Month: September 2014

Critical Riffs: Fez, Snot City, Glitchhikers, Love Worker

by Jed Pressgrove

Fez

This ballyhooed platformer combines Nintendo nostalgia and esoterica to make us go “Wow.” We’re supposed to do the talking because Phil Fish’s pixel art has next to nothing to say. The game has cute dialogue and plenty of places to see, but the perspective changing and puzzles make for rigid and tedious exercises, as opposed to the revelations uncovered with practice and experimentation in the cryptic masterpiece Solomon’s Key. Don’t buy into the bullshit about Fez’s ode to relaxation. Fish called his work “a ‘stop and smell the flowers’ kind of game.” No, that was 2009’s vastly superior Flower.

Snot City

James Earl Cox III is a more accomplished artist than Phil Fish. Snot City won’t win any awards for maturity or sensitivity, but the game’s subversion of clean-cut problem solving in games is unpretentious and original. Snot City establishes itself as a race against time in which you have to find new abilities to unlock paths and save the day. Although it’s tempting to stand still and take in the unusual environment, message prompts and fidgety animation reinforce the urgency to move. One could criticize Snot City as an inside joke on game design, but Cox’s conclusion is an unforgettable sensation.

Glitchhikers

This game from Silverstring Media captures the suspense of normal human life through an appeal to the senses. Simulating a late-night drive on the highway, Glitchhikers awakens the universal fear of running off the road with every blink of an eye and every look out the side window. The game wrecks when it starts talking. Although sure to garner comparisons to filmmaker David Lynch, the heavy-handed dialogue between imaginary hitchhikers and the driver overlooks ordinary, relatable concerns (work, family, etc.) of people who drive tired at night. By primarily appealing to dark, surface-level philosophy, Glitchhikers proves that commoners don’t matter when you’re up your own ass.

Love Worker

Earlier this year, Vaida shared Talks with My Mom, a modest story that surpassed Gone Home’s nonsensical and irrelevant portrait of gay identity and family. Vaida’s Love Worker is more of a minor achievement yet registers as genuine escapism. You move left and right hurling bombs in the middle of an industrial area full of walking suits. Rather than kill, the bombs add color. Not as naive as it might seem, Love Worker refashions the robot, a symbol of compulsory work, into a songwriter: “As a machine/I can’t compete/With what humans do.” This combination of song and game isn’t new, but few independent shorts concentrate on joy like Love Worker.

The Problem of Paying for Game Journalism

by Mary Lew Florida

The floor has recently been opened to discussion about game journalism, journalism ethics, and the integrity of the parties involved. While the foundation of this conversation is built on false accusations around Kotaku and developer Zoe Quinn, it also has a fundamental misunderstanding of the real issues that have been affecting the field of online journalism.

To continue this discussion we must first distance ourselves from the narrow-minded conversation that started it. This piece is not a part of a witch hunt and seeks to instead point out the complex issues that affect online journalism today.

Clickbait and Paying the Bills

A point of contention in the entire journalism industry is that consumers want quality, unbiased content, but they don’t want to pay for it. News, after all, is free, and you can get your fill from Twitter or other social media. The Internet is presented as an open resource, but someone has to pay for all of that content to be produced. This reality clashes with the sense of entitlement about information being free. This entitlement is a side effect of the digital native generation, and it’s one of the things that is ruining journalism.

As far back as William Randolph Hearst and the so-called yellow journalism during the Spanish-American War, the press has sensationalized the truth in order to sell papers. In the days when newspapers reigned supreme, you had to pay for content if you wanted access to it. Money went from your pocket to the newspaper, who in turn paid a staff of writers to stay on top of current events from around the world.

Today, an online publication is lucky if you turn off ad-block when visiting its site, let alone pay for the content. Many people haven’t held traditional print media in their hands in years, but there are still many writers in the business. So if you’re not paying for their services, who is?

Advertising. But when online advertising pays fractions of a cent per page view and click, paying writers the lowest possible piece meal rate to get the highest return possible is essential for survival. Paying your writers a good salary only works if they perform in a very specific way.

How Does This Model Affect Ethics and Integrity?

When looking for writers to deliver on page views rather than quality, you sacrifice good traditional writers in lieu of hiring good SEO writers. This approach is particularly true if you’re part of a high-prestige industry where there is a lot of competition (such as entertainment). The entertainment publication wants to hire someone who is talented at titling and tagging, who can pump out dozens of articles a day. While this approach isn’t always detrimental to quality content, SEO writing that makes the company the most money is part of a clear problem.

