Back in early 2017 I wrote several posts where I mentioned not enjoying writing video game reviews. Having previously come from a blog which was heavily review-focused with strict formatting templates, at that time I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather write less.
Blogging started as a creative outlet in 2013 but it had changed into something different and less fulfilling after three years. I eventually realised I was approaching each new gaming experience in a way that was almost clinical. Always having one eye on the lookout for material for the next article had turned my hobbies from something fun into essentially a job; and stepping back from it made me see I’d forgotten about the pleasure that comes from simply playing a video game.
It’s therefore no wonder I stayed away from review-writing for a long time after starting Later Levels in late 2016. I avoided accepting free releases from developers because doing so came with an obligation to produce a post, and I just didn’t have enough spare time to be able to play a title quickly or thoroughly enough to be able to do a summary of it justice. In addition, I didn’t want to spend my free hours playing a game I wasn’t enjoying yet was unable to stop because of a promise I’d made.
Over years since however I’ve slowly found myself entering back into review territory. This shift feels like a natural transition: I like both playing video games and writing about them, so why wouldn’t I want to share my thoughts? The difference now though is structure. Whereas there were formal guidelines for sections and numerical grading for the old blog, nowadays it’s more organic – as the Later Levels’ policy states, there is no set format for reviews.
Sometimes I’ll begin by writing about a particular gameplay aspect of a title and the draft will slowly develop into a critique. This is what happened with Resident Evil 7: Biohazard as I liked the way it handled playable cutscenes through VHS tapes; and Silence, because it contained a spoiler which ruined it for me. Other times I’ll write about a game as a whole if it made me feel something special. This was the case for Eastshade, an absolutely beautiful release which is now on my list of favourites.
Regular Later Levels visitors may have realised there are very few negative reviews here and the reason for that is quite simple: I don’t enjoy writing them. There are thousands of other summaries of the same game out there so I don’t need to provide one on the blog if I choose not to. I’m not scared to share a negative opinion about something I’ve played, but if I find myself not looking forward to writing once I’m sitting in front of my laptop then I’ll step away from the keyboard.
That’s not always possible though. Accepting a free key from a publisher doesn’t mean you’re legally required to publish a review, but it does mean you’re somewhat obliged to do so. Taking a game can be seen as an agreement and I’d feel guilty if I didn’t follow through on my end of the bargain. This was the case for Downward Spiral: Horus Station last year: sadly there were very few positive things I could say about the title, but I wanted to meet my obligations as a blogger.
It’s situations like this which have made me realise it’s vital not to accept every key you’re offered. As mentioned above, it’s important to remember to play video games for playing’s sake and there’s no point in wasting your time on a release you’re probably not going to enjoy. I now stick to taking keys for point-and-clicks and narrative titles only, and have built a relationship with a certain PR person with a similar taste in video games so she knows the sort of things I’d be interested in.
If you don’t yet have a review policy for your blog, think about creating one so visitors know what to expect. It will give you the chance to set out the standards for what you do and don’t cover, the way you’ll share your opinions and whether you’ll accept free keys, so there won’t be any surprises for both publishers and readers. Try to create something that works for both you and your site because, and I’m speaking from experience: it’s no longer fun when it turns into a job.
Critiques here on Later Levels may change again at some point in the future. But returning to them after several years away has been a positive experience and I’m happy with the way they’re turning out right now. Maybe one day I’ll actually use the medium of interpretive dance, like I’ve stated in the review policy – who knows?