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The Nature of Reviews

On 02/25/2013 at 11:20 PM by Julian Titus

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So, I find myself in a weird position now. See, I wrote reviews and features for a tiny website that got a decent amount of traffic but almost no feedback from readers. That was comfortable for me; I don’t do this because I want to be a famous games writer or even do this for a living. I mean, that would be great, but there are plenty of better writers than me that have been doing this professionally for far longer that can’t find work. And truth be told, the only difference between me as a staff writer and you as a reader is that I applied at PixlBit when they were looking for new writers and Nick liked my samples. Sheer tenacity and a willingness to review any and every game that comes my way have kept me here.

But it was nice and chill, because I didn’t really have an audience, or if I did I wasn’t aware of them. But then 1up got shut down, and we got a ton of new and amazing people signing up for our little website. And they comment a lot and speak their minds. That’s awesome. I can’t stress that enough. But I’m also scared to death. Because with new readers and vocal opinion comes a need to be better. I feel more under the radar now, and so far people have been really generous and kind with their words on some of my more recent pieces for PixlBit. But there’s going to come that point where I write a review or an opinion piece that someone is going to eviscerate me over, and I’m not used to that kind of scrutiny or negative feedback. I’m a sensitive dude, and I put my heart and soul into most of my writing. The times that I don’t are with those reviews that fall decidedly in the middle, and I think you’ll be able to tell them apart if you read enough of my stuff.

I’m the previews editor (I guess I should make that Previews Editor—more official-like), but I do reviews for PixlBit. Like, a lot of reviews. Like, enough reviews to have the title of Reviews Dude instead. And I love writing game reviews. I always have, to the point that I wrote a fanzine when I was in high school because I got tired of repeating my opinions on new PSX games to my friends. So I’ve been doing it for a long time…probably longer than anyone on the staff.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about my approach to reviews in a different way. I’m going to get my dirty laundry out of the way right now: my first PixlBit review was for the XBLA version of Guardian Heroes. Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait.

Yeah, it’s kind of rubbish. I wrote better reviews for my 1up blog. I would like to think I’ve gotten better since then, but I grow tired of the “by the numbers” style of reviews. We’re expected to hit certain points: graphics, story, controls, etc., as opposed to talking about how the game made us feel or what it meant to us personally. That’s not PixlBit’s decree, mind you, but that’s the way most people expect reviews.

I like to play with that formula. My Asura’s Wrath review is probably my favorite piece of content for PixlBit aside from my Final Fantasy retrospective. It’s interactive, and when you get to the end of it, you have a wonderful idea of the game and if it’s right for you as a player. Red Johnson’s Chronicles: One Against All was such a terrible experience for me that it made me question the very nature of video games, and for a hot second I was ready to sell off my whole collection and get out of this crazy hobby for good. It’s not a terrible game, but for me it was a terrible experience, and I think that has value.

So, now I have an audience, and I’ve been thinking about the nature of reviews. When I read a review, I like to get a sense of the person writing it and really learn their personality over time. That’s important, because reviews are completely subjective. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Diablo 3 and Mass Effect 3 were two of my favorite games of 2012. But I think Hotline Miami—an indie darling that people won’t stop talking about—is a disgusting game with tedious gameplay that doesn’t follow its own rules set. I think the Walking Dead is one of the best stories ever told in modern gaming, but if you asked me to review it you wouldn’t be happy. I happen to think it’s one of the worst video games of 2012.

So, I want to ask my new audience: what do you look for in reviews? Is the voice of the reviewer important to you, or are you just looking for a checklist of what the game does right and wrong? Is personal experience with a game something you want to read about, or does that get in the way of the information you’re really interested in? Obviously, video games are about more than one aspect of their design, and things like graphics and control are important. But sometimes a game is more than the sum of its parts. A game like Way of the Samurai 4 is something that I had tons of fun with, but it’s a poorly made game, and if you read my review I hope you understand that. But I’m learning a little bit more with each review, and feedback helps me grow.

