Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Just a thought.

In the first episode of South Park's eighth season Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman buy ninja weapons at the South Park County Fair. The boys imagine themselves as real ninjas, and what ensues is a madcap adventure drawn in a parody of Japanese and American action-oriented cartoons.

The comedy comes by way of the fact that we in the audience get to see both sides of the fantasy. We see peeks of the boys both in their own fantasy world, and we get to contrast that against the real world, which usually intrudes at the most inopportune times. (E.g. Butters gets a ninja star stuck in his eye and the kids have to deal with taking him to the hospital without their parents finding out.) Even when we're in the fantasy world, though, it's obvious that we're really watching a bunch of 9-year-olds because the fantasy is just so ridiculous. "I have the power to have all the powers I want," Cartman says at one point. Not to mention the hilarious theme song.

Now, imagine the South Park boys successfully avoided all real-world intrustions for as long as they liked, and instead of buying ninja weapons, they went to a gun show and bought assault rifles and chainsaws. I wonder what that equally ridiculous fantasy would look like.

Yeah, looks about right.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Playing the denouement

Designer Denouements

How can the denouement be incorporated into gameplay? In literary forms, it is most often the events that take place after the plot’s climax that form your lasting opinion of the story. A well constructed denouement acts almost as a payoff, where protagonists and antagonists alike realize and adjust to the consequences of their actions. Serial media often ignored the denouement in favor of the cliffhanger, in order to entice viewers to return. Television has further diluted the denouement by turning it into a quick resolution that tidily fits into the time after the final commercial break.

But the denouement is most neglected in video games where it is often relegated to a short congratulatory cut scene, or at most–a slide show of consequences. This month’s topic challenges you to explore how the denouement can be expressed as gameplay.

As far as I can tell, a major reason gameplay is not often used for the denouement of a game's story is that the designers of the game haven't equipped the player with the necessary gameplay elements. Take, for example, any shooter game. They are built from the ground up to let you explore levels, shoot enemies, and nothing more. Once the final boss is defeated, what more can you do? Shoot his corpse? Wander through his empty chambers? These games never come with a "Breathe a heavy sigh of relief" button. No wonder so many games end with a cutscene: Having your character wander around still in full combat mode while everyone congratulates him on his success wouldn't make any sense.

I feel obligated at this point to mention a game that comes close to being an exception: the Half-Life series. While it's true that the Half-Life games keep the player's experiences tied completely with the main character Gordon Freeman, I still feel like the denouements of each game are not expressed with gameplay. Each and every Half-Life game ends with Gordon Freeman being physically restrained in some way, usually being put into stasis by the G-Man until the beginning of the next game. Although you are still technically "playing" while this is going on, you can't move, and you can't shoot. You've pretty much been reduced to a silent observer, so what's the difference between that and a cutscene?

For fully action-oriented games such as these, I'm in agreement with Cory Stahl's assessment that cutscenes are appropriate and maybe even necessary.

For the denouement to be incorporated organically into the gameplay, I think that playing the denouement would have to feel as natural as playing the first level of the game. Sadly, most games are designed to let you fight your way to the climax, and that's it.

A game that actually bucks this trend, and is a great example of actually getting to play the denouement, is the original Katamari Damacy for PlayStation 2. Throughout the whole game, you roll up Katamaris in order to restore stars to the night sky. After you complete the final level, what do you do? Roll an enormous katamari around the entire earth, as the newly created stars shine down on you from above. It lets you feel satisfied with a job well done, while also letting you play in the same exact way you did when you started.

My main point is that gameplay must develop as a function of the story, not the other way around. But it's only with the last couple generations of consoles that we've even been able to do this. When Super Mario Bros. was released in the US in 1985, the details of the story were contained in the instruction booklet because Nintendo lacked the technology to put it entirely into the game. These days, we no longer have to do that. If the game's story involves a hero conquering obstacles, rescuing a princess and bringing her back to her castle, make sure you get to play every part of that story, not just the first part.

Here's an example of what I mean: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a game on the Nintendo DS that puts the player into the shoes of Phoenix Wright, a defense attorney who must always find his clients declared not guilty. When the third game of the series, Trials and Tribulations, was released, the promotional materials made a big deal out of the fact that there was a second playable character. "Play as TWO different attorneys!" the ads promised, as if this was going to change the gameplay in some significant way. As I played the game, however, I discovered that it didn't change the gameplay at all. Rather, the only reason you play as a different attorney is to develop the story from another character's point of view. The game's denouement, also, would not have been possible without this second playable character.

So, to wrap up, I would like to restate my point that the reason gameplay stops at the denouement is because, oftentimes, the gameplay was not designed with the denouement in mind. Develop the story from beginning to end, then design the gameplay from the ground up to fit the entire story. Do that, and playing the denouement should become much more common.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Why Rock Band trounces Guitar Hero

I can still remember, way back in 2005, the day I first heard about Guitar Hero. Specifically, it was from this Penny Arcade strip. "A music game that you play with a guitar-shaped controller? Sounds... dumb," I thought. This, coming from a guy who has spent countless hours and quarters on Dance Dance Revolution. But still, the idea of pressing buttons in time to music, whether it be on a guitar-shaped controller, or a regular controller, didn't really appeal to me. Then, my roommate bought it and I actually tried it out.

I immediately fell in love. The illusion sucked me in. It was air guitar, yet somehow so much more satisfying. From that day until today, Guitar Hero and its sequels and spin-offs have probably been the biggest portion of my gaming diet. Which is why it pains me to see the soulless husk that is the Guitar Hero franchise today.

The trouble started after the release of the superb Guitar Hero II. Harmonix, the original game developer, was purchased by MTV Networks, while RedOctane, who made the guitar controllers, was purchased by Activision. As a result, a schism happened. Activision would continue to publish the Guitar Hero franchise (handing development duties off to Neversoft), while Harmonix and MTV would develop a new music game.

I originally didn't think much about the split. Corporate buyouts happen all the time, right? But then I played the first Activision/Neversoft title, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. Oh dear Lord. The problems were apparent right away. Instead of the usual "Play through an increasingly difficult list of rock songs" paradigm that defined the series up until that point, Guitar Hero III introduced "boss battles." Essentially, it would be you, the player, against a boss character, which was either Tom Morello or Slash. You would both play a song and attempt to make each other fail by using different "attacks." You could break the opponent's string, force him to use the whammy bar before he could play again, turn every note into a power chord, and so on.

On paper, it doesn't sound like a bad idea. In actual execution, it's terrible. It goes against practically everything that Guitar Hero was about up to that point, i.e. playing songs and having fun. No one plays a Guitar Hero game for the express purpose of forcing the other guy to fail by making him jam the whammy bar or play in Lefty mode or whatever. It was a shitty idea, it should never have been implemented, and Guitar Hero has basically never recovered from that blunder since Activision and Neversoft have been in charge of it.

