Veteran videogame journalist Dan Amrich tells prospective videogame reviewers exactly how it is in his new, information-packed book Critical Path: How to Review Videogames For a Living, a quick 316-page read that offers Amrich’s insight into everything from writing, critiquing, editing, freelancing, getting a job, and getting out of one. It’s not perfect, but it should be required reading for aspiring videogame critics—especially those who don’t know where to start.
Critical Path is broken into six distinct chapters, or, as the book refers to them, “levels.” Each chapter covers a different aspect of the trade, from honing your writing skills to how to handle yourself once working for a publication. Some information, however, will not be helpful until later in your career or may have been helpful earlier on. For example, the “Learning It” chapter, which gives basic editing, style, voice, and scoring tips, would have been immensely helpful to me eight months ago, before I had dived into reviewing games. Conversely, the last couple chapters explain what life as a videogame reviewer will be like, but is of no current use to much of Critical Path‘s audience. In terms of organization, this works splendidly. For content, however, the structure separates the relevant from the currently irrelevant, and large portions of the book are boring because of this.
Amrich suggests many ways to land one’s first reviewing gig, but thoroughly discusses freelancing. Having acquainted myself with some full-time freelance writers, I’m well aware that it is grueling work. I chose another route. Specifically, I opted to write on a volunteer basis at my first website, which led to more volunteer work at a more widely-read website, which led me to another website that paid very little. The volunteer route can pay off, but it takes amounts of time and dedication that won’t sit well with most. So, if you’re looking for a paying gig but find freelance to be daunting, Critical Path will be your savior. Amrich not only advises how to mentally prepare for the cruel world of freelance writing (hint: get used to hearing the word “no”), but he also delves into topics rarely touched on: how to deal with public relations, how to pitch articles, how to negotiate pay — and, yes, how to get free games.
Though helpful, Critical Path has one particularly irksome quality. First of all, Amrich champions clean, concise copy. A subhead in a portion of chapter 2 even reads, “It’s time to spell like an adult.” Despite this, lazy writing — muddled by words like “kinda,” “sorta,” et al — is seen throughout Critical Path. Balancing the commanding instruction with conversational jargon is understandable, but only to a certain extent, especially in a writing self-help book. Teaching by example would have more effectively conveyed the importance of the professional tone.
Despite the casual voice and divisive structure, Critical Path is a helpful read that will undoubtedly help kickstart your career reviewing videogames. It covers loads of information, but the 316 pages go by quickly thanks to Amrich’s decisive, to-the-point prose and entertaining anecdotes. And, like any effective self-help book, it pulls no punches and is brutally honest. Aspiring videogame reviewers, take it from someone who did things the hard way (me): buy this book and your life will be easier. More importantly, writing and critiquing will come more naturally, and you might just make a career out of it.
Verdict: Buy this book if aspiring to be, but are not yet a videogame reviewer, critic, or journalist. However, if you already know the ropes of reviewing, take note that Amrich covers freelancing, PR management, and basic principles of good writing in-depth, so consider what you need to learn and make a decision from there.