Game Journalism 101: Reviewing on a Budget with Kotaku's G.B. Burford (Interview)
Not a lot of bloggers cross the gap between hobbyist to full-time freelancer. G.B. Burford (DocSeuss as many people know him) is one of the few who has turned his passion for games into a career, writing for Kotaku and PC Gamer.
I had a chance to sit down with him this week to talk about game journalism and what advice he has for aspiring game critics.
Alright, first off -- For those who don’t know you, how would you describe your work as a game journalist?
G.B.: You could say I'm a freelance games critic who specializes in explaining how mechanics work. I'm the kind of guy who explains how magic works, basically.
And how do you approach writing your highly detailed, long-form critiques? It's considered quite a feat to make that draw in views in an industry that primarily rewards guides, lists, and snappy news posts.
G.B.: Differently each time. I realize that's not the world's greatest answer, so I'll try to expand on that...
Most of the time, I'm doing the pitching, so I'll try to come up with an interesting pitch. This usually means asking myself what a game's unique hook is. Sometimes it means answering a question about why a game failed.
So--using a game I haven't written about as an example--for Forza Horizon, I might go "hey, why does this work?" and I might come to the conclusion that it's all about the atmosphere or the reward cycles or something. And then I sit down and I write about that.
Sometimes it's a case of comparing one thing to another, looking at the friction there, and writing something about that. Like, there I was, playing survival games, and I kept going "ugh, I don't like this, I don't like what this is doing, why can't they be more like STALKER?" So then I wrote a piece detailing my specific frustrations with survival games and then presented the game I'd been comparing them to in my head. I proceeded to explain why I felt it was so great.
Sometimes, as I'm playing a game for a refresher--I don't write without playing or replaying the game I'm writing about--I'll actually discover something about it I hadn't noticed before. For example, a piece I'm doing that was initially "what does it mean for Game X to be a part of Series Y" has become "why are we so excited for this game, and why can't I shake the feeling that something's not quite right?"
Do you ever try to direct the evolution or just follow it and see where it takes you?
G.B.: It varies. I only try to force it when nothing's coming and I've got a deadline, but that's pretty rare.
Most of the time, I have a general idea, I see where my mind takes me, and I make adjustments to my initial idea as I go. It rarely changes on any drastic level, though it always changes.
Being a member of the games press often requires you are on top of things, able to play both recent and older games with ease. From what I understand, for most of your life, you've consistently had struggles with money, partially due to covering a genetic disorder.
How have you handled all of that, facing those struggles, along with going to college? Not a lot of people would be able to do that.
G.B.: I remain almost entirely a PC gamer. It helps a lot. Like, hey, THIEF 2014 going for $60? Naaah, I got it for $7 a few months before release. Alien: Isolation cost me a dollar. Part of it is about being smart.
Newegg was dumping AMD codes where Alien was concerned. AMD codes are little bonuses you get for buying a graphics card; for whatever reason, they'd gone with Alien: Isolation, despite it not being out (usually it's stuff that's already out). They mostly give out Steam codes.
So yeah. Smart shopping is like 70% of it. Dumb shopping is another 20%.
What do you mean by "dumb shopping"? Just regular browsing? Or blind buys?
G.B.: Like... I don't have enough money to pay the $100+ a month for medical insurance, but I do have like maybe $20-30, so sometimes I go "hey, that looks cool, I'll buy that" when I should probably stick stuff in savings. The other 10% are gifts.
Some people like how I write and want me to write about certain games, so they send stuff to me. Like 'oh, I really want you to write about Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, so here's a copy of the game!' Well, okay, least I can do is write about it.
Alien: Isolation cost me a dollar.
I don't buy nearly as much games as I used to; partly 'cause I got way better at budgeting and realizing that "wow, okay, probably shouldn't be spending that money", especially when I've got a large enough collection as it is.
So in summary:
Smart shopping is like 70% of it. Dumb shopping is another 20%. The other 10% are gifts.
- Smart purchasing -- Stick to PC gaming, it's waaay cheaper in the long run, no matter how cheap the upfront costs might seem.
- Dumb purchasing -- Don't do this.
- Gifts -- Are great, and I miss being able to afford to give them myself.
There are a lot of games out there. How do you go about choosing the games you cover?
