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On David Cage and page counts

There are a few varieties of the screenplay format, but a screenplay generally looks something like this:

FADE IN:

1. INTERIOR – OFFICE – AFTERNOON

The sun beams off the clean, white walls and a white bookshelf broken up five-by-five into cubes. The back of every cube is stuffed with books, and toys and Legos cover the remaining surface of each cube.

Dennis sits at his desk, typing, and pauses to look at the bookshelves to his left.

DENNIS
I really need to put some of those toys away.

FADE OUT

The screenplay format is set up in such a way as to make each page equivalent to a minute of footage. A tight screenplay ought to translate into a structurally tight film. In film school we learned to set a 90-page target, and not to exceed 120 pages, to match up with the average run time for a Hollywood feature.

What got me thinking about all this was reviews of Beyond: Two Souls that were critical of the story, and the storytelling. Considering that David Cage is a filmmaker who is using video games to make his movies instead of actually, you know, making movies (if you have any doubt that Cage is a filmmaker in a game developer’s clothing, this GDC 2011 talk from Cage was basically a screenwriting course during which he flat-out told the students in the audience to forget video game rules), I wonder if we ought to just start reviewing his games the way we’d review movies?

This, then, got me thinking about movie length. If a studio is going to release a 2 1/2 hour movie, it had better be damned good or the audience is going to get bored. And if a 2 1/2 hour movie is a challenging feat to pull off, how about an 8 hour movie? That’s one way to look at a game like Heavy Rain, which might take at least 8 hours to finish.

That would be 480 pages of script, excluding the page count for different scenes the player would have seen had they made different choices. If I’d handed in a 480 page screenplay in film school I have no doubt it would have been thrown back at me by the head of the screenwriting program because no one has the time to read a bloated screenplay like that.

What kills me about David Cage is that I think he’s capable of telling a story cinematically, but he’d have to stick to the rules of film, which doesn’t seem like it’s asking for much considering Cage takes issue generally with the way video games are designed. In 2012 Quantic Dream produced a PlayStation 3 tech demo named Kara. Call it a seven minute short film. I think it’s brilliant, and shows the potential for film making using game tech better than any other project. If you’ve never seen Kara, please watch it now? It tells a wonderfully-structured, complete story in less than 8 minutes.

Heavy Rain, on the other hand, had a ton of dead space, and I think that dead space comes from Cage’s insistence on making video games. He tries to give the player choices to make and things to do, but the game could have functioned without a lot of that content. Cage tried to walk a tightrope instead of fully committing to what he really wants to do.

I bought my PlayStation 3 specifically to play Heavy Rain, because it sounded like an important game. Beyond: Two Souls, on the other hand, sounds like a game I can afford to skip, which makes me a little sad. I was late to the David Cage party. I’d never heard of Indigo Prophecy until a few years ago. But I suspect that Cage is a one trick pony who keeps recycling the same design over and over again, and I’m not willing to pay $60 to confirm that, especially when I hear that Beyond is even longer than Heavy Rain, like possibly 10 hours long for a playthrough. That would be a 600-page screenplay.

A quick word on the availability of Grand Theft Auto V review copies

GTA-V-CANNOT-HAS

Say what you will about IGN, they’re one of if not the biggest video game websites in the industry. That’s why they get a week-long run of exclusive GTA V preview stories, because IGN matters. They get the word out. They set trends and put asses in the seats.

Always having my ear to the ground when it comes to inside video game journalism baseball as I do, I’m hearing that a lot of outlets that matter, big outlets, do not have their review copies of Grand Theft Auto V yet. It’s been a very interesting conversation to listen in on. If Rockstar can approach huge swathes of the professional video game journalism industry and ask them to wait for review copies to be mailed out on Monday, September 16th, a day before the game is released, it mostly tells you that Rockstar is not worried about review scores at all. I can’t imagine, unless GTA V turns out to be some colossal clusterfuck of a game, that Rockstar ought to worry about review scores.

