So many permutations

Hi! This is a quick reminder that The GameSpite Media Concern exists. It is a video podcast to which you may subscribe. And if you subscribe, you’ll be able to watch the videos I create a little earlier than usual. I realize that’s not exactly a world-shaking offer, but I figure the dozen or so of you who are super hardcore into Game Boy’s history might care. For instance, if you were to subscribe right now, you would be able to watch the Final Fantasy Legend video that goes up on YouTube tomorrow. Sure, I could publish everything universally all at the same time, but where’s the fun in that?

There’s no benefit to me to having people subscribe to this video podcast, since it’s not ad-subsidized or anything. Mainly, I just want the money I send to Libsyn every month to be justified. And I keep hoping enough people will post a review so that the little comment in the sidebar that says it doesn’t have enough reviews yet for a general rating will go away.

(If for some reason you would like to fund Game Boy World videos, there’s always the Patreon route. Where, incidentally, video links go out a day in advance of them being posted to the podcast. Yes, yes, I know, it’s shameless and terrible of me. But the campaign is almost at the Anatomy of Games video level, and I’d really like the excuse to talk through the entirety of my Final Fantasy VI playthrough, so…)

Anyway, that’s all. Sorry for the shill talk. Now go play Fantasy Life. I say this not as a shill but as someone who’s trying to unlock Origin Island and will need some co-op help once I get there. Chop chop, kids, time’s a-wasting.

Posted in Blog.

Shantih, shantih, shantih… Shantae!?

Sigh. Hieronymo’s mad againe.

141022-shantae

I reviewed Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse today after spending quite a bit more time than the game than I thought would be necessary. My final time for game completion was north of nine hours, and that was with 88% completion (not 100%, which is kind of important in this particular game). It would have been an hour shorter if I’d been paying more attention to some clues and not gotten lost, but that’s on me for being so scatterbrained this week.

Yesterday, former NFL player Chris Kluwe published a frothy takedown of certain awful people who have been poisoning the online video game over the past few months by using “journalistic ethics” as an excuse to abuse women. But one comment in the middle of that piece really jumped out at and stuck with me: “First off, a review, BY DEFINITION, is subjective. It’s one person’s take on a moment in time from their own perspective.” Those words rang in my skull as I reread my Shantae review this morning before clicking Publish, because I feel like a lot of the reviews I write these days reflect on the “moment in time” element he mentioned.

I’ve been doing this games press thing for more than a decade now, professionally, and sometimes I feel a little hemmed in by things I’ve written in the past. Like I recently said, being published daily for so many years has helped chart my personal maturation in a very public way, yet even so it’s hard not to feel self-conscious when something I write today seems at odds with something I published a few years ago. In the case of the new Shantae, I had a lot of positive things to say about the game and gave it a very good score… but that score was, upon examination, lower than the one I gave to Risky’s Revenge four years ago.* This, despite the fact that I described Pirate’s Curse as hands-down better than Risky’s Revenge.

I didn’t mean for my lead-in to today’s review to serve as justification for that disparity, but it kind of did that anyway. The 2D platformer is a very different creature today than it was a few years back; the recent indie boom has really seen the format explode in sophistication, and a game needs to be at the top of the class to stand out. I still like the original Shantae and Risky’s Revenge, but playing Pirate’s Curse really drives home how high the standards for the genre have become of late. Pirate’s Curse is an absolutely fantastic game… but it’s not even the best 2D platformer of the year. It’s up against the likes of Spelunky and Shovel Knight. That’s some stiff competition… I mean, damn. But frankly, I couldn’t be happier. I loved Shantae and happily forgave its flaws because I was so happy that someone had even bothered making a game like that, and that Capcom had taken a risk on it. It was the best 2D platformer around, while no one else was making 2D platformers. Now? It’s a bloodbath out there.

And for my part, my own perspective has changed. Once I started looking into the design and construction of games like this for fun, I fell inevitably down the rabbit hole and began to do it more seriously as well. But that’s OK! It’s interesting to play games like Pirate’s Curse after having written extensively about the design of Super Metroid, because it lets me better appreciate the game’s approach to things like the conundrum of powers.

Like Super Metroid, the new Shantae‘s first half is a dense and complex knot of puzzle platforming; but once you gain new powers that allow for easier and more versatile traversal of the environment, the puzzle element begins to unravel, because it’s harder to create opportunities for exploration upon the player’s return. After all, you’re near the end of the game, so why would you want to return to an area you’ve just completed? And what can the designers do to impede your progress once you have all the tools you need to get about? Super Metroid unravels at Maridia, once you acquire both the High-Jump Boots and the Speed Booster; Maridia is large and open, while Lower Norfair (which comes after) and Tourian are highly linear and combat-focused.

Pirate’s Curse deals with this sticking point (something all games of this style face) by, as I mentioned in the review, (1) pushing the double-jump ability to very late in the game, meaning there are tons of obvious, visible areas you can’t reach right up until nearly the very end, and (2) changing the nature of the game in its final areas to something more akin to Super Meat Boy lite with tons of complex and difficult (though generally forgiving) jumping challenges. It’s a strong, clever approach.

Anyway, the message here is that Shantae games have always been good for their time. As this style of game improves, it’s nice to see the series keeping pace.

