I was very excited for Brink to be released in May of 2011. I love first person shooters and am almost always disappointed in the lack of team coherency when I play multiplayer FPS games without my friends. I prefer objective-based modes to deathmatch and when no one on the team is speaking on chat or otherwise coordinating there's no teamwork, and that's no fun. The AI Squad Commander in Brink was a way to keep teams on task without requiring any direct communication between them. My Brink feature for Gamasutra was about the narrative design I found interesting as a writer, but the Squad Commander is what I really looked forward to as a player.
I talked up the game to friends and convinced a bunch of them to jump into Brink on day one. We arranged to meet in an Xbox Live party chat, spun the discs up...and the game didn't work. Getting into a server together was sometimes impossible, and when we did get into a match together we often found ourselves fighting bots on the other team rather than human players. Incensed after a few days of this most of my friends turned the game in to GameStop and that was the end of Brink as far as playing with my friends was concerned.
Luckily the Squad Commander worked as advertised, because I stuck with the game for a while and once the server issues settled down Brink was a hell of a lot of fun to play. The game itself was solid. It wasn't bad design that chased my friends away, it was the horrible server issues at the beginning. And this is the lens through which I am looking at Polygon's reviews policy. I think I understand what they're trying to do here. Russ Pitts gave the game a 9.5 based on its design, and maybe that's a fair score. I haven't played SimCity (and now am not likely to as I'll probably be knee-deep in a half dozen other games before SimCity is fixed) but a game is more than design as Joystiq's Alexander Sliwinski so brilliantly argued in this editorial.
Games are increasingly becoming services and inasmuch as reviews are used by the audience to inform purchases it's difficult in my mind to justify separating the game from the service, though I remember Brink and wishing my friends could have done just that. Game reviewers aren't our gaming buddies, however.
When it was revealed that Vice President Biden was meeting with representatives of the video game industry along with other parties like representatives of the film industry and the National Rifle Association about what America can do to curb gun violence, Gamasutra Editor-in-Chief Kris Graft penned an editorial about why the video game industry should not have met with Biden, and IGN Editor-in-Chief Casey Lynch penned a rebuttal which argued why the video game industry should have met with Biden. Graft's position can be boiled down to the idea that responding to an illegitimate charge - that video games have anything whatsoever to do with inspiring real life violence such the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut which prompted Biden's meetings - lends legitimacy to those charges, and Lynch's argument comes down to the argument that if Biden wanted input from the video game industry it was important for the video game industry to represent itself versus allowing someone else to have that conversation with Biden.
I fall on Graft's side of the debate not because I think attending that meeting lent credence to the charge that video games have anything to do with these sorts of school shootings - and if you want to read about what I think these school shootings are about you can read my editorial published on Kotaku today - but because I debate the value of trying to explain what video games are nowadays to Vice President Biden, or anyone else who doesn't actually play them.
There are days when in order to maintain my sanity I have to remind myself of the division between video game journalism and the actual world of video games. Otherwise I can get so wrapped up in my desire to make it in this business that I completely lose perspective. I was given a healthy reminder of this on Tuesday when I had lunch with a buddy of mine who I play games with on Xbox Live most days of the week, a friend I used to work with but who, since he moved to New Hampshire many years ago, I hadn’t seen in the flesh since.
I was telling him about the “Screw Your Criticism, I Want A Review!” panel I’m moderating at PAX Prime this year. The panelist list has changed somewhat – Jim Sterling can no longer make it, but Arthur Gies of Polygon and Jeff Gerstmann of Giant Bomb will be joining us. I’m pretty stoked about it because I think it’s going to be good fun with Kyle Orland and Kirk Hamilton still on the panel as well.
My friend had no idea who the fuck any of those people are. I was shocked that he didn’t even recognize the name of Jeff Gerstmann after the Kane & Lynch firing, an event so widely discussed online that it solidified Gerstmann as one of the most recognizable names in this industry. Yeah, no, my friend had no idea who he was. I don’t think my friend had ever heard of Polygon, either. He knows what Kotaku is but after a few reads decided he fucking hated it and I don't think he's ever gone back, and if he knows Ars Technica it’s probably because I’ve linked him to stuff I’ve written over there.
My friends and all of their friends on Xbox Live are the grown-up portion of the core video game audience. They're almost all married with kids, in their mid-30's, and precisely the kind of audience that the new, grown up video game journalism outlets are aiming for. And most every member of the grown-up core video game audience I know has no fucking idea who anyone in the video game journalism industry is and hardly recognizes the name of any video game journalism outlets save the giants like IGN and GameSpot.
