260: Kieron Gillen Post Manifesto

Kieron Gillen Post Manifesto

Kieron Gillen's New Games Journalism manifesto sparked a debate about how we write about the games that we love. Alasdair Stuart checks in with Gillen six years after he wrote that we should be "Travel Journalists to Imaginary places."

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Sometimes I feel that I don't really need "gamer culture" and that I don't need people writing a narrative for me telling me not only which games I should love but exactly the sort of emotional roller-coaster ride I should go though while playing them. I just want to wallow in my superficialistic shallowality and play Super Mario Galaxy and be blissfully ignorant of how the the western gaming intelligentsia are looking down on me and my dead, unbeating cultural heart.

On the other hand I don't want to be the sort of person who buys Fiddy Cent Blood on the Hands without some sort of shield of irony.

A very interesting article, I'm glad it emphasises the point of different perspectives of the same kind of game, I know no two people are exactly the same so it's nice to see a article about that

Quite a good read, I had a similar gaming experience with Red Baron, that game is intense.

In 2004 Kieron Gillen was writing for PC Gamer UK, which around that time was the best magazine I've ever read. Even when my PC became too out-of-spec to run new games I carried on buying the magazine for two years and read it cover to cover every month. They were critically engaged with the medium, with journalistic integrity and a desire to invoke game design principals and elements of cultural theory, but they were also hilariously funny and surreal.

New Games Journalism felt like the beginning of the end of that, for me. PCG UK seemed to embrace it and ran a lot of NGJ-style articles. Their editorial policy changed, as did their editor, and they began praising a lot of games which I personally didn't think were very good. It seemed like a good game was now a game that you could write New Games Journalism about.

NGJ was a cool idea. Gillen and PC Gamer convinced me that journalism could be something entertaining and artistic in its own right, and I often had more fun reading their magazine than I did playing the games, and NGJ was an expansion of that idea of games journalism into a more creative cultural attachment to the games themselves. But it didn't really work, and many of the criticisms that it was far too self indulgent were valid.

..Kieron Gillen still writes "best" (under any of his many different pseudonyms)... the few times he doesn't elevate his opinion into scientific analysis.

Of course, the fact that he usually does is the reason why he's still managing to get employed by games-magazines, I guess. And also the reason why people in the business respect him - because they start to believe that they have power, and know exclusive things purely because of their status, and their ability to be more clever than lichen. Which of course is convenient when your writing ability is pretty low, specially compared to your own ego.

Also - the only reason an old reader of PCGamerUK would possibly read anything Gillen writes, is because he uses a pseudonym, and they can't recognise his style right away. Otherwise, you know, they just would skip past it.

I don't really think gamer culture exists in any meaningful way. We talk over the internet and do things together and then call one another "fag". While there are some literati or cogniscenti who try to meld it together into some coherent whole. The reality is, Gaming is FAR to corporate, it is necessary to rely solely on content from relatively few and extremely disparate sources and there are no major CREATOR personalities to worship (as compared to say writing where you have names like Tennyson etc).

Further, the majority of gamer culture uses one media to talk about another, I am not sure that this really works. A culture should really be using its own media to talk.

"In the end, the problem with writing about imaginary places is that no one ever experiences them the same way. Twenty three years ago, I flew a helicopter gunship over a wire frame landscape and felt like the king of the world, whereas other players would see nothing but overly complex controls and blocky graphics. "

This is so true. I have loved several games that were, by all objective standards, terrible games. Most recently it was Two Worlds... the guy at Gamestop even tried to tell me not to buy a 12 dollar used copy. It was flawed as hell, but I loved it. I also loved games like that old stupid "Exodus" game for NES. Really, the game is one thing but our experience of that game is another.

He also looks ridiculous with that mustache. It pretty much sums up his descent into ludicrous pretentiousness.

CitySquirrel:
This is so true. I have loved several games that were, by all objective standards, terrible games.

Ok. Then.. you know.. use that as a premise. Describe why you find the game fun. Invent something about entertaining physics that make no sense, or escapist narratives, or simulation realism that "feels" better than the real world.

But be a writer - write about it, and explain it so others can understand. Don't go prancing about delivering platitudes on how your fricking opinion makes the game a quality game in it's mediocrity and sheer success from whoring the right brand-names, while the publisher pours the right amount of advertisement money into your publisher's account. Which then enables you to "like" the game, and "dictate" the opinion of people who are incapable of having one on their own.

