Whatever X, Day IX

So, just how geeky can I get? As this entry from 2006 shows: Pretty damn geeky, indeed.

JUNE 23, 2006: Why There are No Great Video Game Critics (Yet)

In the e-mail box today, a question from one of the great new writers of the day, Joe Hill:

On the assumption that you’re always hunting for material for the blog, I thought I’d point you to the Chuck Klosterman article in the latest ESQUIRE. The always interesting Klosterman wonders why, if videogames are the dominant pop art form of our day, there isn’t a Pauline Kael or a Lester Bangs to remark upon them – why the form has failed to produce a body of interesting criticism. I know you’re a staff guy for PS2 magazine, and someone who has given more than a little thought to the place video games have in our culture. I thought maybe you’d want to check the Klosterman piece out and respond.

Well, as it happens, I know the reasons why there are (currently) no great video game critics. Here are the reasons:

1. Video games are too immature for valid criticism. “Immature” not in the sense that the stories/material is infantile, or aimed at such a low common denominator that useful criticism is not possible. Some video games are, of course, but then so are some movies and music, so that’s not really saying anything.

What I mean is that it’s immature as a narrative medium. Video games are no longer anywhere near new — the first home consoles came out in the 1970s, and Space Invaders is on the verge of its 30th anniversary — but it’s only been in the last decade or so that consoles and computers have become powerful enough to allow the sort of meaningful interactive narrative that is the hallmark of video game storytelling. You can argue with me on the specifics, but I think the first truly notable interactive video game narrative presentation was Myst, which dates back only a dozen years. Other people might choose Civilization (1991) or SimCity (1989) instead, and I think those are valid choices, too. But however you chop it up, the video game as a criticism-worthy medium is, at best, about fifteen years old, and to my mind it’s only been since the emergence of Half-Life (1998) that there has been a substantial number of games worthy of genuine criticism. So we’re talking less than a decade’s worth of games worthy of criticism.

Now, let’s go back to the examples of critics offered earlier: Pauline Kael and Lester Bangs. Pauline Kael began writing film criticism in the 1950s, but only really became Pauline Kael when she started writing for New Yorker in 1967. By the time Kael made her name, film, as an artistic medium, was six decades old and artistically significant films had been made for half a century. It was a mature (if still radically evolving) medium. Likewise, Lester Bangs started reviewing rock in 1969, fifteen years after rock and roll emerged as its own genre, and of course decades after pop music of any sort had become a fertile ground for criticism — and pop music in general (as opposed to rock itself) should arguably be the metric we use for the medium.

If we grant that Kael and Bangs typify mature (or, given Bang’s style, at least fully engaged) examples of criticism of their media, the reason there is currently no Kael or Bangs for video games is clear: It’s awfully damn early for someone like them to arrive for the video game medium. Possibly the “Kael of video games” is the age of my daughter right now, and like her banging out rhythms on Dance Dance Revolution or getting immersed in some Mario World. Like Kael or Bangs, she’ll never have known a time in which games were not fully narrative in their way, so like them she won’t have to rely on metaphor or perspective that inherently views video games as a disruption (or the supplanter) of other artistic media.

Which is a problem with at least some of the people who have attempted “serious” video game criticism. Before he became an “embedded journalist” for a video game company, writer Wagner James Au used to write portentous, pretentious reviews of video games for Salon magazine and others, breathlessly exclaiming how this video game or that would forever change the way we look at the world, or whatever. It made me want to brain the man with a heavy limb of oak. These games Au journalistically slobbered over may or may not have been great games, but his rush to pump up the importance of video games in the world (and in the process, position himself as a chronicler at the vanguard of social change) made him look a little foolish. Good idea, overwrought execution. He may have gotten better since then — I’m not sure, I haven’t read him in a while — but he was an early example of why possibly the real significant critics aren’t even in the business yet. The real significant critics will take for granted that the medium is significant. They won’t have to worry about justifying it.

(Likewise, of course, by the time Kael made it to the New Yorker, the magazine didn’t have to explain to its readers why it had a film critic — in 20 years, perhaps, the New Yorker won’t have to explain why it has a video game critic.)

Joe Hill notes that in his essay, Klosterman suggests that now is for video games what 1967 was for rock music. I disagree; I think now is like 1956 was for rock music, or 1928 was for film. We’re not yet at the point where the creative aspects of the medium are simply undeniable, but we are at a point where most of the tools exist that game makers will need to state their case.