I usually don’t hear as much frustration being expressed over the lack of early review copies as I’m hearing for Grand Theft Auto V. This makes sense, as GTA V would be a huge release whenever but at the end of a console cycle, when developers are getting the most out of the current-gen hardware, and when a developer decides to thumb its nose at the upcoming next generation consoles and not release GTA V on the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 because they figure what we have is good enough and they don’t think more processing power means a better game? That’s a game you can’t wait to get your hands on as a reviewer. Video game journalists live for this shit.

Review copy distribution is an excellent measure of the economic pecking order. A painful measure of which outlets control the largest share of the marketing aspect of video game journalism. I cannot imagine being an editor for a video game outlet that I know is important in the grand scheme of things, that has the respect of my peers and of a sizeable audience, which breaks important stories, deals with important issues, helps set trends or host cultural discussions, and basically being told to wait for my review copy long enough that I am unable to publish a review that’s probably going to mean much in the grand scheme of things other than tabulations into a Metascore, and that I’d have to think about all the web traffic I otherwise could have had if the review had published the morning of Tuesday, September 17th.

It’s not as though editors don’t already know what this economic pecking order is, and where they stand in the larger scheme of things regarding influence over the sum total of the audience, but having a reminder like this cannot be fun.

I think there’s an opportunity here, however. I was talking a week or so ago on Twitter about how I would like to see an experiment in which all video game reviewers turn down free review copies and instead purchase their own copies to review. I mused that if reviewers had to drop their own, hard-earned $60, even if only temporarily before a reimbursement was distributed, to purchase a game for review that they might be harsher than otherwise, because the job of a reviewer is to gauge the worthiness of a game for their audience, and the economic question of “How much is this worth?” is very real, and very important, for members of the audience who aren’t flush with cash.

What a unique opportunity Rockstar Games has provided to conduct this exercise!

I realize the implication one could read into my idea, namely that video game publishers buy some measure of good will from reviewers by providing free copies of games. This is stupid on three counts.

1) The audience can smell a genuine rat. No professional outlet would actually get away with glaringly positive reviews being granted upon one publisher or another over time, when everyone else realizes that the games in question are not universally good.

2) The video game journalism industry is very small. If anyone actually allowed themselves to be on the take, everyone else would know about it very quickly, and that writer’s career wouldn’t be worth spit.

3) If there is a professional obligation behind the video game review other than the need for honesty, it is the responsibility to help arm readers with knowledge to guide their purchasing decisions. An outlet cannot fulfill that responsibility to the greatest degree unless they can provide a review the day a game is released.

The “they get free games so they must be on the take” argument is so stupid that anyone who makes it publicly ought to be relentlessly ridiculed into silence. With all of that said, I do wonder sometimes whether or not the lack of a personal outlay of funds might, however subconsciously, help a reviewer forgive flaws which otherwise might go noticed.

Here’s a thought experiment for you. If you spent $30 on a game, are you as likely to be upset about any of the game’s deficiencies as you would have been if you’d spent $60 on it? How about if you spent $10 on it? You’d probably be very tolerant of potential awfulness. This sort of reaction to the potential results of the risk/reward scenario are predictable, natural, and above all, very human.

To put it another way, a colleague and friend of mine says that reviewing games is, in part, a matter of deciding how much bullshit you are willing to put up with. A game might have all sorts of issues but if you like what remains enough, you might not care about the issues very much, or even at all. That game could still get a high score from you, even as you recognize all the bullshit exists.

I would hazard a guess that the higher a personal, monetary price you paid for a video game, the less bullshit you’d be willing to put up before it affected your overall impression of the game.

No matter how self-aware a reviewer might be of this phenomena, no matter how professionally they may tackle the issue, they’re only human, and some degree of this kind of thinking is certainly subconscious. Therefore, if reviewers were freed of the obligation to publish reviews on release day — which might be a very positive development considering how quickly reviewers sometimes otherwise have to finish a game, which inevitably means having to skip what might only be side content but meaningful side content worthy of inclusion in an analysis of a complete work — they might be more willing to indulge in criticism which is more emotional in nature, and less analytic. Personal responses versus mechanistic appraisals might become more the norm.

