Reviewing is an easy task, or at least, so it might seem from an external point of view. Just slap together some nice-sounding adjectives, a couple of hyperbole, some light sprinkling of sarcasm and voilà: done. Personally, since I consider that the end product should be useful for the reader, I find it one of the hardest tasks for a writer, at times even more difficult than narrative or poetry. Let me state the obvious right away: asserting that a product is “good” is not a review, even if that adjective is reinforced with a bunch of very well-researched substantives. If something is – indeed – good, then a reviewer’s task is to explain why and how is it good, how its goodness compares to similar products, how it can be good for someone but perhaps not everyone and if it can stay “good” for the foreseeable future.
Yes, indeed, as I anticipated: not an easy task. Here I discuss my experiences in reviews across the board: from games, to music and movies.
The beginning: Finding Inspiration
There is no universally all-around perfect way to approach a review: there might indeed be several of them, which might or not be the right ones for the task at hand, constantly subject to change. Still, I would argue that as long as that approach allows the journalist/critic to reach the intended audience, thus providing answers to the aforementioned questions, it might just be the right one. I have extensively searched my archives and apparently my experience in reviewing began in 1996, or at least the date on the files on my hard disk tells me. I don’t remember exactly where I intended to publish these first reviews, or if at all, I’m not even sure if they were ever made public, but their style and overall experience date back to when I was 12 years old.
So, let us start from inspiration: where should one look to?
Very awful; you don’t have any reason to download this game. Just flush it down the toilet, that’s it.
(Back to the Future 3 Review – 1996)
I had been buying gaming magazines since January 1996, so I read up months of my “colleagues” work before I started applying myself to the art of reviewing. I craved to copy the style that was en vogue in the Italian magazines of the time: more jokes than an actual description of the game, juvenile ways of referring to the public (“hullo you guyz!”), and pretty random adjectives to describe how the graphics “might be better” or were “eye-gouging terrible”. I didn’t use swear words, it was a pre-angry game reviewer era. Looking back now, these reviews were not very good, which I guess is to no one’ surprise. It’s not like I was expecting anything different, but there was something still surprising: my tastes haven’t changed much in the last twenty or so years. I realize now, that I must have been doing something correctly, at least in regards to analyzing the videogame that was in front of me: the main problem was the overall form and the way I was approaching the task.
Taking inspiration from reviews published by other journalists, while not required, is recommended to begin approaching the task of reviewing. In one’s first articles having a personal style is not something I would recommend striving for. There are plenty of people who have been reviewing for years and never really developed a personal style. But, as with all artistic endeavors, it is something that would represent the desired arrival point, as hard as it might be. Just let it happen naturally over time.
So, what was my next step in trying to get better as a critic?
The Genesis Temple: "the answer to an unasked question"
In 1997 the first version of The Genesis Temple went online and, soon, I started uploading reviews in both Italian and English. But I approached the task differently: instead of translating the same article in two languages, I would often just go on tackling different titles altogether, depending on what I felt inspired to write. It might be surprising, perhaps, to find out that, as soon as two years later, there were tons of people writing reviews: considering the limited access to the internet, probably there were even more than today. But there weren’t many people that would bother reviewing contemporary PC or console titles, we used to leave that to the professionals. Instead, we would just stick to something that few were interested in: namely, retro games. As much as a Sega Mega Drive/Genesis game released only five years prior could be considered as such, of course.
Personally, I don’t even remember if I ever considered reviewing a contemporary video game, but, either way, I didn’t write one for quite some time. Overall, I felt that with retro games the stakes were lower and, also, that the magazines were already doing a good enough job in analyzing the contemporary games. So, why not apply a similar lens to older titles? Even back then, despite me being not even of age to order a beer, I could understand that it would be unfair to judge 4D Sports Boxing or Mad Tv by current technical or gameplay standards. I usually barely touched upon the graphics of a title, just mentioned it in passing, with sound getting a bit more attention because, growing up with a Commodore 64 and its powerful SID chip, I was always fascinated by video game soundtracks.
