Today, the Games Journalism Prize released the first few entries of their 2013 shortlist. Haywire is listed three times, with Andrew Huntly’s tales from undead worlds, his look back at the controversy surrounding The Old Rebuplic’s “gay planet” and Francisco Dominguez’ feature on Elizabeth and that dreaded, mythical beast ludonarrative dissonance in Bioshock Infinite. Jeff Kunzler had some thoughts on the current list of nominees and what they show about the state of games criticism. I’d like to respond. It’s not like me to miss an opportunity to ramble on about games writing anyway, especially seeing how I finally became part of the problem in this one.
I really shouldn’t be casting any stones when it comes to preachy and overly ambitious pieces about the state of games journalism. I mean, did I really write this just one year ago? So much wrong with that thesis. Limited in its perspective, overreaching in its conclusions. Apparently I had yet to learn of hedging. I certainly didn’t learn to stop trying to rattle the “establishment”, but I hope my last piece at least got a little better in terms of fine-grained differentiation of the many layers and parts of the large, gelatinous blob that is games writing.
There’s certainly much to criticize about said, else I wouldn’t be tempted to start poking and prodding it so often. But if you start with the sweeping statements, the selective readings and the bending things to suit your narrative, criticism tends to fall apart and whatever good points you might have had go to waste. There’s a fine line to walk there, between being critical and being unreasonably cynical, fatalist or even arrogant, ignorant. Tevis Thompson recently fell into that hole, for me at least, and Jeff Kunzler has even less room for unnecessary details in his account.
I must admit I’m having a hard time criticizing his write-up. Not because it’s that convincing, but because of my own position and view on things. Quite obviously, I have a vested interest in this matter. But I’m not terribly interested in defending my work (and after editing and sanctioning it, it has become my work, to a certain extent). As glad as I am that Haywire made that list, I’m a little surprised we did. I’m keenly aware that our writing still leaves much room for improvement. And if there really are no other articles more deserving of a place on the list, then something is certainly going wrong in games writing.
But not to the extent described here. To borrow a phrase: “One can only laugh at the madness of it all, really.”
To put it briefly, I believe Kunzler essentializes a misrepresentative view of what “games journalism” is, based on some pretty ridiculous misreadings of the first few entries of what is typically poised to become a very lengthy shortlist, using that to launch into an overly dismissive rant, lamenting the lack of more critical posts, the likes of which are simply nowhere to be found. Ahem.
This is the best of the best, apparently. The very best games journalism has to offer in 2013.
Perhaps these aren’t journalism then. But how are we, seeing how we never use that word to describe anything we do (Except for that one issue. Remember, with the silly piece about the state of games writing?)? Oh I know, we were nominated for the Games Journalism Prize and they weren’t. Yet. Considering how unfinished the list still is, they might well end up there. Actually, let me make a note to submit these instead of just keeping to garish self-promotion.
I can understand the desire to be critical of these awards, or how, under that new spotlight, our work might be received critically. I mean, I didn’t really expect it to end up there, and I was pretty directly involved in making it. But this claim that this is what games criticism is drastically overestimates the significance of those pieces and even the awards. This is games journalism, because it says so on the lid? Come on.
Let’s move on from misrepresenting to misreading though. I’ll not cover the other nominees in detail, because I am best equipped to discuss what I waved through on Haywire, but suffice it to say the summaries are not glorious there either. Considering this article by Dennis Scimeca, it fails to mention the discussion of mental illness and surrounding stigma, presenting it as a simple and thoughtless dismissal of violence debates. Mention of Jenn Frank’s and Simon Parkin’s articles consist of little more than a snide dig at confessional writing, because an author’s personal experience with a game is basically worth- and meaningless. Details, details.
Another contender about how “Elizabeth” ruined the splendor of Bioshock: Infinite and not it’s simpleton mechanics and hardcore racism.
The statement can be read two ways, and it really says everything about how the piece chooses to represent others. Inserting his own opinion casually into the description, Kunzler almost makes it look as if our own Francisco Dominguez did not only not talk about the racism in Infinite (for other topics are not allowed or interesting), but actually argued in favor of it. Nevermind the racism and the mechanics, those do not bother us!
The argumentative leap of “You want to explore Colombia? Well why don’t you move there if you like it so much, you racist” is where this went off the straight and narrow last time, and it hasn’t gotten any more reasonable since then. I get it! I can understand the righteous fury, I was similarly bothered by Infinite‘s false equivalence, but there’s a difference between not talking about something in a particular piece, and failing to take it into account, neglecting it, or even tacitly endorsing it.
Yes, that is how it works on a systemic level, and if truly no piece anywhere showed any interest in discussing the racism in the game, that accusation would hold some water. But we’ve already established that isn’t the case. Hell, you can’t even go through the same damn publication without finding one that does raise the issue (not in much detail, no, but it’s there). “But this one might win an award for being well-written!” Is that really the basis of your argument there? This is why it represents the dominant ideologies of games criticism?
