"How do I become a game reviewer?" I get that question a lot, and the answer is never simple. I can tell you how I became a game reviewer, though it is far less glamorous than you'd imagine. I wrote for a few years for a site called Inside Gamer Online, which then became Gamer 2.0, without getting paid a dime, and while moderating in the GameSpot forums. Eventually, I started to freelance for GameSpy. (My first professional review was for the putrid Crime Life: Gang Wars.) Some time later, I got a call from GameSpot and made an important life decision: I moved across the country to become part of a team I greatly admired.
The most important thing you can do before becoming a professional reviewer is to know and understand the greatest tool of your trade: The written word. No matter how tight your connections and how strong your evaluation skills, you probably won't join a major publication unless you have a good command of language, and the talent to use that language to communicate your point of view. That doesn't mean I think of myself as some sort of game reviewing guru; I am just a guy that happens to be pretty good at writing, so I don't want to sound like a pretentious snob! But I'm lucky to work with the best, and the best part of working with the best game writers in the business is that we learn from each other. The more I read the work of my peers, the better my own writing becomes, and I hope that I can inspire them in the same way.
In any case, a lot of people ask me for advice, so I hope the thoughts I have cobbled together help aspiring critics out there. Please take things with a healthy dose of reality; every publication cultivates its own style, so perhaps my advice isn't universal. But I hope that my musings might offer armchair critics looking to make it big something to think about.
This book's most important advice: "Omit needless words." Lose the adverbs and tighten up the writing. And here you thought Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little were E.B. White's finest achievements!
1 -- Know the rules of grammar and punctuation, and spell correctly.
This is basic advice that probably sounds silly to you. You may be surprised, however, at how lightly some take the English language. All the minutiae your teachers tossed at you is meaningful. Diagramming sentences isn't very compelling, but it's the basis for understanding the structure of our language. Knowing the difference between "its" and "it's," knowing that "Ludacris" is not the same as "ludicrous," knowing that a "mute" point is not the same as a "moot" one--these are important bits of knowledge. And don't leave out the dots and squiggles we use to punctuate the written language. Learning when to use a colon ( : ) and a semicolon ( ; ) is just as important as knowing the difference between "they're," "there," and "their."
This isn't the place for me to hammer on the basics; there are volumes written about the form and style of the language. Start with Strunk & White's The Elements of Style. For punctuation, I am a huge fan of Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots, & Leaves. There are (shockingly) a lot of entertaining books about grammar out there, so don't worry that reading about language has to be as tedious as watching the grass grow.
Knowledge is power!
2 -- Read a lot.
Read. Voraciously. And I don't just mean game reviews. Read everything you can, and don't limit yourself to Tom Clancy and Stephen King--and don't avoid them either! There is so much to learn from other writers, and even if you don't consciously analyze everything you take in, it still seeps into you. But next time you read a book, pay closer attention. If you like something, ask yourself: What makes that passage so good? You might be surprised to discover all the tricks you learned in English class at work. A good metaphor or a bit of alliteration can have an enormous effect. (Aside: I am a big fan of alliteration. You shouldn't force it, but choosing the right words can make all the difference. "Far-flung fields" and "distant meadows" mean the same thing, but the alliteration on the former phrase might help the sentence sing, while the latter snippet might make it sink like a stone.) Take notice of these things and try to incorporate them in your own writing. Which reminds me:
3 -- Don't stick to a precise format.
Experiment. It's good to have an idea of the points you want to hit, and it's good to start out working with a comfortable format. But eventually, try to move away from the dry template of intro-story-gameplay-graphics-conclusion. Sometimes the old chestnut format is perfectly fine. But when you finish a game, the things that mattered most to you don't always adhere to such a cut and dry formula, do they? If story doesn't matter in a particular game, why start with it? Let the game help you decide how you should write about it. Killzone 2's story doesn't stand out; that's why I didn't write about it until the bottom of the first page of the review. In addition, while its visuals were astounding, I wanted to communicate to the reader that this wasn't just another pretty game--that its most important feature was its core shooting action. That's why I didn't start by mentioning the visuals, though I knew most other reviewers probably would.
See if you can do the same. Play with language and don't feel as if you need to put your thoughts in some rigid, pre-ordained order. That doesn't mean to throw random thoughts at the page; you still have to organize your points. (Don't talk about the story in paragraph two, and then start in again on it in paragraph six, unless you have a good reason for doing so.) But try letting the game inspire how you write about it. If it's a beautiful game like Okami, write in flowery language that bursts with imagery. If it's Condemned, use bright, punchy words. Play with language and see what happens.
