How to Pose as an Indie Reviewer
It’s hard to jumpstart a career as a AAA reviewer these days. The market is competitive, and the whole reason you play eighteen hours of games a day means that “competitive” sounds about as appealing as licking a plantar wart.
Have no fear! By following these 20 easy steps, you too can soon be reviewing indie games with the best of them. As we go along, we’ll take a look at an actual review of an indie game as an example of how to pose as an indie reviewer (Conquest of Elysium 3 review, found here).
1. Pun It Up
Everyone knows that indie reviewers—and readers of indie reviews—are bonkers for puns. If you can think up a primo pun to sit adjacent to your byline, you’re already two steps ahead in this industry.
For example, look at our chosen article. It’s reviewing a turn-based game, so its author has chosen the title “A Turn for the Worst.” This title is simultaneously descriptive and hilarious.
2. Don’t Like It
Before you begin writing, you should know that liking a game is the surest way to sound like just another dumbass kid shouting “Me too!” The solution is to have an Attitude of Rude. Only put out reviews that express how much you dislike a game. Don’t just say that the game was okay but could use another sprinkling of paprika; talk about how this is the worst sebaceous cyst to appear on the face of gaming in the last decade, and people will stand up straight and take note.
3. Embrace N.G.J.
You’ve probably noticed that more games writers are doing cool things like swearing. What you probably don’t know is that this is due to an awesome new movement called “New Games Journalism,” which was made up by a comic-book writer or something. In theory it means that authors can write much more artistic and subjectively-open reviews, but in practice it means that we can say whatever we want: take a controversial tone, abandon impartiality, and treat your audience the same way you treat your schlub pals. Once you’ve slapped down your title pun, ignore any need for a compelling intro. Just say something personable so your audience immediately knows that you’re buds and that your vibe has been really harshed by how badly you wanted to like this rad-sounding game but it really stinks and that’s a bummer yo right peeps?
Examine the introduction sentence of our example article: “Man, writing a harsh review really bums me out ya know?” This sort of tone relieves you of any personal responsibility, and establishes you as a righteous dude trying real hard to stick up for starving indie developers, but certain jerks simply make it impossible. Go ahead and maintain this tone throughout. If you find yourself struggling for consistent voice, imagine that you’re not wearing any pants and your T-shirt is stained with Tyson chicken grease (just look down if necessary).
4. Invite an Inapt Comparison
Everyone knows that well-informed people are able to drop comparisons as rapidly as they drop puns. The game you’re reviewing and any games you compare it to don’t actually have to be similar. If anyone notices this, they’re more likely to spend so much time thinking about your comparison that they’ll eventually fill in the holes themselves.
From our example: “The game in question happens to be a Heroes of Might and Magic-esque turn based strategy sim. I really love ‘em, but almost no one bloody makes them anymore!” Notice how this statement manages both to compare the game in question to a very dissimilar game, and to disregard the six numbered releases (the most recent from 2011) of the HoMM series (not counting any expansions or spin-offs). These are the sorts of details that you can get away with ignoring.
5. Walk the Tightrope
Don’t only cozy up to those gullible saps that constitute your readership. Show the developers some mercy and maybe they’ll realize that you’re doing them the service of constructive criticism.
“But that aside, to make a game of any genre the developers have to work their asses off at great personal expense for extended periods of time, so it’s never much fun trying to tell the general public that all that effort was in vein [sic]… What a monumental amount of effort it must have been to make Conquest of Elysium 3! Some dudes out there obviously spent a lot of time coming up with with its elaborate fantasy world, complete with cool unique mechanics and resources for each playable race that all ties into some grand mythos that’s hidden away somewhere inside all the swads [sic] of statistics and class descriptions.”
Don’t overdo it. Be sparing in your praise. Disregard any factors that might add value to the accomplishments of the developers—for instance, here the author deftly increases Illwinter Game Design’s staff from two to “some dudes,” which could be thirty for all the uninformed public will know.
6. Mind the “But”
Once you’ve plied your wordsmith trade to make the developers feel better about spending years manufacturing something that smells to you like stinkpickle, introduce the “but.”
“Now, if only they’d focused a little more on designing the “game” part in all this, then we might actually have something real special on our hands here. As it stands, I’m sad to say that Conquest of Elysium 3 is a godawful mess.”
Draw attention to the fact that you’re reviewing a “video game,” not a video pity party. Now that you’ve deigned to mention the one admirable thing about the game it’s time to crack open that ribcage and get filthy up to your plentiful biceps. If you’re feeling intimidated about the actual act of criticism, don’t be.
