Monday, June 6, 2022

Editorial: Why and How I Review

For nearly a score I’ve written videogame reviews, first as a reader for the roleplaying game-centric RPGamer, after which I went freelance once the website stopped accepting reader reviews. During my career as a game journalist, I’ve dealt with scale changes on the website, beyond which I’ve experimented with different review scales, for some time no scores, and then my current metric. Early in my writing career, a few have sometimes asked the question of why I write reviews in the first place, and in this editorial, I’ll explain the whys and the hows of my journalistic ambitions.

The Whys

I wrote my first review for the PlayStation remake of Dragon Quest IV a few years after the turn of the millennium, but back then, I was fanboyish and did so to draw attention to the game that at first Enix promised an English release, only for them to go back on their word due to issues with the Japanese studio that had developed it. I also didn’t have a very good grasp on review scores, and tended to view the quality of the various aspects of games in black and white terms, with little gray area in between.

Thus, 1’s and 10’s, when RPGamer had its 1-10 videogame review scale, were my most common scores to the sundry aspects of whatever RPGs I reviewed. I would, even in the infancy of my videogame reviewing career, see major faults even in titles that received widespread acclaim among both “professional” game reviewers and even audiences, and to this day, I still see even many titles that are “universally” acclaimed as having huge flaws, although I hadn’t yet discovered the forums of RPGamer full of the site’s readers that tended not to respect my opinion.

One of the early turning points in my career as a videogame reviewer was when I submitted my critical opinion on Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht, where my primary criticisms of the game included the half-hearted turn order meter in combat that only showed unit command sequence for only a few turns before “running out” and “refilling,” not to mention the unpredictable enemy boost system, although as one reader called me out on the forums because my logic had its flaws, I would eventually devise the “re-review,” where I tried to refine my opinion more than I had before.

In most instances when I go through a game again, I start from scratch, scarcely bothering to retain points in my last review. I would write reviews for RPGamer and was the site’s first reader to reach fifty, but the site’s review posting noting my milestones regarding the quantity of my reviews, and most of them shamed me, given my attempts to refine my writing. Were there a Guinness record, I would most likely set the record for “most re-reviews,” and I still believe game journalism is a living, breathing art.

RPGamer would eventually move from an /10 reviewing scale to an /5 metric, given that the “curse” of school-grading continues to plague mainstream videogame reviews that largely use /10 and /100 scales, where 7/10 and 70/100 scores are “average,” and anything below means certain games, with some exceptions, aren’t very good. The RPG-centric site would add .5 scores for the /5 scale, given the sound logic there’s sufficient enough difference in the quality of games to justify more specific scoring, although to this day, the website still uses whole numbers for the attributes of what its staff reviews.

I would eventually go rogue in regards to my videogame reviewing, with the key turning point in that respect being a positive review I posted to the site for the Nintendo DS RPG Nostalgia. One of the official reviewers of the site, who didn’t like the game, attempted to gaslight my review as “weak” instead of intelligently discussing the game with me. Further disagreement with the site’s staff and many forum posters would ultimately lead to my divorce from contributing to the site, and as they didn’t respect my unique perspective, further evidenced by their constant bans on whatever future accounts I created there, I don’t wholly trust its reviewers.

Perhaps the primary reason I review games today is that as an autistic gamer, I have an incredibly-unique perspective that I won’t allow elitist apologists, idolators, or iconoclasts for many games to censor. It’s probably my fault for my early tenure as a reviewer for not embracing the fact that I had and still have high-functioning autism, but it influences most aspects of what I consider to be positives and negatives in videogames. My main motive in reviewing is to help likeminded gamers make better decisions regarding which games towards which to give their attention, and which to avoid.

The Hows

To help mainstream videogamers decide whether to consider me a reliable source in whatever they purchase and play, I definitely should be open about my current reviewing process. Prior to starting a new game, I use a template I’ve created for my reviews where I tally the positive and negative aspects of games, in my case the game mechanics, the control, the story, the localization if English isn’t the game’s native tongue, the aurals, the visuals, and the lasting appeal, and save said matrix with the name of whatever I intend to write a full review for after finishing the game, if possible.

The game mechanics are the general gameplay system of whatever I review, which includes what kind of battles it has, how they work. I tally the positive aspects of the mechanics, whether they have a turn order meter if turn-based, if battles are pausable if there are real-time aspects such as action-based gameplay, special moves that can turn the tide of combat, etc. I also tally negative aspects and whether I consider certain parts to be flaws (which can very much be subjective), such as difficulty spikes, a lousy camera, being able to make sense of the mechanics without reference to the internet, and the like.

