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The art of reviewing: Opinion
Posted on Monday, December 3 2007 @ 11:28:36 PST

So, the third installment of my silly little series. And this time, we're going to touch upon something that will get the gamer blood boiling: opinion.

This is probably one of the major sources of conflict between gamers, though frankly it shouldn't be. I mean, the first thing to do is to lay off your ego. Seriously. Nobody's going to agree with you all the time, so it's a lost cause. I'm not saying I'm immune from it, because I'm not. I'm constantly struggling with it, but because I am aware of this, I'm also without a doubt the harshest critic when it comes to the reviews I write here (probably because hardly anyone else does). I constantly go back to previous reviews and edit them, sometimes to the point of completely rewriting them. And the only one who bothered to tell me what was wrong with the review was me.

But, let's forget ego for now, and focus on the whole point of writing an opinion. And the main rule is: An opinion is only as valid as the backing up of facts that leads to the forming of that opinion.

I'm talking in terms of communicating opinions now. Your internal opinion of game X is of course 100% valid for you no matter what, but if you can't express why that is, I'm not listening to you. And if I can't do the same, you shouldn't listen to me either. It goes both ways. Now, communicating your opinions effectively isn't always that easy, so let me show you how one can fail, and how one can succeed in communicating that opinion.

Let me first take you to a review of mine I find to be a complete failure: Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. It's snarky, it's full of opinion, it's maybe even a little funny for some... And it's about as informative as slapping you with a dried squid. Seriously. I did find the game to be a complete bore, and I stand by that, but I cannot honestly say I backed this up with any facts worth a damn here. The only way I described the platform action is slow-mo Mario, and the combat as a messy, slow-mo Zelda. What the hell is that? Why didn't I describe the game on its own terms? Not everyone plays Mario and Zelda, dammit! This is clearly a case where I was so caught up in doing cheap jabs at the whole "monarchy" angle that it completely ruined the review. (to a lesser extent, my recent Metroid Prime 3 review also suffers a bit from this, although I feel that one's not a complete joke.)

Now, let's move forward a bit until we get to my review of Final Fantasy 7. Now, things are rather different here. Take a look in particular how I describe how the plot's progressing for about a disc and a half. The way you're constantly hunting Sephiroth, then when you enter a town/dungeon/whatever, you'll be doing something that may or may not be related to that, and that's definitely not related to what happened in the previous town. I state that the game has a messy storytelling, and I find that while my review is certainly not perfect by far, I've backed up my opinion here by making a decent description of what actually happens throughout much of the game.

Read those two reviews back-to-back. I almost feel like there's two different people writing them.

One of my biggest successes (from a personal perspective) in game reviewing was that I realised that if I were to talk about Soul Calibur 2, there was a limit to the aspects of the game I had played. My opinion of the game simply couldn't be valid for everyone. So, the first thing I did was to make sure people knew which aspects of that game I felt comfortable commentingon. And although I now see that I forgot to talk about for example the controls (I think I must have assumed everyone knew they would be good...), it's still not a bad review. This - to announce that you didn't get to try all aspects of the game - is probably something that would just about never happen in a "professional" review, but maybe it should. Maybe a game that's as different (or more) in single-player and multiplayer as SC2 deserves two separate reviews, instead of being forced to put in both aspects in one review? Just a thought.

Going back to the whole "lay off your ego", it's also important to reckognise that sometimes, there are aspects of the game that you just know won't please everyone. The Soul Calibur 2 review mentions how the Weapon Mode story is told entirely in text, and that's a bit of a departure from your average game. So, I say as much. I also mention that you can in fact skip the whole thing as long as you just read the much shorter description of the specific variables for that particular fight. There's a little piece of my ego showing, though, hinting that it should be possible to stand the fact that there's text in a game. That's unnecessary of me, especially since I later admit that the story really doesn't make much sense anyway. There are people perfectly capable of reading books more complex than I'll ever read, and who then would like some pure action going on while playing games. I should simply have expressed that "this won't be everyone's cup of tea", because that's the honest truth of it in this particular case.

Other aspects, on the other hand, will be more likely to meet a more universal reaction. If it takes a second from you pressing the jump button until the character actually jumps, then feel free to stomp on that. As long as you're accurate and not just a fanboy/hater, nobody worth listening to will be arresting you for revealing that. They may disagree just how aggravating it is - so hyperbole in either direction is to be used with caution - but it is a bad control issue, simple as that.

So, opinion is the piece of a game review that almost per definition turns it interesting. Few people are in a position to make neutral game descriptions interesting on their own. But it's extremely important to know how to apply it. And the main way you'll learn how to do that is to write some bad stuff with opinions you're not backing up, and then confront yourself with it (or have others confront you). My PoP:SoT review failed because I started with my opinion (dressed up in a theme) as the entire premise. The FF7 review, I knew I would be mercilessly attacked if I did anything like that, so I was extra careful to give proper examples of what I meant was bad there. I still got a few attacking posts, but I think we can all agree they were completely useless fanboy attacks. And my SC2 review admits to the limitations I as a gamer have in my forming of an opinion on that game, which I still feel a bit proud of.

You may still think, of course, that I write the most horrible reviews ever. Long-winded and boring (and a bit too many flashes of ego, to my liking. All the reviews mentioned in this blog entry has those), making it seem like I just love the idea of reading my own words over and over. You may even be right. I'm still having trouble going back to an old review and enjoy it because it does often look like just that. But if that's how you feel, then the best thing to do is to write your own review, going over the same things I did - with descriptions at least as accurate (though hopefully more condensed) as anything I write - and then tell your own opinion on those details. Hopefully, between the two (or more) of us, someone will get a good idea of what the game is actually like, then. That's the best we can and should hope for.

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