I mean, if you listen to what games-journalists say, you really start to understand why the games-business is dominated by adolescent children over 25. They have attitudes like this: "so what if I hyped the Killzone 2 cgi over the rainbow and back. It's nothing important, it's just about games! So if I used my platform to insanely hype the game, and then turned around later and personally hated the game no matter how good it actually was, and nailed it stuck on ridiculous details that actually had nothing to do with why I disliked it - that's just great engaging journalism! And so what if I used three posts on Gaf for sustaining this opinion as mainstream!".

But it's not engaging journalism that scopes into the community. It's self-worship justified by fanatics on an internet message-board. And it excludes people who have a small interest in reading something informative - even if it's only very rarely. You know, people who play games - rather than read about them - for entertainment.

It looks like New Games Journalism wants to be real journalism when 'old' games journalism just wants to talk about games. Journalism is, at heart, to talk about something, but to talk about something isn't journalism. Otherwise bloggers would run for the Pullitzer. (Oh shit, they already did, didn't they?)

I never experience this NGJ dealie beforehand, but it seems to be in line with what the Escapist does. The Escapist does reviews, and they are reviews - they are 'oh, this is the game, this is what it plays like, this is what's awesome about it, this is what sucks the most about it. Three out of five shiny star shaped bangles.' And then there are articles, such as this one, and they have nothing to do with reviews, even if they happen to focus on a single game and discuss it at lenght. My point is, I guess, that NGJ sounds nice, but it feels like what he wanted to say is, 'there's more to this than reviews. Let's stop doing reviews and do other stuff.'

carpathic:
I don't really think gamer culture exists in any meaningful way. We talk over the internet and do things together and then call one another "fag". While there are some literati or cogniscenti who try to meld it together into some coherent whole. The reality is, Gaming is FAR to corporate, it is necessary to rely solely on content from relatively few and extremely disparate sources and there are no major CREATOR personalities to worship (as compared to say writing where you have names like Tennyson etc).

Further, the majority of gamer culture uses one media to talk about another, I am not sure that this really works. A culture should really be using its own media to talk.

The cake is a lie.

The fact that you know what that sentence refers to, even if you don't like it, is evidence that you're wrong.

I'll grant that gaming is not a culture, though - I see 'gaming culture' as shorthand, since 'gaming subculture' just doesn't roll off the tongue the same way. But when there are a lot of people, in different parts of the world, can understand a subject in a similar way, discussing it in an advanced manner using insider lingo, it's definitively a kind of culture.

The thing about the lack of personalities... well, you see, books are usually made by one person, so of course there are personalities, you can look at a book and say 'this book is 100% Nabokov!' because even if a few editors worked on it, most of the work in the book comes from that one person. Conversely, a movie fan can say 'I hate Michael Bay movies' even though Michael Bay is a director and thus has very little to do with the final product, compared to an author and his book or a composer and his song. Thousands of people will work on a movie and it'll be a Michael Bay movie. Why? It may be because Michael Bay (or M. Night, or Spielberg, or Hitchcock, or what have you) has a distinct feel that makes their products recognizeable, or because if they're involved with a movie then it already had some qualities one expects of their work to begin with - but mostly it's because artistical enjoyment is quite subjective, and therefore people need to create entities to interact with them. So Michael Bay is the entity that his movies orbit around - if I don't like his movies it's because I don't like Michael Bay. (What - have you ever met him?) This does happens in games to a point - see anything Miyamoto makes, and there are people axiously waiting Epic Mickey because it's Warren Spector Presents Epic Mickey, but corporations do the job for gaming. I know you complained about the 'corporate feel' of gaming, but saying 'a Valve game' is the equivalent of saying 'a Michael Bay movie' - because gaming has fewer strong creators to orbit around, it instead turns corporations into them. If game makers were more of celebrities then it would be a lot like movies, whereas the opposite might happen if movie makers were less of celebrities and there was a definite difference between an Universal movie and a Warner movie. (Proof: a Pixar movie.)

