In response to the controversy surrounding IGN's Dead Cells review, writer Gabriel Cavalcanti has crafted his own guide to reviews writing below.
Unless you've been living under a rock, you must be aware of the controversy surrounding IGN and its previous review of the highly-regarded Dead Cells. If not, here's the rundown: On the same day the review was published, the writer (former Nintendo editor for IGN Filip Miucin) was accused of plagiarism by Boomstick Gaming, a small YouTube channel which published its own review of the game a week prior to IGN's. Following the website's investigation, the editor was fired and IGN started work on a new review. Long story short, no matter how you look at it or how he attempts to defend his actions, Miucin copied someone else's work and did what I'm sure many kids have done in school: change a few words and hope the teacher hasn't read the Wikipedia page on the topic.
As someone who's been analytically studying video games and the industry for years—albeit not in a professional or academical capacity—seeing Miucin's defense on his apology video (unavailable as of Saturday, August 11) slightly concerned me. In his own words, his "review process isn't really that different from other reviewers [...] in the games media industry and the formula stays the same for whatever product I'm reviewing." He then goes on to explain that part of his process involves researching as much as possible, which includes looking at "all resources [...] available to me before I start formulating my own critical opinion." In other words, it seems Miucin relied on the opinions of others to formulate his own, which isn't plagiarism in and of itself but when we have a look at his content, it turns out he didn't seem to have any opinions of his own.
While he's being heavily criticized for the incident and people aren't giving him the benefit of the doubt with his response video, I don't doubt that other critics and journalists have a similar trail of thought where research means playing the game and looking at what others have to say about the product. With that in mind, I've decided to write a basic guide on how to write a proper review while maintaining your opinions and integrity intact. "But Gabriel, who even are you, and you're writing for a small website," which is a fair point to make. But it doesn't take a fancy title and a privileged position at a big outlet for one to understand how opinions should be transmitted.
First thing's first, be the realest
To start off, I think it's important to further discuss a point Miucin makes. He explains that part of his process is researching resources available, which can be easily read as "looking at press kits" or "seeing what others think." There's nothing inherently wrong with using press kits or the reviews of others as a starting point. If you're not so sure about how strong your own ideas are, looking at what the developers or other critics have to say might be a good way to assess whether you're on the right track. Also, if you're having trouble understanding something about the game you're reviewing, it's completely fine to look up points made by others as a way to be better informed. For instance, maybe you've been tasked with giving your thoughts on a game you're not too familiar with, or perhaps it features a mechanic that everyone hypes about but you have a hard time wrapping your head around. In that case, researching other sources is a perfectly valid way to inform yourself.
What's not valid is flat out copying what others say, adding a few words of your own, and saying your opinion is similar to someone else's, maybe because you're both addressing the same product. Yes, similar points are very common when looking at reviews of the same product but that doesn't mean every line and even the review's structure being the same can be excused.
We will talk about the problem with objectivity in reviews in a moment, but first let's have a look at the basic steps anyone should take when reviewing a game (or anything, really).
- Play the game. This one is a given. If you haven't played the game, you can't have an opinion on it. Sure, you could see what others have to say, watch gameplay, and conclude something from that, but that's not called a review—at best, that can be called a "first impression."
- Take notes, regardless of how. If you're comfortable playing through a game and keeping your opinions in your head, that's fine. But if you like to actually take notes, don't refrain from writing down everything you think might be important, no matter how small a point it may seem.
- Research the game's history, whether that means the developers' history, the genre's, or even the franchise's, when applicable. If you already have an understanding of any historical points you want to make, double-checking and crediting your source will only help make your case stronger.
Each outlet and critic has their own specific demands and ethical checkboxes, but in general, these three steps should be part of any reviewing process. If you're skipping even one, your credibility might be brought to question. As an example, below are my preliminary thoughts on Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet, which I've been playing lately.
"Heavily reminiscent of Phantasy Star Online in its overall presentation, Fatal Bullet excels in delivering engaging gameplay mechanics as well as a world filled with potential. Unfortunately, its poorly developed story and characters hold it back from being great due to how much time the game spends on redundant and long-winded conversations void of progression or character development. Additionally, some design choices essential to the gameplay's fluidity fall flat and, perhaps the game's biggest villain, the partner NPC AI is utterly incompetent."
While aligning with what other critics have to say about the latest Sword Art Online, these are my own words based on my time playing the game, the mental notes I made regarding its pros and cons, and my personal history with loot-based RPGs such as Phantasy Star Online—though that part is barely present here. It is true that in many cases, researching the history of a game or any aspects attached to it aren't strictly necessary. Someone can review Fatal Bullet without having played the previous games in the SAO series, or without having watched the anime, or even read the novels and mangas. However, if there's a point you want to make regarding the genre or whether a game borrows elements from other titles, make sure you know what you're talking about.
In contrast, someone who skipped all of those steps could simply state that Fatal Bullet has a unique presentation the likes of which they have never seen in gaming, tight systems that make gameplay fully enjoyable, and an interesting story filled with character development. Such a critic could just be ignorant, inexperienced with gaming as a whole, or too lazy to bother reviewing as they should. Of course, none of this applies to reviews written by regular players, who just want to share their subjective thoughts which serve as feedback to the developers and potential buyers. Steam reviews are a completely different topic with its own problems, so let's leave that for another time.
Are reviews opinions?
Speaking of subjectivity, a topic I see brought up often is whether reviews should have the writer's opinion at all. Most editors will encourage writers to be as objective as possible, avoiding any hint at subjectivity or making a clear note that that's your opinion. Everyone has different thoughts on how reviews should be handled, so allow me to elaborate on mine.
