How I Write Reviews

It just occurred to me that I never explained how I put together reviews.

If you talk to Jennifer, she’d probably tell you that I’d say something like:

“I ask my wife a lot of questions. Mostly when she is doing homework, reading, or playing video games herself.”

But no, I actually do things a certain way, and for good reason.

It’s been over a year since I sat down and wrote my first game review on here, for Halo 5: Guardians, and my first few reviews were kinda rough. Over time however, I found my groove and began to write the excellent, media-worthy pieces you enjoy today. It wasn’t until I read a piece over on TerminallyNerdy about becoming a reviewer though, that made me realize an important concept: people want to know how reviewers come up with their content.

Almost every major gaming outlet does this, though usually it’s limited to a summary of review scores and what they mean. Here, I’d like to go into a little more detail, and explain the process that I use.

Yes, It’s A Process

I’m not what people would consider to be a planner, so it may come as a shock to hear that I have a structure for every review I write.

A review begins (obviously) with a game that I buy (because I don’t get review copies…), and I usually know well in advance that I’m going to review it, though there are exceptions. I don’t venture into reviewing games that are outside my area of interest, which is why I don’t delve into sports or JRPGs for review. My reasoning with that is I feel like I wouldn’t give games from a genre that doesn’t interest a fair shake, that my review would be skewed. This is why you won’t see a review of games like Nier: Automata or Persona 5 on Falcon Game Reviews.

Once I have a game for review, I do the obvious. I sit down and play it. The content of my reviews come from my experience with the game, as I’m experiencing it (or sometimes observations from Jennifer). My phone and tablet are filled with notes from various games I’ve reviewed, and they’re notes that I’ve taken at the moment that the thought entered my mind. The reason I chose to adopt this method is because I don’t want to over-analyze each point I make or forget something important that I experienced.

Mass Effect 3 Review Notes
Yeah, I use a Windows Phone.

You’ve probably also realized that I separate my reviews into five sections, and a summary:

The Gameplay section of each review outlines different gameplay elements:

  • Playability – How simple it is to get a handle of the game?
  • Controls – Are they accessible? Responsive? Intuitive?
  • Interactivity – Subjects like: Are there dialogue choices? How well do the cover mechanics work?

Presentation covers three subjects primarily:

  • Graphics – How does the game look?
  • Audio – Quality of sound design and music
  • Bugs and glitches – This one is fairly self-explanatory, right?

Originality is a bit more of a subjective category, which covers how well the game stands out from the crowd. Is it derivative? Does it add new concepts? Is it just another sequel with a new coat of paint?

Story and Multiplayer covers the meat of the game, in my opinion. Story covers the storytelling aspects, like the writing, dialogue, and characters. Multiplayer is about how complete the experience is. Does the multiplayer feel tacked on? Is the service reliable? Is there decent variety? Granted, I don’t cover multiplayer games much, but it’s something that I’m trying to be better about it.

Finally, there’s the Wildcard. This category is for something that I feel deserves to be called out specifically. Whether it’s Aloy from my Horizon: Zero Dawn review or Time Eggs in my Quantum Break review, these Wildcards are unique aspects of a game that need to be examined more closely and in more detail, or simply cannot be put into another category.

Scores

You may have noticed that there are no scores on the reviews I write, and there’s a reason for that. It isn’t that I have something against scoring games, or those that choose to do so, just that I feel like scores do a poor job of summarizing the value of a game.

Boiling down an entire review into a metric doesn’t do the game justice. For instance, if I were to score a game like Just Cause 3 based off of some scoring system, it probably wouldn’t do very well. Just Cause 3 is a game marred by technical issues and lazy game design, but there’s an X-Factor to the game that I just can’t shake. I loved almost every moment I had with it, and to score it well would downplay the issues I had with it; just as scoring it poorly would mean that I’d be lying about how much fun I had.

This is the dilemma I have, and it’s compounded by the way scoring systems are viewed in the gaming community. If I were to score a game as average, I would put it at a 50%. However, in the gaming media world, 50% is a garbage game, since apparently we’re grading games based off of the way American schools grade their students’ performance. I’m not interested in coming across as a hater, shill, contrarian, or click-baiter either; and many of my reviews would come across that way had I taken the time to try and add a metric to them.