This novel had a big impact on me. Let your favorite authors inspire you.
4 -- Avoid cliches.
This is a tough one, because cliches don't start as cliches, but are born from overuse. I find them creeping into my own writing all the time and have to be incredibly careful, because they can enter my vocabulary and are hard to remove. Here are some of my least favorite game writing cliches. Feel free to add some of your own in the comments below!
-- "The graphics are a mixed bag." This chestnut makes my skin crawl. Never use the phrase "mixed bag." Want to know why? Google the above phrase, in quotes, and see how many reviews appear. You'll immediately understand why.
-- "A helping of gaming goodness," or similar phrases. Don't do that. That one's older than that phrase about things being older than your grandma.
-- "The blah-blah-blah series started in 1990 with the advent of blah-blah-blah." Feel free to mention previous games if you are reviewing a sequel! But you don't need to devote an entire paragraph listing the history of a franchise. It's the fastest way to get me to click away from the page.
-- "I'm a big fan of XYZ." It doesn't matter. Which leads me to:
5 -- Remember that it's about the game, not about you.
I'm not against use of the first person (in other words, using "I" in a review), though GameSpot review policy is that we don't use first-person point of view, with occasional exceptions made for "we." But whether or not you use "I," don't forget that you are evaluating a game, not writing an essay about your life or gaming habits. Try to avoid beginning your reviews like this: "I was a big fan of the original Ninja Gaiden." Or, "I played with Transformers when I was a kid, so I was excited to play the latest Transformers game." Or, "When I heard that David Jaffe was working on a new Monster Hunter game, I definitely had my reservations." (Side note: I made that up. Don't get too worried that David Jaffe is making a Monster Hunter game!) The reason to avoid a similar statement is simple: It's irrelevant.
This can sometimes be taken to absurd levels. Entire paragraphs may be dedicated to gaming theory, what the author thinks of the current direction of DLC, or treatises on the future of adventure games. Reviews are evaluations of a product. I'm not against giving the reader some context, but I think it's absolutely important to remember that the review isn't about you--it's about the game. If you spend any amount of time writing about something that has nothing to do with your evaluation, consider approaching the review differently. This harks back to my earlier point: Let the game decide how you should write about it.
Stephen King's greatest advice, from his great book On Writing: "Murder your babies." If you are in love with something you wrote but it doesn't make the article better, lose it. Even if it makes you cry.
6 -- Think critically.
One thing I've learned over time is that there is a difference between "I liked this game a lot" and "this is a superb game." I am thankful that I had such great mentors as Alex Navarro, Greg Kasavin, Jeff Gerstmann, and Justin Calvert. They taught me that the final experience is what matters, but that the experience needs to be put in context. I might have fun with a game, and obviously fun is important--but that's not all that matters. Learning how to think critically is just as important, and just as time-consuming, as learning the written craft. It takes time, but I think it's helpful to remember two things.
Firstly, just because you like a game doesn't make it a 9/10, or an A, or a five-star game. It's easy to get caught up in an experience, but don't forget all the other times you had similar experiences. Is the game really great--or is it just good? Is it really as awesome as that game you played last week, which you also thought was "ohmygod 10/10!?" This doesn't mean that you shouldn't express your opinion and back it up! But remember to stay grounded in reality. This is why you should play as many games as you can: You need to give yourself a frame of reference. If the game gives you that buzz that only the special games can, shower it with praise! But if every positive review you write is so glowing that you can navigate your basement with it, you might need to step back a bit.
Secondly, don't be a slave to the public school interpretation of scores. This is less of an issue if you are working with a 5-star system, but the A-F and 0-10 (or 0-100) scales come with a vast amount of baggage stored away in our minds. I was guilty of this myself when I was writing at Inside Gamer Online. A 6/10 seemed so incredibly low to me then, and we're all attached to this specific system we learn at school that tells us that 70% is something to be ashamed of. This is, I believe, why you may see generally lower scores coming from European publications than American ones. European schools don't structure grades the way we do in the US; the stigma attached to these kinds of scores is unique to us.
Take all of this advice with an open mind. I'm not a genius, just a dude that loves what he does for a living. But I think this is sensible advice that's worked well for me, though the lessons didn't all come easy. I'm still growing as a writer, but as long as I continue to love games and love the written word, I plan to keep writing. If you ever want me to take a look at something you've written, I try to offer feedback whenever someone asks. It might take time, but I usually follow up!
In the meanwhile, feel free to follow me on Twitter, where I frequently hand out plenty of pointless advice free of charge, and without being asked!