Hell, most of them don’t know who Cliff Bleszinksi is. If you’re reading my blog you’re probably a member of my small audience or were otherwise directed here by someone else who reads video game journalism and the idea of not recognizing Bleszinksi's name is probably insane, right? How the fuck do you not know who Cliff Bleszinksi is? Or Ken Levine? I don’t mean to put those two on a pedestal but as far as recognizable names in game development go I think those two are at the top of the list for all their willingness to speak to the press and being real characters.
My friend from New Hampshire and all our friends from Xbox Live don’t know who Bleszinksi and Levine are and furthermore they don’t give a flying fuck when I try to tell them. And that goes for my friends at the tabletop wargaming club, many of whom are video game addicts as well. They don’t know and they don’t care. And that goes for friends of mine at work who are hardcore gamers ready to talk the endless minutiae of games all day. They don’t know Newell and Molyneux, Miyamoto and Kojima, Wright and Spector or any of the myriad names I would personally consider it insane not to know as someone who plays video games…but then I remember that my knowing these names has absolutely nothing to do with being one of the most devoted people to video games in almost any circle I’m a part of.
It has everything to do with the fact that I’m a video game journalist, which has fuck-all to do with being a gamer, and realizing that makes it a little easier to deal with the stress of trying to break further into the industry and the inevitable drama one has to bear witness to along the way.
The feedback from my PAX East panel was universally positive, which was a relief after months of being nervous about it, but I did blow my chance to speak to some attendees by rushing off to try and make the Mass Effect 3 panel in my lust to bear witness to a bloodbath over the ending. So for PAX Prime I decided to pitch two panels for double the chance to correct my error, and they both got accepted.
Joining me for "Stuff Your Criticism, I Want A Review! Part Two" are, clockwise from upper-left, Kirk Hamilton of Kotaku, Jim Sterling of Destructoid, and Kyle Orland of Ars Technica. I cannot wait to see how this combination of Culture, Comedy, and Civility (yes, Kyle is exceedingly polite) handles the agenda on Saturday, September 1st at 3:00pm in the Serpent Theatre:
At PAX East this year a panel of video game critics agreed that there *is* a definite difference between a video game review and video game criticism...but what makes for a *good* review? What is a game reviewer's responsibility to the audience? Do they have one at all? Join a panel of experts as they debate one of the most contentious issues in video game journalism and try to draw some lines in the sand.
In January of this year I published a list of the best 100 NES games of all time on Complex magazine's website, shortly before my editor Tina Amini left for greener pastures and I stopped writing for the outlet. I worked my ass off on that feature. I didn't want to just cite 100 NES games that were popular, I wanted there to actually be reasons why I chose everything, and I tried to justify my choices in the space I was allotted.
I am really curious as to how well I did, but I also want to talk about why I approached the task with reverence. Why is it so important that we write these sorts of features and keep the Nintendo Entertainment System relevant? So I asked Chris Kohler of Wired's Game|Life blog (that's him with Shigeru Miyamoto up there), Gamasutra News Editor and video game historian Frank Cifaldi (who is welcome to bring the cat if the cat likes), and Kyle Orland from Ars (whose first site was Super Mario Bros. HQ and who looks maniacal holding that GameCube controller in the photo).
I'll be opening my choices on the Best 100 list up to their observations and potential chides on Saturday, September 1st at 10:00am in the Raven Theatre:
He had an assignment from Complex Magazine to publish a definitive list of the 100 best games ever published for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Now he's going to submit the list to a lightning round of assessment by a panel of the foremost experts on Nintendo in the field of video game journalism. Come enjoy the show as we tear through the selections and determine whether this is the end-all be-all of "best of NES" lists or not, and why.
I could not be more pleased to be on a panel with these three gentlemen, talking about the console which made me realize for the first time just how much I cared about video games, and why I'll always love Nintendo.
In this blog post titled "On New Games Journalism," Georgia State University graduate student Cameron Kunzelman takes issue with the notion that personal stories about a reviewer's experience with a video game can allow us to understand how the game works. A lot of what gets labeled "games criticism" nowadays really does boil down to how the writer felt while they played the game, or what the game made them think about, or why they think the game is important.
It isn’t about the game or how it plays or how it brings the player close or pushes her away; instead, the article centers around the experiences of the author–here is my real point–and sometimes those experiences don’t line up with any kind of argument or analysis. I’m not a purist in any sense of the word, but I do want my games criticism to take up an object, any object, and actually approach it with some rigor.
The first line of the next quote from Kunzelman refers to Tom Bissell, the author of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter and who currently writes about video games on the website Grantland.
We need fewer Bissell imitators. ... cloying attempts at being smart, shallow readings of games to find some meaning that “speaks to us all,” ...
