You don’t know what you talk/write about
Having written for quite some while for a German adventure games website, then in irregular instances for this blog here, I kind of got to the point in questioning what use reviews have and how to write them. A bit of routine helped, but also hindered the writing process. Because it’s easy to see how certain text forms follow patters and one can’t feel but that some expressions and constructions are used again and again.
I’ve never been a fan of music reviews (that’s why I don’t write them), but today I read a very short one about the German screamo/indie/hardcore/acoustic (whatever label you like) band Thoughts Paint The Sky’s new album. The gist of it was that the album is not easy to digest, but contains intellectual texts which are worth listening to, all in all being something “interesting” which needs the music lover’s attention… but apparently not right for the “target community”.
First: what’s a target community? Target audience yes, but community? Then the whole talk of intellectual texts is misleading as it bears with it some negative connotations (at least in my book, there are enough indie bands, especially in Germany, I can’t listen to anymore because of that). What’s actually left for the uninformed reader? A very short summary of a product the reviewer didn’t know what to write about.
Prolonged shortness of ideas
And that’s the problem with reviews: Either they don’t tell you enough or too much. How many times do you get a full-length explanation of plot development, character motivation etc. in a movie review? I still want to watch the damn thing, right? I don’t need a page-long discussion of psychological analysis, same with the endless inclusions of worn-out expressions like “masterpiece”, “impressive” and so on.
I can understand how game reviews go a bit deeper, especially when the explanation of game mechanics are crucial as they either make or break the experience. But again they so often go too far and tell the reader things he should experience first-hand, like set-pieces in an action game or story development in an adventure title.
I confess that this happened to me too and will happen again when writing about an adventure game as the genre doesn’t offer much variety in gameplay, so you’re left with story, characters, setting.
Inform the reader that you don’t have a clue either, but a wide repertoire of words
Still it’s a thin line to walk between informing the reader if the thing is for him (be it a movie, game, CD, book etc.) and just shutting the hell up when it’s appropriate…especially if one doesn’t even want to write about it anyway.
I’ve tried to apply some typical ways of writing reviews in my blog, i.e. giving an outline of what the plot of a film is like. But I found out that this is quite a waste of time. You can read that for yourself on the backcover of BDs/DVDs or on IMDB. Usually when I want to see a movie, I’d even avoid watching a trailer. Sometimes pictures are enough information for me and I make up my own mind. A movie might be seen in a better light if you talk about technical details like camera work, and (well) lightning, or you go the political/social/psychological commentary-way,
still IMHO this doesn’t tell you a whole lot about the whole package/experience. You can bombard me with how great the acting and the truthfulness of the source material in a film (again this critics’ jargon, making a distinction between film and movie!) like “Walk The Line” is, for me it’s still a boring 2-3 hours.
You are “we” and I tell you what to think
Another thing which constantly gets on my nerves when reading reviews is the way some writers address you directly, trying to establish a bond. Maybe it works with some people (or all, if this continues the way it does), but for me I always feel like someone is trying to pull my leg, making me stupid and uninformed. The German magazine PC Games which I loved reading at the beginning of my PC gaming experience (some 20 years ago) has become a joke of and in itself, being nothing more than a tabloid, making assumptions the reader is easily amused by references to German pop culture and politics. Maybe it’s just me, but if I want to have rolling-my-eyes-level humor, I’d watch some awful German comedians, not read a gaming magazine.
The repetitive use of “we”, “you” (aright, I use that one once in a while as well, but after all blogging is a more personal style and direct) is another thing which bugs me. I can see its implication, the general dilemma of the invisible audience, no direct reader-response, the “lonely writer”, but why does it always have to be generalizations, as if everyone watches a movie or plays a game like that?
I know it’s a completely subjective way of reading and it’s not to discriminate journalists who write like that, but for me I found out it’s not my style. As much as I love the UK magazine GamesTM (the way they take gaming culture and the evolution of the genre serious, maybe sometimes a bit too much), sometimes I wish there would be a bit more individuality, faces/names to appear after the articles and less superiority over the reader or humor which doesn’t work, at least for me.
The gist of it all: just keep it short and snappy!
So the only valid way for me to give an opinion about the material I write a review about, to give a recommendation or a Don’t-even-bother statement is trying to explain it in a more emotional way, point out some elements which I found pretty unique compared to other things I’ve seen/played before. Of course this can also lead to some rambling on, jumping between one thought and another, losing coherence. And in the end being so emotionally-influenced in THAT situation after re-watching/re-playing it, I could have a completely different opinion. But then again we all form our opinions that way, even though putting it down on paper, transforming thoughts into text (be it on the internet or on old-school paper) it might give you a new perspective. You in a general sense, not making any other implications.