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‘Doing it for the hits’ – a bizarre criticism of games journalism

Every writer who’s ever published a vaguely controversial games-related article – be it a review, preview, editorial or news story – will have seen the same old comment. “Oh,” they say, “they’re only doing it for the hits.”

It’s a strange criticism, not least because – well – yes, that’s how online editorial works.

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So you want to be a games journalist…

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Mr. Savy Gamer himself, LewieP, suggested we “new wave” of games journos do some posts about how we reckon the next wave should be looking to get into the game. So here’s my advice, in seven chronological steps. Enjoy! And as Lewie says, this is the internet, it’s interactive, so feel free to kickstart a Q&A in the comments.

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How Possibly To Do Good Games Journalism, Maybe: The Open Questionnaires – Part 1

The tentative guy-who-doesn’t-know-what-he’s-talking-about-trying-to-tackle-big-questions series ‘How Possibly To Do Good Games Journalism, Maybe‘ is back! And in a somewhat different form.

Over on the GamesPress forums (which, as you may have guessed, is a community linked to the GamesPress portal that is inhabited by games journalists), I’ve been trying to prize some information out of people about games journalism practices. I’m hoping to run a few of these “open questionnaires” over there, which I’m then going to post some of the results of, with names removed, over here. I don’t want to incriminate anyone, y’know? Privacy first, and all that.

The first topic was this: Review scores, and the popular assumption among our readership that there are dodgy dealings going on in order for publishers to secure them.

I approach this as someone who’s only been working properly as a games journalist for a little over a year, and even then only ever part-time. Not once have I been offered any sort of bribe or score pursuasion. The closest I’ve ever felt to this was when a PR rep asked if they could have text approval. I said no. That was the end of the matter.

Anyway. Specific questions were:

  • Have you ever been offered money for, or in some other way stood to benefit from (eg. being allowed to publish a review before general embargo, exclusively or otherwise), a high review score?
  • If yes, what course of action did you take?
  • What do you think perpetuates this idea among our readership? Does it happen? Is it all conspiracist nonsense? Any other thoughts on the matter?

And here’s what was discovered.

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How Possibly To Do Good Games Journalism, Maybe – Part 4: On publicising our relations

Well, that was a big old delay there.  I think I was busy, or something. Goodness knows – but more than a week has passed, and my daily ramblings about games journalism haven’t been updated once. I fail. Big lesson of journalism: be able to churn out excellent copy in three seconds, half asleep.

Let’s put this shit right.

Today I read a piece at Negative Gamer called ‘Videogame Journalism Doesn’t And Can’t Exist.’

I found it rather mundane in its insistance on arguing semantics. Wardrox’s main point is that his own definition of journalism – which is investigative by nature – cannot be applied to writing about videogames, assuming the current relationship between press and PR remains the same.  As a central argument, I don’t like it because it doesn’t seem to serve a purpose.  Who cares how you define journalism? Surely the big question is how we get better at doing whatever you want to call thing thing.

But if we follow his argument through… well, he’s kinda right.

It probably makes sense to affix a big, sidetracking preface here, on the off chance that someone reads this who has no idea of the actual inner workings of the videogame press and – quite reasonably – believes the constant rumours of corruption and suchlike.  So here, in as much detail as I can be bothered, is the general goings-on of reviewing a computer game.

Your publication might be on a regular review code mailing list, or you might have to get in touch with the publisher’s PR firm to request a copy of a given title.  Either way, assuming the PR company is happy to provide you with evaluation code, you’ll usually receive the game, in a box marked ‘Promotional copy. Not for resale’ and without any accompanying literature except maybe a press release and an NDA if you’ve had to sign one, between a week and a month before the game’s release date.

(Or, in the case of some PC games, a download code and user/password.  It doesn’t matter.  The specifics aren’t important.)

You’ll have agreed to an embargo.  That is to say, you’ve made a non-contractual agreement with the publisher that, if they’re going to provide you with the game, you promise not to talk about that game in your publication until a given date.  Often, this is just before, or sometimes on, the release date.  If you’re a lucky publication that’s been selected for the exclusive review, your embargo will be a while earlier than everyone else’s.

And then you review the game.

And that’s all there is to it.

The exclusive might have arrived via a few different routes.  Maybe the game got lower-rate advertising for a given period.  Maybe the publication agreed to running the review as a cover story.  The idea is that both parties benefit – the game and magazine both get additional publicity.  But most publications will have a policy in place that ensures such a deal won’t compromise their own editorial integrity.  In Eurogamer’s case, for example, I know the editorial staff do not have any access to information about advertising deals, payments, whatever.  They just write the review and post it when they’ve been told they’re allowed to.  On the three occasions we’ve run an exclusive review at Resolution, all that’s happened is we’ve asked for it, and have been told ‘yes’ – usually off the back of a positive hands-on preview.  One time, we were asked by a PR rep if they could have early access to the text.  We said no.  They said fair enough.