The way we get out of this pit is rigor. We have to play games and actually pay attention to how they are structured. We need to understand how they are assembled.
Most importantly, and this should be the takeaway, I think we need to realize that games are not places where we let ourselves run wild so we can write about it later. Is the value of a game really only in what we, as individuals, get out of it? Or is there something to be said about the game itself, the way it operates, the way it plays itself?
Kunzelman has a point if you look at things from the academic point of view. Film theory, which is often synonymous with film criticism, means looking at a piece of film and viewing it through a particular lens like psychoanalytic or Marxist theory to parse out its meaning. Video game critics sometimes borrow from feminist and auteur theory in attempts to apply film criticism to video games but generally-speaking that's not what we mean by "criticism" in the video game world. Take a look at a This Week in Video Game Criticism round-up on Gamasutra and you'll usually find a number of personal stories or observations that really have nothing to do with criticism in the classic sense.
(To be fair, the post itself does say "This Week In Video Game Blogging" but the post headline matters)
At my "Stuff Your Criticism, I Want A Review!" panel at PAX East this year we talked about the difference between game reviews and game criticism. To summarize, a review is what you read before you've played a game, a report of what it's like to play the game after which the reader can make their decision as to whether to buy the game or not, or how much to pay for the game when they do buy it, or whether it's better just to rent the game instead of owning it. Criticism or critique is something you read after you've played a game. Where the review is a holistic assessment, criticism can be extremely narrow. A critique discusses whether a game accomplished what it set out to accomplish or not, and why. A good piece of criticism can make you appreciate a game even if you don't like it personally, by helping you understand what other people get out of the game.
I think that was a fair summation of the difference between reviews and criticism the way we use the words in writing about video games, but that's a very different definition of criticism than the academic sense. And in my mind, Kunzelman nails the big difference between traditional criticism and video game criticism, which is a lack of knowledge among video game critics as to how video games work under the hood. Jason Killingsworth wrote an opinion piece for Edge called Designing Rapture that discusses how the jumping mechanics in Journey work and why they made players emotional. Killingsworth ties the function of a video game to its meaning, and that is probably what classic criticism ought to look like in the realm of video games.
In my film theory courses at Boston University not everyone had a tremendous amount of experience shooting and editing film, but everyone in the theory concentration had to take a certain amount of production courses so that they understood how movies were made. How can you judge the decisions made by a film maker if you don't understand what his other options were? If there were three different angles that a director could have chosen for a particular shot, the choice of which of those three angles were selected might tell you something about what the shot means. If you know the different ways and styles in which film can be edited, you can look at editing choices and ask why the editor made the choices he made and infer meaning from those choices as well. The way a film is shot and edited, the style of the film, conveys a level of meaning beyond what the characters are saying or whatever theme is conveyed by the story.
I suspect Kunzelman's blog post ruffled feathers because it made people wonder if they are just Bissell style-imitators, trying to use flowery turns of phrase to sound educated about video games but who lack the knowledge of a Tom Bissell as to how video games are actually put together. I certainly went and looked back at some of my past First Person columns to see if I had considered something criticism when I was just waxing philosophical.
One thing about film critics is that even if they lack a formal education in film theory they've usually watched a shit-ton of movies. One thing about video game critics is they're often rather young and have missed out on several generations' worth of video game consoles and early PC gaming. It's kind of like being a film critic who started watching movies in the 1970's but never went back to watch Sergei Eisenstein films and who has no experience watching movies from the Italian Neo-Realist or French New Wave periods. I would look askance at any film critic who labeled himself as such and lacked experience with these established, influential genres of film, yet video game "critics" get away with this sort of thing all the time.
While we can take feminist or Marxist or auteur theory and apply them to video games, we're not dealing with theory that originates from and is unique to video games. If there is a native, critical language to video games, Kunzelman might be right about where it stems from. The rigor of proper video game criticism might be tied to mechanics because where soundtracks could be analyzed like other forms of music and cutscenes could be studied like film, video game mechanics aren't really shared with other forms of media.
The mechanics are what define video games as media from everything else, aren't they? That sounds like it ought to be obvious when we think back to the Atari 2600 joystick and the control sticks and buttons from the earliest arcade games. By learning the language of the joystick and the mouse and keyboard and now the control pad we've learned how to speak the language of video games. That's probably the language we ought to spend more time re-familiarizing ourselves with, because that may ultimately be how video games create their meaning.
When I think about wanting to understand video games, I think about wanting to understand precisely what it is I'm interacting with, and in the end, that's the code that drives the game and the input devices I am given to interact with that code. The reactions I have to the game might be more about understanding myself than understanding the game.