September 20, 2008

Sharing And Caring

If everyone can agree that games deserve to be reviewed, critiqued and discussed by intelligent and literate journalists, no one can agree on what they'll sacrifice to make that happen. There are too many public representatives of developers and publishers who champion a smarter gaming press but only until it affects profitability. Evidently games journalism walks a thin line between respectable, serious criticism and unfair, irresponsible sniping and reviewers cross that line every time they dent somebody's Metacritic average. Then PR is like the father turning the car around because video gaming's road trip to Integrity And Mainstream Legitimacy would have been real nice but the game journalists in the back seat just couldn't play nicely.

There will always be cases of bad critique but pressure from PR and publishers is as responsible for a sub-par enthusiast press as compromised editorial direction and individually poor writers. The industry is a quagmire and there's a lot of blame to go around, but this anonymous PR representative doesn't see it that way: " needs to be remembered that most serious games are projects that have involved dozens, if not hundreds of people for years.... The developer, in most cases, kills itself to get a game completed. Any good PR people working for a game publisher understand what a developer goes through, and should fight hard to get the game looked at by journalists fairly. This is not to say a bad game should get a free pass, but every game should be given a fair appraisal, with considerations made for target market and price."

To distill his argument, developers work hard and critics don't. That sounds reductionist, but so does this: from Michael Fitch of THQ in his response: "it's easy to criticize but hard to create." Games deserve special consideration because their developers worked so hard and for so long, and the righteous art of creating a game is many orders of magnitude tougher than the random act of assigning a score. Life is a conservative paradise where if a man is honest, fair and hard-working then he will succeed and have valid opinions about video games. Reviewers rarely take into account the man hours put into a game, or how much the developers cared about making something great, or enduring the misery of crunch time in service of art, or the collateral divorces, and so for a developer to see two years of his life reduced to an off-hand 6.5 that disregards all of the above factors, it hurts. If this all sounds like developers don't respect the press, it's because the press doesn't respect them.

Everyone else is wrong. That's the mindset of life in a foxhole, where alliances with the press are tenuous and laden with suspicion but an unfortunate reality. That's why the panelists at the 2007 GDC developers' rant concluded (to applause) that you can't really criticise games unless you've made one (not a problem for game journalists these days.) This is exactly true of the gaming press as well, when they portray PR representatives as score-obsessed obstructions. Journalists and PR are two groups of people who fundamentally do not get each other. They live in the separate houses of Montague and Capulet. They both think they know what's best for the industry and that best thing happens to coincide with their job description. There is an impasse.

Criticism is a two-way street but seemingly the greatest defense that the above quoted can muster is that a lot of work goes into games and reviewers don't appreciate that. Nowhere do they explain why hard work and ambition specifically matter to critique. PR assert the nebulous existence of a trump card instead of playing it. I'm right, but I won't tell you why. It is the last refuge of the oratorically exhausted. Their perspective is worthwhile but not persuasive. In fact they themselves prove how hard criticism is when they propose to measure quality by developer effort.

In cases where art acts as personal expression (if games even do that -- I have vague assurances that they do) it might help to know the behind-the-scenes story. But you didn't even have to know about Bob Dylan's marriage breaking up to like Blood on the Tracks. It would augment a reading of it but not create appreciation where there was none before. Nor would hearing about how sometimes the design team had to stay as late as three -- three! -- in the morning. It's callous to dismiss personal hardship, but the audience doesn't care, and they'll like what they like regardless. To convince them otherwise would take some kind of writer who could explain clearly and thoughtfully a game's positive qualities and its accomplishments relative to other titles, and communicate insights in such effective language that readers reconsider their own opinion, and describe game experience to captivates the reader's interest. Too bad more people don't do that kind of writing, because I hear it's pretty easy.

To fall back on "we tried to make a good game and worked very hard" is to say you lack confidence in the game itself; that it does not stand on its own; that given all the history and all the ideas behind it you're not ready for this one thing to speak for everything. But the audience doesn't care about everything. The trick is knowing what to leave out. "It was hard" is always what you leave out, especially as an attempt to convince players that your game was good. Jonathan Blow took some hits for his reticence to discuss interpretations of Braid's story, but he is comfortable with what he feels the game says. He does not try to match others' perspectives exactly to his so that they are treating the game "fairly." Although it is possible, to hypothesise for a moment, that Blow's attitude would differ if reactions to the game were not as positive and if no one was interested in discussing the story.

