How To Write About A Game

I wrote this talk specifically for the people at Shoreditch House, a fancy workspace for creative freelancers in East London. It is about my personal experience trying to claw together enough money to live merely by being sarcastic about games. I gave this in front of one of my favourite writers at Vice UK, and she didn’t hate me, so I guess it went okay.

It might come off as a little bleak. This is, as games developers say, as intended. It is not, however, intended to elicit pity. I could always try, and have tried, to do something else other than write.

You will come to realise in the pale dawn whilst you sit in your underpants that you are not going to make rent this month unless you buck the fuck up and write at least seven more longform articles. So you make an acidic-tasting instant coffee, realise there is no milk, drink the sharp mud straight, and open an email window. You sit for at least an hour before you realise you have no ideas for features to send to editors because you haven’t had time to play any new games since the last time you raided the mindfridge. So you reluctantly email a reviews editor, trying to dampen the pleading in your tone, and ask if they will send you a new release to claw apart.

You do this knowing full well it might take you three days or more to complete the game, and you are still only getting a fraction of your rent (minus bills and food) to write about it, even though sometimes your ‘review’ could make or break whatever game it might be. Sometimes developers are laid off because of review scores on Metacritic. But you live in this system and if you want to survive you bow your head to it until you get more privileged and can afford to pick and choose whether you review or not. It doesn’t change that you will spend the minimum amount of time you can on the game just so that you can prevent your own eviction. Or so that you can prevent yourself from going back to temping in a giant black hole of a corporation where the only interesting games are Who Ate The Last Piece of Cake and Is Janine Fucked-Off today.

I tend to measure most of my work in rent. Freelance game critics, like most freelance writers, probably measure most things in rent. I also like to measure my wellbeing in whether I can afford a bottle of Sailor Jerry that month. This only reflects a little of the type of person I am. The Sailor Jerry sort of helps to cope with the fact that I am my own worst commenter. Sailor Jerry is also very useful for coping with actual commenters and the hell of the internet.

Whether the editor will reply to your pleading pitch emails often depends on a number of things. Whether you have worked for them before and they can trust you not to be a pain in the arse is really the biggest factor they take into account. Probably the best way to get them to answer your email is to notice what they have forgotten to put on their website this week and send a friendly two sentence email offering to plaster over that gap. It doesn’t always work but if you are going to starve to death this month you tend to email more than one person and if you’re any good at writing and/or emails someone usually gets back to you.

When you ask for a review code for a game you have to specify which platforms you are fortunate enough to own. If you are poor the likelihood is maybe one or two. If you carry enough weight Sony or Microsoft might send you a platform on which to decimate the games made for them. These days I play most of my games on a PC platform instead of a console – I’ve always been what the internet calls an ‘old school PC gamer’. I got most of my wonderment at video games from reading about games in the beginning: as a nine year old I never possessed the Super Nintendo systems my friends all had, and so when an older boy passed over copies of PC Zone I used to devour them even though I didn’t have access to a PC until I was older.

The back column of that magazine was my favourite: some weird guy called Charlie Brooker used to write this filthy sweary column about his latest obsession, and I used to gobble up its transgressive juices in exactly the sort of disgusting way you are now imagining. Years later when I got to sit in a room with him and plot how to write a TV programme about video games it was almost upsetting to not tell him how important these words were. But I have a personal rule that no one should be told in person that they are important unless you plan on kissing them later, and I am pretty sure Charlie Brooker is taken.

The first thing that happens is that you have to download the damn thing. The hours this takes are best taken up with taking out the rubbish, playing 3DS, making cups of tea, sending hated invoices, attempting to think of outlandish article pitches, and showering and putting clothes on.

This last thing is very important but very hard. Sometimes I have fallen whilst putting my legs into each trouserleg. The hazardous nature of freelancing is not as well documented as it should be. Once I actually thought I had skin cancer because I had an itchy freckle and at 3am Google told me I was definitely, actually going to die. Thankfully the NHS has budgeted for the clash of underfed overworked freelance writers and Google. If you are an American freelancer I assume you won’t survive.

