Why I’m A Mass-market Sellout Whore

Right, so Aevee Bee wrote a very interesting short blog post on “The Case for Never Talking About AAA Games.” I read it and I think in many ways she is spot on, but there’s a couple of places where I disagree, and have been urged to do so by various Twitterati I am going to attempt to get them down in succinct and short order.

Be warned you will probably be mad at me after this post.

Right, so. First of all Aevee writes about games for money and I do not (except that one time). This isn’t to say she only writes about them for money, but someone coming from the working world of games journalism/criticism is coming from a different base context than me, so I want to make that clear, because I think it does color a bit of where we diverge.

That said, here’s where we agree:

  • It is easier to critique all of a game when that game can be played in two hours rather than two weeks. This is an issue that’s haunted games criticism forever, though; when I wrote my Games and Culture article on Persona 3, that was a full playthrough. I put 60-70 hours of work playing the game — just playing it and taking notes — for that thing. Never mind collating notes, revisiting sections (YouTube is fantastic for this), making conclusions, drawing comparisons. That was two plus months of work. I was thankfully in an academic setting where that’s not a problem. Not everyone’s got that luxury.
  • AAA games are pricey. Way too pricey, and the death of the rental market isn’t helping. Redbox is an option (that was how I experienced Bioshock Infinite), maybe, but then you’re under the gun to finish the game in record time so you can get it back before the rental starts to cost like buying new. Gamefly is also an option, but is highly unreliable with new releases unless you plan way in advance (and even then, some luck is required).
  • The promo media machine of the AAA game space works on maximum overdrive, primarily to stimulate purchasing need and, by extension, almost universally manufacturing as much moment-of-play disappointment as they did consumer interest.
  • While Aevee hints at this more than says it explicitly, there’s also the problem of not having any goddamned time to dedicate to a AAA title — especially something huge and sprawling like an RPG — before people have already sent their dogs to the hunt in the game critic-o-sphere. The critical community is expected to pluck, devour, and (sorry) regurgitate the experience of playing something like Bioshock Infinite or Mass Effect 3 in a matter of days. Not weeks, not even a month: days. I being up Infinite because that was what I had to do. And I did it willingly, don’t get me wrong, but some of that fatigue that Aevee describes, I felt… and part of me wonders if I became uncharitable to that game overmuch because I didn’t have time to inhabit it. It’s like saying “Oh, I’ve visited New Jersey” when the reality is you saw College Park through the windows of an Amtrak train going a zillion MPH. “There were cows! Nerf cows!”

So I think on those three points I agree. On some others, however…

I think my primary issue is with the idea of exhaustion or fatigue, because I think primarily it’s something that the post attributes to the AAA style but which I would like to argue is not necessarily endemic to them. The examples Aevee gives us are Spec Ops: the Line and Bioshock Infinite (and by small mention, the original Bioshock). To be honest with you, those games tired me out too (I lasted approximately 10 minutes into Spec Ops before I just shouted “OH COME ON” and threw down the controller, so let’s be fair and say I probably didn’t give it a fair shake). Far Cry 3 gave me a similar sense of weariness; holding the controller in my hand I went, “Do I really need to do this?”

But man, I’m going to be honest — and here is where I am about to get into serious trouble — a lot of small, independent games do this to me too, but in a different sort of way. I think the stuff Porpentine does is my entry point to this. I’ve played a few of the things she’s made, specifically Twine things in an attempt to better understand Twine’s place in the queer game dev counterpublic that’s growing and spreading out on the wild internet savannah. Some of them I found quirky but fun and engaging; my go-to there is Crystal Warrior Ke$ha, a really quite fascinating take on Ke$ha’s public persona that we played, out loud and as a group, to kick off the recent QUILTBAG Jam we did at the lab. I really liked it; it doesn’t hurt that it’s about music and making music part of the story and the thing I love to do the most to Twine games is set them to music using YouTube background links and video game soundtracks.

