Whenever I speak to gamers who seem to have a rosier recollection of video game journalism than I do, one thing to immediately creep afloat in my mind is whether the notion of an endeavor once noble, objective, and devoid of emotion, was indeed on an ever-so-steady linear decline towards subjectivity, emotion and pure politicization. As I poured over my long-lost memories of reviews I’d read back to the late 2000s, and even my faintest recollections of very old gaming mags, I started to believe more that if a component of disingenuity wasn’t at least partly motivating these efforts of revisionism, it was certainly ahistorical to believe anything of the sort. If anything, video game journalism is better for its subjectivity, and has been much worse when it was still “objective”–whatever that word means.
But memories can be deceiving–if anything was evidenced by the penchant to believe anything was noble when it once wasn’t, I certainly couldn’t be safe from exhibiting similar behavior. So what I did is I dug up the oldest video game magazine I could find from a publicly available library online, trying to gleam from it as much context for what could be considered as the root for much of what video game journalism is now.
The year is 1981, the “Computer Video Games” magazine had published their very first issue. And as one could instinctively suspect, it adheres to all the cliches and stereotypes of a bygone era in video game journalism: There’s the unmistakable depiction of a meticulously crafted race of aliens shooting light out of their eyes, and it does this thing that graphics cards OEMs used to do in the past where they put on something vaguely pertaining to gaming culture, with the goal of attracting extra eyeballs even when the artwork is purely used for illustrative purposes, or in this case, it’s a tarot card deck for space invaders in what is only the side-dish to the main serving–the magazine itself.
Try to think of something more exciting than a computer. What did you come with: A trip up the Amazon, scoring a goal for England, landing on Mars or, maybe, beating the bank at Monte Carlo? A computer will give you the chance to do any of these in your own living room.
What’s funny to me after reading this small passage, is how utterly ingrained those concepts were in gaming culture even thirty years after this was published. Video games’ exponential increase in visual complexity and AI behavior did have the industry sometimes looking at the wrong prize–why build fictional worlds when we can replicate the experience of achieving fantastical feats right on your computer screen? But as fantasy and sci-fi have overtaken the visual palette of current video games, it was perhaps realized far later that nothing would substitute the thrill of marching beneath the seeping rays of the sun under the lush trees of the Amazon, enrolling for the professional football team of England and having the entire stadium explode as the ball finds momentary refuge in the net, realizing the near-impossible and witnessing the radioactive red glory of Mars firsthand, or even swimming in pools of greenery at a Monte-Carlo casino–some experiences were best left separated from the medium of gaming, and the extent to which we can replicate the thrill of basically re-enacting a real life event, is so far off into the future that any claim made to the contrary even now — let alone the 80s — is just erroneous and factually incorrect.
Just reading through that first page, the illusion of a once prosperous métier seems to shatter a little–the magazine was just under the spell of false advertising as was the rest of the industry. And the claims they made are empirically proven fallible even by today’s standards, but where magazines can lose out in credibility, they may be able to earn back once the analytical section is reached and more incisive information can be given in regards to the latest releases of the month.
But before that’s within grasp, an old relic we still see present in current day magazines is the inclusion of ads, but more specifically in the case of old video game mags, it was basically a sort of premature combination between Condé Nast’s signature grander-than-life depiction of consumer products, and the catalogues you’d find in Walmart which do nothing but showcase the price in bigger font than the description of the product itself. It can be safely concluded those ad spots were paid for by computer manufacturers, and as the first gateway towards gaming before consoles were ever a thing, their abundance and variety while their prices exorbitant and appropriately high, it didn’t deter anyone from gazing in marvel at the technological milestone that was interactive computing — and especially gaming — at the time.
One of the very first proto-reviews I came across as I sifted through, is of two games that read like a modern-day store page on Steam rather than a review. The software ‘Shuttle’, for the TRS-80 suite of computers, is depicted as a “highly accurate computer simulation of the flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia from initial countdown through the launch period, the launch itself, and into a stable orbit.” It then goes on to say that “the simulation may be started at one of three points in time: either at take off, at a point where the Columbia is in a stable orbit around the earth or finally, prior to landing.” The review concludes underwhelmingly: “A fascinating program, the more so because it follows fact so closely”.
