No Flash Photography: A Fraps Fiend Frets

By Tim Stone on March 8th, 2011 at 12:00 pm.

One of the side-effects of re-viewing vid-eogames for a living, is you end-up deeply confused about hyphens. Another is that you end up with a hard-drive full of screengrabs. While spring-cleaning  my bmp store the other day, the following, slightly uncomfortable thought, pounced on me like a hungry piano. Are the images I deliver to my employers/enslavers/empowerers anywhere-near as honest as the words?

Take the game I’m playing at present. Most of the time I’m in its charming company, the image flickering on the wall of my ocular cave looks something like this:

When the review is finally despatched (to Eurogamer, if you’re interested) it will no-doubt be accompanied by lots of pics like this:

Give me words to wrangle or opinions to air, and I’m an aspiring scientist, a chin-stroking Solomon, an Accountant of Fun. Put a virtual camera in my hands however, and I become a shameless hagiographer, a PR cog, a corporate lickspittle. What in the name of Magnum (photo agency & P.I.) is going on?

Complicated Stuff is what’s going on. Behind every hour I spend pausing and unpausing, zooming and unzooming, enduring single-figure framerates in search of that jaw-dropping money shot, is a deep personal loathing of bland, unpainterly review plates. It scourges my soul to see poorly composed, lifeless screengrabs littering a mag or website. I want beauty. I want the Golden Ratio. I want swishing sabres frozen inches from throats, Panzers caught mid-immolation. Waterfalls. Cherry blossom. Lambs laying down with lions.

But the motivation to show games at their dramatic best, is not wholly internal. What those ‘How To Break Into Games Journalism’ articles rarely mention is that you’re unlikely to get far in the business if you supply consistently drab screengrabs. The style guides sent to new recruits sometimes contain as many words on screenshot gathering as wordsmithing.  Few if any of these words are likely to be part of sentences like this:

“Above-all, ensure the screenshots you supply accurately reflect the play experience.”

No, quite naturally most art departments and editors are after spectacle and splodes. They regard images as decorative first and informative second. Sticky pine resin to trap the restless, gadfly gaze of the readers. I understand. I sympathise, but still feel slightly uneasy participating in the system.

Could there be an alternative, more honest, approach to screenshooting?

In my wilder, sleep-deprived moments I picture a chill Huxleyan future in which the reviewer has no power whatsoever over screenshot selection. As he or she plays, background software stealthily shutter-winks at random. When the time comes to submit copy, the opinion-sharer simply selects how many images they need and the machine rolls its dice and dispenses.

If, due to a quirk of a game’s view system, the reviewer has spent hours staring at a sweaty barbarian’s buttocks then a significant proportion of the images illustrating their copy, will be cheek-filled and glistening. If 50% of their time in combat flight sim F-16: Talons of the Viper, is spent fiddling with MFDs or staring at clouds, then 50% of the Cameramatic’s ouput will be fluffy or buttony. There’d be no opportunity for meddlers like myself to stick their oars in, and start distorting things.

Ideally, the autosnaps would nestle alongside hard facts like:

i) How long the reviewer spent playing the game.
ii) How the reviewer had rated similar games.
ii) How much the reviewer was paid to review the game.

They’d be ingredients in a Disclosure mouthwash so potent it could bleach your teeth.

Sorry, slipped into my ‘Campaign for Transparent Reviewing’ spiel there. Back to screenshots.

My point is, right now there’s an inconsistency in the midst of many game reviews. While the words trudge the unglamorous but important treadmill of reader-centred analysis, the pictures are busy doing something entirely different. They’re strutting like street strumpets. All a person can learn from them is how a game may look when the wind is in the right direction, a top-end graphics card is sweating like a pig, and a reviewer has spent hours ambulance-chasing.

As that ambulance-chasing reviewer, I’m really not sure it should be my job to ensure a game looks its absolute best, yet find it impossible to stop myself searching for pleasing compositions. As a reader, I don’t want to give up my kabooms and my sunsets, but I think I’d also appreciate the odd ‘control’ image or some acknowledgement that the pictures I’m perusing may be rare delicacies rather than the set menu. It’s a sticky situation for sure.

What’s your take? Would you rather have ravishing review screenshots, or representative ones?

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91 Comments »

  1. Valvarexart says:

    Both, please!

    • Henke says:

      Seconding this. There should be at least one that shows the game as it actually is but I don’t mind if the other ones are of the more intense and memorable moments of the game. Those moments are what you remember of the game after you’ve finished playing it, after all.

    • Cooper says:

      Especially if the medium is electronic. It’s more difficult in print form I guess.