Lastly, I want people to read my reviews, not just look for the score I gave. I’m guilty of this myself, having done so in reviews from professional websites when I felt particularly irked by the press a game has been receiving (in my more hot-headed days).I don’t want to invite this kind of behavior however. I want my reviews to invite discussion and for those reading to take the time to hear what I have to say, instead of jumping to conclusions about a score.

What do you think about my methods? Is there anything that you think could be improved? Feedback is more than appreciated, it’s welcome here.

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17 thoughts on “How I Write Reviews

  1. I very much agree with your standpoint on scores. I find it too hard to find a number to accurately represent the culmination of my thoughts (and that’s coming from a mathematician!) so I choose not to. It’s always nice to see how others write reviews though!
    Additional: I used to use windows phones, the the App Store for it is the mobile version of Mos Eisley.

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  2. I always enjoy your reviews, they tend to have a balanced mixture of an analytical perspective combined with free writing. The only thing about them is that they take a bit to get through since they’re pretty lengthy! Keep up the good work!

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  3. Scores seem to be going the way of the dinosaur. I’ve been in a few discussions about them around WP recently and why people have been eschewing them. I still utilize a scoring system, but I usually write why I give the score I did, and it can be a quick way to see if a game is interesting to you (if you trust the reviewer). There’s also the quantitative effect: if you see a bunch of different people have given a game a similar score, you have some kind of idea, but I can’t say I disagree with reviewers who cut them out entirely.

    I don’t recall if it was you I was talking to about how I don’t like to rate games of genres I don’t typically play. I was talking with someone about it on my fLOw review, and I’m TERRIBLE at remembering things like this, but I agree wholeheartedly. I’m not a fan of first person shooters or shoot em ups, so I’m not going to review a game such as that, since it’s not my thing. Just because it’s not my preference doesn’t mean it’s not something of value. I respect reviewers who realize that, and I wish more did in all media types.

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  4. It’s interesting to hear about how you approach a review. I’ve always wondered how others do it. I don’t feel like I’m very good at writing reviews, although I somehow compile a lot of my opinions into something readable when I can haha. I do take notes similar to yours! And I like how you organize into categories. I agree with you about scoring. I’ve tried scoring games but it’s like you have to compare it to other games you’ve scored then, and they all do things differently… which makes it hard to compare them. It’s funny how many people here agree that scores don’t do justice to the games!

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  5. Very good write up, a lot of good tips in here. Being new to this I’m trying to find a way to steam line reviews because right now it’s a bit of a free for all.

    One thing I’ve started doing as you mention is taking notes as I play. I did this with Zelda BOTW first and treated it almost like a diary after each play session and cited what I continued to like, I hate or new things and my opinion of them. Makes it much easier to go back and write the review when the time comes instead of recollecting everything from memory.

    The next thing I’m trying to do is add sections like you said, one about presentation, gameplay etc, just don’t know the order of it yet but I try to keep those points together, and once I’m done talking about graphics for example I do want to move on from that.

    The thing I’m really struggling with is giving a score for a review or not. I see some value to it, but like you said it’s a double edged sword, 50% rating to me means one thing but to someone else it’s another thing. Hell, I’ve seen 70% review get some heat. I won’t lie and at some point in my life I probably treated a 70% rating for something I dearly loved as an insult, but I’ve grown a long way since then.

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  6. It’s interesting, I’ve seen multiple game bloggers discussing their review methods lately. Maybe I should write a post about mine…
    I really like the notetaking idea during games. I never really thought to do that (as I am crazy disorganized and fly by the seat of my pants in pretty much all aspects of life) but I can see how it would be beneficial to the review process. I used to put fake scores in my reviews a la Whose Line is it Anyway, but decided to forsake that approach and use more traditional scoring to make them more “professional.” As The Shameful Narcissist mentioned above, quite a few bloggers who have addressed this topic recently seem to dislike having scoring systems, though, so it seems like you’ve got the right of it.

