(I read a review at ENWorld that reminded me that many reviewers of games don’t entirely know what they’re doing! I reviewed games and related materials for Dragon and White Dwarf a long time ago, but almost never have the time to do so these days. I’ve modified a handout I created over the years for various students (college and grad, computer or game development disciplines) to whom I assigned a game or book review. Maybe this will help. LP)

You have to play a game before you can review it. I have a great deal of experience with some kinds of games, but I will not “review” a game I have not played. Some years ago I gave my impressions of a Britannia-like game that I owned, but as I had not played it, I was careful to say it was not a review, it was more about design, because I wasn’t familiar with the details of the gameplay itself. In the end, it’s the gameplay that counts.

(I’ve encountered video game development teachers who graded student-made games on the basis of how “good” they were (or worse, “fun”) without (of course) having the time to play them. I just laughed. I graded primarily on the process of making the game, and sometimes seeing them tested, because I didn’t have time to play dozens of games.)

Always keep your audience in mind when you write anything. Your audience for a review is not yourself: usually it’s someone who enjoys playing games but is not a hard-core gamer. (Does that describe you? Probably not.) This is, of course, the bulk of the gaming market.

The objective of any review is simple. It should let the reader know whether he or she would like to read the book, see the movie, listen to the music, buy (or only rent) the game, and so forth. The review doesn’t exist to make the reviewer look good, or to advance the reviewer’s agenda.

A formal review is not just opinion. Unless you’re a well-known reviewer, readers don’t care about your opinions because they don’t know you. (I read enough Roger Ebert reviews to know what he preferred, so his opinion meant something to me. But that was Roger Ebert.) No, you have to explain WHY you think this or that about the game. Without that, you’re just blathering like a typical yahoo on some comment site. Remember, comments on the Internet are subject to Sturgeon’s Law (“90% [or even 99%] of everything is shit”). (Varies by site and topic, of course.)

Any review, whether of movies, games, books, or magazines, ought to answer three questions:

● What is the author/creator trying to accomplish? (Usually includes, who is the audience)
● How well did he or she or they do it?
● Was it worth doing? (which must include, Why it was or wasn’t)

You've read or heard movie reviews that concentrate on the first point (the reviewer may recapitulate the entire plot), on the second point (ooh-ing and ah-ing about how good the direction or technical effects were--or how bad), or on the third point ("what a dumb idea" or "socially relevant!").

Which point(s) require the most detailed treatment is a decision the reviewer must make according to the nature of the work being reviewed.

The most common mistake a reviewer makes is to try to recapitulate the entire contents/characteristics of the game in a short time. Don't. Listings of this kind are rarely interesting. It's not only hard to do, it's often boring, and it might annoy the person reading the review if you “give things away”.

The second most common mistake (amongst students), is to be very explicit and “compartmental” about these three questions. Don’t list a question, then answer it, then list the next question, then answer it. The idea is to answer the questions in the course of a discussion without drawing attention to the fact that you are answering these questions. When you read or hear a good movie review, the questions are usually answered, but you’re not explicitly aware of it as you read or listen, are you? Reviews are essays, writing with a purpose, and as essays they need to be enjoyable reading.

Who is your audience?
Facts and reasons, not just opinions
Answer the Three Questions
Write a good essay that people can enjoy reading

Items often included in a review:

Title, author/developer, publisher, date of publication.

Background of the developer (and publisher).

Quotations from the backstory/setting.

What are the Best & Worst points of the game?

After I revised the above I discovered that I’d written a piece about reviewing specifically for gamers, published in The Space Gamer #45 in the early 80s (“Notes for Reviewers”). It’s longer and more specific than this. It will be in my books of reprints of my articles of yesteryear, sooner or later; or you can dig up that issue somewhere.

Lew Pulsipher