Posts Tagged ‘handy guides’

Review Summer: What is the purpose of a review?

Over the next few weeks, I will take you around to many of the murky corners of reviews. But before we embark, there is something we need to establish first: where are we going? When we are writing reviews, what are we trying to achieve? A review that is good at being a review does what? In other words, what is the purpose of a review?

A famous (in critic circles) Danish critic called Poul Borum wrote thus (my translation):

The purpose of a review is to annoy the author, and to prevent the reader from buying bad books

This carries an ounce of truth, even if it is an exaggeration. The first insight is this: a review is not written to please the author. Not that it should be a goal to insult the author – but the critic’s audience is not the author. It’s just as much the art consumer, the art community, the people who just read the paper in question. Besides, again in Mr. Borum’s words:

Every time you praise a bad book, you slight a good author

This quote I’ll return to

The second insight is this: the review should definitely tell you something about the quality of the reviewed object. This seems intuitive: if we read a review, we feel cheated or confused if we are left with no idea about the merits and demerits of the work reviewed.

Qualifying Qualities

So the review has something to do with qualities. Fair enough – but this spawns the next question: what kind of quality are we talking about? You could easily imagine someone saying: “It’s a masterpiece!” “Well, did you enjoy it?” “No, I really struggled to sit through it.” On the other hand, you might also hear someone say “Wow, that was a blast!” “Was it good?” “No – it’s a piece of stereotypical trash.”

It would seem we are dealing with at least two kinds of quality here: one has to do with the enjoyment someone derives from a text, the other some other kind of quality.

The shrewd reader will already have gathered what I’m getting at: I’m actually trying to sneak in a distinguishing between narrow “art,” and other “popular” fiction. And yes, that is the point I’m trying to make: that something can take it’s audience by storm, and still not be good, and something can be reviled by everyone, and still have something that redeems it from immediately going to the wastebin in the sky.

Not that these two types of quality are mutually exclusive – the best works do both. In fact, when reviewing, I believe you ought to separate them into two different considerations: What are the artistic qualities of this, and how enjoyable is it – or rather, who would enjoy it?

The third spice

But that’s not enough. Many people will not be considering watching the film/reading the book (though, if you post a review online, it’s far more likely that someone will come via Google exactly to find out if they should invest in this object or not). If you want these people to read till the end, and to feel your text was worth the time, you must provide them with something else.

Now, this is where we come back the two kinds of quality we were talking about above. Just as a film or a book can be enjoyable or not, so can your review. And if it is enjoyable enough, people will read it, even if they have no interest in what you’re actually reviewing. I watches all of the Zero Punktuation reviews, even if most of the games are some I’d probably never even consider trying.

And just as there can be something in a work of art that makes it worth getting through, your review can have something extra that makes it worth reading for it’s own sake. This could be a certain insight into the medium you are reviewing, or sharp, well formulated opinions that provoke people into rethinking their own opinions.

In short

All in all, I believe that the purpose of a review can be summarised in three points (neat, ain’t it?):

  • A review should guide the reader when he chooses whether to spend his precious time and money on something. In other words, the reviewer should consider what kind of consumer would benefit from this product, and maybe tell him what situation it would be appropriate for.
  • A review should fuel a debate about art. It should outline how the object fits within it’s genre, how it relates to the society around it, and what the state of that art form is today.
  • A review should be an experience to read. It can be hilarious, it can be a small poem in its own right, or it can just be well written and pleasant to read.

That’s not saying that all good reviews do all of these things. Zero Punctuation is notoriously bad at consumer guidance: he is so sarcastic and so critical, it can often be hard to tell if he likes a game or not. But he more than makes up in entertainment. Besides, if you listen closely, you can actually hear his passion and his strong opinions about where he wants video games to go. And two out of three? That’s not too bad.

Have I forgotten something? Am I just plain wrong? Then, by all means, tell me so.

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Review Summer

It seems I have neglected this blog a bit over the last few weeks. Well, many things have happened, and I have been busy. And I will be more busy in the weeks to come, doing all sorts of strange and interesting things.

But despair not! I will not leave you all hanging. Instead, I am going to give you a series of posts about reviews, and how to write them.

I was taught how to write reviews in a class on cultural journalism when I studied Comparative Literature. Then, as part of my MA in Journalism, I had a class in “Analytical Journalism,” which included reviews, but I ended up teaching that part. Also, I was asked to come back the year after to repeat the lecture I gave.

What I will write in this series is a rephrasing of what I said in those lectures. I’m going to divide it into several bite sized chunks, and I may follow it up with a few reviews of reviews. The first posts are going to lay out the genre as I see it, then later, I’ll give you some pieces of good advice for when you start writing your own reviews.

Of course, I should say that this is my take on reviews. There may be other opinions about what makes a good review. If you disagree with me, please tell me so – I would very much like a bit of debate about reviewing.