      I undertsand that Eurogamer goes for a magazine style, with embedded screenshots. But it also provides a screeshot gallery. Normally these are just stuffed with the PR department’s screens they provide. Why not submit a bunch of reviewer-comiled screenshots for the gallery for games?

    • Mirqy says:

      Thirdeded. The internet is a big place, there’s got to be room for a few spectacular eyecatching shots – and then some more analytical ones within the article.

    • Sabin says:

      Fourthified. It would be excellent if you did your exact procedure of gathering screenshots of the whole review process, and randomly selected a bunch and put them into a gallery as a supplement to a review. Wot I Saw image review perhaps?

    • gwathdring says:

      Agreed. Cooper’s idea is an especially elegant solution. It should be quite easy to have a review gallery of things that happened if reviewers already collect tons of screen shots digging for flashy decoration to embed and you can still keep said flashy embedded decoration in the main article.

    • wisnoskij says:

      I agree with this you should show an normal view at some point in the review, but some games are simply not photogenic and effort has to be spent to make a still image look like something recognizable and not totally bad.

  2. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    The latter, obviously. And of course, since a game can look impressive as shown in the ‘ravishing review screenshots’ a review can have such.. but preferably with a comment on when you’re likely to see it/that it’s taken on max settings. And not too many.

  3. Monchberter says:

    I put some time in last year as a ‘workie’ on what transpired to be the penultimate issue of PC Zone (RIP), most of this involved screen grabbing and quick reviewing mods for the next issue (aside from being a certain writers whipping boy so he could pass all mediocre games over to me to review ;) ).

    What I found to be of great benefit to the amateur reviewer is any form of cinematic camera or replay function. A certain part of me thinks that Bethesda included V.A.T.S. in its Fallout games purely to get the reviewers and readers frothing over (mostly) lovingly composed FRAPS-baiting slow motion sequences.

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      Yeah, you used to be able to pause the Unreal Tournament games when playing vs bots, and still float the camera about, which led to Best Screenshots Ever. Wholly unrepresentative, but I felt like an artist.

  4. Jarmo says:

    Reading a game review, I often find myself thinking “Yeah, but what does the game actually look like when you’re playing it?”. Often even a scant UI is cropped out of the picture. There should be at least one picture in the review that shows the basic UI during actual play, not crawling among the grass blades.

  5. talon03 says:

    Do you really store all your screenshots in bitmap?? Men have been hanged for less!

    • Henke says:

      When you’re snapping shots while playing, BMP really is the best choice. If FRAPS is gonna have to compress it to JPG it’ll slow down the game a lot everytime your snap a shot.

    • Starky says:

      That and you cannot send compressed artefact filled screens for print – you need highest uncompressed (or lossless at least) quality.

    • ix says:

      @Henke
      Just have to point out that the cost of encoding the image to JPEG really isn’t very significant, especially not when compared to the costs involved in actually grabbing the video buffer and saving it to disk. So really, you could save them as JPGs, if not for the other reasons not to do so.

    • realityflaw says:

      JPEGs are awful.
      You already have to deal with 72dpi images because its a screen capture, add ugly jpg artifacts haloing every area of high contrast, and most images become plain unprintable.

      Sure there are other lossless formats you could use, but none that are half as portable as the good ol’ .bmp.

    • Agrona says:

      Everyone in this thread is ignoring PNG and it makes me sad.

    • realityflaw says:

      Mostly I just wanted to bring up how awful JPEGs are.

      PNG isn’t bad, has some nice features like lossless compression, palletization, and transparency. But it has some (few) compatibility issues, particularly when you want to make use of those extra features. And even lossless compression can have an impact on performance.

    • Nathan says:

      But the context here isn’t mass distribution, it’s making a quick screengrab whilst ingame for looking at and processing later. Compatibility doesn’t really come into it.

    • Rhin says:

      Anyone suggesting Jpeg for screenshots should be drawn and quartered, then shot and set on fire and then fed to chipmunks.

  6. drdss says:

    On a gaming website, couldn’t you include a fraps’d movie of part of the first level? The first level would avoid spoilers, show a game at a level where it won’t be at it’s most OTT, and maybe even convince designers to make interesting tutorial levels? Wouldn’t help for dead tree media I guess, unless they included it on their website…

    • Man Raised by Puffins says:

      Eurogamer seem to be regularly doing this these days, capturing inevitably inept playthroughs of the first 15 minutes of the game. Giantbomb also do “quick looks” which, somewhat disingenuously, can last up to an hour and have the added excitement of a couple of blokes nattering over the top of the action (with Kinect games they also helpfully provide a picture-in-picture view of their jiggling man breasts).

  7. qeloqoo says:

    Representative ones, please. It always makes me angry when on some specific game dedicated webpage under “gameplay screenshots” section I find some epic theatrical scenes without any hint of GUI or gameplay.. Same goes for game reviewers.. If game looks like shit when you play it, let it look like shit on your screenshots. You are critics, not PR department of game industry.

