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.
When 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 this stuff in practice.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, not to give myself the free pass of spouting rhetoric without having to demonstrate its use. But as soon as I wrote it, it sounded awfully douchey. It’s really hard to explain why you wrote something one way without sounding like you’re insulting everyone who wrote something different. So I did what any writer would do, left it in my drafts folder and never spoke of it again or responded to people’s requests for it.
But people have requested it, several times, and maybe it’s even douchier not to post it. So perhaps I should put it up and just trust that you understand:
Actual copy is in bold, click any part of it to see the annotations – some extraneous line breaks have been added to make that work.
The point of this sentence was: if you read the first sentence of everyone’s BioShock Infinite reviews and then you’re only allowed to carry on with one, whose would you be intrigued by? If I have anything special, unusual, surprising or significant to say at all, I want it to be the very first thing you read.
I have masses to say about BioShock Infinite, both positive and negative, but when I think about the single most unusual, unique and interesting emotion I experienced in all of my time playing it, it was that moment after it ended, and I just had no fucking idea what to think. That’s rare for me, and I expect it’s rare for you. So I’m hoping that by sharing it I’ll earn your interest.
I also have a particular reason for using the word ‘dumbfounded’: it doesn’t get used much. ‘Amazed’ and ‘blown away’ have lost most of their meaning. ‘Stunned’ still carries a little weight, but I have a bad habit of over-using it. I couldn’t remember hearing ‘dumbfounded’ in a long time, it was the right strength of superlative, and – bonus! – its actual literal meaning was specifically what I meant. Using a less common word always stands out, particularly at the end of a sentence.
Lastly, jumping in at the deep end gave a natural excuse to mention something that absolutely had to be in the first sentence: reassurance I’m not going to spoil anything. I am endlessly ‘amazed’, ‘blown away’ and ‘stunned’ by what reviewers will ruin to make their piece easier to write. I’m writing for people who both hate that and are aware it happens, and they want a heads-up right this second that you’re not that kind of asshole.
The price I pay is that the cadence of this sentence is pretty cumbersome, but the functional stuff I get in return for that is worth it.
I wanted to tell someone what I thought, but for a moment I had absolutely no idea. I’d experienced a kind of excited panic, then total delight, then momentary confusion, and then a rush of extraordinary sights, powerful scenes and sudden twists that left me struggling to keep up.
Again, if you only read one paragraph of every BioShock Infinite review, I want mine to get across the most unique and unusual thing I can say about my experience with it. That barrage of conflicting emotions was totally unique for me, so I try to run you through every one in a non-spoilery way. Most people will probably just note ‘bunch of extreme words, got it’, but if anyone’s imagining each of these in turn, they get the weird cocktail of reactions I had, and hopefully it’s unique and interesting to them too.
I’m also letting you in on how much games affect me, which is not a revelation but something critics sometimes dodge. I’m about to be kind of a dick, so I want to make it clear that I wasn’t sitting back chewing my critic-pen sceptically as this was happening, I was dragged along by my gut. And when the plot didn’t work for me, it wasn’t because I was looking for some chink in the armour to snipe at. I was desperately trying to piece together these moving experiences into something that made sense.
This is the other reason to start with the ending: as quickly as possible, I want to get to probably the most surprising thing I have to say: the plot doesn’t work. I had trouble getting this sentence sounding right without being self-indulgent – my first draft was about what I ‘thought’ or ‘said’ once I’d collected my thoughts, but recounting your own thoughts or speech generally sounds unbearably self-important. I’m still not totally happy with the language, but it does the job and the job is the right one. ‘Lick of sense’ fit: it’s harsh enough to get the point across, but because it’s colloquial it hopefully doesn’t sound too morose or whiny.
I was aware that putting a criticism up front turns a thousand fanboys against me. The only thing I worry about is, “Will any of the sane ones?”
It took me too long to learn that if you have a lot to say about what’s wrong with a game you love, you still have to make sure most of your words are about why you love it. In particular, I wanted to get a glowing recommendation right up front before I get into specifics, to calibrate the tone. Starting on an unqualified negative can colour later criticisms as more serious, and praise as minor.
This is probably terrible, but I wrote it in an e-mail to Edge editor Alex and then laughed at how stupid the word ‘BioShark’ sounds.
I left it later than usual because it’s an extremely well known game, but I still had to mention the genre. I’d like this to be readable by someone who doesn’t follow gaming news closely.
And the premise.
Explaining things a lot of people already know is awkward. Say it the way it’s always said, and it sounds empty. But every summary also makes little judgements about what’s important and what isn’t. City in the sky is pretty much inescapable, but ‘magical racists’ was an intentional attempt to reflect the way the game puts silly gameisms right next to serious real-world themes. When a game does something absurd like that, I hate to give it a free pass just Because Videogames. So I took just those two elements and put them next to each other: this game has magical racists! If you have a problem with that, you’re gonna have a problem with this!
Someone actually made a banner of the ‘flying city of magical racists’ line, which I choose to interpret as approval.