On the other hand, I tried Howling Dogs (which you’ve probably heard of if you were following events at GDC) and All I Want Is For All of My Friends to Become Insanely Powerful as well and… my ability to engage with them wasn’t quite as successful. I don’t know what to call them; “absurdist” seems unfair but as texts they are powerfully abstract, often drenched in vocabulary that tests your sense of abjection, using vibrant body horror imagery. And they are not necessarily technically difficult to navigate, but I found it hard to enjoy them and even harder to play them, to get involved with them, and to feel a part of them. To be honest about my affective response, I felt mocked; it was if the game was saying “I have a really smart point but you, reader, are too stupid to understand that point. Haha!”

Now before this spins off into an unfortunate direction, I don’t think this makes them bad or unworthy of notice/critique (quite the opposite; the less I understand something the more I want someone to work it out even if it’s not me). And like any reading of a text there’s as much of me, and my personality and likes/dislikes and whatever coming into play as anything else. But as a reader and a critic I just felt that I didn’t want to engage those two texts for very long. Doing so was taxing. And interestingly enough, it was partly taxing for some of the reasons Aevee mentions about triple-A titles.

Many of the people who I follow in the games crit space, people whose opinions I respect and trust, had all said “Dude, have you tried Porpentine’s stuff? You should, it’s fantastic!” And the less I felt like I understood what I was reading, the more hurt and angry I felt at myself for not getting it and (to some extent) the texts for making me feel that way. There was this pressure to not so much like but to “get” the “right” stuff. I shouldn’t care about the latest mass-market pap! The smart, awesome peeps I know have it down and know what’s good. And the less I agreed, the less I felt I could talk about what was “good” (and to be honest, the more I felt like not saying anything at all, for fear of feeling like a fool).

Yet I got Crystal Warrior Ke$ha. I dearly love that game, and I felt like I “got” it. So the logic or emotions behind my utter, utter inability to engage the rest of Porp’s stuff doesn’t necessarily reside in her medium/tools (Twine), in her writing voice, or anything else for that matter. It was all about the context of reception.

(Porp, in the unlikely event that you are reading this: I hope I haven’t offended you by using this example, and I think your successes speak for themselves.)

Honestly, I feel this way about a lot, a lot, of “independent” games in general. To be honest the more I perceive that a game is a “message game” or an “art game,” the more irritating pressure I feel to have a Stance™ on it, for good or for ill, in the critical community. And liking or disliking something it’s done or attempted on an individual level doesn’t seem possible: you’ve got to be for it or against it. If you’re saying “but that happens in AAA too!” then yeah, you’re 100% right and that’s sort of my point. These attempts to make cultural touchstones, regardless of arena, put a tremendous amount of pressure on people who make their way interpreting those touchstones. The immediacy and swiftness of internet publishing and social media create a time pressure; a desire to belong and to be viewed as thoughtful and smart create a content pressure; the cost of the activity in time and effort create economic pressure. I’m not saying that removing any of these would suddenly create the One True Pure Criticism of anything, but we need to take into account the effect that these things are having on our opinions.

But whatever those effects are, they’re not created solely by the AAA space. The indie community can and does have its own impacts on how people approach those games, and just because a game isn’t a big mass market manshooter doesn’t mean it can’t be taxing to consume.

On to the second point. Aevee says that “[s]maller, cheaper games are usually way shorter, but they have a lot more to say about the one thing they really care about. Espgaluda II is about nothing more than threading a beautiful gender-fluid lazer death fairy through a wall of pink bullets. Skullgirls cares about nothing other than ridiculously high standards of traditional 2D animation and fighting. Neither of these games are very ‘intellectual’ (whatever that EVEN MEANS) but they are also genius at what they do, and so I find there’s a lot of things to talk about. I think good writing, which mine isn’t always, is really focused but deep, which describes a lot of small games to me.”