There is a discussion to be had there, for sure. About why big outlets don’t deal in politics often enough, or how they tend to mess up when they try. About why these other posts are not being read. Claims as to what all of games writing is or isn’t doing are too broad to be meaningful, and only tend to reveal a lack of consideration or nuanced argumentation. “You are all ignoring this issue!” Well you are ignoring all these texts.
Left 4 Dead and Telltale’s The Walking Dead are both featured in another piece up for the award, with not an ounce of criticism for the simplicity and lack of player agency in either.
Here we get a taste of that flawed assumption that the more critical, indicting or dismissive a piece is, the more intellectual or mature it automatically becomes. And, naturally, there is only one viable course for this endeavor. For Infinite, it was racism: Either you bring it up, or you fail to adequately discuss the game. Here, the lack of agency. Only one opinion allowed. Good criticism is getting to hear your own thoughts on a game.
This sort of makes sense in the for Infinite and similar cases: Not every dissenting view is a valid opinion. You might get to argue about how you were able to enjoy something despite certain issues, or how something did not bother you personally, but not always that something just isn’t, couldn’t possibly be, problematic.
But it’s ludicrous extend this to mechanical discussion or story analysis and just suggest, in general, that there is one correct assessment of a game, and criticism is a matter of finding that or failing.
To top it off, a piece about sexuality and romance in the comical Bioware lineup of games triumphs Mass Effect 3, a game where the spaceship AI of 2 becomes, a well, this… unsettling thing. A manifestation of male gaze brought to life, with Tricia Helfer’s voicework giving some abstract of humanity to this digital abomination.
I’m not entirely sure how one would reach that conclusion, seeing how the piece states rather explicitly its interest in discussing the inclusion of homosexual relationships in Bioware games, and not their portrayal of sexuality in general. Yes, these complaints of “You’re missing the bigger picture” can be valid. They can also go down the road of suggesting every article needs to cover every aspect of every problem, or, correction, the one aspect that has been deemed interesting.
Things, here, as everywhere are a little more complicated than that brief dismissal. Sure, the personification of EDI is not the most tasteful of turns in Mass Effect. I’d like to read an article about that, and likely it already exists somewhere. On the other hand “caters to men” isn’t an on/off switch or a simple box on checklist you tick, it happens on a scale, and I don’t think the game’s triumphs in one area are undone by the failures in others (though that is a matter of opinion). It’s certainly not that uncommon to view ME3 as on of the best examples of romantic inclusivity in triple A space, despite its flaws, and even though the actual romance consists just of cutscenes at the end of some dialogue tree.
There should be no awards for games journalism this year, as it has failed. Full-stop, as a whole, the mass of games criticism has failed the public in providing anything of critical value beyond the most superficial coverage.
The mass of games criticism, as consists here of a total of eight articles taken from an incomplete list. There’s using examples to discuss larger trends, and there’s oversimplifying and being grossly misrepresentative.
The critical voice of the medium as a whole remained a rarity, surrounded by hordes of “enthusiast press,” who were more concerned with getting out magazine on time and providing purchasing advice and not making waves than sticking up for their reader base.
I’m glad our apparent lack of critical ability makes us such a perfect example for this trend of yours, but dare I suggest that things are a little more complicated?
A few days ago, Tevis Thompson posted this essay on videogame reviews or, more accurately, the reception of Bioshock Infinite and yesterday it started going around in my Twitter bubble. I spread the link because I think the piece hits a lot of good notes and deserves to be read, and read in full. It follows up on early, controversial statements with an elaborate argument, and it seems pointless to address the former but not the latter, like Ian Miles Cheong, who took issue with its indictment of Infinite, and in the process repeated exactly the same argument about objectivity that Thompson covers a few paragraphs down (Ian also said other things, but the snap judgement of those few tweets struck me in particular). I was interrupted about halfway through the essay last night, and when I got back to it this morning, I found that most of my preliminary criticisms came up in some form.
This is not to say the piece is perfect, far from it, but it does appear to take into account every angle of the very large issue it covers (or most of them anyway). The conclusions it draws, that’s another matter. I’m not going to respond to everything in there, but there are a few things I’d like to get out, in exactly the kind of loosely unsorted blog post that he dislikes.
I don’t think I need to repeat that I was not at all smitten with Infinite. I agree with most of the points Thompson makes about the game: its failure at being political, its false equivalence, its flat diorama of a world, its boring gunplay. It’s not the worst game of the year for me, but I can see why you would call it that. It’s a philosophical disagreement: Are the very worst games the ones that are just absolutely, predictably terrible from start to finish, or the kind that might have been great, and then disappoint all the harder and make every critic bemoan “wasted potential”? Is a game that could barely be called functional the most torturous, or do you grow numb to its failings? Is a bit of hope necessary for real despair?
The latter seems more convincing to me. Why don’t I entirely despise Infinite then? I keep arguing that game experience can not neatly be separated into discrete elements and then analyzed piecemeal. Very poor politics, but the graphics are neat, so we’ll settle for five out of ten? These are interconnected systems, and failures in one area can spoil your enjoyment of triumphs in another. The crucial word in that sentence is “can”: not all of these systems are at work all of the time, and your perception of one’s importance over another is likewise fluctuating. I was able to find momentary enjoyment in Infinite, appreciating the beautiful craft of its environments, cutouts and dioramas or not, listening to the displaced pop song covers or incidental bits of dialogue. I was even excited by the shooting from time to time, even if what ultimately stuck in mind was the extent and amount of violence.