  8. Urael says:

    Inspired by Alec’s Postcards form Morrowind series I did a piece of my own, involving a lot of screenies taken specifically for the article. My brief, in that instance, wasn’t so much a review as an introduction to the possibilities that modding introduced, so there was already a more explicit connection between my text and the pictures I wanted to show; a review is freer in that sense – screenies don’t have to match the text, whereas in my case a picture was telling a thousand words meaning I only needed to use 40 or 50 by way of explanation.

    Reviews are more, I think, about laying the guts of the game bare. But in this case I think you want to imply possibility as much as you can, in order to get the experience of the game through rather than just the visuals alone. Swords of the Stars doesn’t showcase it’s ship battles for nothing: menu screens and colourful characters might not give the best impression of the game, and how does a 2D shot give an accurate representation of a 3D galaxy of stars? I’d rather see that second shot of Total War than the first, because the first doesn’t tell me as much about the experience than the second one does. It speaks nothing of the drama in inherent in playing the game. Dawn of War 2 almost never has screenshots shown from the default birds-eye camera angle, for precisely this reason.

  9. mbp says:

    I agree with @Valvarxyzzplugh there is a place for both.

    The photo-shopped pictures of splosions are there to decorate your review and to entertain us. We don’t for one minute expect the whole game to look like that.

    On the other hand drab grainy pictures of troops getting stuck in bushes are also useful when they accompany explanations of why this feature is a good thing / bad thing and helps inform our decision about whether or not this is a game for us.

  10. phuzz says:

    While we’re on the subject though, what’s so important about graphics? Minecraft has grabbed approximately 50% of the gaming column inches recently and it’s hardly easy on the eye.
    Pretty graphics are nice, but I wouldn’t buy a game assuming I’d spend much time looking at visuals like the screenshots. Partly because most games spend a lot of times not looking like their screenshots (as Tim points out), but also my computer is a few years old now, so I’m going to have to turn the eye candy down a bit.

    • Dinger says:

      There’s a distinction here. Minecraft has great art. Practically every block in the game tells you immediately and instinctively what it is, and what its use is, and it does all this with extremely low-res textures. The effect is quite endearing.

      It is not, however, “realistic”. Part of the development of the medium has been the arms race to make graphically spectacular games that out-do their predecessors. The rapid development of technology helps, and this is not limited to games. In 1924, F.W. Murnau strapped a big-ass, heavy silent film camera on one of the cameraman and invented the first “first-person” sequence for The Last Laugh. As cameras got lighter, the use exploded, until the French New Wave types were taking their caméra-stylos and shooting whole movies.

      But that’s, of course, technology aiding artistic effect, and we could go further and throw in Doom’s gift of walking around a seemingly three-dimensional environment that actually looked like one, and, now Minecraft’s walking around and interacting with a three-dimensional environment that actually behaves like one. On the other side is the race for spectacular technology for the spectacle itself: this was part of Huxley’s point about the Feelies (the next step from the Talkies), all those cheap 3D gags, some of James Cameron’s biggest blockbusters (spectacular indeed) and numerous videogames with really cool visual effects.

      People like that stuff. Aesthetic experience is difficult to quantify. Feeling every hair of the bear’s rug, or enduring a Michael Bay film can be expressed in numbers.

      Oh, and I like pretty pictures of games.

    • Urthman says:

      Minecraft is only the phenomenon it is because of YouTube. The graphics aren’t amazing, but the epic scale of the landscapes and dungeons is, which screenshots don’t capture well but videos do.

    • Ragnar says:

      I actually avoid Minecraft because of the low-res graphics. Staring at that for more than a short period of time hurts my eyes and my head.

      Graphics are important, and I enjoy pretty games more than plain ones. Given a review, I want pretty screenshots in the review (or relevant ones) to catch my interest, and gameplay screenshots in the gallery so I have a good idea of what the game actually looks like.

    • Pointless Puppies says:

      It depends entirely on the game, its style, and the overall experience it’s trying to craft. Just Cause 2-style graphics wouldn’t work at all in Minecraft, but then again Minecraft’s graphics wouldn’t work at all in Just Cause 2.

      Sometimes, “pretty graphics” are needed to instill a particular mood and atmosphere in a game (the detail and depth of textures in BioShock greatly helped in adding immersion to the environment), which in turn enriches the overall playing experience. Good graphics aren’t just a black-and-white “good graphics are completely inconsequential to the gameplay” affairs. Sometimes, high-end graphics are necessary in a specific game, so it’s not just a matter of looking at Minecraft’s success and saying “no game ever needs good graphics, period”.