With the updates to The Genesis Temple slowing down and stopping by 1999, I just recently found out that in 2002 I was still advertising it, for some reason (see image). Anyway, I had realized that the world was moving on and a small website couldn’t really stand a chance to be noticed. In the meantime, I was collaborating with various short-lived websites, some dedicated to “old” pc games (as in, released three or four years earlier) and emulation of Sega and Nintendo consoles. Time, then, to mention another useful thing for a writer: feedback. Naturally, it would be even better if one had an editor, but at the time and in these kind of amateurish circles, that role was practically unheard of. Most articles were published without anyone bothering to read them for a second time, probably not even the writers themselves. Did I get feedback from readers? Not that I remember, at this point I’m not actually entirely sure if there was someone out there who was reading these mostly mediocre reviews or everyone was just busy dumping tons of them online.
Despite my two years of experience, I hadn’t really developed anything that I could recognize as my personal style, but I felt that the typical 90s magazine style was starting to sound and feel old. There was no fooling myself: there was no community to address, no internal staff that I could make jokes with (something the Italian mags LOVED to do). I was just screaming into a huge black void. But then something happened, in 2001 I started writing for a music webzine, that amazingly still exists, I was 17.
Getting a job at 17
How did I end up getting this position? Well, it surely was a different time: all it took was a random review (of Mineral’s The Power of Failure) sent to that very same webzine. Reading it now, 20 years down the line, I am honestly surprised that it was fairly decent, even though it was strictly personal and utterly self-absorbed. One of the editors – not sure that title is correct since I am unsure if anyone bothered to read what I sent before publishing – got back to me to offer a stable “staff role”. Naturally, my only payment was listening to a truckload of new music each month, which was pretty much the incarnation of my dream as a teenager, constantly on the hunt for new stuff to listen to.
Indeed, back in the early 2000s, a webzine would send you a big package of CDs each month: some still in their original packaging, most of them in a clear plastic bag, others burned directly from the computer of whoever was sending them over. Granted, I hadn’t even heard the name of the majority of the bands I was reviewing, while most of them would be kind enough to include some kind of promo information, in some cases there was none and the internet was usually of little help. Imagination ended up playing a big part in writing about what I was listening to and, thus, reviewing. I did, sometimes, tackle bands that I knew or albums I just itched to talk about, but those were more the exceptions than the rule.
As the story goes, I reinvented myself overnight as a music critic. Not just any random genre, but a critic dedicated to emo/punk/hardcore, even though that would only last a couple of years. Then they asked me: are you interested in reviewing other genres too? I said sure. So, how does one review an album as opposed to a video game? Well, perhaps a comparison might help: describing how a game looks and how an album sounds – which is fairly important for self-produced bands – definitely share some common ground.
Naturally, an album has much fewer components to analyze and most of these end up being inevitably personal. I can safely describe a game’s graphics as “outdated” or “buggy”, but trying to put forward the notion that a song “isn’t catchy” easily wanders into strictly personal tastes. While I would argue that reviewing an album is generally more difficult than a videogame, they are radically different experiences, requiring appropriate investments of one’s time and attention. Honestly, each month there was so much stuff and so little time to listen, that to be fair, many of these reviews were fairly superficial. But, in the end, that constant experience of writing regularly each month was a great help in finding my own personal style of reviewing.
The game uses Cga graphics and PC Speaker (the best on the market) and runs on any sistem, from a 386. It is Al Lowe’s first game, should you not know who he is, about the romantic adventures (and not just romantic…) of an unlucky playboy, ugly and dressed like John Travolta.
(“Larry Leasure in the land of the lounge lizards” Review – 1997)
Going back into gaming
After working full-time on music reviews for some years, at least as much as a high school student could, I realized that I missed writing about games. Before getting back to them, though, I took a long hard look at everything I had written up until that point and decided to polish up the articles. It wasn’t going to be any more just about “is this good or bad”, I started to see how the developers worked inside technological limitations, if there was a serious attempt at telling a story and would also share some of my personal feelings and memories playing this or that title.
