I have a peculiar, but probably not particularly unique, habit. I like to read reviews of things after I have otherwise consumed them. I do this a lot with movies, music, books and other such “artistic” media. I think part of this activity stems from the engineer/dork need to search out validation for one’s opinions. For example, I was once thrilled to find out that the Trader Joe’s red wine that I had bought was also enjoyed by the wine critic on The Splendid Table. We are creatures of ego, we can’t help it.
This is not the only reason I engage in this behavior though. The main reason is to read interesting writing about something that I enjoyed, or didn’t, as the case may be. Of all of the media that I consume, what saddens me the most is how little interesting writing there is about video games.
This fact was brought into stark relief by the recent gnashing of teeth about C|Net and Gamespot. What was most upsetting about the whole blowup was that nobody seemed the last bit interested in the quality of the content under discussion.
Let’s not kid ourselves. When you strip away all the pretention and self-importance, the economic interests, the difficulties of working on such huge collections of content under a time deadline and all the rest, one basic fact remains: almost all of the writing that you can find about video games is horrible. And I don’t mean this in a Sturgeon’s Law way, where we wink and nudge each other about how most of everything is bad. I mean that almost none of it could even survive as a term paper for a freshman writing class at the satellite campus of a second tier state university.
I have a modest collection of examples. I started playing Assassin’s Creed this weekend, and managed to get enough time in to form some basic first impressions. Curious, I surfed on over Metacritic to see what the collective of Internet Game Critics had to say about the game. You can read the blurbs for yourself here.
I will now unfairly cherry pick some of the most egregiously terrible excerpts from the page above. From Gamer 2.0, we have:
Assassinâ€™s Creed is remarkable in every aspect it performs. From the sprawling city life to the dual-vision storyline, everything blends together to offer one of the most complete and satisfying experiences so far this year.
Assassin’s Creed is one of those games that could be considered for the “games as art” debate. A lot of times you’ll stop for a second and just stare in awe at how beautiful and graceful the game is. The game is by no means perfect, but it does start to head into the right direction that most sandbox games should.
Meanwhile, Daily Game opines:
The open-world genre has never looked so good, but it could’ve played a bit more realistically given the subject matter. A few fewer Biblical references would’ve been nice, too.
Even the stuff that would not have failed in freshman english class has its problems. Over at Gamecritics, we find a review that takes hundreds and hundreds of words to tell us that the reviewer found the game boring and repetitive. Then, as if to emphasize his bitter contrarian nature, he trots out that favorite clichÃ©d phrase of death: tech demo.
Everything except Altair’s athletics feels underdeveloped and painfully shallow, making the end result an overhyped attempt to recoup the development costs for something that’s little more than an extended tech demo.
I would like to pass a law that forbids the use of the phrase tech demo in any writing about games.
Almost all of the writing on this game follows the same general patterns:
- There are ponderous catalogs of technical features and box bullet points. Gamespot, for example, uses up four paragraphs talking about how the graphics look great, and then segues into how the sound design is great too.
- There are adolescent declarations of unconditional love. The first few 10/10 reviews are always like this. Here is where the poor abused gamers tell us that the user interface is broken, combat is clunky, the load times are horrible, but it’s still the best game ever.
- There are subjective judgements that are not backed up by either objective observations or any sort of well-written rationale at all.
- Finally, there are adolescent screeds against the game, similar to the example at Gamecritics.
All in all, a depressing collection of mediocrity. But, I did find some better writing about the game. First, buried in the inside pages of the New York Times, there are a few dozen tightly chosen words that, even though they are only one third of the text of the whole article, have more to say about the game than anything you can find on the Metacritic page. Second, Gamers With Jobs wins creativity points for framing their complaints as a list of lighthearted bug reports and patch requests to the developers. Finally, Yahtzee maintains his high level of entertainment value, and his status as the best thing the Escapist ever accidently found and published.
I think each of these pieces illustrate what is missing from almost all of the enthusiast press in video games: creative and interesting ideas about video games and a professional level of execution on those ideas.
Of course, we here at Tea Leaves, and I, psu, in particular, fall into this same trap. Here is how I write a new page about some game I am playing:
1. First, write some pithy semi-personal statement about a strange and annoying habit I have.
2. Tie this habit somehow to the item under review. Try and describe how the game plays.
3. Complain a lot.
4. Say something nice. Then write some self-centered pithy filler.
5. Make fun of hardcore fanboys.
6. Tie it up with a pithy ending that is hopefully insulting to hardcore fanboys.
It almost writes itself. Of course, we here at Tea Leaves are just a part time weblog. I write most of this stuff while dinner is on the stove because I can’t play Halo while the kid is awake. Under no circumstances would I presume to put up my writing as anything that could survive in a real commercial marketplace. But there is one thing that I do try to do consistently, and even succeed at occasionally: I try to write something about the game that is more interesting than how they used shaders in DirectX 10 to do the water effects.
This happens too rarely in the enthusiast press about video games. The writing is rarely creative, and when does strive for a higher level it is often poorly executed. Which brings me back to the Gerstmann mess. Over at Newsweek, a publication that you would think would know how to hire a competent writer, we have this guy N’Gai Croal going off on how the poor writers are again being crushed and enslaved in the sewers by the evil monied interests. Actually, I’m not sure what he’s talking about because I can’t follow his writing for more than a couple of paragraphs. All of the shiny hip blinds my ability to understand the text. No that’s not it, it’s because the writing is completely incomprehensible. If I were the interest behind his money I’d suggest he find a new editor, or figure out where the delete key is on his keyboard.
The depressing conclusion that I reach from all of this is that there must be no market that is wiling to pay cash for mature and intelligent writing about video games. The inevitable truth is that the writing is the way it is because that’s how gamers want it. I’d like to be optimistic and think that within my lifetime the medium will have matured to the point where it can actually support professional and creative criticism. But I’m not that young anymore, so I’m not holding my breath.