* Well, according to Metacritic, anyway. But Metacritic’s challenges in interpreting non-numeric scores for games has been the subject of many long and frustrated email threads and is far too involved a topic for the moment.

Posted in Games. Tagged with , .

By request: Architecture

By request of jacob_bru

One day, when I was in sixth grade, my teacher randomly pulled me aside and offered me a surprising opportunity: A chance to represent the school on the local news. The ABC affiliate had a weekly segment in which a student from one of the city’s elementary schools would come in and put together a brief local interest story. I was surprised, but I’ve never been one to turn down a chance to do something interesting and unique, especially if it involves being recognized (I’m cool with other people giving me a nod; I just feel nauseated at the prospect of self-promotion).

The problem was, I had no idea what kind of news story to create. Obviously I wasn’t going to cover any hard news about the local City Council or whatever, being 12 years old and all. So my parents took a pragmatic approach and asked what I wanted to do when I grew up.

“Be an architect?” I said. I have no idea where that idea came from, but it sounded kind of cool in the heat of the moment. In hindsight, I suspect I may have been thinking of Indiana Jones and got confused between architecture and archaeology. But in any case, I went with a news crew to the School of Architecture at Texas Tech and filmed a two-minute exposé on the program (undoubtedly some of the hardest-hitting journalism the local news had ever seen). Then I went back and wrote and recorded the script for the segment, which a video editor then cut together on some dark and ominous Betamax-based device that occupied its own eerie closet at the news station.

Years later, I ended up becoming a journalist, almost entirely by coincidence. But architecture always looked like more fun. I think it’s the little paper buildings.

Maybe ironically, in my years of art history studies, I always found architecture one of the most difficult areas of art to fully understand. Marcel Duchamp painting some made-up signature on a urinal or calling a series of flesh-tone triangles “Nude Descending a Staircase”? I get it. Mark Rothko putting together massive fields of solid color? Once you see a Rothko in person, you understand: They’re so big, so textured, so intricate in their seeming uniformity that they practically overwhelm you. Jackson Pollock spattering a canvas with a seemingly random array of colors? Beautiful. But architecture, man, that’s hard.

I suppose it’s because I’m intimidated by the engineering that lurks beneath the surface of architecture. I actually abandoned my brief flirtation with architecture the moment I realized how much math was involved. It’s not enough to have a vision of some sort of sculptural construct as an architect; that vision also needs to be structurally sound. You have to worry about materials, about stability, about costs, about zoning ordinances. Usability. Utility. How it fits with the surrounding neighborhood. Environmental impact. Do the wacky concave windows create a solar mirror that can melt cars parked on the street below? Who’s the contractor? So many factors you don’t have to deal with when you’re slapping some oils on a 3×5 canvas.

Which isn’t to say architecture isn’t art, just that it’s the sort of thing that becomes a work on a different sort of scale. Not just in literal terms, but in a figurative sense as well. So many people involved! But hey, if architecture can be art despite the processes and number of people involved, maybe video games can, too.

The real trick with architecture, I think, is in creating something distinctive without making a botch job of it. Entire movements throughout the 20th century became petri dishes for ugliness — deliberately so in the case of Brutalism, but probably more out of misguided pragmatism with the “modern” mid-century look that makes most buildings constructed in the 1950s and ’60s such a boring eyesore. It’s this style that I grew up surrounded by, living in the middle of the country in the latter half of the 20th century. So much of the substance of the cities was established during America’s urbanization after World War II and survived dully right up to the new millennium, when it finally began to give way for the more adventurous (albeit usually more cheaply constructed) styles of contemporary architecture. Farm automation and the rise of modernity after the war drove people into the cities and away from their rural roots, and the backbone of the nation’s mid-sized cities came into being then. And good lord, was that backbone boring.

But as with all art, it was a reflection of the times. Mid-century architecture came into being during the rise of the short-lived American Empire, and those works were constructed with a sort of weighty agelessness that echoed Classical architecture. This was the new Rome, was the idea. That style relayed a message, for better and for worse. I miss the World Trade Center’s twin towers, but at the same time I distinctly remember the second thing I thought the first time I ever saw them (as I rode the NJ Transit line on my first trip into Manhattan) was, “God, those things are ugly.”

Now, the first thing I thought was, “Oh my god! New York City!” — and those two impressions were related. There was something reassuring about the towers’ blocky lack of imagination, like a heavy anchor pinning down the island and making it somehow more stable, more concrete. More real. The buildings that have risen to take the WTC’s place are far more daring and sculptural, but they lack the twin towers’ gravity. They’re showing off, whereas the WTC did the opposite: They stood as monolithic monuments to the button-down conservatism of the most important financial district in the world. They were ponderous, not graceful, and they spoke to lower Manhattan’s purpose.

Sometimes, that era of architecture becomes remarkable in its mundanity. I find Kyoto an absolutely fascinating city because it looks so unlike Osaka and Tokyo; much of the city was rebuilt during the post-war era, and unlike in its sister cities, it all more or less stopped there. So when you fly into Japan and land either in Osaka or Tokyo, you see futuristic skyrises of concrete and steel and glass… and then you come to Kyoto, where everything surrounding the carefully preserved old town is boxy and built of earth-tone bricks. It’s the one place in all of Japan where driving down the street feels like you’re traveling through a Midwestern American town (except on the wrong side of the road, of course).