Now, I couldn’t find any footage of the game on YouTube, but it was safe to assume, that it very much oversold the promise of a simulation, and thus has not fulfilled the main premise of the game even remotely. Even games that claim to do it with any measure of accuracy like “Kerbal Space Program” are way far off from the real thing being within any sudden grasp. The simple fact is, there could only ever be a very shallow approximation of the depicted event, and selling the game as anything other is but a mere marketing ploy and was not in any way indicative of the quality of the game, nor the feel of its most basic mechanics.
The same can be said for “Mysterious Adventure #1” where the most basic instructions for a text-based adventure game are redressed as an editorial. There’s a basic outline of the story, and the usual spiel of issuing commands within the console are outlined, where “directions can be designated by just the first letter of the compass point, and commands may be optionally entered with just the first three letters of the appropriate word.” Video games were such at an early stage in their lives that their reviews did not only have to be befitted with a basic outline of the premise, or the scenario at play, but it was also a chance to get some small basic information about how would the game eventually be played. It isn’t all that dissimilar from the manual coming standard with physical releases, and it’s the part of the whole experience that everyone tosses out, looking instead for baked in-game instructions or in this case, just the sheer joy of discovery and adventure without the nagging feel of basic game illiteracy lurking behind.
I continued to flip on and see what gems could potentially be hiding in further pages, and I came across a section of “GAMES NEWS” where there’s a quick outline of newly-released titles and brief descriptions of how they play. ‘Battle of the Prehistoric Giants’ makes the bold proclamation of “beam[ing] back to prehistoric times where the land was covered in swamps and terrifying dinosaurs fought bloody battles to the death.” The whole description of the game entails very vague concepts on how it would actually play out, and if a game of this tenure was to be described as such in 2019, almost no one would believe it to be true–in a twisted way, the culture around which commercialization of video games was still in its very infancy, very much encouraged a complete departure from concept to reality — à la No Man’s Sky — to be the rule an exception was supposed to break. It then was predictably capped by its price, as well as the platform it ran on.
I guess it wasn’t to completely surprise me since I’ve known that era to be fairly rife with snake-oil marketing and a much more ambitious goal of what computer processing power could achieve, versus what it ended up offering. It wasn’t completely aided by the fact that old video game mags were basically glorified shopping catalogues for what can only be described as a modern store page printed on paper with little regard to format, pacing, or what useful information players could get to justify their purchasing decisions.
To fast-forward seven years into the future, I decided to look at what should’ve been by all accounts a fairly mature look at what the NES had permitted for the video game space to exist five years into its lifespan.
The NES came out in 1983, and Nintendo Power published its very first issue in 1988. As the very first page reads, “Nintendo Power is created by video game experts for video game enthusiasts with more than 110 pages packed with in-depth tips, tricks and game reviews on all the best video games you play on your Nintendo Entertainment System”. This established Nintendo Power’s commitment to a rigorous editorial process. It also made the notable mention of game reviews by name.
It wouldn’t be a Nintendo-themed magazine without at least a good bulk of it dedicated to Mario and Zelda. So, the first page of the Mario section includes a brief outline of the Mario story–however basic and benign it is. Two dozen pages from that on includes what is basically a Google search leading up to an IGN wiki in print-form–there are basic tips given to ensure you may make the most of the experience when playing Mario, but also some hints to fully maximize the breadth of possibilities in a game where repetition and practice is of the utmost essence. The items and characters within the game are given descriptions that serve a mere mechanical purpose–the magazine basically only tells you what they do, instead of the more interesting question of how they feel.
Zelda didn’t fare that much better either–if the pages weren’t decorated with beautiful outlines of how the different maps interconnected, and the mildly amusing artwork of Link, the value for such proposition would’ve been almost entirely nullified as the mechanics-heavy jargon portion reigns supreme. Most of what people would cite as being their anchoring emotional pin to the Zelda series would not be how the magazine monotonously outlined it– it was rather the subtext of the amazing characters and the overarching narrative of the story, along an execution of role-playing elements in a meticulously well-crafted world for its time that guided so much of the product’s fanfare. Once again, this put the question of mechanical emphasis not only in peril, but it confirmed very much what I thought would be a running theme in these older reviews–there’s hardly any literature in them to indicate what the writer in charge of making the review ever thought of these games, it’s none but an empty vessel to a marketing spiel that only avid historians would legitimately enjoy reading.
Bear in mind, all of this happened well after the great video game crash of 1983. So if anything, publishers of the gaming press had in their best interest to change their messaging of video games from highly-commercial, to astutely personalized. But we’ve seen very little of the sort as the underpinnings of most publications continued to entail tips and tricks, listings of gaming hardware with its price overtaking the presentation, and a never-receding presence of copycats and scams where the presence of more rigorous literature about gaming hardware and the games people buy, could’ve proved a useful contingency against it occurring in the first place.