Thanks for reading, and try not to be too hard on me with that Guardian Heroes review. I was a newbie.





02/25/2013 at 11:44 PM

Don't worry about me eviscerating you over a review Julian. If I disagree with your opinion, I might say something, but in a civil manner. I try to cover everything in my reviews (graphics, music, gameplay,etc.) because that's what I'm used to reading. Although I do try and make them funny or entertaining sometimes. I think that gaining insight into the reviewer's personality over time is a wonderful thing.

Julian Titus Senior Editor

02/25/2013 at 11:59 PM

Thanks. To be honest, I'm not really worried about everyone who moved into PixlBit over the weekend. Everybody has been very cool and even handed with their comments and criticisms. That's the reason I liked to blog at 1up, after all. But now we're looking at a period of real growth. I don't know if we'll get as big as 1up, but with such a big (well, influential) site going away we stand to fill in the void, and I remember how much hate Jose Otero and Bob Mackey could get on reviews. It scares me, lol.


02/26/2013 at 12:07 AM

Yeah that's true. When Bob Mackey did his Ni No Kuni review there was a massive flame war going on about it. I don't think it's gonna come to that though. You guys got something special going on here. It feels a lot more personal than over at 1up. Plus you don't HAVE to read the comments lol. =P 

Julian Titus Senior Editor

02/26/2013 at 12:11 AM

Just like I don't HAVE to look at my achievements list every time I pop a new one, right? :P


02/26/2013 at 12:43 AM

You may find that most of us are pretty level-headed. Yeah, with Ni no Kuni you see that a negative review on everyone's favorite game got a lot of heat but I think most of those were from faceless commenters who were just linked from the site from metacritic. I don't think we'll be seeing those guys anytime soon.


02/26/2013 at 01:06 AM

I don't think you should change the way you write just because the perceived amount of faceless people will be greater in number.  Your opinions and approach should be the same whether you have 1 reader or 1,000 readers.  When they start changing to make the reader happy, that's when you know you have a problem.  Any review that you write is your opinion, it's not a fact.  If you hate Hotline Miami that's your opinion.  I happened to like the game, and that's my opinion.  They're two sides of a coin and neither one is right.  Keep doing whatever feels right to you and everything will be fine.  As for myself, I comment on the occasional blog from time to time, but I generally don't comment on reviews or features, etc.  So you're safe from one faceless person at least.


02/26/2013 at 02:49 AM

I agree with this guy.  Nothing is quite as awkward as trying to change the way you write, especially if you're changing your style to a way you don't agree with.  It's easier to defend your piece if you can stand behind it in its entirety rather than try to explain bits and pieces of it.  Hope this comment makes sense, but keep doing what you're doing in my opinion Smile

Matt Snee Staff Writer

02/26/2013 at 02:45 AM

While every writer writes for an audience, it's important not to give too much power to the audience.  You have to stick to your own vision, and find a balance between what you want to do, and what they want to read.  

Most of us are pretty civil.  But you never know what might set someone off.  I think you have to be detached about it, no matter how emotionally connected you are to your piece.  

I've written some pretty incendiary blogs, and I was always shocked by the response sometimess, and even overreacted on occasion. That's kind of why I like to be just a blogger and not a professional.  

As far as what reviews should be, I struggled with this as well when I was on a staff at a site. I think you have to make it personal, but you also have to have the ability to put someone else's shoes on, and imagine how other people might like it or not like it.  

One of my reviews was for Mass Effect 3, and I liked the ending. But I tried to understand that not everyone would, so I conveyed that in my review.  Obviously, people who hated the ending would think I was too even-handed.  And people who loved it would think I was being too critical. You just have to be honest, I guess, and hope for the best.  


02/26/2013 at 08:37 AM

The voice of the reviewer is much more important to me than the checklist approach. I have loved some games that got terrible reviews and hated some that got excellent reviews. I'm more likely to get a game based on the experience someone has had with the game and written about than a by the numbers review.


