The Best Games Writing of 2008: Part 1
Sometimes we’ll decide to go to the cinema on the spur of the moment. While the decision to leave the house in search of a story is often a snap one, deciding what we’re actually going to watch rarely is.
Like most mature cinemagoers, we like to think that we’re more interested in seeking out quality than merely gravitating towards a certain genre or the names involved in a film. But, as we don’t follow the film press, who’s to know what is and isn’t good or interesting?
Our time is precious these days so we can’t afford to take a gamble and semi-randomly pick a film based on little more information than the name and reputation of its director, actors or the size of its marketing spend.
So, to guide our decision we’ll visit Metacritic, the review score aggregator for films, books, music and videogames, and scan the score summaries. Nine times out of ten we’ll then go to watch the top-rated film currently showing, basing our decision almost entirely on the wisdom of the critical crowd.
Film criticism for us, at this stage in the process, has a purely utilitarian role: it is there to direct our purchasing decision and no matter how perspicacious the critic’s prose, all we care about is the score at the end. It’s this number that will dictate how we spend our £12 when we arrive at the cinema.
While we bitch and moan about those game publishers who put too much stock in Metacritic averages, giving their staff bonuses based on review averages and so on, it’s difficult to deny that these sites have a powerful influence over how mainstream gamers spend their money.
Scores do matter, their influence on the economics of gaming clear and important, and as videogame critics, we must be aware that our work very often performs a simple and functional role in directing consumers’ purchases.
But there is more to the story. On the way home from the cinema, fat with popcorn and regret, we talk about what we’ve just seen. We discuss the movie’s strengths and weaknesses, what we liked and disliked, the ways in which it moved us, bored us, inspired us and made us sad, thoughtful, joyful or cross. If we are aware of the director’s earlier work we talk about where the film sits in that oeuvre. We discuss the soundtrack, the cinematography and the depth and breadth of the scriptwriting. Was the dialogue believable? Did the colour grading of the film stock enhance or distract from the experience?
How did the movie speak into our lives, resonate with our hopes and fears? What did it say to us and about us?
Then, when home, I revisit Metacritic, now ignoring the scores underneath the film’s entry, instead clicking through to the critics’ words where I spend the next hour or two comparing their thoughts to my own, often gaining a new and interesting perspective on what I’ve just seen. The deeper questions only become of interest to me after I’ve experienced the film myself, when I want the critic to articulate my feelings, when I want to share in some discourse, preferably with an expert.
Criticism does matter, its influence on the development of gaming clear and important, and as videogame critics, we must be aware that our work very often performs a complex role in directing consumers’ and developers’ opinions.
This is the dual role of the critic: to provide dry, buyer’s guide recommendations before a purchase, and enlightening perspective following it, often (frustratingly for the writer) within the self same piece. And beyond mere reviews, we want to read about the stories that surround our films and games, the personalities that create and execute them, their own triumphs and disasters, hopes and failings.
Here is a collection of my favourite writing about games from the past year. Whatever its primary purpose, I think it’s all good, enjoyable and entertaining writing. Thank-you to those who nominated pieces on the site last month both in the comments and over e-mail. Some of your choices are represented here. As I said this time last year, writers working out of this niche (one that’s currently nestled in an unsightly wrinkle of entertainment/arts journalism, and also something that every kid with an internet connection and a Gameboy thinks he could do better), rarely receive praise when they do something well.
In no particular order, these are people who did something well and this is me applauding.
Date: 12th May, 2008
Publication: The Guardian
Author: Charlie Brooker
Brooker is a curmudgeonly British national newspaper columnist, TV writer and presenter. His primary subject matter as a columnist is whatever it is that has made him cross on a particular week. However, as he admits in this piece for The Guardian, he cut his teeth at Dennis Publishing writing about videogames.
The purpose of the article is standard fare for game writers who are given a wider platform on which to talk about their hobby: defending against the medium’s ill-informed detractors, in this case MP Keith Vaz. But the dry-wit tone is unusual. In particular, Brooker’s description of how the wider world views game writers as “essentially grown men reviewing Mr Men books” is my favourite line of the year.
“The one thing everyone knows about Grand Theft Auto is that you can kill prostitutes in it. That’s because it’s a “sandbox” game in which you can kill anyone you like. Or you can not kill them. Or you can simply drive around slowly, obeying the traffic lights. If you break the law and the in-game police spot you, they’ll hunt you down and nab you. Murdering innocent people is neither a) encouraged, b) free of consequence, or c) any more realistic than a Tex Avery cartoon. Nonetheless, Keith Vaz MP is probably standing on his roof screaming for a ban right now, confidently telling the world’s press that Grand Theft Auto IV is a dedicated, ultra-realistic prostitute-murdering simulator aimed exclusively at easily corruptible three-year-olds.
He means well, possibly. But he’s ignorant. The irony is that every time I read some dumb anti-gaming proclamation by Vaz and co, I get so angry I have to fire up GTA IV and shoot 29 pedestrians in the face just to vent the frustration they’ve caused. Thank God these games exist, or I would be taking it out on real people.”
An honourable mention goes to Mitch Krpata for this piece in The Boston Phoenix on the same subject. It trades Brooker’s irreverence for a more serious defense of gaming’s right to free speech and a fair trial. Each approach is wholly distinct but both are effective.
If Gamers Ran the World
Date: November, 2008
Publication: Infovore/ Nottingham Game City
Author: Tom Armitage
Of course, gamers will run the world, soon enough. A report last month revealed that over half of all gamers are now adults and 97% of American teenagers regularly play videogames. Heck, even Obama has a Pacman sticker on his Apple laptop.