I think that would feed into a more diverse and interesting body of consumer-facing criticism. Maybe I’m wrong. But it will be interesting to watch the late reviews of Grand Theft Auto V roll in, and to see whether the reviewers in question are a little more liberal with their criticism of a Rockstar game than they otherwise might be. And that would be no criticism of the reviewers if they did. Like I said, they’re only human.

Don’t Punch Snakes

I am way too stuck on how things ought to be, and while this keeps me out of trouble it also holds me back, which is the story of this blog.

When I decided that I wanted to become a video game journalist, I began with a blog about video games and the understanding that no one would probably read it. I also understood that whether or not anyone read it wasn’t the point. I needed a place to publish things because writers write all the time, says anyone and everyone you ask about being a writer, and in my case I knew that the possibility of having an audience is what would drive me to get better. It is no coincidence that writing on Bitmob, where I did have an audience, is what trampolined me into professional writing.

I named the blog Punching Snakes after a video game story about doing the same thing over and over again, and the old subtitle for this blog was “Gaming shouldn’t be a grind.” This was meant to have a double meaning, that not only video games but also the writing about video games shouldn’t be a grind. I was barely aware of the video game press at that point, so I was speaking to what would become my own writing about games and not criticizing what anyone else had to say.

I’ve tried over the past three years to measure up to that ideal, and the times when I’ve felt most successful at achieving that goal is when I wasn’t writing entirely or precisely about video games, like when I wrote about my relationship to violent video games as someone who lives with mental illness, or wrote about my relationship between marijuana abuse and video games. I felt even more successful at my goal when I wrote about the economic power of the core video game audience and their untapped potential to promote social justice, and when I wrote about how psychiatric medications helped me become the person I was meant to be.

Somewhere along the way I stopped identifying as “a video game journalist,” and started identifying myself as “a writer.” That’s not an affectation meant to put on airs. Nor is it a question of valuing any kind of writing over another. It’s a statement of intent.

Video game journalists mostly write about video games. Writers write about whatever the hell they feel like writing about, or whatever anyone will pay them to write about. The importance of the latter has become much more clear since writing became my solitary source of income this past May, but writing only about video games has, in essence, become an exercise in punching snakes.

Establishing my voice as a writer has been difficult. My professional work has hewn closer to the stuff of traditional journalism as I’ve gotten better at it, and in my mind good journalism is about getting yourself out of the way of the story. I’ve also written for a wide variety of outlets, some consumer-facing, some industry-facing, which has necessitated adapting to the voices of those outlets rather than developing my own.

The personal stories I’m best suited to tell simply aren’t about video games. They’re about growing up gifted, and living with bipolar disorder, and drug addiction, and the alienation that came as a result of all of those things. I tend not to write about any of this because, for the moment, it’s not work I can be paid for consistently.

Worrying about only writing when it’s for pay has become another exercise in punching snakes. It’s not a coincidence that when I began writing for free over at my friend Stu’s website Unwinnable that my work started to become more personal, because my motivation for writing had changed, which brings me back to this blog, and the reason I started it.

I haven’t been writing about things other than video games here because that’s not what this blog was for. That’s not the content which ought to have been here. I worry about what ought to be way too much. It keeps me out of trouble — and I do worry about sharing stories of mental illness and drug abuse when I expect competent, potential employers to Google my name — but it also holds me back. I needed to change the blog so that I could change what ought to be here.

I’ve redesigned Punching Snakes to make it cleaner, with less noise to distract from the writing.

I’ll still write about video games because that falls under “whatever the hell I might feel like writing about,” but also expect me to write about sex, drugs, bipolarity, family, toys, cats, current events, my wife, or anything else which comes to mind.

And I hope you never feel like you’re punching snakes when you come back to visit.

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