7. Dismiss Reality
Some folks are of a mind that indie games should get preferential treatment because they’re made by small teams who have human needs like money, hygiene, and sleep. This is not generally a concern for AAA MegaPublisher Houses, which is why they make better games. So go ahead and belittle reality, and make sure to toss in an extra jab to really sell the point that you don’t like this game.
From our example: “I realise this game probably didn’t have a six figure budget (if any at all)…”
8. Focus on AAA Criteria
Okay, now reality is dismissed. Now it’s time to introduce a set of criteria that will slam the game you’re reviewing. It doesn’t matter if these criteria would apply to every member of the indie genre, only that they apply to the work you’re critiquing. “Indie” is a subjective term, so go ahead and subject it (haha! What did I say about puns?) to your needs for beautiful graphics and meticulous playtesting.
For instance, our example zings the graphics of Conquest of Elysium 3: “[It’s] chock filled with all these ugly unwieldy menus and simplistic sprites. That’s only when the screen isn’t busy being almost entirely blank anyway!”
9. Dismiss Developer Intent
On Illwinter Game Design’s page, they have a cute little manifesto: “Illwinter creates games that focus on depth and lasting playability. We try to make our games more stuffed with monsters, spells and items than any other games on the market. Animation sequences are kept simple to enable us to increase the number of features in the games.”
This is a prime example of a developer trying to justify one of their game’s shortcomings. Dismiss these attempts! It does not need to be mentioned that simplistic graphics mean that new teams may be added in the future, or that the game is mod-friendly. None of these details merit consideration.
10. The Bone Toss
The developer is unlikely to have continued reading past the initial praise you heaped their way, but a few possess uncommon tenacity. Thus, it can be a good idea to toss them a bone about halfway into your review. Let them know they’re still your boys. However, it’s best to not let this grow out of control. Anything you compliment must not undermine your previous points, and generally should have little to do with the game. Some classics are to praise the game’s packaging or sound direction.
“Funnily enough, the game’s music is actually pretty great in comparison to the point where I began to wonder if it was all just taken from some royalty-free audio collection.”
Note how the author was able to simultaneously compliment and insult the developers. Close study of these methods will help you to hone your own indie reviewing skills.
11. Holding Back
Many new indie reviewers reach a point where they’ve mastered the previous 11 steps, only to find themselves incapable of holding back. In utilizing their newfound techniques, they’ll use too much profanity, invent too many new criteria by which to judge a game, or invite too many comparisons. A seasoned pro will know when to hold back. Anyone wanting to become a pro must therefore learn to hold back.
Consider a paragraph from our example article: “Upon attempting to create your first empire in CoE3 you’ll quickly discover two rather pressing issues: 1) Building new units for your army costs a fairly significant amount of resources (e.g. 50 gold) and 2) In most cases you start out with diddly frickin’ squat of resource gain per turn (e.g. +1 gold). So, you can either mash the “next turn” button until your resource counter reaches a useful value or try and use what little forces you start off the game with to claim some resource rich locations. Although the latter option is ever so slightly less boring than the former, it’s also a tad risky given that enemies have to do little more than gaze in the general direction of your now unguarded HQ in order to knock you out of the game.”
Notice that the reviewer is able to complain about the slow (and option-limited) opening turns of the game without comparing them to the slow (or option-limited) opening turns of any other well-loved games, as those comparisons would prove inconvenient. A rookie might make the mistake of bringing up those games as exceptions, but an indie veteran will know to avoid those parallels altogether.
12. Disregard Legacy
This goes along with the previous point, but it’s best to not bring up any past products of the company whose game you’re reviewing. If those games were better, you might reveal that you liked them, which would undermine Step #2 (a fundamental). If those games were worse, you might indicate that the company is in the process of improving.
Examine our helpful article: the author does not ever mention that Illwinter Game Design is the developer behind one of the most beloved play-by-email games of recent years. This is a minor, but integral, addendum to Step #12.
13. Discard Documentation
It’s hard to play a game that requires a manual. That’s why most people are fans of shooters that have big glowing arrows pointing where to go, or better yet, a squad leader who opens all the doors. But now you’re playing a complex game with more rules than shoot-go-boom, and the manual is fifty fecking pages? Hell with that. Instead, complain about the game’s complexity. There are a number of means by which to accomplish this, and our example performs many of them admirably.