[Lumberjack Academy] On the eve of the workshop

So, I’m sitting here, at a quarter to twelve, the night before I’m doing my first workshop in Larpwrighting, and I’m not exactly feeling ready for it. Not that I’m unprepared – I have a bunch of excercises and good points for the budding lumberjacks I’ll be meeting tomorrow, and I have a good idea of the flow of the two weekends. I just don’t know if I’m setting the level right – I might be setting it too low, and they’ll be bored, or I might be setting it too high, and they won’t understand a thing. Ah, well – I’m good at improvising, and if I need a think, I have bundles of little excercises to throw at them while I go off to a corner to have a serious chat with my brain.

At the very least, I feel I have a set of points to go over that will enable them to make simple larps very easily. There may be other ways, there may be better ways, and this way of doing things certainly has a few weaknesses if you want to use it for groups of players over 10-20 people.

Posed as questions, the points are (only in very rough order):

  • Who are the players? This question is one of the two most important questions – obiously, as this is what determines the “roles” of the “role-play.” The first answer to this should most often be a group – “a clique of high school bullies” or “a squad of police(wo)men,” and then elaborated later into the individual members – the point being that a larp works better for the individual player if he feels like he has a strong belonging to a certain group, but if you determine individual members first and try to make them into a coherent whole afterwards, you run the risk of making a group that doesn’t have any real connection to each other. Of course, this way, you risk having someone there because “they have to be in the group” – something you have to watch out for. Note, that external people that are important to the group should be considered as well. Maybe the nerdy boy the clique’s picking on, or the police seargent’s wife. And how are we going to see that? In other words, what kind of props or costume will identify the players as belonging to the group, and comunicate who the individual members of the group are?
  • Where are we? In many cases, the excact location of the characters can be changed while retaining many of the dynamics of the play. But it must still be though of with care, as it gives colour and has great effect on the point below. Of course, sometimes, the location dictate the characters, instead of the other way around, as with the game “Boxen” (“the Box”), from this years Fastaval, the premise of which was (as far as I heard) sticking four people in a blocked elevator, and seeing what happened. And how are we going to see that? As with characters, one must give careful consideration to how to communicate what kind of a place the characters are in. A sofa and a coffee table makes a living room, while you need some sort of workdesk for an office.
  • What will make the players move? This may seem an odd point, but it is important nonetheless. One of my philosophy professors once told us that “every difference must make a diffference” – and if the characters are just sitting or standing around a table and talking, why is it different from a tabletop game? I made this mistake with my game, Karma Airlines from Hyggecon 2007, and it was clearly inhibiting the players that they were stuck just looking at each other over the table. Also, you can’t, as with one game I was in recently, just plant leads and expect the players to find them – they will only find it if they have a reason to go there. We did all right with the Bute Will, in which we had three different rooms and was serving dinner in one, tea in another, plus the characters would want to speak privately with one another. Also, there were plenty of props, inviting exploration. In other words, you must make sure there’s a reason to utilize the room as a room, and not just as a place to contain your discussion.
  • What is the conflict? Here, we get to the “play” part of “role-play.” Each player should have something that makes it important to him to go up against one or more of the other players. Sometimes, you can have one conflict that everyone has an interest in, but often it will make sense to have individual ones as well, to improve the odds that everyone has something to do. And why do the players care? Another pitfall is making conflicts that the players just ignore. Each conflict must feel pressing and important – preferably with both NPCs and other players pressing the conflict if the player himself doesn’t get around to it. And what will the pacing be like? If there is one thing that can kill an otherwise good story, it is slowing it down. The players should feel the need to press on with the conflict, rather than waiting around for the perfect way to strike. Of course, the prescence of the other players’ characters  can create some pacing – but only if they are making a grab for the Golden McGuffin. In the Bute Will, we had the solicitor announce that the police was on their way, thus demanding immediate action. In Karma Airlines, I hade a (in my oppinion) a stroke of genious: the players were placed outside the normal timestream and told they had “one minute” to come up with a solution – thus giving them a time frame they weren’t sure of, yet with a feeling of urgency – plus, it allowed me to yell out “30 seconds have passed” when I felt they needed a little prodding.
  • How are the game masters going to interact with play, including starting and (especially) ending it? This question is more of a practical meta-question than the kind of scripting question the others are. It is still important to consider, however. At least in Denmark, the concensus is, that when play is started, the GM shouldn’t interfere. That means that the GM’s primary way of both observing and interacting with the story is through npc’s (even if many Danes seem to be experimenting with webcams). These must be thought up in advance. The GM should also know in advance how to start the game, and preferably have an idea about how to end the game.

These are the words for now. I must to bed, having spent far too long writing this. But, ah well, it’ll be good. I’ll give a status update, maybe tomorrow, but definitely when the whole thing is over.