June 23, 2008

Supermodel Is One Word

Linda Evangelista is a supermodel. Not just any supermodel. With Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell, she popularised the whole concept and brought about the Supermodel Era of the late-80s to mid-90s. She was a household name as well as a household face. Everyone knew Linda Evangelista. Capitalising on her star power, she achieved worldwide recognition and massive multi-million dollar contacts with the world's top fashion designers. She grew accustomed to a glamorous, high-profile lifestyle. "We don't 'vogue'," she said, "we are vogue." She had it all. Runway shows, magazine covers, perfumes, charities, talk shows, music videos, football players, oil moguls, Kyle MacLachlan. Every girl in a department store lingerie catalogue wanted to be Linda Evangelista.

But being a supermodel wasn't easy; the honour was not bestowed lightly. The height of the Supermodel Era coincided with the year that punk broke, when, post-Nevermind, major labels, competing to see who could dilute a zeitgeist faster, signed a flood of forgettable, low-rent bands that could sort of pass for Nirvana if it was dark and you were squinting. In contrast, the fashion industry demonstrated remarkable restraint. Six, and only six supermodels reigned triumphant in the Supermodel Era: Evangelista, Campbell, Turlington, Claudia Schiffer, Kate Moss and Cindy Crawford. These were the "Big Six", the only supermodels to be officially codified as such. Only six. The term meant something. Being a supermodel meant that you were part of an exclusive Knights Templar-esque order that wielded the influence to chart the course of an industry. It was not a superlative rendered powerless through overuse. The video gaming press has a lot to learn from the supermodels.

The recent one-two punch of Grand Theft Auto IV and Metal Gear Solid IV has brought more absurdity upon the gaming press than it can bear. Reviewers always become hyperbolic and liberally effusive when it comes to a certain class of game -- a masterpiece; exceeds all expectations; buy it immediately; a work of art (?); an Oscar-worthy story; will be revered for years to come; transcends the medium; changes the landscape of gaming; nothing compares to this story presentation; are we allowed to give out an 11? -- but to do it twice in two months with no sense of context is frankly bizarre. "Forget everything you thought you knew about video games, including how we wrote this exact review about GTA back in April."

What's going on here? Is it a medium that increasingly produces instant classics or a press, swept up in emotion, that has no care or concern for the larger picture? It's happening now with Metal Gear Solid, it happened before, it'll happen again. But not forever, because the mainstream press only has so much credibility left to burn. They're running out of time to be seen as thinking critically and not trying to be the most grandiose in proclaiming the dawning of a new day. They're running out of time to be seen as professional journalists and not a smitten 13-year-old writing poetry to his first girlfriend: love of the year, love of the century, love of the forever. I have no explanation. Other than they want the spotlight, the glamour of being first. They want to be the first to break the score barrier and award an 11 out of 10. Finger on the trigger, must be the first to declare that Dewey defeated Truman. And always thinking about being the first, the first, gotta be the first, and it's so close now, to declaring that yes, this is our Citizen Kane moment! The Citizen Kane moment. Like 'the Pauline Kael/Lester Bangs of video game journalism', a soundbite accolade and a hand-me-down goalpost, existing solely as subject matter for speculative editorials and box quotes. As if you'd be able to pinpoint a game with comparable cultural value to Citizen Kane at the peak of its marketing campaign, but that's the only time anyone seems interested in asking the question. No one ever looks back. Citizen Kane wasn't even the Citizen Kane of 1941; that was How Green Was My Valley.

Actually, I don't think it's as haphazard as I might have made it seem. This reviewer behaviour happens frequently and always with a certain stratum of game. Metal Gear Solid, GTA, Bioshock, Halo, Super Mario Galaxy -- supermodels, let's call them -- dominate the press cycle, ensorcell the press and the fans in the months preceding release, and enjoy a feverish review honeymoon.

These are the supermodels; the ones that get the magazine covers and product endorsements. When the mainstream media think 'video game', they go to GTA or Halo. They're famous. They're glamorous. They're expensive. And they don't get out of bed for anything less than a 9.3.