The game’s control in my system refers to the gameplay elements not directly, or in some cases not indirectly, with the battle mechanics, such as whether one can pause the game outside battle, view total playtime (and the difficulty of being able to see how long one has played a game), navigate the menus easily, have a clear in-game direction of what to do next to advance the central storyline, whether there are in-game maps one can easily reference and find useful towards navigating the game’s various environments, whether there are mandatory minigames or puzzles one might need to use a guide to get past or are unskippable, the save system, etc.

The story, of course, refers to a game’s narrative and how cohesive it is, mostly sensible without internet reference. In my opinion, being able to make sense of a game’s plot is a sign of good writing, and not so being indicative of poor composition. A few pluses for a title’s story, in my mind, include in-game databanks of various terms and characters, a summary of the game’s plot, and so forth. Another area is whether the game forces its plot down the player’s throat, as most titles with unskippable voiced dialogue tend to feel, and lore-based plots indicated through collectibles tend to accomplish.

Localization, for the most part, tends to have a strong connection with the story, and can include things such as well-written dialogue, such as the Erdrick Dragon Quest games that have a Shakespearean flair, not to mention puns that really make one wonder how the original language’s script handled things in that regard. Bad writing, in my opinion, consists of endless spelling or grammar errors, incoherent dialogue, translation-induced plot holes, and the like. How well the translators adjusted the game menus, such as whether sections have clear naming, is another aspect, not to mention battle dialogue.

The aurals refer to the music, sound effects, and voicework of a game. With regards to the music, I tend to give points for whatever tracks are well-composed, and deduct for whichever tunes I find annoying or areas during the gameplay where music is completely absent. Sound effects should also be realistic, and if they sound like they come from several generations ago, like in the original Wild Arms, I count off points. Voice acting should also sound natural and fit the characters, not be forced down the player’s throat by being unskippable, and of course be of good quality.

The graphics, of course, refer to a game’s visual presentation. One can definitely find it difficult to score this particular aspect of a game, especially when it comes to older generations of videogames, and thus, I try to keep in mind if a particular title looked good for its time, akin to the first Phantasy Star, an eight-bit Sega Master System title that sported features such as anime cutscenes and animate enemies in battle. For more contemporary games, I consider aspects such as pixilation and blurriness with regards to the textures of environments, jaggies, colors, character sprite or model proportions, etc.

Another aspect some may consider subjective is the lasting appeal of the game, where I consider whether a title has a New Game+ mode, sidequests to extend playtime, narrative differences that result from choices the player makes during the game, trophies or achievements, and other things, which I’ll admit can be somewhat difficult to gauge in the case of older videogames, which tended to lack these things. I also consider whether a game is actually enjoyable enough to go through again, although there are some instances where even if a game is fun, there could be no replay value, in other words absolutely no reason to go through again.

One area of RPGs where I found it difficult to score, and which RPGamer still rates, is the “originality” of a game, which I think is somewhat asinine, given that remakes of older games are inherently “unoriginal”, and this area very much depends upon how much experience the player has playing videogames throughout various generations. Even the forefathers of contemporary titles aren’t absolutely one-hundred percent original, such as the very first Dragon Quest, which borrowed some elements from old Western RPGs and featured the “damsel in distress” trope. Originality can also be a bad thing, especially if it makes a game unenjoyable.

I find easy giving overall scores, where I average the numbers I give a title’s aspects, but other reviewers, it seems, pull these metrics from an unmentionable area of their body. For instance, I’ve seen reviews where their respective writers give a higher overall score than any of the numbers which they assigned to a game’s sundry attributes, and some where they rated a title lower than any of the metrics they’ve given to its areas of grading. Scores should, as I’ve known, reflect the text, and it makes no sense, in my opinion, to make endless complaints about an area of a game yet still give a high final grade in the end.

A final point I wish to make is that as a game reviewer, I’m a fallible, opinionated human, and appeal mostly to those gamers who are on the autism spectrum and/or have perspectives similar to mine. I’ll further confess that once in a while I make errors in regards to my critiques, and try to correct them when I have the time, another reason I consider game reviewing to be a living, breathing, evolving art. I believe that both the reception of games in their time of release and that years down the road are equally important, similar to movies that receive average or negative reviews when they first come out yet receive better acclaim years or even decades down the road, and vice versa.


Overall, I very much hope this editorial helps readers decide whether or not they can consider me a reliable source when it comes to the quality of videogames, specifically those in the roleplaying game genre. That I’m autistic very much plays a significant role in how I critique games and what I consider strong points and flaws in their design. However, given my distinct view of gaming in general, I have yet to find another game reviewer, whether “professional” or part of mainstream audiences, upon whom I can truly rely when it comes to purchasing and playing new games, but I hope to help those in especially the latter faction with my guidelines.

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