If I happened upon a copy of GTA V for whatever mysterious reason, I strongly suspect I would be bored by its main storyline, but might enjoy driving around the countryside, sightseeing, being lost in the world for a while. Both are then part of my experience. If I perceived one to be more important than the other and that’s what I’m more interested in talking about, fair play. This is exactly what I did when discussing the violence of Infinite. One part might overwrite the other in your head. Or it might not. I think this is something Thompson misses when he bellows to work out exactly what the game experience is and to describe that. What if it’s a game I love one moment and hate the next? It’s not unheard of two be of two minds about something. The essay suggests that only focusing on either extreme is valid and trying to balance both is the cowardly holdover from years of ticking boxes in a checklist and weighting scores. The game is either a one or a ten, not a five. I think all three options are valid. Opinions can not only be conflicting, they can also be, in themselves, conflicted. This is all part of subjectivity.
Speaking of scores, I’m uncomfortable with the way the essay essentializes numbers as part of the review process. Metacritic, on which the argument is based, is about as representative of Infinite‘s reception as its score is of the game, and focusing exclusively on “reviews” (defined by scores) is as myopic as trying to stay objective in the course of one. In such general essays, it is very easy to present the same selective perception you set out to criticize. Like Thompson, I recently wrote about the nonsense of Citizen Kane comparisons, but where his condemnation is universal, I tried to make mine specific, tied to all instances of the phrase. In big outlets, in my own magazine. I say “tried” because I’m not sure I defused the inherent irony of the argument: You complain about the reception of triple A games and focus only on triple A writing. If you want to talk about all of games writing, you’d better read all of games writing. Read Haywire, read Five out of Ten, read It’s Just A Game, read Kill Screen, read everything Critical Distance links every week.
Reviews on Metacritic are a specific data set. Reviews with numbers are a specific data set. They lend themselves well to quantitative analysis, but why let statistical mechanics determine the borders of your sample? If Thompson gets to caution us would-be reviewers not to mistake numbers for the main problem and to “use it as an excuse not to engage the review community where it lives” then I, likewise, need to remind him not to mistake scores for the solution, and to remember to engage us pretentious, scoreless folk. Oh I know, this essay is about reviews and we don’t do “reviews”. Well, I don’t accept that distinction. Here’s what he had to say about this kind of high-brow writing.
There are a couple problems with this, though. First, it plays up a division between reviewers and critics, one supposedly commercial and mainstream, the other more academic and higbrow. This leaves reviewers to comfortably churn out the same feeble game apologetics and the critics isolated in their own little community of like-minded folks. Second, the critics’ impressions are themselves insufficient. They are often too loose and bloggy (just some thoughts…) or too detached and meditative or prone to simply talking past reviewers. They observe, they analyze, they muse, sometimes passionately, but they rarely lower themselves to appraise. To evaluate comprehensively, and with force. To judge.
I can’t say I appreciate or understand the arbitrary lines that are drawn in this definition. When Meritt Kopas says that Gone Home shouldn’t be exceptional, but is, what is this if not a judgement? When I voice my complaints with A Machine for Pigs‘ story, am I not reviewing it? Did I lose my capacity for forceful evaluation because I talked about what the game is to me, instead of saying what it is, period? In that case, why do I need to dress up my opinion as fact for it to count, if we so value subjectivity? Would it become a review if I added a number? If I added the word to the title? If I’m allowed to focus on whatever is subjectively important to me, where does this sudden concern for formal criteria come from? Do I need to properly take everything into account after all? Is this a review?
The entire essay suffers from the understandable tension of using game review lexicon to discuss game reviews, but this is the point where “tension” turns into “dogmatical contradictions” for me. “Reviewers speak about videogames genres as if they’re well-established categories. They are not. They are in constant flux, and any supposed convention is up for debate.” it says (one paragraph before discussing Infinite in terms of first-person shooters). Why then the strict separation of criticism of reviews? Why are these terms salient? Why not challenge the conventions that this distinction is based on instead of upholding it? There is a strange set of dichotomies at work here: Videogame genres are eternally evolving, but genres of writing? Those rules are law. Present your own unfiltered views, address only what you are interested in, but don’t forget to condense everything into a score. Scores are meaningless, scores are essential. Scores are everything, scores are nothing.
What Thompson is arguing for, essentially, is the perfect fusion of reviews and criticism. Put more criticism in your reviews (this is something I’m all for). Do more reviewing in your criticism (less sure about that one). I’m not sure the forms can or should be married. If this is a “false divide”, as he later calls it, why do we need to bridge it? We already established that I consider his distinction between one and the other poorly constructed. Now to use it as an axis for solving the problem? You, less of this, you, more of that, until we achieve a perfect medium? As if the inverse of every extreme assumption made along the way must also be true? Observe how absurd this reveals itself to be in the conclusion: “We don’t have to choose between mechanics and politics. Reviewers must pay attention to both, and everything else besides, and score according to their criticisms.”
