I play games and write about them. It's the job I've always wanted, and I can't think of anything else I'd rather do. The sleep deprivation I suffer during the annual crush of games released between September and December sometimes make me wonder what I've gotten myself into, but I'm usually completely recovered by Christmas-just in time for holiday get-togethers with family and friends who like to ask questions about what I do for a living.
The most common question I'm asked is if I just sit around playing games all day. The answer is no. I typically write, research, conduct interviews, and attend events throughout the day. I do virtually all of my gaming at night, between 11:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m., after my wife and daughter go to bed-save under special circumstances, such as when a publisher fails to provide early access to reviewable code, forcing me to engage in unhealthy marathon sessions to make a deadline.
Once people learn that I usually play games only at night, the next question they ask is whether I finish all of the games I review. Again, the answer is no. After all, games aren't like movies, which last only a couple of hours. Most take at least eight to 10 hours to finish, some last more than 100 hours, and some never end (more on them in a moment).
That said, I finish most games, and if I don't I usually take care to mention in my review just how far along I currently am. If I manage only a few hours I won't assign a score or issue a verdict, but instead simply provide what I call "initial impressions" and describe them as such.
As an aside, finishing a game doesn't guarantee a better review. I often have to rush through large games in a matter of just a few days simply to be able to write about them in a timely manner. Generally speaking, jamming a 20-plus-hour game into two or three days and then writing a review in the wee hours of the morning is not conducive to thoughtful criticism. For starters, my experience will not replicate that of the average player. Most consumers take weeks to finish a game, and that extended time can alter their perceptions of everything from story and characters to controls and design. It's easier to grow attached and accustomed to elements of a game you initially dislike or find uncomfortable the longer you stay with them. I try to take this into account during my evaluations.
I also find it difficult to fully process and digest the barrage of sights, sounds, and experiences contained in more complex games in such a short time. Stephen King once discussed in one of his Entertainment Weekly columns how unfortunate it was that book reviewers were forced to churn through the final chapter in the Harry Potter saga in just a couple of days simply so that they could post timely reviews. He argued that a piece of literature as epic as J.K. Rowling's book (and series) deserved analysis that had been baked a little longer before being served. As a reviewer of epic stories of another sort, I completely understand this sentiment. I occasionally wince when looking back on what I've written while toiling within a tight timeframe. It's easy to lose sight of the larger picture and focus on trivialities when working under the gun.
But I'm not complaining. Hasty deliberations come with the territory. Much like other entertainment mediums, games typically do their briskest business in their first couple of weeks. Assuming my job is to help readers decide whether they want to buy a game-and I think that's a big part of it-I need to post reviews as quickly as possible upon a game's release. It's part of the biz.
Now, getting back to the questions I field from inquisitive friends and relatives, I'm often asked what I think about this or that game. These questions are usually my favourite to answer. I love to chat with people about specific games and see how my opinions match or conflict with theirs. It makes for great conversation-like friends talking about books or movies-while simultaneously revealing perspectives I may not have previously considered. It often ends up helping me in my work.
However, even though I typically try in excess of 200 games each year, I'm inevitably asked about some that I haven't played-usually massively multiplayer online games and sports games. Some people are astonished that a video game reviewer wouldn't play the latest iteration of Madden NFL or a new World of Warcraft expansion, two of the most popular franchises around.
Here's how I explain why I usually don't review MMOs like World of Warcraft: To form a knowledgeable opinion worth reading, a reviewer would need to play one of these games for weeks in order to understand not just the game's intricacies but also those of its community and guilds-how it is growing and evolving. If a reviewer cannot make this sort of commitment, then his or her discussion wouldn't be a fair analysis of the sort of long-term experience that the developers of these games strive to deliver. I've nothing against MMOs; I simply haven't the time required to gather the experience necessary for meaningful analysis. If I did play one of these games, I wouldn't be able to write about any others for weeks.
As for most sports games, I don't review them for the same reason I probably wouldn't put much stock in a review of Mass Effect 2 written by someone uninterested in science fiction and role-playing. I assume people who love hockey and football would want to read reviews written by people who are passionate about and understand these these sports. I cover golf and tennis games because I know these sports and can confidently form criticism about games that attempt to simulate them, but I could no more authoritatively evaluate a basketball or soccer game than I could provide meaningful commentary on a ballet or opera. I leave reviews of these games to others who are better qualified.
An almost universal assumption people have about game reviewers is that they're exceptional players. I can't speak for my colleagues, but this definitely is not true in my case. I find I can pick up new games of all kinds quite quickly. However, once I've written a review I'm usually off to the next one, leaving me little time to develop expert skills-especially in online arenas, which is where player skill counts most. I loved the online modes of several games I played this fall, including Halo: Reach, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, but I haven't gone back to any of them since writing my reviews simply because I haven't had the time. Every minute I spend continuing to play these is one less minute I have to evaluate the next game on my crowded plate.
Which leads to the question everyone gets around to asking me sooner or later (even my five-year-old daughter has already asked it): Does my job ever get old? Have I begun resenting video games because I make my living playing them?
Since unwrapping my first console nearly 30 years ago-a Coleco Vision (the moment was captured in the image at the top of this post)-my love of video games has never wavered. I might grow temporarily bitter when I have to invest hours in a bad game that I'd never choose to play outside my job, but this happens rarely and is tempered by all the times I discover great new games that I probably would have overlooked had it not been for my job.
My only regret is that I can't savour them as long as I might like before moving on to the next one. I guess even dream jobs aren't perfect.