Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Everything Old Is New Again

Following on from the Video Game Journalism entry recently. Strictly from a USA standpoint. If you live in another country, your mileage may vary:

I can’t say there are no bright spots in the world of game reportage. There are a lot of internet voices out there that aren’t feeding at the teat of the game companies. Various bloggers (links to a couple in my sidebar, and they source others), and a few sites here and there. And quite a few game sites I find fun or useful but they aren’t in the business of journalism or don’t pretend to be. The internet is a weird place though, as anyone with social experience in it can tell you. If you want to get good information you have to be discerning and that isn’t always easy. Also, as in any other fandom or subculture, the angry voices often tend to be the loudest. Angry at a game, angry at another gamer, angry at the companies... forums and blogs are filled with seemingly apoplectic players. I say 'seemingly' because you don’t really know how affected any of this anger might be. The anonymity and instant ‘publishing’ of the internet tempts users with the ability to go hog-wild with hyperbole, hysteria and ad hominem attacks.


The reality is that most gamers and most opinion… on the games themselves at any rate… don’t fall quite so far to the ends of a scale. Less emotional opinions aren't 'good television' but also the people that hold them aren't as motivated to vomit them out.


One of the things I like about print magazines, aside from the nostalgia (Egon: ‘print is dead’), is that the writing and reporting are usually more considered than a lot of the shoot-your-mouth-off noise on the web. Magazines continue to require more ability than what belongs to any old schlub who can string two words together. And despite the admonition ‘put it online, it’s public forever’ there still seems to be more legitimacy and permanence in print. There’s no emoticons in periodicals, and no opportunity for quick re-edits or apologies. Writing for a magazine, you need to mean what you say and be prepared to back it up. It isn’t like you can’t retract or correct anything, but it’ll be a month in most cases before you can fix it... so pretty much damage done by that point.


Magazines are also less caught up in the dubious business of breaking a gaming story. Being first with an important story has been a priority for journalistic outlets since forever. But in the gaming industry, there is so much money changing hands, so many favors done and withheld, and so much crosstalk on the internet, that up-to-the-minute sites for video games don’t resemble news outlets so much as they do gossip rags. Reading Kotaku and 1up is like standing in the grocery line with the National Enquirer in hand. With similar amounts of credibility. Breaking news ‘journalists’ are falling all over themselves seeing who can give the best blowjob to Sony or Capcom reps in exchange for that one screenshot or video that other sites won’t have for twelve extra hours. Paper periodicals don’t really have to deal with this. They are never going to be as late-breaking as internet sources. So. Their exclusives and attractions need to be of a different order. A viewpoint or an interview that no one else has.


Whatever I think the advantages of magazines, for video gaming there seem to be precious few that I actually like. The go-to publications for a lot of players are the UK-based monthlies, Edge, GamesTM, and RetroGamer. These mags are considerably denser and larger than almost any comparable American periodical (RetroGamer is thinner, but larger by width and height) and frequently use sidebars and boxouts to cram additional information onto each page. They are very slickly produced, and while I wouldn’t say visually interesting most of the time, they are clear and professional-looking, with Edge and GamesTM going more high-end, and RetroGamer more folksy, as suits their subject matter.


While I should love these magazines, and I acknowledge they do some things better than anyone else, they have a few glaring problems.


RetroGamer’s issues are the simplest; being largely about older games, and presumably an older audience, they have a laid back, jovial atmosphere. They aren’t caught up in the latest corporate bullshit from the big three console providers, and they aren’t all rabid about release dates, polygons per second, or the efficacy of motion controllers. They are there for the fun. They seem to have a good time doing what they do, and they get very humorous and jokey (in a decidedly British way) without descending too far into the sophomoric basement. So if one is into past-gen consoles (like I am) what’s not to like? In the case of RetroGamer, one of their strengths is also, for me, the big weakness. The British-ness of it all. These guys spend a HUGE amount of time, space, and energy writing about various UK-based computers that mean less-than-nothing to me. They already lose my attention when they have articles with so much verbiage about Amiga, and Atari ST computers. Blech. But when you factor in Amstrad, Spectrum, and BBC Micro machines too? Double-triple blech. Sometimes it seems about 25% of the page count is even remotely interesting. In my desperation to glean something out of this mag I now know way more about the fucking ‘Speccie’ than I ever wanted to.


I’m not blaming the editors. This is a UK mag written to UK readers. So it is natural that they are skewing to what they played as they grew up and what their core readership can identify with. But it makes RetroGamer less valuable or enjoyable to ME, an American reader who is also partial to older systems... but largely with an interest in consoles and not computers.