Nevertheless, Armitage’s overview of the things that games (yes, even those beyond Sim City) teach us so very effectively through play is inspirational, as is his final call to action: that gamers needn’t just create better games with the skills they’ve picked up, they could even make a better world with them.
So what does a future run by gamers look like? Well, if they can handle complexity, and they’ve stocked up all the magic item chests ready for when scarcity hits, and they’ve failed enough times at the low-stakes games that they know they can make it at the high-stakes ones, and if our environment is one carefully planned out for effective growth rather than rammed together for efficiency, and if they understand how to handle the ever-more complex forms of communications necessary to deal with the large, distributed teams of people necessary to understand complexity – and if they can create a world that supplies and consumes the data necessary to make smart, informed, decisions – then they might just make it awesome.
No-one would ever tell us that games were a waste of time. No-one would ever mention SimCity again.
And even if we don’t get that, maybe a fraction of that will trickle through, that’s still a start. Games are wonderful things, and people who get games are wonderful people, but they don’t just have to make more games, you know. You could change the world.
Tell Me What Art Is and I’ll Tell You What Games Are
Date: 14th September, 2008
Publication: Magical Wasteland
The “Are Games Art?” debate is as tiresome as it is worn, but this piece by Magical Wasteland’s author, known to readers only as Matthew, makes for compelling reading. He argues that, to viewers, videogames are judged purely on their spectacle, the lighting and 3D models and textures that communicate the game’s reality.
But to a player these visual elements soon become largely irrelevant, as the player begins to converse in the language of the underlying systems. Matthew asks that we recognise and celebrate those games that succeed in marrying both the spectacle and the underlying innovation, the explicit and the implicit, most highly.
It has become a recognized cliché in these kinds of conversations to ask, “have games had their Citizen Kane yet?” It’s not as if the moment Citizen Kane was released, everyone suddenly decided that the medium of film was serious and important and the next great art form. But I think there’s a reason we have been speaking in terms of Citizen Kane and not, for example, Un Chien Andalou. While both are important milestones in the history of the medium, Citizen Kane is accessible and easy to like. It synthesized much of what was known about filmmaking up to that point into a coherent whole. It married technical innovations with a good story. It showed that a film could be high and low, art and spectacle, serious and entertaining all at once. A medium that can deliver all of that in one package is a great medium indeed.
Time Extend: Luigi’s Mansion
Date: 6th December, 2008
Publication: Edge Magazine (reprinted online)
Edge Magazine’s Time Extend section is without rival, the strongest regular series of game criticism in contemporary publishing*. Every month the magazine publishes a long-form article that takes a fresh look at a long-released title. Very often the games examined are familiar but not considered classics in the canon. The article draws out what is interesting and significant about the release, often inspiring its reader to go back and play through the game with fresh eyes. By stepping out of the endless hype-release cycle, Time Extends have room to be more considered and mature than up to the minute reviews. Time and distance is important, two things that game journalism rarely affords its subject matter. This month’s critique of the GameCube’s Luigi’s Mansion is a prime example.
*Disclosure: I’ve written a few, but not this one, obviously.
It’s fitting that Luigi’s Mansion should have such a preoccupation with mirrors, given the game’s determination to invert practically all the traditions people expect from a Mario Bros title.
In almost every room of this haunted house, you’ll come across some variation on a reflective surface, flipping the environment back to front, as the game itself turns your preconceptions on their heads. To put it more clearly, try all you want to but you won’t be able to jump in Luigi’s Mansion.
In fact, that first stab at the A button will give you nothing more than the sound of Luigi shouting his brother’s name – calling out to a familiar hero in a world in which nothing works quite the way it used to any more.
Luigi’s Mansion may seem like a mirror-world twin to the subsequent instalment, Super Mario Sunshine, both sharing backpack gimmicks, a preoccupation with cleaning and an uncharacteristic focus on a more realistic setting (and it says a lot about the Mushroom Kingdom that you can call ghost houses and ice-cream-covered islands realistic).
Life After the Videogame Crash
Date: October, 2008
Author: David Wong
I prefer the thinking to the execution in this ostensibly lighthearted piece that prophesies a forthcoming 1980′s-style videogame crash, but nevertheless, it’s the kind of writing that slips down easily. Wong’s snarky tone partially obscures the robust thinking: that gaming’s inability to offer new experiences to the ones we’ve been consuming for the past ten years will eventually strangle an industry that, whether we like it or not, relies heavily on innovation (or perhaps more accurately, the appearance of innovation) and gimmick.
His conclusions would look more wild-eyed if it weren’t for the disparity between traditional console sales with those of Nintendo’s gimmick-heavy Wii. Also notable is Stuart Campbell’s response to the article, which can be read here. Together they offer much food for thought.
Let’s say Sony and Nintendo and Microsoft came out tomorrow and announced they were cancelling their next-gen systems. I don’t know why, maybe there’s a plague or something. How long would you keep playing your current game machine? Forever? As long as good games were coming out for it?
History says otherwise. History says that you’d eventually get bored with the machine even if there wasn’t a better one to replace it.
It sounds crazy, and it took everybody quite by surprise the first time the game industry crashed in the early 80′s. Back then the Atari 2600 was king, it being the first really popular game console. They sold 25 million machines when suddenly, inexplicably, most people stopped playing games.
Nobody was more surprised than Atari, who in 1983 spent millions bringing their biggest title to market, a game based on the movie ET (at the time it the highest-grossing film in history). So they had the most popular film, in a game for the most popular system. What could go wrong? They stamped out seven million copies of the game, and then were shocked to find that about six million of them sat untouched on store shelves. Legend has it that the unsold games wound up buried in a landfill and that to this day, no plants will grow over that spot.
Part 2 follows on here.