2. You actually have to be able to play the video games. Useful and valid criticism requires some academic knowledge of the field you want to criticize. But once you’ve got that, the input portion of criticism is generally pretty easy: With film, you (primarily) watch with your eyes. With music, you (primarily) listen with your ears. You’re done. Video games, however, require an additional skill, and that is to be able to play the game. Therein lies a problem: The hermeneutics of video games require a whole lot of button-mashing. How many critics are both able to get through a boss level and tell you what it means as a social construct? In the future, probably a lot. At the moment: Not so many.

Now, perhaps there are some would-be critics who would tell you that they could watch the game as it’s being played by others and give you a reasonable critical evaluation that way, but let’s call that now for what it is: Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. You can’t usefully criticize that which you can’t understand, and you can’t understand video games without playing them, because the play itself is immensely significant. In Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the choice of allowing video game players to save their games only at certain save points rather than saving anywhere is as significant in the experience of playing the game as where Gregg Toland put his camera is in the experience of watching Citizen Kane. Trying to understand the impact of save points in that game without playing the game is like trying to understand the impact of deep focus by being told about it by someone else. No matter how much you understand it intellectually, you don’t understand it as an experience. So your criticism will lack validity.

As I noted, this problem will correct itself in time, because there are a lot people coming up who can think critically about the video game media and do exquisite combo moves without thinking much about them. We’re just not entirely there yet.

3. The current generation of video game reviewers are primarily reviewers, not critics. Which is to say that the reviews are aimed at telling readers whether a game’s play is worth shelling out $50 for, and not about the cultural and aesthetic context of the game and why it is significant in that regard. There can be some of this, of course; today’s best reviewers are quite knowledgeable about the genre and also, they’re neither personally stupid nor bad writers (although I’ll have more to say about the latter later), and they know when a game they’re playing is significant as well as fun. But criticism is not the primary role of the review.

This is not a problem. Reviewing tends to be thought of as the idiot cousin of criticism, but as someone who has done both, I reject this interpretation, because it’s jackass stupid. Reviewing a game with an eye toward its playability, the enjoyment it gives to the consumer, and its simple overall fun factor is entirely valid. For one, people tend to buy video games to have fun. For another, $50 ($60 on the next-gen consoles) is not an insignificant amount of money to slap down for a game. Your average player may be mildly interested in the context of the game he or she is playing, but nine times out of ten, what they really want to know is: is this worth my time? Is this worth my money? Having people who can knowledgeably say “yes” or “no” on that criteria is a good thing.

Professional video game criticism at this point is almost completely review-driven rather than criticism-driven because that’s where the money is, and the companies who traffic in video game reviewing (including Ziff-Davis, for whom I freelance) see the bottom line value in that. As far as I know, there is no video game equivalent of Cahiers du cinéma, and if one is to come into being, it will be done by someone other than the current crop of publishers, and by people who want to tear down the existing critical structures surrounding video games. People gripe about reviews or declaim about the need for genuine criticism, but no one’s done anything about it to any significant effect. Again, this may also be an issue of time — Cahiers du cinéma popped into existence after a half-century of film; its closest equivalent in popular music, Rolling Stone, also happened long after pop music established itself as a viable artistic form (hold this thought; I’ll come back to it).

4. Many current video game reviewers suck and will likely never stop sucking. The best of the current generation of video game reviewers are good writers and smart observers of the field, even if they are confined for various reasons to reviewing rather than criticism. But let’s be honest here and note that the best writers and thinkers tend to be concentrated in the print magazines, who can afford to pay well for the most competent writers (as well as competent editors and copyeditors, whose input is, to put it lightly, not insignificant).

Quite a lot of the Web-based reviewers, on the other hand, are guys who happen to love video games and think it’s damn cool they get to play games for free and maybe get a little money on the side. Many of these reviews are not especially good as pieces of writing, or show any particularly interesting depth of thought. Serious video game criticism is not likely to come out of the current commercial magazines, but I regret to say that I don’t see it coming out of most of the current Web-based writers, either, because I don’t see all that many looking up from what they’re doing now to see a larger picture.