Sometimes, something a bit dodgy might be proposed.  Maybe sometimes, the mags go for it.  I wouldn’t know.  I’ve not been in this game long enough to have that experience.  It’s certainly never happened to me or anyone I know.  Unless people are lying, in which case I hate them all.

Cleared up?

Awesome.

So.

We were talking about being PR’s bitch.

Which we kind of are, in a less overtly horrible way.  News writers’ leads are usually press releases, which are either re-written as a news report, followed up with a phonecall for an additional quote, or whatever.  Maybe someone’s tipped the writer off, and they’ll make a few calls and try to turn it into a story.  But that’s about as far as it goes.  We post our news when we’ve been told it’s okay to do so.  If we post something they don’t like, they’ve every right to take us off their mailing lists for press releases and preview/review code, making our jobs harder.  It’s sensible not to really upset PR reps, y’know?  No one’s going to blacklist someone for a negative review (except… no, I’m not going to name them, that’d be ludicrous. No one reasonable is going to do that), but what about breaking a story they’d been asked not to?  What about posting a review before embargo?  These are all things that have happened, and have resulted in PR companies cutting ties with publications.

Our hands are, to some extent, tied.

Which is kind of nice.  It’s nice that we have to work ethically.  It’s nice, because it means I have a couple of acquaintainces in PR, and it doesn’t feel like we’re always working against each other.  Because we’re not.  Our jobs, boiled down to the bones of it, are the same: get good information about games, and good games themselves, into the hands of eager players.  If we both succeed at that, we both win the work game.

In another sense, though, it means people like John “Wardrox” from Negative Gamer get mad.

And you wouldn’t want to see a games journalist mad.

Wardrox argues, then, that we need to bypass this PR machine if we want to start producing what he thinks of as actual journalism, or we’re going to be stuck in a rut.  Which seems like a reasonable assertion.  If we hack deeper, scratch beneath this surface and stop always bowing to the wishes of those we’re reporting on, we can Do Good Games Journalism, Maybe.

Except, I think we can do it without having to annoy anyone, break any ties, or suchlike.  I think we can do it via better co-operation between all parties.

Watch Leigh talking about the three-way ecosystem of negativity, which is a brilliant way of putting it.  Leigh says, quite rightly, that to move forwards we need to establish a sense of trust between those making and selling the games, those writing about them, and those consuming them.  She demands better access so she can report more fairly, something she also covered at length in a Gamasutra article I can’t find the link for off-hand.  It’s something I absolutely, totally agree with, but I think we could take it one step further.  I think we could take it into actual, proper repotage mixed with a healthy dose of subjectivity, editorialising and criticism.

I think, basically, we can all get involved in reviews.

Imagine this situation.  I get sent a game for review.  I play it.  It’s brilliant.  It does things I didn’t think possible in the confines of what videogames are capable of.  Currently, I might have – say – 1500 words to articulate this opinion, and shove a number on the end.  The more I think about this idea I’m having, the more that seems totally archaic.  Maybe the game was awful, and so I spend that word count slamming it and giving it a 2/10, with no real insight other than to put everyone the hell off.  Maybe – god forbid – the game was hopelessly ordinary, and I settled on that forsaken 6/10, that damned-by-faint-praise mark, and struggled to hit my 1500 words due to being terribly bored by the whole experience.

What are we really communicating with our audience here?  What are we really saying, beyond what the fans can just as easily tell each other on release date?  If we give the game a glowing review, people are going to dissent.  If we don’t, people are going to dissent.  And because all we’re doing is presenting a qualitative judgement as a quantitative finding, and making a seemingly objective statement about a game’s quality, we’re doing a disservice to everyone.

How about this?

I get a game for review.  I play it, and it’s brilliant.  I’m fascinated by a particular feature that works unbelievably well and is completely unprecedented in gaming.  I make a phonecall to the PR rep, who puts me in touch with the lead designer, who in turn puts me in touch with the guy who implemented that feature.  We speak about it, and I get a few quotes.  I go back to a blank word processing document, and begin to write.

I don’t write a review, as such.  I write a feature on the game, giving insight into the development and, hopefully, not just whether I liked the game, but why I liked the game, and what developmental processes went into making me like that game.  Maybe I’ll do a couple more interviews.  Get a few more quotes.  Fill the article with the sort of insight that goes far beyond what the current system is doing.

Say I play the game and I hate it.

I phone the PR and blah blah blah, same process. But this time, I’m furious with the developer.  When I saw their game in pre-production, they promised the bugs would be ironed out and the story would be deeply clever.  But now, with the review code, the bugs are still there and the story’s flimsy as a… actually, I didn’t think that simile through.  Anyway.  Devs, publishers and PRs hate it when they get bad reviews, and feel their game has been mistreated.  I imagine every games journo has had multiple emails from PRs, publishers and developers who feel they’ve misunderstood a certain aspect of the game, or come down too harshly on another.  But we still report the bad qualities of a product because it’s only fair to our readership to do so.