G.B.: Oh, that's super easy. Whatever game has the most impact on me gets written about. Some games swirl around in my head and have me thinking lots about what they do or how they did. Maybe it's because I hated them, maybe it's because I loved them. Maybe they're Destiny and they're a beautiful mess of great and awful.
I might not write about Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag at length just because I don't have a lot to say beyond "wow, that was a lot of tailing missions." Of course, I might actually find those tailing missions impacted me in a big way, so I pitch a piece on the mechanics of tailing missions and how to fix them. Last time I pitched that, I ended up somehow writing a piece on Dishonored, though.
All of that stuff said, sometimes there are games that burn brightly in my head and get nothing said about them because I don't have anything to say. Some games need more time on the burner. Oh, and I do my best to avoid writing about things other people have already said. Avoiding discussions about graphics is important, I think.
You feel too much weight is put on graphics?
G.B.: Oh, absolutely. A while ago, some people at Insomniac researched game reviews to discover that the thing everyone talked about the most in reviews was graphics. Graphics are the single most important factor as to whether or not people like a game, according to most game reviews. Well, most reviews are actually wrong, as weird as that sounds. This is controversial opinion time.
Basically, nobody talks about sound in reviews. Framerate didn't get discussed unless it was super bad. A game's review score is primarily contingent on the game's presentation.
You can look at reviews and go "yeah, everyone talks about graphics," but I've seen plenty of games with great graphics fall by the wayside. Far more consistent is great sound design. I don't think I've ever seen a game with bad sound design win the kind of GOTY accolades that Red Dead Redemption or Half-Life 2 did, and both of them have incredible soundscapes.
People will tell you "Red Dead Redemption just feels like a Western," but what they really mean is that it's presented like a Western, and that's heavily done by using sound effects directly from Westerns.
So you'd argue that the -video- aspect of games is actually not as major a factor by comparison?
G.B.: Thinking with the "gameplay/story/visuals" paradigm isn't very helpful. It's how games were reviewed in the '80s and '90s because:
- A -- Games were still in their formative years
- B -- Games writing was still developing its vocabulary.
I think this taught us how to think about games, so you've got an awful lot of people discussing them purely on the terms of what we see in review score breakdowns. People end up reaching to explain why a thing does or doesn't work and they're often wrong about it.
Like, hey, That Popular Game You Like doesn't have a great story. Honestly, it's pretty dumb. But... it does have incredible facial animation, and it does its best to put that facial animation in your face.
Using really expressive, sympathetic characters goes a long way towards impacting our feelings, so the game in question gives us really strong feelings, despite having a really stupid story with a ton of plot holes. But most people don't think to write about facial animation as a component of storytelling.
They go with what is most immediately accessible and what most casual gamers might think is the answer.
G.B.: They are the average users. That sounds elitist, I know, but there's not really any other way to say it. Most people who write about games are people who grew up having fun playing console games and now they like writing about why they enjoy them. Most of the people who actually know how games work got jobs making games.
There's the stereotype that most game writers want to get a job working in the development side of things. But very few actually make the leap, and those that do are almost all the ones who understand best how games work.
You occasionally get some who make the jump to "community manager" or something. But the ones who are actually making games are the ones who actually understand games. And as weird as it sounds, I don't think most people understand how games work.
It's like going "I really like how this car looks and I enjoy driving this car, but I don't do car maintenance." If you don't really understand how your car works, then you're going to have a hard time being a truly great car writer.
Hmm, what would you say then the games press could benefit most from, in response to the problem you've found?
G.B.: Playing more PC games. Seriously.
At first, you're like "hmm, well, that thing I wanted to do isn't working right now, so I should figure out why that is." Maybe a friend tells you to use the FOV slider in one game, and you realize that this makes things a lot nicer, so you start adjusting it in every game, but then you find a game where you can't do that.
So you go "okay, I want to change this." And then you do. Or maybe you watch a YouTube video where Thomas the Tank Engine has replaced Alduin in Skyrim. So you discover mods. Eventually, you're inside the guts of the games you love, messing around to see what happens.
I got my start because the handling of an airplane mod I'd found for Microsoft Flight Simulator 1998 was upsetting me. I figured something made the airplanes fly differently, so I decided to find out what that was. Eventually, I'd figured out how to mod weapon firing into the game.