Now, this is all part and parcel of a larger issue in video game journalism in general, which is the perception that it’s in the pocket of the industry itself because it is highly dependent on the largess of the video game companies, who offer sneak previews to games and access to programmers, etc. in an informal quid pro quo situation. In other words, there’s a general perception video game journalism is largely corrupt. Speaking from my own experience, I think this true the further down the food chain you get (for the record, I’ve never been pressured by anyone at Ziff-Davis or anywhere else I’ve done video game writing to write anything but what I wanted to say), and again, it does put a damper on genuine criticism of video games coming from those who perceive themselves to be in “video game journalism.”

This isn’t meant to be a general beating on Web-based game writing — there is some good Web-based writing on video games. But I do think that game sites that grew out of enthusiasm for games and without notable regard for legitimate journalistic standards and practices find themselves vulnerable to manipulation and misinformation by video game companies. Yes, this is a problem, and it’s a problem that I wonder if some game sites are at all interested in solving, because it runs the risk of them losing access to cool stuff (and possibly readers). This is not a fertile ground for deep thought.

5. Video games lack a human story. Film has its auteurs; music has its singer/songwriters. Each of these archetypes of their media are romantic and also (conveniently enough) a useful peg to hang criticism upon. These media also have other useful archetypes: “the band,” movie stars and crew, producers (both in music and film), exhibition events (concerts and premieres) and so on. The human story in video games is much harder to find. Video games do have their auteurs — Wil Wright, John Carmack, Sid Meyer and Shigeru Miyamoto are examples — but what they do and how they do it is frightfully opaque. Does a long discussion about Carmack’s work on specular lighting or his latest game engine have the same critical accessibility as a discussion about, say, Orson Welles’ directorial choices, or the making of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” technique? Personally, I think it doesn’t, save for a small, technically adept tribe.

Also, the context of video game making is inherently less interesting than the context of the creation of other media, and that has an impact on criticism as well. No offense to video game makers, but their lives (so far) generally lack the drama of the lives of filmmakers, musicians and authors, primarily because whereas the backstory to film and music is the stars, the location shoots, the long nights in the studio, the drug-filled creative sessions and what have you, the backstory to game making is lots and lots and lots of coding, with the occasional status meeting and feedback from beta testers. The closest video game creators have gotten to a dramatic life narrative fueling a creative ambition in the field is the John Romero/Daikatana story. I don’t doubt that the creative and production backstory to video games is significant in the creation of games; the question is whether it is transparent enough to write about and compelling enough to hang criticism upon — and if any critic can follow the entire process well enough to write about it knowledgeably.

One way this could change is if a standardized set of tools appeared that allowed game makers to focus on creating interactive narratives more than on the tool building itself. This is already happening to some extent — many video games are built on relatively few game engines, which are then licensed, and platforms like Second Life allow people to build worlds and situations with pre-created forms. There’s also machinima (movies created inside of game engines), the creative and critical narrative of which is rather more like the one we already have for film (although machinima is not typically interactive in the same way a video game is). As creating games becomes easier, there is a chance for a wider range of human stories coming into the world of video game production, which will make for more fertile ground for criticism.

More likely, however, is that the Kael or Bangs of the video game world is going to have to find a way to make really obscure and abstruse technical concepts not only interesting but illuminating, and also find a way to tease out the human drama of game production and tie it in with what the player interacts with on screen. This is a tough gig, and again, it may require some more time for the world to catch up.

One final thing, which is the inevitable conclusion of everything above:

6. Criticism is a reaction as well as an explanation. Cahiers du cinéma was a reaction to the status quo of film criticism up to that time; Rolling Stone was among other things an attempt to legitimize a genre of music that was still seen mostly as artistically inconsequential noise. We like to think we live in a world on “Internet time,” but we’re still the humans we’ve been for millennia as well. I’ve no doubt people are reacting to the video game industry and striving to become the Kaels and Bangs of the media, and bless them for it. But the question is whether there is genuinely enough there to respond to in an enduring way. If it took half a century of film before the editors and writers of Cahiers du cinéma could promote the auteur theory of film — and in doing so, change not only the vocabulary of film criticism but also directly affect how films were made — how long might it take to formulate a similar, workable, durable theory of video games? This theory won’t be like the auteur theory, to be sure. But maybe it’ll be something to wrench around the way we interact with video games, and as a result have an impact on how games will be made.