This made me ponder the question of why retro gaming makes up such a huge chunk of the current gaming populace — so much so, the most popular voice actors in video game history have made a channel to solely focus on it — but what I ended up coming back to, is just how utterly atrocious reviews of past games were. Gaming press at the time just did not provide a compelling read of their most influential releases, and even as Nintendo Power has had five years to reckon with the cultural impact of the NES beyond the television screens, they were still entrapped within a rigid format of tips-aggregation and the simplest forms of analysis on games’ themes, subtext, and messaging.
But before I succumbed too much to historical cynicism, I had to at least give 90s-era magazines a go–they’re the part of gaming culture I remember the least since it’s the one I co-existed with during my early childhood, but expectedly had no cognitive capacity to consume beyond the slimmest amounts of retrospective essays on YouTube or an editorial piece here or there in written form.
The release of the first PlayStation is a very opportune moment where such a shift can be perceived. Independent video game magazines have started to crop up and solidify their places in the press, and some are still publishing until this very day.
One such contender would be Game Informer, and its #42 issue of 1996 particularly caught my eye with a cover featuring Crash Bandicoot–one of the most iconic games of the era, and one that has ceremoniously enjoyed a critically acclaimed remaster for current-gen consoles and PC.
This is where one starts to see the roots of such “purely objective” and “devoid of personality” game reviews. On the right of the first page, there’s a brief outline of what three distinct reviewers thought of the game, and a breakdown of their score that then was rounded to a number in increments of 0.25. But the problem here is, there’s no telling what an “8” on concept meant versus “9” on concept–for one, the gaming press hadn’t used a unified methodology of their breakdown scores, and not all of them in fact, calculated the overall this way. So with the absence of a unified sense of the format such reviews have to take on, gaming journalists had to improvise, and it did lead them to make decisions that would later then become ingrained in the very fabric of video game journalism well into modernity.
On the rest of the page however, a more traditional video game review takes place. There’s — to counter relative basic game illiteracy at the time — a quick outline of the game’s technical characteristics and style of play. For instance, the mention that it comes on a CD-ROM instead of a cartridge is repeated multiple times throughout, and the comparisons between it, and a close counterpart in Super Mario 64 were not spared. Perhaps the most insightful paragraph of the bunch was where the writer made a brief mention of a PC gaming staple at the time–Doom, and went on to break down the fundamental concept of the game:
Take Donkey Kong Country’s graphics, and multiply it by ten, then add a Doomesque 3D quality to the fray, Crash Bandicoot features two styles of gameplay–3D action/platform, and 3D third person. The action/platform levels themselves involve a significant amount of 3D movement. While accomplishing the task of moving from one direction to the next, Crash will also have the chance to jump into the background. The 3D third-person levels basically place Crash on a straight track. The objective is to run forward, dodge obstacles, destroy enemies and find the exist. Sometimes though, Crash will have to take different routes and actually backtrack towards the gamer.
There could’ve probably been a way to contract most of that into two sentences, but what this shows, is that the gaming press had accounted for the very real possibility of a reader having not played a single video game in their life, and are therefore completely unfamiliar with complex jargon that video games expect you to instinctively have. Wherein a modern video game journalist might’ve summed that whole description into a simpler “it’s a linear platformer where objectives and gameplay mechanics are clearly defined”, it could only afford to be longer and more detailed since the video game medium was still in its very infancy, and such terms were still relevant in describing the most basic visual presentations and gameplay mechanics. It might make a buffoon out of someone now if they dared to do as such, but back then, that was the norm, and it could only be criticized on the presiding norm’s terms.
Readers now take it for granted, but there was a time where the most rudimentary aspects of a video game had to be broken down due to low access to gaming literature and the very slow pace at which information traveled when the internet hadn’t still become mainstream. It’s not for naught that one of the only ways they can still be accessed is through an online archive, and not like the New York Times where such a story would still be preserved on the main website–gaming outlets would very much like you to forget that legacy since it’s so utterly embarrassing, even with the benefit of hindsight.
Another problem plaguing the gaming press at the time was the lack of accumulative literature to allow it breaking out of the usual mold. The printing press had existed for well over a hundred years prior, and artistic endeavors such as theater, music, and the motion picture have been given the time to mature and bloom whilst the audience fully understood what they are–you needn’t know how a movie was shot, to be able to enjoy it, for example.