I guess this isn’t the sort of thing people think about when they discuss architecture; it’s so much more glamorous to focus on the flashy, beautiful, exciting things. Crazy record-breaking skyscrapers in Taipei and Dubai, or elegant Art Deco creations like the Chrysler Building. Or Frank Lloyd Wright and his remarkable ability to transform the dull lines of 20th century modern architecture into sweeping elegance. He invented the ranch house, that most unimaginative of American institutions, but he made them look so graceful and inviting. There was a man who could navigate the scale and complexities of the architectural process and create art. Whereas me, there’s no way I would have what it takes.

So it’s just as well I ended up going with journalism. If nothing else, journalists always make for cool protagonists in pop culture. Architects are… well, there was the dweeb from How I Met Your Mother, and… I believe that’s it. Man, that’s rough.

Posted in Blog. Tagged with .

More songs about gaming and Japan

I published a massive story last night over at USgamer that’s somewhere between a feature, a blog post, and digressive stream-of-conscious. It represents several months’ worth of note-taking at interviews, events, and even in casual conversations, with a huge amount of supporting research to make sure I had numbers and dates correct. Thankfully, it’s been getting almost universal praise, which is a huge relief. After spending so much time chipping away at and rewriting this thing, I completely lost my sense of perspective about it. All I can see are all the things I wish I had more time to refine and expand on. But it was two weeks late as it is, and at some point you just have to rip off the bandage. Hopefully it came out OK.

It’s “almost universal praise,” because — as seemingly happens any time we write about Japan — a handful of anime dudes feel like I’m attacking their Constitutional right to infantilize and fetishize young girls. I’m not, guys. Wrap yourselves in a warm blanket of moé. Follow your tsundere bliss. Idealize trembling schoolgirls to the point that you’re ruined for real human interaction, for all I care. Your fantasies and fixations are your own business. I’m just saying that all, or even most, Japanese games are not moé games, and it’s counterproductive to conflate the two terms.

Anyway, the real hidden message in this story is that a retrogame bar has apparently opened a couple of blocks from my apartment and I really need to check it out.

Posted in Games. Tagged with , .

Talking to developers

While 1UP.com is technically still online, very little of the content is. That’s not by design or intention; the site always ran on a jury-rigged backend, and unfortunately no one remaining at IGN understands its arcane and proprietary workings. So when they migrated the site away from its unreliable old servers, none of the content survived. It’s probably still in a database somewhere, but the ability of the site to translate that database into readable content no longer exists.

So: I’ve begun archiving some of my better work here. If IGN ever gets 1UP running again, I’ll be happy to take this all offline. But otherwise, none of this material will be available online, or at all, and some of it’s worth preserving. I realized this over the weekend as I went to do some research on Akitoshi Kawazu for the Final Fantasy Legend entry at Game Boy World and discovered that very nearly the entire Wikipedia entry was based on an interview I conducted with Kawazu a few years back. So, here’s some of the stuff I’ve done over the years. Please let me know if there are any others I should dig up from the archives! I actually have done so many interviews over the years I’ve forgotten a bunch of them, but I know they’ll sometimes stick in your collective memory.

All of this stuff is ©Ziff Davis, by the way. I’m not making any claim to it, or scratch off it. This is strictly to preserve some information until 1UP starts working again.

Posted in Blog, Games. Tagged with , .

Videodrone

It’s like Videodrome, except with my droning voiceover. So… videodrone.

Look, I’m practicing my dad humor, OK? OK. I mean, like, every day of my life.

At the moment, said videodrone comes from the latest “best of the NES” video piece I’ve produced for USgamer. (Yes, Final Fantasy uses Final Fantasy III footage. Still a few bugs in our production process.)

You may have noticed this has become a series, and if you happen to check out the associated USG article for the series you will find it now also doubles as a shopping guide of sorts. I’ve rounded up the least expensive legal means to acquire each of the games on the list, whether that’s in a compilation, on Virtual Console, or just buying the original cartridge. For my next revision, I’ll probably add pricing info as well. Iterative, living documents. What a novel concept.

Posted in Blog. Tagged with , , .

Not all Metroidvanias are created equal

Konami has been on a Castlevania republishing blitzkrieg via Virtual Console. While the VC service has been basically an excuse to wring us for money we already spent for games we already downloaded during the Wii era, the Castlevania project appears to be dedicated to giving us all-new, all-different selections. We got Dracula X — not the good one, but the less-fun-yet-almost-as-expensive Super NES one — and next week will see both Aria of Sorrow and Harmony of Dissonance.

This week, though, we got Circle of the Moon. And thumbs-up for the completist vote, I suppose, but I can’t say I’m excited. Every time I revisit Circle, I find it a little less entertaining than it was the last time. I was going to write a post on why that is, but then someone reminded me I’d published this, so I guess I don’t need to. You’ll have to forgive my poor memory. I’ve written a lot of articles about video games since then, and I wasn’t in a particularly happy place at the time I penned that (having just lost and buried my grandfather).

Having recently spent some time with Castlevania: The Adventure, though, I now find it much easier to quantify exactly how Circle came to transpire. Clearly Konami had some sort of grim parallel track of development running throughout Castlevania‘s early life, and Circle was the culmination of this alternate universe. Like the series’ previous handheld outings*, it was portable, gorgeous-looking, bursting with glorious music, and about as fun in action as invasive dental surgery.