  11. whaleloever says:

    Fraps is amazingly useful for grabbing screenshots, less so for vids. I set it to take a snap once every second, and then hit F10 as soon as anything vaguely interesting happens. I end up with about 3,000 screenshots, which I then open in irfanview and whittle down to about 20, which are then renamed. It sounds like a hugely complicated and time-consuming procedure, but it really doesn’t take long, and as far as I know it’s the single best way to get quality shots.

    Videos are a pain in fraps, though, and I haven’t found a free alternative that lets you record for more than 30 seconds at a semi-decent resolution. Yet.

    • drdss says:

      Well, maybe not fraps itself then – I don’t think the RPS writers are so hard up that they *have* to stick to cheap or free software – but people like Total Biscuit make a decent stab at recording video from within games, and even doing live narration at the same time.

    • 3lbFlax says:

      Something that’s tempting me to buy Fraps, purely as a player, is the constant recording loop that lets you grab the last 30 seconds at any time. This is chiefly for unexpected Minecraft moments. I assume a similar feature could be implemented for screenshots, if it doesn’t already exist – take one a second, but delete them after 30 seconds unless the user jabs at a save key, which saves the current 30s ‘buffer’ and everything after it. Less photos to work through at the end, while still being able to capture pockets of excitement, assuming you remember to press the key, which I probably wouldn’t.

    • Torgen says:

      I bought the full version of fraps many years ago, and have certainly gotten many times the purchase price in value from it.

  12. GoldenPants says:

    It would surely depend on how you view the “game review” as a piece of work. If it’s a buyers guide then buttock/button shots would be the more honest way to go. On the other hand, for an artistic critique, ‘splodes and stabs and all the whizzbangs you want would be more appropriate.

  13. Archonsod says:

    There’s room for both. I remember a few years ago one magazine (was it PCGamer?) used to have a “first sixty minutes of play” style boxout, and the screenshots in there would invariably be of the type you’re most likely to see in the game.

    I don’t think that using eye catching screenshots is necessarily dishonest however. Like photography, caricature or any other visual art it works best when it goes beyond what’s visually there and instead attempts to condense an entire moment into a single image. Which, since the purpose of a review is to convey information to the reader, is something the screenshots should be aiming for as much as the text. Merely showing the game visually is a waste when it could also convey atmosphere, mood or theme too.

    Total War is a good example. It’s impossible usually to play the game zoomed in to the point the battles look as good as they do in the screenshots (although you could if you wanted to) but I still find them more representative of the experience than a screenshot from the usual zoomed out view would be. I may not be seeing the battles that close while playing, but I’m certainly feeling them, if that makes sense.

  14. Bassism says:

    I like to see both, myself. I’m a photographer, and like things that are pretty, and actually find myself doing the same quest for great screens sometimes.

    Of course, a TW review that didn’t include a shot of a large battle going on from birds eye would be missing on something important. Why not compromise on your Huxleyan idea? Run 50% beautiful shots and 50% boring representative stuff. That should give you enough eye candy to be pretty and enough representation to let anybody curious about the game know what’s up. If the game spends 90% of its time looking like crap, words will carry that point better than a few photos ever could.

  15. crainey92 says:

    Well surely a “review” should evaluate how good the gane is in all its glory and not stick to all the good things the thing has to offer.

  16. PJMendes says:

    Thanks for this nice insight into the insides of game journalism, about something that I’d never noticed but is quite obvious now.

    Screenshots will never do as much justice as a video review, which will never do as much justice as watching someone else play, and the same as just going ahead and playing the game for yourself.

    I like the RPS reviews mostly for how the minds of individuals with good sense of humour, intelligence, eclectic taste and love for games, and writing skillzz, who, I imagine,have similar tastes to mine, analyse and regurgitate the strong points about these games. To me, the pretty screenshots help illustrate the after-taste the game left on the player/reviewer’s mind, such as remembering that mid-air railgun frag in Quake 3 instead of “press A + mouse aim + click”

  17. SpaceAkers says:

    I think the screenshot allotment should fit the game!

    For instance, in a Total War / grand strategy-type game you would perhaps include :

    a) A Solid Screeny of the Campaign Map, preferably mid-game so you can see all what’s up (not much use showing two territories and a heap of Fog of War, obviously)

    b) A nice, honest shot of a battle like the one in your article (although perhaps one a bit more “exciting”)

    c) A screen or two of some of the city / diplomatic etc menus (as you can tell quite a bit about a game from it’s UI / Menus)

    and d) one or two more flavorful / eye-candy type shots. It’s not dishonest to display what a game looks like at its cinematic best. Some people quite enjoy zooming in during Total War games, as they generally look pretty cool!