If you crack open a movie review — such as of the Bruce Willis led Last Man Standing— from the same month this issue of Game Informer was released, in September 1996, you’ll quickly notice that it resembles reviews of current times more than the technical-jargon-filled write-ups of times past. It did also help a lot that the New York Times had been boasting a thickened profile of professional writing that they’re able to set the terms upon which their literature is read. People have been enough acquainted with the artform as it is, and were therefore capable of immediately immersing themselves into this piece of media, without having to read twenty-times the text size just to have a remote understanding of what they’re getting into.
Funnily enough, the aforementioned movie review doesn’t include the price of the average ticket, or an emphasis on production houses or distributors involved in the making of the movie–it rather hinges completely on the literary content of the movie, in a way that video game reviews haven’t been able to quite master yet. It was just simple fact that in the 90s, movie reviewers were far more seasoned journalists than video game reviewers ever were, and there was a lot of catching-up to do after nearly two-decades where boilerplate-filled journalism did not budge from the throne, and was very much the standard to adhere, not the one to innovate against.
As we move into the internet age, the script starts to get flipped a little bit–journalists are now much more comfortable with tackling the medium, and the audience has grown a heightened sense of literacy with the jargon necessary to understand it. No longer was it primordial to include a basic outline of what a platformer, a first-person shooter, or a strategy game would entail–it was just as simple as skipping all the introductory garble, and lunging straight into the meat and bones of whatever game is being reviewed. This saw the rise of websites on a regional basis — of the most influential, there was IGN on the North American front, Eurogamer.net was fan-favorite for many in the UK, and francophone countries — including those across the Mediterranean — mostly congregated around the website jeuxvideo.com otherwise known as JVC, among others.
This was huge. As the gaming press was starting to establish a business away from the shackles of a profit-thirsty gaming industry, immeasurable swaths of gamers all gathered around their literature, discussed it, and picked apart its intricacies on their host forums and sometimes, even outside of them. The conversation surrounding video games as a medium was taken outside the timid pages of a poorly-structured magazine, well into the grander consciousness of nerd culture.
With that popularity, came a side of greater responsibility–websites like IGN didn’t only want to ascribe themselves the title of gaming press body, but they also wanted to claim the prestige of a traditional media organization, along with the natural credibility it carries.
To at least get an idea how this radically shaped the industry, we must fork forth to the height of 6th-gen consoles well before the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 hit the market.
Silent Hill 2’s IGN review by Doug Perry is an interesting sampling of journalists’ sensibilities of the era. It didn’t open with a technical breakdown of how the game worked, or what storage medium it came on, it was rather opened with a statement on the genre it occupies–that of survival-horror. It’s one of the remarkably longest standing statements on platform-rivalry, and the kind of reporting that would become standard ever since the market started seeing greater penetration by Sony and Microsoft when it once was unequivocally dominated by Nintendo. Doug writes:
It’s almost impossible to think about the survival-horror landscape without mentioning Resident Evil, so, I’ll make this quick. Nintendo may have snagged the Resident Evil series for the next five years or so, but it’s really no worry. Why? Because of Silent Hill 2.
This was simply a rare occurrence. The fact that it didn’t open with the terms 3D, DVD, or even PlayStation 2, saw it confirm that the time where mechanical analysis takes precedence over contextual relevance is very much of the past. Doug Perry opened his review masterfully by breaking down exactly why the Nintendo’s initial exclusivity deal with Capcom’s Resident Evil, would not hurt the Sony brand since it now has a thematical counterpart to compete against.
The review eventually devolves into the usual round of mechanical descriptions and a lengthy breakdown of how the game operates–serving once again the glorified role of a manual. But that is quickly remedied with a personalized read of the game’s mechanics once the gameplay section is abound. Doug opens it with the following:
Just like Konami achieved in its first Silent Hill on PlayStation, Silent Hill 2 is a study in surrealism and eerie, psychological fright. The game is perfectly set up from the start, slowly drawing players in with loads of atmosphere, unsettling environments, and unstable characters.
The rest of the gameplay section very much follows suit. Doug isn’t talking about the particularities of gameplay, and is rather focused on the emotional reaction it elicited from him. He talks in terms that would be deemed “too vague” or “undescriptive” in today’s charged climate, invoking stuff such as “the sense of creepiness doesn’t subside a bit” or even that “the sheets and sheets of volumetric fog, truly the thickest [he’s] ever seen in a videogame, create a claustrophobic feeling that destabilized [him] like never before”.