Edge and GamesTM are a different kettle of fish. These are well-written, erudite (for video game writing especially), and noticeably less wacky-funny. What humor there is, tends to be drier than RetroGamer for the most part. But these magazines are also a lot less FUN.


I know it is part of the British nature to be aloof and cynical. Looking down their noses and being sarcastic is an English given, and for the most part I enjoy it, maybe because my ethnicity is largely English. But video games are supposed to be about having a good time, and these magazines, especially Edge, read like the editors have long since given up on anything good coming out of the video game industry.


Which is bullshit of course. We may not like Sony or Microsoft. We may be generally disenchanted with Sega or Konami. But only Helen Keller could say there’s nothing exciting or fun available in video game land.


ECM at Waxing Erratic calls Edge ‘schizophrenic’. That’s probably apt. Edge’s policy seems to be MOSTLY about being less cynical when previewing a game, quite cynical when demoing a game, and bitterly cynical when reviewing a game. Their reviews are notoriously strict. I’m not sure whether that’s because they really don’t enjoy what they do, or if they’re caught up in some holier-than-thou vortex of elitism. GamesTM is only marginally better. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Edge can consider itself one well-flattered bitter English rag.


I think one of the standout moments illustrating this repellent attitude was in last month’s Edge in a demo Platinum Games and Sega held for the upcoming game Vanquish. Personally, I really like what Platinum did with Bayonetta. Incredibly, so did Edge magazine, giving the game high marks when they reviewed it months ago. Something of a miracle, that. So, based on Bayonetta, and things I like about other games the Platinum staff were involved in (Madworld and Okami), I'd think Platinum deserves the benefit of the doubt on whether Vanquish will be any good. I’m not saying to just assume it’ll revolutionize action games, but I’d give producer Kamiya my open mind at the demo.


Reading the article, you’d think Kamiya was some greenhorn newbie who talked a lot of PR lies out his ass. I mean the quotes from him are fine. He comes off confident, but hopeful. It’s the comments from the ‘journalist’ writing it that take the cake. There were so many ‘yeah, right’ and ‘he’ll never back that up’ moments I thought I was reading the words of some jaded punk in the back of the room talking to his bitter fat friend. It was incredibly disrespectful. And from a mag that ACCEPTED an invitation and the perks that went with attending this demo. The least you could do was be somewhat gracious to the host. And the thing that is REALLY schizophrenic, is the writer came away from the demo anticipating the game. He made a point of saying after seeing the game in motion, with one of the testers showing how it worked, that it had similar fluid combat ideas to Bayonetta and could be a real success. What the fuck? If the game demo changed your mind for the better, why the hell would you leave in the ‘Kamiya is a bullshitter’ comments in the former part of the article. At least contextualize the comments like ‘well, I WAS thinking he was bullshitting’. The whole thing comes off as GRUDGINGLY accepting that Vanquish could be really good. What kind of editor, in a supposedly fun industry, is fucking disappointed that a game developer is on a roll and likely to release another good game! These guys might run out of shitty things to talk about?


The whole goshdamn magazine is like that basically. Every time I read one I’m like, ‘Quit fuckers! If you can never be happy, then fucking quit!’. Of course, why the hell am I still buying the damn things, eh? I will never understand people in fandom circles (and they are in EVERY fandom) who seem to get so much more enjoyment out of their perceptions of what is wrong, then the obvious conclusions about what is right. I realize that defining fun is variable and elusive. Everyone’s enjoyment is different. But being bitter and cynical about video games ALL THE TIME is pointless and stupid. Find another hobby. I read whiners and bitchers all the time (hello Shmups!) but I expect better from the so-called journalists, especially the ones in print. I mean they got into writing about games because they loved them, right? Right? And the UK mags have all the production values and resources to be better.


Maybe that’s the draw. A very British draw. I know American readers in general find the UK rating scales for game reviews to be harsh. I don’t think it is because American gamers are just more accepting of crap, though I'll argue that their tastes could be very narrow. The UK editors just seem to take a lot of pleasure in being the wine snobs of the gaming world or something. Again, Edge and GamesTM are writing for the UK, so if that’s what the UK readership want, then I guess those mags are giving it to them.