It was becoming something personal, more strictly Damiano-ish, but still in service of a reader. My approach was: why should someone read my review instead of someone else’s? Then worked my way from there. The experience of revisiting my old articles was crucial in helping me find my own style of reviewing, it is something I still currently do: going back to articles one year after their publication date while trying to see what can be improved (the answer usually is : a whole lot). An exercise that was going to become important pretty soon.
I wonder if on the Dreamcast it will be another Shinobi chapter… who knows if there’s even Ecco III coming out! Anyway let’s talk about Shinobi III.
(Shinobi III review – 1999)
One thing my experience as a music critic had taught me, in giving me a pulsating mass of albums to listen to each month, was working under deadlines and juggling everything to make ends meet. At the same time, I was still trying to survive and finish high school. Now, that time juggling skill might be important even if one is working as a permanent staff member in a magazine, but it becomes essential for most people writing reviews as a hobby or side job. Having to review bands that were actually struggling to keep full-time jobs, those that produced music strictly for passion, self-financing their albums with no clear intent to ever become rich or gain a big audience, gave me the final push I needed to abandon the idea of the “raging review” for good. Ironically, as we all know, that format, a few years down the line, would become quite celebrated.
I always made it a point to respect someone else’s work, this meant not just taking time to play (or listen) before making up my mind, but never really insulting anyone in the review. Sure, I might have used some bitter sarcasm every once in a while in my music reviews, or said things like “I seriously recommend switching careers”, then again I was barely 20, but most times I always tried to offer constructive criticism.
Damiano the editor-in-chief
After shelving the idea for the original Genesis Temple, I soon discovered there were different ventures where I could continue writing about retro games. In the space of a couple of years, in 2003, I took the reins of one of the websites I often collaborated with, becoming editor-in-chief. Soon, I would start receiving collaboration proposals from other people interested in writing reviews. This is where I, unfortunately, skipped an important step since – overnight – I became editor-in-chief without really ever having one for myself.
Since it was a website solely dedicated to 16-bit consoles, Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, Super Nintendo, and Neo-Geo – fairly bizarre considering I loved writing for DOS and 8-bit titles – there were indeed many eager to provide reviews and features. At its peak, there were five people in staff (including someone who looked after the technicalities of the website), and several others who would send in reviews. In the end, I was rejecting more reviews than I was actually publishing. As I realized only years later, every one of these people had the same problem as me: they had never been through an editing process.
I’ll come clean and admit that I was definitely too young to be suited for an editor’s role. I didn’t have an overall style idea for the website, I just knew if someone managed to write a decent review I would gave them a chance. I also loved the idea of pretending that the staff was all living together in the same house – again, coming from that well honed Italian magazines’ tradition – so we would constantly reference obscure bits and events that only a couple of us in the staff really understood. Beside this rather childish idea, as am editor I wasn’t really able to offer constructive criticism for the reviews and features I was not publishing. Back then I was also struggling with several personal problems and didn’t really have the necessary time and patience to try and find ways of telling someone their reviews were quite awful, not even for free. There were times when I had to rewrite entire reviews from scratch and I soon lost my patience.
Let me be clear on one detail: at no point in this narrative of my years as a “critic”, I was ever paid for anything that I published. Were you expecting anything different? It is something I wanted to address since, as soon as I published an ad looking for reviewers, I started receiving tens of e-mails with CVs attached by people who – quite clearly – were expecting to actually get paid. They were definitely right in wanting to receive compensation for their work, don’t get me wrong, but expecting to get paid by a rather amateurish website where no one was even using their true names, but just “nicknames”, is naive at best. As soon as I updated the ad to feature the magic words “no-profit website”, the e-mails quickly subsided.
I also received a couple of proposals for the position of secretary, which is not one I recall ever being open. I didn’t even have money to pay for hosting the website itself – which looking back was a huge mistake – or to buy games for myself, there was no way in heaven I could afford to pay someone to simply write reviews. The website was also totally ad-free, as it is currently my blog.
