities. Movie licensed games often have a great deal of work done on paying proper homage to the ‘franchise property,’ but forget the actual game*PLAY* inside the game. Sometimes a perfectly fun game can be ruined in a port. In conclusion, eat shit you stupid fuck.

    • This is like the last angry burp emerging from the tarpit as the dinosaur goes under.

      • I suppose that from atop your ivory tower it might be hard to notice that your metaphor is as broken as the IGN web site.

      • Today I read a review of Dante’s Inferno. After reading,”While it would be easy to think from the preceding paragraphs that Dante’s Inferno is nothing but a crude misfire, such is not the case when the controller is in hand,” I thought that one of your disciples had written the review in question. How else could you explain such an awkward transition?

        I was merely impatient, however, as the review continued, “The only real blight on the title’s minutet-minute gameplay is its fascination with ‘quick time events’ as popularized by Resident Evil 4, Shenmue and God of War, which at times borders on amour fou on the part of Visceral Games.” I’m not sure if /amour fou/ is an Australian affectation or what. Regardless, it appears the word ‘gameplay’ will survive your desire for its extinction.

  23. “Good journalism uses a minimum of words.”

    This paragraph is kind of hilarious in light of your recent post about Tim Rogers.

    • Quinns says:

      You’ve got me wrong! I said Tim Rogers’ stuff is interesting and has merit. I never said it was specifically good journalism. If you got a decent editor to go over his stuff, then we’d see.

  24. I just found this website and I am so happy. It is hard sometimes to find people who will have a lively and brillant conversation about video games. Keep talking guys.

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