Circle carries forward all the bad habits that began with The Adventure and carried forward with Castlevania: Legends almost a decade later. Stiff controls, terrible jump physics, clumsy and amateurish level design, horrible balance. Actually, Circle exacerbates the balancing issues by trying to incorporate an RPG-like mechanic with an inventory and a customizable skill system called DSS… which would be pretty cool if it weren’t utterly and completely random. Aside from a handful of mandatory DSS cards that drop throughout the adventure, you’re basically at the whims of a churlish random number generator as to which skills you acquire. Having played through Circle a few times, I’ve never acquired more than about a quarter of the possible cards without making an effort to grind. Compare that to the soul-stealing mechanic or the Sorrow titles, or Ecclesia‘s glyphs, which are far more generous about giving you the fun stuff. Maybe they’re not as hard as Circle, but they’re an awful lot more fun. Challenge is all well and good when it feels fair and thoughtful, but Circle feels like any difficulty you may encounter stems from poor design.

I get why people like the game. Some folks relish a challenge, however unfairly the game goes about generating it. And the game made a heck of a first impression back in 2001 — I imported a Japanese Game Boy Advance and a copy of Circle because I couldn’t wait for the U.S. release, and my eyes basically bugged out of my skull at the sight of Genesis-level visuals and Super NES-quality audio on a portable system; it was easy to forgive any mechanical failings, because damn.

Most people haven’t made a career out of revisiting their favorite old games with a critical eye and poking holes in their nostalgia. You guys are smart. I don’t know what I was thinking.

That being said, there’s nothing particularly villainous about Circle. I think it’s a sloppy and awkward game, but it means well. The number of crummy Castlevania games throughout the ages has proven beyond shadow of a doubt that making a great Castlevania game is really, really hard. Especially the nonlinear, RPG-like ones. Koji Igarashi and his Symphony veterans made a hash of it on their first go, too; Harmony of Dissonance was better than Circle in many ways (music aside), but it was still boring and clumsy. Castlevania masterpieces are precious gems that we should be grateful for. And anyway, it’s great to have access to as many of the classics and not-so-classics as possible for a reasonable price. Here’s hoping that Konami’s upcoming Castlevania Virtual Console release plans include Bloodlines and Legends, even if Legends is a big ol’ pile of poop. It’s a very expensive pile o’ poop, and I think the world deserves to experience its tragic life without paying $200 for the privilege.

* Except, I’m told, Belmont’s Revenge. Unfortunately it’s going to be a while before I get to that point at Game Boy World, so it’s something I can look forward to, I guess.

Posted in 2D Gaming, Games. Tagged with , , .

By request: The impact of games journalism

By request of sebtownsage

The impact of games journalism? About 56 meters per second.

141007-terminal

I tend to be fairly philosophical about this weird career path I’ve ended up on. I am not exactly changing the world with what I do. Like I mentioned yesterday, I’m writing about escapist diversions for people with both a surfeit of free time and the personal wealth necessary to own a computer or computing device, which is a rather small percentage of the world. It’s not exactly on a level with the Peace Corps, or a suicide prevention hotline, or an interpreter at the United Nations. At some point, I will probably write a retrospective about Boogerman. That sort of self-realization tends to instill a sense of humility in a man.

But looking beyond myself to the work that surrounds me… sure. Games journalism has had some impact over the years, especially if you expand the definition of “journalism” to what it actually means (creating and publishing editorial content whether factual or opinion-based) as opposed to the bizarrely narrow definition that people on gaming forums use when they sneer about games “journalists.” There’s a tendency among certain people to cripple the term journalism by limiting it to news reporter; I have no idea if this is true for other facets of the press, but it’s curiously pervasive around these here parts.

At its most basic level as a vehicle for offering consumer advice, games journalism has had plenty of impact. Think reviews. For all that I see people haughtily proclaim that they don’t deign to take advice from game reviews, someone out there must be looking at scores, because there are certain publishers and PR who get really bent out of shape about scores they find unsatisfactory. There are probably publishers who still cancel ad buys and boycott publications because of review scores, though I’m happy not to know about those situations — it’s kind of tough to be objective when you know someone is effectively holding a knife to the throat of your livelihood.

But let’s assume that the entire world has evolved beyond the need for game reviews, that people only read them for kicks — to confirm their assumptions and have their opinions corroborated — and even so, reviews still had a pretty good run. I know I certainly used to pore over magazines to look for high scores and unexpected praise. A great review score in EGM could reinforce my enthusiasm for an anticipated release or whet my appetite for some game I’d never heard of. And of course I figured anything that showed up on the cover of Nintendo Power had to be worth buying, which is how I ended up with Metal Storm (awesome!) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (d’oh).

But we can be less glib and reductive about this, too. I actually do think the games press — both large and small — has played a valuable role in changing the way people think about video games. Or rather, in making people think about video games. Certain I can credit my own heightened awareness of the medium and the mechanisms behind it to a string of excellent issues of Next Generation in the mid ’90s and, a few years later, some great pieces in EGM as the magazine reinvented itself into something richer and more substantial than a gallery of screen photos from Japan. Not that I minded the “galleries of screen photos from Japan” era; those early glimpses of games that sometimes made their way to the U.S. and sometimes didn’t were always interesting.

