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?
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.