A prime example of this economic conundrum can be presented in the story of the Kotaku article “Flappy Bird Making $50,000 a Day off Ripped Art” (that was the original title before it was changed a day later to “Flappy Bird Making $50,000 a Day off Mario-Like Art”). That title is pure, grade-A clickbait, and it is also a lie. Flappy Bird was not made with ripped art, a term that means that the developer stole the art from someone else. The art simply bears a striking resemblance to Nintendo properties.

Typically, you hire good journalists to make sure that situations like this do not occur, to make sure that you don’t accuse someone of theft simply to get page views. But in this industry, page views are king because they are how the publications make money. At the same time, page views are not the only way advertisers are seeking revenue.

Native Advertising

Advertisers are always looking for new ways to keep and hold your attention. Banner blindness, the tendency to ignore the ad banners that are a constant part of your Internet experience, makes traditional advertising less effective. With online advertising existing as a billion dollar industry, advertisers are adapting to survive.

Native advertising is not new. The search results (ads) that pop up when you use Google and promoted posts on Twitter are examples of native advertising. These types of ads seek to blend seamlessly into your experience, to look like the rest of the content you’re viewing so that you are more likely to click on them.

What Does This Have to Do with Game Journalism?

There has been a recent rise in so-called advertorials. Advertorials are stories presented as standard news but have have been paid for and occasionally written by advertisers. You’ve seen these in traditional news media — advertisements that are almost indistinguishable from editorial content, except for maybe a word at the top that says “advertisement” or “special promotional feature.”

Scientology-Atlantic1

In online publications, this has recently popped up in the Atlantic Scientology advertorial scandal, where the respected news magazine allowed the religious group to post a glowing review of its practices with a limited disclaimer. The disclaimer is the little yellow tab above David Miscavige that says “Sponsor Content.” It’s easy to miss, especially if you’re not familiar with the site, and that’s what makes native advertising dangerous. Specifically in games and tech, Tech Digest has a category for advertorials and sponsored content. Aside from slight disclaimers, this content is virtually indistinguishable from standard editorial content.

Advertisers are playing on expectations of integrity and unbiased content, and that’s why they choose an advertorial track. Why would any honest publication agree to something like this? As mentioned before, publications are attempting to pay their staff and need the money. The problem with game journalism comes back to money, and in some ways, Patreon is a part of that discussion.

Patreon and Crowdfunding

Recently, crowdfunding support site Patreon has come under fire after Kotaku Editor-in-Chief Stephen Totilo banned authors from supporting Patreon accounts. Patreon is a service that allows fans to give a certain amount every month to artists and developers in order to help them create, and is modeled after a system of patronage. Kotaku became concerned that authors supporting these developers would have a conflict of interest, hence the ban. No offense meant to Kotaku, but it feels like Patreon was offered up as a sacrificial lamb, as Totilo didn’t get into the issues of patronage, support, and bias.

If Patreon-supporting writers are compromised by their support, are the writers who excitedly supported the Kickstarter for Mighty No. 9 equally tainted? Are the writers who preordered Destiny allowed to write about it? The issue of corporate patronage and bias is an interesting one and worth talking about, but it hardly seems to begin and end with a small site. The issue stems from the nature of an industry built on consumptive media. If you pay for the work that you’re receiving, and some readers demand that you do, are you too compromised to talk about it?

Disclosure seems to be important in these cases, but disclose should extend not just to small, independent developers (like the ones who use Patreon) but to larger corporate sponsorships as well. Can a site like Kotaku or IGN reasonably talk about the newest Call of Duty if they are simultaneously running large banner advertisements for the game? Or are they tainted in the same way as writers who support developers via Patreon?

These questions, from bias to writer payment, need to be a part of the larger discussion. All of this loops back to the main issues affecting journalism at large. The issues are endemic of a system reliant on advertising dollars, one that focuses on page views rather than the talent of their writers. These issues might seem insurmountable, but solving them is essential to the growth and maturation of the industry as a whole.

The Petty Party Politics of Gaming

by Jed Pressgrove

When words like “progressive” and “right wing” start to pop up, it’s time to get skeptical about motives. Some people appear to be using current gaming commentary, driven by already politicized terms like “Social Justice Warriors” and “GamerGate,” to color their party politics as not only superior but victorious.  In party politics, the other side — those inferior fools! — is always on the brink of destruction because of extremists within its ranks.