Ultimately, the UK magazines are aware of a readership abroad. A reader base potentially much larger than their domestic one. They are also aware of criticism the foreign readers have. In true British tradition they just don’t care. Any more than Britain cared to change wholly over to the metric system or adopt the euro. In a way, that’s good I suppose. They do what the do and they are sticking to it. Ultimately though, there’s a bigger world out there. Many Japanese game developers have felt the Japanese market is limited, stagnant, and out of touch. They are looking to what tastes overseas dictate so that they can reach for a success bigger than what their island nation can supply. If the two magazines re-launched here, and discussed below, can effectively cover a need for American readers (or rather ME) that has been neglected by our own periodicals, will Edge and the others do anything to stay relevant to the biggest video game nation on the planet? I probably won't even care.


With the new versions of GameFan and EGM on the stands, American readers have some new, uh, old choices for video game monthlies. I have recently bought and read the first issues of both.


GameFan used to be my favorite video game magazine. As with a lot of readers it was the primary inspiration for me to start buying import games. Imports probably represent close to half (if not more) of my video game library. The magazine was so exuberant, so passionate, and looked like nothing else on the newsstand. It had its faults but I think they were easily overcome by strengths. And most importantly, the taste of the editors (cool-ass cartoon editors) seemed to pretty well correspond with mine. In those days the influence of swag was MUCH less involved so you got (what seemed to be) honest reviews and overviews. They had more than one opinion on their review page... sometimes varying pretty widely and giving each other shit for about it too! And however stressful putting a magazine out under their circumstances actually was, the product itself was enthusiastic and almost as much fun as video games themselves were. Publisher Dave Halverson has had a number of magazine ventures afterwards but GameFan is unanimously considered the high point of his career and a lot of what made it great may not be able to duplicated in today’s climate.


Not that Dave isn’t going to try. The new version is out in oversized height and width, but a bit on the thin side. Reminds me of RetroGamer in some ways. The magazine actually flips and has a sister mag, MovieFan, on the back. At this time… with this first issue anyway… the cinema ‘half’ looks like an afterthought. It barely has anything. Two full-size interviews (and these are okay), a tiny one-page Q&A, and then a LOT of fluffery about upcoming movies and a vampire retrospective that’s about as satisfying as a mouthful of pubic hair.


The GameFan half is better. It hasn’t quite found its legs yet, but there is potential. They have a great, in my opinion, look to the mag, and the layouts cram a bit more in so that the magazines thin-ness is compensated. No American game mag can match the Brits for sheer volume. The number of reviews was quite high actually, though they’ve cut the reviewers numbers down to two per game compared to the old days. A high proportion of articles was written by Dave himself and he’s got a rep for slobbering profusely for the games he likes. That isn’t really my cup of tea, but I think it probably beats being a cynical a-hole all the time. The enthusiasm carries over into coverage of games that might not get much attention at all in other publications. Always a strong point in Halverson’s mags, a reader can expect a lot of coverage of niche, old school, and retro-styled titles.


Seeing as how this is only the first issue, if I had to make a gripe about it I’d probably say that it skews a little too far the other way from the UK mags cynicism. Being positive and enthusiastic is one thing. Even being positive in the face of everyone else hating I can understand on occasion, as long as you can back it up. If you feel others have not given a game a fair shake because of ‘x’, and it’s a reasoned ‘x’ then you can avoid looking bought off. I don’t feel Genki racing games EVER get a fair shake in the American press so I totally understand being the nail that sticks up. The first issue of this incarnation of GameFan is a little suspiciously positive. I think there are two things that could mitigate this for me, and time will tell if this works out.


One, Dave and company may just only ever review games that will get a positive review. In that way, they’ll never piss off a developer or publisher, and they’ll never be literally dishonest. They’d be assuming their readership will go elsewhere for opinions on games they don’t cover… and maybe you COULD infer that if it isn’t reviewed that’s tatamount to game not getting a good rating. They did have one badly rated game in the mag, but it is so universally panned that it was a pretty safe one to include. I actually know of a lifestyle magazine that reviews music this way. They have page after page of capsule music reviews each done by an editor specializing in that album’s genre. But they never include something that would get less than three stars. If it isn’t in there they expect you to conclude no editor liked it very well. Actually if this is the case, it’d be great if Dave just came right out and said that. Kind of defeats the purpose of having a numeric rating but it wouldn’t kill my enjoyment of the magazine.


Two, I don’t think GameFan is going to be positioned as game ‘journalism’ so much as just game ‘writing’. I think it is just going to be a vehicle for enthusiasm and nerdiness and not try to really break news or dig into the seedy bullshit of the industry. Some might say that makes it little better than advertising or sort of a house organ (for ALL the companies), but I still think stuff I would want to know could come out of interviews or on-site visits working under that editorial policy. Not INdependent so much as ALLdependent.