It all sounds well and good, until you consider exactly what this is calling for, and how it contradicts every statement about subjective focus. Is it that you need to be aware of everything, even as you decide to focus only on the important aspects? The essay does not express this. It says vaguely “do everything”. Politics and mechanics both? In the context of lengthy lamentations about the critical reception of Infinite and how none of these scored reviews properly dealt with its political aspects, it’s tempting to read this as “Add politics to your mechanical considerations”. And I agree, that seems like a good idea, politics are underrepresented in traditional reviews. But this is not what the essay says either. If reviewers need to pay attention to both, then it stands to reason that I ought to include mechanics in political analysis just the same as IGN ought to include politics in their mechanical discussion. Because these things are connected. But in what way? Certainly if the gunplay had not been in Infinite at all, my conclusions would have been different. But if the guns had merely been a little more exciting to me? If the number of repetitive encounters had been reduced? Would I have found the combat to be less jarring? How do you grade “jarring”, on a numerical scale?
Let me repeat that I share many of Thompson’s criticisms, about the broken review scale, about the way they deal with certain things, about objectivity, about expertise and the lack of non-fandom perspectives, but also about the enthusiastic tone high-brow criticism reserves for games that are a step in the right direction more so than genuinely impressive. But unsurprisingly for a piece hoping to solve every issue with game reviews ever, it makes some very sweeping claims and proposes some extreme measures. It establishes an arbitrary distinction between reviews and criticism, before calling that line it has used itself a false divide and setting out to fix both kinds of writing in combining them. What does criticism stand to gain in this, except to be accepted among the circle, his circle, of reviews? Stronger opinions and judgements, which I have never missed? Stricter formal criteria, which I don’t believe in? Numbers?
It all leaves me with more questions than answers.
To review yesterday’s events, partly because people might have missed the news and partly because the surreality of their rapid escalation made it hard to parse what exactly had just happened even if you were watching things unfold, Phil Fish, (in)famous of Indie Game: The Movie and Fez, clashed with Marcus Beer, better known as the “Annoyed Gamer” on Twitter after Beer had attacked the attitude taken by Fish during the rumors and announcement of Microsoft’s plans for independent publishing on the Xbox One.
Both Fish and Braid‘s Jonathan Blow had refused to comment on these issues and repeatedly criticized games media for obsessing and speculating on the matter before any real information was available. To Beer, the refusal showed the “self-styled kings of the indie genre” indignant about a perfectly reasonable request, while normally eager to use such opportunities for publicity. Fish responded poorly to his various insults, things went from bad to worse, and before long Fez 2 was cancelled as its creator decided to abandon the videogame industry over a history of abuse.
As with any spat between two popular figures on the internet, people have been eager to either pick sides or declare themselves above petty side-picking, observe that both parties are guilty of hurling insults and abuse and announce that thus both sides are responsible for the escalation. It’s true, of course, yet I personally find fault to be quite unevenly distributed in this case. After all, we are comparing the communicative mishaps and shortcomings of somebody whose job is to communicate, and somebody whose job is to make games.
If you want something to latch onto when slamming this opinion piece, let me provide by pointing out that I’m largely unfamiliar with Beer’s work and, on the other hand, am quite fond of Phil Fish. Not that I’ve been following him for long or have a strong opinion on his game – I only recently started playing Fez, after it was finally ported to this spreadsheet machine – but his return to Twitter seemed to me an endless storm of wonderful, righteous fury. From his writings on violence and racism in games, to criticizing games media for turning his tweets into “news” or lending a megaphone to the likes of Kevin Dent, he always seemed to be talking a lot of sense.
At any rate, I never understood why the guy draws as much hate as he does. Yes, he says silly things sometimes and no, he’s not always exactly nice, but then it’s not his cuddly personality I’m interested in. Mind you, I don’t subscribe to the cultish devotion to assholes Ben Kuchera showed recently. I don’t want to defend Fish’s tendency to lash out, nor do I believe it is part of some idiosyncratic creative process. I don’t even believe that personal matters such as these should be disconnected from somebody’s work in order to assess it “neutrally”. I strongly believe in ostracizing Orson Scott Card and Doug Tennapel for their homophobia, for instance.
But Fish showcases no such obvious, damning flaws. He seems to me simply a creative who just can’t seem to deal with his every word being put under scrutiny. The worst of his crimes are a sizeable ego, short fuse and poor filter, things I find refreshing more than anything else. He is disliked for not being humble and nice enough, as if he was obliged to be thankful to this industry for the praise and money it afforded him, as if it cancelled out the amount of abuse he got and continues to get.
Here’s an interesting exercise: Search for Phil on Twitter, click on “All” and watch the sheer amount of abuse that drifts by in between the occasional supporting tweet. No doubt the current amount of hate there has inflated because of his recent activity, but even getting a fraction of those messages seems overwhelming. Can you imagine getting having that many people insult you and your work every day. Because I can’t. But I can understand wanting, needing to deal with that somehow.