If the game takes more than an hour to download (and the majority of your time is something you are not being paid for) you should probably do something tax deductible like phone up a game developer and buy them brunch whilst picking their brain for something, ANYTHING, about what they were going to make instead of an iconic game or the time that they got the maker of a classic game drunk or something. But because you worked til 9am to meet a deadline the chances are that you did not wake up at a time at which brunch is still served.

When you play a game you can take notes, but I prefer to let the game impress its virtues and mistakes on me, and record them with screenshots. It’s good to take a great deal of time over pottering through the game, and it’s also good to go out of your way to try to break the game or do what you suspect the game doesn’t want or expect you to do, since those things wrench open the hood and let you see the engine working inside. If you do what the game developers expect you to do the experience is sometimes streamlined in a soulless manner, and you start to feel like you fell into the Small World ride at Disneyland, which is a lonely experience sometimes accompanied by the feeling you want to hurl into a dustbin.

Playing a game for work is sadly not like playing it for fun, because when you play a game for work you feel like you can’t stop at difficult parts and do something else, you can’t play it with a friend to make fun of the cutscenes that remind you all too often of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, and in general the idea that completing a level is not only required of you to get paid but also is something that is preventing you from seeing the rest of the game in all its silly overglamorous glory is the biggest crotch-desiccant since Piers Morgan. Often you just feel like your hands are in a vice, like if you stop Shigeru Miyamoto will pop out from the ether and slice your head off to a Mario going ‘Wuhaaaa!’

Playing a game for work usually isn’t the pleasant jaunt you want it to be because unfortunately not a lot of games are really that good. Despite all the high scores on Metacritic, numbers aren’t actually a very good indicator of how much you personally will enjoy a video game. There is no objective ‘great game’. There might be a ‘this is a game made with a lot of care’ (most video games) or a ‘this is a game that seems to work the way the developers intended’ but there certainly is no way you can appraise anything objectively even though many people who read about video games often stubbornly insist there is. In my head these ‘objective advocates’ are just a bunch of Lemmings running off a cliff yelling ‘A SEVEN???? A SEVEN????? KILL YOURSELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLFFFFFFF’ and those messages mostly fill my tumblr questions inbox and my nightmares.

The necessary rise of the satirical website ‘Objective Game Reviews’ is enough to make me feel depressed, but if you want to see what an ‘objective’ review looks like maybe go and fud yourself silly on that site and come back to me when you are 1) older than sixteen 2) would like my goddamn experienced opinion on a game. The only reason game criticism exists is so that you can orientate yourself around a particular critic’s taste. If the critic is any good you can tell from their analysis whether you will like the game or not, regardless of whether the critic in question actually thought the game was any good at all.

Once you have completed the game, you want to let it rest in your head a little while. Which are the moments of the game that really made you happy, frustrated or generally reassess how you think about the medium? Slowly peel out the reasons they made you feel that way. I like to think of the frictionality of these moments as little levers that flip switches in the human body: where are these levers positioned in the game? How are they reaching you? Why are they reaching you? Where in the game are they located? HOW DO THEY MAKE YOU FEEL. Investigate a little more if you are curious. It’s like experimenting with drugs only you feel more exhausted afterwards.

Now it’s the writing time. I really like to entertain the reader, so I like to open with something that will make them want to read about the game. If the reader is bored by your first few lines then they will probably not bother reading your text and will skip to the number at the bottom, if you have to give one, which is not the point of this task. So I like to think as the opener as being like the James Bond pre-credits sequence where you do a little skirmish, fuck up a few bad guys, and set something on fire a bit before kissing the Swedish girl of choice. Then you get down to business. The opener doesn’t actually need to be anything to do with the game, although it’s a good idea to link it thematically to 1) what kind of game it is 2) what you are supposed to do in it.

I am not the American formalist type. I do not rate the ability to construct concise sentences in my own work. I gauge my ability as a writer merely by how well my meaning is conveyed. You can get there by a number of means and not all of them are sentences so tight you can feel your brain being plucked. I’d like my brain to be stroked, please. And led astray.

In the interest of complaining, here are a list of things I would advise not to do when writing about a game, even though I’ve consistently broken all of these rules.

1) Do not bother writing at length about ‘how good the graphics are’. They can see in the promotional screenshots the developer provides for your article ‘how good the graphics are’. That is the virtue of the internet. You can put pictures on it. Sometimes even videos! There are even these guys called ‘Let’s Play’ people right now. They have filmed the entire game for you whilst yelping over it! If you just want to see pretty video game vistas just go to Dead End Thrills or Andy Kelly’s lovely Other Worlds and jerk off.