But how about we give these developers a chance to stand up for themselves?  Hell, why don’t we demand it?  I remember Kumar telling me about a conversation with… Simon Byron’s niece, I think… in which the wee girl had said something along the lines of “The game was really disappointing. They lied about it.  From what they wrote on the box, it sounded brilliant, but it wasn’t.”

And that, folks, is about as insightful a thing as I’ve ever heard spoken about games.

Yeah, mister developer.  Why was your game rubbish after all that hype?  Mister PR?  You sent me a feature list with all these things on it, but half of them weren’t in the game.  What gives?

And by reporting on that, by offering that chance to shout back, we’re doing everyone a service.

Those making the game get a platform to respond to criticism, where previously doing so just seemed petulant.  Journalists get the chance to actually be Wardrox-journalists.  And the readership gets not just an arbitrary recommendation, but an actual insight into why the game has turned out like it has.

I imagine people are going to say it wouldn’t work, because PR are still controlling the access we have to developers for interview time, and no PR in their right mind is going to allow that access if the result is going to be a negative article.  But hey – that’s only the case while it’s the norm to behave like that.  And all it needs to take is one big magazine, working directly with one big company that handles PR itself (hi there, Valve), to make that first move.

It could be really special, y’know?

It really could be.

How Possibly To Do Good Games Journalism, Maybe – Part 3: On Being A Tard

Hey! Remember two days ago?  Before yesterday, when I didn’t post anything here, due to Comrade Richardson pouring goodness-knows-how-many tins down my throat the night before? Remember that?  I said I was reviewing Risen!  Well, I reviewed Risen!

Risen’s going to be today’s case study.  I hadn’t planned at all on writing this.  Today was going to be On The Relationship Between Developers, Publishers, Public Relations Officers and Journalists, which probably would have been too long a title, thinking about it.  That can be tomorrow, maybe.  This is totally going to go on far longer than a week.

But given the response to the Risen reviews so far, makes sense.

Of course there was going to be a backlash.  Risen’s been an interesting game to review, and almost as soon as I started playing I knew I didn’t want to do a normal write-up.  It became more fiercely experimental once I started writing these blogs, and less fiercely experimental when I read it back and realised half of it was some of the most incomprehensible gibberish I’ve ever penned, but it was always going to be an experiment in some sense.  There was a point where I suddenly felt guilty about this, as if I wasn’t serving my audience correctly, but then I thought… hell, my audience is only fairly small.  And besides, as far as ulterior motives go, trying to write the fairest, most honest, most transparent and wide-ranging review I’ve ever done is a fairly ethical one.  What it boils down to, ultimately, is that I was trying to make it good.

So, why Risen?

Well, it’s small enough for it not to be hugely consequential unless it was absolutely brilliant, which I knew straight away it wasn’t going to be.  Yet it’s been long-awaited by a small, dedicated, passionate fan base who would very obviously love Risen no matter what its quality.  As in: the very nature of what it was trying to do, along with its cult-classic lineage in the Gothic series, meant it was going to be huge in some people’s diaries, and that it was at least trying to do something that bravely appealed to just them was going to score it a lot of points.  Also, it’s a really interesting game.  Honestly.  It’s really fascinating and often brilliant, despite often being rubbish as well.  It’s worth the effort, y’know?

Er. Got sidetracked for a few minutes there, air-drumming to Paramore.  Where was I going with all this?

Oh right, yeah.

So basically: you wouldn’t know I thought that if you just read a couple of comments over on RPG Codex, for example.  In order for a big experimental review like this to be successful in the way I intended – ie. something useful for all the potential players approaching the game – it needs to be one that people actually read.  Site stats indicate that just over half have, and that’s lovely, but it still means a few hundred people have gone and skipped straight to page three and the big, red six out of ten at the bottom.  Someone called me a “console tard,” charmingly.  Someone else said the 6 out of 10 obviously meant the game was just too difficult for me.

(Brief sidetrack: I’ve been ranting about difficulty at Gama, so maybe that’s related.  Leigh tells me she disagrees entirely, and is planning a follow-up piece, which I’m both looking forward to and dreading, as she’s far more elegant in her argument structure than I.)

Anyway, point being, nowhere in the text do I say the game is too hard.  I say it makes things difficult, and there’s a huge difference.  Specifically: I was fine in combat and so on, but it still took me half an hour to work out how the interface worked.  Once I was on a quest, I was dead good at completing it, but it regularly took me hours to find one worth doing.  I did get beaten up a lot by rival factions, and I love that about the game.  Man.  Read what I’ve said, or everything falls to pieces.

But that’s neither here nor there.  I should have just done a two-sentence review, like we established would be the best thing to do the other day.  No one else to blame.

What we’re really here to talk about is user backlash, why it happens, and what can be done about it.

But I’ll need your impact, ’cause Christ, I’ve no idea on that last one.