That spirit lives on today as the games press occasionally steps back from republishing one another’s regurgitated news bits to say, “Hey, maybe we can think about games in a different way.” Sometimes those efforts are very clumsy and embarrassing, it’s true. But sometimes they offer food for thought. Sometimes they open people’s eyes to other perspectives, other ways of thinking, other needs and concerns. They can fill people with the desire for games to aspire to be more, or for games to work more effectively, to be more ambitious.

They can also fill people with blind rage and deep distrust. The weekly “LOL games journalism” thread on NeoGAF is always fascinating, just to see how frequently people will complain about the same damn things. Every single week, as it turns out.

And fair enough; there’s some pretty terrible work in the world of games journalism. But those, I would say, are the tiniest exceptions to the rule; the games press just as often (if not moreso) provides great value. Even if you don’t care about reviews, think of all the great insights you’ve seen into your favorite developers or games or creative personalities through interviews and profiles. Games journalism has helped spread a better understanding of the challenges and processes and flaws and potential of the medium. Like everything, it has its share of crap, but at its best it can heighten your enjoyment of and appreciation for a favorite game.

Of course, a lot of the best writing has to come from small sites or independent bloggers. (Not all of it, but a lot of it.) Because great writing rarely pays the bills nearly as effectively as material crafted specifically to generate headline clicks. But I suppose that’s OK, too. Little acorns and great oaks and all of that.

Anyway — I think this trilogy of posts has been quite enough on this topic. Next time, a less navel-gazing topic. Maybe I’ll do the horse racing request. Or the Scott Sharkey one.

Posted in Blog. Tagged with .

By request: How my time in the gaming press has changed my perspective

By request of mage2

I moved out to San Francisco to join the gaming press in 2003. I moved away from SF a year ago but, like a naughty cowboy, I can’t quit you. “You” being the gaming press. Even if it would be much healthier for my body and mind if I did.

This seems like an appropriate request to field after yesterday’s, since as I told someone on Tumblr (yes, even old people like me use Tumblr), I couldn’t have written yesterday’s post a decade ago. Like a lot of people who get into the press, I started out as kind of a jackass. For that, I apologize to everyone who knew me back then. I got better, or at least I feel like I did.

I suppose when you get into publishing —which is to say, when suddenly you’re given a soapbox from which to address tens of thousands of people in a single shot — you can go one of two ways: You can listen to the handful of people who praise you for your approach and double down on the way you do things; or you can can listen to the handful of people who talk about how terrible you are, then wonder why they hate you. I’m the sort of person for whom the negative comments ring the loudest. The one complaint in a thread of praise is the only comment that sticks with me. So for the longest time, I wondered why people hated me when all I was doing was writing about things I love.

Eventually I realized it was because I was writing about the things they love, too, and unfortunately I was often being a jerk about it. Yes, there are some people out there who just inherently hate the press and assume the worst about anyone who makes a living writing about games, but the reality is that in a lot of ways we’ve driven them to that attitude. When the topic of the games press comes up, certain people always wax rhapsodic about ’90s magazines like GameFan and EGM — not because those publications necessarily had great writing (sometimes they did; sometimes they were downright dreadful), but rather because they were positive and enthusiastic. They didn’t make a business of telling people their opinions were wrong. They were generally good-natured about games, even as they stumbled over basic grammar.

Why do people hate me for writing about games, I wondered? Well, that’s because — like a lot of writers — I had a bad habit of writing about them in a way that belittled the opinion and tastes of others. I didn’t mean to; it just kind of happened, because I wasn’t smart enough or mature enough to step outside of my own head for a while and see things from the other side. If you’re looking for a bit of information about an upcoming game or new release and instead find some jerk on the Internet talking about how stupid you are for your choice of time-killing hobby… well, that’s pretty crappy. If you go looking to hear a retrospective on your favorite game or console and end up with 90 minutes of someone vomiting condescension into your ears… yeah, that’s pretty dreadful. No wonder people hate games journalists. It’s all my fault.

But really, this more than anything has been my takeaway over the past decade. There’s no value in being negative, or hateful. There’s no sense in being spiteful. We’re talking about video games here, OK? This is the very definition of frivolity. Time-wasting escapism for people with enough money to buy a computer or a TV and console. First-world stuff. This should be fun.

And that’s the thing that’s so easy to forget. No one gets into making video games because they hate video games or want to make lousy video games. People who make games do so because they grew up loving games, or a friend turned them on to games. Because they have a fond childhood memory, or because their favorite times in college didn’t come from playing beer pong and vomiting on coeds but rather hanging out with their buddies and playing Smash Bros. Because at some point video games let them escape to a fantastic world full of mushroom people or smiling slimes or pig-faced alien cops as they took on the persona of a sneaker-clad hedgehog or tough-as-nails lady space commando or any of a thousand other possible roles. They experienced those wonderful imaginary universes and said, “I want to create something like this.”

And the people who play the games they create want to be transported in kind, too. To cross beyond the next exciting threshold of virtual personhood, whether that’s as a Japanese high school student summoning demons or as some block-headed dude who can create cube fortresses by smacking his surroundings with a pickaxe and gathering whatever pops out. Sometimes games turn out very badly, but that’s not really the fault of the people who labor away at the small details. Nor is it the fault of those who buy the game — especially if they manage to find something they enjoy in it despite the flaws.

