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    Thursday, August 09, 2007

    Top 5 Misconceptions About Games Reviewers

    Having a chat with an Anonymous Knight the other day, we smiled wistfully as he said he wouldn’t make a good games reviewer as he didn’t read many magazines. After we’d finished weeping face down into the rug we like to roll around naked on at remembering days when we were that innocent and naïve, it dawned on us that the comment reminded us about something we started on a while ago but never finished – the Top 5 Misconceptions About Games Reviewers. If it educates just one reader or wannabe reviewer, that’s good enough for us.

    1 – Games Reviewers Can Write

    Games reviewers being a form of journalist, and journalists being a form of writer, it wouldn’t be massively unreasonable to assume they could string together a sentence without fucking something up. It would also be massively wrong. Like all the misconceptions listed here, we’re not saying that it applies to every working games journalist out there. Just a surprisingly large proportion of them.

    Most of the time when you read a review, it’s been tidied up by a sub-ed. It’s their job to take the mangled, ridiculous musings of half-cut lunatics and turn them into something readable. One way of cutting through who can write and who can’t is by reading their blogs or forum posts. They’re not edited, so you know that the authors of the decent ones are worthy of their job title. The rest aren’t just being lazy or ironic – they really are shit at writing.

    Yes, they can put ideas and comments about games into a paragraph. No, they have no grasp of how to communicate them grammatically correctly or even colloquially.

    (Quick note to the person who’ll spend hours trawling the blog for a typo before posting it in the comments box – well done, ten points to you)

    2 – Games Reviewers Know About Games

    It used to be said by reviews editors that finding an employable games reviewer is incredibly difficult as plenty of people know about games and plenty of people know how to write, but very few people can boast about possessing both accolades. As Misconception 1 decrees, we already know most of them can’t write without letting their dicks get in the way. Not knowing about games, though – isn’t that slightly disappointing?

    Most get away with it with their saviour Google, but it’s the over reliance on press releases and PR trips that poses the biggest danger. Walk through a mag office, and you’ll see mountains of games still in their shrinkwrap. Have a conversation with a reviewer about games, and we mean the big releases, and a look of fear darts into their eyes as they realise one wrong move could expose them for the idle, blagging charlatans they often are.

    Some of the funniest (in the unintentional sense) days and evenings we’ve had have been with the staff of mags discussing those little compilations of games they like so much, like group tests or top 100 games lists. Major games come up, and three-quarters of the room are shaking their heads having not even heard of them, never mind played them.

    In conversation away from the safety of the old boys’ networks, the biggest giveaways are “I haven’t had chance to play that one yet,” or, if you’re a reader, they’ll always pull the “I can’t talk about that yet because of the NDA” cracker (an NDA being a non-disclosure agreement, which reviewers have to sometimes sign when they’ve played unfinished code and the review they’ve cobbled together off the back of it can’t be published until a date commanded by the publisher or PR).

    Mag style guides (the instructions telling reviewers the house rules of the mag) invariably instruct reviewers to lie about gaps in their gaming knowledge so you’ll never find out about it. Yep, the mags tell their reviewers to lie – bet you never saw that one coming.

    3 – Games Are Given To Reviewers Based On Their Specialist Knowledge

    Another promise the mags are printing every month in the header page of their reviews section is the empty pledge that games are matched up to reviewers who are specialists in certain genres. Bollocks.

    Most mags have something like a little white board with all their reviewers’ names written on them, and next to the names go the games they’ve been assigned to review. The big games (6-8 pages) will usually go to the staff writer regardless of the genre, because freelancers get paid by the word and will get assigned whatever small time shit that’s left over randomly, and that includes pickings for staffers from mags completely unrelated to gaming as an old boy favour. As well as avoiding a payout, this also sidesteps the problem of sending the reviewer to the PR/publisher’s office for a day or two to play it, as only freelancers who have their dicks very firmly wedged up an editor’s arse (i.e. ex-staffers) will get an expenses-bonanza like that.

    For lesser games, you’ll find that shit which nobody else wants like the flight sims and the hardcore strategy dross does sometimes go to the peculiar specimen in the freelance pool who really does like those kinds of game. The trouble there though is they almost always overrate games from their specialist genre. Got a hardcore racing sim that nobody who plays games for fun will enjoy? Then it'll get 85%, because they like hardcore racing sims that nobody who plays games for fun will enjoy.

    We’re tempted to launch into our argument about why more than one reviewer should play every game reviewed here, but that’s for another post.

    4 – Games Reviewers Always Complete Their Games

    This one is excusable for several reasons. First up, it’s rarely necessary to complete a game to get a decent write up from it. A day or two, or a few respectably sized evening sessions, gives you everything you need to know about whether the code is worth spending money on.