Tinkering is implicit in PC gaming. The more you tinker, the more you understand. You'll never really understand games if all you do is play them and write value judgments at the end.
"Oh hey I played this game and I had a lot of fun so I think you should play it okay?" We can do better.
And what other advice would you give for anyone looking to get into games criticism? Both to grow as critics and understand games better both as a medium and per-game?
G.B.: Read Film Crit Hulk and Pauline Kael. Familiarize yourself with as many mediums as you can. You can't be a good games writer if you only ever play games. Also, play bad games -- play LOTS of bad games. Figure out what makes them bad. Expose yourself to things you don't think you'd be interested in.
Tinker with, mod, or tweak the games you play. Try to break the games you play (Birgirpall and Banzaii are my favorite YouTubers for precisely this reason). And, most importantly of all, ask yourself why you feel the way you do.
Also super important: start really talking about games. I mean REALLY talking about them. Don't just go onto GameFAQs or something and go "who was the most memorable villain?" or whatever.
Less "Top Ten Shooters" more "why does this sniper rifle feel so good while that shotgun feels so lame?" Why does this element work this way instead of that way?
I got my start posting comments about why games did or didn't do things on Kotaku's "Talk Amongst Yourselves" column. Basically, every day, someone would post an article, and you could talk about anything in the comments.It was a real wild west.
I'd bring up something for serious discussion, get people involved, and then we'd respond back in forth by breaking down each others' arguments.
Bolded Version of Their Statement
"Well, I think..."
Bolded Next Remark
"Yeah, for sure. But do you think it could also..."
Alright, but as you said, some of the opinions you've come to from your line of thinking aren't always as popular -- how would you advise aspiring critics handle that? Would you recommend finding a discussion forum like TAY?
G.B.: To answer the first question: stop caring. Write your sincerest and your best and understand that you will be crap at first because it takes like... 10,000 hours of work to get good at anything. I'm definitely nowhere near where I'd like to be. There was a while there where people would give me death threats for writing that I didn't like Game A or Game B, but that passes. It's just harmless stuff on the internet.
Now, as for the second question... Well, I wouldn't recommend TAY to anyone. I wish I could. At some point along the line, TAY lost it's way and became more closed off and manipulative, trying to be a mini-Kotaku. Certain people became authors and could post actual articles which got comments and caught they eye of marketers with free games.
They started telling us what we could and could not say. A friend wrote a negative review of a free game, and some people got really angry about that. Anything that could be seen as jeopardizing their ability to get free games was upsetting.
I learned a very important lesson from that: Just because something benefits you doesn't mean it's good for you. So no, I wouldn't recommend TAY to anyone these days. It's declined massively in terms of output quality and volume. A great many people left, myself included, and I've never found an adequate replacement.
Well, we're actually about wrapped up, but at the end of all my interviews, I like to let my interviewee ask me or my audience a question.
G.B.: I wish I had a question, but I don't. I do have some advice, though.
Alrighty, what additional advice do you have?
G.B.: If you want to write about games, you need a few basic things. Obviously we already talked about how to develop a way of thinking and speaking about games. Once you've got that, keep doing it. Get a blog, but realize that blog's more of a portfolio. It's hard to build an audience when nobody knows who you are. That blog's more for the people you pitch your own work to.
Get an editor. Listen to your editor. Under no uncertain circumstances should you have a poor relationship with an editor. Always. Respect. The. Editor. Never work for free unless it's for yourself. Write on your blog for free. Write on community forums for free. But professionally? Never write for free. Never write for exposure.
Expect to fail a lot. Grow a thick skin and learn to take criticism--people get invested in games, and everyone thinks they're right, so consider this when talking to people and expect to upset others. Eventually, maybe, just maybe, someone will pay you less than you're worth.
Oh, and write for an audience. Be a reader's writer. Expect that not everyone knows what you're saying, but do that without talking down to people. Treat the audience like a peer. And when you've done all that, go read the comments. Comments are a barometer for how you've done. If they're negative and horrible, chances are, you can fix that next time. The end!
Can you tell I overthink this?
If it is any consolation, I feel more people should be "overthinking it"! Alright, thank you for sitting down with my today G.B. Where can my readers find you on Twitter?
G.B.: Hey, no problem.
@forgetamnesia for my professional work.
@thegonzologist for my personal, non-freelance writing. It's also a great place to ask me questions!