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.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

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, download it, and give it a try.