Is it that time yet? Are we there yet? I’m not sure it is, or that we are. Moreover, I’m not sure we will be there any time soon. When it does happen, video games’ versions of Kael and Bangs will be there and ready to tell us how to think about it, and we’ll be able to react, appreciate, argue or ignore them, just as people did with Kael and Bangs. I’m not certain when it will happen, I’m just certain it will.

(Incidentally: of all the current video game writers and critics, who do I think is the closest equivalent to Kael or Bangs? These guys. You may feel free to speculate why I think this might be so.)

44 thoughts on “Whatever X, Day IX

  1. Your arguments founder on Tom Chick, who if he isn’t a Kael or Bangs (both utterly unique talents), is surely as good a critic as an Ebert or Christgau.

  2. And reading a little further down, those guys. But why are Kael and Bangs your benchmarks? That’s like holding up Edmund Wilson or Lionel Trilling, who were unique and whose like won’t return, as the benchmarks for literary criticism. Genius shouldn’t be the benchmark. Good-to-great is enough.

  3. I don’t know about that, Patrick. Ebert in particular is an exceptional writer about film; he’s underestimated by a lot of people, which is an effect of having been on TV.

  4. I quite like Ebert John, and think his body of work is formidable. I surf his site now and then just picking reviews at random. He’s no Pauline Kael, but neither is anyone else.

  5. Are critics ever considered to be artists in their own right? What makes me ask is that Gabe and Tycho are artists, with their own creative product that is more than just a reaction to video games. Maybe that fact in and of itself is what allows them to break the mold of the game industry press.

    Also, John, do you have any thoughts on Yahtzee? Is he attempting real criticism or is he just another potty-mouthed demagogue?

  6. John, I note that your definition of video games is pretty literal – computer games with animation, rather than interactive games. I’m curious why the line gets drawn there, given that text-based computer games have been around for a long time, were (somewhat by necessity) focused on storytelling and interactive narrative, and strongly informed a lot of what we think of today as storytelling games. (Would there have ever been a Myst without Colossal Cave or Zork?)

    I’m not ragging on you, but I’m interested in why those games aren’t part of your discussion (which I think is pretty darn good, actually). Off the top of my head I’d guess that text-based adventures, aka interactive fiction, as an ongoing concern is largely for hobbyists, but there’s not a clear demarcation between ‘old’ interactive fiction and graphical adventures. Roberta Williams started a lot of the integration of graphics into text adventures, which is really where you start leaving Infocom behind and start getting into the Myst arena.

  7. Mythago:

    I think it may be a personal thing; that narrative of a lot of text adventures I played left me cold. Also, more formally, I think text adventures are sort of interstitial, between stories and games. It something for me to think on.

  8. I second Tom Chick as a great video games critic and all-round VG writer. He runs a site called Quarter to Three, where many smart gamers hang out, and a Sci-fi Channel blog called Fidget. Other interesting writers have emerged from the New Video Games journalism school, but Chick is probably the best. Check him out.

  9. There may not have been one in 2006, but in 2008 we have Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw. He not only plays the games, but he’s worked in the industry, and he’s done both online work and print work. He’s also one of the few critics out there who focuses on the story and characterization of a game rather than the controls or the eye candy. Yes, most of his shorts are reviews, but he seems to have a good grasp of the overall context of videogames and culture (look at his E3 and webcomic reviews and most especially his reviews of MMORPGs – or as he calls them, “mumorpeggehs”). Plus, he’s independant… hell, EVE Online put up a huge frigging banner ad on his site and he trashed the game – “EVE Online does the impossible by making deep space boring; it did this by allowing nerds to colonize it.” (Check out the rest of his “Zero Punctuation” reviews over at The Escapist. New ones are posted on Wednesdays.)

    Plus, his attitude for a critic is perfect. He hates everything. He’s like the long-lost love child of Tom Shales and Michiko Kakutani.

  10. I actually never quite got the appeal of Kael–nothing against her, she’s just not on the same wavelength as I am. (My personal favorite film critics are the aforementioned Ebert, and Harlan Ellison.)

    Anyway. It seems to me you left out a critical factor, John: Getting through enough of a game to be able to discern its overall shape and theme and say intelligent things about it could take days or even weeks of dedicated effort. A film takes a few hours, and you get it all. It’s just going to be a much higher barrier-to-entry for videogame critics, I suspect.