When this is contrasted with Janet Maslin’s review of Last Man Standing, we see them sharing many contemporary characteristics of reviews of entertainment. It wasn’t that the reviews grew “softer” or were somehow less inclusive of information than they were before–if anything, the antiquated focus on mechanics over substance, had been rightfully identified as a hindrance to the gaming press. Gamers weren’t seeking out a review to learn how to play a game, or even have that description be laid out to them verbatim–what rather brought them in droves around video game journalism, is the shared understanding that knowledge once insular and contained within very small groups of people, was now becoming widely accessible. In the same way that one might scour the web for a spoiler discussion of Avengers: Endgame to feel the joy of watching the movie reciprocated, early video game reviews published on the web served a very similar purpose. They were not the decisive the literature on video games by any means — they were just anchorings of a conversation that didn’t have the space to flourish prior.
But even IGN hadn’t broken free of attaching numerical values to arbitrarily designated aspects of a game. As the most popular site, and one that controls the narrative of video game journalism in the great land of America, its decisions were not taken as footsteps to rigorously analyze and learn from, but it was rather seen as a formula to replicate until similar success was achieved.
Despite so many video game reviews starting to adopt a very pronounced subjective component, the score system kept sticking out like a sore thumb, a thorn on reviewers’ side, and players were inadvertently communicated the message that video games’ key distinction from popular media — in that of interactivity — must be the one to set it apart from other mediums, and is therefore the reason you can assign it qualitative values without it raising any eyebrows.
Video games have long included easily accessible barometers of player skill, and player reward. From the onset of arcade gaming well into the age of consoles and PC gaming, racking up the highest score through a not-so-subtle round of competition was often the be-all-and-all by which the business model survived. Arcade games in particular did not have that easy-to-maneuver gameplay systems, so it allowed the creme of crop to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack. That — among other things — created the very first prototypical “holier-than-thou” behaviors in the gaming community: The idea that we could accurately measure how good someone is based on a simple numerical breakdown of their performance, and we’re therefore to apply it in order to segregate between casual scum, and the seasoned hardcore.
Kirk Hamilton, ex-Editor-at-Large of Kotaku and co-host of the gaming podcast Kotaku Splitscreen often described it as “the urge to fill up bars”. To see a score even climb a decimal point higher can release its own splurge of endorphins and hit the reward system within our brains in all the right spots. That visceral excitement one gets from knowing they’ve progressed along further just by looking at a number, is in retrospect quite mind-boggling–whereas a piece of music could be exponentially more complex, and still manage to split opinions on its quality, video games don’t bring out of us the same sort of intangible emotional response we get from music, or even movies. You can’t put a number on a song that you like, or a movie that you’ve enjoyed–you can attempt to, but it’ll look wildly different from person to person. And even in the event that a publication like Pitchfork still does them, they’re by no means a dictating figure in the industry on how it should be done.
Players’ eagerness to assign immutable truths to their love, or elsewise disdain of a game isn’t only based on the very nature and the birth of the medium itself–it’s also predicated on historical precedence that sees this tradition going as far back as to the 90s. Where criticism of other forms of media had largely overcome the maturing period, video game journalism was still in its very infancy grappling with the very foundations of what would constitute the bulk of its reporting for near forty years on out.
This is where at least some of the discontent with modern video game journalism currently resides–partially ignited by movements like GamerGate. The whole gist of it is without going into too much of problematic literature, is that game reviewers have moved away from a tradition where they were to evaluate a video game on its sole merits, without injecting their own sensibilities, or political inclinations into it, but I’d like to posit the idea that ignoring much of the political context surrounding the creation of video games not only shows a clear political bias, but it sells non-political point of views as functionally apolitical, which despite what the prefix might say, is decidedly wrong.
In interacting loudly with the movement, I’ve come to realize while branches of criticism are sprawling, there seems to be two major points of contention between it, and the larger body of modern video game journalism.
The most principal seems to be one of opposition to de-emphasizing mechanical analysis, in favor of a thematical one: this is seen most evident if you read a game review of the Division 2 for example–the systems of gameplay are so complex and convoluted, that dedicating one entire slab of text on them would be not only dreary, but an utter waste of time since part of the appeal is breaking down these systems as so happens in real-time; the focus is thus shifted away from formalities, and well into its most-recognizable distinguisher: that of a looter-shooter. And within many of the game’s reviews, interesting parallels are drawn between it, competitive shooters, co-op survival games, and the frenzy of looter shooters to dominate the market since the release of Destiny.
