6 Unspoken Truths About Writing Video Game Reviews

6 Unspoken Truths About Writing Video Game Reviews

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Now that I’m out of college, people are always asking me, “Do you have a job lined up?” If I had a nickel for every time I heard that question or others like it, I wouldn’t need a job in the first place. Most of the time, I work with web design and copywriting  for a handful of other websites and businesses outside of the gaming industry (from fitness blogs to apartment rental services), but I’ll often say I have my own video game website that I write for and strive to make a name in the video game industry, somehow, some way. It’s then that people kinda smirk or cock an eyebrow and look at me strange. “Right, so what are you really gonna do for work?”

I get it. A lot of people hear “video game reviewer” and immediately imagine some pasty late-20’s white kid who still lives in his parents’ basement who’s got some strong opinions on the latest Assassin’s Creed release; luckily for me, only half of that daydream is true (being pasty and having strong opinions about AC: Unity, specifically). Reviewing and writing about video games is less about playing games, and more about analyzing and critiquing them.

But I don’t blame people for looking at me weird. Some might think I’m having a hard time growing up (nah, I know how to file taxes and stuff); some might be jealous because they’re bored with their own jobs. Either way, game reviewing is a pretty tough job if you’re intent on doing it right and in a market where everyone seems to have opinions (okay, that’s everywhere, I guess) and tries to start their own websites, it’s even more difficult trying to stick your head out above the rest.

Whether you have been a writer for a while or are thinking about getting into creating your own video game review website (or, you’re just a passerby who happened to stumble upon these ravings), here are a few truths that I’ve come to accept about this lot in life:

1. IT’S NOT A GAME

“But you’re writing about games. So it should be fun, right?” Right. Writing *is* fun, but just because it’s fun doesn’t mean it’s not hard work. Auto mechanics might have fun working on cars, but the operative word there is working.

Especially if you’re just starting out, you’re the person who takes the notes, outlines, drafts, and revises them into something palatable, and making sure you have all your I’s crossed and T’s dotted, along with screenshots and other resources to back up your claims.

Additionally, a review isn’t just you rambling on about how much you like or dislike a game. It’s an argument for why your opinion makes sense and to help others make informed decisions. There’s a whole ethical and moral curtain that most people often forget even exists when it comes to video games. Movies, TV, food, books–anything nowadays–it’s all reviewed and scored and given an aggregate value for the market to consume. What you’re writing (especially later on down the line if you gain more respect and notoriety) could potentially sink a fledgling company and all of your critiques or on someone else’s work and what might very well be their own life’s passion.

So yeah, you might be writing about games, but writing about games is serious business. With the ability to build up or tear down others, to influence a market’s opinion on certain products and business practices, to affect your own brand of change through your own words… that’s a pretty hefty responsibility. You’re a form of quality control; you’re gonna need quality reviews to help control quality, aren’t you?

2. EVERYONE SEEMS TO THINK IT’S A GAME

Maybe not everyone, but a lot of people who try to get into writing video game reviews (even myself when I was 15/16 and playing around with the idea of vidja game journalism) still think this way. Even though you might understand what you do is valuable, convincing others it’s more than just playing games is a challenge on its own.

However, it is this point that divides the big names like PC Gamer, Polygon, Kotaku, and the late Joystiq from the infinite sea of cheaply generated gaming blogs that seem to be spelled out with one hand as the original author struggles to key in his latest Kitten Krusher 14 review while shoving Cheetos down his throat with the other. Half the time I’m wondering if he didn’t like the gameplay because it was broken, or because he simply couldn’t play it one-handedly.

With the rise of social media, we all seem to like to think we’re super interesting and that our opinions on what we’re passionate about might as well be second only to the word of one’s chosen deity. But before you attempt the reviewing “feat” above, let’s move on to our next point:

3. YOU’RE NOT SPECIAL

Sorry. You’re not. It’s okay though, I’m not special either. And that’s alright.

In fact, the only way you’ll be able to really thrive (as well as gain an appreciation for self-reliance and independence) is to accept the fact that we’re simply one in seven billion and some change. You’re not ordained to greatness; no one cares about your impressive (while, albeit concerning) amount of video game achievements, or what you’re wearing, or how your hair looks, or… really… anything. People are so concerned with what’s going on in their lives that they really don’t have time to pay attention. Let’s be real: do you think about everyone else all the time?

As a writer, by applying practice to this precept, you keep your ego in check, reminding yourself to write fairly and honestly. Your opinion might not be special, but it’s your voice, your methodology of how you go about your craft–that is what will define you not only as a reviewer, but as a human being.

