Wednesday, 7 October 2015

IFComp Thought Splatter: How/why I review

I'm writing this piece in a Mac program called Typed. It's one of those simple word processors whose goal is to minimise distractions. It has only a handful of features and no user interface; the window is just a faintly transparent square into which you type words. The program also comes with some zen ambient soundtracks, a cute feature but not one I ever use or which personally interests me.

When you open an empty Typed document, a random quote about writing from a famous writer sits on the screen until you start typing. For instance, today's quote was, "Writing is its own reward," by Henry Miller.

I'm about to write something about why and how I review things, for instance these IFComp games. (If you're an IFComp entrant and nobody's reviewed your game yet, you're probably thinking, 'Quit stalling, review boy, and get back to the bloody reviewing.')

I'm doing this because a network of blog mirrors is beginning to reflect some community conversation about the nature of IFComp and the nature of IFComp reviews.

Carolyn VanEseltine has written a good summary of why IFComp presents crossed purposes for numerous parties. And then Juhana Leinonen, or 'Junana' as I call him (* I called him that once. Twice now) chimed in on the history of criticism in the modern IF culture. I think what Carolyn wrote is all correct. If anything, I think it's even more complicated than what she wrote. However, I think only entrants need concern themselves with the complexities, and only if they're finding feedback on their game – or lack thereof – strange or annoying, or the reviewing culture weird or harsh or just confusing.

In the same way that there's a tradition of movie reviewers descending upon Cannes each year for that film festival, there's a tradition of IF fans/folks/reviewers/hangers-on descending upon their blogs to write about IFComp entries each year. For some of these folk, this will be all they put in that blog for the whole year. Then they'll pack up and go back to their rainy hometowns until the next competition. For others, this will just part of a continuum of stuff they write about IF.

Amongst both campers and yearly visitors, some just write down their gut reactions to games in the order the reactions occur. These can be all subjective and all disorganised, with no real judgements formed or passed. Just 'I like A', 'I hated B', etc. That's a valid way to come up with your scores for games in the competition, but without process or insight, it doesn't make for written criticism of any quality.

Further along the spectrum, you've got people with lots of reviewing practice, or experience, or educated critical skills, or some mix of any or all three. (I HAVE ALL THREE. YOU HEARD ME.) And still, all of these people have different personal interests and motives for reviewing. These motives are rarely or infrequently stated because everyone, most of the time, is just getting on with following their agenda, not constantly (or sometimes - ever) explaining that agenda. Hopefully the agenda will come through in the writing itself over time.

Agenda mismatch is one of the greate sources of reviewer outrage at some game, and/or entrant outrage at some reviewer's review of their game. To put my shoe back on my author's foot, the worst review I ever got was one in IFComp 2010 for Leadlight. It was written with what felt like ill-informed malice. While blowing off steam, I read more of the reviewer's reviews. I came to the conclusion that this reviewer and I were living in almost entirely different universes of concern. In turn I realised that such a person was never going to be a valid barometer of my game.

It's hard to remember such stuff when members of 'the press' seem to be befouling your work. But I did discover that if you go to the pub and read a terrible review aloud to friends over a drink, it may suddenly become high entertainment. This is a good perspective-restorer. (If you don't drink, you probably don't even need the drink, either.)

Because I'm here and talking about the subject, I will attempt to describe my IFComp reviewing agenda.

First, I like playing IF. Reviewing it doubles as a way of ordering what I think about it and recording my memories of it. I enjoy writing per se and I enjoy crafting reviews. I think I transmit a mix of personal observation, writing/programming craft and a degree of encouragement.

I definitely don't review these games with a primary goal of improving the state of all IF so that it can meet some sort of high bar that is constantly travelling away from everyone. I may do that in other contexts, but definitely not in IFComp.

This is partly because I'm aware of the zillion conflicting IFComp agendas already described. In IFComp reviews, I skew encouraging, but not with bland sugar-coating, I hope. And inevitably, as with any individual, there will be games I don't like at all.

It's also partly because of empathy for creators. I identify more with creating than criticism, though I claim to do both capably. In my case, it means I can rarely fully transform into 'the hanging judge', even at times when I would like to.

It's partly because I'm a positivist when it comes to story art. I have extremely highly tolerance for minor variations and I am attracted sometimes just to the part of something that gives it its taste, even if other elements are conventional or just not working. For instance, as a big horror fan, I've seen about 850 horror films, and I have soft spot for almost every one of them at some level. That doesn't mean I give them all 10s on IMDB – far from it. I can still score them in a ranking / semi-objective sense amongst all else I've seen while storing positive memories about elements of them. I am addicted to collecting the experience of watching horror films and films per se, and a related motivation goes into me playing a range of IF games.

The final 'it's partly because' is that it's partly because I'm aware that I have a knack for helping people to get where they're going with a creative project. I don't encourage people to make something the way I'd make it, but I concentrate on helping them to get it working along the axes that are of interest to them, or along axes I expect the creator's audience will benefit from. My IFComp reviews don't have time or interest for doing this at length (that's what playtesters are for) but I do touch on these subjects. Since this behaviour is an element of my nature, I don't go around fighting my nature in terms of the overall outlook of my IFComp reviews.

