Thursday, December 11, 2008
Louder than Words
The interwebs have been having a big stir of game journalists coming together to create better standards and a proper language for discussing games. Shawn Elliott is hosting an epic e-mail exchange of the biggest names in the business, inviting them all to participate in the debate. About a year ago, Greg Costikyan observed a very similar gathering at the GDC. Except he made an observation that Elliott’s list seems to be missing: journalists are not the same thing as critics. Pauline Kael (whom you can read about my mixed feelings for below) was not a film journalist. Her editor did not expect her to report the latest gossip. Her readers did not read her because they wanted to know the latest scoop on the next big film. They read her for criticism.
How is that different from journalism? Well, there are a variety of arguments you could make but chiefly the distinction is analysis. A journalist doesn’t really analyze anything, they report facts. A person reading a newspaper isn’t really interested in what the journalist thinks, they want to know what’s going on, who said what, and how it relates back to them. Analysis, as defined by the ever-trusty dictionary.com, is “a philosophical method of exhibiting complex concepts or propositions as compounds or functions of more basic ones.” That’s number 4 but they basically all mean the same thing.
Naturally, all of the journalists on that list are capable of analysis. Some of them mix a little bit into their work when no one is looking, others appreciate it like a fine wine and praise it when they see it. Some of them engage in it occasionally, but because their jobs require them to stay up to date with new games and constantly playing them they don't have the time to address older titles, much less reflect on them. They’re journalists, their bread and butter is reporting the facts. Some of them run private blogs and you can see them flex that intellect, but in terms of publishing it on a major website? Is Kotaku even allowed to write such a thing? MTV Multiplayer? Newsweek? Do their readers even want to see it?
Let’s not beat around the bush either, I consider myself a critic and not a journalist. I write at Popmatters, which is webzine that covers everything involving pop culture, and in January I posted a ten part series of essays on this exact same topic. The pain in the ass I realized after writing it is not that people won't read it or care, it's that it doesn't do anything by itself. People are going to flip through it, nod or disagree, and then go back to thinking of games the same way they always do. So it gets a bit tedious to see so much digital ink and brain power dumped into a task that is ultimately just talk and a wee bit of navel gazing. And it's reaching such a pitch (who hasn't posted an essay on this topic?) that it's becoming this year's gimmicky 'Why is there no Lester Bangs?' column fodder. Which I did something to rectify.
Nor is talking about how to review games even relevant. They're fine. IGN writes good reviews, questions about their scoring aside. Nor does anyone need to care or start suddenly doing things the same way for reviews. Hell, my views on games are completely batshit: I don’t think game design has to innovate to be relevant, I factor in outside reviews, and I need to beg Ralph Koster to forgive me if I ever meet him for being such a brat about not liking mastering rules. But my take on reviews doesn’t matter because I don’t consider them criticism. They’re consumer reports on the elements of a game that advise the person of what they’re buying. Instead of trying to make a fish walk on dry land, I started a separate series of essays on my blog that ARE criticism. I analyzed how the awkward controls in Silent Hill 2 work to make the game scary. I discussed the ways The Darkness creates a moving plot about one person/the player losing their soul. There are several others and there will be plenty more after that. The point of this post isn’t to get into a pissing match about how it should be done, the point is to ask you to set aside a warm little space in your magazine, blog, or webzine and just do it.
We all know this is what has to be done for games to get better. Developers are just repeating old mistakes or worse, ignoring the great things games past have done. Just get a thesis, apply it to a game, and see what happens. Or as Chris Dahlen said on twitter, “If people think there's no good game criticism, let's just go write our asses off.” He has a point, doesn’t he? Talk is cheap and in abundance on the internet, it’s actually doing something that’s in such short supply. If you want things to change, just act that change out yourself.
I’ll even go first.