How can I write better about games? What do I look for in a video game essay, and to some extent, media critique as a whole? Review, retrospective, critique or analysis; for the purposes of this discussion, they are all essays about a released game or part of a game.
A central theory:
For a long time, game reviews were written in order to draw attention to the games as much as, if not more than, to critique them. As these essays were pretty much the only way to get any information on the games, and too many of the reviews served as barely-concealed advertisements, some still do even now. Nowadays, this function is now performed by long video essays; while they are often referred to as critiques, they are really commentated walkthroughs with some critique in them. To be clear, I love those kinds of videos; there is true journalistic value in a traditional review that combines basic impressions and breakdown of a game’s success on performance, accessibility, whether it justifies its price etc, but they don’t have the captivating essence of media criticism in them. A critique essay is different in that, it provides a theory, a core statement from one or multiple perspectives established by the author.
A common beginner’s trap in fiction-writing is to overuse adjectives. Essay-writing has the opposite problem, pages can be easily filled with a swarm of alluring and all-encompassing descriptors like “good”, “bad”, “love” or“don’t like’’, followed copious usage of “very”, “really” or “absolutely”. These words are easy to use because they are so simple; yet often, they are loaded with meanings they cannot carry. A sentence such as “I enjoy it but it’s bad” is okay to say casually but sounds utterly meaningless in a text which is supposed to define a perspective to view the game.
Anyone can make a list of “pros” and “cons”, a fundamental requirement for a good essay is to dig under that. I purposely limit the use of these words in my essays so that I can avoid staying on surface level and make my writing more evocative.
A sibling problem to the lack of creative descriptors is to rely on overly vague words and phrases, most of which are marketing buzzwords, unsurprisingly.
- Fantasy settings categorically cannot be “realistic”. The sense of believability they are aiming to achieve can be called “verisimilitude”.
- “JRPG” doesn’t mean the game has “turn-based combat” or “anime style visuals”. It just means “a RPG of Japanese origin”.
- “Anime-style” is quite vague too. Does it mean “a bright color palette, somewhat life-like proportions with simplified faces?” That doesn’t say much, at least giving an example from a show, director, studio etc. would be much more helpful.
- “Generic” is not a terrible word in the abstract but assuming that the reader has a similar range of media exposure as the essayist has, however, is.
- “Not a real video game”, alongside terms like “walking simulator”, often collapses the multitude of ways we can understand interactivity into strangely derogatory statements about who gets to sit with the big boys.
- “A Skinner box game/system” is sometimes used as a cooler way to say shallowly repetitive but it is much more fitting to games which are designed to be as addictive as possible, at the expense of the player.
- Nearly all instances of “objective(ly)” either can be safely removed from a sentence or replaced with a synonym of “definitely”.
- “Subjective(ly)” either means “please don’t harass me over this”, which is sad but understandable, or an eye-rolling way to express preference over an “objective” idea.
- No “deconstruction”, “subversive” or “ground-breaking” please, unless you have a strong grasp on genre history.
- If we define “allegory” as it is used in “allegory of the cave”, then it does require a strong hint at authorial intent, at least.
- Games which are openly backed by publishers are sometimes called “indie”. Quite jarring to read when the author clearly doesn’t know what “itch.io” is.
- Creators may be “pretentious”, but when applied to individual works the word becomes a roundabout and, dare I say, pretentious way to call them bad.
- “Overrated” doesn’t tell me much. Who is praising the game too much? Why does that matter in the critique? Another inferior replacement for “bad”.
- “Underrated” is mostly harmless but occasionally applied to games which have already entered many best games lists. It is not the same as “niche”.
- A “niche” game can be said to have sharp features that appeal to people with a dedicated interest. It is not necessarily unpopular, but also not something that would get extensive coverage or be played by every moderately large streamer on release day, either.
- While it is not very common in game reviews, possibly because video games often aim for a power fantasy appeal, “Mary Sue” is still shallow and very markedly gendered.
- Words like “modern classic”, “masterpiece” or “magnum opus” lose their weight when they are used for any new slightly impressive game. Writers should exercise restraint and let their experience simmer, and test how it holds up over time.
- For that matter, “experience” can be easily over-used too. Games-writing can easily drown in words like this if we are not conscious about them.
Truthfully, all words have a potential to feel empty if the author uses them as shorthands for concepts that you have a drastically different understanding of; it is the author’s job to make sure you are on the same page. This is why I force myself to be open with my assumptions, expectations, standards and biases as much as possible. A consistent terminology also contributes to a healthier collective vocabulary for discourse around gaming.