If you’re going to want an audience who actually takes you seriously, you’re going to have to do better than say, “My name is ______ and I’m pretty f**king neat.” Unless you can prove how neat you are, you’re just some schlep on the Internet with opinions. And I don’t need the Internet for schleps or opinions anyway.

4. GOOD WRITING TAKES TIME

Contrary to popular belief, what you are reading (yes, even now) has been drafted a numerous times, revised, formatted, and edited, all for satisfactory consumption by viewers like you. There’s no true “one-hit wonders” in the writing universe because all copy could be improved in some way–or at least, as a somewhat artistic field, you’ll always find more people to suggest ways to improve upon copy.

On some days I’ll spend hours just outlining and drafting reviews and it’ll be a week or so before one of them gets to the point where it can be posted. Sure, the bigger websites can get it done faster, but when you’re just starting out on your own with virtually nothing but some witty ideas and a web domain, you gotta strive for quality over quantity and speed.

In addition to writing the post itself, there’s also the tech side of formatting: injecting ad code, meta data like tags and categories, finding, placing, and editing images, tagging the text for keywords and terms. When you’re wearing the hats of Writer, Editor, Web Admin, and Marketer on top of others, these steps become cumbersome. But again, all great things take time and when the going gets tough, you make lemonade.

Or something to that effect.

5. YOU’RE NOT ENTITLED TO FREE STUFF

Kinda going hand-in-hand with #3, just because you have a website and write about video games does not make you entitled to free press copies and goodies. I’ll admit, sometimes developers will give us a review copy to… well… review. But they’re giving us a copy with the expectation that we’ll actually take the time to critically evaluate their game. This isn’t a tribute payment to give homage to your gaming knowledge; it’s you helping someone refine on their work that you probably don’t even know how to do yourself.

If you play video games, that doesn’t make you an expert on their creation; if you write about video games, that doesn’t make your word law on what games are good and bad. The only thing you’re rightly entitled to is the legacy that you leave in your work. If developers see that you write fairly and conduct yourself professionally and respectfully, they’ll be a lot more willing to work with you than you just spamming “Gimme” in emails to their PR staff.

And if you’re lucky enough to be given a press copy, treat that like an honor in and of itself. The developer trusts you enough to evaluate their game, sometimes even before anyone else outside the studio gets to. Don’t be that guy who wants to get into this line of work for free stuff; it’s better to choose not to be on your own, rather than let developers label and blacklist you as greedy and narcissistic.

No one wants that.

6. SUCCESS DOESN’T HAPPEN OVER NIGHT

And of course, last but not least, patience is, indeed, a virtue. In my (limited) time on this Earth, I’ve found that almost all things, whether they be people or even forces of nature such as lightning and water, follow the law of the Path of Least Resistance. In this case, let us say an object or actor will often take the easiest route from point A to point B. After all, why would you take a 20 minute drive around town to go to the store just down the block?

Applying this to people, everyone seems to expect great things to happen without putting in any effort. All too often, you’ll find Facebook posts about how someone wants to lose weight, then an hour later, they’re on Snapchat drunk partying with their friends. Sure, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that (provided you’re of age and drinking responsibly, obviously), but you move towards your goals by… well… actually moving towards them.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve honestly wanted to give up on this very website. Half the time, I worry that I’m not really all that interesting or that I’ve bitten off more than I’m able to chew. That being said, there were many times I wanted to give up on martial arts before receiving my black belt (after 10 years, I got it, with a bunch of honorary distinctions too and handful of broken wooden boards to take home after my final test).

Success is not the absence of failure; it’s the act of continuing despite the setbacks you’ve faced. We might not be much now, but the site is certainly a lot more than what we were a few years ago when we started.

Perseverance, friend. Through all the self-doubt and the external doubt too, through all the hiccups and nonsense, stay the course. Despite these truths, I use them to push myself to become a better writer. Hopefully this might help rekindle the fire of those looking for it–or perhaps give some people some ideas for new careers, both getting in and out of the whole video game reviewing business.

About author
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Anthony Magestro

Anthony "Tony" Magestro--or known on the field of battle as Metzge--is an avid writer, gamer, and entrepreneur. When he's not writing, gaming, or entrepreneuring, he enjoys cooking, trippy movies, and trying to be awesome to varying degrees of success. Feel free to check out his LinkedIn page, especially if you need freelance help with content writing or digital marketing. Or just like to network, that's fine too.