This year, IF Comp is planning to experimentally relax its long-time ban on public author discussion; as long as authors don’t encourage voters to break the rules (most obviously, by getting people to vote in bad faith), they can in theory say whatever they want about their own game or other competitors’.
In general, I’m a cautious advocate for keeping the gag rule. But as an experiment, I’m interested. I could be wrong! Changes to the Comp’s discussion rules have improved the event before*. I enjoy reading things that authors write about their games. I think it’s prima facie a good idea for there to be more discussion around the Comp.
Here’s the thing, though. In professional static fiction, there’s a well-established best practice that authors should never, ever respond to negative reviews; regardless of how awful the reviewer is, engaging with them will almost always make the author look worse.
We’ve talked about The Author’s Big Mistake here before. The Author’s Big Mistake is replying in any way whatsoever to a bad review. The term seems to have been coined by Paul Fussell. And really-o, truly-o, pay attention to this. Do not make the Author’s Big Mistake. Because you know the proverb, “When you set on the path of revenge, first dig two graves”? You can watch that get played out every time someone commits the ABM.
This is sometimes also phrased as “never respond defensively to a bad review in a public forum.” (Emphasis mine.)
The same principles are true of IF. (Kind of. We’re a much smaller world, which makes things work a little differently.) But if you’re a first-time author – of which there are generally many in the comp – you may not be familiar with this. The Comp is an intense time for authors, and some might be moved to defend their work. This is understandable! You’ve invested a lot into your work, and now its reputation is taking shape before your eyes; who wouldn’t have an urge to try and influence that? In the past, the gag rule created a mandatory cool-down period; without it, authors are more likely to jump in hot and embarrass themselves.
In general, I enjoy talking to authors about their games, and sometimes it helps me understand the work better – but at the heart of things, I want to judge the work, not the author. If the game can’t be properly appreciated without the author looking over your shoulder and offering advice, the game has a problem.
Remaining focused on the work can be difficult to do in the world of IF, which remains small and tightly-knit. It’s harder to do if the author is busily self-promoting – perfectly nice people can get weird when they’re advocating for their own product. And it’s near-impossible if the author is presently fighting other reviewers in comment threads, or passive-aggressively subtweeting about how nobody understands their vision, or melting down in their blog about the reception their game is getting.
So here are some guidelines about how best to deal with reviews during Comp season. To many of you, this might come across as an extended labouring of the bloody obvious. Honestly, I expect that most comp entrants won’t need any of this advice, most of the time – but the best of us can have momentary lapses of good judgement when something we care about deeply is involved.
- Reviews are not written primarily for the benefit of the author. A reviewer is not your tester, not your editor, and definitely not your mentor. A review that is useless to you may be very useful to other readers. If you find something in a review that helps you grow as an author, or that makes you feel proud and happy, or that you can use as a pull-quote to promote your game, that’s great! But it’s a secondary benefit.
- In the IF world, where many reviewers and readers of reviews are also practicing authors, this can be muddied a bit. Often a reviewer will be willing to expand on their comments for your benefit. Sometimes they’ll even be willing to act as a tester on your future work, if you ask. Still: if they do this, it’s out of generosity, not obligation.
- Don’t try to argue reviewers into liking your game. This is silly, rude, and will not work. It’s also very unlikely to sway any onlookers to your side. If you do choose to respond to a negative review, sit back a moment and consider “Am I really just trying to argue people into liking my game?” If that’s the case, no good can come of it.
- “Every review is useful feedback for the author!” is bullshit. A reviewer may not be your intended audience, in which case their feedback may be pretty irrelevant to you. That’s OK: it’s foolish to try to please everyone, and you have every right to make games for whoever you want, including yourself alone (hiding them in the sofa-cushions). You’re not obliged to give a damn about what a particular reviewer thinks.
- But by entering your game in the Comp, you made them your audience, even if they’re not the kind of reader you wanted. You can ignore them if you want, but if you complain that the wrong kind of reader is responding to your work, you’re going to look foolish. If you write an intensely personal game and publish it on a personal blog for family and friends, and then I sweep in out of the blue and review it, I’m being a jerk. If you submit that same game to the comp, you’ve asked me to play and respond to it.
- No matter how amazing your game is, someone is going to hate it. There is nothing you can do to avoid this. You should be prepared for it. Lost Pig, the only IF game ever to win the Comp and the Best Game XYZZY and the year’s highest IFDB rating, earned at least one scathing review in its Comp year (some guy on YouTube sneered at the orcish baby-talk).
Let me say this again: bad reviews? Really long angry reviews about how insanely mad a book made a reader? Really wonderful squeeful reviews about how wonderful the book was? Reviews that say, “Meh”?
This is what we signed up for when we published.
