Opinion Piece

The Process Of Writing About Games, And Swearing At The Screen

Play Write

One of the questions I get asked quite a lot is what is my process? What magical formula do I use for writing or playing games? I love the question because the term “process” is almost whispered, like it’s an arcane ritual not for the common folk, only understandable by those of the writing persuasion. It has a mystery about it.

The truth is I would love to have a process, because I feel like you somehow aren’t a proper writer, regardless of whether its a true story or just a review, unless you have a process, some strange ritual that somehow gets you fired up and ready to writer a masterpiece. I’d love to have a process because I’d feel like a writer. But I don’t. Ain’t no magic here, just me and a controller and a keyboard, and an awful lot of swearing. Seriously, way too much swearing.

So the gist of this piece is I’m going to talk about an average day, about how I run through the PR stuff and what little “process” there is behind what I do. For most of you this will be a crap article unworthy of reading, but for a select few it might just be interesting. Kind of. Maybe.

The first thing I do in my day is to check Emails, a simple but important task. One of the most basic things to do when getting into this sort of work is to get your name out to a variety of publishers, not asking for free games but simply introducing yourself and asking to be placed into their mailing list. Being on the mailing list means getting sent press releases announcing new products and other things, and thus is a handy way of keeping abreast. This is how most sites get their news, which is why you see all the major outlets posting the same stories at the same time with minimal variation. It’s for this reason I don’t tend to post a lot of news here; I’m just repeating what so many other sites have already said, and so I prefer to focus on reviews and opinion pieces because they are unique. The only news I tend to post is that which I find personally interesting or cool. I’ve almost constantly got my Emails open on a tab so that I can keep an eye on what’s coming in, but mostly I check for replies to requests I’ve put in for review codes or product samples. As a small site I don’t just get sent stuff automatically, and so a lot of my time is spent poking and prodding all the various companies into perhaps supply stuff to review. I’ve often seen the idea bandied about that reviewers should buy everything themselves, a lovely concept if a very flawed one. It’s great if you have plenty of money, but sadly most reviewers are paid peanuts. For small sites that either make little or no money buying everything just wouldn’t be feasible. Hell, for a lot of writers the stream of free games is their payment, because they don’t get real money. I could never afford to buy more than one or two big games a month, and definately couldn’t afford to review things like keyboards, mice and headsets as well. I don’t earn money from this except maybe £100 from WordAds about once a year.

I spend so much time as other people, in other places. Sometimes I get to be just me.

I spend so much time as other people, in other places. Sometimes I get to be just me.

So yup, first thing is checking the Emails, and then I head off to another site for journalists to check out any other press releases I may have missed and check in with the game release schedule. If there’s any games coming out in the next month or so I head back to the Emails and start contacting publishers about review code. The relationship with PR reps is always an interesting one. I’m friendly with most of them in the sense that I’ll crack some jokes, ask about their general wellbeing and things like that, but I’m not true friends with any of them, a barrier I conciously maintain. The thing is there’s nothing wrong with actually being friends with these people: it’s their job to deal with the PR side of things, but they are still human, and despite what most people would believe being friends with a PR rep wouldn’t compromise you. Most of them know how to keep business and personal entrirely seperate. It’s common courtesty to send the appropiate PR rep the link to a review of their game you’ve just written, and I’ve head to send in plenty of links to harsh reviews I’ve written, and have yet to have a bad experience. Most of them take it in their stride, accepting that business is business. They remain friendly to me, and me to them, because it makes sense: I need them to provide the review code, and in turn they want me in order to get publicity. It’s a symbiotic relationship, really. Curruption exists, of course, because wherever there are humans there is corruption, but in my own experience it’s not as widespread as many people would like to believe.

When it comes to the games it’s a case of just sitting down and playing. A common question is whether I use a notepad, and the answer is a simple no. I’ve always held to the idea that only things which stick in memory are worth talking about in a review, especially since my articles tend to quite long anyway. If a problem is so unaffecting that I need to stop and jot it down on a piece of paper it’s probably not really worth talking about, likewise if something is good but also requires me to stop and write it down then it’s really isn’t worth touching upon, because it’s impact on the actual experience was so tiny. That’s not to say I don’t use a notepad from time to time, though; sometimes if I’ve got more than one or two games to review at once I’ll break out the old pen and paper so I can keep track of everything, including total playtime for each. With multiple games I try to break up my time with each evenly, but for obvious reasons some games just plain need more, like Skyrim or even Far Cry 4. Huge open-world games tend to be the hardest, because with them comes the very real problem of deciding when you should stop playing. It’s easy to do everything in the latest Call of Duty, but to complete everything in Far Cry would just take too long.