I’m not exactly happy with the way the discussion of the abuse that apparently led Fish to abandon the games industry is framed currently. It’s all about his inability to deal with what is only natural if you’re on the internet and “allowing” it to have power. Channeling the kind of meditative calmness of mind that allows you to ignore such comments is well and good, if you are able to summon that state, and the observation that random meanness is par for the course on the internet, doubly so in gamer circles, may be correct, but thus shifting the focus on the abused and their lack of a sufficiently thick skin, we also tacitly normalize the abusive behavior we should really be more interested in.
It may be an unfortunate reality for now, but I don’t think it should be seen as a necessary part of a game maker’s, or any kind of artist’s, job to deal with this kind of shit and be expected to remain civil and professional. It’s as if we are demanding that anybody with the guts to create something needs to be versed in the ways of professional PR, too. You realize this would (and does) severely limit our pool of available artists?
Here too, I see the comparison to Beer as inadequate. No doubt Beer gets his share of abuse, but then he signed up to be in the business of arguing and punditry, to remain a voice of reason in a sea of trolls. Where exactly in his job description does it say that Phil Fish needs to accept being yelled at by hundreds of people for taking too long delivering a game (as Dean Hall was, recently)? Why does he need to deal with being called a pisspot, wanker and asshole? Why, for that matter, do we keep around, let alone revere, a commentator whose shtick appears to be calling people such things?
Let me repeat that I don’t follow Beer’s career, but if this little stunt or even just his pen handle “Annoyed Gamer” are any indication, he pretty much epitomizes one of my problems with the games writing community: its struggle to separate people from their work, or else deal with that connection respectfully. We’ve come to appreciate this kind of foul-mouthed humor when applied to triple-a titles and conveniently distant and impersonal company faces, but things started going all sorts of wrong as the model of ‘new nasty’ was applied to more personal games or any notable developer. It’s unreasonable to assume, and silly to demand, that Phil Fish, being, despite his success, just one man, should respond to random online hate the way a bigger company and its employees would. It’s equally demented to think one can lambast personal games or writing (the work of Porpentine and Mattie Brice say) without also attacking the person standing behind it.
These creations and their creators deserve new standards and structures for respectfully engaging, interpreting, analyzing and, yes, criticizing both work and author. I’m not, as unapologetically abrasive pundits would suggest, talking about censoring any kind of tough questions to appease creatives. I will certainly continue to call out Jonathan Blow for trying to assert dictatorial control of the discourse surrounding his games, say. It can be achieved without calling him names, though.
All the current model achieves is create an environment in which anybody not “conventional” enough needs to earn their place by at least being tough, that is to say, willing to tolerate ample amounts of bullshit. About their one-man operation and personal tale taking too long or sucking. About having opinions on what a certain platform is best used for. About not wanting to comment on a nonexistent story. About simply being “different”: non-male, non-white, non-straight.
Maybe instead of asking that everybody and anybody ought to learn to keep up with and be able to withstand a system in which vitriol and hate are an unavoidable fixture, we could consider changing that system in order to produce less hurt? Maybe instead of wondering what it says about them that they were unable to cope and unwilling to stay (because of something that doesn’t seem that big a deal, based on the tiny shred us regular mortals need to extrapolate the experience of such universal negativity and contempt from), we should wonder what it says about us that we drove them away?
I could understand why Phil Fish didn’t always want to play nice. Given the way things are going, I can also understand why he doesn’t want to play with us at all.
Put on your party hats and treat yourselves to some cake, friends, it’s my birthday, the one day of the year I actually feel comfortable publishing personal updates on this blog type thing.
I’ll keep it short though, since the reminder of my rapid aging does not only collide with exam season this year, but also happens to fall on the most stressful weekday of all, and whatever the actual state of my comparatively young and healthy body, after half a night of restless unconsciousness, followed by early morning mental gymnastics, I certainly feel old.
The good news is that this exhaustion is the result of joyous productivity. I have nothing terribly interesting to report on my academic progress, other than there being some negligible amount thereof, but the amount of writing work I do has increased enormously since last year’s speculation about maybe launching a magazine of some sort.
That magazine has since become a real, if mostly negligible games writing presence, and if things once again miraculously fail to fall apart, our sixth issue (confusingly entitled Issue 5) will be going up on our new website on July 1st, delivering lots of interesting writing wrapped between custom cover art.
Since just managing one publication apparently left me with entirely too much sleep, I’ve also taken to scouring the internets for salvageable German games writing as senior foreign correspondent (curse this aging business) over on Critical Distance, providing some of the same as Rainer Sigl’s new love interest over on Video Game Tourism (which recently lead to this, aptly described by Haywire staff writer Francisco Dominguez as “germanic burble”) and most recently, lending an editorial hand to our local colleagues of the CGMag.
My new year’s depression over my unfulfilling relationship with freelance writing turned into a piece examining that relationship over on Unwinnable, some of my words on the Mass Effect 3 Ending(tm) might or might not end up in the next issue of a certain German videogame essay magazine and I recently got to help translate the developer commentary featured in the upcoming special edition of Mark of the Ninja. Now having some early pieces and a publication to my name, I will also try applying for a GDC Europe press pass and, should that actually come to pass, visit both that conference and the following GamesCom. If not, my birthday present to myself consists of summer reading material, the essential videogame literature from Anna Anthropy to Ian Bogost.