Why it happens is obvious.  We’ve established that we’re all here ’cause we really love games.  That’s a passionate stance, and with one comes personal connection to the material.  So, in Risen’s case, we’ve a spiritual successor to a series of games that were moderately well received in the press, but which many fans felt were highly underrated.  Here, we have a collection of embargo-day reviews saying again that yeah, this game does some things right, but it also has a hell of a lot of problems that meant we didn’t enjoy it.  And really, outside of Germany, it is rather a concensus.  I mean, there’s a big range of opinions, but it’s a concensus that it’s not absolutely, world-changingly brilliant.  I’ve seen scores ranging from 3 to 8 (or equivalent) from the UK types, and that’s pretty much the range I considered too.  In the end, the six was pretty arbitrary.  It’s that kind of score.  It goes on games you can’t pin down.

So people are upset, because they’ve been waiting all these years to love Risen, and what happens is that someone in a position of some bizarre power comes along and says “I didn’t like this game.”  And then people go a couple of different ways.  Well, three: if you don’t care, you don’t care, but that’s not important.  Other than that, you either become worried that the game might not be as good as you hoped, thus being disappointed and frustrated, thus reacting; or you feel personally insulted, as you’ve pledged alliegance to the product and will defend it for all it’s worth, even though you’ve not played it yet, because you feel like you will love it, even though someone else didn’t.

So: it’s either about fear, the unpleasantness of having your beliefs challenged, or loyalty.

All of those are visceral human reactions.  You’re not at fault for feeling offended if someone says they fucked your mother.  If the connection you hold with this game is already that strong, an absolutely delightful thing, then sure, have a rant.

The question is… well, actually there are two questions.  Let’s deal with the other one first.

Isn’t it relevant that you’ve not played the game yet?

Well, sort of.

A European site whose name I can’t remember reviewed Uncharted 2 at a 7 out of 10 the other day.  So, a good score, but a far cry from the life-affirming marks elsewhere.  This is the game which French PS3 magazine actually invented a score for.  In a hilarious moment of Spinal Tap proportions, the game received one mark above a perfect score.  I’ll save my thoughts on that, as it might result in my blowing my brains out onto the computer screen.

But the response from the community wasn’t really as I’d expected.  It wasn’t “oh, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” or “how dare you?” or any other such.  It was one of immediate suspicion.  Why is the score only a 7?  What’s their agenda?

Which is so preposterous, and that’s the sort of reader response I will always rally against.  People do love a good conspiracy theory.

So the final question is how we go about addressing this reader backlash, in its various forms.  And I really think that, in all its guises, the best way is through complete and utter transparency in every way.

Way back when, I had an idea for Resolution’s reviews, which would be to split them in half and do one section to cover all the hard facts – Does it perform well? What about the other versions? Is the engine up to scratch? What about the interface? How much of it did I play? How much should I have played? What’s its target audience? Am I that audience? If not, then what am I bringing to the table? – and the other section as a critical analysis.  It wouldn’t work, because it’d be far too messy, not to mention violating the maxim we established the other day which is that we should always be using as few words as possible.  Plus, what are facts, y’know?  But doing this would serve a purpose, because it would mean everything you wrote would be, by definition, absolutely water-tight.  Unless you outright lied, of course, which is another matter entirely.  But if we’re saying “this is what I think, based on this version, and this playing style, in a game intended for this type of player,” we’re assigning a strong agency to the piece while making very sure that everyone understands exactly how we’re approaching the situation.

And sure, you’d still get the odd “CORRUPTION!” call, but it’d be a nice step in the direction of eradicating that too.  How about being clear about our relationship with PRs etc?  Not having it so shrouded in mystery?  Honestly, before I got into this, I hadn’t the faintest idea how it all worked behind the scenes.  No one had ever told me, and any time I’d asked people seemed reluctant to share.  Which is odd, as there’s nothing untoward going on.  Not that I’ve witnessed, anyway.

Final mini-case-study: Eurogamer’s 4/10 Risen review, by Dan Whitehead.  Which is pretty scathing and, as many have angrily pointed out, based largely on problems with the interface, controls and technical problems that initial reports suggest are isolated to the Xbox 360 version, despite the review being listed as a multiformat one.

I think this could certainly be helped by being utterly clear about what the review applies to.  I mean, personally, I don’t think they’re the main problem with Risen; I think it’s more broken in a fundamental design sense.  But that might just be me, and Dan seems to have got on worse with the mechanistic aspects.  It’s a small shift, but that transparency could be essential in building our relationships with the audience – which, of course, as you might have gathered by now, is exactly what all these pieces are about.

Two questions to ask you, then, vagely related to all this:

1) What’s the first thing you feel when you open a mag to see someone’s written a review you violently disagree with?

2) Who’s your favourite games journalist, and why?

More soon, probably.

How Possibly To Do Good Games Journalism, Maybe – Part 2: On Reviews

We’re going to do a bit of experimentin’.