    Second up, when a reviewer has only spent an hour or two on a game, it isn’t always their fault. It may be so unfinished that it’s barely playable. It may have a high reliance on multiplayer action, which means there’s artificiality to playing against beta testers or against other mag staff over a LAN. They may be sat in a developer/publisher/PR’s office with a husk on their shoulder telling them what to do and where to go before showing them the door. There may be a stupidly unrealistic deadline of less than 24 hours. The review might be only taking up a quarter or an eighth of a page, in which case other stuff has to take priority, or a freelancer’s only getting £20 for it so can’t be arsed.

    Despite the rain of shit flying in reviewers’ faces when it comes to playing decent chunks of games, they’re still often not spending enough time with them. Look at something like Teletext’s GameCentral – when two reviewers are producing reviews daily along with news and letters, how much time are they actually getting to play the things?

    If you’re familiar with a game that’s been reviewed you can play a game of “spot the screenshots from the first level”, but the beta code we get to review often comes with codes to skip to later parts of the game, for shame.

    5 – Games Reviewers Read Games Magazines

    And that’s what takes us back to the comment that re-inspired us to write this post. Most of them don’t even read the mags they write for, although that’s as much to do with cunts like Future being too tight to bother sending copies to their own contributors as it is with laziness.

    We could have made this a top 10, but there’s already enough on here about games reviewing being a job that stopped being good many moons ago, and being too commercialised now, and the old boys’ network who still hilariously deny they exist, and the shit pay, and review scores being adjusted in exchange for advertising/covers, and the frequent fuck ups stemming from all of this which you can find out about by sidling up to a reviewer and mentioning Headhunter: Redemption, DRIV3R, Unreal 2 or Doom 3.

    The most depressing thing about this list is, really, all 5 of the misconceptions should be standard industry practice. Of course reviewers should be able to string together sentences without getting lost up their own sphincters and ejaculating along the way. Of course they should know about the games industry without having to crib from Metacritic.

    Are these unreasonable expectations to have of the people who review games in exchange for your money?

    Sadly, yes.


    1. While I've still yet to encounter the majority of your constant refrains in nine years of this job, it's the first part that I want to comment on.

      I disagree that being less skilled with grammar is the same as "not being able to write". I say this as someone who is obsessed with grammar, and who hurts with every mistake. However, the writers who have been the biggest influences for me are rarely this way.

      Your comment implies that such people send in broken nonsense, and a genius sub creates a unique and consistent personality, tone and flow to that writer's writing, along with all the creativity, before publication. Reality is often so much simpler, don't you think? People who write too fast, or are slap-dash with grammar, certainly have their prose tidied - it's why every magazine has a sub (or should - I saw some drossy glossy mag in a newsagent the other day with the legend, "Dog's burn down house" on the cover). However, this doesn't change the fact that the original author was the creator of the ideas, the opinions, and the meaning. And that is what shapes a great writer.

      A robot living inside a word processor can parse accurate spelling and grammar. But it cannot write. I love grammar in a sinister way, and I believe a well constructed sentence is a joy to read. But it has to have content, and the content is of infinitely more importance if there's someone employed to ensure it flows properly. Dismissing someone on the grounds that they misuse their semi-colons, or shift clause midway through a sentence, seems ludicrous.

      As for saying blog's demonstrate this - that's just ridiculous. A writer's blog might be something he contributes to in a hurry before getting the bus, or in a drunken stupor last thing at night. I'm idiotically fastidious (for instance, I checked the spelling for that word, even though this is a comment on the blog of one of the most conistently idiotic people on the internet), and will re-edit month old blog posts to correct grammar. But that makes me a twit, not a good writer.

    2. Oh bugger me with a cleaver, I wrote "blog's".


    3. I don't think it's important to play an entire game to review it.

      With films and music, the entire narrative must be appreciated and seen. However, games are very different. Games don't really DO narrative. That's your job as the player, and due to their structure they are often very repetitive. That's why most people don't complete them. You get a task and then your have to repeat it with subtle variations. It's just how most games work.

      I'm not a games reviewer trying to justify myself.

    4. John: You're right in that the ideas, opinions and meaning are created by the author, and I've said as much in the post. Coming up with those ideas is a talent, but many people think that all games reviewers are master craftsmen when it comes to communicating them. The fact is, they're often not. You've also got to remember that you're fairly lucky, as you've written for mostly decent publications. Many mags and websites (the commercial ones) employ people who'd struggle with an English GCSE, and couldn't come up with a sparky idea to save their miserable lives.

      And well done for "blog's". I love you for that.

      Richard: I agree entirely, and I think so would most reviewers. A surprising amount of readers believe we actually spend weeks playing through games before writing them up, which is why it made the list.

    5. @john walker> Maybe the newspaper was writing about something called a 'burn down house', which happened to belong to a dog. We just don't know. x

    6. Dog's Burn Down House

      New number 1 single!

    7. Anonymous10:14 am

      Top 6 misconceptions about the Ram Raider

      1. He's not a cunt
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      3. He's not a cunt
      4. He's not a cunt
      5. He's not a cunt

    8. For something to be a misconception, people have to widely believe it. Everyone knows I'm a cunt.