Saturday, 4 December 2010

Games Journalism

It might not look like much but I challenge you
to find better camera reviews than
When Canadian camera review site went on (seemingly permanent) hiatus early last year, I was most disappointed. Their impartial and exhaustive reviews of popular digital cameras led to the purchase of four digital cameras for myself and friends, all of whom have been very satisfied. Their nine-part illustrated review structure laid out in meticulous detail everything you could possibly want to know before making your choice and contained typically only 20 words for their personal opinion. Extremely suitable for the subject, for which subjectivity is unnecessary.

But games journalism is different. Games journalism is personal. No statistics, screenshots or videos can tell a player whether they will enjoy a game. Certainly a rating out of ten cannot. These things can express the content and quality of the game, but who can say how enjoyable an individual will find a game? I do not think a games journalist can.

…For that matter, I haven’t played a new game in a while. I Should really pick up something…

So why do games magazines and websites exist at all? Despite the above fundamental flaw, they have an arguably stronger raison d’ĂȘtre than music or film journalism. These mediums ask less time and money of their consumer than games do. Gamers need to know what to spend their limited resources on - it’s a big investment. Gamers need games journalism.

It’s a position that publishers exploited for years. Cries of skew and bias were rampant in the early 2000s, particularly among publications devoted to a single platform. A solution was proposed in 2005 by journalist Kieron Gillen, dubbed ‘New Games Journalism’ (NGJ) - it focuses on how the journalist experienced the game, rather than focusing on the game itself. This was born from the simple observation: gamers do not play games to interact with a feature set and pretty visuals, but to experience something fun. The experience is what is of interest to the gamer.

…Enslaved: Odyssey to the West allegedly has an engaging and cinematic gameplay experience. Pretty screens a plus. Short gameplay a plus. Something of a flop a plus (should be cheap soon). Check Amazon. Not cheap yet. Such a spendthrift. Justification: Student…

The biggest difficulty here is that of objectivity and subjectivity. It is possible to be objective about visual fidelity, gameplay mechanics, quality of writing, gameplay mechanics, music score, etc. It is not possible to be objective about one’s overarching experience of the game.

Whilst video reviews are relatively new, follows a traditional 'describe and critique'
approach and closes with a score breakdown
It is, however, more entertaining to write in this way. The writer can compose their inner monologue, primal frustrations and ecstasy in a more personal way. They can connect with their reader as an individual. They can write their entire article in first person if they wish. They can write some utterly egotistical self-centered rubbish. It’s a problem that has developed over time.

Chris Lepine wrote an article in 2009 addressing the issue, declaring the NGJ movement “dead” using adjectives like “pretentiously intellectual… opinionated… corrupted”. His major criticisms seem to be that NGJ has led to poor quality journalism and/or a loss of objectivity, particularly in reviews. Lepine was inviting change.

In Brendan Caldwell’s rebuttal, he cites examples of excellent articles in the New Games Journalism style and contests that poor quality exists because of the author, not its style. Lepine’s later commented on the article, suggesting that while NGJ isn’t fundamentally at fault, it invites poor journalism and publications have become “driven by economic and prestige considerations” above those of “good writing”. It all sounds somewhat familiar.

…Also on Amazon: Castlevania. Played that at Gamescom and was impressed. Another clichĂ© fantasy setting. Should probably try and broaden my gaming palette or else the vampires will start to recognise me…

So what do we, as consumers of games journalism, make of this mess? I find that most gaming media fits into a spectrum and that each publication has a specific niche within this spectrum. Before I subscribed to GamesTM earlier this year, I read through a few gaming magazines for the same month. Having now read up on new games journalism, it seems clear that GamesTM seems to separate their NGJ into its own little section at the start. While not game reviews per se (some would claim NGJ can never be reviews), these 800 word pieces I have found to be very hit-and-miss. And I find they often fail to answer the questions I have before buying a game. But I guess that’s exactly what the above debate is all about.

…Distracted by reading magazine. Not noticed Little Big Planet 2 preview before. Looks good. Family might also like the game. Investigate the purchase of a PlayStation 3. Justification for new console (hours spent playing) cannot be met (no hours to spend). Disregard…

So do I like NGJ? Yes, I very much do. I find it highly entertaining. But waddayaknow - I still don’t know what game to buy.

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