A presupposition of this nature assumes that the amount a singular aspect is talked about relative to the entirety of the piece is proportionate to how the reviewed thought it important–this is clearly not the case. Some of the best reviews are the ones that forgo mechanical analysis when its least interesting, and pace through directly into the crux of it all.
To invoke yet again retired game journalist Kirk Hamilton, he did a review of Red Dead Redemption 2 that later then became the main inspiration for my own review of the Witcher 3. He spent copious amounts of time just digging into the history of Rockstar’s fictional virtual playground, and his remarks on the different ways Arthur could interact with the environment, the characters, and everything around him made it a joyous review to read.
Not once after reading it or listening to it narrated through Kirk’s soothing voice, did I ever get the impression that he put any arbitrary cap on his enjoyment of the game. It brought atop something unforeseen, something he couldn’t have possibly anticipated, and it aroused out of him a reaction he didn’t think he would have after playing many of Rockstar’s past modern-day nihilistic musings. I certainly have known what Red Dead Redemption 2 was after seeing a few of my favorite streamers play it, but I haven’t quite awoken to the impact’s experience on a journalist I’ve come to trust since, after they’ve immersed me so effectively into what it felt like to play the game, without even seeing a lick of footage accompanying it.
The review was so impactful, that it pushed a regular reader of the site to create an account with the sole purpose of making their admiration known for its writer.
There’s simply a breadth of emotion I can’t have access to by simple way of watching a video of a game, or seeing an enamored streamer plow through it even as their eyes occasionally well up. That unique capacity in which video game journalists are able to articulate the hard-to-articulate, is what makes them necessary to the well-being of the medium. They’re not just playing to have fun–they’re the intellectual backbone of the whole movement since its very beginning, in both literal and figurative terms.
Within that review, Kirk made a point to mention the hard work of developers from low-level employees, to top-end management, and tied the magnitude at which such a massive plan of careful coordination, to the pursuit of artistic endeavor:
It is nearly impossible to answer any of those questions, just as it is impossible to assign credit for this marvelous and unusual game to any one person, or even any team of people. That’s just the way entertainment of this scale is made: vast numbers of people spread around the globe, churning for years in order to make something previously thought to be impossible. It’s a process from a different galaxy than the lone artist, sitting quietly in front of a blank easel. It has as much in common with industry as with art.
This leads perfectly into another point of much-publicized disdain by GamerGate, which is the constant politicization of an artform they thought could remain apolitical, when nothing of the sort has any basis in historical reality. That assessment simply does not match the circumstances under which video games have been made, and the wilfully consumerist tone under which they’ve been once examined.
The development of the modern industry was built on the back of colonial powers’ stolen riches from lands once-unconquered. Most of primary source materials we’ve come across to build our beloved machines of play are now being mass-manufactured through the unduly labor of thousands of inadequately-paid workers in the Southeast Asian front. We continue to buy these products, indulge in the very entertainment we thought could be infallible and immune to criticism, but we come now at such a pivotal point in time and history, and with more data than ever being available on the plight of climate change courtesy of human progress, there’s no shrugging away that the very foundational technological feats to allow video games to exist and thrive in the first place, have been essentially built on the back of slave labor, and the riches of many a countries ravaged by war, exploitation, and poor government–often which, have been encouraged by political campaigns, and encompassing of all major industries, including that of video games.
To say that any of these past developments was not ushered by political circumstances unique to that era, and particularly prevalent in our own is just historically misguided, and at best purposefully deceitful. The fact we’ve so much information on the tip of our fingers, within a pocket’s reach, is as big a testament to information technology’s radical shaping of our modern-day prospects and aspirations, as it is a stern acknowledgment of the bloody history to have allowed us these boons to begin with.
Unfortunately for our most ethically-minded players, video games are built on anything but ethics. They rely so much more on the development of massive industries in a way traditional movie making, or even music, don’t. These latter products’ development life cycle is spread out over a healthy medium, and their conception can be just as easily done if the production volume of their tools was significantly lessened. Video games on the other hand require dozens of millions of consoles to be made over a short period of time, it requires a variety of PC components to be made with no measure or prediction for when or where one might meet the other, it needs a massive infrastructure of broadband to maintain a healthy online competitive experience, and the video game developers we’re conventionally taught to sing the praises of, have done nothing but earn our mistrust over repeated accusations of crunch, and mismanagement that has led to the decline, and eventual downfall of many.