Only a few pesky exams left to sort out until then. I’ll let you know how it all went, precisely 365 days from now.
Picture, if you will, an empty street after a downpour, road and sidewalks dotted with little pristine mirrors of rainwater. Who, really, could resist breaking that calm perfection just to watch it ripple and splash around your foot? Well, if it wasn’t for the trials and tribulations of adult life at least. No doubt you’ve got somewhere to be, matters of grave importance to attend to, and no time to hop about and mess up your shoes. Not when you could avoid soggy legs by simulating that mesmerizing chain of action and reaction on your screen with Puddle, a physics platformer available for PC, WiiU, Xbox 360, PS3 and Vita.
Puddle‘s premise is as simple as it is bizarre: You play a godlike trickster with the power to distort the very fabric of reality and make a mockery of the laws of gravity, but for some reason you’ve also decided to A) limit yourself to tilting the entire world to the left or right ever so slightly and B) focus your attention entirely on moving a variety of liquids from A to B. Or at least such is my needlessly complicated rationalization of events, but I simply cannot skip an opportunity to introduce as the protagonist an assorted collection of fluids. Usually that’s what your enemies end up as: decorative splatter on some virtual wall.
The game’s arsenal ranges from simple water to oil, weed killer, fertilizer and a variety of fancy chemical solutions, and through your gentle nudges they’ll fuel one lengthy and complicated chain reaction spanning the entirety of Puddle. The simulation of liquids is nothing new to puzzle games at this point, particularly titles on tactile handheld devices such as iOs’ Where’s my Water? and, presumably, numerous similar games I am unaware of. Platformers have dealt in semiliquids before, Edmund McMillen for instance used them in Gish and Spewer (and arguably Binding of Isaac, for decorative purposes). Puddle combines elements of both by focusing, despite its countless switches and lasers, mostly on challenges of motion. It’s best defined as an indirect platformer, similar to WiiWare’s Fluidity but minus the jump button.
The goal, of course, is to conserve as much liquid as possible while navigating a variety of slopes, ramps and environmental hazards and despite the concessions of an entirely frictionless and hydrophobical environment, this is an arduous task at best. As bodies of water are wont to do, your little blob tends to spread out on even surfaces and it’s nigh impossible to work out the ideal timing for tilting the other way when part of your protagonist has yet to enter a turn, part of it is already hurtling towards the next obstacle and part of it is converging on itself in a corner. Apart from being imprecise, the indirect controls also require you to plan in advance, as you cannot respond immediately to new developments. This turns many levels into exercises in memorization, asking you to work out where to gather and where to reduce momentum in order to be ready for what’s just about to appear on screen.
None of this would really matter in a cheerful, simple game, but strangely this is not the tone Puddle adapts, pitching itself instead in introductory text boxes as a an intricate challenge, where only the tough need apply. The game does not require extreme precision mind, but it also seems to belittle you for less than immaculate results. Of its two difficulty settings, Normal and Impossible, only the latter awards actual medals as opposed to chocolate coins, while the former allows you to “Whine and Skip” a few levels over the course of the game.
If I don’t seem genuinely upset by this, it’s mostly because Puddle simply isn’t the game one would afford an abundance of emotion to begin with. It’s an entertaining little distraction, even occasionally charming in its presentation, but mostly it’s safe. Harmless. It passes time, fills space, kills hours. Momentarily sating but easily forgotten, it will not stick in mind one way or another. Ultimately, it’s just something of a dry experience.
A little while ago Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Schankler released Depression Quest, a little piece of interactive fiction covering the titular disorder that has since been running the indie circuit and generally been showered with praise for its smart writing and thoughtful depiction of mental health issues without “Woe is me!” drama.
The game puts you in the shoes of a depressed, but otherwise perfectly ordinary and largely undefined twentysomething with a nonspecific job, nondescript personal side-project and relatively specific significant other named Alex. Like most interactive fiction Depression Quest is based around a series of choices that sends you from one bit of text to the next, but the clever twist in this case is that the most desirable options – being the life of the party, setting ambitious goals and working hard to achieve them, eloquently telling your girlfriend how much you care about her or simply falling asleep – are greyed out to illustrate the motivation issues, lack of drive and general feeling of powerlessness and loss of control that come with severe depression.
The deeper your character sinks into depression the more options are taken away from you, until only the very worst remain, but what’s interesting is that it’s not necessarily a good idea to just pick the most sociable, upbeat or outgoing option currently available to you. They might improve your work performance or some relationship slightly, but also tend to drain your character’s spirit, which could lock other options down the line. Depression Quest encourages you to be conservative with what little motivation is left to you and use it at the right of times, even if it means being a little selfish to protect yourself.
I caught those vague hints before I sat down to play it and the result was that my first try ended up being awkward, but also very controlled and optimistic, probably the closest thing Depression Quest has to a “good” playthrough, even if that word sells the experience a bit short. That leaves me with a unique worry: I think I might have failed Depression Quest by doing well at it.