One other weird factor is that this community is sufficiently small that if you both make games and review them, other people who both make games and review games, and whose games you've reviewed, will be reviewing your games at some point. This is hardly ideal given the frequency with which it has to happen. Some people can review as if they're in a tower on the hill, and of them, some review like they live in the tower full-time, others as if they can at least move into the tower for the duration of the review. I'm crap at either in this close context. The more I interact with someone one-on-one, the less useful I am at reviewing their games for an audience. That's not a tragedy – I just don't review stuff for the outside world in any case where I don't think I can do a sufficiently objectivity-infused job for any reason. Other folk will step in to review such things.

So, I've taken a shot here at summing up here the interests, strengths and motivations of mine which describe how and why I write the kinds of reviews I write.

As you'll have seen, I'm also trying to write a non-spoilered intro blob for each IFComp entry. I do this for people who want a bit of a lead on a game and more info about it than the blurb gives, but without signficant spoilers. I stole this schtick off Emily Short as I like its goal, though sometimes I gnash my teeth with it because I tend to write better pieces overall if I can just spoil all I want. Sometimes I find the writing balance clunky, like when 75% of the review is the intro and 25% is the 'spoilery' bit. I just do what I can with it.

Obviously you'll encounter reviews completely unlike mine, and it's good that we have a range of styles and concerns and positions on various spectrums available. Somewhere inbetween all the output must lie some truths.

Note for authors – Just remember the pub trick if some review gives you the shits, and remember that this thing goes for six weeks and we're barely anywhere yet. Though if that causes you to reach for a straitjacket, maybe don't.


  1. I respect your positivism and your focus on helping artists succeed in their own ways. I think I used to have those qualities in my reviewing, but I somehow I might have lost them along the way.

    I should probably get out of my tower a little more. I'll consider posting about my own agenda. Not sure if I'll do it. Thanks for the insightful thoughts.

    But how did you know my hometown is rainy??

  2. Everybody's town is rainy, Paul. :)


    I'd like to say something, here, too.

    First, I must admit I've always been in love with you, Wade. You are not only helping everybody with your cool and lighthearted reviews: you are doing it in first person, helping coding, testing, discussing and giving music to games. Thank you.
    Also, yes: you make nice games. That can't possibly hurt.

    I'm writing here, because my blog is dead as I'm not posting there since ages. And I don't intend to, in the near future at least. I'm one of those who bring up the blog only during IFComp or Spring Thing. While I understand why many of us do it, it seems ridiculous to me. So I'm stopping.
    I'm not so good with English. I'm not so good at reviewing. I'm not so good at giving REAL insight in my reviews (that's why I tried different approaches, time ago -- to no avail, imo).
    So, why doing it? Why did I do it at all?

    Well, the answer may sound snob, but... reason's because I had TIME. I wanted to play professor (as I'm partly in real life, teaching in a design school) and fell into the same problem I have in class and in life: I tend to try and teach TOO MUCH. I often give UNREQUESTED ADVICE. You know, unrequested advice is like rain after you irrigated your soil: pretty much a nuisance, and nothing more.

    I had TIME, I had this PROFESSOR’s SUIT and I felt like I had to DO IT.

    As a matter of fact, I lately understood that I’m not going into this anymore. While I envy the skills and the motives of people like Emily, I don’t think I have the moves to do such a thing. And I lack the persistence which would be needed to achieve something interesting.

    To cut with crap, the question should be: what if, after I wrote 3 pages of text, the text-editor crashed and I lose all my work? If the answer is “who cares, the world can live without my insight” then maybe you have to stop reviewing. That’s why I decided to stop.

    What I do best, though, is factually helping people with their projects. I’m a good tester, whose power resides in giving rhythm, prose and puzzle/coding advice. Or so it seems. I’m a graphic designer of some fame (yeah, really!) and I can help with covers or other feelies. This is what I’m gonna do.

    Also, I’m gonna play IF, because I like it (even if what I like in IF is hardly what others like).


    As an add-on to the harsh reviews affair: I think that some modesty and feel, when telling people their work sucks, is never to be condemned. Ok, you didn’t like me, but you could have shown some manners. The trick should be: say in a blog what you would say face-to-face. I doubt many harsh words would have seen the light if that was the basic assumption. Some harsh reviewers, also, actually produced IF soooo baaaaad that the only question should be: “how dare you?!”. I fall in that category, eventually. Not counting those who can’t open a web browser without asking for help and who disintegrate every work they come in contact with, as if IF (a mix of coding and writing skills, something very, very, VERY rare) is such an easy thing to accomplish.

    This said, I think that all reviews are helpful in some way. The very bad ones help you build up muscles for when you’ll be doing (this/whatever) for real. So, people: resist; resist; resist.


    PS: Wade, how’s things with the “Andromeda game”? I’m a bit interested in the thing, you may understand :)

    1. Ah! I would add:

      Every year, some entrant gets his share of enemies in the IFComp. Obviously we can't get rid of the "smash all" kind of reviewer for which being offensive looks like the only way to feel superior.

  3. I really enjoyed this thoughtful post, particularly when you say "I have extremely highly tolerance for minor variations and I am attracted sometimes just to the part of something that gives it its taste, even if other elements are conventional or just not working". In a largely amateur community I think this element, that creators are in a sense all works in progress, is sometimes overlooked much to our community's detriment.