  11. I second the endorsement of Yahtzee. Buried inside his blistering frenetic presentation and an attitude that would be frying-pan-to-the-face shocking if applied to other media (with the possible exception of punk rock music) is a deep love and knowledge of how games work and what they should and shouldn’t be. I think he started doing ZP with such vitriol because he’s just had it up to his eyebrows with the fact that much of what’s sold out there in games falls in the “shouldn’t be” column, and someone needed to call the entire industry on this crap in a way that nobody could mistake for approval or praise.

    Plus he cracks me up, outdoor laugh style, every Wednesday at my desk at work. My cow-orkers always know when I’ve got my Yahtzee going.

    And hey, he doesn’t hate everything – he mostly loves the Prince of Persia franchise! Mostly…

    Note that I work at a video game developer that has done a bunch of movie games. Thus, Croshaw keeps me from going insane.

    I’m also liking Ben Fritz’s “The Cut Scene” blog on the Variety website, where he posts tidbits about what’s going on behind the scenes in the game biz as it relates to the movie biz, and offers his own editorial comments as well as a few excerpts from game reviews by himself and other Variety writers that are separate from his blog. There’s a fair bit of criticism of both games and the business itself to be found in there, good stuff.

  12. I think Penny Arcade is a great choice. They have strong veiws on what works in a game and what doesn’t, with an engaging polemic. They also have a real influence in the industry satirizing foibles and highlighting real flaws within game design.

    The problem with Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw is that he has a schtick that he’s required to follow; basically he hates almost everything and will thoroughly ridicule a game into the ground. That’s what his audience looks for in his reviews.

  13. Also, I think everyone should check out Bill Harris at Dubious Quality and N’Gai Croal of Level Up. They’re helping the industry get there.

  14. MasterThief:

    I have to second Yahtzee’s Zero Punctuation reviews. While I don’t know how well his work would translate into written reviews, his flash-animation cum podcast style is perfect for what he does.

    Plus, he always makes me laugh maniacally. I especially liked his console roundup. He initially compared all the consoles as if they were strippers on stage. Paraphrasing: The 360 knows a lot of moves, is pretty flashy, but occasionally she inexplicably *dies* on stage.

    Classic.

  15. Plus, his attitude for a critic is perfect. He hates everything.

    That’s a terrible attitude for a critic. It means they’ll never admit if something *is* good, because it might detract from their coolth. How can I judge whether a game is worth my time or not from somebody whose attitude is “everything sucks”?

  16. The problem with Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw is that he has a schtick that he’s required to follow; basically he hates almost everything and will thoroughly ridicule a game into the ground. That’s what his audience looks for in his reviews.

    Except of course for the reviews where he doesn’t do that…and there have been several. Yahtzee’s biggest failing, such as it is, is that he’s extremely biased on certain game-types and styles, but he’s quite up-front about it. I don’t think anyone would label “Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass” or “Halo 3″ as failures, but Yahtzee HATED them. And in large part, his biases against certain genres plays a large part. As one of my friends said, concerning one of his reviews: “Everything he says in that review is true…but none of it matters, because it really is a great game.

    The advantage to PA and Yahtzee is that they can provide fairly unvarnished reviews as their agenda is not necessarily beholden to a manufacturer or console.

  17. “But let’s be honest here and note that the best writers and thinkers tend to be concentrated in the print magazines, who can afford to pay well for the most competent writers”

    Things that have changed since 2006, I guess. I don’t think most people in the video gaming community even notice print magazines anymore. I was a huge fan of Computer Gaming World in its heyday, but it’s dead, as are most of its erstwhile competitors. If the best writers really are still working in print, they might as well be sending up smoke signals for all that anyone will see their work.

  18. Yahtzee’s reviews are simply brilliant, and everyone should watch them. And he doesn’t hate everything: he likes Prince of Persia, as mentioned above, and he called Portal “fucking sublime”. Truer words were never spoken.

    In fact, I would nominate The Escapist as a proto-Rolling Stone for the video game industry. Smart articles, critical distance from the subject, a balanced mix of praise and criticism.

  19. Ninth’d or whatever for Yahtzee. His writing and delivery are on-target, and I about shit myself laughing during the Console Round-up. As much as I love the Wii and the Zelda franchise and whatnot, he does have a way of cutting to the heart of the problems with them.