Last month Liz Ryerson, one of the more thoughtful and provocative critics out there, published a piece called “On Right-Wing Videogame Extremism.” Her reason for publishing the piece was understandable, and although Ryerson never used the term “right wing” in the body of the article, the inclusion of the term in the title suggested party politics, the idea that your side is right and about to win once and for all. Sure enough, Ryerson’s conclusion alluded to the self-destruction of these supposed right-wing people. This sentiment fell in line with the “gamer is dead” wishful thinking that was recently propagated. In this propaganda, the main idea is that gamer = right wing = harasser/hacker.

Again, one can understand why Ryerson or anyone would want harassers and hackers to disappear, but the reality is that harassment and hacking are not going to decline until the powers that be do something about them (or until all harassers/hackers start behaving like Gandhi, which I don’t see happening anytime soon). With this in mind, one can conclude that since the actual “right wing” is here to stay, it will not look good in gaming due to being tied to harassment and hacking. Thus, if anyone identifies with “the right” (which is, speciously, equated with “gamer”) or subscribes to any position that could be described as “conservative,” that person might be guilty by association — the kind of anti-intellectual crap that makes contemporary party politics an embarrassment.

I was relieved to see Ryerson write a follow-up piece called “On ‘Gamers’ and Identity,” as its reasoning and conclusion reject the party politics of the “Right-Wing” article: “[A]t some fundamental level we’re all in this together.” Still, Ryerson’s more articulate analysis cannot undo the damage that so many have caused. Historically, one could probably trace the party politics of gaming back for years, but a big publication helped trumpet its existence: the June 2014 issue of Reason, a libertarian magazine whose cover proclaimed, “How gaming is making America freer — and more fun.” (Notice how “fun” in relation to video games has, ridiculously, become a bad word in “progressive” circles due to party politics.)

Reading the June 2014 issue of Reason during this current SJW vs. GamerGate “debate” is almost surreal. The magazine issue seems prophetic with its cover image:

june-ww

With one idiotic swoop, Reason’s cover not only propagates the party politics of gaming but also plays into the stereotype that “libertarians,” “right-wingers,” and “gamers” are young men who have out-of-line priorities and turn a deaf ear to women. Inside the magazine is the cover story titled “The Gamer Congressman: Is Rep. Jared Polis the First in a Wave of Libertarian-Leaning Video Game Enthusiasts?” Interestingly, the cover story doesn’t confirm the stereotyping of the cover image; it even has a section called “Rise of the Gamer Dad,” which specifically refutes the gamer stereotype.

Instead, the story tries to create a new gamer stereotype using Rep. Jared Polis. Polis is described as “the first out-and-proud gamer in Congress” and a “libertarian-leaning Democrat.” The story later refers to a poll of 1,011 American adults. According to the magazine, the poll indicates that gamers, as opposed to non-gamers, “believe in greater numbers that people should be allowed to smoke marijuana, gamble online, consume caffeinated energy drinks, buy home genetic testing kits, and manufacture their own 3D-printed guns.” Thus, this more libertarian tendency of gamers ties back into the cover’s claim that “gaming is making America freer.”

By evaluating Reason’s “libertarian” evidence, we can see that party politics in gaming is silly. First, Reason admits that only 14 percent of the polled 1,011 adults are classified as gamers. Fourteen percent of 1,011 is only 142 rounded up. Considering that millions of people play video games in the United States, how can one assume that 142 adults can reveal the political tendencies of millions without a test for statistical significance? But let’s assume that those 142 adults do represent the political tendencies of “gamers.” How do these tendencies make America “freer”? Will libertarian gamers cause marijuana to be legalized in all 50 states?

Let’s examine party politics logic from another gaming perspective. Would a majority of “Social Justice Warrior” gamers make us safer? Would they enlighten all of us? Sadly, the party politics of gaming frames these ideas as statements or assumptions rather than questions.

In its rejection of intellectualism and cooperation, party politics in gaming is popular because it appeals to hurt feelings and emotions. Don’t be fooled by the trendy but unoriginal statements of Milo Yiannopoulos and Dan Golding. Their “honesty” and unthinking allusions to death and war favor egotism over respect, maturity, and knowledge. Our collective outrage presents the perfect opportunity for phony leaders to emerge.

