This is a strange gig. I spend more time thinking about, writing about, and reading comments on videogames than I spend playing videogames. A lot of this job involves arguing. Not the nasty stressful kind of arguing. I mean just general disagreement and confusion. “Oh I can’t believe you like this / how can you not love this” kind of disagreement.
As you work to be understood, you’ll naturally be drawn towards writing longer and longer criticism. I think of it as the Joseph Anderson effect. You might only have 800 words of criticism on a subject, but if you’re trying to avoid arguments then it’ll take you another 12,000 words to support your thesis and harden it against predictable dismissals.
When you’re a new critic, it begins with a simple naive statement of opinion:
“I didn’t like Shoot Guy III.”
But that’s not very interesting. Your review is short and there’s very little for anyone to think about. The whole thing reads like a list of likes and dislikes: I like the shooting, I didn’t like the wacky fast-talking animal sidekick, I thought the zeppelin chase was cool, I thought the ending was dumb.
So then a reader will ask why you didn’t like those things. And yeah, that’s a fair question. So in the future when you write your reviews you spend a little more time describing where the game fell short.
“I didn’t like Shoot Guy III. The animal sidekick was grating and he even managed to ruin the fun parts of the game (the shooting) with his constant chatter and childish bathroom humor.”
Here we have what I consider to be the minimum viable review. This is the basic framework needed to inform the reader and (if you’re foolish / unfortunate enough to assign them) give a final review score.
But then people want to get into specifics. A reader will ask why you didn’t like the animal sidekick. After all, they thought he was hilarious. Maybe they look back through your archives and find another game you reviewed that had an animal sidekick, and you liked that one. Maybe they’ll accuse you of being “biased”, or simply inconsistent.
And okay, if a critic dislikes something you don’t then it’s nice to know why. Sometimes readers are trying to play a game of “gotcha” to invalidate or dismiss your opinion, but sometimes they just want to understand where you’re coming from. Sometimes they’re just trying to figure out if your criticism is relevant to their purchasing decisions.
So in the future when you write your reviews you spend a little more time describing what you wanted / expected and why the game didn’t give you that.
“Shoot Guy III doesn’t work for me. Rocko the foul-mouthed fox might be funny in another context, but in a game that opens with the protagonist’s (now third) wife being killed by the mob, his jokes come off as incredibly obnoxious and unwelcome. In particular, the jokes where Rocko keeps asking our hero to take him to the ‘titty bar’ manage to break the conceit of the character (isn’t he supposed to be a hyper-intelligent fox? So why is he attracted to big-breasted human females?) while clashing with the self-serious tone.”
And this is where things start to get crazy. Because now people will accuse you of “cherry picking” and “looking for something to complain about”. After all, Rocko only mentioned the titty bar twice. How can two little throwaway jokes ruin a six-hour game?
So then you need to bolster your case by demonstrating that your examples aren’t just aberrant moments selected to support a false thesis, but are actually representative of the whole.
“Shoot Guy III doesn’t work for me. Over the next few chapters I’m going to exhaustively list the failure points in the story and compare them to other games in the same genre / franchise to show that these are fair and reasonable complaints.”
We’re well past the point where this review is functional as consumer advice. But we’re not quite done yet. Now someone will show up and demand to know why you spend so much time yammering about the STORY in a video GAME. (Or if you like the gameplay and not the story then they come at you from the other direction and tell you to go back to playing DOOM if you’re too dim to appreciate a brilliant story like this one.)
This might be annoying, but in principle this isn’t an unreasonable demand. If you’re going to review a game then why not review it in a holistic sense, rather than focusing on just the bad parts? Which brings us to the final level of long-windedness:
“Shoot Guy III is [thesis statement]. I’m going to spend [number of chapters] talking about the gameplay before [several more chapters] talking about the story. I’ll also spend some time describing what game modes I played, what difficulty modes I tried, what control schemes I favored, what platform I played on, and my level of familiarity with the rest of the games in this genre / franchise. I’ll describe the gameplay so you know that I actually played the thing. Then I’ll relate the events of the story for context and point out the moments of thematic / symbolic importance so you can see I was paying attention and understood what the author was trying to do. Then I’ll explain why it didn’t work. Throughout all of this I’ll sprinkle in good parts and praise so you can see I’m being fair and willing to give the game credit where it’s due, and not just doing the ‘outrage as performance art’ schtick that other people are known for.”
And then after all that work there’s always that one guy:
So that’s how this site evolved from dashed-off essays to these gargantuan retrospectives. It might sound like I’m complaining, but I actually find this process deeply satisfying. Looking back through the archives, these long-form, multi-part analysis series are the bits I’m most proud of. Sure, it’s annoying when people dismiss a 5,000 word article because they found a flaw or oversight somewhere in the middle, but the actual process of making this stuff is really rewarding. The cycle of playing, reflecting, replaying, building a thesis, and ultimately sharing it is the best part of this jobAlthough sometimes the actual writing of the words can get me down. The grunt work of rewrites, proofing, editing, and formatting isn’t my favorite way to spend time..
Somewhat ironically, this article describing why my writing is so long is probably one of the shortest columns I’ve written in years. So there’s that.
 Although sometimes the actual writing of the words can get me down. The grunt work of rewrites, proofing, editing, and formatting isn’t my favorite way to spend time.
Who Broke the In-Game Economy?
Why are RPG economies so bad? Why are shopkeepers so mercenary, why are the prices so crazy, and why do you always end up a gazillionaire by the end of the game? Can't we just have a sensible balanced economy?
Shamus Plays WOW
Ever wondered what's in all those quest boxes you've never bothered to read? Get ready: They're more insane than you might expect.
The Gradient of Plot Holes
Most stories have plot holes. The failure isn't that they exist, it's when you notice them while immersed in the story.
Final Fantasy X
A game about the ghost of an underwater football player who travels through time to save the world from a tick that controls kaiju satan. Really.
The game was a dud, and I'm convinced a big part of that is due to the way the game leaned into its story. Its terrible, cringe-inducing story.