Harmonix, meanwhile, was working on their next game, Rock Band. It took the basic Guitar Hero concept, and added drums and vocals for a full band experience. It appealed to me, but I initially couldn't justify the investment ($169.99 for the game and instruments). That changed after E3 of this year, where I finally got to try Rock Band 2 for the first time.

The awesome feeling I had from the very first time I played Guitar Hero came flashing back to me. This was it. This was the best music game. It combined a realistic music simulator with a killer multiplayer experience. It really did feel like playing in a band.

Activision and Neversoft, who know a good thing when they see it, did the only ethical thing: They blatantly copied Harmonix and came out with "Guitar Hero: World Tour," which also added drums and vocals. GameInformer even proclaimed that Neversoft was "changing music games forever."

Keep in mind this was after Rock Band was already on the market. So how exactly was Neversoft changing music games? By introducing plagiarism, I suppose.

Lack of originality aside, I've spent ample time playing both Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero: World Tour and I can honestly say that Rock Band is a better game in pretty much every way.

Even if we put aside each game's song selection (which you will like or dislike solely based on personal taste anyway), Rock Band is clearly geared towards a fun, multiplayer experience. There's a wide range in difficulty for every instrument, and a good mix of popular and obscure songs. Harmonix was even the first to introduce No Fail mode, for people who want to challenge themselves on higher difficulties without the worry of losing, or people like myself who couldn't sing to save their lives but don't want to drag down everyone else in the band.

Guitar Hero, on the other hand, is all about pushing you towards higher and higher difficulties, with less focus on a coherent, balanced song selection. Why else would GH: World Tour include songs that are sung in Spanish? It also includes Joe Satriani's "Satch Boogie", a great song, but one without vocals entirely. So the singer gets to sit out just so the guitarist can challenge himself to one of the hardest note charts in the game.

Not to mention, it's still apparent just how much Guitar Hero and Rock Band copy off each other. Both games still assign a number of stars based on your performance on each song (5 stars being the best), and both still use the "Star Power" feature, which lets you stay alive during challenging parts of the song.

The big deciding factor for me, however, was in how both franchises incorporate drums. In Guitar Hero, the drum set consists of a snare, two tom-toms, and two cymbals (arranged from left to right as snare, cymbal, tom, cymbal, tom). Rock Band drums have four pads arranged like a cymbal-less set. I originally thought the Guitar Hero set would be superior, just by virtue of the fact that it has an extra tom. After playing both sets, though, I see the genius behind Rock Band's design. Even though it looks like there's only four "drums," each pad changes from tom to cymbal as the song dictates. So if the drums call for a beat being played on the ride cymbal, you'll hit the green pad for the cymbal and the red pad for the snare, using the yellow or blue pads for crash cymbals or even toms. Then, if the same song requires a long drum fill using 3 toms, the green pad will now function as a tom. If it sounds confusing, just watch this.

Guitar Hero drums, because of the way they're designed, are stuck in their respective roles, which can be confusing when trying to read the different colored notes scrolling toward you. Quick, is that note a cymbal or a tom? Ah, too late, you already missed it.

But if you ever needed rock solid proof of who puts more tender loving care into their games, the latest titles from each franchise are it: The Beatles: Rock Band vs. Guitar Hero 5. As Dennis Farrell of Something Awful put it, Guitar Hero 5 "[f]eatures just as many playable dead dudes as the newest Rock Band, but manages to do so in a much creepier fashion." He's referring, of course, to Johnny Cash and Kurt Cobain. So why is it creepy that Kurt Cobain is in Guitar Hero, other than the fact that it's the sort of thing he would have resented with every fiber of his being? Well...

Yeah, that's why. One can only guess that Kurt Cobain did something so monstrously vile to Neversoft when he was alive that they wanted to smear his image in the worst way possible. Seeing Kurt say "Yeeeeeeaaah, boooooiiii!!!" with Flavor Flav's voice is about the most fucked up thing I've seen in a videogame. And I've seen a little pink fluffy animal get crucified alongside a bunch of giant robots.

The Beatles: Rock Band, however, is the ultimate love letter to the Beatles and their legacy. It'd be hard to imagine George Harrison and John Lennon getting offended by such a loving tribute:

The presentation, the music, everything about The Beatles: Rock Band is stellar. I'm tempted to call it the best music rhythm game of all time.

If I haven't convinced you by now that Rock Band is superior, consider what the future holds: Rock Band Network. In a nutshell, this means that record labels will be able to produce their own Rock Band tracks. This also means that you (yes, you) will be able to make your own Rock Band tracks. And sell them. For money.

To me, preferring Rock Band over Guitar Hero is a much more meaningful decision than, say, choosing Coke over Pepsi. I see it as the difference between The Day the Earth Stood Still and "The Day the Earth Stopped". One is an original, classic work with something meaningful to contribute to the artform. The other is a quick cash-in with no originality to speak of. I've made my choice. I'm hoping you'll make the right choice as well.

(Note: I will issue a full retraction of this blog post and pledge my undying love to Guitar Hero forever if Activision ever makes "Guitar Hero: Frank Zappa.")

Monday, August 24, 2009

Games are no longer frustrating.

I know, it's been a long time since I've updated. It's been so long, in fact, that the last post of substance that I wrote, "Is every game frustrating?" has been rendered obsolete. I was checking out the AV Club's review of Shadow Complex, when I noticed that the little blurbs at the end of the reviews, including the bemoaned "Frustration sets in when" are now gone from all their recent game reviews. Kudos to you, AV Club, for giving games the same credibility as other types of media.

Longer updates are coming, I promise. For now, read my belly-achin' about Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena over at GamersInfo.net.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

I'm at E3 this week.

That magical time known as the Electronic Entertainment Expo is at the Los Angeles Convention Center this week. I'm on assignment for GamersInfo.net, so check out that site in the coming days for my coverage of the random goings-on. I'll be looking at the latest games from Konami, Capcom, Atlus and many others. Go check it out.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Is every game frustrating?

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love The Onion, America's finest news source. However, if you twist my arm, I'll admit that I love its sister publication The A.V. Club even more. Essentially The Onion's Arts & Entertainment section, The A.V. Club has reviews, features and articles about film, music and TV with the same witty, sardonic sense of humor of The Onion.

A few years ago, The A.V. Club started running videogame reviews. When this happened, I was elated. Who gives a fuck if Roger Ebert doesn't recognize that games are art? The A.V. Club is writing about games with the same insight as film, music and books. For all I knew, the Louvre could have added a videogame wing.