    In Hyper-Linear Manshoot 219, though, what else can you really show but Cool Pics Down The Barrel of A Gun?

  18. Baggypants says:

    “Screenshots taken from Amiga version”

  19. BigJonno says:

    Why aren’t the screen shots an integral part of the review? I’d have thought that the best option would be carefully choosing screens that complement the copy and can be used to illustrate certain points rather than just prettying up the page. If you want to highlight how dramatic the game is, use a dramatic shot. If you need to show how it actually looks in play, then use more representative shots.

    • Edawan says:

      I agree, screenshots should complement the written article.
      If the writer complains about the UI, show the UI so I can see what we’re talking about !

  20. Henke says:

    What game is that third screenshot, the one with the dude with the green smoke free-falling next to some tower?

  21. sonofsanta says:

    For a magazine, where I enjoy a proper layout, and there’s not enough space for detailed screenshots: give me art.

    For a website, with the luxury of endless server space: why not both? Litter the article with arty shots, and provide a gallery of gameplay shots so that I can take a more detailed look if the game sounds like it would interest me.

  22. Novotny says:

    It would be nice, though clearly some sort of utopian idea, if reviews were carried out and screenshots taken on the most average PC at time of release, specified possibly with info garnered from the Steam hardware survey.
    I know it’s beyond the capabilities of most reviewing entities to ensure, but it would be a damn nice way of doing things, to my mind.

    Sort of a ‘on my average pc, this is wot it looks like when running fine.’

  23. otzenGulasch says:

    And what game is the last one, with the dude getting shot in half (“Topless”) ?

  24. Tei says:

    I can see a future where professional photographers will enter the world of videogames, and publish his screencaptures next with real world photos. I say is a art to capture a game moment that is worth showing to others.

    Some sites like massively have a special section for specially awesome captures. Maybe a game is bad, but can have his moments, a good screnshot can defend a bad game better than any word.

  25. Quasar says:

    I remember quite a few PC Gamer reviews would often feature a large screenshot of actual gameplay, HUD and all, and annotate it. Those were really handy.

  26. cliffski says:

    This is without a doubt the BEST post ever on RPS I wish I hadn’t blogged today, and I’d just blog about this instead. I could not agree more.

    I HATE screenshots of big budget games, because they tell me absolutely fuck-all about the game, or how it will look. It is very hard to find a single company of heroes screenshot that doesn’t make the game look like an FPS, which is frnakly, false advertising.
    The bullshots that companies release si the reason why there are so many much-viewed videos on youtube called ‘[gamename] gameplay’. These are the ONLY way us mere gamers get to see what the actual game is going to look like when we play it.

    I guess even the carefully captured screenshots are better than the blatant lies of ‘target renders’ that companies pretend to be screenshots, and yes, I’ve sat opposite artists in AAA studios who spend a day in photoshop editing screenshots to remove all the bugs and problems. It’s false advertising and about time some companies got prosecuted for it.
    BAH!

    • Pointless Puppies says:

      I think the worst offenders by far are Wii screenshots, because the scenes are NEVER rendered in the resolution that the consumer will actually see. It obviously happens with PS3/360 games as well, but the Wii outputs at a significantly lower resolution, making the difference between marketing screenshots and actual gameplay image captures all the more jarring. It’s for this reason that I consider these types of shots for Wii games borderline bullshots.

  27. Kieron Gillen says:

    I was literally the worst screenshotter in the business. I am Art department’s bane.
    KG

  28. Alec Meer says:

    I’ve had a stand-up row with staff of one magazine due to demands I send better screens of a game that could not, would not possibly look good – I understand the need for pages to be pretty, but in some cases you can be actively lying to readers if you don’t show how awful/bland the thing actually looks.

  29. Prolepsis says:

    I appreciate you bringing this to people’s attention; when I wrote for Hardcore Gamer Magazine this very thing drove me bonk-bonk-bonkers! I always tried to shoot for somewhere in the middle, dramatic screenshots honest to what the player will experience; and, I’d spend hours getting fantastic shots, for no good reason, because company PR shots would get used instead (this didn’t happen all the time, but enough to be irritating).

    There is definitely a place for both. It makes good sense that the lead-in shot is more styled and dramatic. After all, I’ve been playing games long enough that when I see such shots, my mind interprets them within the context of the genre. Of course, for those not so familiar with gaming (or who don’t know the genre of said game ahead of time), it can be frustrating to purchase, for example, an RTS expecting a totally different aesthetic (Funny enough, as a byproduct of everyone using dramatic, zoomed in shots for RTS reviews, the “visual candy” part of my brain becomes sad whenever I play a modern RTS).

    It is true, though, actual gameplay shots can be rather drab. Which is, I guess, why I spend more time reading about games these days than playing them. Dramatic shots give the game a context that, many times, I will never feel (or see) while actually playing the game.

