The Anatomy of a Professional Game Review

This topic contains 4 replies, has 3 voices, and was last updated by  elheber 10 months ago.

  • POSTED BY elheber on Dec 23, 2016

    I decided to go over several reviews from huge gaming publications to see what elements they all share. I looked at The Last Guardian reviews from GameSpot, IGN, The Jimquisition, Destructoid, Game Informer and Eurogamer. I scrutinized their structure, their style of writing and even their grading format. Join me as I lay out what I found:

    THE INTRODUCTIONS

    TAGLINE – Every review has a tagline after the headline, and half of them are puns. Game Informer had, “A giant on unstable ground.” Eurogamer said, “The thing with feathers.” And IGN had a terrible one that read, “Team Ico’s much-anticipated third game is filled with the highest highs, and the lowest lows.” That was a mouthful.

    Notice how each of the taglines lays the tone for the rest of the piece.

    GameSpot’s “Love is patient” review focused on the affection the player gains for Trico and players being able to forgive the game’s flaws because of it. Love and patience. It makes sense. Jim Sterling’s “Beast of Burden” review, as expected, focused on the difficult-to-tame eccentricities of the monster and game. The hard to control beast is the game itself. Brilliant!

    Despite being the first lines, the taglines were probably one of the last lines of text that were written for the review. Possibly even written by the editor in chief after reading the whole thing. The good ones are clever AF. They get your attention, tell you what the review is going to be about, AND boil it down to only a few words.

    THE OPENING PARAGRAPH – The opening paragraph serves two or three purposes as far as I could tell: 1) They summarize the entire review down to just the essence. 2) They entice you to keep reading. 3) They delve into the background of the game, such as the developer. I don’t know why this is, but most of the reviews touch on the development history in either the first or second paragraph. Normally, I’d chalk this up to the unique development hell that The Last Guardian went through, but I swear I see this in almost every game review.

    IGN’s review had the best summary, starting us off with, “The Last Guardian has the highest highs and lowest lows of nearly any game I’ve ever reviewed…” However, it didn’t have a hook to entice the reader.

    Destructoid’s review, perhaps the most amateur of the bunch (I should know, I’m one as well), focused on the hook. “How do you really prepare for a review for The Last Guardian? You can’t.” It’s quick and engaging, but it doesn’t give you any new information. Plus, it fails to do any summarizing.

    GameSpot’s intro was the best of the bunch IMHO. “True to Fumito Ueda’s work on Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian is a fascinating game that portrays a heartfelt relationship between two unlikely cohorts–a nameless boy and a giant creature named Trico–who develop mutual trust, communication, and compassion against seemingly impossible odds.” It’s got a little developer background, a little summary of the emotion-centric review, and allows the basic premise of the game itself to serve as the hook by describing the characters. The genius of it is that, the people who will be most enticed by this opening paragraphs are the same people who would love the game for its charm and the relationship between the two subjects. In other words, people who would love the game are people who would get hooked by this opening paragraph.

     

    DEVELOPMENT HISTORY – Over half the reviews for TLG and a surprisingly large percentage of reviews for random games I checked, had a short history of either the development of the game, other games the developer has made, or other past games of the same franchise. It may be nothing, but I found this too frequently in the first to paragraphs for it to just be pure coincidence. They say things like, “WayForward’s Shantae: Half-Genie Hero–the latest in the series that debuted on the Game Boy Color–is yet another great addition to the list. The franchise has received two excellent, intentionally retro-styled adventures on modern platforms…*” or “The allure of the original Dead Rising’s goofy and gratuitous zombie slaughter was the reason I bought an Xbox 360 back in 2006. Dead Rising 4 ratchets that arcadey, hack-and-slash power fantasy and self-aware satire up to new heights.*

    This might be nothing, but I noticed it and figured I should mention it. It might be nice to sprinkle a little of this on your own reviews.

    THE BODY

    STRUCTURE – If you grew up in the ’90s, you might remember that reviews used to be sectioned off into separate categories like “Gameplay,” “Story,” “Graphics,” etc. This is no more. It went out of style alongside acid wash jeans. That old format overstayed its welcome much longer thanks to amateur reviews in places like GameFAQs, but in the professional world it is erased from history.

    Critics still write in sections, but now they don’t announce themselves. The untitled sections simply flow from one subject to another as naturally as the writer’s skill can manage.

    An example of this done poorly is in IGN’s review. The end of one paragraph at the tail end of a long section of gameplay critique ends with, “It’s an interesting twist on the formula, and one that does a great job of bringing Ueda’s trilogy full circle.” It’s then truncated with some sort of chapter title that reads, “Destroyed Beauty,” in bold, red letters, followed by a new separate paragraph: “If you’ve seen any footage of The Last Guardian, you’ve seen for yourself that the vast outdoor environments are nothing short of stunning.” Gameplay. Stop. Graphics.

    Separating topics like this might be good for an essay or guide–*cough* like this one *cough*– where the reader might want to go back and find the part they are trying to cite. But a modern, professional game review wants you to stay engaged by meandering you down the page like you’re on a toboggan down a lazy river. And, continuing to use that metaphor, have the different sections of the river almost seamlessly flow into the next.