The hardest aspect of it all is simply keeping your concentration. People tend to think getting to sit and play games all the time would be awesome, and it actually is, but it can also be really tiring, and has a horrible habit of sapping your passion for the medium. In a busy period I could end up playing five games at the same time, spending my entire day staring at a screen, stopping only to grab a drink and some food. Imagine doing that for days on end? Doesn’t sound bad, right? As gamers I’m sure more than one of you has done this from time to time, but that’s the key difference; you do it from time to time, whereas a reviewer does it all the time. There have been days when I simply don’t want to see another game. I relish gaps now, and sometime struggle to play videogames in my free time because I play them in my work time. It’s worse if you end up playing several run of the mill games at the same time, too. It’s easy to write about brilliant games or crap games because both of those things make you passionate, but average, generic games simply don’t have that same spark. They are a nightmare to talk about.

Escapism? Entertainment? Art? Diversion? Games.

Escapism? Entertainment? Art? Diversion?

These days I’ve learned to appreciate the time I get between review copies. I’ll trawl the Internet for reviews, previews and opinion pieces in order to try to hone my own craft, but I’ll always use the time to take a break from playing games, with the occasional exception, such as Dragon Age: Inquisition, which I’m slowly eeking out. I spend the time on my other hobbies, like movies, comics and drumming. That time from videogames is important because I never want to lose my passion.

Writing is simple as well, I just sit down and get cracking. The best days are those where the words just flow unbidden, and the worst is where I struggle to find the right combination of letters leading to horrible, clumsy sentences. There never seems to be much ryhme or reason, and writer’s block occasionally hits. It’s a misnomer, though; it’s hardly just people who write that get the ‘ol block. Everyone gets it sometimes. Some day a task or activity you’re good at suddenly seems hard, leaving you stumbling or fumbling or mumbling, and then a day later everything is fine again. I can’t find any real treatment for block except to try to power through it. Writing random short stories and other nonsense can help, as does just keeping up constant writing as taking large breaks can often lead to block. Sometimes the only thing to do is give up for a bit, and come back to it later.

The order in which I write varies. Sometimes when playing a game sentences and paragraph’s will float into my mind and so once I turn off the game I’ll often fire up my computer and jot down my thoughts, despite having perhaps only played a few hours of the game. These sentences may get edited later, but they usually remain in the complete review. After that I may not write another word for a couple of days.  In some instances I write the entirety of the review in one or two sittings after having finished the game, and other times I’ll write it in numerous sessions throughout playing the game, often jumping from topic to topic as ideas enter my head. IN some ways I find reviews trickier to write than straight opinion pieces because as an author I’m not attempting to say anything other than when a given title is good or bad. An opinion piece is just me forcing my will on the world, and a review is far more subtle than that in many ways.

When it comes to writing reviews I’d taken to heart a theory put forward by one of my bigger influences Adam Sessler. I’m paraphrasing here but he bases his reviews on the idea of not simply saying something is good or bad, but attempting to find out why it works or doesn’t work, thus bringing a more analytical approach. This melds nicely with my own theory that each review or opinion piece should be trying to say something. This has raised questions from people who understand what I mean in the context of an opinion piece by having something to say, but ask how such a thing could work in a review since all you’re really saying in those is whether something is good or bad or okay. It’s actually pretty simple; rather than just saying that the narrative is good I look for why it’s good, and in finding that I find what I want to say. Unlike an opinion piece, though, which is geared toward saying one thing, a review is broken into smaller things to say. I try not to just say the combat is good, I try to pinpoint the reason that combat and thus my goal becomes to say that the combat works because of how it makes the player feel powerful, or how it makes them feel vulnerable. And then my goal becomes to say how it makes you feel vulnerable or powerful. And then my goal becomes to explain why feeling powerful or vulnerable is good for the game. It’s my job in a review to justify my praise and my criticism. It isn’t my job to make the reader agree or disagree with my work, but simply to make them understand it, and if I feel like I’ve failed in that endevour then it’s almost physically painful.