But it recently occurred to me that there's something odd with the way the A.V. Club does its game reviews. Each review is broken down into sections. First there's the review proper, and then short one- or two-sentence blurbs with the headers Beyond the game, Worth playing for, Final judgment, and finally, the one I take umbrage with: Frustration sets in when.

Now far be it from me to say I've never played a game that frustrated the hell out of me. But that phrase, "Frustration sets in when," appears in every game review that The A.V. Club runs, from mainstream blockbuster titles to under-the-radar indie games. For the recently-released Punch-Out!! it's when "Trainer Doc spits out another rote motivational entreaty instead of offering a hint you can actually use." For the intuitive browser game Today I Die, Gus Mastrapa explains, "Those who think too long about the financial limitations that prevent this kind of experimentation from sneaking into larger, longer, and more expensive games may be inspired to go looking for a rock, a rope, and a deep lake."

By incorporating the phrase into every game, regardless of genre, platform or overall quality, it's like the A.V. Club is assuming a priori that each and every game must have something frustrating about it, and the writer's obligation is to point it out. I humbly disagree.

I could point out games I've played that never frustrated me, but really, the whole experience is entirely subjective. But then again, that's the entire point. Everyone experiences games differently. One person might find a game to be entirely frustrating, while another person could breeze through it. By having that phrase form part of their review format, The A.V. Club is enforcing an unfair, and quite frankly false, standard.

Overall, The A.V. Club's game reviews are among the best out there. And having them alongside reviews of current movies, music and books just reinforces the point that games are on the same playing field as mainstream entertainment. But no other reviews on The A.V. Club suffer from this unfair standard. You won't see every film review pointing out the boring parts, and not every CD review mentions tracks that are worth skipping. So why the unfair treatment for games?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Unfair Comparisons, Vol. I










Thursday, May 14, 2009

What is it REALLY about?

I'm far from the only person who thinks that, in order for games to progress as an art form, they have to start telling better stories. The technology will always be improving -- that's a given. But it's a less safe bet that we're going to get better stories in the future. I'm optimistic, however, as I've gotten to know more and more people in the game design community who recognize the same flaws that I do as a player, and are actively working to remedy them.

(Note: For this post, I'm only concerned with story-driven games. Sports games, puzzle games, etc. are obviously exempt.)

The biggest problem with stories in games, as I see it, is that they are content to be about what they're about on the surface, without any sort of deeper meaning or significance to them. For example, the most recent story-driven game I've played is Resident Evil 5. It's a great game, fun as all hell, but the story is all there in the synopsis: you, the hero, overcome obstacles (and lots of zombies) to stop a nefarious plot to conquer the world. And that's it. Good conquers evil, the end. Sub in almost any major title you can think of. Contra, Gears of War, Ninja Gaiden, the list could go on forever. The thing all these games have in common is that they feature a hero (or heroes, or heroine) conquering evil, vanquishing bad guys, saving the world...and that's all.

I don't mean "and that's all" as if saving the world is an insignificant task. Rather, from a literary perspective, it's rather shallow.

Compare this to something like the film They Live. It, too, is about a hero battling monsters and eventually saving the world. But by reading between the liens, you can easily find a subtext about anti-Reagan consumerism that was so fervent in the 1980s. Think about it: Is it any coincidence that the protagonist is a working class hero, fighting "aliens" who all happen to be in the upper crust of society?

Now, I'm not suggesting that games now need to have hidden agendas or subversive messages. I merely used They Live because it encapsulates my point: that even though it's about saving the world, it's also about more than that. We take away from the film something more than, "Boy, I sure am glad the good guys won."

To use a videogame example, Portal has a hero that traverses obstacles and conquers evil, but there's clearly a deeper level of story going on. One writer went so far as to suggest that Portal was a feminist deconstruction of the first-person shooter genre.Whether the feminist subtext was intended by the game designers or not, what's important is that there was distinct substance to the game.

It occurred to me that, when I talk about wanting people to take games more seriously, this is really the best way to do it. The most common criticisms I hear essentially boil down to, "You're just killing a bunch of guys." I could throw out counter-examples (Portal, Braid, etc.) but this doesn't address the heart of the criticism, because they're right! In RE5, a state-of-the-art game, you're just killing a bunch of guys! From a story perspective, there's nothing more to it!

But obviously, this hasn't stopped it from being popular or successful. People love killing a bunch of guys. Hell, even I do. If RE5 had a deep, complex story, with dynamic characters and a pointed message about society, would it be any more successful? Probably not, but at least people wouldn't be able to dismiss it as a game where you simply "kill a bunch of guys."

So I repeat my assertion that, in order for games to progress as an art form, in order for games to be taken more seriously, they need real stories. We need less "Valiant hero overcomes obstacles, vanquishes evil and saves the world," and more "Valiant hero grows, matures, and ends up a better person for having had the experience." Perhaps in Resident Evil 6.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How World War II Became the Mushroom Kingdom

Last week was Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, and while there are a number of things I could write about, I feel like other writers out there have covered the major announcements quite thoroughly. Instead, I'd like to focus on something that probably no one else noticed.

In the Career Pavilion, Activision had a huge booth set up with Guitar Hero: World Tour front and center on a big stage, so anyone could show off their chops in front of the rest of the attendees. But meanwhile, tucked off to the side they had an Xbox 360 set up with the latest Call of Duty game, subtitled World at War, which is set during World War II. In case anyone isn't familiar, Call of Duty is a first-person shooter that focuses on intense realism.

I played the game on two different occasions, and each time was a different scenario. In the first scenario, I was a Russian soldier fighting the Third Reich in a gritty urban setting in Eastern Europe. In the other, I was an U.S. soldier fighting the Imperial Japanese Army in the Pacific theater.

What struck me most is how they designed the game to make fighting Germans and Japanese to feel like two distinct scenarios. Fighting the German army involved sneaking through bombed-out buildings and sewers, so I had to be sneaky. By contrast, the fight against the Japanese army took place outdoors, and felt more like a siege. My squad was attempting to take control of a strategic position, so the emphasis was on pushing forward as quick as possible.

Enemy tactics were also varied in the two scenarios, the biggest difference being that the Japanese army had banzai soldiers who would rush straight at you with their bayonets. If you don't kill them before they reach you, or press the melee attack button at just the right time to counter-attack, then you get stabbed and killed.

Now, from a purely design-oriented standpoint, all of this is great. Fighting Germany should feel different from fighting Japan. And the game is fun to play. It has just the right mix of action and challenge to be addictive without being frustrating.