  20. One additional thing: critics (as opposed to reviewers) need to be able to have a sense of the history of the medium. With film and music, you can easily get a sense of the history of the genre because the technology has remained relatively stable for long periods of time. All you need to listen to old music is a turntable, and they are still made and available for purchase. Ditto VCRs and/or film projectors for watching old movies.

    With video games, it’s often not possible to gain a sense of what it was like to play the classics of the genre without either going to great lengths to emulate the original platform, or else owning the original hardware the game was meant to be played on. And that original hardware is not available for purchase anymore. And there appears to be no sign of the rapid obsolescence-ing of the hardware slowing down any time soon.

  21. One additional thing that makes me think it’s going to take even longer to get something like video game criticism going: critics (as opposed to reviewers) need to be able to have a sense of the history of the medium.

    With film and music, you can easily get a sense of the history of the genre because the technology has remained relatively stable for long periods of time. All you need to listen to old music is a turntable, and they are still made and available for purchase. Ditto VCRs and/or film projectors for watching old movies.

    With video games, it’s often not possible to gain a sense of what it was like to play the classics of the genre without either going to great lengths to emulate the original platform, or else owning the original hardware the game was meant to be played on. And that original hardware is not available for purchase anymore. And there appears to be no sign of the rapid obsolescence-ing of the hardware slowing down any time soon.

    I think the closest historical analog to today’s situation of incompatible platforms would be the record industry in the 1890′s or earlier, when recordings made for Edison phonographs wouldn’t play on any other company’s phonograph, and none of the phonographs made would play any of the player piano rolls that people had in their music libraries.


  22. the first truly notable interactive video game narrative presentation was Myst,

    Pah. That glorified slideshow?

    The problem with video games is that even just reviewing them is a red queen’s race: you have to keep up with the latest releases, you have to keep investing in new technology to play the current generation of games and unlike books or movies (though these have this problem as well, just on a much lower level), few people but those that grew up with them care much for the classics.

    Also, as your post shows, we still tend to judge video games, especially when we think critically about them, in terms of other media like movies and books and judge them on these terms, whenever we talk about things like stories or characters and such. But Quake wasn’t a great game because it had a compelling storyline, nor should it be evaluated on those terms.

  23. I should come back here and say that Gabe & Tycho are also #1 on my list for game critic-ery. I’ve had the pleasure of being able to actually sit down and talk to them about games in a casual setting among friends, and they really, really know the medium. They play everything, and they have opinions about all of it. Jerry gave me some direct recommendations for games he thought I’d like after asking me a few questions about what I’d played in the past, and everything he pointed me to turned out to be games that I really enjoyed and in some cases still play. He totally read my mind.

  24. John, you probably don’t recall that I was the first – and quite possibly the only – nationally syndicated video/PC game reviewer. Chronicle Features signed my column, which used to run everywhere from the Boston Globe to the North Bay Nugget. The thing that distinguished my reviews at the time is that I always focused on the gameplay, whereas most reviews then and now tend to focus on the graphics.

    Since the graphics always improve, this is a really stupid way to go about it. And as Richard Garriott pointed out last year, gameplay hasn’t actually improved much in 25 years, since every new hardware cycle provides an excuse to release the same game with New and Improved graphics.

    But I digress… to return to the topic, the reason you’ll never see any great game reviewers or critics is because once one establishes enough of a reputation, some developer or publisher is going to want to get you on their team. Perhaps that hypothetical critic will prefer to criticize, but few guys who love games would turn down the opportunity to make them even if the money weren’t considerably better.

    Glauring is also correct to point out that few gamers – or even game developers – have the encyclopedic knowledge of games that most film reviewers possess of games.

  25. Hm. Re the history of the medium, maybe I should try to become a game critic. I started playing video games when I dropped a quarter into the Pong console that replaced a pinball game in the lobby of Don’s Restaurant on South Orange Ave in Livingston NJ… back in 1974.

    I think I’ve literally played every classic game, most of them on the original hardware. I even played the text Adventure on a DEC mainframe.

    Hmmmmmmmmm. Better sharpen up my writing skills…

  26. Ditto Master Thief @10, John — if you haven’t watched any Zero Punctuation yet, you owe it to yourself to.

    (I think your Penny Arcade call is also spot-on, though.)