Leaning into the heart:
An objective text about a game would be merely a series of observations without any commentary. An essay will always be biased. A good essay owns up to its biases. It doesn’t make arbitrary separations between taste and “quality”. It doesn’t attack nor necessarily affirm other tastes. It doesn’t downplay its preferences to revere an imagined authority. It doesn’t make vast cultural observations based solely on personal judgement.
I try my best to avoid using subjectivity as an excuse to avoid deeper analysis, nor use objectivity to seem convincing. Nothing is ever too personal to dissect, as often said about humor or music. There is no reason to start sentences with “I think”, “I feel” or “I believe” unless the clarification actually helps. Nothing is too universal to ascend personal preferences, something that some essayists seek to achieve by using words like “fact”, “design”, “system”, “framework”, “writing”, or “cinematography”.
A window to the writer:
Writing a critique is a statement that sharing opinions matters in and of itself. It doesn’t need, and shouldn’t be burdened by a mission to convert people or make a definitive statement that ends a discussion forever. It doesn’t need to provide helpful feedback to the developers, it’s not a beta test report.
Whether I agree with an essay or not doesn’t matter much. A good essay that I agree with helps to put my thoughts into words. If I disagree with it, it gives me insights into someone else’s world. Above all else, a great essay is a journey I undertake with the author, a journey which I discover not only new perspectives on games, but also, new things about myself.
A good essay doesn’t mince words. It isn’t swallowed in the pitch dark hole of nuance. It is exactly as positive or negative as it wants to be. More than that, great essays often go beyond the dichotomy of praise and criticism, they dissect and rebuild the object of critique in fresh, complex and imaginative ways, unrestrained by authorial intent or common cultural observations.
However, I can understand the hesitance. The audience of video games are often defensive to the point of inciting harassment towards game critics simply over mentioning things that exist in the game. Frequently, any sign of confidence receives accusations of being aggressive or pretentious, especially when the writer is perceived as undeserving e.g a woman. Paradoxically, there is also an incentive to bring out as many flaws as possible, to take a beloved game down a peg, and to be loudest and the most confrontational voice in the room.
This is another reason why staying true to the heart is so important. In great essays, even the harshest words can sound passionate. A purely nitpicky essay in contrast, often grasps at straws, contradicts itself multiple times or worse, will be flatly dishonest about the source material and it becomes clear that the writer doesn’t really care about the game they have chosen to write about.
Even essays with a small audience base like mine have an impact on people, it colors their opinion about media in some way. If my essays paint a fledgling creator’s work in an excessively unfavorable light, or drunkenly sing about the newest corporate game that carries an undeniable amount of taint within it, what do they add to the discussion? This is not a matter of tone nor a call to uphold some vague idea of fairness and certainly, no media is beyond critique but rather, critique is not always the most important thing to write about with regards to media. What always matters is, essays shouldn’t cause harm.
Game industry has a crediting problem and it spills into media about games too. It’s all too common to only name studios and publishers, and maybe a couple of famous directors. But most games are collaborative efforts and individuals leave a lot of footprint in the games they work on. So, we should grow a habit of highlighting creators whenever appropriate.
Including content warnings
Playing great games with full knowledge often allows us to play the game in more enjoyable ways that a blind playthrough simply cannot provide. Seeing something for the first time is not really that crucial. However, it is still a unique experience we can only have once. It doesn’t matter how old or popular a piece of media is, it is guaranteed that the significant majority of the world has not seen it. Readers also have a right to know if they will read something mood-crushing or triggering. This is why content warnings, both for spoilers and sensitive material alike should be a standard practice for essays. This way, essayists can both be considerate and write without caring about spoilers. Indeed, spoiling the game is necessary, there is simply no way to do comparative media analysis, discuss themes or convey the game’s impact without going in as deep as needed.
Lack of research is often better at spreading misinformation than blatant lies. A good essay requires avoids falling into the behavior such as:
- Recycling common video game myths, rumors and factoids.
- Presenting speculations as facts.
- Mixing canon and personal reading. To be clear, I don’t put much value on “canon” in my understanding of media, but it is still crucial not to misrepresent the text.
- Falsely quoting creators. This happens to non-English creators more often, due to mistranslations.
- Speaking confidently about production, media history, creators etc. without proper sources to back up claims.
- Exaggerating for the sake of comedy in a way that blends with sincere statements.
