It’s not enough to kill the old myths and legends. You gotta choke ’em by their own entrails, cut their heads off, burn the body, then scatter the ashes far and wide, like a pestilential carpet.
This is how to improve videogame journalism.
Ancient rulers from Indus to Sumeria knew the power of godhood lay in death and fertility – the ability and the obligation to heal the land by dying. The king would go with his servants to a great tree by a crossroads. There, lashed to the trunk with cruel straps, he would hang, deprived of water and food and comfort, left to the elements for nine whole days while his own meat broiled in the afternoon sun.
The king would die. The harvest would come.
So where’s Major Nelson when we need a yappy corpse to string up? Yahtzee, are you free Wednesday?
Writing about videogames is like writing about food, sex or drugs – why don’t you just go do it already? And as an art form, work form or whatever, videogame journalism is the young kid on the block. People have been onto politics since The Daily Cave-Drawing; war coverage predates Homer; hell, even auto journalism’s got more than a century under its belt. Our thing, it’s still new. It’s awkward and a little pimply. And it falls prey to some pretty naive traps, like being surprised when advertisers act like advertisers and try to throw their weight around.
You know what? I like it this way. I love that videogame writing isn’t yet completely encrusted in dried horseshit. I love the foolish idea that it doesn’t have to be like all the rest. That we get to take full advantage of the new tools, ideas, social structures and power shifts the world has given us in the last 15 years, and we get to create our own myths, legends and kings.
Then we get to hang ’em on the tree and see how they squawk.
But can this stuff handle it? Is there any point? After all, it’s just games.
I love you with all my rocket launchers
Fifty years ago, it was just music. Popular compositions and the beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll. You could read all about the clean-cut, good livin’ boys who sang those peachy songs in 16, 17, Marilyn, Roxy, Valentine, Teen Scene and others.
They’re a real hoot, those 1950s teen music mags. Gushing reviews. Endless top-10 lists and “this month’s best prom date.” Wading-pool-shallow interviews with creators and idols. A pervasive sense of total amnesia, where anything older than six months belongs to some foreign country no one has ever visited.
On the other hand, you’ve got the fantastically wayward things written by the squares, eggheads and college professors trying to understand this “popular” thing and put it into proper perspective. Horrid pontifications in places like Time and Newsweek. The English novelist Colin MacInnes, poor guy, in a 1958 issue of The 20th Century tried to wrest deep philosophical meaning from the lyrics “I love you with all my heart / And I hope we will never part” in Paul Anka’s “Diana.”
The music evolved, and the writing evolved with it. That cow-lick kid with the hips, some long-nosed git from Minnesota and a whole bunch of other people showed up. There were new things to write about, not least a decade of war, assassinations and other social earthquakes that all seemed tied into the art and entertainment forms somehow.
It didn’t have to be product reviews and teenage screaming anymore. Weirdly enough, you can write about some things without discussing them directly at all.
I say game reviews should be the next king on the death tree.
Zzap ’em again
To an 8-year-old boy stuck in New Zealand, the British gaming mag Zzap!64 was heroin, pornography, fast cars and chocolate all rolled into one.
This was 1987. I didn’t actually have a Commodore 64, an Amiga or anything capable of playing games beyond Zork. But every month, I’d save up money from washing dishes and gathering firewood; I’d beg, borrow, lie and whine; and I’d get this weird bit of pulpy goodness straight from Ludlow, England. There was Julian Rignall with the awful rat’s tail haircut, savage Katie Hamza, weird Scouse Maff, tiny Paul Glancey, elephantine Gordon Houghton and, like all good British magazines, a letters editor with a paper bag over his head. They’d conjure up worlds of imagination that were just out of reach, spin mad stories about what, when you came down to it, were 8-bit pixellated blobs on a screen.
I loved it. This was my prepubescent Teen Beat. This is what happens when kids get hold of commercial fantasies and aren’t fed enough Ritalin.