I’ve been playing upcoming epic role-player Risen for the past couple of weeks.  At midnight Thursday/Friday, when embargo lifts, I’m going to be publishing my thoughts on Resolution.  I’ve written about 900 words already, and by the looks of things, it’s going to be a sprawling, multi-page thought piece on the very nature of videogames, games journalism, and all sorts of other related aspects.  Er, I might try to review Risen at some point, as well.

Thank goodness I run my own website.  This sort of shit wouldn’t stick anywhere else.

But I like to think I’m doing this for good reason.  If we extrapolate upwards from yesterday’s blog, in which we decided that the only way to write about games for a large audience is to be wholly transparent about your inherent subjectivity and fandom, then we reach my conclusions about what to write in my review of Risen.  I’m trying to be evasive about the specifics of why Risen is the game to make me decide to do this, as I’m under a big fat non-disclosure agreement, but hopefully it’ll become more apparent on Friday when you read the piece.  For now, let’s port all this over to a completely unrelated made-up game of which I have no idea what I think.

This made-up game just so happens to be an expansive, open-world RPG with a heavy element of grey-area decision making, in a land where people remember and respond to your actions throughout the course of the story.  That story is one that never emerges as what you’d expect from a Bethesda-school RPG: it’s always masked, and clouded, and hidden away, and each of the quests you take on builds up a rapport with a particular faction who steadily work you through the game and on something resembling a main story.  This takes many, many hours to appear properly.  It’ll probably lead you to restart on a number of occasions, just like this made-up game has done for me over this last two weeks when I’ve obviously not been playing it because it doesn’t exist.

If I had been playing it, though, I’d probably have realised long ago that I wasn’t really enjoying it, for a difficult-to-pin-down reason, despite admiring a lot of the made-up game’s specifics.  And I’d probably be acutely aware that it could just be me, as there’s a lot to love, and it really does play up to what a lot of people are increasingly demanding out of their open-world games.  So, were I to be reviewing this made-up game instead of Risen, I’d probably feel the only sensible way to approach it would be to discuss all of these conflicting factors, the nature of game reviewing and the idea of a subjective experience that contradicts what most people might get out of the game.

With me?

I hope Risen’s publishers aren’t.

Let’s sidetrack.

I was going to touch on a few of the issues in this blog post in separate ones, but I’ve decided to lump it all together into something more tangible: on reviews.  How do write a good game review is something that’s been discussed at length, at plenty of places.  Shaun Elliot’s Games Journalism Symposium, which sadly never really got off the ground, did deliver a great number of ideas from an array of experienced, admirable journalists, over the two sessions of its short lifespan.  It asked questions such as ‘Should you always finish a game before reviewing it?’ and ‘When do you decide on a score?’ and ‘Should you write for a specific audience or try to be broader?’ and various other big Qs.  The reason it’s so hotly debated, of course, is because it’s still the area of games journalism that draws in the gaming masses.  People flock to magazines and websites with exclusive reviews; people scour Metacritic for responses that agree with their own.  This is the section that generates such fervent discussion.  We need to get it right.

So what is right?  Well, we might say that a good game review will cover all the basics of what playing the game is like, criticially analysing them as the piece goes on so that the reader, by the end, has a good idea of both whether and how a game works.  We might infer from this that the best way to review a game is to first identify what’s at the core of the experience, then extrapolate outwards, establishing how all its themes and mechanics and visuals link together to create some sort of cohesive whole.  We need to be providing some sort of insight that will aid players in their consumer decision-making.  If it doesn’t do that, then surely it’s more a piece of criticism rather than consumer advice, and as such is for a niche market, and as such falls out of the remit of what I’m talking about here, which is: how do we go about our writing in the general videogaming press.

Okay.  So we need to identify with the core of a game, then extrapolate outwards.  So to do this, a while ago, I started all my reviews by first trying to summarise it to myself in a sentence.  What is this game?  Answer in as much detail as possible, with reference to the game’s quality, in no more than a few words.

Which I’ve found a really healthy way of doing things.  It helps to cement a notion in my mind, and helps me to understand where I’m going with the review.  But recently, I’ve been thinking… if I can do this, if I can carefully and succinctly explain a game in a single-sentence, with reference to the game’s quality and in reasonable detail… why the bloody bloody hell am I writing 1500 words about it for general release?

George Orwell famously wrote that you should always aim to churn out the minimum number of words required to convey a message.  It’s increasingly my belief that this should be games reviewing’s overall aim.  Take this review of The Godfather II (pardon the nastiness of the formatting – it’s a relic of the previous site design), something I was very pleased with at the time of writing, and a piece I still believe flows beautifully.  Yeah, I’m modest.  Have a read, and then have a read of this.

The Godfather II is a game in which you’re encouraged to beat up women, yet one that responds with worrying distain when you run over a pedestrian. The result is that there’s always a strange disconnect between its juvenile sense of humour and its more realistic mechanics, which spoils a game that otherwise looks, sounds and plays in at least a satisfactory manner.