It's bad form to trash a supermodel. For one thing, they have real money backing them up. Ubisoft spent millions trying to make Assassin's Creed into a supermodel, and in that situation, it's not a 'criticism', it's bad for business. The publishers are William Randolph Hearst, ready to pull their advertising and blacklist the press if they don't go for it.

But hey, it's what's en vogue, it's what's in style, so what's the point in being contrary anyway? Bad press spoils the fans' good time. This is a supermodel and it comes with previews and interviews, and collector's editions, and pre-order bonuses. Nothing ruins the show like some editor pointing out that she wore that dress last year. This is meant to be a party, don't fuck it up. Certainly, Metal Gear Solid fans have lately proven themselves to be the internet users least receptive to criticism. I don't understand why you have to be so negative. Maybe you don't understand it. It's groundbreaking, come on. These are video games, it's just supposed to be fun.

Look good. Think superficially. Wrong place, wrong time for serious analysis or discussion. Come on, honey, just look pretty for me. No one tell me she isn't.

It's an infatuation, not love. We don't actually treat our supermodels very well. We want to be seen with them on our arm but only when they're fashionable. In this medium, beauty increases at an alarmingly fast rate, and supermodels have very little staying power. San Andreas and Snake Eater can't compete anymore. The graphics are worse. The gameplay is worse. All the problems absent from the initial reviews have emerged. Time reveals all wounds.

There's no industry for old supermodels. Why should anyone talk about the old games anymore when we have their contemporary counterparts right on hand? The media has to keep looking forward, because there's another ingenue out there somewhere. In twenty years, Metal Gear Solid IV will be a joke. The game will in fact become the grizzled, obsolete Solid Snake outpaced by younger, sexier super-spies who work the catwalk and the cover shoots like he never could.

The press accelerates. It doesn't reflect. No time for classics or slow burns. It won't ask, in 2030, is this game the next Grand Theft Auto IV? It'll say, what have you done for me lately? Because I'm looking at this first screenshot and I think it could be Citizen Kane. It has a certain star quality about it. It reminds me of a younger, hotter Linda Evangelista.


qrter said...

"Is it a medium that increasingly produces instant classics or a press, swept up in emotion, that has no care or concern for the larger picture?"

I think that's exactly it - reviewers seem to forget about a game before the URL of their review has even been allocated.

The review is as expendable as the games seem to be.

qrter said...

I've been thinking a bit about this - I think the problem is that a lot of reviewers review a game within its own little bubble, like MGS4, it's generally given great reviews because it ties up a lot of storylines within the MGS series and improves upon wonky bits in the earlier games. Which is a good thing to mention in any review, to be sure, but that's mostly where the reviewer will stop and not look beyond the series itself.

I'm not saying MGS4 should be compared to, say, Peggle, but it should be placed in the larger picture of gaming, how does it function, would it actually appeal to anyone who knows little or nothing of the earlier games.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. This needed to be said.

Duncan said...

Thanks. I agree, I think Linda Evangelista's contributions to the fashion industry have been generally undervalued.

(seriously though, thanks)

Anonymous said...

That's a great simile, and makes a nice change to the movie industry one we're used to.

But there is room for cult classics too (Ico, System Shock 2, Beyond Good & Evil), lets not foget. Perhaps those are the games that will oneday feature in Games History Class.

When a big game hits, it does seem like there is a competition amongst gaming press as to who can give it the best review. Whose GOTY badge is going to adorn the box art? Who gets a soundbite in the blurb? Something is the wrong way round here.

An interesting question: which will mature first, the game development industry or the game press?

Duncan said...

Hey, Dan!

The press does acknowledge the likes of Deus Ex, Chrono Trigger, FF7 as classics, but in the context of the Citizen Kane moment, the press is still focused on the idea of game quality progressing in parallel to advances in technology. No one today, at least in a mainstream outlet, is going to say "hey, System Shock, I think that was our Citizen Kane moment!" The Citizen Kane moment is perpetually around the corner, and that's not down to optimism but myopia. And because old games don't get page clicks.

Your last question is indeed interesting but I have to cop out on the answer. Neither the press or developers are united in their level of maturity: some journalists are mature, some developers are mature, some aren't, blah blah blah, and on it goes. I find it very hard to imagine a universally competent and mature gaming press though. We've lived with these problems for so long.