A professional reviewer approaches
By 2005, with the retro gaming website in full swing, I also received an offer to collaborate with an IGN-like website to contribute reviews of current games, along with participating at PR events held by Sony and Nintendo. PR events were pretty fun, even though after the first three, they soon started being repetitive. I also wasn’t interested in console gaming back then – that would change soon – so it was like being at a birthday party where you don’t know anyone, not even the person being celebrated. At first, writing reviews for modern titles was a breath of fresh air, I was still playing my fair share of current games and had no problems slightly tweaking my style from the retro games. It was also of great help to my style since I used everything I had learned up until that point (almost ten years, already) and applied them in trying to write a review that was being read by a much bigger audience.
I was also trying to evolve into a format of professional reviewing, by asking myself: how can I tell to someone how it feels to play this game? Which was a similar question to my feelings while listening to an album. Previously, my reviews definitely felt “self-referential”: I was writing for myself and could not really relate to anyone else’s needs. By the mid 00s, my reviews were starting to, finally, become “professional”, they were written with a certain public in mind, interacting with an audience that was starting to reply (which, in the case of music reviews, were mostly insults and threats, so much so that the comments were taken offline…). To be fair, in the case of music reviews I would usually get compliments from the band if I had given them a positive score, or vague insults and threats if not.
After a couple of pretty smooth reviews, for PC games which were delivered complete with instructions and case, I started getting promo DVDs that wouldn’t run or barely functioned to begin with. When I mentioned the problem to my editor (again, not that he would ever interact with me to discuss my style or improve my writing) and told him that it was impossible to review something that just plain didn’t work, he said I should just make up something by reading other people’s takes. This really got on my nerves, but I shrugged and complied, mostly because they weren’t games I really cared about. This is also probably why I have no memories about most of the games I reviewed back then. If you told me that, at one point, I have actually reviewed City Life Deluxe, I would have probably denied it (probably still would); even reading it now, I struggle to recognize it as one of my reviews.
After three times in a row of this rather dishonest work (which – again – was still free), I decided there wasn’t going to be a fourth and just stopped e-mailing him. It was no big loss since reviewers were just cannon fodder and could easily be replaced. In the end, what I learned was that I wasn’t going to sacrifice my style and overall ethics to review titles that no one really cared about, not even me in the first place. I realized it wasn’t possible to branch out into gaming reviews, nor expecting that to actually become a job, so I should just give up on that front and, instead, focus on the music reviews. They were showing no signs of slowing down and, in the end, I soon decided to use that experience to also write for another music webzine at the same time.
The graphics is really good, and it is supersmooth! Sprites are good, backgrounds not; anyway nothing to complain about.
(“Sonic the Hedgehog – Master System” Review – 1999)
By 2007, I had given up on game reviews, both retro and contemporary. I had also started working in an office, so my time for doing reviews, as a whole, became much more limited. By then, I had also started desperately watching movies to make the boring office hours go faster. If I used “desperately”, trust me it was no mistake, I really became like a hungry beast that would eat anything: from high brow intellectual pieces of cinema to the lowest most despicable form of movies (which would probably be Italian movies from the 80s). Really, I would munch on anything that would feed me, this is why my Letterboxd profile can definitely look kind of scary. Not an experience I would recommend, but as a natural consequence of also having troubles trying to keep track of everything that I watched, I started writing bite-sized movie reviews, then medium-sized, then full-on essays.
That experience also deeply influenced my writing style and started to finally amend my lack of an editor. As might be fairly obvious (maybe?), writing a movie review can fall in-between an album and a video game, but it is very specific to its medium. Since I was once again writing for myself, I started to think of a sort of “persona” that I could create these reviews for, so I made up the idea of the “Gerliotti critic”. Basically, he was a guy who worked as a ghostwriter for several more famous movie critics out there and would use these reviews to let off steam and say what he (I*) meant. This also allowed me to jump a bit out of character and dabble a bit into the “angry side” of reviewing, which – sometimes – might have probably be justified. Since I watched my generous share of trash, the only way to survive was coming out swinging.
