Bioshock's success lies largely on a need the industry had at the time: to be taken seriously. We were at the peak of our "where's our Citizen Kane?" output, and then, suddenly, along came Bioshock, talking about Ayn Rand and then partaking in the medium's deconstruction. Suddenly, we were legitimate, and nobody recognized that; to be honest, the tenor of discussion about this games-as-art or journalism-as-serious-business or any number of related discussion has shifted. Now it's... well, it's angry.
Today, it got a bit angrier than normal.
As someone who recently started getting into the whole 'games journalism' thing, perhaps criticizing games journalism is a bad career move. I rest safe in the knowledge that I'm probably never going to be good enough to be a professional, and that my current plans for a dual major in journalism and film can be coupled with my degree in game design in many fields, not just games journalism. It's not that I don't intend on being diplomatic; it's just that the... sheer level of arrogance and anger bursting into my Twitter feed makes me think that people in games journalism are a lot pettier than they have any real need to be.
It starts with this piece. Read it, because that's where all this started.
Warren Spector, one of the most influential voices in video gaming (his work with Looking Glass, Origin, and Ion Storm Austin influences some of our biggest), has been doing a column. His latest topic was about games criticism and journalism, best summed up with the idea that, of all the gaming journalists and the efforts they've made, "none have quite broken through to the mainstream consciousness."
The reaction to this article was... a bit different than one might expect. My Twitter feed is bloated with complaints and sneers and criticisms and angry and sarcasm right now. Instead of going "yeah, Spector's right; we should permeate the public consciousness in the same way that Kael, Maltin, Ebert, or any of the other critics he mentioned have," the response has been "Screw Spector and Ebert, we don't need to be like them!"
I can't claim to know the minds of everyone protesting, but the impression I have is this: it's anger at the thought of being delegitimized. We were so eager to matter that when games like Bioshock or Uncharted 2 came along, we glommed onto them and wouldn't let go, even when they didn't deserve the love we gave them. We're so invested in this idea of legitimacy that we've chosen to attack anyone who doesn't play along.
Spector said "hey, we can do better! We can be a part of the public discourse about our medium! We can, and should, be better than we are," and instead of going "yeah! That's a great goal," the games press seems to have almost universally attacked not only him, but the wonderful examples he cited.
Games journalists in my twitter feed are so busy complaining that games just aren't all that much like film that they're missing the point. It's not about the form of the criticism, but the function. Ebert was published globally, in newspapers everywhere; on Wikipedia, he is the most commonly-cited film critic in any given film's "Reception" section. At The Movies made criticism not only accessible, but understandable in a way that film criticism really hadn't before.
The function of the people mentioned by Spector is in the way they contributed to the public, mainstream discourse. Games media, conversely, is largely enthusiast press; it's written by enthusiasts and targeted to other enthusiasts. With few exceptions, it can prove a challenge to the average person—the customer who buys games but does not frequent video game websites or publications—to understand, or even appreciate, why they should buy or value the games they want.
This should not be insulting. It is simply the way things are: we aren't all that great at proselytizing our medium to those who aren't as invested as we are.
But... there's a bit more than that, and this... this is going to get a bit hurtful, I fear.
The dialog surrounding video games is fucking awful. I'm not talking about all the usual suspects—claims of regurgitated press releases or paid-off reviews that paranoid commenters love to talk about—I'm talking about the quality of intelligent discussion about video games as a whole.
I began this piece suggesting that Bioshock might not be the work of brilliance it's made out to be, so, in case I've failed to make that clear: Bioshock is not the work of brilliance it's made out to be (and here's why). Actually, a rather significant amount of critically acclaimed games are nightmares, not only from a narrative standpoint, but a mechanical one as well.
Some of the discourse around these games seems to evolve, not from being paid off, but simply reviewing them as quickly as possible and not really playing the games in the same way that a paying customer would. Game reviews feel rushed—one prominent reviewer, for instance, tweeted last fall about playing something like four AAA games in the course of a week, which was nowhere near enough time to properly digest and analyze them.
Other discourse comes from pretentious YouTube personalities who are so interested in sticking it to the man that they make erroneous, often hilariously bad assumptions about various things. Some are simply so dedicated to the personality they've crafted that being Angry and Complaining About Things overwhelms the need for valid points and intelligent discussion.
