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.



  1. I’m not sure if this one is a specifically game related one, but I was told that if you don’t proof read your stuff, then you’re in serious trouble. And I don’t mean just giving it a once over skim before hitting the send button to give it to whoever is going to publish. I mean give it a few days, go back and reading it aloud, and catching anything that doesn’t sound right. After a while it becomes second nature, and you get get rid of the reading it aloud bit, but the basic thing here is that if you can’t read it again, how the hell can you expect someone who doesn’t have your brain to do the same a first time?

    • I do this all the time with any serious work I do (essays and stuff, I’m a student), but the folks at RPS don’t seem to worry overmuch about it.

      Maybe that’s the right attitude. I’m always seeing little errors in their copy (I’d make a great subeditor, by the way, employers), but these don’t really detract from the quality of the work.

      If you were submitting to a magazine, I imagine you would proof read. Maybe not though

  2. One I’ve learned the hard way recently: think hard, long, and throbbingly about boxouts. In reviews with tight wordcounts you can shift a less important concept to a boxout, rather than jam it in the text, sapping the original words of their power.

    Mainly for print stuff, mind.

    And one from the same Editor that cut your intros, Quintin: write something, delete it because you think “I can’t write that”, then put it back in again, because you probably can. Essentially, have faith in your words. A convincing argument is convincing even if it disagrees with readers.

  3. I have a feeling this might be the same editor as Rich and Quinns mention, but I once had a piece outright rejected by a mag because “You didn’t mention the name of the game until paragraph 2.” Which, initially, made me think, “so what?” But then, /of course/ you should mention the bloody game straight away. What else are you writing about?

  4. The Machination says:

    I think keeping your intentions clear throughout the review is very important. I know I’ve done it before in my blog when I’ve found myself digressing horribly, and finding that it just tends to weaken the impact of your material. Something else important, in preparation for writing, is to think about your genuine opinion of the game you’re reviewing. When writing casually I’ve often found myself succumbing to a hype mentality, and then having to write a follow up post clarifying my ideas, with a more sensible mindset.

  5. All off the cuff rules – not sure how useful they are.

    Some other stuff:
    Stop using jargon. The words “third person action game” mean nothing to anyone but us. Nor does “RTS” or “FPS” or “MMORPG”. Better, really, not to say what the game is, but what you do in it.

    Aside: don’t ever use the developer names for what they think are oh-so clever systems without explaining what they’re for. They keep using those words like “skirmish system” or “realm-versus-realm” because they want to trademark them. You shouldn’t use them unless there is no better way to explain what they’re doing.

    The Catchprase, Mr Chips rule: “say what you see”. By which I mean – don’t try and infer deeper meaning before you’ve actually explained each link in the connection.

    Don’t think that coming in 10% the wordcount is acceptable. It’s not.

    Read the commission, and then compare it to the page/web template in question. Print that commission it out, and then tick the elements off. In print, missing elements are a nightmare – they can delay a page’s turnaround for days while we try and get them out of you.

    Don’t pitch me your grand unified theory of gaming as your first job, nor try and impress me with the amazing intellectual leap you’ve just made. Unless it’s utterly compelling. Smart freelancers look at the mag/site in question, and write cool stuff that fits in to what they’re already doing, rather than trying to pitch features that a freelancer wishes the mag/site was doing.

    1) don’t ever, ever, ever pitch me these features.
    Women in games.
    Horror in games.
    Why games are/aren’t funny.
    Are games art.
    How To Get Your Girlfriend Into Games.
    Internet culture things like online dating, cartoons etc.
    Technical features on things like programming, tools like Photoshop.

    2) if you’re desperate to figure out how to pitch great magazine features, here’s a good exercise: buy three women’s magazines, three car mags, and three other random, not game related magazines. Read them cover to cover, and then figure out why they’ve done those features. The answer will be: because they make for great cover-lines, and give a reader a reason to buy it. Now do what they’re doing, but for games.

    • Damn, that’s torpedoed my “how to get your hilariously horrifying girlfriend into photoshop” feature idea pretty effectively.

