Insomnia | Commentary

On New Games Journalism

By Alex Kierkegaard / June 27, 2008

Being profound and seeming profound. -- Those who know that they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound to the crowd strive for obscurity. For the crowd believes that if it cannot see to the bottom of something it must be profound. It is so timid and dislikes going into the water.

Deep explanations. -- He who explains a passage in an author "more deeply" than the passage was meant has not explained the author but obscured him.

Friedrich Nietzsche


Have you ever wondered why writers feel compelled to come up with titles for each and every thing that they write? Books, essays and articles all have titles, and so do Ph.D. dissertations and even online diary entries. But what exactly is the purpose of the title? And is it even necessary?

The purpose of the title is to make it easier for readers to find what they are looking for, or to decide whether something they randomly came across might be relevant to their interests. For if there existed only a single book in the world it wouldn't need a title -- we'd just call it "the book" and been done with it. Similarly with essays and articles ("the essay", "the article", etc.) But in a world in which tens of thousands of books, essays and articles are being created every single week titles are indispensable. What the title is supposed to be, in effect, is a one-line summary of the work in question, similar to the "abstract" section of scientific papers, only shorter. And since you only have a dozen words at most to describe the content of your work, those words should and must reflect the essence of your work, otherwise you are misleading your prospective readers. So when I see that the latest Nature report is titled Ventastega curonica and the origin of tetrapod morphology, I fully expect it to contain a study on the subject of Ventastega curonicas and the origin of tetrapod morphology. If I click on it and get a spinach souffle recipe instead, someone will have to pay for wasting my time. It's not that I don't like spinach souffle, you understand -- of course I do, and I think it's wonderful -- it's just that I was not looking for such a recipe when I clicked on the Ventastega curonica and the origin of tetrapod morphology study. And you can bet your ass that when I am looking for spinach souffle recipes I most certainly DO NOT want to read Ventastega curonica and the origin of tetrapod morphology studies.

The moral lesson here is that the mislabeling of articles (whether intentional or not) is a deplorable practice and no intelligent human being should stand for it. Just try to imagine a world in which titles had nothing to do with the actual content of each work -- explore this thought for a minute and see what you come up with. This scenario doesn't even make for an interesting thought experiment -- it's just stupid.

And thus we finally arrive at the world of videogame writing (the word 'stupid' is your clue), and more specifically the world of videogame reviewing. One positive aspect of reviewing things is that you don't have to come up with titles for your reviews. A review of Game X is automatically titled "Game X review", which saves you the intellectual effort of re-reading what you wrote, distilling its essence, and condensing it in a title. On the flipside, what you need to do instead is much more difficult. What you need to do is make sure that your work adheres to the very narrow guidelines which the word 'review' presupposes. Writing random articles and then coming up with titles for them is easy -- there is no way you can wander off-topic in that case because the title comes AFTER you are done writing, and so, whatever you wrote, it must reflect it. But carving the title in stone first and then writing is much harder, because in that case the title has already defined what you can and cannot write. In the case of an essay titled "Game X review", the essence of that essay has been determined long before you began writing it -- it is a critical evaluation of Game X's rule system in comparison with the rule systems of similar games. That's it. Everything you include in your essay, every single word and every single sentence, must contribute towards that critical evaluation. Everything else is off-topic and reduces the quality of the essay, even if that something else is as interesting and valuable as a cure for cancer or a strategy for ending poverty or bringing about world peace. A shitty game review that includes a cure for cancer is no less shitty because of it. A review is not made better by throwing everything and the kitchen sink in it -- it is made better by sticking to the subject and exhausting it. Clarity, conciseness, expertise, insight -- those are the qualities that are needed here. And besides, a game review that includes a cure for cancer is no longer a game review -- it is a mislabeled scientific report on the cure for cancer that also happens to include a review of a game in it. And if you try to submit it to Nature for publication, guess what they'll do to it -- that's right, they'll edit out the game review.

So with the above in mind let's consider Eric-Jon Waugh's review of Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow on Insert Credit -- a model NGJ review on that self-proclaimed proud bastion of all things NGJ. It starts off with six paragraphs of fluff, crowned by the statement that "this is by far one of the most enjoyable, well-designed games in the Castlevania series", a claim which the author at no point in his three-page review even attempts to justify. What he does instead is start talking about the soundtrack, with the occasional off-hand comment about such usefully vague concepts as "gameplay" and "fun". Mostly though he talks about the soundtrack, which would be fine if the essay was titled "Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow Soundtrack review" instead of "Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow review". Because here's the thing. By mislabeling his essay, Mr Eric-Jon Waugh, whether he understands it or not, is taking a dump at videogames from a very great height. By writing a game review which is essentially devoted to the game's soundtrack, he is effectively saying that THE SOUNDTRACK IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF VIDEOGAMES. There's no getting around this: Mr Eric-Jon Waugh is making a statement here: if it's intentional, it means he hates videogames, if it's unintentional, it means he's stupid. It's one or the other; either he hates games or he's stupid -- a third possibility simply does not exist.


