Some Thoughts on Video Game Journalism, Such As It Is
by Mark T.R. Donohue
There's a new title out from the always-controversial Rockstar Games called Bully. Since the game has gotten so much negative press accusing it of being no less than a "Columbine simulator," and also because it sounds fun, I want to get it and play it so I can write about it in this space. However, video games are expensive. I already stretched my resources this month to pick up the new basketball and soccer titles and to preorder Final Fantasy XII. I normally allow myself one used game purchase per month, but as the Christmas season approaches the crush of titles gets such that it's hard to stick to this rule. Every so often I can trade in a bunch of games to save some cash, but when New Super Mario Bros. came out I felt compelled to blow my entire trade-in stack on a Nintendo DS. It was worth it. But apart from digging into my precious TV on DVD collection, the very thought of which makes me die a little inside, I've got nothing to barter for Bully or Scarface: The World Is Yours or Company of Heroes. Let us not even speak of the XBox 360.
Oh, man, why'd I go and speak about it? I feel like a bad person now. They've already started half-assing the releases for those of us like me who only own the "obsolete" XBox, PS2, and GameCube. In fact, for GameCube, new games don't exist at all. The new version of NBA 2K7 for the "old-gen" systems omits the great old 24/7 mode, a collection-based 1-on-1 game that's essentially an entire separate experience. Older editions of the 2K series were huge values because you could play 5-on-5, sim a couple of seasons, futz around on Live a bit, put the disc away for a while, and then return to it a few months later to play 24/7 as if you'd just bought an entirely new game. At least that's the pattern I had going. Now if course if you haven't laid down the $400 for the new hardware you're a second-class gamer.
I didn't always feel that way, but then again I came up playing PC games in the days before broadband, meaning if one of your friends had a copy of the game, you had it too as soon as you could borrow the discs. I've gradually become more of a console gamer as old-line single-player PC RPGs have died out and adventure games have disappeared completely. In any event, even though I was the only boy in a family of girls and pretty much on my own as far as console and software purchases were concerned, my minimum-wage record store job kept me in games well enough. Until the current platform generation, there was only one dominant system per cycle. Nintendo, Super Nintendo, PlayStation. This made finding games you wanted used easier and also made renting and borrowing a bit simpler. However, since the hobby has exploded (largely due to the prevalence of guys just like myself who have kept gaming actively into their mid-twenties and beyond), it's gotten to the point where if you want to play all of the best games you have to own three systems and a dedicated PC gaming rig. XBox has (or had) the online play and the most processing power. PS2 has the largest installed user base and an undeniable roster of AAA exclusives, like Metal Gear, Final Fantasy, and the Grand Theft Auto games. Nintendo has, well, Nintendo, still the best first-party software producer in the known universe, good for the most joyous gaming experiences of every hardware cycle (in this case, Zelda: The Wind Waker, the Pikmin games, Animal Crossing) and pretty much zero third-party support.
For folks like me who have never accepted the idea of playing first-person shooters on consoles (the entire Halo phenomenon passed me by completely), you have to have a PC so you don't miss stuff like Call of Duty or Half-Life 2. Though I'm predominantly a single-player gamer, I do enjoy Battlefield (in various iterations) and classic Counter-Strike every now and then. The real-time strategy genre kind of peaked with StarCraft, but the games are completely unplayable on consoles, and worthy variations on the theme like Rise of Legends and Battle for Middle-Earth still pop up here and there. The main reason I still need a desktop is of course to play assorted Civilization and SimCity sequels obsessively and unflaggingly.