    Lester Bangs did his best work going to shows or just checking out the scene somewhere. Video games don’t have that the way pop music has it.

  27. Getting through enough of a game to be able to discern its overall shape and theme and say intelligent things about it could take days or even weeks of dedicated effort.

    This can be brutal. One of the things that set Computer Gaming World apart from the other magazines in the old days is that the reviewer was required to complete the game without cheat codes before writing the review. And, of course, the developer would send you the gold master two days before the magazine was going to press… with the game you were reviewing on the cover.

    I still remember playing through Heretic in 18 straight hours without a break. It took me about two days to recover from feeling borderline insane and I very much doubt that the review was coherent, much less destined for literary fame.

    Hell of a game, though. By the way, speaking of incoherent things written for CGW, I once wrote an article for them on how computer games would be the actualization of Richard Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, or Total Art. It never ran there, as Lombardi decided too many drugs were required to appreciate it properly, but I did manage to sneak part of it into a SmartPop book two years ago. It was called HALO and the High Art of Games. It’s also got an interview with John Romero about some of the things John was mentioning above.

  28. @19: perhaps it was a bit of hyperbole to say he hates “everything,” he’s just brutally honest about what he does and doesn’t like. And of course, don’t forget his review of Painkiller – “everything bad about this game is balanced out by the fact that it has a gun which shoots SHURIKENS AND LIGHTNING.” XD

  29. To parrot the above, anybody who thinks that the video game industry doesn’t have its own fair crop of high-quality critics and reviewers are clearly, clearly out of the loop. Tycho, Gabe and Yahtzee’s definitely earned their infamy amongst gaming enthusiasts of all stripes- it’s even arguable that to be /in/ the loop, you’d have to had heard of at least Penny Arcade.

  30. I was just chatting with my brother about this stuff, and he asked me “could you see Hugh Downs or Anderson Cooper doing some kind of game story with the appropriate experience?”

    My answer is “of course not,” which makes me think: as much as I’d like to think video games are “mainstream,” maybe they really aren’t. Even if the industry is making “movie money” and selling millions of copies, it still “feels” like it’s an alternative subculture.

    If all the game critics need to be immersed in that subculture, that seems to reinforce the alt-subculture standing.

  31. I’ve also enjoyed Zero Punctuation myself, although the hyerbolic pervy witticisms loose their charm after a while.

  32. I’m not entirely sure I want to elevate the Zero Punctuation guy to such great heights quite yet. That said, I do find him very amusing.

  33. I get a sneaking feeling that Zero Punctuation is going to do to some future game what Beavis and Butthead did to the band Winger.

    There was a B&B episode where they totally crapped on the latest Winger video (not without reason or merit), which in itself seemed like no big deal at the time. However, I later got to see the SoundScan numbers for that album’s sales for the week after that episode aired; the album went from selling at a decent clip to almost nothing at all almost immediately after B&B trashed the video… and we all know how the hair band thing in general panned out around 1992.

    I feel that at some point in the future Yahtzee is going to do a spot on a much-hyped game that is selling well, which will suddenly stop selling after he points out what a pile of crap it really is – and the game biz will be very surprised.

    Of course, I could be totally wrong, the game biz is way different from the music biz, but my gut feels this just the same. It smells similar to me, he’s got a kind of “cool factor” that feels like what B&B had, in their own odd way.

  34. This was so incredibly detailed, I only read the bold type. But then I have to leave my computer soon, which was another reason why…

  35. I keep seeing these two claims pop up:

    1. movies are ~2hr, games range from four to thirty times that length
    2. nobody has the encyclopedic knowledge of video games that some people have of film

    number two strikes me as a little innane, because someone could have such an encyclopedic knowledge simply by putting in the effort.

    number one seems like a non-issue to me because a critic would not, in my mind, need to have played and beaten every game, ever.

    know about? pretty much. beaten? no.

    I think the fundamental reason we don’t have game critics yet is that the traditional media has largely left video games alone, leading us to develop the “video game press” as an entirely separate industry, and it is an industry making plenty of money by reviewing graphics and selling lucrative ads.

    There’s no economic incentive for a real critic. A game publication doesn’t need one to rise above the crowd. Yet.