Alright, so that’s two sentences, not one.  Maybe we should be looking at two-sentence reviews.  And okay, there are a few things I missed out – like the strategy elements that probably aren’t really worth mentioning anyway.  But I’m pretty sure I managed to say just as much meaty stuff about The Godfather II in that short paragraph as I did in that whole intro-vomiting session I linked above.  So why didn’t I?

A love of my own voice, perhaps?  Probably in my case, but maybe not in someone else’s.  A desire to communicate adequate information?  As games reviewers, we’re always screaming at readers to NOT JUST BLOODY SKIP TO THE FUCKING SCORE AND ACTUALLY READ ALL THOSE WORDS WE MADE.  That’s because we rightly feel we’ve said more in that 2000 word essay than we did in that single-digit number.  But do we ever really stop to think about why people skip to the score?  The summary at the end?  Heck, to Metacritic?

People don’t have time for this shit.  People need to know whether they should buy that title NOW!, as they wander into Game browsing the internet on their flashy, new-fangled mobile telephonic device.  If this is our audience, and we established yesterday that we need to actually become that audience in order to effectively do good games journalism, then we need to be ruthlessly efficient with our words.  Do we want people to stop skipping to the score?  Yes?  Then we need to give people a reason not to skip to the score.  A real one, that’s practical and useful, and still conveys all the necessary information about a game.

It’s doable.  Honestly.  Try me.

Deus Ex?  An action-stealth-role-playing hybrid in which players follow a compelling*, conspiracy-laden story that remains stunning despite ropey voice acting.  The level design and RPG mechanics meld seamlessly together, allowing you to carve your own path through the game and play in a style that suits you; and the narrative responds innovatively to your choices as you progress through this definitive masterpiece.

BioShock? A mostly-linear FPS that encourages dynamic combat and exploration, despite occasionally not demanding it enough.  It hits absolute brilliance through a masterfully told and deeply intelligent story, which borrows heavily from the work of Ayn Rand as players venture through the once-grand underwater city of Rapture, driven onwards by the harrowing tales of its history and that of its formerly-human inhabitants.

Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust? A terrible, sex-crazed slop of an adventure game that’s not even worth thinking about.

See?  I can do a single sentence review.

Of course, now you’re going to ask me why I’ve decided to write a million words on Risen.  And I’m going to tell you to stop being such a dick, and also that I’m not actually reviewing it.

Orwell also wrote that you should be prepared to break any of his rules of efficient writing if necessary.  It’s necessary here.  I can’t review Risen.  My experience of it has been too tempestuous and confused for me to deliver a definitive verdict.  In fact, just by that alone, no one is going to deliver a definitive verdict on the game.  If you’re reviewing it, and you think you have, you’re wrong, because I’ll almost definitely disagree with what you write.  So what’s the point in pretending?

So, instead of writing a review for the masses, I’m going to write a think-piece for that little niche market we’ve not really discussed so far.  But we will, soon.  And it’s going to be fucking brilliant.  Just you wait.

*Eugh.

How Possibly To Do Good Games Journalism, Maybe – Part 1: On Fandom

I’m just some deplorable fankid who somehow got lucky enough to end up writing for some of his favourite publications, as well as running one that people seem to like.

Games journalist?  Ha.  “Journalist” makes me sound important, as if I have something to communicate that’s necessary for the greater good.  Which, of course, every inch of my brain screams that I do.  I’m having to work bloody hard to supress that with the knowledge that it’s all completely irrelevant.

The Labour Party Conference is currently going on at the Brighton Metropole.  That’s where Develop’s held every year.  When you think about it, it’s completely bizarre that I was sitting in the same place, at the same sort of event, as this enormous group of people who have the most important job in the country.  But that’s the case with everyone that attended.  Me?  I’m at the lowest of that. I’m pretty sure I was the youngest there, except for maybe a few of the kids in the yellow helper T-shirts.  I spent most of the conference wandering around and recognising everyone from the pages of magazines, from the telly, or from wherever.  Literally no one will have recognised me.

Because I’m that little fanboy, that kid who read PC Gamer religiously from age 13 and thought, yeah, these people are actually communicating ideas about computer games for a living, and that’s exactly what I wanna be doing.  And, somehow, I’ve ended up doing it a bit.  I’ve yet to have anything published in print (actually, that’s a lie, I’ve had plenty of music-related stuff in print, just not games stuff), but my credits do, somehow, include Eurogamer and Gamasutra, among others.  But I’m not deluding myself.  I’m no journalist.  I’m a lad who loves games, and writing, and writing about games.

The question is: How many games journalists is that the case for?

Other questions include: Is it a bad thing or a good thing?  and What can the professionals learn from the fanzines, the bloggers and the angry young men on forums?