What I'm trying to do here is establish my gaming bona fides. I don't think any self-respecting baseball fan should be completely without at least a little background knowledge for every team. I don't think any person who says they know their pop music can be telling the truth if they know nothing about jazz and hip-hop. (On the other hand, I know absolutely nothing about classical music. I consider it a different class entirely, like how a mage can't learn priest spells. Work with me here.) The point is, I want to continue to maintain the well-roundedness in video games that I bring to all of my hobbies. I don't love gaming any more or less than I love baseball. (However, I've never fully enjoyed playing a baseball video game, unless watching the research department play and vigorously curse out Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball for the Super Nintendo counts.) In fact, I'd love to move into writing about games professionally as I have with music and am beginning to with sports and TV. It would solve a lot of my problems.
However, the barriers to entry in video game journalism are steep. When I began writing about music in college it wasn't terribly difficult to get the access I needed. It's a lot cheaper to make a CD than it is a video game, and there are a lot of starving musicians in this country who are desperate for attention. Stack up enough weird obscure promos, and you can go trade them in for the stuff you actually want. I guess people only keep sending you stuff if you write about it, but that's never been a problem for me. I still get a couple CDs in the mail every month even now despite the fact that I haven't been actively maintaining my own music site for about six years. Of course, who am I kidding, nowadays if it's anything of any notoriety whatsoever you can go online and get it from one channel or another, whether strictly legal or not.
Baseball comes into my house pretty much for free, too. I've sprung for the Extra Innings package the last few years but before that the radio deal was supremely affordable and at the very least ESPN is good for a couple of out-of-market games every week, and there's TBS and WGN too if you don't mind watching the Braves and Cubs. I don't get to go to nearly as many games in person as I'd like to in my wildest dreams, but from a writing standpoint staying home and flipping channels before, during, and after the Rockies games every night gives me much more information with which to work.
Working my way back around to the main thesis in the leisurely fashion that is my enduring style, you can get noticed as a sportswriter or a music writer without going deeply into credit card debt. Provided you can actually write a little. That's always the catch. Becoming a video game writer simply by stacking up a whole ton of well-written pro bono articles on the subject...well, that's simply not going to happen. There is the shining example of Penny Arcade, which is strictly speaking a webcomic and not a review site. However, it's grown into kind of a clearinghouse for gamers and gamer culture, with a cottage industry of spinoff work in advertising and strategy guides and even their own annual convention. PA is the exception that proves the rule. Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, the artist and writer respectively, are a) prodigiously talented and b) obsessively devoted to video games above and beyond everything else in the universe besides (I assume) their families.
In my experience, most people who are gifted writers are not obsessively interested in one single thing to the exclusion of all others. Absurdly single-minded people, it follows, are not particularly good writers, by and large, because they have no basis for comparison. That's what writing is about, really: bringing something from over here where I am to over there where you are by way of the things in between we share in common. Not that all gamers are the same person, exactly, but they tend to have a rather limited set of tools with which to relate how great their hobby is to those who don't share it. A few months ago Roger Ebert caused a minor stir by suggesting video games could never really be art, an opinion no doubt colored in nongamer Ebert's mind by the plain fact that there are no writers who describe video gaming with artistry. While Ebert by his own admission watches almost no television, he's willing to accept that there may be great art there of which he's unaware. He's also not a music buff, a conclusion I draw from his review of the film Jesus' Son, a movie about heroin addiction. He speculates at length on the origin of the movie's title. The speculation is interesting, but incorrect; obviously, it's a reference to a line from the Velvet Underground's "Heroin," a self-evident truth which Ebert never reaches. (When I went to provide a link to the review I noticed that the long-standing omission had been corrected. Nice catch, Jim Emerson. You'll have to take my word for how the original published piece read.) Clearly though while no music scholar himself Roger Ebert believes in the potential of the form to reach true beauty.
