‘Giving the Context’

February 5th, 2010


When writing any sort of game evaluation (preview, review, analysis piece, critique, etc.), the writer begins by explaining how the game works or what happens in the game. This is what I’ll call ‘giving the context’. As much as ‘giving the context’ is an essential component for this type of writing, it’s often the least interesting part of the article for both reader and writer. Sadly, the majority of evaluative articles consist almost entirely of context and share little insight with the reader. This is why we often moan so loudly over reviews; the reviewers rarely justify their comments with explanation and the readers therefore become suspicious. (Alternatively, the readers don’t read and become suspicious anyways).

The reason why context is boring to read falls in line with similar comments made by Jim Gee in his book Good Games and Good Learning. Players don’t learn how to play a game by reading the instruction manual—no one ever looks at the manual if they can help it, they just jump straight in. People learn the rules of a game not by reading about it, but by playing. Reading an instruction manual or game review in the pursuit of understanding the operation of a game is counterproductive, because it’s difficult to learn anything through static text alone.

I’m sure that you’ve probably met this frustration before, most likely through school, but more to the point, after reading a review and yet still not understanding the fundamental rules of a game, let alone why it’s good or bad or is worthy of your green paper. (Perhaps this is why video reviews are now so popular; they inherently provide continuous context throughout the review). I’ve certainly felt this way many times, just recently after reading several reviews on Bioware’s two most recent games: Dragon Age Origins and Mass Effect 2, I still have no grasp on the core gameplay, particularly in Dragon Age. I think it’s about time I ought to just play the games for myself.

Personally, I believe that as writers it’s our job to make this mandatory part of the job as quick and effective as possible, so that we can get down to the business of giving meaning to the game through our critique, analysis and observations.

Anyone can—and does—write the synopsis of a plot or explain what happens in a game, provided that you’re a sound writer, giving context is pretty easy, analysis, however, is the most difficult part of the job which is why analysis it’s often the part which is most lacking. Therefore, the great majority of games writing serves very little purpose beyond condensing manuals or expanding PR bullet points into sentences, because that’s what naturally comes easiest.

On an side, I think this also explains why it’s difficult to have an engaging conversation with other people about games. Good games discussion requires one of two things, preferably both: 1) shared knowledge of context and evaluation (hopefully at a rather deep level) 2) the mutual patience required to listen to someone explain a complicated rule system to you through spoken language and then evaluate the rule system. It’s really tricky, as I’m sure you all know which is why most discussion amounts to “wasn’t it cool when…”.

One of my goals this year is to trim down the amount of context in my ‘Game Discussion’ articles. Of course, I want it to remain sufficient, just in fewer words, if possible. So as a footnote to this article, I’ve written a list of measures which I hope to adopt in my future writing, this may also be useful for you too as either a critical reader or a writer. If you have any further suggestions, I’d be happy to hear them, so please leave a comment in the box below:

  1. Use as few words as possible to convey as much information as possible.
  2. KISS ? Keep it simple stupid, people have to make sense of what you’re saying, try to stay away from esoteric or abstract language.
  3. Use language (particularly verbs) which stylise mechanics and other integral parts of the game which can easily be stylised. These improve readability and understanding, and also make the writing more palatable.
  4. Or if you can’t do the above, make up your own verb to describe an action rather than continuously using 3-4 words to describe a single action or event. This avoids repetition.
  5. If there is a similar game or gameplay style which is adapted into your game then refer to it. eg. Gears of War style shooters, Geometry Wars clone.
  6. Be specific and accurate. Saying ‘an arena shooter’ saves on having to explain that it’s a shoot ’em up in a box.
  7. Use images and video of the gameplay itself. This is the easiest method for setting context. If you’re going to jump straight into analysis, assuming that the audience is already immersed in the game, then maybe a video review from Youtube or Gametrailers would prove useful.
  8. Dot points or diagrams are also a great idea  Critical Gaming is a wonderful example of this technique, and in fact is the ideal example of a context-minimal, analysis-rich blog.

Rethinking The Feature (An Alt. Model for Conventional Games Coverage)

October 10th, 2009


Ignore the important-sounding title, this is purely self-indulgence.

As you may have noticed from my recent coverage of Prince of Persia, Halo and Metroid Prime 3, I like to approach a single game from multiple contexts. The ability for a publication to frame a single game in different perspectives in different articles is tremendous. Collectively, such articles paint a richer picture of the play experience of the chosen video game, bolstering the amount of non-traditional writing about the product. It’s my kinda editorial, but unfortunately it’s the type of writing which is left for gutter writers like myself, so let’s theorize an example of an ideal break from writing conventions – cos I’m self-serving and all.

Just recently Batman: Arkham Asylum was released. This was a highly anticipated game and was also linked to a comic book licence. Let’s explore the sorts of content one could write about this game.


The History Behind the Canceled Dark Knight game
-Pandemic Studios were originally developing a game based on the Dark Knight licence, would be nice to see an investigative follow-up

History on Batman Games
1UP ran a feature which fits this bill

Review Diary
-a blogging diary of the game, similar to my recent Metroid Prime 3 articles

Post Release

Authenticity to the Comics
-the lore is an integral part of AA experience, would be interesting hearing a critique from an enthusiast’s perspective

Comparison to Live-action Batman
-probably a much easier, but equally as interesting piece

Analysis of the Depiction of Inmates
-something along the lines of this

Considerations for Design Analysis
-use of fixed and in-game narrative
-melding of gameplay styles
-reference list to borrowed material (Splinter Cell, Metal Gear, Metroid Prime, Bioshock)

DLC Reviews
-reviews of the additional content

Maybe 10 articles can be ripped from this template. This includes both pre and post release material which could predominately span the month surrounding the release, with the detailed analysis extending to maybe 2 months after release. Alternatively, a second opinion piece could be submitted 6 months later.