Finally, my reviewing experience was completed with live events: between 2013 and 2014 I attended something like 6-7 concerts each month, which might not sound like a huge number, especially for an active and healthy concert scene. But for a city with basically no musical scene to speak of like Rome, it was really as many as one could attend: by then the live events scene was slowly on its way out and would die out, eventually, by 2016. Reviewing concerts was one of my favorite things since it encompassed a bit of everything I had learned up until that point: describing the music, the look of the artists, speaking with other concertgoers and the band (if I could), mention the venue, the (almost-inescapble) technical problems, my thoughts on the setlist, couple of funny anedoctes, and so on. To be honest, that also created a new problem that wasn’t there: having to argue with venue managers in Rome, which was almost like trying to haggle with a drug dealer. But I digress.
As 2015 rolled on, I had a bit of an overall existential crisis and decided to change many things in my life: among them, I decided to get back to writing about video games. By then, I was writing for three different musical webzines at the same time, which was a bit too much, so I decided to leave behind the oldest ones, along with the one I had been writing for since 2001, in order to focus on the only one I thought would offer a possibily rewarding experience. In the long run it clearly didn’t, but it was a great opportunity to flex my writing muscles, like writing a delirious review for the Hotline Miami 2 soundtrack which was basically an horrendous acid trip sandwiched between Palahniuk and Hunter S. Thompson. It was 80% narrative and maybe 20% review. The webzine, for some reason, seemed to appreciate my narrative muscle-flexing, so I doubled down even when the album did not really lend itself to off-the-wall writing styles. I decided I didn’t care anyway and persevered in writing anything: diary-like reviews, letters to myself, imagined conversations with the artists, etc.
The Genesis Temple re-dux
With 2019 approaching I finally made up my mind and decided to re-open the Genesis Temple blog, something I should have done way earlier. But then again, I was always one who believed in signs, perhaps a bit too much. I thought if the world wanted me to write more about gaming, it would give me a sign. But that particular sign never came, so it was time to stop waiting. Naturally, I found little to no support to the idea around me. “Do you actually think you will be able to earn money with a blog?” was among the kindest observations I received. But, as before, I stopped caring about what other people thought, I did not even care about earning money, by that point. I had dedicated more than half of my life to writing reviews, it was time to finally bring that immense archive and experience to a website that could work as a portfolio.
To give credit to people who don’t deserve it, they were half right about the proposition being kind of crazy. But I really needed crazy in my life, after years spent in doing the sensible thing. I needed to trust in my abilities and wanted other people (not my friends, obviously) to trust in them too. A year later, the world gave me the signs I was waiting for and finally realized there was a small comfortable niche that would allow me to write about gaming history, for people that would actually be interested in reading about it. Together with gaming history, came my passion for obscure games, with stories of even more obscure and forgotten software houses that no one – apparently – even cared that much to write about.
And, as they say, that was that.
What has changed in writing a retro game review today, as opposed to more than 20 years ago? For me, it feels like an entirely different process, so much so that I feel slightly uncomfortable calling my articles “reviews”. It is not about “does it still hold up”, despite being something I still try to look into and explain, it’s mainly about the whole development process (if such information can be found) and how the title fits into what was going on at the time. I look at how other critics received the game back when it was released, trying to give a sort of then-vs-today overall critical look at how its design features can still be relevant today.
While it might also be fun to look for different humoristic interpretations of the same product, it is something I mostly try to avoid. If one would like to sprinkle a bit of humor into one’s articles, then go for it, it can indeed make for a better read, but generally, I tend to stay away from humor-heavy articles. Most of all, I feel that, today, an article that analyzes a retro game should feel vital: it shouldn’t be just a look at a piece of history of the past, but a current and alive look.
Going back to modern reviews, my articles are clearly different from those slightly professional ones I wrote in 2004-2005. Back then, the overall gaming scene was mostly focused on trying to impress with graphical prowess, catering to a very specific audience or, worse, trying to join an ongoing trend. I distinctly remember in 2006 there were several The Movies clones, for example, which ranged from the forgettable to the terrible. Today, I try to adjust my style according to the kind of game that I’m looking at: perhaps it is a remaster, so one needs to be familiar with the original. It might be a quirky indie title, then the light sprinkle of humor can indeed be the right condiment along with an overall more spicy style. But, whatever the style that I feel might work, I still try to address the concerns and questions that I listed at the beginning: who can I recommend this to? How does it sit along other similar titles?