As for the last sentence, I don't get it. You're obviously thinking of writers, and of course writers talk to each other in the medium of writing, because that's the medium humans use to talk to one another when they're out of shouting range. The writing community uses its own media to talk about it because it happens to be the media that's used to talking about things. Or do music enthusiasts talk about music by doing mad guitar riffs at each other? Do painters compare techniques by making tiny paintings and mailing them? I guess joining an international sculptors' society must come with some pretty heavy mailing fees.

That was a huge reply to a tiny post, but I guess I feel defensive about gaming (sub) culture. Now I'll try doing something worthwile.

The Random One:
SNIP.

A long and well thought out reply. I suppose that what I was trying to say was that intellectualizing something by writing a manifesto does not a culture make. While I agree with the substance of your essay, I do generally think that there is something missing to "gamer culture" that would allow it to be called "culture". I guess I think there is more to a culture than a bunch of people sharing a few referents. In some ways, I guess it is the very diversity of gaming that speaks against it being a culture. Normally cultures are inherently linked with people.

Say the french culture, to be considered french there are a list of things that might be ascribed to you:

you speak french
you like cheese
you like chicken with blue feet
you make wine

You get the idea here. There are a lot of prima facie attributions that you can make, but there is some sort of deeper gestalt in which one partakes if one is, in fact 'french'. I have yet to feel that same sense of being or identification with being a 'gamer'. I don't like online games, I think MMOs are a waste of money, I won't ever pay for XBOX live, I rarely talk about games with others. Mostly, I just like to play video games, yet somehow, I consider myself a gamer. This is akin to me saying "I can speak a few halting sentences of french, therefore, I am french". Now, all sayings aside that can be fairly laid at my feet about my shallowness at annointing myself with the appelation 'gamer' aside, I don't take part in almost any sort of gamer activity except the escapist (which I joined mainly to watch zero punctuation)and playing games yet I am a gamer. That to me says there is something not right about calling gaming a culture. The tent, is in effect, too large to be meaningful. It is kind of like saying that because I hold any political views that I am a conservative or a liberal. That does not meet the basic requirements, to be considered a conservative, I must believe in some core values and profess that belief; only then will I be considered a conservative.

So I guess I am saying that Gamer culture fails the acid test.

Now, no doubt my post was a little repetitive, and less thoughtful, but hopefully we can continue this debate!

And for the record, I don't really know exactly what the cake sentence refers to except by way of others' descriptions. Because I know what necrophelia is, having heard someone talk about it, does not make me a necropheliac. Anymore than knowing what the reference to a gaming meme makes me a gamer.

carpathic:
Further, the majority of gamer culture uses one media to talk about another, I am not sure that this really works. A culture should really be using its own media to talk.

Hey, do you like books? I like books too! We should get together sometime and write books back and forth to talk about it!

Hey, do you like movies? I like movies too! We should get together sometime and talk about it by making movies!

nipsen:
But be a writer - write about it, and explain it so others can understand. Don't go prancing about delivering platitudes on how your fricking opinion makes the game a quality game in it's mediocrity and sheer success from whoring the right brand-names, while the publisher pours the right amount of advertisement money into your publisher's account.

Saying one loved a game is not saying it was a quality game. It says that something about it worked for the writer. The second, closely related, is that, is that gaming is about experience and it is, sadly, true that we don't experience the world in the same way. Therefore, if you want useful information about the game you should read several different people describing it and see what its elements are, not if they liked it. For example, I used to review webcomics for my university newspaper, and I refused my editors suggestion that I score the comics because they comic is a number of elements, not just a thumbs up or thumbs down. Games are the same.

I'm not sure if this is actually what you are trying to argue...I don't know. But I do know that hype is a different matter than reviewing a game, and wasn't this a matter critique, not just hunting down rumors of upcoming titles and ranting about how exited you are? They are different issues.

CitySquirrel:
They are different issues.

True. ..or, hopefully they would be. The problem is that with the setup Gillen explains, then instead of the reviewer describing what they thought and why, they'll end up passing judgement on the sellability of the game directly. And they will do it by the following criteria: does it generate buzz enough to please my advertisers. Does it sell.

That's the realm of advertisers and producers, not reviewers.

My problem with the entire thing is that Gillen, like many other people in the industry, is creating a rationalisation for blatantly just going with the flow and literally using the press-abstract from the publisher as a draft for their review. Because instead of describing their opinion and the reasoning, they are simply reiterating what "people" think is going to sell.