     

    Compare IGN’s trainwreck to Game Informer’s subtle transition from story and ambiance to gameplay: “From the moment I saw Trico – injured and bound – the creature seemed alive in a way games have never captured. … Depending on the situation, it exhibits playfulness, protectiveness, terror, and a broad range of other responses – all communicated through uncanny animation.” Next paragraph, “Trico moves through the world with surprising ease; it only got hitched up on the geometry once in my playthrough.” It ended a paragraph about story with Trico’s animation, then started the paragraph about gameplay with Trico’s animation. That was brilliant AF. I didn’t even notice where the transition happened in my first read.

    SUBJECTS – All reviews talk about gameplay. And, at least for TLG, all reviews talk about story. However, not all of them talked about graphics, and none about sound. In fact, if there’s any lesson to come away with, it’s that this type of organization no longer works. It seems reviews just talk about subjects of note. The Last Guardian, for example, has performance and control issues. As such, the critics dedicate parts of their reviews to this subject instead of music or graphics. (Note: if I put anything in parenthesis, it means they talked about it in the context of the previous subject).

    GameSpot goes: Intro, story, long section about gameplay (controls), ambiance, performance, conclusion.

    IGN goes: Intro, dev history, story, long section about gameplay, setting (ambiance), controls, conclusion.

    Jim Sterling goes: Dev history, intro, long section about story, gameplay, long section about controls,  long rant about game design, conclusion.

    Destructoid goes: Intro, story, experience, long section about controls (gameplay),  experience again (ambiance), conclusion.

    Eurogamer goes: Long intro, long dev history, long section about experience (story), long section about gameplay (experience), controls, gameplay (experience) again, conclusion.

    Game Informer goes: Intro, story, gameplay, controls, setting (ambiance), conclusion.

    As you may have noticed, I had a tough time trying to put some of the subjects the critics spoke about into sections. Destructoids was particularly brutal and the guy was wordy as fuckall and I couldn’t understand what he was talking about other than how stuff was making him feel. It wasn’t bad, I just couldn’t put it into a box.

    And therein lies the heart of the matter. The most traditional reviews, like those of GameSpot, IGN and Game Informer were all classically organized. The more personal and unique reviews, such as Jim Sterling’s and whoever’s did that Dtoid review, were almost undefinable.

    OBJECTIVITY – How many of these talk about the personal experience the critic had? That is to say, how many of them have the word “I” in it?

    Nearly ALL of them. The only review that avoided the word was GameSpots. The editor-in-chief at GS must enforce a strict, “Just the facts, Ma’am,” rule.  Every other discusses personal experience to varying degrees, with the Dtoid review being the most personal recount I’ve ever read. It was like I was peeking into the man’s diary.

    CONCLUSION

    LAST PARAGRAPH(S) – Every review set aside their last one to three paragraphs to describe the overall experience of the game. In nearly every single one, it calls back to the review’s tagline. I’m convinced the tagline is entirely based on the last paragraph of every review.

    VERDICT/SCORE – For several years now, the idea of giving a game a numerical score or rating has been falling by the wayside. However, except for Eurogamer, every publication I checked for this has a 10-point scale or higher. Eurogamer works on a 4-point scale and essentially gave TLG a four out of four when they awarded it an “Essential” rating.  The lesson here is that everyone uses rating scales… even Eurogamer who claimed to have given up the practice.

    I’m sure there’s something more important to be learned from all this, but I’ve already avoided 5 hours of work here in my workplace. I should get back to work.

    "A closet intellectual, he acts dumb to impress women."

    "A closet intellectual, he acts dumb to impress women."

    POSTED BY mastermetal777 on Dec 23, 2016

    That’s pretty much why I structure my reviews in a certain way. It gives readers a way to be able to read without feeling like they’re missing the point behind a more “on-the-spot” writing style. Not that those are bad, but it takes a certain talent to make a rambling review read really well. It just depends on what the writer feels is the best way to talk about a game.

    POSTED BY xsuicidesn0wmanx on Dec 23, 2016

    Sorry about the lack of an edit button, it’ll return in the first 2 weeks of 2017 when I can get back to work on this.

    Enjoyed the read, and I love that you broke down the way they did things on all these sites. I’m not sure how I write, but I think reading through the examples I bet mine was more like Destructoid than the others. Now that I have this to ponder, I might actually find it a little easier to write up a review. I’ve simply been winging it this whole time with no rhyme or reason to why I organize things, never even considered that other sites would have a standardized way of writing.

    Thanks for doing this, it’s going to help me out a lot, and I’m sure others will feel the same.

    You're all zombie thigh-fat people brought into animation by some evil force of forceful evil!!! - Happy Noodle Boy.

    You're all zombie thigh-fat people brought into animation by some evil force of forceful evil!!! - Happy Noodle Boy.

    POSTED BY elheber on Dec 23, 2016

    It’s only after I hit the “post” button that my proofreading skills increase ten-fold.

    "A closet intellectual, he acts dumb to impress women."

    "A closet intellectual, he acts dumb to impress women."

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