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.