    • The Machination says:

      You seem against discussing things beyond just the games itself, I can kind of understand “games are art” because that’s an endless debate, but notably horror in games. It was actually something I wrote about a while ago. I might just be me, but I find it more interesting to dissect and explore the intricacies, and psychological experiences that games can provide, rather than just constantly reviewing the content itself. Perhaps that’s not what interests the majority of the audience; it just sort of comes out of my passion for games design.

      • The brutal truth: if I’m putting £500+ toward a feature, I want it to a) say something I can’t read elsewhere, and b) have a good chance of making that money back in readers attracted to buy the magazine. So, that’s roughly a hundred extra sales I’d like to make off that investment.

        A horror in games feature isn’t going to do that. Its ground covered in multiple venues all over the web and in print, to the extent it’s a cliche. You say it’s interesting to you: great. You should probably go and write it for yourself then.

      • And I did it best 10 years ago.


  6. I was puzzled by the comment “…and knowing what Victorian novel a game’s plot is making refences to will make you quicker to call it clever.”

    Why wouldn’t you want to understand the references in a game and why wouldn’t you want to say that something with depth of meaning is clever? From a game design POV I believe you should ensure your game includes everything necessary to complete the game – you shouldn’t force someone to leave the game world to find information they need. However that doesn’t mean you can’t reference something external like a book or mythology that isn’t essential to the game – doing so can give the game greater depth and understanding that can improve your enjoyment.

    • I think it’s a failing to reward a game for being well-read if you never would have noticed had the developers not told you to your face.

      • Alternatively the reviewer is failing to reward a game because the reviewer isn’t well read enough.

        It would be great if every reviewer out there was so widely read that they could recognise every reference but that isn’t realistic. If a developer has spent 2+ years of their life (plus millions of dollars) making a game is it fair to expect them to just hope that reviewers spot these things?

        It has been my experience that the majority of reviewers like the devs to provide them with info about the cools stuff in their games. In a perfect world reviewers would have as much time as they need to play a game and ring every ounce of juice from it. The reality is that they don’t and if you can offer them information (which they can choose to use or not) then that is a plus.

  7. On humor in games writing:

    Pick up the latest issue of Game Informer (200). Flip to the Greatest RIPs section on pg. 86. Now, do the exact opposite of everything you see here.

  8. The Machination says:

    I guess that never being under the reign of a publisher, who expects particular criteria for a particular audience, has given me a somewhat skewed version of writing styles and topics. The way I figure it, I like writing, and if someone is interested, they’ll read it. Either way, it gives me time to think about the topics, and contemplate ways of making more interesting games. However, honestly, I never really considered myself as the strictly game reviewing type.

    Regardless, you have some good points, thanks for the reply.

  9. Here’s one of my pet peeves: don’t get lost in the detail. It seems like a lot of reviews get lost describing gameplay and story and music and etc etc without really saying how it comes together. Just having “GAMEPLAY” “STORY” and “PRESENTATION” as headings and then writing everything under them, without talking about how the elements come together, sucks.

  10. Just some random bits here:

    1. Never be afraid to call interviewees on totally outlandish statements. Quinns touched on this above, but, seriously, its very rare when game journos play hardball with figures in the industry. One example I’ll never forget is when Dan Hsu called Peter Moore out on the Xbox 360 backwards compatibility issue. We need more of THAT.

    2. There is a fine line between developer intent and your own personal vision of what the game “should have” been. Learn to distinguish between the two. Only one has a place in your review.

    3. To paraphrase someone else, stupid shit shouldn’t fly because this is a video game. If you want games to be taken seriously as a medium, then stop giving developers a pass “because its just a game.” Random Example: If I cannot walk down this hallway because there is a foot high block in my path and I cannot jump, then that is stupid, and should be noted as such.

    4. I can’t seem to find it now, but someone smarter than I once wrote a great series of articles called “Playing to Learn” about how to properly examine game design from the main menu onward. I wish I could find it now, but it should be Game Journalism 101 for people.

  11. This may be an obvious one, but don’t be afraid not to talk about usually relevant stuff if it isn’t relevant to a particular game. Are the graphics functional but not really worth remarking on? Don’t remark on them, then. Etcetera.

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