The inclusion of LGBT+ characters, others of differing colors than white, or the occasional instance in which a non-Christian entity pops up (God forbid those exist right?) are not any more political than the issues we’ve grown accustomed to in the gaming industry from the factory, until your order of a console is right at your doorstep. The simple fact of the matter is, video games have evolved into an entirely new space, and are now employing demographics away from the homogeneous reality of even a decade ago. When forbidding differing opinions from carving out a following, or subjugating the existence of non-white, non-straight characters to a political subtext, gamers just do run the risk of running a hypocritical scheme of massive proportions–it’s one where their existence is defined as the default, and one where the considerations of minorities and women are thrown into a shredder while the status quo strengthens its hold as no attempts are made to challenge it.
It’s why when games are talked about in a political context they do not warrant, I’m often met with the reality that the existence of the very medium has been predicated on political circumstances the wider audience has just chosen to conveniently ignore. But it’s when politics of a differing wing from the one a specific group of players might ascribe to are abreast, the case is quickly made in their opposition despite compelling evidence being provided to the contrary by video game journalists, and game developers alike.
Video games aren’t just becoming more diverse because the people who make them are also getting diverse, but it’s also that the medium has cut through race, religion, ethnicity, gender and sexuality in a way very few others have before. Despite the regular cast of recognizable video game characters not being all that dissimilar from our traditional preconceptions of who populates this world, the people who play them project so much of themselves on these characters, that it’d be sacrilege to strip of the opportunity to truly see someone like them on these entertainment products of mass-consumption.
And that’s what video games are–a produce of a capitalistic society with the sole aim to sell to as many people, and appeal to their broadest desires and identities. Including a non-binary character, widening the spectrum of sexuality, being able to play a black character with time-appropriate sensibilities, or even approaching the game’s interpersonal romantic relationships from a feminist perspective isn’t forcing a political view on anyone–it’s merely breaking away from a norm so cemented, that doing otherwise would be innovative regardless of execution.
When video game journalists’ mental and physical livelihood is put into peril for the sake of maintaining a legacy, the question to ask is whether that legacy’s demise was an agenda-driven secretive plot by the minority elite, or whether it was just an organic progression from the largely straight white male driven industry that’s only now starting to become inclusive of identities deviating from that default. An adequate follow-up also, would be whether grief to occur on behalf of a concerted flow of negative social interactions is well worth it to change consensus in the end.
Many have been attacked for sullying the name of video game journalism, for that it was taken down the drain, and that SJWs (heaven forbid) are mucking up the reputation of an industry once prosperous, and inclusive of more objective metrics in an endeavor that now holds of journalism only the title. But put simply, basing an entire review on a mechanical breakdown of gameplay in objective terms is just functionally impossible to do.
When you break down a game to its most essential mechanical elements, what’s left there is but a mere recreation of the tutorials menu, and that’s about it. We wouldn’t know what the reviewer felt while playing it; we wouldn’t know if they reveled in its silly or were otherwise repelled from its icky; we would have absolutely no clue what it feels like to be in the skin of the player characters. If all a reviewer can say about a gun is that it “handles, fires, and behaves like a gun”, reasonable comparisons can be made between radically different same-genre fixtures like say, Call of Duty and Borderlands, without it being problematic–it’s only after introducing the subjective element that the distinction between the two comes alive.
Think about the most amazing lines you heard, saw, or read in a review. One that immediately comes to mind is Chris Roper’s passage about Need for Speed: Undercover’s atrocious live-action sequences:
One of the bigger things hyped about the title since its first showing is the presentation and its live action cutscenes. By and large, these fail to do what was intended in a pretty big way. […] It’s also so overacted that you can’t help but wonder if there was any sort of scene director on site because this is the stuff you see on the first day of acting school.
Or Tom Bramwell’s amazing retrospective on the first Assassin’s Creed:
There was certainly little else wrong with the open world that the first game takes place in, and five years later the beauty of places like Masyaf (the smaller city home of the assassin order) and Damascus endures. Viewed from street level, they are bustling hives of activity, full of street vendors, washer folk, guards and thieves, all bickering and bartering, while viewed from the rooftops they are a sea of sun-baked mud bricks, wood beams and palm fronds.
The lack of a more relatable and personal connection between your actions, the world, and its inhabitants — combined with your lack of influence — means quests begin to dissolve into wild goose chases around the world to check things off a list, and feel meaningless. It makes the idea of continuing to progress the story — listening to more audio logs, running across the country to search for more doohickeys, reading through more diary entries — feel exhausting.