    Context is the key. Did you talk about how poor the inventory system is? Show it to me. Take advantage of the images for what they are: another form of communication. How many times could a reviewer have saved words by simply putting up a screenshot showing what they are trying to describe, thus putting the actual image in our minds, instead of trying to paint the image for us with words? Weave the words and the images together to form a single unit of communication.

    My solution? Let’s go back to nothing but 2D games without cutscenes, then we won’t have to worry about any of this. Problem solved!

  30. The Sombrero Kid says:

    The phrase “A pictures worth a thousand words” is a cliche because it’s true, the pictures you should be submitting should be a shorthand for the review, they shouldn’t be a literal grab of actual gameplay, they should evoke how the game feels to play, total war is a good example, the first shot is more literal but the second captures the game far more honestly. This literal approach would almost certainly render Call of Duty the most interesting LOOKING game to play, but then when you actually play it, you find out it’s boring a game is far more than what it looks like & the fact that it’s a still is as much a lie as the fact that it’s a still that you are unlikely to see in regular gameplay.

  31. faelnor says:

    Simple, always take the same screenshots:
    - The game as it looks absolutely best
    - The game as it looks absolutely worst
    - Shot showing the interface’s ins an outs, even annotated if possible
    - One or more shots representative of the gameplay and its different aspects
    - One or more shots representative of the visual design
    - Obligatory screenshot of a crate

    • Blain says:

      While faelnor’s full solution sounds like too much bother (and more images than I’d want to sift through), I would rather see best and worst than best and representative. Representative is hard to pin down and could still be subject to the prettying urge.

  32. NintendoNinja says:

    Of course its hard to scale what screenshots you put in a review. Eventually I think it should depend on your actual opinion of what you see in the game. Good games should have screenshots that detail the good features but also the impressive parts visually but they should details faults as to get a fully rounded opinion.

    Its why I think with a magazine or indeed a website should have screenshot galleries. A magazine could include these on the disks that usually come with. And rather providing lots of PR related screenshots avaliable from the website. By including screenshots that are more true to the game experience it helps you to do your job as a reviewer.

    Sure pretty pictures are nice for a print review or as a header of the review article but do they do the game justice?

  33. Dan Lawrence says:

    I doubt this practice will ever be eliminated because the screenshots are selling more than just the game; they are selling the magazine or website as well.

    Game magazine’s already diminished budgets can currently barely afford to retain any experienced writers, let alone a stable of artists to pretty up the page. As such a magazine’s or website articles appeal to the casual reader is often resting on the glamour of the accompanying screenshot. A magazine or website that laid out the unvarnished truth using random screenshots, (and with a random area cropped to size if appropriate) would be an uglier and probably less popular magazine.

    I’d love to see RPS put it to the test in a ‘day/week of truth’ where they use random screenshots, randomly cropped for the article header images, just to see the reaction.

    • somedude says:

      I would definitely approve of this experiment. Would be quite interesting to see how games stack up with unrehearsed images.

  34. Gap Gen says:

    Maybe a “Time Lapse” boxout could be nice – you set FRAPS to record an image every, say, five minutes, and then randomly (i.e. with an internet random number generator or something) select 3 images from that folder.

    Could make a nice feature in of itself, I guess.

  35. Pani says:

    Back in the days of buying boxed copies of games, in the store, not quite knowing what I’d be buying, I’d strain my eyes looking for the one in six screenshot that was of actual gameplay.

    Now in the internet-age, there are a few more screenshots to be found of actual gameplay, but I’ve been using the “Lets-play” youtube source a valuable commodity.

  36. bradley says:

    I appreciate what you’re saying. But I have to disagree with this idea that artier screenshots don’t represent a game.

    I made some mods years ago and quickly learned how hard it is to take a screenshot of a game. Play a FPS properly, and have a program take screenshots without warning every two minutes. You’ll get close-ups of walls and floors, full screen glare, a couple of trees, and an enemy predominantly obscured by muzzle flashes or smoke trails. So you could say that is what a FPS really looks like. But nobody thinks that way.

    You might not zoom into the battle much in Shogun 2 but you will at some point. When you want to see the drama that your choices have created you can, and the knowledge of how everything looked stays with you when you’re managing all those pixel sized troops, it’s an important element to the game. I want to see the zoomed out view too, it gives me an idea of how the game plays.

    Photoshopping stuff or using CG – that’s misrepresentation. If something can be seen the engine then just because a screenshot is taken with care doesn’t mean it’s misleading.

    In a review or preview it’s a good idea to have one or two screenshots of a typical in game view, HUD and all. I want an idea of how the game works. Beyond that I think readers can tell what’s what. It’s hard to compress multiple aspects of a game into one image, so a carefully taken screenshot can often represent what a game is really about better than typical ones.