Then you've got the people who think they're a lot better about saying smart things than they really are, making absurd points entirely divorced from reality (one very well known and frequently-lauded critic has essayed, among other things, about how Skyrim's story was bad because "Jarl" wasn't a word, even though it is). They're the equivalent of writers of Literary Fiction, writing things that are beautiful on the surface, but devoid of any real intelligence or thought (I may not write beautifully enough to make it into The New Yorker, but I can tell you why Skyrim's narrative fails with relative ease). An art teacher of mine once related to me the story of a teacher of his who attempted to explain a famous painting as being a work of communism, citing a physically impossible element of the image (a reflection in a mirror) as proof. My teacher finished the story by saying "to me, it was clear that he had done it because it made for a better composition. And also the fact that he wasn't a communist." These kind of people seem to be more interested in fellating one ideal and damning another than criticizing a work based on its own merits.
There is so much more I wish I could say about this, but I don't want to name names.
A large number of people in games journalism seem to be just... abysmal at understanding the medium they're writing about, and some seem even worse at genuine critical thinking, even some of our most praised writers. Sure, they may wax eloquent, but writing beautifully doesn't really mean anything if there's no substance behind the writing. Most games writers seem to be people who can write pretty well, but have no real background in games or narrative aside from the fact that they're hobbyists; they're fans who can write nicely and often little more than that.
It's not to say I hate everybody in the industry. First off, there are some brilliant writers out there. Secondly, some of the people I'm complaining about I actually enjoy. They're not all incompetent shitsacks; some write too quickly. Others are good at, say, writing about the people who develop games, and not so much at reviewing those games. Some are too quick to insert themselves into their stories, but others aren't quick enough.
Well... the discourse surrounding games just isn't good enough. There aren't enough people doing games writing and criticism on the level of writers like Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael; there aren't enough people dedicated to the idea of making this medium as accessible as humanly possible. Instead of saying "NO, WE DON'T WANT TO BE LIKE THEM, BECAUSE THEY'RE FROM A DIFFERENT MEDIUM!" we should be embracing their noblest goals—that of sharing the medium they love with as many people as possible.
"Bonnie and Clyde" brings into the almost frighteningly public world of movies things that people have been feeling and saying and writing about. And once something is said or done on the screens of the world, once it has entered mass art, it can never again belong to a minority, never again be the private possession of an educated, or "knowing," group. But even for that group there is an excitement in hearing its own private thoughts expressed out loud and in seeing something of its own sensibility become part of our common culture."
Pauline Kael said that in her review of Bonnie and Clyde, and I think it's incredibly poignant in light of this current discussion. Ought we not to experience excitement at the notion that we can share our passions with others?
I'm tempted to end the piece here, but, hey, I'm not getting paid for this, so it's not like this needs to be perfection. Besides, I'm getting the impression, on rereading this, that someone, somewhere, is going to say "hey, fuck you, man, if you're so fucking invested in trying to get this shit out there, then why the fuck don't you do it yourself?" So, hey, let me get a bit more raw here and
When I write, I write because I want to share the joy I have. I want to share the knowledge I've gained in consuming hundreds of GDC talks, and years of modding and tweaking my games. I want to talk about the things nobody else seems to be noticing, whether that means praising the very specific audio choices that Rockstar made in Red Dead Redemption, resurrecting sound effects from the Westerns of the 50s and 60s, or condemning Ubisoft's writers in Assassin's Creed III for assuming that highlighting the bad side of people is mature writing. I want to see more people write about PC games—most journalists, it seem, are more interested in the games they grew up with (which are generally console games) than the astonishingly diverse medium and styles of development they missed.
And I can't.
I'm not a very good writer; my teachers may insist I should write professionally, but I've only managed to sell two articles so far, and the second one had about half its contents removed by my editor (and in doing so, she made it better, which seems to be proof positive that I'm not as good as I wish I was). One essay that I'm really proud of (in part because one of the best journalists in the field, out of the blue, contacted me on Twitter and helped me polish it!) will likely never see the light of day, as it's still apparently not good enough for publication (the journalist thought it was; two editors disagreed, and I fully understand their reasoning).
It's more than that, of course. I just graduated with a degree in game design, and now I'm transferring schools. I live at the poverty line—most of my time is spent at work, making next to nothing, or at home, dealing with some severe health problems. I've been asked to submit a couple pieces to some pretty big sites, but I've been so busy dealing with deaths and weddings and graduations and moving and trying to find more work and trying to deal with my health that, honestly, I can barely find the time to just rest and recuperate. If I had a better-paying job and not so many stressors in my life, I could write and submit those articles, and I'd probably manage to sell a one or two, but not enough to—and yeah, I'm being corny here—be the change I wish to see in the world.
I'd love to see our medium filled to the brim with its own Kaels and Bangs and Tarkovskys, and, yes, Eberts. I'd love to see a great big public discourse where gaming is a public discourse. I'd love to see criticism that is significantly sharper and more intelligent than the pabulum it seems we so often get today. I'd love to help, somehow.
Where is our Ebert?
Because we really do need one.