I only rarely found Red Dead 2 to be “fun” in the way I find many other video games to be fun. The physical act of playing is rarely pleasurable on its own. It is often tiring and cumbersome, though no less thrilling for it. No in-game activity approaches the tactilely pleasing acts of firing a space-rifle in Destiny, axing a demon in God of War, or jumping on goombas in Super Mario Bros. Red Dead 2 continues Rockstar’s longstanding rejection of the notions that input response should be snappy, that control schemes should be empowering and intuitive, and that animation systems should favor player input over believable on-screen action.
And yeah, there’s something mildly ironic about a game some people were excited to see critique the extreme right, that tries so hard to say nothing, it ends up embracing center-right politics. But just because its politics are potentially disagreeable, doesn’t mean it’s saying nothing, and we ignore that at our peril. And to be clear, I’m not saying the game is bad because its politics are right-leaning. You can respond to the game’s politics however you will, it’s not like I can rake Far Cry 5 across the coals for making things fun after I praise Id Software for doing the same thing in multiple videos. What I’m saying is, it’s bad to suggest the game has no political perspective, because it doesn’t try to tackle its most obvious targets. […] But by focusing on empty surface-level empowerment, and refusing to take a stance on anything, either through narrative or gameplay, Far Cry 5’s incidental ideas come to define the game’s worldview.
Those are the ones I have a readily available cognitive link to, but there are many more that I watched, read, and heard throughout the years that’ve shaped who I am as a player, and defined my tastes for the remainder sickly days of my life.
What all these excerpts all had in common, is that they strongly characterized the reviewers’ subjective point of views on something they personally believed to be beneficial to their gaming experience. Whether it’s good cinematic direction, a breathtaking atmosphere, impeccable environmental storytelling, healthy friction against instant feedback, or the lack of a clear political motive from a game that riffs on inherently-political themes–it is that well-wrought panache video game reviewers bring, that has sharpened the critical sense of players, and up-and-coming journalists alike, in helping them further understand a medium whose only purpose was once confined to the button presses, mouse clicks, and trigger pulls.
Discussing the merits of a critical look at any given video game should be bound by rules of civility. No one should think it normal to send a horde of followers after a journalist if they disagree with them, nor should it be the rule that whoever thinks their criticism more righteous, is the one to define the rules of the conversation. We’re all here to entertain a healthy sense of criticism, and we should be equally accepting, and affording each other the space to argue and come to a consensus or an easy medium in good sport. The problem in so many discussions surrounding video game journalism ever since the rise of GamerGate, is that they’re hardly rooted in truth, and if they happen to be, their recollection of the truth is a stark dissonance from what actually was.
If pandering to console manufacturers and makers of software is the golden age GamerGate types are yearning for, they should quickly back down from it as such a proposition was never on the table. What I can confidently say having followed the gaming press for more than a decade now — and very much since I got access to broadband — is that things are better now than they ever were. There’s an unprecedented variety of content, and it’s allowed even an independent front of gaming reviewers, creators, and essayists to flourish on platforms such as YouTube. Some of them have set the standards for what level of quality should be aimed for–Errant Signal and Mark Brown only to name a few.
What separates traditional media, from independent content creators however, is journalistic rigor. The aim of writing a review entails its own set of ethical concerns, and isn’t only enclosed within the confining walls of a game console enclosure. It’s not actually all that important to maintain consistency throughout reviews since so many different people write them, and since according to most reviewer guidelines, the reviewer reserves the right to pick their own score, at their own discretion.
Some have made it work without a score, but it never quite put a lid on the everlasting GamerGate concern–Is what’s truly wanted, a comeback to the tenets of ethics in video game journalism, or is it nothing but a trojan horse for more invasive and nefarious ideas about the identity of video game reviewers, who their opinions pander to, and the radically different lens from which they view the world?
Video games have become but yet another slant of our increasingly complex lives. And as these lives continue to intermix and connect with different sides of ourselves, we can’t help but include if only a tiny bit of our recently-developed sensibilities about our own roles, and the roles of others in society in our own analysis of media. With that, comes a renewed sense of reacquaintance with video games. One that isn’t unidimensional, prescriptive, or essentialistic, but rather built on our newly-found discoveries on the human condition, and the way it impacts not only the games we play, but everything surrounding us, including what contributes indirectly, or directly to their creation, then their prosperity or their failure.