The Fetishization of Violent Enslavement in Gaming: A Response to Retro Gamer

by Jed Pressgrove

As surely as artists have the right to depict violence, people also have the right to enjoy and criticize violence in art. From the enjoyment angle, many gamers are sensitive about criticism of violence in video games, partially due to politicians and media using violent games as a scapegoat for their own failures to foster a safe society. Indeed, the idea that violent games breed killing machines is an overstatement from a statistical standpoint. At the same time, it’s fair to raise questions and make claims about how violence is used in games and how its usage might impact our sensitivity to violence or conflict with our morality. Some game critics have written good analyses of game violence (see articles by Patrick Lindsey, Ed Smith, and Mark Filipowich, among others). But a recent article in Retro Gamer (Issue 131) gave me considerable pause after I read its evaluation of a certain act of violence in BioShock.  The most troubling sentence was in the article’s final paragraph:

‘A slave obeys,’ it tells us, as we smash our own father’s head in with a golf club — an activity we had no choice but to perform.

Let’s note that we, the audience, always have a choice about what art we consume in our homes. We can stop reading books, watching movies, listening to music, or playing games at any point. I recall Takashi Miike, the transgressive filmmaker of Audition and Ichi the Killer, saying that if the violence in one of his films gets too much for you, take a break and resume later. This very simple choice that we have as an audience stands in contrast to the notion that a game segment was “an activity we had no choice but to perform.” This notion rejects enjoyment of violence in favor of a morbid fascination with supposed enslavement.

The Retro Gamer article in question is part of a regular column called “Future Classics.” I was unsurprised to see BioShock selected for this distinction. The game is overly loved by game critics. The issue doesn’t lie with people enjoying the game or discussing its themes. The issue arises when critics, such as Leigh Alexander and Tom McShea, promote a sort of cultural elitism when speaking about BioShock or creator Ken Levine (Alexander’s and McShea’s negative reviews of BioShock Infinite do little to refute their appraisal of Levine’s superiority). All that said, my disappointment in Retro Gamer’s article is more related to its refusal to place BioShock’s patricide in a meaningful historical context; after all, history is the magazine’s strength (Retro Gamer is my favorite magazine for this reason). Instead, the article blandly sets us up with an unenlightening genre statement: “It [BioShock] took the assumptions developers (and players) had made about the FPS protag, turned them on their head, and fired them back at us.”

What about the assumptions that the above claim makes about all of us? This line of thinking about BioShock’s “subversion” brings to mind the commentary of The Stanley Parable, which draws a useless parallel between pushing buttons in an office, pushing buttons as part of a mechanic in a video game, and pushing buttons on the controller as a game player. Sure, some gamers are unintelligent and exploited by big studios, but are we all as unaware and dumb as The Stanley Parable suggests?

Moreover, are the gaming literati that unaware and dumb? Have they forgotten that not one but two 1980s action games toyed with the idea of confronting one’s father in violence? As if it couldn’t be anymore obvious, both of these 1980s games starred ninjas! Retro Gamer should have known better. The BioShock article ignored the precedence of Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden and glorified a more graphic form of patricide with the takeaway that we really didn’t know any better. On the contrary, I’m pretty sure most players know what a plot twist or design choice is. The suggestion that BioShock and The Stanley Parable enlightened us might be more than condescending. It’s starting to seem flatout dishonest.

Great Game Writing of 2014 — May to August

by Jed Pressgrove

A few months ago, I talked about what I thought was great game writing from January to April in this spectacular year of 2014. Ergo, if I am to appear to be somewhat serious, I must also talk about great game articles from May to August and from September to December in this spectacular year of 2014. So here’s the May-to-August batch. Even though I wouldn’t call this post “curation,” the exercise has given me greater respect for those who do curate on a consistent basis. Rest assured, I do not see myself doing this in the stupendous year of 2015. Feel free to share any other great pieces or disagree with my choices.

Song of Storms, by Matt Rockefeller

This selection isn’t a curve ball; it’s just a comic that understands the power of writing more than most game articles. Largely overlooked by the game community, Matt Rockefeller’s drawing connects spontaneity with priority-driven thinking. Editor Sara Clemens deserves credit for publishing this masterpiece.

Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and the Price of Fame, by Gita Jackson

Not only does Jackson’s review of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood make other pieces on the subject look amateurish and opportunistic, it speaks to the potential of video games that Social Justice Warriors and Gamers often don’t bother to identify or debate. Jackson contrasts her personal experiences and observations with the object of the game to offer perspective on human experience, not a market-obsessed sermon. Her natural, thoughtful approach sets the bar higher for game criticism.