Who are those two? Why are they talking about me? What’s with the giant cyborg bird? What does AD stand for? How does he know… why does she think… when did they… why can that guy shoot crows from his hands? And how do these pants help me reload?
The point of the last paragraph was that the game’s mysteries are a huge part of its appeal, and they’re many and baffling. But I said that whilst also trying to explain the game’s genre and premise, and I never specified what kind of mysteries they were. You always lose the colour, the flavour, and the juice of something if you don’t give examples. And if you’re ever wondering how to work in some examples, try this one weird trick discovered by a games journalist: list some.
The intro says you’re Booker DeWitt, a private investigator here to retrieve a girl named Elizabeth, but I played it more like a crazed looter and narrative junky, scouring the city for spare change and clues.
More exposition, but I’m not totally happy with the way this sentence reads. The point of it was to express that I, and probably you, don’t play games as the narrative claims we will. Even when I love a game, I don’t want to be a shill for the fantasy it’s selling. If I just regurgitate what the back of the box says about the premise, you know I’m lying. We’re both gamers, we both know the guy in this videogame doesn’t behave anything like dashing PI Booker DeWitt when we play. He behaves like a fucking lunatic.
I first wrote this as ‘stark contrast’, which is one of those pairings that gets overused without much thought. If no-one had ever used the word ‘stark’ in front of the word ‘contrast’, is that really the adjective I’d pick? Have I ever used it in front of anything else? Does it actually mean something that isn’t already communicated by my decision to use the word ‘contrast’ in the first place?
I’m not sure ‘bright’ is the best replacement for it here, but I’d rather use something that has some colour to it than the default redundant adjective.
I hadn’t used the word ‘wonky’ for about 13 years when I read Caitlin Moran use it to describe the Time Traveler’s Wife. Suddenly, all the wonky things I’d seen and failed to describe as wonky flashed wonkily before my eyes.
Bleurgh, I already regret this. Here, I am using themes and concepts from the game and applying them to the structure of the review. Don’t do this. 99% of the time, it sounds painfully cheesy and forced, particularly in concluding paragraphs. The only reason I allowed it here was that I genuinely did write “If a future version of myself came back and told me the plot doesn’t add up”, before I realised this was something that could happen in this game’s fiction. But it probably still sounds forced. Don’t do this.
So I’m telling you, in the hope that you can still enjoy the process of assembling that wonky jigsaw, without being disappointed when the game itself cuts off all the nobbly bits to cram the pieces together the way it wants.
As a reviewer, I have to tell you that the plot doesn’t add up. I also have to tell you what I most liked about the game: trying to figure out the plot. But it could easily sound like I was ruining the game’s best feature for you, and as a friend, I would hate to do that. I thought about it at length and decided that I would have had more fun overall if someone had warned me the plot didn’t come together at the end. So this is me telling you that.
If there’s anything you’d do to your readers as a games reviewer that you wouldn’t do to your friends as a friend, obviously don’t do that.
When you’re not obsessively checking every shop, bathroom and bin for an audio diary or change, it’s because the guards have recognised you. For reasons I won’t go into, you’re unwelcome in Columbia but not widely known: an announcer warns the public to be looking out for a frenchman or a one-eyed midget. So while there’s usually a calm period when you enter a each new district, at some point the jig is up and the guns come out.
Really, it’s just a pleasure to have a game this substantial to explore – and one that gives you the breathing room to do so. You still spend a lot of time killing things in BioShock Infinite, but it knows when to give you space. You get to know Columbia as a tourist: a dazzling dream of an impossible city in an impossible place – tranquil, prosperous and happy.
Lastly, this paragraph is here because by this point, I am hearing both my own and my editor Graham’s voices in my head saying “But what do you actually spend your time DOING?” The ‘spend your time’ part is important because it forces you to examine the actual experience empirically, rather than accepting existing genre definitions or publisher blurb. It’s totally possible for something to be pitched as an ‘action shooter’ but you spend 80% of your time in the level-up menus deciding what to upgrade.
Five Things I Learned About Game Criticism In Nine Years At PC Gamer, by Tom Francis: […] I pick apart my BioShock Infinite review to show how I tried to apply this stuff to the […]
Ninja Foodstuff: Thanks for this Tom. The penultimate paragraph seems broken?
I also note that there's a repetition of certain phrases (such as "magical racists"), is that done intentionally?
Tom Francis: Yep, that's a callback.
And the last annotation is for the last two paragraphs together.
Jakub: I gotta agree 100% that was my reaction too. I was in sheer awe through the whole game, really captured by its magic. But once you really start thinking about it and analyzing its true many things break down. I guess its one of those games you just got to enjoy for the experience and not dwell on too much.
Jabberwok: The very end of the game, and actually any of the many twists that happen before the ending, just kind of ruined the whole experience for me. I'm glad I read this review, as it makes me appreciate some of the good parts more, but at the time, I just couldn't get past a lot of the nonsensical elements that were preventing me from investing emotion in places where the story clearly wanted me to. When all's said and done, Murder of Crows with the aforementioned upgrade was the highlight of the game for me.