Complain that the AI must cheat in order to interact with such a labyrinthine system: “Strangely, the AI seems to be completely above such worldly worries. While I’m busy twiddling my thumbs until I have enough resources to actually do something, they’re casually sauntering around the world map without a care in the world. Perhaps they know something about the game that I don’t?”
Contend that the manual is so long that no human being with a hope of mating would ever skim it: “That wouldn’t surprise me actually; only an artificial intelligence would have the inhuman patience to decider the 30,000+ word arcane tome that is CoE3’s instruction manual.” You may note that 30,000 words isn’t that long (about ten times the length of this article); this is why the author very cleverly added a plus sign. This manual could be eight hundred thousand words for all you know.
At this point you’re likely to get a few eggheads willing to put up a struggle. The best method of dealing with these past-dwellers is to place yourself in their camp. This will confuse them, much like bright lights. “I should make it clear, I’m not complaining that the game is too complicated or anything; I love complicated! It’s more that it’s just so…awkward.”
14. Man of Mystery
You may feel that the eggheads have been ejected from your party, but after years of playing tabletop RPGs, they’re a determined sort. The solution is to make their heads spin, as eggheads are more likely to debate amongst themselves than with you. You can generally accomplish this by contradicting yourself.
Our example article performs masculine feats of self-contradiction. Directly after complaining about the game’s systems being impenetrable, the author argues that the game could benefit from him having more control over the game’s elaborate processes. “Well, when push comes to shove, the gloves come off, your troops are under fire and a violent response is just simply the only option…it turns out you’ve got no control over any of it!”
15. Point Harping
Again, an addendum to an above point. Having contradicted yourself, return to your original point! The eggheads will be so confused by now that they’ll pretend that their earlier disagreements with you were “ironic.”
“The amount of data the game bombards you with during these segments is just so overwhelming that it’s rather difficult to discern anything even remotely useful from it.”
16. Extreme Examples
Now that you’ve outlined your beef with the game (and repeated it at least twice), most readers will be expecting some anecdotes. These can be difficult to manage, as you could bring the entire house of cards crashing down. If you’ve said that the game is buggy, refer to a bug that might be replicable at all times (CTDs are great, BSoDs even better) rather than a bug that could only be possible under very specific circumstances. If you’ve made gameplay complaints, make sure to use extreme examples, and exclude any evidence that might indicate that you played the game incorrectly.
Here our example author makes the point that the game’s combat is totally incomprehensible: “[It is] bloody impossible to tell whether or not any given fight will be total suicide mission or not. Will my 10 Crossbowmen be able to defeat a force of 5 Archers, 2 Snakes and one awfully confused Moose? Who knows?! Even if you were somehow able to contemplate the dozen or so variables that governs a unit’s combat prowess, you’d still have to factor in the fact that every single move your units make is completely randomized!” As always, note the author’s ability to entirely dodge the game’s purpose in managing these sorts of battles; similar avoidance of grounded examples will serve you well as you become a well-known indie reviewer.
17. Genre? What’s That?
Now is a good time to say what the game is not. Mention that a tactics game has no strategy, and you technically won’t be wrong! “In the end, the whole game ends up feeling like a total crapshoot rather than the tactical nirvana players are likely to be looking for.” If anyone brings up the fact that you’re comparing the game to an entirely different genre, a “fanboy” label might be just the answer.
18. Alternate Definitions
Definitions are vague because language changes faster than people can keep up, which is why old people hate the slang of the young. Examine this quote from our article: “A quality computer game isn’t merely a heap of cool ideas, that’s just ambition.”
Now, obviously the author is aware that Conquest of Elysium 3 is more than a mere ambition, since it’s a completed product. But a gripping catchphrase is doubly more important than logic, and by this point in the article your readership will likely be skimming to find the final score anyway.
19. Shocking Score
It’s common knowledge that a wild score will garner many site-hits, and possibly label you as an edgy reviewer who tells it as is. Give the game a horrendous score and soon everyone will be singing your praises!
20. Ignore Comments
If some fanboys or eggheads manage to see through your article, ignore them. They’re plebes, and they’re below you. The article we have been examining is a fine example of an author disregarding facile points by meat-puppet Illwinter employees.
We hope you have enjoyed these 20 points, and have learned a lot about how to pose as an indie reviewer. Reviewing indie games can be both fun and profitable, and could eventually springboard your career into AAA reviews. If you adhere to these suggestions, you will be well-served on your path to fame, fortune, and E3 entry passes.