It's a skill any creative person needs: knowing when to stop sharing; knowing when it gets in the way and starts to annoy. This includes games journalism, the worst excesses of which outweigh the anonymous tirades of any jilted PR representative.

"Spore is a highly anticipated game. So much so that when my editor assigned this review to me, I didn't know how to approach it. I began at least six different drafts but none of them seemed like they were going to say what I wanted them to. I stayed up all night thanks to at least six cups of coffee (!) and I IMed my editor (Steven) and he gave me some really great tips on writing. Anyway, yeah, Spore sucks."

"Flying to Bethesda (in first class), I reflected on the fact that I would be the first one to see Fallout 3. Not just the first journalist -- although I am the first journalist to see Fallout 3 -- but the first person ever, because the guys and gals at Bethesda have actually been working on the game blindfolded this whole time. They have this whole theory about Beethoven being deaf and making awesome music and they want to replicate those results. So, find out in our exclusive preview, does Fallout 3 measure up to the lofty standards set by its predecessor Beethoven? Yes and no."

The press. The developers. It's an uneasy relationship. It's hard to make it work but audiences only care about it when it works and not when it was hard. There's no answer here, not one that will make everyone happy, because this relationship will never be a great one. There's disrespect and impasses and mutually exclusive goals but there are always things everyone has in common. There are ways not to fight.


n0wak said...

Apart from hard, cold sales numbers (which makes me sigh), I have yet to see a good dismissal of criticism and its place by a PR person or big-shot developer. Those that criticize critics for not "creating" have not ever tried to write a serious critique of anything and those that say that time, effort and money invested need to be considered in a critique make me think that Prey, with its slow ten year development, must have been the best game of the decade.

Duncan said...

I suppose Prey was a bad game probably because those guys didn't want it bad enough.

Scott Juster said...

I've been thinking about criticism and reviews quite a bit recently, so it was nice to read your take on the situation.

I think the scores themselves foster a lot of the bitterness we see between creators/pr and critics/players. Distilling the hard work down to a number is glib to say the least. Might it feel better if a reviewer spent more time actually explaining her/his reaction?

At the same time, developers do need to realize that life can be harsh, and not everyone will appreciate their art.

I think a little civility and empathy on both sides would work wonders.

Duncan said...

Scott: I think the problem is reviewers DO explain their scores but the score is all anyone cares about. Nuanced critical thought doesn't cut in the world of gamerankings.

qrter said...

There are stories of publishers telling their developers they will get a cash bonus if they hit a certain score on Metacritic when the game is released.

Anyway, maybe critics should start all their reviews with "It's nothing personal, but.." or "No disrespect to the fine people who created this game, but..".

Maybe reviewers should be planted inside a developer studio the complete time a game is made, documenting exactly how hard those people are working on the game, effectively reviewing the creation process instead of the game?

"After spending three years bearing witness to the birth of Halo 4, it was disheartening to see some people skiving off to spend Christmas with their families in 2007, while most employees worked on diligently.. this makes Halo 4 less of a game than it could've been."

Oh gosh, this all sounds like a lot of fun!

Papini said...

What I don't get is why this dance is still happening.

Theater, movies, even restaurants live and die by the first weeks opening figures and what critics say on their column. Do we see movie producers cry and moan over a bad review to a controversial movie (pick any that critics hated and audiences loved and vice versa)?

IMHO Indiana Jones 4 was as terrible as it gets. You don't hear Spielberg and Lucas say "you can't criticize until you make one.

Critics are critics, creators are creators and the audience is really who gets to decide what flops and what soars.

Duncan said...

Matthew said...

Funny you should reference that strip. Jerry Holkins, recently writing in Game Developer Magazine about his experience making Penny Arcade Adventures with Hothead, actually concludes his sidebar about what he learned in the process with the thought that one shouldn’t criticize the industry unless/until one is in it. That substitutes industry for game, and it may have a slightly different meaning, but it is an interesting follow-up. I’ll try to find the article if you are interested.

Duncan said...

Yeah, please. I'd be interested in your take as well -- at the end of the day, I still haven't the experience of working in the industry and there's really only one perspective that I can write from.