Swiftly darting back to Develop, I recall a conversation with excellent-actual-games-journalist Mat Kumar, in which he referred to his job as “being given free money.”  He loves games and writing so much, he said, that he’d be doing it as a hobby however his career had turned out – so to be in a position where people are paying him to do that is basically no job at all.  Which is totally how I feel whenever I get a cheque through for this.  But then, I am still in a position where it’s novel.  He’s not.  Kumar’s about as journalistic as games journalists get.  He’s written for basically everywhere worth writing for, reporting on all manner of industry facets and producing deep, investigative studies.  He’s a journalist.  Yet he still has that streak of fandom that runs through everything he does.

Let’s back up.  What is journalism?

“Journalism is the craft of conveying news, descriptive material and comment via a widening spectrum of media.”  That’s from Wikipedia, so it’s probably wrong, but it’ll serve as a nice description here.  News, description and commentary. How well does that fit in with games writing? Stop for a moment and ponder that.

How about this?  “A fanzine is a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon (such as a literary or musical genre) for the pleasure of others who share their interest.”

So the key difference to me seems to be the notion of professionalism or officiality.  There’s also the implied idea that fanzines are just about communicating something for fun, rather than out of necessity.  But, as we realised earlier, there’s very little necessary to communicate about games.  I mean, really.  Just stop for a moment and think about how ludicrous games journalism is, as a job.  My girlfriend works for the NHS, currently in a multi-disciplinary team working with consultants to organise effective treatment for cancer patients.  Soon, she’ll be starting a new job in a mental health unit.  That’s a job.  A real one.  A sensible, valuable, important one.  Me?  I sit in our bedroom all day and vomit thoughts about videogames all over the internet.  I’d say it’s pretty essential to get that into your mind straight away as a budding games critic: this is a fucking stupid job.  You need to love it, be in absolute adoration for your craft and content, but make no mistake, you’d be making more of a difference as a refuse collector.  Significantly more, if the current state of Leeds is anything to go by.  And even with the imminent pay cuts you’d probably earn more money.

So what drives us to it?  A desire to be professional and report on matters of cultural importance, or the sheer joy of A) playing computer games and B) stringing words together in a unique and creative manner?  Really?

So maybe we’re all just fanboys.  Does that mean games journalism is inherently flawed?  Many have suggested so, especially since the rise of ‘Web 2.0’ – whatever the hell that means – and the sheer abundance of new, volunteer-run sites and blogs that crop up on a daily basis, promising “games reviews by gamers for gamers” and other such buzzphrases.  They’re cheapening the craft, many have said.  I said that, actually, not too long ago.  A PR had told me, when I asked about press access for Resolution, that they didn’t provide it for fanzines.  Fanzines?  Bloody fanzines.  There are so many of them that everyone assumes each new games website is merely a fanzine.

But… actually, “merely” isn’t the right word at all.

There’s a reason people flock to these sites.  There’s a reason people read a review on a popular website and say “sounds good, but I’ll wait for the user reviews.”  People assume games journalists are not on the same wavelength as themselves because that’s what games journalism is so desperate to present itself as.  Some sort of elitest club in which only the most deeply thoughtful, analytical and critical reporters can be a true member.  And, don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of room for that, depending on your audience.  If you’re writing for the industry, or academia, or people with a huge interest in the specific nuances of game design and reception, then sure, that’s pretty much what you need to be aiming for.  But that’s such a niche.  Games themselves are a niche, but a hell of a lot bigger than that.  Is games journalism doing its readership a disservice by pretending to be anything other than fanboys who got lucky?

Consider why you play games in the first place.  When was the moment that you realised, wow, I absolutely love playing games?  Perhaps it was as a kid, way back when gaming first emerged.  Perhaps it was later, as they matured; or only recently, as they become a solid and established artform.  Either way, what did you feel?  Did you sit back, stroke your beard and say “I believe there is an important message to communicate here, one the world simply must hear this instant”?  Maybe.  But, more probably, you thought “Wow… this is awesome.”

Whether games are about escapism, entertainment, channeling aggression or appreciating the beauty of human craft, there’s one thing that ties most of us together, and that’s the reason we play them.  And that reason is a childlike, wide-eyed fascination with what the medium is doing.  Games are brilliant.  They’re mesmerising, and clever, and beautiful, and joyous, and devious, and brilliant.  So it strikes me that the only sensible way to write about videogames for a mass audience is from the perspective of that little kid, that precocious idiot that got his first subscription to PC Gamer around the time of the millennium and thought, “Hell yeah, I wanna tell people how much I love games too.”

There’s a place for in-depth criticism, and I’ll continue to write it.  There’s a place for in-depth, investigative research, and barring a lawsuit threat I’ll keep digging for that too.  But what I most want to communicate with the world is that I, like all of you lot, absolutely love playing videogames.  Here’s one I love!  Here’s why I love it!  Here’s how I understand that you love it too!  Here’s one great big slurred toast to this wonderful, creative, ambitious medium that’s providing young and old alike with sheer joy!  And here’s why we all coexist as one happy family, dedicated to playing and discussing videogames, gormless grins plastered on our geeky little faces!