Let’s take a step back. If you’ve been here before you might already have noticed that I’m something of a pensive, brooding introvert, and self-deprecating to a fault. I’m probably not depressed, but the possibility is something I’ve contemplated before (like virtually any possibility), most recently when the arrival of 2013 somehow managed to throw me off track for weeks, and parts of Depression Quest feel a little uncomfortably familiar. Here’s how it introduces the protagonist, sans job/project/girlfriend description.
You are a mid-twenties human being. [...]
You are also dealing with motivation issues that sometimes make dealing with these things difficult. You feel like this is probably your fault, and on bad days can feel inwardly angry and down on yourself for being “lazy”, but you’re not quite sure how you can break out of it, or how other people deal with these feelings and seem so very functional.
You spend a lot of nights fixating on thinking about this, but never seem to do anything about it other than lose sleep.
Of course the game is being deliberately vague and including to speak to such maybe/maybe not cases as myself, but still, this is a little too accurate for my taste. Afternoons spent very pointedly doing nothing while beating yourself up over the fact. Nights spent rolling around restlessly, mind racing. Waking up hours before your alarm and not being able to go back to sleep. Telling somebody not to worry about you while half-faking a smile. I know all of this.
Despite narcissistic blog posts devoted to the subject, I still maintain that I’m not depressed, but that’s partly because there’s simply no definite, conclusive proof, no cannot-deny-this-one event to show that I am. Earlier in life I was unsure of how exactly a migraine differed from a regular old headache, then I suffered through one. Everything I had known so far was low, dull aches, constant but slight discomfort. This was searing, hot, pulsing needles of pain, like the inside of my skull being on fire (There was other fun stuff, too, like vomiting and severely blurred vision. Fortunately it has been a singular experience so far). This has probably changed my perception of such matters: If whatever it is I have leaves any room for doubt, it’s probably not the real deal anyway.
Perhaps that’s not the right way to look at it though. Perhaps these things exist in various shades of grey (not 50 though) and maybe whatever-it-is being no big issue doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. But then what am I to make of getting through Depression Quest so easily, the game that sent me down this line of thought again? It might have involved making choices I’d never consider for myself, like therapy and medication, but the overall “good” path felt familiar anyway. If I can do this well without help, certainly I don’t really need it. Is being equipped to deal with whatever-it-is not just as good as actually dealing with it?
After letting that first try sink in for a while, I felt guilty that I had not been entirely truthful with the game and went back to make some very poor, and some very realistic choices. The result was a downward spiral that, fortunately, felt far too bleak and gloomy to bear any relation to my actual experience facing those problems. I started clicking through things without reading. This was not me.
Depression Quest has given me a lot to mull for such a brief experience. I still don’t know what’s going on inside my head, but I know that I’m probably fine.
Recently freelance journalist Nate Thayer published an exchange between himself and Olga Khazan, editor at The Atlantic, the jist of which being that The Atlantic wanted Thayer to adapt a recent piece for publishing on their site. Normally this would be joyous news, but unfortunately they wanted him to do it for free, offering only “exposure” in exchange for his work (this being doubly confusing since The Atlantic, print edition, seems to have offered him no less than $125,000 for a series of six articles not so long ago). Naturally Thayer, who has to make a living writing journalism, declined this offer, but by going on to put it on his blog started something of a discussion on the work conditions of writing on the internet, and these are by nature endlessly interesting to me. I would like this to be a source of income eventually, and means contemplating whether the business structures I’m hoping to get into are in any way viable.
The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal responded to Thayer with a lengthy piece detailing why the site needs to rely on such scummy methods to stay in business. It’s an interesting read if you got the time, but if you don’t Alan Williamson kind of hit the nail on the head in summarizing it as “a tacit admission that ad-supported digital journalism isn’t sustainable”. Just from a purely idealistic perspective, ads aren’t the best basis for (games) journalism because this system means outlets are financially dependent on the very industry they should be policing, rather than the readers they are serving. The games industry is generally too fragmented to use that marketing muscle to enforce much of anything, and games writing is too fragmented to be conveniently bullied, but even if these conflicts of interest are solved with integrity, it would be better yet if they weren’t there in the first place.
But even from business perspective ads are less than ideal. A few days after Thayer’s piece, popular gaming site Destructoid revealed that as much as 50% of their readers block ads. Even if the site is still up and running for now, that’s a lot of money they (and most ad-supported sites) are missing out on. The question is, how do you go about lowering that number? I refrain from using Adblock on moral grounds, since in our current model lending them my attention for a few seconds is the way of paying for otherwise free content, but I can definitely see why others would use it. Ads are annoying, some obnoxiously so. They have the same basic problem as DRM in that they inconvenience those trying to support you, while those breaking the social contract get the superior experience. I’m not here to rail against ads though. I’m writing this because I feel a bit guilty.
Sorry guys, people are willing to do your job for free. Maybe not to the same standard but they’ll always be free press and accountability on the internet regardless of whether people are paid to do it.
My hobby is video gaming, reading about them on sites is a nice extra but nothing that I couldn’t do without.