However, the problem I had with the game was this: being about World War II, the events of this game are based on real people, who really lived and died. Many of us probably have living relatives who fought in WW2. What Activision has done is essentially to take those real-life armies and reduced them to green-shelled and red-shelled koopas.

While I was playing, I couldn't shake the feeling in the back of my mind that taking this intense real-life conflict and applying all the familiar tropes of a videogame to it somehow cheapened the reality that it was based on. How would a veteran like to know that all the training and battle experience he went through became reduced to, "Press the melee button when the Banzai soldier gets close"?

But I don't want to sound like I'm knocking the game itself. The game was fun as hell. I just felt like taking a worldwide conflict and slicing it up into "levels" that have their own "enemies" was a weird treatment of the event. Then again, I'm hard-pressed to come up with a better way that they could've done it. I don't know if there's a way to capture both the urge to kill Nazis with a sense of respect for those who lived and died during the conflict, or if fostering a sense of respect is something the game should try to accomplish in the first place.

But maybe this doesn't even matter in the long run. The game is fun to play, pure and simple. So should one even consider if the events of the past have been cheapened through recreation? I'll leave it for the game designers to decide for themselves.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Explaining the unexplainable

I was recently re-reading Chuck Klosterman's article, "The Lester Bangs of Video Games," and although the entire piece is brilliant, I think the single most important sentence in the piece is this one:
As far as I can tell, there is no major critic who specializes in explaining what playing a given game feels like, nor is anyone analyzing what specific games mean in any context outside the game itself.
My first reaction to this quote was, "But I do know what playing games feels like." However, as far as I know no critic, myself included, effectively communicates this in their pieces. Let me show you what I mean.

Here's a clip of two people playing a match of Super Smash Bros. Melee. Watch the whole thing if you like, but the part most relevant to what I'm going to talk about begins at 1:05.

If you're a regular Smash Bros. player, your reaction to the video will likely be vastly different from someone who has never played before or played only a little bit. If you're a regular player, you know why Marth falling through the level -- twice -- is out of the ordinary. You might even find it funny, as I sure did.

Now, try to communicate that to someone who has never played before. Before you can explain why it's funny, you would have to explain the basics of the game, how recovery works, who the characters are, what the stage is, and so on. You have to explain a lot. And after you've explained all that, the non-player still probably won't find the clip funny. We all know the old adage about how a joke isn't funny if you have to explain it.

And so we've reached the dilemma. As someone who's familiar with Smash Bros., I know what it feels like to experience something like what happens in that clip. I know how intense a well-played Smash Bros. match feels. I know the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and how hilarious it is when something completely unexpected happens, such as in the above clip. In fact, I'd argue that the random unexpected occurrences are what make Smash Bros. so great.

But if you're writing to someone who's never played the game before, how the hell are you supposed to communicate all of that effectively? Unless your audience is already familiar with at least some vital aspects of the game, I don't see how it's possible.

Fortunately, I think this will become easier as games become a more indelible part of popular culture. As more people play games, the more familiar they become with genres, tropes and common features. Most people already know who Mario is, and he appears in Super Smash Bros. Melee, so you wouldn't have to explain who he is if you were writing about that game. My hope is that, over time, you won't have to explain things like "platform" or "recovery" either, because they will be as identifiable as Mario.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Shameless plugging

I'm finally throwing my hat back into the ring. You can read my first review for GamersInfo.net here. Therein I talk about at least one of the following things: Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned, the unbearable lightness of being, and why Gustave Flaubert is an overrated hack.

Oh, but I'm not done yet. If, like me, you have a love/hate relationship with the Sci Fi Channel, you'll want to scope my writeup of their new reality show "WCG Ultimate Gamer" over at GetYourTournament.com. Hey, games are science-fiction, right?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

About the author

The following is my contribution to Man Bytes Blog's March '09 Blogs of the Roundtable discussion.

In a film class I took at Loyola Marymount, the professor once talked about the concept of "auteur theory" -- the idea that the director is the primary storyteller, and that the film reflects the director's individual creative vision. Now, not every director is an auteur, and not every film reflects one person's creative vision, but many of the best films satisfy both these criteria.

The example given in class was this: Finding Nemo earned over $300 million at the U.S. box office. Now, ask the average person (or even the average film student) who directed it, and they're not very likely to know (it's Andrew Stanton). Compare this to a film like Reservoir Dogs. Most film students can readily identify the director as Quentin Tarantino, but Reservoir Dogs only made a few million at the box office. I'm not arguing that Dogs is necessarily a better film than Nemo; rather, Tarantino put more of a signature style into his work, and thus he became closely associated with that style.

There are plenty of other film auteurs out there. Just think about the natural prejudices you might have toward a film before seeing it, if the only thing you know about it is the director. You know to expect lots of explosions and CGI in any Michael Bay film. Stanley Kubrick's films frequently have deliberately-paced dialogue and classical music in the score. Hell, even Uwe Boll has become known for having horrendous acting and lots of gratuitous violence and nudity.

It's equally important for videogames to develop their own auteurs in the same way the film industry has. I've only played a handful of games in which a game designer's "voice" can be heard in the same way a film director's voice could be heard. Probably the most distinct auteur I've become familiar with is Hideo Kojima through his Metal Gear Solid series. (Disclaimer: I've not played Metal Gear Solid 4.) When you compare the games to each other, a clear set of common characteristics can be found.

Each game starts off with basically the same premise: the player takes control of secret agent Snake as he sneaks past guards, infiltrates deep into enemy territory, and eventually faces off with a megalomaniacal enemy hellbent on world destruction. But this isn't what makes Kojima an auteur. Instead, it's the unique way in which Kojima takes this basic premise (which is common to many, many games) and uses it to tell stories that are unmistakably his own.

Taken as a whole, the Metal Gear Solid series is Kojima's critique of the poltics of war. The titular "Metal Gear" of the series is a tank capable of firing a nuclear missile, and it's up to Snake to stop the antagonist from utilizing it. Yet Snake is constantly second-guessing his superiors, allies are crossed and double-crossed, and oftentimes it's hard for Snake (and thus the player) to know if he's really doing the right thing.

To illustrate further, I'd like to take a deeper look at Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (Spoiler alert!). Set during the Cold War, Snake infiltrates a Russian jungle to stop the mad Colonel Volgin from holding the Soviet Union hostage. Along the way, he encounters The Boss, his mentor, who has defected to Volgin's side. Over the course of the game, we learn that the CIA had planned for The Boss to defect in the first place, so that they could later send in Snake to defeat her and become a national hero. By defecting to the enemy and allowing herself to be killed by Snake, The Boss was in fact fulfilling her own duty to her country. (End spoilers.)