This is the most obnoxious thing I ever see. Take the Alpha Protocol review on this site, for example. Susan will say afterwards that she does enjoy the game - but can't actually explain why. At the same time, the review goes through the litany about the broken gameplay we had from the same review that got printed a day early. And yet, there's nothing in the review to really explain what exactly is so game-breaking about it.

Susan then says something like this: the reason why it's not scoring better is because we think it's not going to resonate with the public very greatly. So therefore the game scores a bit lower.

In other words, there are two things that is a problem: 1. to hype the title and get a backlash from a particular part of the magazine's audience. 2. Not say something particularly out of the ordinary that can be jumped on by said minority, who will point to that same review that got reprinted several times.

So why can't Susan say, in the review, that she thinks the game is a bit off, and that it's not going to appeal to everyone - be wary about buying it, and understand the humour and the type of game it is.

I'll tell you why: because that would be seen as patronising and elitist. So instead, we get the litany of complaints about the shooting system not being as fun as Call of Duty.

The point here is that reviewers should describe the way they're reviewing the game. It's not necessary to enumerate it in article form. There are obviously ways to write about a game that conveys to the reader the emotion and state of mind you were in when playing the game. Films and books have been reviewed like that for yonks.

But it always has to be two parts - let the reader into the perception you have of the game, so that the descriptions you make afterwards inform them of the game. That is, rather than the size of your ego.

So sure - I agree, read as many different reviews as you can. But when you have a very large amount of reviewers deliberately writing the same review, focusing on the same code - without explaining the actual background for their perceptions, then what's the point?

Nipsen, I'm still not sure what you are trying to say. Reviewers should leave their emotions out of it and do a straight technical rundown, or reviewers should talk about how they experienced it and the context for said experience?

Oh, after title screen you need to enter LOAD "".. Hope you still remember how it's done...

CitySquirrel:
Nipsen, I'm still not sure what you are trying to say. Reviewers should leave their emotions out of it and do a straight technical rundown, or reviewers should talk about how they experienced it and the context for said experience?

...it's kind of surprising how difficult this always is, you know?

If you review a book. What do you do? Do you think: "hmm, yes, Austen recently appealed to 14 year old girls with this film version, I hear, so let's review the game as if 14 year old girls read it. And then adopt a style that masks my opinion as fact, take the assumed audience's side by seeking into their heads - and then trashing it to bits for not being soppily romantic enough like the film, and lacking action. Because as a reviewer, we must make a judgement call on how much the book really appeals to the market, except we must do it in a really circumspect manner"?

I mean, that would never occur to you to attempt. You'd be laughed at for years if you did something like that seriously. Except in the games-industry.

Thing is, it's not a problem being subjective. But you have to be able to describe where your subjectivity comes from. So that it's possible to see your subjectivity colouring the review - that's what makes it worth reading.

Of course - some people are extremely good at getting people on their message without any explanation - they could invoke the right words, the right style and flair, and make the reader understand where they come from very easily. Many writers and critics do that well in any genre.

But you have to be aware of it. Or else you end up with what we have in gaming journalism - people who have learned the "code", and are only writing to a very specific type of gamer audience. That's what Gillen did, and that's what some of the hype-journalism in Gamespot and IGN does as well. And the product is a type of reviewing that tries to cover up what it is you're saying, rather than actually explain. I've thought of christians reviewing the bible to their local mission many times when reading many reviews because of that.

I'm not saying that lightly either. I'm saying that because when it comes to games in general, folks who don't spend time involving themselves in games for a long time - they just don't know what we're talking about. They just have no idea.

"Real time strategy". Could just as well be a Greek proverb about cabbage. Of course, for gamers, it instantly invokes an image of small tanks milling around a resource gathering vehicle - but anyone else won't understand what in the world this is about. Much less why they should be interested.

So is the solution to switch to a different and more malleable audience of fanboys? Or is it to write.. you know, properly..? Just asking.

nipsen:

...it's kind of surprising how difficult this always is, you know?

If you review a book. What do you do? Do you think: "hmm, yes, Austen recently appealed to 14 year old girls with this film version, I hear, so let's review the game as if 14 year old girls read it.

