Movie critics have it easy. Outside of having a working knowledge of recent film trends and the overall history of the film indusry, and maybe some awareness of genre conventions and passing familiarity with long-lived franchises like Batman, James Bond or in this day and age, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the challenge is simple: go watch a movie, think about that movie for a while, and then find some way to organize those thoughts into something somebody would want to read.
Okay, maybe it’s not that easy. Writing isn’t a simple matter of just banging the keyboard until words magically arrange themselves into a heart staggering work of genius, but the fact remains that the prep work is fairly simple: sit in the dark with a movie for two or three hours then allow it to simmer in the mind in the cab ride home. It’s not so simple for video game reviewers.
To properly review any video game, you need to spend a lot of time playing it. While small independent games like Gris run for about two to four hours – within the range of a single evening – major releases can go on for as many as 80 hours. That’s how much time went into my review of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. It’s arguable that I could have put it aside much earlier, but a sense of professional ethic keeps reviewers like myself from doing that.
It’s Never Done When It’s Done
One of the professional dilemmas game reviewers face is how much they have to play before their experience with a game is ‘done.’ Let’s take Kingdom Hearts III for example, one of the games I’m currently playing for review. From start to finish, this Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) reportedly takes about thirty hours to finish. But collectibles, hidden secrets and minigames make the game more than just a trip from prologue to epilogue.
Other games like Far Cry New Dawn feature open environments that are filled with even more things to do. There are outposts to liberate, supply caches to raid, and specialists to recruit. Some game series like Mass Effect, The Witcher and Dragon Age are famous for presenting multiple paths dependent on your story decisions, effectively making multiple playthroughs necessary to experience all they have to offer.
All this is to say that more often than not, video game reviews require writers to play above and beyond the call of duty to really be able to capture most of a video game’s essence in their work. Professionally speaking, I’ve never 100 percent-ed a single game, but I try to max out my skill trees, take on challenges, unlock special achievements, seek out hidden content and try out different choices so that I can report properly on a game.
But despite the enormity of the task, there’s also the struggle to publish content within a reasonable time frame. I could play Kingdom Hearts III at my leisure, stopping to smell the flowers at every Disney world I arrive in, searching for every ingredient I need for Remy’s bistro, but if we end up publishing my review in April, almost no one is going to care. Most game pundits and readers of gaming media will have moved on from Kingdom Hearts III.
There’s No Deadline Like The Finish Line
And therein lies the rub: the struggle to play as much game as possible to represent a game properly in one’s review, while also publishing within a window of relevance and not lose precious traffic and readers. Simply put, reviewers need to clear games fast. And whether you’re dealing with the epic finale to a long-running saga filled with secrets to plumb (Kingdom Hearts III) or a virtual playground of destruction and a bottomless mug of chaos (Far Cry New Dawn) that can be tough.
That can mean not seeing your friends for days and long, sleepless nights ignoring your significant other as you work, yes, work to finish the game. It can mean attending to real world responsibilities with bags under your eyes and being mostly incoherent for other professional appointments. It can mean missing out on the gym while you spend more time on chairs and couches, and long bouts of concentration trying to keep the entire game from being nothing but a blur in the mind.
I’m not saying playing Kingdom Hearts III is harder than manual labor or anything, but not everyone can and should try to play games like this. No matter how much you love videogames – and I bloody love videogames – the professional demands of the game review tax your mental faculties, push your energies to their limits and challenge you to play better, work harder and write smarter.
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