This kind of dramatic reveal is typical to the Metal Gear Solid series, and it's a good way to know that you're playing a game by Kojima. By completely surprising players and going against their expectations, Kojima not only makes memorable gaming experiences but communicates the main theme of the MGS series: that in wartime, you can never really know who your allies are.

Of course, MGS games also have a lot of smaller quirks that make them unique. Kojima always sprinkles his games with Easter eggs, references to old movies (including lots of James Bond references), and meta-humor that involves breaking the fourth wall. Perhaps the most notorious example of this happens late in Metal Gear Solid 2: The Sons of Liberty, where the game gives you non-sequiter messages and tells you to turn the game off. At first, it's easy to take these quirks as Kojima just being weird for the sake of it, but I think they each contribute to the central theme of the game in their own way.

Corvus Elrod asks, "[S]hould video game designers try to remain out of their work, allowing the player to establish their own themes through gameplay?" I think the answer must be taken on a game-by-game basis. In the case of MGS, I think the games are absolutely strengthened by having Kojima weave the player through a story of his own design. But of course it's important to also have games that gives players their own degree of auteurship.

Grand Theft Auto IV is a game that, while containing its own story, lets the player decide how that story gets told. I heard from some players that empathized so much with the main character, Niko Bellic, that they refrained from killing or hurting random pedestrians. They wanted Niko to remain a sympathetic character, so they purposefully refrained from the typical mayhem that GTA is known for. Of course, the option to wreak havoc while also advancing the story is still an option. Metal Gear Solid 3, likewise, gives the player the option of killing as few soldiers as possible.

The games I've played that take the player mostly out of the driver's seat would have to be RPGs. Xenogears is the most egregious example I've come across. There are a plethora of instances in the game where the player can do nothing but tap the X button to continue through dialogue and cut scenes before getting back to the action. Yet, Xenogears has a great story, one of the most epic of any game. My issue with Xenogears is not with the story, but how the game chooses to tell it. When I played it, I wanted to feel more like a player and less like a reader.

The uniqueness of auteurship in games is that they can engender players to be authors themselves. The best stories in games are the ones that allow the player to feel like the agent of change while nonetheless acting out the type of story that the designer intended. It's a hard balance to achieve, but I think games like Metal Gear Solid 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV are the closest that games have come to striking that balance.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Style Guide, or a manifesto?

Let me lay my cards on the table: This blog is my attempt at "breaking in" to the game journalism industry. But I don't want to do it just because it'll be fun, or because I'd get lots of free games. I'm doing it because I think it's vitally important. As Chuck Klosterman made clear in my previous entry, there are no true videogame critics, though the industry desperately needs some.

Why? Because I see the emergence of a true critic as the best way to bring legitimacy to games themselves. Imagine if films were written about the same way games are typically written about today:

"Citizen Kane, though it has above-average acting and marvelous production values, risks putting off casual viewers with its highbrow treatment of its subject matter. Casual viewers and anyone looking for intuitive action scenes are encouraged to look elsewhere."

"Apart from a mind-blowing chariot racing scene, Ben-Hur doesn't have much to offer beyond numerous tedious scenes of dialogue. Still, the writers deserve credit for great characterization, and the acting is definitely above average."

"The Godfather Part II is the explosive sequel to the 1972 masterpiece The Godfather. Everything viewers came to expect from the original are back: double-crossings, brutal assassinations and the best acting we've ever seen."

Um, excuse me? Is that really the best you can do? Clearly, the game industry needs to hold itself to a higher standard. And fortunately for all of us, there are organizations out there that are working to do just that. Enter the International Game Journalists Association, and their recent tome, The Videogame Style Guide and Reference Manual.

Anyone who's ever worked for a newspaper undoubtedly has heard of the Associated Press Style Guide and Reference Manual. It's that endlessly useful book that settles every style question a journalist might possibly have when writing a story. For example, it tells us that, when talking about quantities less than 10, that you should write out the number: "It happened four years and 10 days ago." Unless, of course, you're talking about age: "The boy is 3 years old." The AP Style Guide will tell you the correct way to write dates, titles, acronyms (U.N. with periods, EU without) and virtually everything else.

The Videogame Style Guide is meant to the an addendum to the AP Style Guide for publications focusing on videogames. As the writers point out in the introduction, writing the guide is a necessary step to bring legitimacy and uniformity to game writing. Do I really need to explain why it's important for everyone to agree that the correct spelling is Xbox and not XBox or X-Box?

But the guide goes beyond uniformity in a few key areas. I've mentioned one instance before: spelling videogame as one word, when virtually everyone else, including the AP, spells it as two words. As the game writers explain, the guide is also about drawing a proverbial line in the sand. They want to bring the concepts of "video" and "game" together into "a one-word cultural idiom unto itself." Surely the first step is to get writers to agree on the meaning and usage of terms that they all use.

Returning to my examples from above, imagine if one outlet referred to "The Godfather Part II" while another said "The Godfather Part 2," while a third had simply "The Godfather 2." This could never happen nowadays, but if you peruse enough videogame magazines and Web sites, you'll see exactly this type of thing happening.

I don't want to sound like I'm nitpicking. Problems with videogame writing go far beyond simple accuracy. But if the ultimate goal is to expand the audience for gaming-related articles and publications, it's vital for the average reader to be able to read terms like MMORPG, ESRB and FPS without turning away in confusion.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Laying the groundwork

In what is perhaps the best videogame column I've read to date, pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman beautifully sums up the current state of games journalism in a piece from Esquire magazine titled, "The Lester Bangs of Video Games":

I realize that many people write video-game reviews and that there are entire magazines and myriad Web sites devoted to this subject. But what these people are writing is not really criticism. Almost without exception, it's consumer advice; it tells you what old game a new game resembles, and what the playing experience entails, and whether the game will be commercially successful. It's expository information. As far as I can tell, there is no major critic who specializes in explaining what playing a given game feels like, nor is anyone analyzing what specific games mean in any context outside the game itself. There is no Pauline Kael of video-game writing. There is no Lester Bangs of video-game writing. And I'm starting to suspect there will never be that kind of authoritative critical voice within the world of video games, which is interesting for a lot of reasons....
I really could not have said it better myself. When I started this blog, one of my primary intentions was to point out where games journalism is going wrong. I did not realize that Mr. Klosterman had already done this, and in 2006 no less. Three years later, and his words ring just as true today. Pick up any videogame magazine (those that haven't called it quits yet) and read their reviews. You'll find they fit Klosterman's description to the letter. The reviewer will inevitably devote as many words to any emotional or thematic depth the game may offer as to how realistic the water in the game looks.