I might seem like an arsehole but it’s the truth.
The thing is, none of the gaming websites need to exist. We have intelligent redditors and bloggers in the wild that are passionate about talking about video games that don’t need ad revenue; since they write about games as a hobby.
Some of the gaming journalists do a decent job, but I’m not going to lament their extinction either. There will always be passionate fans that will fill the gaming discussion void for free.
I’ve long been writing about games as a hobby. More recently I’ve started a magazine filled entirely by the unpaid contributions of other amateurs, which is quite a bit of effort even for enthusiast press. And despite my best intentions I might be making matters worse.
We might not be a big site, but there are many other gaming blogs out there, and between them they draw quite a lot of attention away from conventional gaming sites. Less traffic means even less ad revenue, so people writing for free are part of the reason sites can’t afford to pay their writers reasonably. At the same time, people writing for free are the reason The Atlantic and ilk are expecting the same from their writers. After all, when somebody is willing to “do your job for free”, it’s hard to explain why you should be paid for it.
Let me be very clear in saying that I don’t support this. I don’t support the death of big game sites (well, not most of them anyway), nor do I think that “accountability” and “free press” are things that should be left in the hands of hobbyists (even as a hobbyist). I don’t say this because I’d like big sites to stay around for me to land a paid gig on and I’m not saying it because I think a paycheck legitimizes your work. I’m saying it because I think good writing deserves to be rewarded, and because this is the only way to ensure quality. Hobbyists are passionate, sure, but that’s not quite the same as being financially obligated to deliver the good stuff. I’ve said earlier that I don’t think it’s ideal that games writing is financially dependent on the industry it covers, and as you might have guessed that means I’d like for the readers to step up and fund it themselves. And obviously they should be paying the ones offering the best service.
There’s a reason I’m not sorry about running an amateur magazine, even if it does indirectly make it harder for big sites to keep up their current business model. Here’s the thing about amateur writers: We’re readers too. It’s pretty much a prerequisite for the job, and most of us soak up writing like word sponges. If, under the current model, people with such a hunger, such an insatiable craving for words are your enemies and not your customers, it should be obvious something is going wrong and you will have to change.
I have three predictions for things you’ll see more often as people try to move away from relying entirely on ads, though they are in part based on things I’d like to see over things that seem most likely.
Subscriptions, Tip Jars, etc.
This one’s kind of obvious, basically any option that allows your readers to pay you directly. The benefit of a subscription model is that you can offer an actual incentive for people to support you through bonus content, instead of punishing the people indirectly supporting you with annoying ads. On the other hand, if you do have awesome bonus content, maybe making it available for everyone could draw more people to your site. A simple tip jar could work as well. Destructoid is considering the former option in response to its ad woes, Rock Paper Shotgun and Unwinnable use the latter.
Perhaps I’m uniquely attentive when it comes to these because it’s what Haywire does too, but .pdf magazines seem to be in vogue again. Kill Screen does one once every blue moon, Five out of Ten recently published their second issue, Continue continues to be a thing, even if their Kickstarter is going wrong (and I hate to be smug about my cynicism, but I called that one), Nintendo Force has yet to follow up on their inaugural issue, but will probably get to ride the Nintendo Power wave for quite a while. My own favorite punching bag Pure Nintendo still seems to turn a profit and I honestly couldn’t tell you why. The benefit of this model is that you get to sell an actual product. It’s more direct than paying for some service, people get a tangible something in exchange for their money and with some luck they like that something and will be back for more.
While Five out of Ten, Continue and Nintendo Force seem to be doing well enough offering only this, in my opinion it works best in supporting a traditional online presence. The free content on your site gives some impression of what readers can expect in the magazine while also building an audience and hopefully endearing your writers to them. Make the magazine exclusive content if you like, or a kind of prettied up collection of your best stories. Basically I could see this working as the equivalent of web cartoonists selling t-shirts or prints. And while we’re on that subject…
Print returns, with a twist
In a sense we inherited this whole ad issue from print media. There being no detailed metrics for how many people actually read ads in newspapers or magazines, agencies basically paid depending on their circulation, which is to say how many people they sold copies to. So for a long time it was good business to sell your newspaper for cheap in order to reach as many people as possible. Of course, that changed when the internet offered a way to get the news that wasn’t just cheap, but practically free. But one thing newspapers had achieved in the meantime is to condition society at large to consider print something cheap, something of little actual value that is meant to be discarded after (partial) use.
I think print is likely to return, but as the exact opposite of what it previously was: a luxury product. An expensive upgrade for people who want more than just the digital edition, the ultimate collector’s edition for word geeks like myself, who want something to put on their bookshelf. Kill Screen’s success suggests there is a market for it (and I am part of it). It shouldn’t be the only thing you offer, but as an optional upgrade for digital magazines it could well work.
All these ideas depend on the good will of readers, and while the previous comments from Reddit show that not everybody might value games writing enough to pay for it, I do believe that enough people are. Certainly the success of crowdfunding shows that people are willing to support good projects with money. Perhaps they only need a reminder that journalism is worth paying for, too.