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  7. Even though a lot of people don’t like them, review scores are still popular with a certain majority who simply want a quick and easy way to read a review. However, it’s also this same group of people who sometimes take the scores way too seriously and end up going nuts at reviewers.

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  8. Nice tips! I usually take notes while playing, as well, and tend to not like numerical reviews, so I’m right there with you. I like the way you write your reviews, but I also don’t mind sitting and reading in-dept descriptions of games, which is know is just a personal taste of mine. So, all good from my perspective!

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  9. I argued for years to move away from numerical values and to a base star value (whole stars, no halves). I feel it allows for a better tie to the review than numerical values which always end up being related to American education grading. But I also fully understand the desire for no scores as it truly forces the reader to get the whole picture from the review.

    I would say that reviewing games outside your comfort zone allows for wider growth as a writer. Yes, you may come at the game differently, and possibly with an unfair bias, but if your readers have gotten a feel for you, you should be able to convey information to them even if you don’t like it. That said, when paying for your own games, as most of us do, spending money on a game outside your comfort zone just to review it isn’t necessarily a good decision. But if you get a chance, I’d say give it a shot.

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    1. Weirdly I didn’t really touch on how I review games, which maybe you aren’t interested in, but now that I’m typing again I might as well deliver.

      Having reviewed games for various sites over the last decade, my writing style has evolved quite a bit. When I started I broke things out very deliberately because that was the format the site wanted. I’m not much for breaking down technical measurements anymore and instead combine them in to my conversation about the experience I’ve had. Similar to how you describe your experience with JC3 and how scoring it would trouble you, I want people that read my reviews to know where I fall on the game and not lock in to tightly on technical issues vs. the experience. To me if one takes away from the other than I need to call it out but if it doesn’t than it just isn’t important, for me. And at the end of the day, my review is just that, an opinionated chronicle of my experience with a game.

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      1. I like the style you mentioned honestly, and I already feel like I need to explain why I chose to break things down the way I did. I’ve noticed that most review sites and blogs tend to take a less structured approach as well, and I understand why. Same with review scores as well. It’s a different method is all. Not like it’s wrong or anything.

        I do try to edge out of my comfort zone a little with games, which is why I’ve grown so much as a game over the years. It’s how I fell in love with the Forza series, Uncharted, Mass Effect, and other games. I’m not closed off to other genres, just not willing to sink money into something I might not like is all. Kinda like you mentioned.

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  10. You have a really solid approach to your reviews – I think I could do with that kind of discipline at times. I take notes but still tend to get sidetracked in my writing. 🙂

    Previously I had done a handful of score based reviews for another site and in one case I was given a game that no one else wanted as early reviews were quite negative. In the end I gave it a low score but it seemed people were more interested in that being consistent with other sites than whether or not I enjoyed it.

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    1. I can see that being an issue, as I’ve noticed if scores vary too greatly from the mode of scores, people start getting testy. I’m certainly not afraid to be harsh on games. I mean, it’s not like publishers can stop giving me review copies they already refuse to give me, and I don’t make money off of this, so clickbaiting is a pointless endeavor. I really have nothing to lose by being honest about my reviews.

      As for structure, I think it just matters mostly that people can make sense of what you wrote. If it works for you to write a certain way, I say just go with it.

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  11. Thanks for sharing! I like the metadiscussion. I also try to stay somewhat away from games that are outside my interest, though I do venture out occasionally if I feel comfortable tackling a certain title outside my wheelhouse. I like your wildcard section because I do feel there’s that special something that doesn’t always fall into a category that just needs to be brought up to make the review fall into place. As for your last topic, I think scores should be able to summarize one’s thoughts on the game. It’s just that a lot of people idolize them to the point that they only obsess about that and where it falls into their idea of what’s good or bad. So I get your dilemma about how you would score something 50% as average whereas the internet would literally melt down. Either way, I think the ones who you spark true discussion in are the ones whom you’re lucky to have. 🙂

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  12. Interesting to see how other people approach games to review. I think you can’t beat playing the game and giving out honest thoughts. I also think that sticking to games inside your comfort zone and interest is a wise idea. Nice post.

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