In other words, no one wants to be crapped on for having an opinion.

But the flip side is, that also applies to the press. Aside from people who build a persona around a negative schtick, I’ve never known anyone who gets into the press in order to tell people they’re dumb. We’re all pretty much into this because we like games and, for whatever reason, the stars lined up to conspire to allow us to make a living writing about them. I think, though, there’s a tendency with such an “unprofessional” profession to blur the lines between writing for an audience and casual banter with friends. Heck, that was a big part of 1UP’s appeal; podcasts and The 1UP Show and even many of our articles broke down those boundaries and made it clear that the people proclaiming their 8.5/10 scores were pretty much just normal people who like video games as much as their audience does.

It’s too easy to lose sight of all that in the day-to-day grind, the drive to say Something Important, to stand out from a hundred other jackasses just like you who are writing about the same game on the same embargo. But it’s important to keep it in mind.

I remember back when I was living in Michigan trying to find a professional track, someone told me I should write for a game magazine. This was circa 2002. I thought of EGM’s seeming obsessive compulsion to rip apart the GameCube — a system I really liked! — at every opportunity. I thought of the barely literate writing in certain magazines. I thought of how publications like Next Gen were so eager to throw away history and sneer at anything that didn’t push the graphical boundaries of the time. And I remember saying, “Thanks, but that would be awful. I wouldn’t fit in.” And yet, a year later, there I was helping to launch 1UP and fitting in… reasonably well. (A strong work ethic goes a long way to overcome being a social misfit, as it happens.) And I quickly found myself making the same dumb mistakes that annoyed me about magazines of the time.

I’d like to say there was a single moment of epiphany for me that changed everything, but that would be a lie. It was a slow and painful process. Why do they hate me?, I’d wonder as I noticed the two negative remarks in a thread full of positivity about the latest Retronauts. It took a while to get over my stupid knee-jerk reaction that involved making dismissive remarks about The Internet or hive minds or whatever; for that matter, it took a while to get over the fallacious belief that a few people on the Internet represented some vast collective who shared some unanimous point of view. It can feel that way, but no — it’s always individuals. And once I started to respect the individuality of the negative voices, I began to understand where their opinions came from.

I guess this post would have been a lot shorter if I’d just said, “Being in the games press has taught me that other opinions matter, too.” Oh well.

I have learned a few other things in my time here, though. Like the fact that there are no grand conspiracies or evil collusions in the press, or at least none that I’ve been privy to. As my comrade-in-arms Mike Williams has pointed out, people need to look back to 2007 and “Gerstmanngate” in order to find naked examples of advertising affecting game editorial, because it just doesn’t happen. People like to sneer about how IGN is just paid marketing, but when Ziff-Davis shut down 1UP and shuffled me over to IGN, I was placed in a role in which I specifically served as a buffer between editorial and advertising in order to maintain a Chinese wall between the two. (That’s also why I left about two months later, because I prefer to write rather than play politics. I’d rather attend the prom than be the chaperone, is what I’m saying.)

Video games are made by hard-working schlubs, and they’re written about by hard-working schlubs, and both categories of schlub do so in service of the hard-working schlubs who do their schlubbing so they can afford to buy video games. We’re not so different, you and I.

Wait, that’s what the bad guy always says to the protagonist, isn’t it? Ah well, the games press makes for natural villains. So it goes.

Posted in Blog. Tagged with , .

By request: Reverse causation between love for a game and negative attitudes toward it

By request of big.metto

So… this is kind of a weird, or at least convoluted, topic request. If I’m parsing it correctly, the question is, “Does a connection exist between the popularity of a game and negativity about it?” If I’m not, well, please look forward to several paragraphs wandering in the wrong direction.

But yes, a link does exist between those things. This is hardly unique to games. It’s true of everything. Popularity is a huge target that something paints on itself. Insanely successful movie? Here comes the Internet to tell you why you’re stupid for liking it. World-changing music group? So overrated, and let me tell you why with my manifesto masquerading as a Tumblr account. Popular video game? Clearly a creation for n00bs and casuals, I mean seriously.

We’ve all been guilty of it. I certainly have, though I’ve long since learned to temper my attitude. Call of Duty is the biggest franchise in gaming? Well, I don’t care much for it, but there must be something to the series if 20 million people buy it every year. Your tastes are not my tastes, but my tastes are not inherently better than yours.

I would say the “reverse causation” in question is born of several factors, which is to say that there is no single formula to account for it. Your reasons for railing against a beloved game may not be the same as the reason that guy over there complains about it.

A big part of this phenomenon, I think, is a zero-sum fallacy — the idea that popularity and success are somehow finite in nature, that by becoming popular a game “steals” popularity from another, perhaps worthier, game. Like popularity is a ledger with a natural tendency to balance itself, and each word of praise for a hit is debited from the value of a niche game. At its most extreme expression, this notion results in something along the lines of the recent Internet nastiness directed largely at women, minorities, and indie games — which I suppose is something of an inverse of the “reverse causation” phenomenon in terms of punching up vs. punching down. But the idea is the same. Straight white men who love big-budget packaged retail games from AAA publishers have become utterly apoplectic with terror that giving a voice to those unlike themselves will somehow diminish their own capital. As if every copy of Depression Quest sold (which is to say, downloaded for free) reduces the likelihood that Valve will ever make Half-Life 3, or something.