DISCLAIMER

Let me clear something up here before I proceed any further with the name-calling. I have a lot of respect for Brandon Sheffield, Insert Credit's editor, and his ex-star writers: Tim Rogers and Eric-Jon Waugh. Given a choice between discussing games with them, or with any of the LameSpot/NeoLAF/Euromoron/Skrotaku zombies, I'd take them anytime. I have met Tim several times and I am ready to vouch anytime for his all-around greatness, and I have even at one point acted as contributor to IC's wonderful news coverage. Bottom line is: I love those guys, and wouldn't change them for the world. But loving someone does not preclude pointing out their mistakes and their stupidities. Indeed, we love people in part because of their mistakes and their stupidities (no one loves perfect people -- jealousy sees to that). So there's nothing personal here, is what I am saying. I just call things as I see them. And since the subject of this essay is New Games Journalism (see also: its title), discussing the IC guys must naturally form the greater part of it.

END OF DISCLAIMER


The problem with people like Tim and Eric-Jon though is not so much that they are stupid, but that they wish to appear very intelligent while doing a job that doesn't require much intelligence in the first place. Reviewing a game like Aria of Sorrow, which is about controlling a 2D sprite around a bunch of platforms while killing everything in your way, you simply do not get any opportunities to make any bold, profound-sounding statements. It all boils down to battle system, controls, stage design, and graphics and sound. That's it. In order to make profound statements therefore you have to manufacture them, and do your best to somehow shove them in there and hope no one notices that they have nothing to do with the game in question -- and of course everyone notices. It is a childish desire at work here, a fundamentally stupid one, to attempt to appear profound while writing about something that was never meant to have an ounce of profundity in it whatsoever. People like Tim and Eric-Jon have simply spent too much time reading film reviews, idolizing those reviewers and wanting to emulate them -- not by writing their own film reviews (that racket's far too crowded for their tastes, you understand), but by writing game reviews that read like film reviews. And of course this is an impossible undertaking, because the nature of the two subjects is fundamentally different, and hence the nature of essays dealing with their critical evaluation (aka "reviews") must also be different. And of course their readers realize this, at least on a subconscious level, which is why these so-called "reviews" oftentimes seem ridiculous even to the most ardent NGJ fan. Here is, for example, a comment made at one point on the Select Button forums (that's where the NGJ fan crowd migrated to after the last Insert Credit forum implosion):

"A.O. Scott's movie reviews are better than anything any video game reviewer has EVER written."

This comment came from user BalbanesBeoulve, who is among the oldest members of the Insert Credit forums community. This in other words is someone who has been following the NGJ fiasco since the beginning, someone who has read every single Tim Rogers and Eric-Jon Waugh review and who has loved every minute of them. And even he understands that even the very "best" NGJ review is childish nonsense compared to any halfway decent film review. He can't explain why, but he can still see it. "Why aren't game reviews as interesting to read as film reviews?", he wonders, and the astonishingly idiotic answer immediately flashes in his tiny rat-like brain: "It's the reviewer's fault!".

Here's a couple of similar questions, with their corresponding answers arrived at according to the same mentality:

Q: "Why aren't bicycle reviews as interesting as book reviews?"

A: "It's the fault of the bicycle reviewers!"

Q: "Why aren't electric razor reviews as interesting as Elizabethan drama reviews?"

A: "It's the fault of the electric razor reviewers!"

Et cetera, et cetera.

None of these people possess the minimum required amount of intelligence to grasp the simple fact that some subjects are by definition more interesting than others, and therefore essays dealing with these subjects will also be more interesting. These kids are so dumb that they have yet to figure out that a review of a videogame, the vast majority of which are nothing more than childish pastimes, could not possibly equal in worth the review of a film, the vast majority of which deal in some way with the human condition. A review of a thing cannot rise above the value of that thing, after all, whatever Tim and Eric-Jon might try to tell you -- because if it did it would not be a review of that thing any more.

It is the subject matter that dooms game reviews to intellectual irrelevance, and not the skill of the reviewers. You could get someone like Jean Baudrillard to review the latest BMW for you, but that'd just be wasting the man's brainpower. If he does give you a straight-up car review it'll be a waste, because there's a thousand shmucks who could have done the same job, whereas only Baudrillard can do the job he does. If on the other hand he gives you something like The Consumer Society, then clearly that will not be a review of a BMW, regardless of how many references to BMWs it might contain -- it will be a sociological study mislabeled as a BMW review.

It really is as simple as that; the whole NGJ fiasco could easily have been avoided if those kids had bothered to properly label their writings. All the hatred you will find directed at them online stems from people clicking on a link expecting a review of some fucking videogame and getting random ramblings instead. If they had simply deleted the word 'review' from the title of their online diary entries the amount of hatemail they'd receive would have immediately dropped to zero. People wouldn't have any reason to call them "crap reviewers" anymore because they wouldn't be masquerading as reviewers, whereas no one would have grounds to complain about the contents of their online diary entries since a) online diaries are by their nature very personal affairs, mostly of interest to the author's small circle of friends, and those people are always sympathetic, and b) no one else would read their diaries because no one else would give a shit.

