Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
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However bad at games writing I might be now, I was a lot worse when I started at PC Gamer nine years ago. When I first applied, my sample piece was so bad I didn’t even get an interview. I was hired as a coverdisc editor a few months later, and spent two years trying to worm my way into a writing job by volunteering for every piece I could get.
The editors gave me much-needed feedback, and when they didn’t have time, I’d study the printed version of my stuff to see how they’d changed it and learn from that. And I learned a lot just by being around the editing process: listening to people critique new writers, discuss what second drafts needed, and talk analytically about games writing without the writer present.
At some point, my stuff stopped coming back to me for changes. And at some point after that, I was involved in deciding what our standards should be. They became a shared set of beliefs between me and my friends, ones we’d tweak and discuss in the pub at the end of every week.
I’ve just finished tidying up after my PC Gamer leaving party. I’ll still be writing about games, but I’m at the end of my full-time career. So in case it’s of use to anyone, I’ll pick out the five most important things I learned about game criticism in the last nine years. They’re all rules I’ve broken, but they’re the ones I try to break less often as time goes on.
The reader doesn’t know who the fuck you are, what the fuck this is, or why the fuck they should care. At least, you’ll write better if you work on that assumption.
They certainly can’t read everything, so it pays to respect the attention they’ve decided to give you. And you can do that by telling them what the fuck this is and why the fuck they should care right away.
The two ways to treat a reader are: “I am important” or: “You are important.” Some readers do like the first. But for me, if your videogame review starts with the words “When I was six,” I rub my forehead and quietly close the tab.
The most common problem with early pieces by a new writer, myself included, is when they try to show off. It’s as if they put what they want to say through Google Translate set to ‘Professional Games Journalist’, and like Google Translate, what comes out is often painfully awkward.
Don’t translate it. Just tell me, the way you’d tell a friend.
“The latest title in the Splinter Cell franchise…”
Don’t write like a suit.
“Bursting onto the scene with silenced pistols blazing, Sam Fisher is back in his new adventure…”
Don’t write like a twat.
“The new Splinter Cell game…”
Write like a person.
It’s tempting to think you should summarise your time with a game, share the judgements you came to rather than the events that formed them. But giving specific examples gives a much more colourful picture of what the game’s like to play than any overall description could. They illustrate more about your point than you could ever articulate in the abstract, and as a bonus, they also make me believe you.
The combat’s satisfying? Describe a fight you found satisfying! Tell me what happened in it. That way I know a) exactly what you mean by ‘satisfying’, and b) whether it’s the kind of thing I would find satisfying.
It’s even more important for criticism, particularly if it’s a game I’m excited about. If you tell me Dishonored makes it awkward to play non-lethally, I think you probably just suck. But if you tell me you left an unconscious guard on a doorstep and he died because the ragdoll slipped six inches to the ground, I think “Jesus, yeah, that’s bullshit.” We’ve shared your experience, and I’m on your side.
The game gives you a “dizzying array” of options? Is that exactly what you mean, that the array caused you to feel dizzy? Or is that just the word you’re used to hearing before ‘array’?
If you reach just a bit further for the word that really matches what you felt, the phrase you use will stand out. It’s not the word I’m used to hearing, so I pay attention to the one you chose to use instead, because I realise you must have put some thought into it. That makes me picture it, and I follow you much more clearly and vividly.
When you know exactly what’s wrong with some element of the game, and you know exactly how to say it, it’s natural to say it. But your objective isn’t just a list of valid points about the game. The objective is to understand why a game works or doesn’t, and spend your wordcount on the stuff that really matters.
Keep checking: is this really the most important thing still unsaid? If it’s praise, is it really the fundamental source of your enjoyment? If it’s criticism, is it really what’s limiting or spoiling the game? If you changed that one thing, how would you feel about the game?
I want to rant for three paragraphs every time a multiplatform game has glitchy mouse behaviour in its menus. But if they fixed it, it wouldn’t change my score.
I could write essays about the heavy clatter your crowbar makes in Half-Life 2 if you dodge when Barney throws it to you. But if they took that out, it’d be the same game. If they took out the Gravity Gun, different story.
Next: I pick apart my BioShock Infinite review to show how I tried to apply this stuff to the intro.
Leaving PC Gamer, by Tom Francis: [...] I generally avoided talking about games writing itself when it was my job, but now seems like a good time to think about it a bit. So I plan to do a few posts on the topic this week, starting with the five most important things I learned in nine years of doing it full time. [...]
Ben Borthwick: Ahhh the hilarious shambles of Alone in the Dark. Good times! (And not just because I was there for that one, though watching your review process in the flesh was incredibly useful/educational to me.)
Great, great article. Even though I've always avoided writing game reviews, but I do write on design and development, so many of your points apply as well, particularly about giving concrete examples and brevity. I always find myself too "verbose" and cutting things down because they're just fluff or too fancy. It's almost like the 30-70 rule applying here as well!
(one of the reasons I enjoy following you on twitter as opposed to many other game journalists - you don't spam 3 tweets in a row about trying to find your socks...)
CJ: I may not be the best writer, but I've come far enough to know when I'm getting good advice: namely, when I get all defensive and want to hurl obscenities.
I'll save you the indignant bullshit I was thinking of posting and instead offer my thanks. Great article, Tom.
Ben Rose: Yeah, I'm definitely guilty of doing most of these things at one point or another.
Antan: Thanks for this. When I write game reviews, they often end up being summarised by the phrase: "It's good because I like it"! Clearly, I need to work on that a bit!
Tom Francis: Cheers everyone!
Quick update: that breakdown thing I mentioned might be a day late, it's 10pm and I only just finished my work for the day.
Ingo: That is a great list, makes me think I'd have loved to read your articles. Actually, I just read two and they were great.
Strangely though, every videogame journalist that impresses me turns out to be an ex-journalist who is now making games instead of writing about them. Some at least still talk about them, thankfully.
Jed. H: "...if your videogame review starts with the words “When I was six,” I rub my forehead and quietly close the tab."
Very true and I'm glad I didn't close the tab on this article even though it started this way. Good points. This.
Kyle: Great article. I've been a long term fan of your writing and your pieces at PCG were always among my favourites, one that comes to mind being a very funny feature on dating in video games.
It's brilliant to have advice on hand from a writer I admire, so thanks a lot for this and I'll try my best to follow your principles!
Joe: Can we still expect more posts on this maybe please?
Jory: Hi Tom, I've really been looking forward to your follow-up to this piece! Your game criticism is some of the very best and most fun to read and I'd love to hear more about your process. Pretty please?
Anatomy Of An Intro To A BioShock Infinite Review, by Tom Francis: […] I left PC Gamer a few months back, I wrote up five things I learned from my 9 years there. I also promised to pick apart something I’d written to show how I’d tried to apply […]
Dale Morgan: I was just forwarded this link by a friend and it made me hang my head in shame!
I'm definitely guilty of points 1, 2 and 4. I *like* to think I have a handle on 3 and 5 though.
I felt like facepalming myself after reading as I immediately thought "oh god, I did that in this article/review".
Good work Tom!