Of course, it doesn’t work this way. The games business isn’t a stagnant concern, or else the industry would still be generating the same revenue as it did in 1981. But no: More people become interested in games, the medium grows, it becomes a more valuable industry. Video games generated $2 billion in revenue at the beginning of the ’80s versus the roughly $20 billion the U.S. market alone accounts for these days — even factoring in inflation, that means one country’s worth of video game enthusiasts generates five times the amount of money that the whole world did three decades ago. That’s known as “growth,” and the bigger the industry becomes, the broader the spectrum of games it can support.

I don’t get the violently close-minded attitudes of people who lash out as if struggling desperately for survival at the hands of a serial killer when the words “Anita Sarkeesian” appear, but I can understand why the reverse causation thing happens. The medium has evolved and shifted as it’s grown, and certain kinds of games have become more scarce. The ballooning scale and costs of the big games that serve as the industry’s base line necessitate big budgets, and companies like Activision have reinvented themselves to work at the Call of Duty/Destiny/Skylanders scale; there’s no room in that company’s budget to produce another niche title like A Boy and His Blob.

“But that wasn’t niche back in 1990!” you say. Sure, but the market was a lot smaller then. Yesterday’s hit is today’s obscure corner of game design. I wish more big publishers could take a page from Ubisoft, actually. Yes, Ubi has become this massive entity that runs something like a dozen studios that build annual franchises on an assembly line, but the company allows its various factories to produce funky small-scale games like Child of Light amidst the 10-million-or-bust releases. But even so, the existence and sales of Assassin’s Creed and Halo don’t preclude the existence of quirky JRPGs or old-fashioned 2D platformers. As the big corporations grow, they create more space for smaller studios to step in and fill in the gaps. Square Enix would never green-light something like Etrian Odyssey, but they don’t have to, because Atlus makes it — and Atlus is small enough that the series can be a success selling 100K copies worldwide, whereas a Final Fantasy title that dings in at two million copies is regarded far and wide as a flop and a disaster.

So yes, it’s perhaps natural to look at Call of Duty with resentment for how it overshadows the rest of the industry. But its existence won’t keep Nippon Ichi from cranking out salacious fan service that will cater to 50 thousand people. On the contrary, if Call of Duty and Madden NFL didn’t exist to bring casual players into the fold and increase the install base of the world’s various consoles, there might not be a big enough market to support Nippon Ichi. These different audiences need one another.

To a lesser degree, I think an inherent distrust of corporations plays a part here as well. The sense that big companies only look out for their bottom line and the well-being of their investors, while persistently underestimating the intelligence of their players. Or worse, ignoring intelligent players in order to appeal to as big and dumb and broad an audience as possible. Some game that sold 10 million copies can’t be as good as my little niche favorite; anything that successful has to be dumbed down for the casuals.

But most of all, the problem stems from a lack of empathy, an inability to respect others’ perspectives. Sometimes it’s not the big games that get the reverse caution treatment; often it’s smaller games with a dedicated fan base. It’s always easy to make fun of, say, EarthBound fanatics, because they’re so earnest about it — heck, they even describe their enthusiasm with in-jokey cult references. But who are they hurting, really? So they like to write about a game as if it were divinely inspired. Clearly, it touched something inside them in a way no other game has. That’s pretty interesting! Maybe you don’t get EarthBound the way they do, but does that make their connection to the game any less valid? Not at all. And it doesn’t devalue your love for your favorites, either.

Whether it’s dudes whose entire window into gaming consists of Call of Duty multiplayer and the latest GTA, kids who prefer Angry Birds to Mario, or devotees of cult niche games, the one thing these others have in common is that they’re someone else. Their tastes are not our own. They’re third-person pronouns, not first. And, again, as we’ve seen demonstrated recently with frightful force, people who wrap their own identities up in their hobbies and pastimes often take praise for or discussion of someone else’s favorites and concerns as a slight to their own. It’s not just that those other games are being hailed for their quality; by extension, those others are placing themselves above us. The game we like is being slighted; which means our tastes are being criticized; which means we ourselves are being attacked.

Of course, this is utter nonsense, but it seems so true on some awful, fundamental level, inside our bestial little hindbrains. Maybe it’s borne of the unresolvable conflict between wanting to be unique and yet to be accepted by the group. Whatever the case, it leads wiser people than myself to sneer and posture about video games, making broad denigrating statements about others on the strength of their tastes in popular entertainment.

For my part, now that I’m old and mellow, I feel pretty dumb about the unflattering generalizations I’ve made about fandoms over the years. I mean, really, who cares? Like, I still think Xenogears was a bit of a botch job, but more power to you if you like it in spite of that. And if you still think it tells one of the greatest stories ever conceived, that’s cool, too. I can be happy for you simply knowing how much the true literary greats are gonna blow your mind when you get around to reading them.

tl;dr: Hug it out, everyone.

Man, I hope I was answering the right question there.

Posted in Blog. Tagged with .