What Is a Racing Game? On Wave Race 64, by Zolani Stewart

Don’t let the question in the title fool you. Instead of setting genre parameters, Stewart uses his appreciation of beauty in Wave Race 64 to pinpoint the joy, the specialness, of racing itself. The piece’s exploration and celebration of the sublime are very much needed in a game community obsessed with darkness.

Game Review Drabbles, by Tevis Thompson

In all of these 100-word game reviews, Thompson treats reviews as one should — as art. Ironically (or maybe it’s not ironic), these short entries have more big ideas and big reactions than most “full-length” reviews. Even the quips challenge the reader to think, such as this line from the Mario Kart 8 review: “No wonder Luigi’s death stare has dominated discussions. What else is there to talk about?”

Proteus, by Indie Gamer Chick

I share this review on principle. Indie Gamer Chick’s no-holds-barred take on Proteus challenges the anti-criticism notion that “art games” are inherently special because they’re “different”: “And here I thought ALL games were a form of art.” Some Proteus fans cry, “Oh no she didn’t!” Oh yes, she did. (Indie Gamer Chick’s Goat Simulator review demonstrates similar conviction.)

From Lara Croft to Bayonetta: What Is a ‘Strong Female Character’?, by Ria Jenkins

I’ve heard many reasons why this article is “flawed,” including the notion that people covered this topic years ago. Yet Jenkins’ bluntness about the contrast behind Lara Croft’s bland marketing and Bayonetta “thrusting her vagina into the face of the player” makes an understated point about contemporary fear of sexuality.  There is no hint of disingenuous commentary from Jenkins, whose textual analysis demands self-examination: “Bayonetta makes the men in the game (and perhaps many of those playing) uncomfortable.”

Level 99 Capitalist, by Stephen Beirne

Beirne’s claims about RPGs functioning as consumerist fantasies can be endlessly debated as a polemic. On a simpler level, Beirne asks the RPG fan, such as myself, to consider the meaning behind the numbers and whether consumption is the primary theme of a given RPG. In this way, Beirne’s article acts as a guide for identifying the greater, wiser RPGs from those that merely give us more numbers.

How Game Forms Are Shaped by Their Environment, by Daniel Cook

Cook raises the question of how art is affected by economic circumstances. He then argues that games like Proteus and Gone Home haven’t established a niche due to a “sudden explosion of artistic appreciation within the human race.” Rather, they’ve established a niche due to a list of economic factors that Cook provides. Cook’s most provocative question relates to different degrees of economic success: “How do the developers, journalists, museums, critics or other middlemen benefit from promoting the works that they promote?” In short, this piece gives developers, critics, and gamers a theoretical framework for looking beyond the hype.

Killed at the Conference Table: Gaming’s Balancing Act Between Art & Product, by Mike Williams

With this piece and others (including this explanation of muted Twitch streams), Williams has established himself as the best game reporter in the business. “Killed at the Conference Table” is labeled an editorial, but that’s just modesty — Williams’ sense of fairness, balance, and depth is off the charts. If one is too shortsighted to define “game journalism” with a straight face, one should start reading Williams.

Awakening the Dead, by Marcus Mac Dhonnagáin

This article compares the universality of loss with how Fire Emblem characters appear “more meaningful than chess pieces.” Mac Dhonnagáin smartly frames his critique with a reminder about national privilege before dissecting Fire Emblem’s successes and failures with depicting soldiers as humans. His sober conclusion rejects player fixation on the inconvenience of permanent deaths of characters: “It’s all business as usual.”

Screw Your Walking Simulators, by Joel Goodwin

This examination of what games like Proteus are actually asking us to do is as playful as it is insightful. Goodwin, in his inimitable rambling style, suggests ditching “walking simulator” for “secret box games,” both for the latter’s more neutral tone and its more accurate description of the appeal behind Proteus and company. It’s very easy to get ugly about genre terminology, but Goodwin recognizes that genre debate is just a game.

Indie Entitlement, by Liz Ryerson

Ryerson has a gift for honestly addressing any given elephant in the room without pandering to a particular agenda. While it’s true Ryerson has clear political values, she doesn’t promote thought control or bandwagon causes with questions like “when most AAA games reflect hyper-imperialist values, why would more marginalized people want representation in them?” Ryerson constantly inquires about the logic of everyone’s motivations and demands.