Of course, writing a video game essay doesn’t have to be as serious as preparing a doctorate thesis. Nevertheless, double checking information is an ethical duty.
Building upon the essayist’s experience
A common drive behind misinformation is the essayist’s unfortunate belief that their words will be taken seriously only if they sound as authoritative as possible. This is false, there is no need to be an expert on game development, a highly skilled player or have the fortune of playing hundreds of different games. Such perspectives can be also quite interesting but they are not necessarily more valuable than someone who has only recently played their first video game ever.
Another misguided belief is that the author should check every bit of content a game has to offer and make multiple runs if able. Of course it is admirable when the writer is dedicated, but no, games are not inherently entitled to completionism. Most games enter into a predictable routine after a couple of hours, no story is owed endless patience and “it gets good later” can be easily argued as a critical design flaw in itself, especially in a medium that can be highly demanding of time.
More importantly, the author only needs to represent their own experience and there are all kinds of experiences worth writing about! If a game is not worth completing, the boredom or the frustration should be on the page. As far as essay-writing is concerned, there is no wrong way to play. An essayist might decide that they will push the game to its limits, might go to an adventure as a novice player in a competitive scene, try out a game from a genre they normally hate, or tackle games only from very specific standpoint like gay relationships or the quality of fishing mini-games. Even watching someone playing games is a different but valid way to engage with games.
Authors just need to be honest about where they base their opinions from. One thing not to do is to reiterate common sentiments without any personal spin, that’s what review aggregate sites are for. Ranting about a “terrible game” is only fun when the writer has a tangential connection to it .
Freedom from nostalgia
Nostalgia is plainly a bad basis for critique. Not because it is an authorial bias , that’s fine and dandy, but because it is not a true personal connection.
When romanticizing the past, the object of attachment is interchangeable. The game is only tangentially part of the critic’s pink memories, in the same way anything can be fun with friends. It could be easily replaced with a toy, a room, a pair of socks, a roll of toilet paper, a supermarket or a brand of cereals. Because nothing specific about the game is tied to nostalgia, it latches on arbitrary characteristics instead; this can make it difficult for a writer to separate where their usual expectations and standards end and the wild reminiscing of “the better days” begins.
Criticism imprisoned in nostalgia is a fruitless search for an answer. It is an endeavor to come up with contradictory and endlessly-shifting reasons for disappointment with a game, a series or video games as a whole. It is painful to read, because nothing can bring back the writer’s past.
It is perfectly fine to say “I have so many good memories with this game”, but if I can’t even find any reasons why the game gives those memories, there isn’t much point to write an essay, is there?
It is invaluable for me to internalize parting ways with my sentences and trim everything down until all words flow from the core idea. It is actually quite easy to write a lot, but finding the perfect length is an underrated craft.
Video essays are infamous for their length, but brevity is even more important for written content. Unless you are a known games-writer or write about new, shiny, topical games; people tend to not read essays over about 4000–5000 words. My personal ideal is the range of 2000–3000 words, that’s enough to perfectly cover all my opinions without going off rails. If there are paragraphs that feel worth keeping but also look isolated from rest, then that block can be expanded into its own article.
Brief beginnings and memorable endings
It’s very tempting to start essays with a weasel like “[insert topic] is popular/important”, and continue it for an entire paragraph. In truth, we all know no one reads those, yet we do it anyway because introductions can be seriously paralyzing. When this is the case, I advise to dive right into the heart of the matter and leave beginning to later. It is much easier to write intros when the essay has a solid shape. When you get ready, you can choose between two main styles:
- Setting the topic: List the questions and claims that will be examined and define the subject of the critique. Academic essays use this method a lot because the intro can reliably be extracted from the text itself.
- Setting the mood: An anecdote, some purple prose, a quick rundown of history or a funny quote. Featured essays on magazines or websites often have stylistic touches to make them memorable. I usually don’t do this but they can be fun in the right hands.
Writing an ending is more straightforward. You can summarize your ideas and give a final verdict, that’s a safe and sound method. But an ending can be more than that: “Writing is a journey” is not just a sappy line, an essay can be concluded in such an astonishing way that can transform even any basic opinion into a profound statement. At the very least, the reader will not feel like their time is wasted.
I hope that you find my introspection about games-writing worth your time too!
This article is written thanks to my dearest Patrons, namely: Acelin, Effy, Laura Watson, MasterofCubes, Makkovar, Morgan, Olympia, Otakundead, Sasha. Also thanks to Alex (@jyhadscientist on twitter) for his perfect editing work.