Those who ought to be making the case that video games have equal artistic merit are doing a right poor job of it. The reasons for this are many. Not least among them is the fact that video game journalism has some tremendous credibility issues. In order to print accurate and timely information about the latest games, video game magazines and websites depend on developers and publishers to an unhealthy extent. Video games, far more than record albums or theatrical films, are tremendous investments of manpower and capital for the companies that produce them. The standards required by the various console manufacturers before they will even grant a development kit (i.e., the software tools required to design a game for a given console) to a would-be game developer are very high. Accordingly, game development companies are far more scarce than record labels or film studios. A music magazine has no fear of a label cutting off their supply of advance albums due to one negative review. There will always be more albums, and ultimately the act is counterproductive for the label. The nation's film critics are hardly shaking in their blazers over the many horror movies and Rob Schneider vehicles for which the studios refuse to offer preview screenings. If you're a game magazine or website and you lose the cooperation of Electronic Arts or for that matter Rockstar, what are you going to tell your readers? The video game industry is dominated by a few megafranchises that move units by the million and, yeah, sell magazines and draw eyes to your URL. (Imagine if the Red Sox and Yankees stopped cooperating with ESPN.)
In video game journalism the impression that the tails wag the dogs has never quite been shaken. The classic storyline that most critical-minded gamers see repeating itself is as follows. Several months before a game's release, an industry mag runs a preview with some impressive screenshots and a few verbal teases. A few issues later, they run an intense and in-depth cover story with pages and pages of beautiful visuals and many paragraphs, already pull-quoted for back-of-the-box blurbs, of borderline reverential praise for the experience the game will ultimately deliver. Then the game comes out, millions of gamers buy it, and maybe it delivers, maybe it doesn't. The magazine's official impartial review won't run until a month after the release date, if ever.
What can you do? In fairness to the game magazines, it would be no more ethical to review incomplete code than for a music critic to review an unmixed tape of rough demos or a film writer to pan an unfinished cut of a movie with "scene missing" cards and animatics in the place of completed special effects. The video game business is famous for missed deadlines and blown budgets. They can't be held entirely at fault for not making the distribution of review copies their top priority in crunch time.
Here we have a chicken and egg problem. Are there no great video game writers because the industry is perceived as a little unethical, unprofessional, and icky, or does the lack of respect stem from the paucity of good journalists? I'm not saying there aren't any good writers in the world who focus principally on electronic gaming. There's Dan Hsu, and...well, there's Dan Hsu, with apologies to Andy McNamara at Game Informer. The rank and file writing that appears on game websites and in game periodicals is clunky, unoriginal, and desperately short on style despite obvious straining towards that end. That's not to say I haven't read tons of brutally poor music writing. Most aspiring music journalists have at least some grasp of English composition, however; it's an inevitable side effect of protracted exposure to Morrissey lyrics. Way too many cub video game reporters seem to have been promoted to that job directly from roles as video game message board trolls, and it shows. These people are gamers first and foremost and only writers because they couldn't cut it as programmers and don't have the attention spans to be beta testers. This needs to stop.
For whatever reason while the core demographic of the video game industry has aged (the "average gamer" is closer to 30 than 20 these days), the mentality of the publications covering it really hasn't. The better magazines have the sophistication and ADD-friendly visual style of Maxim (not a compliment), the lesser ones are just unofficial ads bound together with explicit ones. The true sign of a good critic to me is not unlike that of a good artist: a defined aesthetic. Sometimes Ebert can utterly pan a movie but I can come away from reading his review with a pretty good feeling that I will enjoy it. It's for this very same reason that I trust the Penny Arcade guys' opinions the most when I am on the fence about what game to get. They would shiver at the description "critic." One of the major running themes of Holkins' blog posts is the general uselessness, corruption, and fallibility of every accredited game journalist in the business. However, I know what they like. I know what we have in common and where we disagree. When they rave about a sleeper game like Apex or Katamari Damacy and I go out on a limb and buy it, I am seldom if ever disappointed. Isn't the ultimate function of the critic to represent to you whether or not your money will be well-spent on whichever entertainment product it is in which they are theoretically expert? There isn't a self-described game critic in the world whose success rate is anywhere near the break-even point, and that's why I wish there was an easy way for me to get into the business. Also, I would like a free XBox 360.