This issue speaks to the heart of the very first entry of this blog, where we had dedicated videogame players saying that reviews are worthless and critics are "gutless asskissers." Only by evolving beyond merely talking about a game from a consumer-centric standpoint and really talking about the deeper meanings of games, I believe it is possible to turn these kinds of opinions around.

But I'm not quite as pessimistic as Klosterman. I think that, as the videogame medium continues to mature, so too will the way in which its written about. With Klosterman's Esquire piece and the New York Times article mentioned previously, it's clear that the idea for a certain Great Leap Forward is out there, percolating in the collective unconscious of everyone who's ever put down a staid, predictable videogame review in disgust. All that remains is for some enterprising writer to stop merely talking about the so-called "New Games Journalism" and actually do it.

On a side note, I should mention that I came across Klosterman's article not by reading Esquire, but from a link in The Videogame Style Guide and Reference Manual, a tome which is much more than the title implies. I'll elaborate on it in my next entry.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Just to reinforce my point...

If anyone doubts that holding game journalism up to the same standards as mainstream journalism isn't important, I invite you to watch this, er, "enlightening" exposé on World of Warcraft lingo:

To borrow a Zappa-ism, broadcast journalism is not dead--it just smells funny.

Note: The original video was removed by YouTube. Above is a slightly edited version.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Violence doesn't have to be destructive

I would like to encourage everyone to read a recent entry at Man Bytes Blog titled a lego orange, in which Corvus Elrod lays out his idea for a LEGO game (in the same vein as "LEGO Star Wars" or "LEGO Indiana Jones") based on the Anthony Burgess novel/Stanley Kubrick film "A Clockwork Orange." Elrod's basic idea is to take the simplistic, escapist fun of the traditional LEGO games, but to turn the game from a fun romp through your favorite adventure film into a postmodern examination of the effects of violence in society.

I was especially struck by this entry because it sounded very similar to a game that I've been following closely for a long time: Super Columbine Massacre RPG! by Danny Ledonne. As you may be able to gather from the name, the Columbine game puts players into the role of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as they plan and carry out the deadly school shooting of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. on April 20, 1999. But despite what many people think at the outset, SCMRPG! is not meant to be an exploitive, gory shoot-em-up, but a documentary-style exploration of the events of that day, and how violence in media (especially videogames) was scapegoated by the press as being a cause for the shooting.

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I still remember the first time I sat down and played SCMRPG! a few years ago. I was utterly unprepared for what I would experience, and how it would change the way I viewed videogames. In the game, each student you kill doesn't blink away and disappear like the "enemies" in most games. Rather, they stay there, bloodied and lifeless, forcing you to confront the fact that you just gunned down a high school student. The game is presented in the style of a crude, 16-bit roleplaying game, requiring players to use their imaginations to take the images on the screen and make them real. The game is not meant to be fun or entertaining. It's meant to be informative and confrontational.

I still have yet to play any videogame that portrays violence the SCMRPG! does, by using real-world violence to communicate real-world consequences. Virtually every game that comes out these days uses violence as a consequence-free cathartic kill-fest that lets players act out their sociopathic fantasies and let off some stress. SCMRPG! does just the opposite. The more violence you create as a player, the more uncomfortable you feel. I've played lots of games with truly gruesome violence in my life, but SCMRPG! still has the distinction of being the only violent game that actually made me sick to my stomach.

Ninja Gaiden IISuper Columbine Massacre RPG!
A typical scene from Ninja Gaiden II for Xbox 360, compared to SCMRPG! Because of the way Ledonne portrays violence in his game, the scene from his game is much more effective.

But I want to stress that this type of reaction is intended by the game. It's meant to be an answer to all the games where the hero cuts down bad guys by the truckloads and the player thinks nothing of it. The difference between violence in SCMRPG! and violence in other games is like the difference between "Rambo" and "City of God." In essence, it takes the usual notion of what we think of videogames and turns it on its ear.

That's why I couldn't help but be reminded of Ledonne's game when reading Corvus Elrod's idea for "A LEGO Orange." Elrod says, "It is clear that while this game’s mechanics reflect the careless disregard for life and property of the protagonists, the visual cues and content are meant to make the player very uncomfortable with their actions." This describes the actual experience of playing SCRMRPG! perfectly.

I've said on this blog several times that I want to spread the idea that games can be serious art, and more than shallow entertainment. When others say this, they usually put forth games like "Portal" or "Braid" as examples of what games are capable of as a creative medium. For me, I put forward SCMRPG!, because it was the first game that put the idea into my head. I recommend everyone reading this to go to www.columbinegame.com, download it, and give it a try.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Gaming's place in pop culture

It's strange how almost as soon as I post an entry tearing down a videogame site (See "Dear IGN," below), several more articles pop up to prove me wrong. I'd be remiss not to point out a great article posted recently on Gamasutra, Video Game Legislation: Where We Are Now, which takes an in-depth look at how videogames are being legislated around the world.

But an article that I particularly wanted to share comes from (who would've guessed?) The New York Times: For Video Games, Mainstream Success Comes With a Price. First of all, I think it's a major leap forward that videogames are being written about in the NYT Arts section at all, as opposed to being put down in a news piece covering the latest school shooting. But moreover, what makes this article so great is that it manages to convey almost my exact feelings about the place of videogames in mainstream pop culture:

The great lurch toward grudging respectability that began a few years ago will almost certainly continue in 2009, if only because of the continuing popularity of mass fare like Wii bowling, Guitar Hero and Rock Band, not to mention Madden. And so video games are becoming acceptable in the manner that watching reality shows or sports on TV all night is acceptable. Bravo. But that can’t be all games are capable of. The real test of 2009 is whether games with a bit more intellectual and artistic ambition can continue to flourish.

Yes! Thank you! Finally, someone gets it! The writer, Seth Schiesel, even goes on to show how a regular diet of videogames is compatible with other forms of entertainment:

So I got away, in the hope that taking a refresher course in other media would help me understand games more thoroughly. I read Hermann Hesse. I saw Alan Gilbert conduct a program of Schubert, Brahms and Schumann at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. I watched Clint Eastwood’s first major film, “A Fistful of Dollars,” back to back with his latest, “Gran Torino.”

It worked, because at times in all the reading and watching and listening — in all the merely consuming — I chafed at how little control I had, at my inability to affect the narrative, at being taken on a joy ride by someone else. At those moments I longed to be able to make a decision, to solve the problem myself, to take responsibility for what would happen next — all the elements that make a game.

From that point, Schiesel gets into the real meat of his argument, and it's one that I and my fellow game enthusiasts have made time and time again: games are more than shallow entertainment. Games can be serious works of art, albeit these tend to be the exception rather than the rule. The fact that The New York Times agrees with me makes my heart leap with joy.