    • Dinger says:

      This is an excellent point. Some screenshots are there to say “this is what the game will look like on your PC”. But in a review or other presentations, screenshots are there to provide a visual summary of the game. Blasting past the tailless, flaming Focke-Wulfe in yer Lagg — yeah, it’s not a moment you are going to see out of the cockpit like that. But for a player of the game, that shot above will be more representative of their recollection of the experience than a shot out the cockpit pulling lead on a bandit 200 meters away.
      Photography has more in common with painting than people usually think: the art is in establishing the composition that tells the story, and getting the lighting and details just right. A screenshot is no different. That doesn’t mean they have to be amazingly cool looking; but they should be extremely effective. If the game sucks and looks bland, give it the most stunningly bland screenshot you can find.

  37. xeon06 says:

    From what game is the screenshot where there’s a guy skydiving with green smoke please?

  38. runonthespot says:

    I don’t agree with this approach at all. The thing is, screenshots will always fail to be indicative of average gameplay in the same way that a still won’t be indicative of pace or plot of a movie.

    If you think in terms of interest curves, you should always be attempting to take a shot at the point of the interest curve that is highest. I think the review should describe the “95 minutes of staring at clouds” but we’re interested in the pay-off and it’s not unreasonable to expect it to be less than an all-guns-blazing explosion-a-rama steadily building to some form of climax. In order for us to tolerate that build, we’re interested in screenshots that show us what it could get to- the bits that we’re most looking forward to doing. I personally am happy to spend some amount of time flying around a landscape if I get to have that “moment” where I’m chasing an enemy down a canyon and manage at the last minute to nail him with a missile before bursting through the exploding shrapnel onto victory.

    If the game lacked that interest curve, the very best bits would quickly become boring and there would be no sense of achievement (afterwards) nor aspiration (before).

  39. Stinkfinger75 says:

    Don’t worry about posting those unrepresentative screenies Tim, most of us that have been gaming their whole lives know the difference between a screen that represents gameplay and one that is there for the sizzle.

  40. zipdrive says:

    This is a great piece. As an occasional game reviewer I’ve never given this subject the proper thinking through Mr. Stone has.
    I definitely agree that the screen shots should exemplify what you’re likely to see in the game, with the occasional WOW-inducing one (can someone write the random screen-grabber, please?)

  41. Agrona says:

    I don’t believe I’ve ever seen representative screenshots in a game review (except for certain genres of games where you don’t have much choice due to a locked camera, I suppose).

  42. Turrican says:

    Interesting post. Its been mentioned a few times already but I think annotating the images more would be the answer to screenshots. Bring online reviews closer to the print reviews, which often do this. On a site like Eurogamer the screenshots embedded in the review are rarely clicked on, just glanced at, the reason more often being to check for a funny quip under it.

    As for the reason why a reviewer would choose to pander to the art department and labour over an image that is not representative of the product 99% of players will see 99% of the time? Well, don’t take this the wrong way but maybe a lot of reviewers have frustrated creative urges in them and the screenshots are an outlet for that. I know in my job that anything creative or visual gets me more interested than administrative work.

  43. Zenicetus says:

    Eh, I wouldn’t get too worked up about the ethics of this. I’m probably biased, as someone who worked as an advertising photographer in a former life, basically lying to people visually about how good things looked in front of the camera. This was pre-Photoshop. If the grass in front of the condo for sale was a little too brown, then have your assistant bring out the green spray paint. Seriously.

    As long as you’re not doing any post work on the images, then it’s still representative of what the game *can* look like, at its best. I think you have to assume a certain level of sophistication for your readers. We know a game isn’t always going to look as spectacular as it does in screenshots. When we come to a site like RPS, we’re more interested in what the writers have to say, and what the readers have to say in the comments. The images are just eye candy.

    • Berzee says:

      But the reason they’re just eye candy is that long experience has told us they’re unreliable. So, while you make a sensible point, I think Tim is right is thinking that we can do *better* than we always have done.

      None of this, “Because images are untrustworthy we don’t trust them, and since we don’t trust them you don’t have to make them trustworthy”.

      (What people said about rare but memorable moments still be honest, sure sure. As long as the screens are expressive of a facet of reality. =)

    • Zenicetus says:

      Okay, but I’m not sure how “doing better” would actually work. Random background capture is an interesting idea, but the law of averages says that it could be just as unrepresentative as a reviewer picking their best shots. If the random dice for the capture rolled the wrong way, it could make a great game look more dull than it actually was, on average.