– SB Sarah
- Reviewers are not obliged to consider your work on the terms you prefer. Maybe prose style isn’t important to you, and only want your game addressed in terms of gameplay. Maybe your work is a cri du coeur and you don’t want analysis, just support from like-minded people. Maybe you consider Marxist literary criticism to be the only lens through which your work can truly be understood. Doesn’t matter. That’s not something you get to decide. Here’s what I’ve said elsewhere on the subject:
I make no pretense at rating games objectively, because that is a silly thing to do. I’ll make some attempt to consider games on their own terms, but ultimately the critic’s job is to unpack their own response to the work, not speak on behalf of some imagined ideal audience. To say the same thing from a different angle: while I’m somewhat interested in whether a work succeeds at the goals the author set for it, I don’t think that that should be my primary consideration.
- Reviewers don’t owe you a review. If someone hasn’t reviewed your game yet, don’t hassle them about it; there are a lot of games in the Comp, and playing and reviewing all of them – or even some large proportion – is a substantial amount of work. (If they’re actually engaging with it, it can also entail a lot of emotional labour.) Someone who’s normally fine with review requests may be a lot less receptive to them during comp season. (For similar reasons, reviewers don’t owe you an in-depth review, or a review based on a completed game. ‘I didn’t finish this, and here’s why’ is completely legit.)
- Correction of straightforward factual inaccuracy is worth doing. But don’t get grumpy about it! Imparting information within the game is part of your job as an author – and one of the more difficult challenges of game design. If a reviewer was confused, it might be because your game was confusing.
- Keep things in perspective.
- Keep the whole review in mind, as well as the score if it’s included. Don’t jump from ‘they disliked one specific thing’ to ‘they hate the game.’ Bear in mind that comp reviews are often written in a hurry, and rarely devote equal consideration to every aspect of a work. Authors look especially bad when they blow up over a single negative point in a generally positive review.
- Don’t just read your own game’s reviews. When you’re considering what a review means, look at some of the other things the reviewer has written. See what their thoughts are on other games you admire. Maybe they’re just a grouch about everything.
- You are not your game. Your game is not you.
- You are not the final authority on your game! You have a pretty important perspective on it, sure, but other people can see things you don’t. Reviewers can be wrong about your game – and so can you.
- The reviewer is not judging the time, effort, hopes, intentions or circumstances that went into your game. They’re not judging your artistic vision. They’re judging the work that is actually in front of them. If the work successfully expresses some or all of the former, great – but that’s not a given.
- If someone dislikes your game, it does not automatically mean that they dislike you, or that they think you’re a terrible author. Good authors produce bad work sometimes.
- What about engaging with positive reviews? That’s a happier situation with fewer pitfalls. I mean, you shouldn’t lobby the reviewer to change their 7 to an 8 or anything, but hopefully that’s obvious. You certainly shouldn’t feel obliged to respond (but if you can’t think of anything to add, a ‘thank you’ is always appreciated.)
I’ve also got some personal expectations! They may not be true of every reviewer.
- If you’re going to gripe about reviews, do it in private – and I mean in private. I heartily encourage you to curse my name to your friends in your local pub or in the Comp authors’ private forum. Passive-aggressive subtweets and the like, I have little tolerance for.
- If you think I hated your game, please refer to the explanation of my voting scores. There is a lot of space between ‘loved it’ and ‘hated it’ – in most comps, that space encompasses a majority of the games. In some spaces, any vote less than the maximum possible score is considered bad. That is not true here.
- Sometimes I will criticise games for elements that are sexist, racist or the like.
- This does not necessarily mean that I think you are a terrible person. (See: ‘your game is not you.’) It is very easy to do this kind of thing by mistake. If your game is full of bugs, I don’t automatically assume that it’s because you were trying to make a buggy game; I assume that you did a bad job of debugging.
- I might not always go into the problem in great detail; usually this is when the criticism is of a fairly minor element, the sort of thing that doesn’t seem malicious and isn’t all that central to the work. Lengthy explanations, here, could make the issue seem more important than it is. If your attitude, as an author, is “hunh, maybe I did something badly, but it’d help if I understood more fully what that was” then I’m happy to expand upon it. If your attitude is “fuck you, there’s no way I did anything wrong, and I must stand up to clear my good name,” then you would be best-advised to avail yourself of aforementioned local pub.
- If you think this is an inherently illegitimate or mean-spirited form of criticism, you are wrong, and I have no interest in debating the point.
- You shouldn’t expect me to have read your dev blog, or anything else you’ve written about your game. I might do that, afterwards, if I’ve played the game and enjoyed it. But if there’s information which is necessary for me to properly appreciate the game, that information should be in the game.
* Formerly, you couldn’t discuss the games in public spaces at all during the voting period, lest voters influence one another; everybody’s reviews came out in a single tidal wave after voting closed.