By request: The Next Generation, Dr. Who, or Shin Megami Tensei

By request of nate.lynch

Originally the phrasing of this request made me think it was asking for some sort of death match pitting three very different media properties against one another… but eventually, sanity settled upon me, and I realized it was really a request to write about one or the other of them. As it happens, I watched the first season of Doctor Who (by which I mean the first new season, aka the Ninth Doctor) while flying to and from the UK over the past week (because clichés). And… count me impressed. Um. Well, generally impressed.

DOCTOR WHO EP3

I mean, no question about it: Doctor Who is super cheesy. The more I’ve watched, though, the more I’ve come to feel that’s by design. I don’t necessarily agree with the choice, but at least it is a choice, and the show seems fairly self-aware about its corniness. Plus, it makes the tonal shifts more meaningful; when the Doctor suddenly becomes serious or angry, it has considerably more impact than if he were always angry. (Sorry, Dr. Banner.)

As I watched through the first season, I realized I’d actually already seen the first 10 episodes or so, several years ago. At the time, they made roughly zero impression on me; I’d actually forgotten that I’d watched them until the demonic forms of “Father’s Day” started to rouse a vague sense of familiarity. And this is why I went back and watched some of the earliest First Doctor episodes — to build a greater sense of understanding of the show. Even though I only made it through the first four or five arcs of the First Doctor before losing interest, that small grounding made the more recent viewings so much more meaningful. A lot of the mechanisms and elements that modern Doctor Who carried over from the classics were just sort of glossed over until late in the first season (I think it was roughly 11 episodes before the Doctor explained why the Tardis looks like a ’60s London police box). Without that grounding, I had trouble immersing myself in the show; but once I had a better understanding of what it was all about, I enjoyed the series far more.

The turning point came with my second viewing of the episode “Dalek.” I’d heard of Daleks before my first time through the Ninth Doctor’s episodes , but had no real comprehension of what it was all about. Having invested myself in more of the series’ lore, though, I found my second viewing of “Dalek” took the episode from vaguely confusing to genuinely fantastic. Christopher Eccleston ran through quite a range of emotions opposite a prop that looked for all the world like my grandmother’s old steamer trunk — and thanks to the advent of computer graphics, the show runners were finally able to present a Dalek as something that seemed genuinely threatening. Yes, it’s basically a pepper shaker with a plunger sticking out of the side, but its deliberate movements and imposing physicality (and ability to fly) were a far cry from the First Doctor being able to defeat a room full of Daleks by knocking them on their sides.

Something I didn’t appreciate before as well was the Doctor’s gradual change of personality over the season, from coldly critical to affectionate and heroic. He never dropped his habit for snarky comments, but they grew less pointed over the course of the season. They became less critical and more playful, basically. And his attitude toward the Daleks changed considerably, too; had he faced the entire fleet early on in the season (say in place of the episode “Dalek”), he almost certainly would have wiped out the Earth to stop them. But he softened and became less of an absolutist, leading to his “demise” in the season finale and, even before that, his surprisingly forgiving treatment of, er, the farting alien woman with the ludicrous name. No, I’m not looking up the proper spelling.

Also, the supporting cast for the season proved to be really good. Rose managed to avoid being overly cloying or obnoxious as a point-of-view character, and she too evolved: As the Doctor became less difficult to relate to, Rose became a little more so as a result of her travels. And Jack Harkness brought a welcome bit of American brashness to what is otherwise a rather twee production. Plus, it was pretty daring to have had an openly bisexual (well, more like pansexual) character — and not only that, but to make him a good-looking, rugged, guy’s guy as opposed to the usual Hollywood cop-out of relegating alternate sexuality to hot women or stereotypically effeminate/evil/foppish men.

So, like I said, I’m generally impressed. I do find the show’s tendency for the Doctor’s world-saving exploits to center primarily around London something of a stretch, but what the heck… Japanese pop media always revolves around Tokyo (Shin Megami Tensei, for example), and everything Hollywood barfs out has to do with New York, L.A., or San Francisco (such as Star Trek — see? We’re full circle). I can forgive the BBC a bit of solipsism. Plus, there’s the cheese factor; Doctor Who just doesn’t have the budget of a major U.S. show, and that’s how it’s always been. I guess it’s kind of a tradition at this point.

I suppose I will have to continue watching this show.

Posted in Film, Media. Tagged with , .

I actually don’t know what day it is

Hi. I’m currently en route from Tokyo (for TGS) to London (for EGX). I decided to save my company about $600 and not make the trip trans-Eurasia but rather by connecting in Los Angeles, which — midway through the trip — I can safely say was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done. I left Tokyo at 6 p.m. Wednesday, landed in L.A. at 11 a.m. Wednesday, and will arrive in London around noon Thursday. I have no idea how I’m going to go about writing down today’s expenses. YES I DID NEED TO EAT FIVE MEALS ON THE 24TH OK

I got about an hour of sleep on the first leg of the flight, so I’m actually in a terrible vegetative state right now. I could sleep at the LAX terminal, but that would involve making bodily contact with either the seats or the floor at LAX, which… yuck. And knowing my luck I’d sleep through boarding.

In meantime, here is all the stuff I wrote about at TGS. I have quite a few more interviews to turn into features, but my semi-comatose state is not the optimal time for that.

Anyway, that’s as much writing as I can handle at the moment. I guess I am going to flirt with ebola and try napping here. If I die from this decision, know that I love you all.

Posted in Blog.