This model of alternative games coverage breaks away from the rigid news, reviews, previews structure whilst still delivering the same message, just in a more sophisticated form. Wrap this up with developer interviews, video coverage and news tidbits and you’ve got a pretty dandy package. Now if only people would take these ideas on.

Next: Back to Metroid Prime 3

Official Nintendo Magazine (June 09) Opinions

July 1st, 2009

A while ago I scrutinized Australian multiplatform games magazine Hyper for clinging to norms that would only see the publication into a slow, barbecued demise. It’s only fair then that I do the rounds and examine other examples of copy that fills Australian news agencies. I want to begin this critical crusade of print media by looking at Official Nintendo Magazine (Australia). Later I hope to re-examine Pixel Hunt alongside retrogaming e-zine Retroaction, before concluding with supposed EDGE killer GamesTM.

Official Nintendo Magazine (Australia) – June 2009


General Impressions

A follow up to the heavily flawed, but much adored Nintendo Magazine System, how could I refuse? ONM live ups to the Nintendo Seal of Quality lost somewhere on every front page. The magazine’s aesthetic tastefully match the new sanitized look Nintendo are going for, and the writing isn’t too bad either. The team clearly makes use of their prescribed relationship to the brand by bagging plenty of exclusive interviews, covering the digital distribution areas well, while prioritizing the best art assets. The writing is fine – falling in line with a standard good quality UK games magazine, appealing to the average enthusiast Nintendo fan more so than the expanded audience as might be infered by the neutral-esque design. The magazine’s standard journalistic fair teamed with exclusive content which make this a priority read for Nintendo fans looking for fitting copy with a wide coverage of their platforms. The magazine portions WiiWare, DSiWare and Virtual Console coverage much more evenly than other publications both online and in print, which I heatedly admire.

Overall the standard Ninty fan can’t go wrong with ONM, it’s a much more cleanly written, professional publication than NMS and covers all fronts quite admirably.

Criticisms of the June Issue

Standard fair might sound decent enough (and rest assure, this magazine is not poor by any means), but in my mind publications like this and Hyper are given a greater stature than their content earns them. While – like Hyper – I enjoyed the clean read, and have no problems recommending this to players that are solely fans of the Nintendo products, there’s plenty of holes as well as a couple of suspicions.

Usually magazines not sponsored by the brand or system they’re covering (ie. unofficial) make a holler and fuss about conflict of interest issues with these rival magazines. Basically they’re accusing their competitors of unflinching bias. Although their whiny jealousy is annoying, they do hold a weight of truth. Starting from the editor’s introduction, over the page into the news and then into previews and even reviews, the magazine can’t help but consistently remind the reader of the benefits of Wii MotionPlus. Sure, it makes sense for the MotionPlus to be a talking points in the Red Steel 2 and Grand Slam Tennis previews, but when you’re spruiking the add-on in reviews unrelated to the device, it’s annoying!

Reviewer Chris Scullion seems to have a problem criticizing the games he writes about, constantly using softeners to lower his tone when he wants to discuss a game’s weaknesses. This was most evident in the Pokemon Platinum review and other parts of the magazine as I recall. The softener “if we’re honest” doesn’t really say much, shouldn’t you always be honest to your readers?

On the topic of reviews, the crew seems obsessed with percentages. Take for example the way…oh look, Chris Scullion, makes a point to fret over what percentage he’d assign Punch-Out!! before he reached the unlocked World B mode. Further, in face-cringing fashion, the magazine even has a ‘Settling Scores’ segment in their review index, where readers propose their own score for a game in lieu of what the OMN crew awarded. It’s really petty.

The bulk of their featured content such as their 31 Reasons to Start Stockpiling Nintendo Points…NOW! as well as several news and previews pieces were well matched with good developer interviews. The Red Steel preview is thin information spread out into a feature piece. Fortunately the screenshots and interview make up for this in part. The Zelda feature is extensive, but doesn’t capture the spirit nor all of the significant details for each game, maybe they should have allowed more text on the page. By the way, I like the IGN logos in some of the Zelda screenshots. Did you try MobyGames, no tags there?

It must be some hip trend that I’m unaware of –  in the same vein as that Hyper issue I covered some months ago, ONM included a flip-over segment at the back of the magazine. Argh, I hate it when they make me flip the magazine! The flipped content comprises of a 100 Greatest Nintendo Games Ever List! feature The main problem with such mammoth lists is that within the limit of 25 pages, you’re essentially providing a list and very little explanation as to the significance of each title. Couple with a bloated number of page filling images, and it’s a rather pointless piece. Conversely I could have just said that they ranked Mario Kart Wii as the 4th best game ever released on a Nintendo platform and  you would have believed me.

Oh, the Dragon Quest guide was filled with noting but common sense too, not sure why they included it.

Lastly, I noticed that in the Australian magazine, the Pikmin 2 review states “With Australia being a nation of Wii owners”, yet this is a simple copy edit of the review featured in the ONM UK, evidence here. This is simply a ruse to throw readers away from the indiscriminate fact that ONM Australia is simply ONM UK with some edits shifted in. The cracks become obvious very quickly with the overall British flavour of writing teamed with obvious British references (.co.uk). Furthermore the most useful thing the Australian website offers is a link to the feature packed UK website. Crafty eh? Unexpected? No.

Additional Readings

Column: Game Mag Weaseling – GameSetWatch