So it's official: games are legit. The NYT says it, so it must be true. Excellent. I hope this means this means that, when talking about gaming's place in culture, we can take this as a starting point and move out from there.

But as the article mentioned, games that go beyond the level of idle entertainment are still few and far between. However, I think we're seeing the beginning of a snowball effect in the opposite direction. We're slowly but surely going to be seeing more and more games that reach the narrative level of Oscar-worthy films. I believe there have already been a handful of them, and I'll be expanding on what those are, but the fact that we're going to be seeing a higher concentration of them is most exciting of all.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Dear IGN,

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You are everything wrong with gaming journalism.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Quality vs. quantity

The new year is still young, and game writers are looking forward to the new games that lie on the horizon. Two articles in particular caught my attention, because they highlight the extreme gap between publications that focus on gaming and those that cover general topics. Namely, the two articles I'm referring to are by The Associated Press and GamesRadar. Let's take a look at where each one excels and where they fall short.

First, the article from GamesRadar exposes its critical flaw early into its very first "preview" of BioShock 2:
We don’t know the story. We don’t know the setting. We don’t know any of the characters. We haven’t seen a single screenshot or a single frame of actual gameplay footage. The teaser hinted at the involvement of a grown-up Little Sister, but we don’t know if she’s the protagonist, antagonist, sidekick or twisted love interest of a seriously confused Big Daddy.
OK, so that tells us...nothing. Absolutely nothing. But hey, at least there's lots of pretty pictures on the page to distract us as we read. In fact, the pictures and graphics take up more space than the actual text. As I was reading, I struggled to find tidbits of information within the text that couldn't be gleaned just from the pictures themselves. Let's see...
  • Final Fantasy XIII is "heading in a direction we like." What this new direction might be is left unexplained.
  • Resident Evil 5 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 will have co-op gameplay
  • Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and the Damned will have biker gangs
  • Brutal Legend stars Jack Black
Apart from tiny nuggets of information like these, the article may as well have been written by the games' own public relations departments. If that were actually the case, at least sentences like "Expect StarCraft II to rekindle your love for the RTS genre, improve your sex appeal, and make you a better person - and if it doesn’t, you can at least expect to see some awesome cutscenes" wouldn't feel so damn awkward.

If it feels like I'm being harsh, it's because I expect more out of a preview article than, "Hey, look at the pretty pictures! Aren't you just bursting at the seams to buy this sucker already? No? Well, here's another screenshot! How about now? BUY IT!!" Writers are not supposed to sound like salesmen. That is not their job. If the GamesRadar writing staff was truly, honestly anticipating all 100 of the games they mentioned, then they gave themselves a whopping 3.65 days apiece to enjoy each game. Doubtful.

Next, let's examine the article from The Associated Press:
Video games expected to evolve in 2009
By DERRIK J. LANG, AP Entertainment Writer

LOS ANGELES – Don't hit that pause button just yet. Despite the tanking economy and an increasing number of video game-industry layoffs, many believe 2009 will be a year of evolution for games. The combination of innovative new titles, long-awaited franchise follow-ups and desire for escapism could spawn a gaming renaissance.
The opening sentence made me roll my eyes a little bit, but other than that, I'm already intrigued. A gaming renaissance, eh? The article continues:
"While game makers providing traditional retail product will continue to concentrate on high-profile sequels and licensed properties in an effort to mitigate risk, many of the field's most exciting developments will actually be happening outside of your local GameStop," said DigitalTrends.com publisher Scott Steinberg.

By focusing on surefire $60 sequels that are appearing on next-generation consoles for the first time — like "Resident Evil 5," "Street Fighter IV" and "God of War III" — gaming publishers are expected to avoid economic pitfalls while independent developers are poised to provide cheaper, quicker and quirkier alternatives, such as $20-or-less downloadable games like "Flower" for the PlayStation 3 or "Darwinia Plus" for the Xbox 360.

"Why pay $60 for a game you don't have time to play anyway when dozens of bite-sized, instantly intuitive and schedule friendly alternatives are available for $5 to $15 right from your couch?" muses Steinberg.
I notice the AP, like GamesRadar, doesn't give us much information about what the actual games will be like, but at least the writer doesn't sound like he's shilling the games to you. But what about the "gaming renaissance" promised in the top paragraph? Well, unfortunately, the writer doesn't get back around that until near the end of the article:
"Video games are poised to eclipse all other forms of entertainment in the decade ahead," Activision president and CEO Mike Griffith proclaimed during his [Consumer Electronics Show] keynote speech. He cited market statistics which stated that between 2003 and 2007, the cumulative number of movie ticket sales and hours of television watched fell by 6 percent, music sales slumped 12 percent and DVD purchases remained flat. Over the same four-year period, Griffith said the gaming business grew by 40 percent....

Wedbush Morgan video game analyst Michael Pachter describes his outlook for the gaming industry in 2009 with one word: discovery. He believes the increasing number of diverse console owners, especially those with Nintendo Wiis, will demand new software — and publishers will figure out how to directly market their wares to such folks in exciting new ways.

"They must discover how to reach those audiences," said Pachter. "It's not like they won't want new games."

So this "renaissance" still appears vague, but the end of the article nonetheless left me with a sense of anticipation, something the GamesRadar article did not come close to accomplishing.

While the AP article isn't perfect, it is still miles beyond GamesRadar's masturbatory pablum. The bigger issue here, though, is that GamesRadar covers games exclusively. The AP is a news agency that covers practically everything. Why is it that they seem more knowledgeable, more genuine? It's clear to me that GamesRadar is passionate about games, but it looks like they cater strictly to those that share their level of passion. The AP, in appealing to a more general audience, is much more approachable.

Something I would have liked to have seen in both articles was a more in-depth analysis of the games themselves. What makes next year's games inherently different from 2008's? How does having co-op gameplay change the experience? What makes the downloadable titles so "quirky"? Ultimately, I'd like to see an article that can answer these questions while still maintaining the broad appeal that that AP brings to its writing.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A brief note on "video game" vs. "videogame"

For the purposes of this blog, I choose to use the one-word spelling of "videogame" as opposed to the more common "video game," which is also how the Oxford English Dictionary spells it. The simple reason is because this is the spelling favored by the Videogame Style Guide and Reference Manual, a book which I plan to comment on in a future post. For now, I'll just say that I respect this guide as the definitive word on writing about games, and I endeavor to follow it as much as possible.

When is a videogame not a game?

When people hear words like "movie," "song" or "TV show," they can usually agree on just what these concepts mean without too much trouble. Though specific instances within each medium may vary wildly from each other, pop culture has at least progressed to such a stage where we have a workable, overarching definition for each medium. For example, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat could not be more dissimilar from Transformers, but everyone agrees that both are movies. Even John Cale's 4'33" counts as a song, but no one would want to put it on their iPod.