And here is the point where the plot thickens, as we come upon the subject of the psychology of the NGJ writer.

Practically all these people maintain online diaries in some form or other, and are therefore naturally inclined to constantly try and increase their readership (this, after all, is the point of keeping your diary online instead of offline -- to share it with others, and of course the more the better). However, as mentioned, unless we are talking about some sort of celebrity, diaries are by definition only of interest to the author's few friends, and the only way to change that is to talk about something popular (and only one thing is more popular among internet-dwellers than videogames -- porn -- and that thing does not lend itself to absurdly pretentious, hollow verbiage, which is the only thing NGJ writers can actually produce).

So talking about videogames is a way for a diary author to attract readers. The diary author of course mainly wants to talk about himself (his thoughts, his experiences, his travels, his friends -- his boring, banal little life) -- this is what you have to keep in mind when examining his psychology. His so-called "reviews" are therefore a kind of extortion; he will usually pick a brand-new, import-only game (and preferably one which is bound to be localised at some point in the future, so that many people will be looking forward to it), then write several pages of random stuff of interest only to him and his three friends, sprinkling among them a handful of comments about the game proper. And then of course there will also be comments about the game industry in general, his favorite videogames, etc. -- in short, whatever random game-related subject he feels like airing his views on -- comments which in fact are off-topic because they clearly do not contribute in any way to his criticisms of the game in question.

In short, the diary author/NGJ writer couldn't care less about the rules of criticism or about delivering a worthwhile critique -- he is simply taking advantage of the fact that a lot of people are anxiously on the lookout for information on some hot new game, grabs the chance to attract this audience, ascends on his pitiful soapboax, and proceeds to wax lyrically on any subject under the sun that interests him -- above all about himself -- and as a secondary consideration also on the general subject of "videogames". It's as if he was telling you, "Now I have you, motherfucker. If you want some advance info on this brand-new Japan-only game, you'll have to wade through 4,000 words of shit about my boring life and my views on every subject under the sun -- MWAHA HA HA HA HA!". This is the extortion part, and clearly accounts for a great part of the hatred all NGJ practicioners routinely arouse against them.

Of course that's not all that happens in the New Games Journalist's crafty, scheming, petty little mind. The soapboax mentality afflicts all of them to a degree, but there are other forces at work as well. To discover them we'll have to leave behind the online diary format of website and examine the magazine-style format, where groups of New Games Journalists come together with the goal of raising videogame critique to a higher level. Surely, this is a laudable goal? Surely now they will be able to put behind them their small-minded fixation with their petty little lives and focus on the games they are reviewing? Surely something worthwhile will at last be achieved?

Sorry, no. Nothing will be achieved because the goal had always been false. The story of the New Games Journalist, as well as the story of the New Games Journalist-wannabe (which is what every professional games writer is nowadays) is the story of a man-child who has grown older in body but not in spirit. Imagine a person who has grown up on games and game magazines, and stuff like comics, anime, sci-fi novels, etc. Everyone around him is growing up, getting jobs, growing more serious, starting families, etc., whereas he still spends most of his time on games -- he may be a games journalist, or he may be working in the games industry, or he may simply be a salaryman whose recreation consists almost exclusively of videogames (and stuff like anime, etc.) People like that end up going through life with a bad conscience ("Conscience is the instinct of the herd in the individual", Nietzsche had said). What these people end up wondering sooner or later is this: "If everyone else is getting more serious," they ask themselves, "shouldn't I be doing the same as well? And if my chosen job and/or recreation is videogames, doesn't that mean that they should be getting more serious as well? Deeper, more meaningful and more profound? More "artistic"?

Enough! Whether videogames are really growing deeper, more meaningful and more profound is irrelevant to these people -- they must and will be shown to be doing so in order to assuage the bad conscience of these men-children! These people have at last come to crave some degree of seriousness and profundity in their lives, some depth of feeling, some measure of spirituality; as human beings it is almost a biological necessity for them, and definitely a sociological one (this is the origin of their bad conscience -- the pressure to "grow up"), and since they have not bothered at any point to take an interest in, say, history, literature or philosophy -- fields of human endeavor which would have quenched the thirst for depth and spirituality of even the most spiritually thirsty human being, leaving him now with the opposite need, a need for frivolity, shallowness, playfulness, in short, a need for games -- the only place they can look for spirituality now is in the only place they know. And if they can't find it there, if it turns out that it simply doesn't exist there, that will in no way prevent them from miraculously discovering it -- by inventing it.

This then is the psychological process which leads people to write ten-page essays on the cultural/political/artistic significance of Metal Gear Solid or whatever (or, to be more precise, that of its cutscenes). Finally, even this is not enough. They are not even content with deluding themselves that modern games have reached a new level of profundity, and therefore deserve to be analysed in a more profound manner -- they will go back and reanalyse the past (Mario, Zelda, Sonic or whatever) as if that profundity had always existed but failed to be recognised -- defiling, in the process, everything that was geniune about the past: its simple, honest, childish innocence.