Book, game, and film? I'll assume by "game" you meant book.

nipsen:
And then adopt a style that masks my opinion as fact, take the assumed audience's side by seeking into their heads - and then trashing it to bits for not being soppily romantic enough like the film, and lacking action. Because as a reviewer, we must make a judgement call on how much the book really appeals to the market, except we must do it in a really circumspect manner"?

Also, I'll assume "seeking" is "sneaking". So, after reading this a few times it seems to be that you are saying that reviewers should not write what they think their audience wants to hear... i.e., they should not assume they are writing for an audience of RPG fanboys who want a complex leveling system in the new Bioware game just because a bunch of people liked it in the last Bioware game. They should write for a neutral audience indifferent to the leveling system, and only mention it in that it is or isn't complex. I'm not really sure how any writing style can make ones opinion seem like fact... "I liked xyz" or "I didn't like xyz" will always be opinions, even if you leave off the "I liked" and just say "the xyz was great / terrible".

nipsen:
Thing is, it's not a problem being subjective. But you have to be able to describe where your subjectivity comes from. So that it's possible to see your subjectivity colouring the review - that's what makes it worth reading.

Now we are talking about subjectivity, which is what my original post was about. You are saying it is okay to say that you enjoyed the game, or things about it, but that it is important to note why or in what context you enjoyed them. For example, "I really enjoyed Two Worlds because I enjoy hack and slash combat, which Two Worlds is filled with."

nipsen:
Of course - some people are extremely good at getting people on their message without any explanation - they could invoke the right words, the right style and flair, and make the reader understand where they come from very easily. Many writers and critics do that well in any genre.

But you have to be aware of it. Or else you end up with what we have in gaming journalism - people who have learned the "code", and are only writing to a very specific type of gamer audience. That's what Gillen did, and that's what some of the hype-journalism in Gamespot and IGN does as well. And the product is a type of reviewing that tries to cover up what it is you're saying, rather than actually explain. I've thought of christians reviewing the bible to their local mission many times when reading many reviews because of that.

"Real time strategy". Could just as well be a Greek proverb about cabbage. Of course, for gamers, it instantly invokes an image of small tanks milling around a resource gathering vehicle - but anyone else won't understand what in the world this is about. Much less why they should be interested.

Now it seems that you are criticizing reviewers for writing to an audience of gamers and using jargon that only gamers could know. I'm not sure how this is an attempt to "cover up what it is that you're saying", however. Using the phrase "real time strategy" is attempting to cover up "small tanks milling around a resource gathering vehicle"? Furthermore, it seems you are suggesting that reviewers should be writing game reviews for non gaming audiences. (As an aside, I have no idea what you mean about "christians reviewing the bible". Do you mean preaching? Do people actually review the bible in the way one reviews a game? Are you saying that most reviewers come off as preachers?)

nipsen:
So is the solution to switch to a different and more malleable audience of fanboys? Or is it to write.. you know, properly..? Just asking.

I'm not sure how "more malleable audience of fanboys" fits in to this whole scenario you have concocted. More malleable than who? Your original terrible game reviewer was writing reviews analogous with your example of a book review, and was as fault for writing to fanboys. Why would he/she switch? I'll assume this followed the comment about cabbage, in which case the supposed reviewer you are speaking of here wrote a failed review designed for FTS fanboys but posted it on the "Modern Warfare Players who Have Never Touched a Different Game Ever" message board. Or MWPHNTDGE, for those who knows the jargon.

You express surprise at how hard this is to understand, but for someone so concerned with good writing you seem inclined to write with long complex analogies rather than just stating your point and make it very hard to follow your argument when one must stop to decipher what various words were supposed to be.

On a final note, I wonder if you are conflating the function of a reviewer and a critic. A reviewer should say what qualities a game, movie, or book has and maybe under what criteria one may like it. For example, "you will enjoy Two Worlds if you really like being able to customize your character however you see fit". A critic of games might instead say that "Two Worlds lacks a story with any amount of depth necessary to draw a fan of fantasy into its narrative."

Sorry if this sends you a dozen messages saying you were quoted.

NGJ isn't about games. It's about the writer. System-J above neatly summarises almost everything I would like to say about the subject.