This isn’t necessarily untrue (though I would argue Skullgirls is as much about the culture of fighting games as it is a Frankenstein-style attempt to create the “perfect fighting game” but that’s a story for another day). It stands to reason that if you strip away some of the excess grandiose stuff that surrounds what happens in the AAA space, you have more of everything — effort, time, money, attention, will, passion — to put into focusing on That One Thing. There’s a reason that Ridiculous Fishing works: you trawl for fish and then you shoot them for money you use to buy better fishing/shooting gear which then lets you get more money. Vlambeer and co. put only the tiniest extraneous comedic touches on that game (like the “Byrdr” fake Twitter which, in a stroke of true genius, is linked to actual Twitter accounts) and it is the better for it.

But here is my question: why must every critique of a triple-A title be holistic? This is a problem my game studies students have — which all starting critics have and nobody ever truly grows out of — where we see a thing we are interested in and we are going to explain Everything Right Down To the Smallest Detail. Not every critique needs to be the grand unified theory of [game here]. Not every piece of art, or cultural text, is going to be 100% worth your time in terms of commentary. To be honest, this is where AAA games probably are the best example. 90% of the content in a manshooter is extraneous, carbon copy, sequelitis pablum that does not bear talking about so why bother? Take the one thing the game did well — the one thing about it that makes it worth your damn time — and talk about that. Just that. I mean, be aware of its place in the structure of the game as a whole, of course; there’s a difference between being focused and wearing blinders. But you can do worthy critique without having to Explain Everything.

I mean, think about any mass market games journalism review you have ever read of a role-playing game, especially if it’s a JRPG and comes from an established series. I swear to you, the first five paragraphs of any such review reads as follows: “Wyvern Quest 6 is the latest in the Wyvern Quest games. In it you play a hero who wanders the land beating up monsters for money and equipment so you can save a princess. I will now exhaustively list every last mechanical system that this game not only has in relation to its predecessors, but also to every other JRPG in existence, up to and including the totally nonsense phrases ‘immersive storyline’ and ‘deep customization,’ among other real whoppers. At no point will I ever say what stood out as the quality that pulled me in and engaged me about play, unless that element is the graphics.”

Whenever I read those damn articles I want to hit the speaker in the face with a shovel. Why do that? We know it has menu based combat! Look at a bloody screenshot with a menu in it, for fuck’s sake. Tell me what’s interesting! If you sat there glued to your TV for 18 hours straight then I’m going to hope something other than a looming deadline or a sorely-needed paycheck motivated that so tell me what the hell it was. The truth is, with the smaller and more focused games Aevee mentions it is probably just easier to identify that engaging thing, glom onto it, and discuss it at length because there’s less distraction. But I feel like it’s unfair to shut triple-A games out of getting that treatment. Perhaps it’s more fair to quote the old proverb, “A hunter who chases two hares catches neither.” Maybe the real fault is that AAA games considerably more often are trying to do too much and need to back off. I’ll buy that. But I think that critique that tries to focus, to read around and through a particular POV of a AAA game, has value.

So to sum up, I don’t necessarily think I disagree with what is at the core of Aevee’s critique. But I think it’s more fair to say that the triple-A form is no longer her deal and trying to adhere to the current model of critique for that space is hurting her. On the other hand, I’m actually pretty okay with my status as corporate whore in some ways. The world needs people who look at both aspects of game culture, and ideally they can speak enough of a common language so that, in speaking to their expertise, they can talk to each other about how those thoughts and ideas can inform any and every game design space.

8 thoughts on “Why I’m A Mass-market Sellout Whore

  1. Good article! I agree with you more or less 100%. When it comes to game reviews these days, instead of taking the opinion of one reviewer to heart, I’d rather read the first and last paragraphs of several reviews, check the metacritic score and make the decision if the game is worth playing based on what I feel is the overall opinion. Generally, if there’s a chance any game does any small element well, or does some major element horribly wrong, I’ll want to play it, but I guess that’s my inner game developer always seeking new inspiration and ideas on how to do things right and how not to do things.
    While some of their writers are a lot more skilled than others, Kotaku addresses this quite nicely with the “Should I play this?” box which quickly highlights the good and bad of a game. The problem with writing reviews is mostly that if we aren’t exhaustive we worry what others will think.
    To sum things up, game journalists indeed shouldn’t waste time writing about the unimportant parts of a game, because I won’t waste time reading them. THERE ARE SIMPLY TOO MANY GAMES NOW!

