Do you need to complete a game to review it?

My relationship with video game reviews has evolved over the years. After publishing them every week to then stopping completely, I now exist somewhere in the middle where I write them whenever the mood takes me or there’s an obligation to do so.

At the time of drafting this post, I’m trying to complete an upcoming title for which the developer kindly sent me a key. I don’t accept them as frequently as I used to and don’t look at all those I receive, because I’ve learnt it’s important to play video games for playing’s sake and there’s no point in slogging through something which isn’t your cup of tea. I now take review keys for point-and-clicks and narrative release only, as it’s more likely I’ll find something I’ll enjoy if I stick to my preferred genres.

This should be the case with this current game. The forty minutes I spent with a demo during one of the Steam Game Festivals last year showed promise of a sweet adventure with an interesting storyline and logical puzzles. The thing is though, I’m stuck. I’ve been searching for an object or what I need to make it for over two hours now and I have no idea what else to try. Although I don’t have a problem with checking a walkthrough when I need to, none have been published so far as the title hasn’t yet been released.

Sure, I could get in touch with the developer and ask for a hint, but it doesn’t feel entirely right to do so and I’m struggling to put my finger on why. Maybe it’s to do with pride? I’d feel embarrassed if their response pointed towards an obvious solution that I’d overlooked. The game is due to come out in two days’ time so it’s unlikely I’ll be able to finish and write a post about it before then – and it’s this situation that made me start thinking about whether you need to fully complete a release to be able to review it.

The default answer on many forums is ‘yes’ but commentors seem to have a range of opinions when it comes to the definition of ‘finishing’. Does it mean experiencing every possible bit of content within a title? Do you need to go for 100% completion or just get through the central storyline? What about games like Minecraft where no such thing exists, or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim where the main quest-line is only a fraction of the whole? And what about those releases where certain content is optional?

Although I’m not sure I can give a definitive answer, I certainly think there’s a line. For example, there’s no way you could play an hour of something like Horizon Zero Dawn and then be knowledgeable enough to write a full critique. The reviewer needs to at least get to a point where they feel confident in saying they understand what the title is trying to do and the message it’s attempting to convey, but even this doesn’t account for unforeseen plot-twists or mechanic changes that appear late in the game.

Maybe it’s more appropriate to publish a review about an unfinished release when it’s light on narrative and focused on gameplay? Let’s consider a simple example. I shared my thoughts on colouring-by-numbers title Coloring Pixels in September 2019 after completing several of the images. It didn’t feel necessary to wait until I’d finished all those available back then because, once I’d had my fill of clicking, the only thing that was going to change was the size of the pictures.

But adventure games are different and more complex. It’s impossible to properly critique a release which concentrates on narrative when you haven’t witnessed how the entire storyline unfolds; and there’s always the possibility of a bad puzzle right at the end which spoils the whole experience. But what about choice-based entries in the genre where the conclusion depends on your decisions? Do you have to keep replaying until you’ve seen all of them or will just once suffice for review purposes?

As a general principle, I’ve always set out to complete at least the main storyline in a game before writing about it. And in those situations where it isn’t yet available to the public or I’ve played only the demo, I’ll classify the post as a preview so there’s a boundary and readers know what to expect. But what about those titles I really don’t enjoy and can’t bring myself to finish, yet still want to write about? Should I force myself to continue with them even if I’m bored or frustrated?

My immediate answer is ‘no’. There’s absolutely no sense in wasting your precious free hours on something which isn’t entertaining. Although my review policy explains that I usually choose not to cover games I haven’t enjoyed, if there did happen to be one at some point, the post would make it clear that I hadn’t reached the end and go over the reasons why. This behaviour is something I’d respect from other bloggers too – but would I feel the same if it were a journalist?

blogging, laptop, hands, keyboard

On one hand, I think it’s important to take a step back and remember that people who review video games for a living are just like us. They have adult responsibilities, family commitments and conflicting priorities at work, and having to slog through a terrible release is soul-destroying for anyone. But on the other, journalists are paid for their content. I’m expected to complete projects fully as part of my job so shouldn’t they have to finish releases in their entirety before reviewing them?

Even after spending the afternoon writing this discussion, I’m still no clearer on where I stand on this subject and can’t give a definitive answer to most of the questions raised here. I guess it depends on what the release is, why you’re reviewing it, whether you received it from a developer or purchased it yourself, how much free time you have available and a whole bunch of other factors. What do you think: do you need to complete a game to be able to review it?

As for the title I’m playing right now, I’d like to finish it before publishing my post. The developer was kind enough to send me a review key and I’d like to show them the same respect by completing their project and doing it justice. There’s only two days to go now until it’s released. Hopefully someone will publish a walkthrough straight away and I can finally find that damn object.

Frosti-writes: honesty in your posts

One of the hardest things you can do as a gaming blogger is write a review. On one hand, you want to give your readers an honest opinion and let them know if a game is worth their time and money. Then on the other, you want to give the developer credit for their effort.

These sides don’t always play nicely together and can conflict if the release is a bad one. It’s especially difficult if the review is for a game you received via a free key because you might feel a bad critique could damage your relationship with the developer or publisher. Come across a critique which absolutely gushes about a title but doesn’t specifically explain why it’s so good and is extremely far removed from most other opinions on it, and you’ve likely found a blogger who’s experiencing this kind of struggle.

It can be a balancing act, and a lesson I’ve had to learn myself since starting blogging. I now only accept keys for games which are the sort of thing I usually enjoy – point-and-clicks or narrative-based adventures – and I know which public relations (PR) contacts are likely to promote those sort of experiences. Accepting a free code comes with the obligation of publishing a review, and life is too short to spend playing video games you’re not enjoying and then having to write about them.

