Sunday, September 28, 2008

GAME INFORMER + EGM = Katie Couric/Sarah Palin Interview

Okay. That’s it. Game over. I’ve had enough.

Videogame journalists are a particular breed, typically caught in a twilight world of quasi-professionalism and trapped-in-mom’s-basement-nerdom. Their writing is so full of off-the-cuff, give-me-five-my-man jokes, opinion-passed-as-matter-of-fact fact, and self-referential innuendo that many of their articles, previews, features, and reviews read like glorified fan fiction – which, in actuality, is what most of it amounts to (since most fans don’t seem to have the foggiest inkling of what the properties they devote so much of their time and energy to actually consist of; see the so-called Star WarsExpanded Universe” for more than ample proof of this).

Okay, call me old-fashioned. Call me stodgy, a product of formal English training. (Indeed, writing this article in the first person is sending chills down my spine. Oh, what would Dr. Prescott think?) But a more informal, even, perhaps, colloquial, style isn’t a damaging element and does not elicit an automatic, derogatory roll of the eyes.

But having one’s head up one’s ass does, however.

In a too-perfect-to-pas-up example, the September issue (number 185) of Game Informer – y'know, the one where "The Top 25 Games from E3 '08 Revealed" is boldly proclaimed across the top of the cover, in (stereo)typical comic book fashion – features a brief write-up of Halo Wars, the real-time strategy spinoff to the extremely popular first-person shooter series. The entry’s first paragraph concludes with this gem of an observation:

“If we’re lucky, this prequel to the trilogy may make [developer] Bungie’s convoluted story make some sense.”

While excellent examples of solid and fun gameplay, particularly on the multiplayer side of things, using the words “convoluted” and “story” in regards to the Halo games is like applying “competent” and “legal” to the Bush Administration: it just ain’t accurate. In fact, it goes well beyond the territory of asinine and very rapidly approaches the border of insanity.

Convoluted? Halo? What passes for a story in the games is lifted wholesale from Aliens, a movie not graced with a compelling, well-executed narrative, to put it gently. Indeed, the Halo trilogy rarely rises above the repetition that makes up the bulk of its (single-player) experience: point, shoot, point, shoot. It has as much soul as schlock such as Braveheart or Elf, films that are direct products of the formulaic mass production system that is collectively known as Hollywood (why does Zooey Deschanel fall in love with Will Ferril? Not because it makes story sense or is consistent with her character – it’s because she’s supposed to, stupid. Now stop asking questions that have anything to do with the reality of the situation and get back to suspending your disbelief). And when Bungie did try to infuse the paper-thin narrative with just a hint of some desperately needed depth, the fan community rallied about “poor writing” or a “confusing story,” as a simple Google of Halo 2 more than readily indicates.

Convolution – real convolution, not the half-baked, masturbatory kind – can be found in the narrative structure of Oshii Mamoru’s films or the writing style of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Or in the Metal Gear Solid series, if we must remain in the realm of gaming. But Halo? Yeah – James Cameron, at least the sci-fi version that is evidenced in fare such as Terminator and Aliens, is a real master of nuanced, multi-layered depth.

If made in an academic setting, the author would’ve been laughed out of the room and the publication tainted. And, indeed, if the author were truly professional, making an irrelevant and unwarranted reference to the story of a different, albeit related, game series – and this is ignoring the fact that it was a patently erroneous irrelevant reference – would never have been seriously entertained.

But why? Why would an individual who clearly has no basic understanding of the writing process, in general, or narrative structure, in specific, feel free to speak off-the-cuff about the plots or thematic motifs of game writing? And why would an EIC allow him to do so?

Dan “Shoe” Hsu, the former captain of EGM, thinks he has the answer. In his new blog, he says:

Why the bullshit, though? Is it that hard to stay clean and honest in this business? I guess I can understand how someone can get into a compromised position. It’s not like our industry’s made up of ex-New York Times reporters and journalism grads (not counting a few folks here and there, like our own Crispin Boyer). A lot of game journalists (like me) didn’t come from any sort of journalism background; we didn’t necessarily get the proper training or influences up front. So I can see how that inexperience or lack of guidance can sometimes lead to less-than-stellar ethics. Sometimes, people just don’t know any better.

And while Hsu’s hypothesis leans more towards the ethical bent, it still serves our purposes here. Why no professional behavior from the professionals? Because they’re not professional!

But the situation is more serious than that; the mentality that breeds this near-nonstop stream of jejune prattle is endemic to our very popular culture. Stupid is chic; snarky is tops; sarcasm is as basic as oxygen. And gaming, being the youngest and the most fragile of the various art forms – and, therefore, the most eager to find acceptance in (American) society-at-large – is oftentimes the biggest culprit in this bastardization. Pick up any game magazine and look at the captions that grace a screenshot of an upcoming title. Information about a game’s features or technical abilities? Iffy. A definitely-trying-too-hard-to-fit-the-Adult-Swim-uber-cool-factor joke? Almost a universal certainty.

It’s not by coincidence that I quote Hsu; EGM is perhaps the most serious, and easily the most consistent, offender in this category. Its too-perfect-to-pass up example: in the publication’s E3 ’06 issue (it’s always about the Electronic Entertainment Expo, isn’t it?), “journalist” Mark Reynolds writes of Silicon Knights’s much-maligned, and recently released, Too Human, “In its current state, I wouldn’t show Too Human in a high school science fair, much less the world’s most important gaming show.”

But wait – it gets better. Reynolds actually defends his oh-so-clever stab at a witticism when SK president Denis Dyack later stopped by as a guest on EGM Live, the mag’s podcast (which is infinitely worse than its print cousin, thanks single-handedly to the obnoxious drivel and draining intellect of Jennifer Tsao, one of EGM’s editors and the show’s host). “I’m talking to the reader like I’m talking to my friend,” he initially offers, followed shortly thereafter by:

C’mon, it’s making a point. It’s an obvious exaggeration to make a point. I’m a writer; at the end of the day, I gotta make something that people are gonna want to read.

Indeed. And that’s exactly the problem, on more levels than one.

Dyack thinks that the gaming press isn’t critical enough. I think they’re not intelligent enough. How, after all, can you have the former without first possessing the latter?

But, then, if videogame journalists never dabbled in areas in which they were completely over their heads, we would have no videogame journalists to politely ask to stick their feet in their mouths. Straying from one’s area of expertise (if, indeed, the person in question even has [a relevant] one), making a condescending comment, or offering a pop-culture-saturated zinger are the bread and butter of gaming magazines, websites, and blogs. Throw in a dash of pretentious and jejune self-aggrandizement, and you’ve got the forums that crop up like cancer all over the world wide nets, egging them on.

And trapped in the crossfire is the gamer, an individual who wants news and information – and, yes, the well-informed and -constructed opinions and editorials of the industry at large – and the entire medium itself, which desperately needs any and all sophistication and professionalism to propel it down the road of further maturation and mainstream recognition.

Oh, well. Until then, I’ll stick to Time.


alex-ness said...

a perfectly awesome piece.
thanks Marc!

msunyata said...

The compliment is surely appreciated, but I'm not entirely certain it's exactly warranted. Let's see how I continue to terrorize your little place here...

Ah, screw it. Flattery will certainly get you everywhere, my good man.


Alan Coil said...

If you have to explain your story, then it probably wasn't written very well.

Having to write a prequel to explain your story is just lame.

But I think most people today tend to ignore parts of a story that don't make logical sense, and just go with the flow. I suppose as long as the players think the game is fun, then the story isn't that important.