      The reviewer could intentionally try to avoid the best shots, but is that an honest approach, to avoid showing the game at its best? It seems to me that this is just as problematical as intentionally featuring the best captures, and it could easily be influenced by how a reviewer feels about other aspects of the game.

      If we just assume that every reviewer will try to grab great-looking screen captures, we can apply the usual bullshit filters and skepticism. We can assume we’re seeing the game at its best, and it isn’t always going to look like that.

      P.S. the one thing that does tick me off — and it’s not about reviewers — is the way game companies sometimes show “in-game” preview images taken from camera angles that are impossible for the player to actually use, in the final game. I hate that.

    • Thants says:

      Well, it’s not just a choice between unrealistically good or unrealistically bad screenshots. The reviewer could use their judgment to chose a representative sampling of screenshots. I mean, sure we can use our bullshit filters and know that a game won’t actually look like in the review, but that still doesn’t give us a good idea of what it actually does look like.

    • Zenicetus says:

      Here’s another problem I see with the idea of “representative” screenshots. Even the best games can’t avoid a certain amount of grinding, to reach the more spectacular bits. Do we really want to see images of all the hallway crawls between combat sequences in Dead Space, or would we rather see the high points of the monster battles? It takes a full-length game to reach the point where we can start blowing stuff up with nukes in Civ, or with planet-busters in GalCiv2, and yet those images feature prominently in reviews.

      It’s the exciting, eye candy stuff that rewards the player for building up to that point. So I don’t think it’s a bad thing for a reviewer to focus more on the eye candy rewards in the game. That’s an intrinsic part of how games work, to keep the player interested.

      If the game is truly boring, or a grind-fest, then naturally the reviewer should cover that in the text The problem with showing the more mundane or boring parts of a game though, is that one or two images don’t tell you how much of the game this represents. Only a text description can do that.

  44. LennyLeonardo says:

    Not sure if this has been suggested, but I think the screenshots should represent the sentiment of the review. If the reviewer reckons the game is drab, the screenshots should be drab. If they think it’s a spectacular adventure, the shots should be back this up.

    Then if I see some rubbish shots I’ll know straight away that it’s a scathing review and I’ll read the thing to find out why it’s abused my eyes.

    Equally, if the shots are all lovely I’ll get the gist of the review at a glance. I mean, pull quotes don’t have to be pretty, they just have to illuminate the review in an enticing way. Right?

  45. wererogue says:

    Surely the reason behind choosing gorgeous screenshots is that they’re always going to be the first thing the reader sees, probably even before the headline?

    You may not be interested in selling the game, but you’re sure as hell interested in selling your review. I’m with the others here – definitely give us both, and with context if possible. The eurogamer retrospectives often do this quite well – the little screenshot inserts are often pretty relevant to the part of the game being described.

    As a side note – if you want to grab readers but not promote the game, I’d expect glitchy screenshots to grab almost as much attention as beautiful ones.

  46. Ninja Dodo says:

    Why would you want to look at a bunch of bad screenshots?
    For the purpose of seeing a game in action unfiltered “Giant Bomb”-style Quick Looks are more effective. Screenshots are for the pretties.

  47. princec says:

    Screenshots – almost a waste of time in the internet age. Video, please.

    • Rhin says:

      Video, a waste of time when I’m here mainly to read an article. Screenshots, please.

    • bill says:

      video – useless in many situations of the internet age (work,train,no sound allowed, no headphones available) and much harder to scan and get a quick impression from.

    • Berzee says:

      Video — a sinister invention to keep souls trapped in a perpetual loop of motion. Kill it with fire.

      (p.s. yes, I like both :) screenshots for at work during my Healthful Recommended Breaktimes and videos for at home)

  48. bill says:

    I’d like more representative screenshots please.

    All the review screenshots are horribly deceptive and look nothing like what you see in game. That shogun 2 screen looks reasonably similar to a shogun 1 screen – and that’s what you’d see most of the time.
    The EA sports games are the worst – each year’s screenshots make it look like a real live tv broadcast – and then in the game it’s the same bunch of small figures running around a flat green pitch that it’s been since the PS1 days.

  49. LennyLeonardo says:

    Oh yeah, the other thing I meant to say is:

    A screenshot can never properly represent a game, as a game is not a still image.
    The Shogun shot, for example, does nothing to convey what you might be feeling while playing the game, it’s really just a diagram of the interface. Say you’d never played a game before. That shot would mean almost literally nothing, and requires more subjective interpretation from the reader than the fancy close-up shot does.

    I think what I mean is that by making the shots more abstract the reviewer can more accurately express what it feels like to play the game than a flat interface shot that requires too much first hand knowledge or extrapolation from the reader.

    Yeah, you should probably just use both.

  50. Grayvern says:

    The answer is even simpler a 5 min youtube of the game in action.

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