If we’re going to talk influences, another fancy thing that writers are supposed to have, then in terms of reviewing one more springs to mind: the dry, calm voice of TotalBiscuit, whose analysis I have enjoyed for many years regardless of whether I always agree with his opinions. A more general influence is that of Jim Sterling, whose reviews I’m not overly fussed with but whose JimQuisition show has taught me much about the industry and how to question it. The pattern among all three is that they tend to delve as deeply into the undstry as they can. They don’t just want to tell people whether something is worth buying, they want to figure out exactly what makes a videogame good or bad, to understand and advance the medium.

titanfall_screen_6

Outside of review work the biggest written influence within my life is the legendary Terry Pratchett, whose dark sarcasm has fed and shaped my own sense of humour since I was but a wee and probably baffled lad. In a way it’s strange because in real life I’m quite sarcastic with a dark sense of humour. Some might even call me slightly warped, and snarky. Yet these elements don’t come into my review work, perhaps because I’ve never found a method of incorporating my real life humour into the medium. My brand of weirdness comes out more when I’m just writing short stories, a good way of just keeping my hand in. Zeus knows I need the practice. In short stories, despite the use of the word “short”, I have room to bring out my humour, whereas my reviews are already probably too damn long for most people without adding in entire sentences. Lengthening them would probably force what readership I do have to abandon ship.

Once the actual review is written the next step is just to run a spell-check and then read through it. Sometimes I rewrite a lot of stuff, but I try not too, tending to just add or remove a few words here or there to make it flow a little more. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a terrible editor, and often fail to notice my own mistakes. Once that’s done the last stage is adding in the pictures. If its a PC game I’m reviewing then I tend to use my own screenshots taken via Steam or Origin or whatever platform the title demands, but for console games I simply have to accept the publishers own assets. Speaking of assets I have a folder on my computer currently titled “Assets” and its a library of screenshots from loads of games. It weighs in at around 8GB at the moment. Once a review is published to my website the next step is to send the link off to the appropriate PR rep, a common courtesy so that they can keep accurate track of coverage for their bosses. It’s worth saying that I’ve rarely had a negative experience when sending a link to a review where I’ve trashed a game, and I’ve definitely had to send a few of them. Remember Guise of the Wolf? I fully expected the publisher to never speak to me again, but they calmly accepted it in their stride. Generally speaking PR reps are professionals and understand what their job entails. They don’t get angry when a title gets a bad review, and understand that there’s no reason to blacklist you. For those that don’t know being blacklisted essentially means that the company won’t send you review code or even speak to you, and yes it does happen. I’ve been blacklisted a few times due to my…eh, outspoken attitude. Indie developers can be a bit trickier because quiet often the guy that handles PR earns little and is there because he believes in the project, or actually works directly on the game. In some cases the guy handling PR is also the lead designer or something along those lines, and so a bad review can hit hard, but again they are usually quite accepting. On occasion I’ve had to sit and speak to them for a while to justify my criticism, and they tend to get it. Hats off to you guys.

Once the review is romping through the wild lands of the Internet it’s just a case of sitting here and trying to stay calm. I still get nervous and excited when I publish a review, because I have the fear that I didn’t get my point across adequately. I’m not interested in impressing the now seemingly typical morons who patrol Youtube and refuse to accept the concept of differing opinions, I want to impress the people with open minds, those who read and parse the text. The reason I want to impress them is because I’m not good enough to impress them. I’m not a great writer and make no allusions to being one, thus it’s my goal to impress those people, the people who think reviews through and absorb and consider every point made. If I can do that then I’ve made real progress toward becoming a true critic. It’s important to remain a gamer, though, and never forget it.

Pure skill with words is nice and all, but even that takes a backseat to the simply concept I have on the banner of this very website: honesty. I always aim to be honest in how I feel about a game. I don’t care about other reviewers say or what the people on the forums say, this is what I think about the game. I make no allusions to being objective or any of that tosh because you can’t be objective when talking about a medium like videogames, or movies or books or music. Everything I write is about how I feel, and I try to be as honest as I can about that. I don’t believe that any critic should mince words or overcomplicat the language of a review merely to appear smarter or soften something – be honest, be straightforward, be truthful. That’s the goal. To be eloquent doesn’t always mean having a vast knowledge of the English language and feeling the need to use it. Indeed, Adam Sessler, as much as I loved his reviews, was guilty of often muddling his work, the language becoming overly convoluted and thus losing its flow. In a world of political correctness gone insane, and the strange need to skirt around problems using language normally associated with public relations, I just want to tell you about a game in a straightforward, honest way, because games are straightforward. They evoke emotions, and while emotions can be complex they can also be simple to talk about. Let’s just talk about games, and why they are awesome. Screw the politics and the need to please companies and bosses and editors and the carefully constructed wording used to dodge around things, just write about the sodding games. That’s it. Simple.

So there we have it; no magical process involving blood rituals and arcane tomes, just a lot of me playing games until my brain starts to run from my ears and plenty of swearing at the computer screen because those illusive words just won’t come when called. It’s like writing a book, but considerably less respectable. It’s just me, sitting here, trying to be a little, tiny bit better everyday.

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