I originally wanted to begin this post by offering a workable definition of "videogame" in order to establish a framework for the medium equivalent to the ones above. However, after reading posts by others also attempting to come up with a definition (specifically Man Bytes Blog and The Quixotic Engineer), it became clear that this was a topic far too broad and complex to reach a consensus right now.

After reading Corvus's entry on Man Bytes Blog, it became clear to me that if we are to attempt to come up with a definition of "videogame" that excludes things like board games and tabletop RPGs, the main goal is to discover the essential element of videogames that are not present in any other type of game. But what element is this? A video screen? Nope, there are games that do without. Perhaps the presence of some type of electronic component? If so, then why isn't Electronic Battleship sold at GameStop? Clearly, videogames have become such a diverse medium that we are still struggling to even come up with a universal explanation of what they are. For more in-depth looks at this topic, I encourage you to read the blogs posted above.

I do feel, however, that there is a question about that I can answer: What is a videogame's primary purpose? That is to say, what can be derived from the experience of playing a game that cannot be gained from, say, watching a movie or listening to music? To put it plainly, the primary, distinct purpose of a videogame is to provide immersive interactivity.

When I say interactivity, I mean that the game must depend upon some type of action or activity from one or more players to start, progress and finish the game. Defining immersive is a bit trickier, but what it means in relating to interactivity is that a game must give the player a vicarious role or experience separate from the real world. The game must let players feel as though they are inhabiting a different person, or at least taking on a role different from their current experience. This could be anything from a fighter pilot, rock star, or an invisible being that arranges blocks that fall from the sky.

I say separate from the real world only to denote that, once a videogame is turned off, everything disappears. In chess, the pieces remain after one player reaches checkmate. In Dungeons & Dragons, the 20-sided dice remain long after the last kobold encountered by the party lies dead. Of course, the computer data that makes up the game itself does not disappear, and the DVD or cartridge housing it doesn't either. However, I don't count these as being part of the game for the same reason I don't count the box and instruction manual.

I believe immersive interactivity fits both as the definition of what games have offered since their beginning, and what we can expect them to offer for the foreseeable future. Every game I have played in my life (from "Super Mario Bros." to "Dance Dance Revolution," from "Pong" to "Portal") has depended on a human player to manipulate a character or object toward some objective. Also, they all let you experience something that would not be normally available in everyday life, or they present an everyday life scenario in which the player can experiment without fear of real-life consequences. "The Sims 2" lets you do a lot of the same things you can do in reality, but purposefully making your in-game character's life a living hell doesn't necessarily impact your own life.

I freely admit that the concept of immersive interactivity is, at this point, incomplete and insufficient. However, just as the debate over the definition of videogame carries on, so too will I work to refine what I mean by immersive interactivity. But no matter how much the elements of videogames (like graphics, controllers, and interfaces) change, I see no reason to expect immersive interactivity to become inherently different or less central to a game's make-up. Players are always going to be entering a separate, digital world when they load up their favorite game, and when videogames stop offering such experiences, then I assert that it will be time to come up with a term other than "videogame."

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

How much do game reviews influence you?

"They don't influence me at all. The entire games journalism industry is a complete joke and worthless. You don't get review copies unless you're a gutless asskisser."
"Reviews? From magazines? With scores that go to metacritic? Not at all."
"In the sense of gaming journalism, not much. I barely read those sites/magazines anymore, and haven't in years."

This question, and these answers, came from an Internet message board that I frequent. I have chosen to kick off my blog by sharing these quotes because they embody exactly my goal within the game journalism industry. When people think of "videogame journalism," these are the impressions that they have. People who write about videogames for a living are inherently distrusted, sometimes even despised. Why? Well, to be quite honest, there are some legitimate reasons to feel this way -- reasons I hope to cover in future posts. But moreover, it begs the question as to why you don't see the same amount of vitriol hurled at mainstream film and music critics. This blog, among other things, will attempt to explore and answer this question.

So, what is this blog about? In essence, it's about trying to take these same sentiments and turn them 180 degrees. It's about trying to bring mainstream legitimacy to an emerging underground field of artistic criticism. (The fact that I have to do this in blog format to accomplish this pretty much makes my point for me.) My goal, not just of this blog but of my professional life, is to prove that there's more to writing about videogames than pumping out positive reviews on command and reprinting press releases as breaking news.

What sort of things can you expect to see on this blog? I'm going to focus a lot of my energy on criticism of videogame journalism itself, pointing out where I think writers are inconsistent, lazy or just plain wrong. I'm also going to put forth examples of the type of writing that I'd like to see more of in the videogame field. Over time, I hope to show that a publication about games can have every bit as much legitimacy as Rolling Stone or even The New Yorker. Ambitious? Sure. Impossible? Surely not.

I'm also going to talk about games themselves, not just whether I think they're bad or good, but on how they further the artform. I want to move beyond the impression that games are "children's toys" or meant for mere amusement and distraction. I hope to show that videogames can carry important messages, can change the way you view the world, and yes, even be considered works of art. If just one person comes away from this blog and realizes that videogames are not just those things that kids play when they should be doing their homework, I'll consider my goal accomplished.

It cannot be denied that games are an intricate part of our modern culture. We live in an age where Newsweek has a videogame blog and the biggest games of the year can earn comparable amounts to Hollywood blockbusters. But it also cannot be denied that videogames (and gaming culture) still have a lot of growing up to do. Consider this observation: what parent wouldn't be proud if their child enrolled in USC film school? Now, how about if that same child went to Collins College of Videogame Design instead? There's a huge gap between the two schools, not just in terms of tuition, but in how their graduates are seen in their respective industries. Not to pick on Collins College in particular, but I'd just like to point out that there is no such thing as a "prestigious" school for videogames in the way there is for film.

This disconnect is by no means exclusive to higher education. Newseek and The New Yorker enjoy an air of legitimacy that cannot even be approached by the likes of EGM and GameInformer. The industry is making babysteps, though, and overall I see things headed in the right direction. I want this blog to be my way to encourage those baby steps to turn into sprinting leaps. It'll be a long, slow process, but it's a process that I absolutely want to be a part of.

But I don't want this blog to be just about me. I highly encourage anyone reading this to contribute as well. Leave a comment, e-mail me at brubinow@gmail.com or take up these same issues in your own blog. I can get on my soapbox and rant all I want, but it will all be for naught without honest, open interaction with others. So I ask you, are my goals crazy? Idealistic? Just what this damn industry needs? Please let me know. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some games to play.