2) Don’t use any marketing terms like ‘IP’ or ‘franchise’ or ‘title’ or whatever. Sometimes I catch myself doing it because I read so many silly PR emails and I have to get in the shower and cry whilst scrubbing myself down with sand. Write like a human being. We are not weird machines that churn out what corporations want us to. We are not the business side of anything. We are the People’s Champions. We are the bedraggled unwashed sleepy Scarlet Pimpernels of the gross games industry.

3) Don’t just sit there saying or implying you are an authority on something, like ‘This game has a very good inventory system’ or whatever, tell us about your experience with it. Tell us a goddamn story about your time with it. That’s why they’re here, reading your words. They want you to yarn ‘em a story. The reader is there to be wooed like an Austen heroine. Make with the words. Let them understand what you experienced. Have at them with the seduction. Put them in your shoes, etc etc etc. Did the inventory system fuck you over? Did the inventory system save your ass? Did the inventory system punch your grandma? Now’s the time to demonstrate with your words how the heck that is possible. (Probably don’t really spend much time describing the inventory system.)

4) Avoid using cliches. Cliches are cliches because they have lost their effectiveness in describing things, and your main job is to be good at describing things. Earlier in this talk I used the phrase ‘then you get down to business’. Do not follow my lead. ‘Getting down to business’ is a boring and terrible phrase and it has become meaningless through overuse. It hasn’t even retained any winking charm. It is trash. The phrase ‘the biggest crotch-desiccant since Piers Morgan’ is still fresh, however, because I just made it up, and is probably usable if your editor is Keith Stuart of The Guardian.

What you do want to do is write about the core of the game. Begin your critique at the top gear and don’t bother accelerating gently. None of us have the time. If it made you feel like you want to go outside and kiss the first person you see on the street, you should go straight to the centre of why and analyse it. Don’t bother describing in detail the frills like how many fucking levels there are and what extra shit the developer put in that they didn’t have in the previous installment unless they change the fundamental experience. People can look up the boring features list on the developer’s website if they want that info. Did the game seem like it hated you? PLUCK OUT ITS EVIL HEART.

When you finish up, clean it out. You want to give a summary of what you want the reader to take away from your critique. For example, in my Ride To Hell: Retribution review I thought the most pertinent takeaway from my experience was the following phrase:

‘The most imaginative thing that happened to me in my time playing this game is that a noiseless combine harvester came towards me and I had to run away from it.’

This has the added bonus of absurd imagery.

When you write about a game there are a number of responses you can predict from your readers depending on what you have mentioned in your text. As part of being a writer about anything on the internet is learning to eventually ignore everything that is written in the comments section, I have stopped reading them, but nothing is as sure as death and the following comments.

1) If you critiqued the sexist content in a game many will try to persuade you that this means that the rest of your critique is meaningless and they will try to persuade you to kill yourself.

2) If you critiqued a fan favourite and did not enjoy the game, commenters will try to persuade you to kill yourself.

3) If you critiqued a game and you previously critiqued a fan favourite unfavourably the fans of the previous game will appear to tell you your critique is meaningless and will try to persuade you to kill yourself.

4) If you critiqued something that is not a fan favourite and really enjoyed the game, commenters will accuse you of being paid off for your opinion and will try to persuade you to kill yourself.

5) If you are a woman and you have written about topics in the game pertaining particularly to matters concerning your gender’s outlook or socialisation commenters will try to persuade you to kill yourself.

6) If you wrote a piece of New Games Journalism, describing your playthrough as more of a travelogue or personal journey as analysis of the game, commenters will type ‘BUT IS IT ANY GOOD THOUGH’ or ‘BUT WHAT ABOUT THE ACTUAL GAME’ and then try to persuade you to kill yourself.

Happily, commenters are usually not very good writers, and so largely are very unpersuasive in getting you to kill yourself. This is why it is up to game critics to write about games in a thoughtful and entertaining way. You will eventually be paid a fifth of your rent if you hand your invoice in on time, and the gods smile graciously upon your dazed brow as you try to remember what outside looks like.

Then you do it again.