The writing in general could use some stiff work in the editing and proofreading end of thing There are some really distracting errors… maybe that’s a function of everything just getting started… but ancient days GameFan suffered the same thing. The writing style, while varying from editor to editor, tends to a good balance of literate and humorous. There isn’t a reliance on in-jokes and otaku references, but the writers don’t shy away from admitting they like anime boobies either.


I’m pretty sure GameFan wants to be an antidote to two things. Cynicism and too much focus on big mainstream titles. I’d say trying too hard on the former and pretty good grades on the latter. It may have a hard time cleaning all the cumstains out of its dress like the other sources, but if it isn’t going to call itself ‘news’ that's okay. I’ll say this. There are not a lot of ads in GameFan. And if the ones that are in there are for games that predictably get rave reviews they certainly are the type of games Halverson is known to be bonkers for anyway. As I said, GameFan may just be lining up its articles so that it CAN’T get on anyone’s bad side.


EGM was my second favorite video game magazine. They also had a ‘review crew’ and seemed to tell it like it is. The were much less ‘fannish’ but also catered more to the mainstream than GameFan did. I actually fell out of touch with EGM because I just got bored with it. I can’t remember exactly when this was, but it might have been around when GameFan bit the dust. I know I never did like other magazines of that time at all. I found EGM to be informative, but I think the lack of coverage for the type of games I liked probably just made me run out of gas.


New EGM is back under its old publisher Steve Harris, and is also a pretty good looking magazine, if a little bland. It also is a bit on the thin side (compared to the phone book that is Edge), but some EGM is better than no EGM, and these guys look like they expect visits to their website to add to the experience.


This magazine is edited and written (for the most part) more ‘professionally’ than GameFan. What I mean by that is less spelling and grammar errors, of course, but the editors also come off as having more experience in the industry… which they do. EGM is also professing to be literal journalism. Which DOES seem to be the case. You don’t hire Dan Hsu because you want to be the darling of the gaming world. The print mag will not be up-to-the-minute on video game corporate scandals… I assume the site will be… but a number of the articles were critical (without being super-hostile) of various aspects of the industry including journalists themselves. So if this is what we can expect from Harris' idea of game journalism, it could be fine. I thought they referenced Kotaku and a few other places I find dubious too much, but at the same time they were pretty critical of that shit too.


EGM has a pretty good balance in tone. For every criticism there was at least as much enthusiasm. They didn’t review very many games, but the reviews seemed reasonable and independent. The previews and interviews were positive and informative. I think the amount of material is kind of skimpy. There is a lot of exciting stuff coming out soon that just flat isn’t mentioned. If the website is necessary to get a full picture of game reviews and previews that kind of sucks. I’d login for industry news, but I don’t think you should HAVE to, especially since full access to the site costs money. It’s a bit like the bitching about DLC that EGM is arguing about IN THIS VERY ISSUE. Pots and kettles guys, pots and kettles. But we’ll see. As time goes on, if they can get more into the mag, I’ll be happier.


There’s some likable humor and sarcasm in there, the letters page and the Seanbaby-written crap games section particularly. But here’s a thing that drove me nuts, and it was kind of surprising: the ‘informal’ writing style in some of the articles and specifically the giant Super Street Fighter IV section. It was terrible. I have never been jerked out of a read by so many forehead-slapping references and shitty asides in my life. I think they were trying to channel the teenager that must have been playing Super Street Fighter II back in the day, but I’d rather endure a cheese grater to the testicles then spend any more time talking to that teenager. I would’ve fucking punched that guy dead and dragged his body out to the bin behind the Golf ‘n’ Stuff where I used to play fighting games.


EGM probably won’t have the same slobber problem that GameFan is going to have to overcome. But EGM isn’t going to cover Cave or Vanillaware the way GameFan is either.


It’s early days yet for these two. It would be AWESOME to have game mags worth buying again. Even if they aren’t both super-ballsy. I used to buy two major game magazines regularly—these exact two. And one fulfilled the enthusiasm need, and the other the black & white information need. Which APPEARS to be where these two are headed. In those days I actually saved and re-read old issues. I can’t say that about the British mags I buy now. And just like I’m not a single console fantard, I don’t need to be a single magazine (or site or blog)-tard either.


Print is dead. Long live print.

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