In reviewing AAA, the author should be able to address the same questions; finding an answer becomes even more important, since the asking price and overall time investment are usually quite much higher. I would concede that, generally, reviewing AAA is more difficult, and also may expose the writer to negative feedback and nasty interactions with the usually awful “social media” public. It is, unfortunately, quite difficult to isolate one’s opinions, especially in our current times where game reviews are not the only source of information anymore. Out there a verbal majority is waiting to drop their opinions on the games and, especially, on the critics themselves, like gentle boulders on delicate angel wings. Yes, even before the embargo date.
An objective review: impossible task?
A question that is often asked to the critics: is it possible to be completely objective in review something? To be fair, I thought it was possible, at least for a time. But the answer I would give today is no. A certain part of one’s tastes and personal experience is going to end up in the final product, even if one tries their best to avoid it. But, that is perfectly fine! It would be like expecting the creators of the product we are reviewing to somehow exclude all personal taste and experience from their work. It is an intricate part of a human being, as much as we try, it can’t really be excised.
But it is possible, in reviewing at least, to compensate for our tastes and personal views so that, again, we as authors, are back on a level playing field and can provide something worthwhile for the casual reader. While, at first, answering the questions I mentioned at the beginning will feel difficult, the more experience one accumulates and the easier it will feel natural to address them. Also, when lacking an editor, try to get other people to read the articles in order to give a constructive and usual feedback: that is essential in getting better. As much as one’s friends will tell you how good you are, try to go beyond that and find some useful feedback.
Trying to understand if a certain kind of public might appreciate the creative product we’re looking at allows a bit of abstraction that is always recommended when writing a review. Also, trying to see how it fits in the overall “scene” or market, the journalist can provide information to the reader that could, in fact, be valuable. For example, should I happen to play a certain kind of platformer that would just leave me unimpressed, I might nonetheless still be able to recommend it to fans of the genre: perhaps because it caters to old-school or lovers of a certain style.
If I’m able to recognize that my problem is purely personal, then I can allow myself to put aside my emotions for a moment. While it is important (and inevitable) to put one’s personal spin on each piece, it doesn’t mean that it is the only thing the review might have going for. But, make no mistakes here, I really don’t mean one has to be constantly as objective as possible: it depends on the game, the style of the magazine one is publishing for. Frankly, if used with a purpose, one’s personal experience might even end up contributing something quite essential to the feature or review.
Knowledge and experience are the two essential columns for getting better and improving at writing, which can be furtherly enriched by being in control of one’s emotion: using them for improving on our overall style, not crippling it.
In conclusion and going back to my original premise: writing a review is not an easy task at all.
In my years of working as a critic, I found it essential to recognize how experience and knowledge are the best drivers at getting better in the task, as much as it might sound like a foregone conclusion. Perhaps taking notes while playing, or trying many different genres, would be one’s right way of improving. Personally, I would also add that respecting other people’s work is essential, especially when it is a creation by people who devoted much of their time and personal money to get something released. Since it is now much easier, try to also get in touch with the creators, listen to their overall process and their stories, that also helped me a lot in understanding how to better put down my thoughts. While I like to let my feelings come through in each review, which naturally might not always be positive emotions, it is something I would recommend only when in complete control of them or filtered through an editor. Finally, let us not forget, constructive feedback: ask for it and offer it, as much as possible.
In 1996, when I began writing, I made a promise to myself: if one day I would not feel those same emotions, curiosity, and will to always be on the look-out for new things, I would stop reviewing.
More than twenty-five years down the line, I have kept that promise.
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I found this really interesting! I also got my start writing for other people in 2001 at a music website which is still going (I was slightly younger at the time, I didn’t write for it for long). I haven’t really thought about the specifics of how my background in music writing affects how I write about games so your points about album reviews vs game reviews were fascinating. I grew up reading games magazines rather than music magazines so in fact maybe I have brought a games point of view to music writing and then vice versa!
Ah that is an interesting thing to look at: how writing for different media might in fact influence your style. Probably a topic that would require its own article! Thanks for reading.