  36. RE the amount of time required to play a game to the extent necessary to write a solid critique. Tycho had a nice piece on this a while back noting that reviewers who cited “repetitive” play in games were, frequently, making open-ended play scenarios repetitive in order complete the game as rapidly as possible once the NDA was lifted. As a result, relatively open-ended/sandbox games were and are being boiled down the shortest narrative path to completion and then criticized for the shortness of the path.

  37. I’m not so sure about Yahtzee; I can’t help but feel that the Beavis & Butthead comparison is too close for comfort.

    The rest of the Escapist crew, sure. It’s practically all erudite and insightful work. There’s your damn Rolling Stone, now read it.

  38. The length of time required to complete a typical game isn’t huge compared to that required to, say, read and digest a Thomas Pynchon novel, and criticism is well-developed for difficult books the size of doorstops. So that should be no obstacle.

    On the other hand, I suppose it depends on what counts as completion. Many modern games have a short path through to “The End! A winner is you” but can actually be played at much more obsessive length to get obscure achievements and unlockables, and sometimes the whole character of the game changes when it’s played that way. Getting to that could be quite a commitment for a professional critic.

  39. Superfluous but hearty seconds to the nominations of Gabe, Tycho, and, to a lesser extent, Tom Chick as the creme de la creme of VG criticism. I can even point to why I think P-A’re so good – Tycho summed it up a few months back, in a preface to a dissection of the new Alone in the Dark:

    It is my goal to play a game until I discover its thesis. I’m dishing up a sentence like that because he is gone, and thus unable to leer at me over his monitor for talkin’ fancy. Let me explain what I mean, because it’s not as smart as it sounds.

    Essentially, I want to know a game’s intention. That intention is surprisingly close to the surface in games most people consider to be of high quality, and so I don’t need to play them very long to discern it. I will still finish games that I have come to understand, but a large part of my enjoyment is bound up in this interpretive process.

    That alone separates P-A from the rest of the field – interpreting games rather than simply observing them. Add that to their exposure of the place of video gamers in society at large via PAX and Child’s Play, and you have two gentlemen who understand games, understand the way games fit into modern culture, and know how to communicate that understanding.

    John, a question related to point 5 (the “human story”): do you think, in the couple of years since you originally posted this thing, that the focus of the gaming press has shifted a little towards the people behind the games? I’m thinking, specifically, of the tonal shift I’ve noticed in the way people talk about games creators, and, even more specifically, about people like Bioshock‘s Ken Levine and Braid‘s Jonathan Blow. Granted, we’re not getting the drama of their creative or personal journeys, but there seems to be a better grasp of just what they did to make their games so great, and that credit is being given to them, specifically, for artistic and narrative innovations. You’re probably better (or, at least, more widely) read in games writing than I, but it seems to me that the way we look at game creators has changed over the past year. I’d be interested to hear what you think.

  40. The best game critics right now are the guys over at Rock Paper Shotgun. They all do a variety of freelance work, which can be found at Eurogamer, PC Gamer UK, The Escapist, and really all over the place. RPS tends to be a mix of news, interviews, links, and flash game recommendations, but the quality of the writing is very high and RPS digs deeper into the game than other sites (see the Pathologic series).

    I’d also recommend Action Button Dot Net, though it has a tendency to explore games too deeply, perhaps even wandering off to review some other game in the middle of a review. Also ABDN’s productivity can be erratic, possibly disappearing for months at a time and then suddenly appearing with twenty-five articles and a faint odor of booze. Something you will love or hate: The house style is… indulgent.

    While I greatly enjoy both PA and ZP, neither of them hold up next to RPS simply because Gabe & Tycho and Yahtzee are primarily entertainers. They’re smart guys, with a good understanding of the history of the medium and a knack for insightful analysis and the comedic exploitation of that insight, but they don’t really dig deeply into the game.

  41. Re conversation around 7-8 about text-adventure games: Perhaps those are filling a space somewhat like silent movies did — a precursor, in which one could see some of the shape of what’s to come, but in which some critical parts of the technology aren’t yet present. And, as soon as that technology becomes available, the precursor is essentially forgotten. There are the few great masterpieces — Metropolis, Zork, … — but there will not be more of them.

    Of course, there are still a few people writing new text adventures (though “people”, not “companies”) due to a preference for the form; I’m curious if there were similar sorts of things with silent movies in their corresponding point in history.

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