  2. This might be an overly reductive response, but might we be getting to the point where it’s time to treat the medium of games more like books and music and less like film?

    That is, the number of hours of games that comes out in a given year is well beyond the capacity of even dedicated critics to manage. For the time being, that may not be true in just the indie sphere. However, a large part of the Twine and related movements are about lowering the barriers of entry to allow more voices. If that movement succeeds on its own terms, than it will be flooded with playable hours as well, albeit in smaller packages.

    Maybe the days of games that all gamers must play are just past and specialization is a path of the future.

  3. I thought about it a bit more, and think I’ve got a less reductive response. I don’t actually know whether book criticism the way I discuss below, but it feels that way from the outside.

    The gaming market is big enough, I think even when limited to the non-AAA sphere, that I’d say it is wasteful to expect or even desire critics to spend much time engaging with works they find, on the whole, to be frustrating.

    That isn’t to say that critics shouldn’t try to engage with works that are challenging, certainly should not exclude games without ad budgets, nor should they be spared all work that lacks polish. I think specialization, if defined in such a way to include thematic or gameplay elements of particular interest to the critic, is a good way to avoid frustration while not relieving the critic of the duty to seek out the new, the difficult, and the lesser known when relevant .

    Admittedly, the specialization approach means that some areas of game criticism could be left underserved. However, while critics do have a salutary incentive to go into underserved spaces, I think that approach has its limits. If such an area is outside of the critic’s specialization, they may do well to find and promote those doing good writing in obscurity already in that area.

    Thus, I think it is totally valid to choose a specialization that excludes AAA or that excludes shooting people in the face or any number of choices that would focus one on the non-AAA market. I think you make a great point Todd that writing about the entirety of a AAA can be critical malpractice. The specialization model might also suggest that those critics that do look at AAA titles should zero in on the parts of most interest to them and skip over the rest, openly and without apology. That said, I do think Andrew Vanden Bosch is wrong, there are many things well worth writing about for some critics that are happening in the AAA sphere. Moreover, I think that focused criticism of popular titles is probably one of the easier entry points to criticism as a google search on some aspect of Bioshock: Infinite leads to writer who can then introduce many new things to the reader. At the margin, there are probably too many writers spending too much time on the AAA sphere, but I think for most that’s an argument for pulling back, not abandonment.

  4. This all makes a lot of sense to me. One point to mention is that for people who are not writing for money, then there is a greater freedom. I would love to see more writers willing to address older games, perhaps focussing on particular corners of interest. It is a real shame that so much writing is basically about establishing a stance in relation to this months new release, as you say. If you are writing for your own interest rather than for immediate revenue, then there is little reason to be locked into that cycle: play what you like, write what you like.

  5. I think you’re onto something here: I think that non-AAA games aren’t necessarily better than AAA games (which is what Andrew seems to be suggesting), but they’re a lot more critique-friendly. There are limited elements, mostly the fruits of a few minds, and the intention and relationship between the parts can usually be untangled with a lot of precision.

    That doesn’t mean there isn’t meaning to be found in the massive spectacles of AAA games. It just means it’s much harder to do it quickly, cleverly, with the kind of head-nodding consensus that Andrew likes to see in his game criticism. Maybe that’s all he’s saying… maybe he’s just saying, “Never trust a review of a AAA title, and don’t bother writing one if you can help it.”

    But I sense a lot more going on in his piece. He talks about how they’re exhausting to play, and he implies pretty clearly that BioShock Infinite is dumb despite being minorly addicting, and he says that Spec Ops’ meaning can be reduced to a “starchy residue.” It’s not the writing or the analysis of AAA titles Andrew is criticizing… it’s the actual play experience. If that’s actually the argument he’s making, I strongly disagree! And I think anything worth experiencing is worth reading about, and therefore writing about.

    The only angle wherefrom I can agree with Andrew is that maybe we should writing reviews of AAA games. I can get behind this, mainly because I don’t read those reviews.

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