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The art of reviewing: Review themes
Posted on Friday, December 14 2007 @ 00:42:06 PST

The fourth entry in the longwinded egotrip blog series that is supposed to justify my longwinded egotrip reviews.

Anyway, in addition to relaying my opinion of a game, I am also often tempted to make a "theme" in order to spice it up. In the context of this article, a  review theme can be anything from describing a game with a few "running references" to a setup made early in the review, or it can be writing the entire thing as if it was a letter to a lover, a confession to a vicar, or by using the Kalevala rhythm meter... Initially it's your imagination that is the limit here, but I think it's obvious from my made-up examples that not everything is recommended. In fact, that end of the scale should be avoided altogether.

Now, to tell of the dangers inherent in making a theme is to tell the pretty damn obvious. Most of you aren't even attempting to do this, and I think my own themes so far has to a lesser (Metroid Prime 3) or bigger (PoP: Sands of Time) degree been detracting rather than adding to the review. The latter especially makes it hard for you to figure out what the review is actually supposed to tell you. You need to be a good writer to handle this kind of thing. Probably much better than I am.

At the same time, trying to conciously make a straightforward review can be difficult. For example, when writing my review of Super Mario Galaxy, I already knew that most reviews - amateur or professional - were speaking of the game in glowing terms (and for good reason too). I tried to be more "neutral" about what made the game so good, and the review ended up being rather dull. I think I'm telling you most of what you need to know, but when one's really passionate about something, one has to let it show. (That you also need to communicate -why- you're passionate is something I probably shouldn't have to mention by now.)

Of course, most games don't get full themes. Instead, what -seems- to be the big problem when making a review is to figure out a catchy beginning, and then everything else is handled fairly normally. This is the way most  official GR reviews are handling it, in fact. It can certainly work, and I admit that I've been influenced by this style, but Rule 1 is to limit yourself to one such paragraph. Preferably a short one, no longer than five lines. I've seen reviews where the "intro" takes as much as three paragraphs, at which point I've almost been shouting "What about the game?" in frustration.

Perhaps the actual reason I and others often test out "themes" and intros and whatnot could be that we get bored -writing- straightforward reviews much sooner than our readers will be bored reading them. Thus, we may think that a catchy beginning is more important than it really is. I don't mean to say that my reviews will from now on be templates wherein I can put in the few variables I need to (like the game's name), just that I'm aware that on some level, I probably write these reviews for my own sake, instead of yours. I mean, you're already interested in knowing how the game works, aren't you? I don't really need to create crazy themes and intros to hook you, do I?

To illustrate my point: Penny Arcade. Tycho is admittedly a better writer than Gabriel (just look at the text in this strip. That's classic Tycho at his best.), but sometimes Tycho can spend several paragraphs to say something that could be said with one sentece, often using words one needs to check a dictionary to understand (and my own vocabulary does in fact contain quite a few polysyllables, thank you very much). What's more, he often seems to assume you already know about the game's mechanics, or he explains the mechanics in a way that only makes sense after you've actually played it yourself. Of course, he admits perfectly well that he's not a reviewer, and that the entire site is only there because he likes making comics and writing stuff his own way, and it just happens that other people do as well. Most of the time, I like it a lot as well, so I cannot really blame him for this.

But when Gabe puts up his opinion on a game, he's almost always straight on, making sure we know the reasons he has for liking/hating Game X, and that it's up to us if we like/hate those same things. I think that makes Gabe the better reviewer of those two. His post about Final Fantasy XII (scroll down a bit) is probably one of the best descriptions of not only the gameplay, but the philosophy behind the new system. When I finally got FF XII a few months later (I hate living in Europe!) I found that he was absolutely correct in pretty much everything he said. He gave me the most realistic expectations that could have been communicated. Tycho completely failed in accomplishing the same. Something to think about...
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