02/26/2013 at 08:55 AM

I care more for the 'voice of the reviewer' than for any number or checklist.  I completely agree that reviews are subjective, so I like to get a feel for the reviewer when reading the review.  

  Sometimes I'll read a review from a reviewer that I like, and who thinks the game they are reviewing is bad, but after having read the review I realize that I'll probably end up liking the game.  If it was just a checklist review without any commentary then I'd have no way of knowing this.


02/26/2013 at 02:17 PM

Don't change your style.  Review the way you have been and be honest with yourself and us.  That's why we are all here.


02/26/2013 at 07:05 PM

I've heard you talk about it plenty before, but that's the first time I've ever seen the cover of an issue of your fanzine, it's really cool.

I anticipated that you would feel like this once the bigger audience came along and it would make you think about your writing and how people will receive it. You're a big teddy bear like you said one time, but just continue to write with the philosophies you already have and the voice you have. I like the way you review, think, write, and approach critiques and discussions. I'm partial to it and don't want to see it change. I think it's very fair, honest, and thoughtful. Back in the day when you said you gave FF7 a perfect score and were a bit of a fanboy I didn't know you back then but it seems like quite a different person from what you are now. Scores aren't the important part of a review, but when you do give scores they tend to make sense when you pair them with the context and description of your experience in the review. The score you gave Duke Nukem and more importantly the description of your experience with the game made perfect sense when I read the review. And at a time when people were overly ridiculous and raging about the game, your review was the single one that made sense and seemed fair.

The writers voice and the description of his experience is the most important part of the review, and it's mostly just hit and miss. You have to listen to the writer's voice, and if you like it you can get to know a writer over time, it gives you context to how they think and what they like. Once you like a writer you can read their thoughts on the game, and the extra bits like numerical score will just fall in place and make more sense once you have the previous context. Some people will like the reviewer's voice, and some won't. That kind of hit and miss nature probably leads some people to try and make reviews purely by the numbers like its science which in turn puts the writer at less risk of personal involvement and investment since they're just checking boxes and making suggestions to buy or not buy.

The checklist kind of stuff and numerical score stuff isn't bad or unnecessary. Games aren't only about experience and emotion, there's an art and design to it, so I still love to see the technical aspects of a game be torn down and analyzed critically, but the review shouldn't loose the writer's voice. The voice should be the bulk of it and the score and technical stuff just adds to it.

Julian Titus Senior Editor

02/27/2013 at 09:50 AM
You've always been very kind with your comments and have kept me going when I didn't feel like writing. I'm sad that I only have two copies of PlayStation Revolution. I think I printed about 6 or 7 issues in the span of a year and a half. Not bad, considering I was renting games on my allowance to get stuff for review. Maybe one of these days I'll post a blog reprinting some of my reviews. Sadly, FF VII isn't in the two issues I still have.

Casey Curran Staff Writer

02/26/2013 at 10:41 PM

Don't worry about it man. I was going to start doing it more often before 1up shut down because I just got the idea this year, but if the comments ever get too out of control, I like to make a blog cherry picking the worst of the worst for everyone to laugh at. So maybe those can always cheer you up.

Julian Titus Senior Editor

02/27/2013 at 09:47 AM

Thanks for all of the feedback! I don't want to give the impression that I'd change a score based on what I think people are expecting. My reviews scores are my reviews scores, and reflect my experience. While I'm anxious at the thought of my reviews coming under closer scrutiny (and possible gamer rage) I would never try to tailor a review to avoid heat.

As far as the way I write, I think our styles naturally change over time. I've written reviews off and on for 16 years, and my approach to them has changed a lot in that time. I like to play with the review format, and I do think that putting more personality and less "bullet points" on the separate elements of games is more interesting. I'll take all of these comments to heart as I work on my Metal Gear Rising review.

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