First of all, I believe reviews are always subjective. Fundamentally, they're an opinion piece on a product from the point of view of the person who experienced it first-hand with the intention of writing about it. Although this person represents the company they're writing for, the reviewer's thoughts are their own, and it's up to an editor to decide whether those thoughts are relevant or not. Independent critics and smaller outlets have more freedom when it comes to a person's thoughts. For instance, the YouTuber known as YongYea reports on gaming news and shortly after gives his input on the matter, making clear that those are "one man's thoughts and opinions." Similarly, the hosts of The Know (gaming news channel affiliated with Rooster Teeth) report on news professionally and often chime in with their opinions when possible, letting their personalities shine through in the process. Their reviews consist of subjective conversations between hosts and their experiences with the game in question, at times looking back at a franchise's or genre's history whilst providing some impartial facts.
We're not robots. We can't ask anything but objectivity from people regardless of our position as readers or writers. As important as it is to provide information instead of alienating the public, it's just as important for us as writers to make sure our thoughts and personalities come through our writing. If readers aren't seeking a different point of view and a more personal approach to reviews, then why are independent critics so popular?
"So you're saying people should be biased," you must be thinking. To that, I say no. It's one thing to impart your experience while informing readers of what they should expect. It's something else to dedicate your work to saying how bad or good something is without giving much context or presenting unilateral points.
I didn't finish the game! Now what?!
This is what I first thought Filip Miucin asked himself as the deadline for his Dead Cells review approached. Maybe he didn't play the game for a number of different reasons, but he couldn't just say "sorry, I'll have to do it later" when he was given a date to finish his work that he was being paid for. Now, I'm having a harder time believing that, but I think this is a good opportunity to address the problem.
If you're a regular here at GameLuster, you probably know we do impressions pieces which at times serve as introductions to our reviews. A while ago, Jorge Van de Sompel wrote his thoughts on how first impressions and reviews are one and the same and I'd like to expand on that a bit.
First of all, I agree that first impressions and reviews are the same. As Jorge points out, "instead of using vague terminology like 'first impression,' we should just call a spade a spade, a review a review." I believe that having an opinion on a game you started but didn't finish is valid, even when major outlets strongly disagree. However, as Jorge mentions while elaborating on his point, that doesn't mean "[playing] for five minutes, and [having] a review ready."
While it's important for writers to meet the requirements set by their superiors, it's also important for readers to understand where writers come from, where they're going with their reviews, and whether their content caters to them. In summary, writers should do what is asked of them if they agreed to it in the first place and readers shouldn't demand more than that as if they were paying the writer's bills. I've even seen readers demand complete objectivity from critics who were known for their subjective yet informative opinions.
That said, when exactly a game begins and when it ends is a delicate subject. For instance, the aforementioned Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet takes hours to actually start. At first, you're being introduced to the game's basics and its extensive character roster. It takes quite a while until you're pointed to the field so that you can experience combat and even when that's introduced, the story keeps pulling you back to its insufferable cutscenes. After you have more freedom to come and go, the game had already established that its story is nothing but fan service (which is fine if you're into that) and you essentially get to experience most of its gameplay within the first 10 hours (long-winded introduction included). By the time you've reached the Solitary Sands, you've seen everything the game has to offer, and as long as you have a strong grasp of those mechanics, you should be qualified to review it. The story doesn't get particularly better and it takes more than 50 hours to get anywhere remotely interesting, so simply saying the narrative relies on non-existent character development is more than enough to inform readers. That's enough information regardless of their personal tastes.
In the case of open-ended games such as Death Road to Canada, No Man's Sky, or a number of MMORPGs, what does "finish the game" even mean? While titles such as The Division and Destiny (a mix of single-player narrative with online progression) have stories to tell and No Man's Sky itself features quest chains with an involved narrative, those games are supposed to end when the player thinks is appropriate—even if that means stopping entirely before reaching endgame, where many would say is where open-ended titles begin.
Reviewing a game before finishing it, regardless of what that entails, should be a statement as to what the game has to offer. If anyone asked me my opinion on Star Ocean: The Last Hope, I would provide the information I gathered in my 30 plus hours with it and state that the story takes such as strange turn, I couldn't be bothered to keep going. The section taking place on Earth is such a drastic change in pace and tone and everything that follows feels so disconnected that pushing myself to finish it has been physically painful, which is why I only have 33 hours of playtime since it came out in November 2017. That might not be a valid stance to a lot of readers, in which case there are many other outlets for you to connect with. However, depending on how much a reader's and a writer's opinions intersect in other regards, this much information might be enough for them to decide if The Last Hope is worth their time and money.
Just don't plagiarize, alright?
No matter what you're doing creatively, don't steal someone else's work and call it your own. Copying what someone else said and changing a few words to make it seem different is stealing content no matter how you see it. Using someone else's work as inspiration or perhaps even quoting them, on the other hand, is not so long as your own piece isn't entirely made up of quotes. There are cases in journalism where quotes matter the most but we're talking about reviews here, so let's not get lost in adjacent topics.
To tie it all up, whether you're a professional and seasoned critic or if you're just starting to build a name for yourself, remember to always listen to the demands of your superiors, discuss your own ideas for what you can and want to do, and, most importantly, use your own words and experience to convey information. Play the game, do your research, be subjective but informative at the same time, and if you think you don't need to finish a game in order to review it, discuss it with your editor to see if you can come to an agreement in case you are demanded to finish it. Dialogue goes a long way, so don't be afraid to voice your opinions and ideas when possible. Just remember to be reasonable and respectful if you expect that in return.