I may be wrong, but I believe KG was the writer who once wrote "deeper than a Woody Allen movie set on a submarine" (it might have been John Whatisface, perhaps Walker?). This sort of quip was why people used to buy PCG. We wanted incisive humour and a review of a bunch of equations that allowed you to pull people's intestines out of their eyes. Instead, we ended up with a monthly list of reasons why the reviewer should be given a job at Lionhead Studios as a bell-end cosy for Pete Molyneux.

A games journo's work can never be compared to the output of someone who spends 5 years living in a ditch in Somalia covering a genocide, regardless of how many times you use the words "Faustian" and "juxtaposition". This desperate desire to follow in the footsteps of Thompson and Capote, penned by anaemic pussys who couldn't challenge a spastic, thalidomide victim to an arm-wrestling contest totally de-railed the progression of the format.

It's late. I'm tired. I've drunk a great deal. Let me summarise.

NGJ = pretentious onanistic bullshit for postgrads who were educated beyond their ability to think.

If he was THAT good at the deconstruction of games and cared that much about them as a medium, he'd have made a half decent one by now rather than wanking into the pocket of Warren Spector, a guy whose sole meaningful claim to fame is coming up with the highly original idea of writing a comic about realistic superheroes. Of course, Mr Spector's claim presumes you ignore Alan Moore, Frank Miller, or John Smith, who wrote "The New Statesman" (just like "The Authority" but for people with a post-kindergarten grasp of realpolitik AND 14 FUCKING YEARS EARLIER).

Instead, what do we have half a decade later? A picture of a twat in a waistcoat who judging by his wikipedia entry has decided that being a giant fucking schill who will dry hump any medium best demonstrates his artistic integrity.

Plenty of people can write amusing copy. Why are we giving points to someone whose biggest claim to fame is writing some vaguely amusing shit back when the US still thought George W Bush was a good idea?

CitySquirrel:
So, after reading this a few times it seems to be that you are saying that reviewers should not write what they think their audience wants to hear... i.e., they should not assume they are writing for an audience of RPG fanboys who want a complex leveling system in the new Bioware game just because a bunch of people liked it in the last Bioware game. They should write for a neutral audience indifferent to the leveling system, and only mention it in that it is or isn't complex.

..What I said was that you should write clearly, and explain your approach. Any kind could work.

What I criticised were reviews that either avoid explaining the approach altogether, or the kind that literally says: "but fans of x will enjoy it". It's useless. It tells you nothing, except suggest that you should trust the reviewer to tell you if the game is "good" or "bad".

Then, of course, it's the phenomena journalism we know from other areas as well. The kind of journalism that establishes what's good and bad depending on what the majority (seems to) like at any time. It really is a shame to even write that way, never mind defending it as well.

But that's what Gillen did. Going for a style that can tip either way into praise or disgust depending on the author's mood (and the response of the fans) at the time.

Of course - if Gillen wants to defend that rather than offer "exclusive interviews", then by all means, that might be a good discussion. But that's not his point with any of this, now is it?

nipsen:
..What I said was that you should write clearly, and explain your approach. Any kind could work.

What I criticised were reviews that either avoid explaining the approach altogether, or the kind that literally says: "but fans of x will enjoy it". It's useless. It tells you nothing, except suggest that you should trust the reviewer to tell you if the game is "good" or "bad".

Alright, I understand what you mean. Thank you.

i have to write this herea and now: it is the most important thing what we mean and not how or what we say, expecially in games, failure in this gets us to alpha protocol(as you ain't know shit where youre heading). another deadly ilness is characters that don't act like people but in fact they ARE puppets. Protagonist's thoughts and reactions are left out of the modern crap cames. remember the face in wolf 3D?

Damn... When you put it like that (the whole sunset thing), videogames really do have infinite possibilities for the gamer, that is, if developers are willing to continue making creative and interesting games. I see that there are some games that really make this possible. One great example being TES IV: Oblivion. No matter who you are, your experience will be completely new and different to whoever else plays it. That's just amazing..

Anyone know what Kieron Gillen is up to now? I haven't bought PCGUK in a while but I haven't seen him contributing for years. I know he wrote a graphic novel, but other than that he seems to have vanished off the(at least my) radar.

He's over at Marvel writing Uncanny X-Men

 

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