Fanzines aren’t ruining games journalism.  They’re representative of that wide-eyed little kid inside all of us that’s just totally mesmerised by what’s happening on that screen in front of him.  If we’re not videogame fans, complete raving gaming lunatics, then we’re barking up the wrong tree by trying to get into this games writing business.  I think we really need to accept that to make steps forwards.

How Possibly To Do Good Games Journalism, Maybe – An Introduction

Rule one: don’t write headlines like that.

Rule two: don’t spend time you should be using to improve and grow as a games journalist instead writing nonsense like this.  Especially if you’re a nobody.

I’m a nobody.  I want to stress this right from the start of what I vaguely hope will be the finest example of TLDR I’ve ever penned.  I have no formal training in journalism.  Probably half the stuff I write I still do for free.  My girlfriend still gives me a look when I said it was a “hard day at work,” as I work from our bedroom or, if work involves playing games all day, the living room.  I probably have less experience than you, am almost certainly younger than you, and am in absolutely no position to lecture anybody about what they’ve been doing so bloody well for years.  But I’m also a precocious little shit who loves the sound of his own keyboard a little too much.  Thus, you’ve to put up with this sort of bollocks from me occasionally.  If that turns you off, call me a dick in the comments thread and never read a word from me again.

But actually, this mammoth blogathon idea has stemmed from the very simple fact that I think games journalism is brilliant.  In recent days, ie. since I’ve been on my high horse about it (rule three: stop using clichés), I’ve found an enormous steaming pile of nonsense that claims games journalism is full of corrupt hacks, talentless idiots, or kids playing games all day.  Er.  I’m totally that last one.  But the other stuff bugs me.

It bugs me on a personal level because, well, this is what I’ve inexplicably chosen to spend my time doing.  So indirectly that’s a personal attack.  But it bugs me more because games journalism – while always with room for improvement – is clearly better than it’s ever been.  The rise of the internet and fansites has obviously generated a hell of a lot of guff, but ultimately there are no two ways about it: there is more fantastic writing about videogames than there ever has been before.

That causes a problem for me.  If I was doing this seriously even five years ago, and was at the level I’m at today, I reckon I’d have been able to walk into a writing job pretty easily.  These days, that’s not the case.  I’ve been lucky, in that a few kind people have taken a risk on me.  I hope I’ve served them well and it’s paying off.  But it also means there’s an abundance of fantastic new writers and everyone’s having to raise their game.  So when Phill Cameron’s writing eloquently and intricately about a range of interesting and rarely covered gaming topics, Fraser McMillan’s emerging onto the scene – barely into adulthood – and analysing obscurist games hardly anyone his age has heard of with more care and attention than many experienced critics, Barry White’s producing remarkable, heartfelt stories about building relationships in Team Fortress 2 (it’s too late for link-hunting. Go to The Escapist and have a search around) and Quintin Smith manages to make every single game he ever writes about sound like the most remarkable thing ever and then convince me I think the same thing when I immediately play it… well, then I start biting my nails.

The last generation of truly great games journalists are moving on.  Brooker’s in telly now.  I’ve not read much by Campbell in a while.  Gillen’s doing comics.  Rossignol, Walker, Rodgers and others who I’d probably inexplicably refer to by surname only as if I’m talking down to a child in a Victorian school are still writing loads, and that’s great, except it means it’s doubly difficult to get work.  Now there’s a new school of games journalists emerging, of which I hope to be a part, and the whole market is suddenly incredibly competitive.

I need to up my game.

I need to up my game really bloody quickly.

How do I do that?  Y’know, I write stuff like this.

So here’s what this is all about.  It’s going to be a series of blog posts, across the week hopefully, in which I dissect the practices of games journalism and work out how to make myself as brilliant as the many writers I look up to.  Or should that be “to whom I look up”?  Does that even matter?  That’s the sort of thing I’ll be considering, as well as bigger, broader issues.  And I’m doing all this publically so everyone will probably immediately steal any vaguely useful ideas I may have.

I’d love for that to happen, though.  Again, this whole idea has emerged because I absolutely love gaming journalism and would love to see it progress in any way, through any methods.  I probably don’t have any answers, but if by some incredible miracle I do, I’d adore it if they had some effect.  A lot of this is going to be contradictory, contrary, disagreeable nonsense that no one’s ever going to use unless they’re a worrying fool.  But heck – I have trouble organising thoughts in my own head.  Let’s get this down, turn it into something concrete, and see if I can benefit from it.  If I can, brilliant.  If others can too, multiply awesome.

Told you I was self important.  Rule four, probably: don’t do that.

So that’s what we’re doing.  I’d love if people could chip in with their thoughts in the comments, or maybe even run parallel blogs… whatever.  Let’s keep talking about our craft, and keep honing it.  And for the little guys like myself: let’s see if this can help us make real moves into doing something we genuinely love.

It starts tomorrow.  Wish me luck.  I wish you luck.  You’re going to need it.