That being said though, it’s important to never shy away from expressing your opinion even if it’s a negative one. It is your blog after all. But it’s just as vital to make sure you’re able to explain why you feel the way you do. The reason ‘I just didn’t like it’ can sometimes be valid and the only one you can give, but it isn’t enough if you’re trying to give a well-rounded critique to your audience. It also doesn’t give the developer much to go on: if you’re able to provide more details, they then have opportunity to improve their work in the future.

Someone who I admire in this regard is Frostilyte from Frostilyte Writes. His honesty (along with his awesome artwork) is one of the reasons I enjoy his posts and streams as much as I do. If he has a view on a video game or genre that many others are unlikely to agree with, he doesn’t shy away from it. Instead he’s happy to talk about it and always strives to explain his opinion so you can see where he’s coming from, and you can be certain when reading one of his reviews that it’s really what he thinks.

I first realised this when watching him on a Frosti Fridays evening as he began streaming Hollow Knight to his Twitch channel a few months ago. My other-half had attempted to play Ori and the Blind Forest for our GameBlast20 challenge earlier this year, and made a comment in chat about the coordination to play these kind of Metroidvania titles. This moved us on to a conversation about our thoughts on Moon Studios’ release and Frosti wasn’t scared to give an opinion that was quite different to most I’ve heard before.

His honesty during this situation, along with his very kind nomination for the Super Happy Love Award last month, made me think about the way I express my own opinions. Do I ever ‘adapt’ them so as not to be so far removed from general consensus or seem like I’m just trying to be different from the majority? I already know that I don’t like writing negative reviews, because if I’ve not enjoyed playing a game then I’m not going to enjoy writing about it either; is this a part of it too?

Twitch, stream, chat, Frostilyte, Frostilyte Writes

It’s possible that I hold back in my posts without even realising I’m doing it sometimes. This could come in part from not wanting to share my blog with many people in my real life and concern about what they might think if they stumble across it. It can also be hard to say what you truly think about a game or a company when you know so many others around you feel completely differently. For example, I’ve had an idea for a post about Nintendo for a while now but I’ve always been too scared to write it.

Perhaps it’s time to start letting go of the doubts we feel about sharing our thoughts as bloggers and the worry we feel when expressing a different view. Everyone here in our community has different backgrounds and experiences which make us each react to the video games we play in a way which is unique to us. It’s this which keeps our conversations interesting: there’s something to be learned from everyone we speak to and every discussion is a chance to open your eyes to something you might not have considered before.

Talking to Frostilyte during his streams has made me want to be more open in my writing. The thing he has taught me over the past few months is that it’s ok to have your own opinion, even if it’s totally unlike that conveyed by everybody else. But you’ve got to be able to explain it so others can understand why you’ve arrived at this view, even if they don’t necessarily agree with you. It’s certainly something I’m going to try to stick to – as well as tuning in for more Frosti Fridays.

I know what I’m doing this afternoon now. It’s time to finally start writing that post explaining why I don’t like Nintendo.

Reviewing the review policy

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.

Eastshade, video game, countryside, mountains, hot-air balloon, easel, canvas, painting

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.

Downward Spiral, Horus Station, space, planet, stars, arms

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?

Dear Stylist: it’s not just film

Dear Stylist team,

I read your magazine on a regular basis and I, as do many others in London, truly appreciate your campaign to celebrate the brilliance of women. Strong, empowered female role models make such a difference to the world and their confidence, leadership and accomplishments inspire us to be the best we can be.

Your recently-launched Under Her Eye competition is therefore what the movie industry has been waiting for. As said by Editor-in-Chief Lisa Smosarski last week: “The majority of film reviews are through a male gaze. That means it’s a man writing about what the film is like from his experience. They can tell you a lot of great things about life through a male lens… but they can’t tell you what it feels like to be a woman.”

So is this my 600-word entry in the hope of becoming a member of your new film review team? Unfortunately not (so at least that’s one less to go through on your huge pile). While I fully support the need to boost the number of female critics from a fifth, I’m not at all qualified and there are people out there who could do a far better job than I ever could. I can’t even sit through a 90-minute movie without becoming twitchy and fidgeting in my seat.

What I do know however is video games. I’ve been playing them since discovering at a young age that worlds I thought only existed in books were able to come alive through pixels on a screen. I get the impression that not many on the Stylist team are gamers (Portal isn’t a ‘first-person shooter’ by the way) but that isn’t important: I’m sure you know how visual mediums such as this and film are amazing ways to share incredible experiences and see the world through another’s eyes.

I also know the hostility shown towards women who play video games, and those who have the audacity to then go on to write about them. I’ve been blogging since 2013 and although there has been improvement in the past five years, the community still isn’t where it needs to be. I’ve been harassed in online games; sent obscenities through my blog’s Facebook page; told that a man could do a better job than I could on Twitter; and ignored at gaming events and conferences by developers and PR reps in favour of my male colleagues.

The same as with film, we need more female video game reviewers. But that’s just the starting point because we need more diverse reviewers in all aspects, not only gender. Each person touched by a story relates to it in a different way, and we can learn so much about both ourselves and the world around us by sharing those experiences with each other.

I count myself lucky at having found a place in an awesome blogging community where sex or any other defining quality doesn’t matter. I’m surrounded by amazing women who inspire me every day by sharing their thoughts on the games they’ve played and stories they’ve experienced. We may not be recognised by the professionals in the gaming industry or have millions of readers, but we’re doing what we can to make sure the female voice is heard.

I wish you all the luck with finding your new film reviewing team and look forward to reading about the competition’s progress. Whoever the lucky women are, I’m sure they’re going to do brilliantly.

Yours sincerely,

Later Levels

PS: apologies for going over the word-count by four. I guess I’ve just got a lot to say on the subject.