Nowadays, of course, the internet’s here, New Zealand has running water and phone lines, and cynicism’s been invented. Game reviews, even good ones, seem just a little bit pointless. Another 1,500 words about the graphics, sound, characters, backstory and multiplayer? More weird logarithmic scales where 8.954/10 is a good score but 8.872 is awful, given that nothing in the history of the universe ever seems to get below a 7? Save me.
Is this the kind of game I enjoy? Is it a good game of that type? Should I buy, rent, borrow or ignore it?
For answers I head to the forums. Gamers With Jobs, NZGamer.com, even MMA.tv. I’m 100 percent satisfied with the “ask real people” reviewing system, and thank you, by the way, for pointing me to Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. Wouldn’t have spotted it myself.
Something like Zero Punctuation, of course, drives a fusion-powered battering ram through the whole equation. And more power to the mad bugger – for starters, I have enormous admiration for anyone who can exist at all in Brisbane without heavy medication. I do wonder, though, what it feels like to be Ben Croshaw; here’s a guy who clearly has at least 40 different kinds of serious talent, yet every time he does something strange, like (God help us!) praise a game, they jump on him like wolves.
Better at least than being a videogame site trapped like a bilge rat between its readers, reviewers, advertisers, and Kane and Lynch.
Byline of the dead
The Gamespot/Kane and Lynch mess was a taste, a tiny drop, of how tired, shambling, swollen and cynical journalism can be. At its all-too-frequent worst, it’s nothing more than a zombie exploitation flick; barely covered tits and advertising on the left, brutal devouring of victims on the right. Nothing wrong with zombies, oh no, or nudity and cannibalism for that matter, but when they’re lurching towards you clutching tape recorders and contracts, shouting questions, and slipping horribly on a river of blood-stained money …
The revenue model revealed by the Kane and Lynch thing is a variant on one of the most repeated and often ignored sins in the media universe: payola. That old trope about a newspaper being an inkstained shell around its advertising is more than half true, even on the internet.
But at least a whole bunch of people got angry about it this time.
I went and spoke with the veterans, old friends in Wellington, New Zealand, who’ve covered politics, public relations and corporate communications for a generation. All the nasty bits. These are the ones who would stab each other in the eyeballs for 20 seconds of access to a candidate, the ones who’ve buried more bodies in the dung pits of truth than Genghis Khan.
Good people. Just don’t let your fingers near their mouths.
Over a nice Waiheke Shiraz in a harborside restaurant built on the skeletons of baby seals, they reminded me of reality.
Political journalism, corporate media and the other old idols are pretty much beyond saving. There’s an incredibly complex and vicious dance that goes on, a nine-step tango polka crossover where mutual interests, blurred lines, egos, history and money combine to stomp like hogs over anything new.
You become sophisticated, in the very worst sense of the word. You lose all sense of surprise or anger at the truly heinous bullshit that takes place every day. I’ve been there, and so have the veterans. Videogames, by comparison, aren’t even a quarter of the way up the road.
So go home, they said. Stop whining. Enjoy being young and dumb and a little bit naïve. You’ve got 10, 50, 100 years of time to get nasty and bitter later. Why start early?
The big myth and the big opportunity
You know who I miss?
I miss Dusty Rhodes on Saturday nights.
That big Texas sack o’ cornmeal could cut a promo on the mic like no other. He’d talk about his daddy being a plumber and the working poor of the South and the American Dream and bein’ so gosh damn pretty. He was a legend in his own lunchbox. You knew that because he told you. All the while ignoring and transcending the fact that he was a giant fat man who danced around a wrestling ring in tights to a script.
It’s not all about the videogames. Really. If it’s only and exclusively about the videogames themselves, stop reading The Escapist right now and never read it again.
There’s a bigger mythology, and it hasn’t been found yet. It’s possible to convey great truths through fantastical bullshit. Telling people stories and lying to their faces are not the same thing, and this is game journalism’s rare opportunity. Imagine what could be done with politics, music, science or, hell, skateboarding, if we could wash away all the encrustation and start covering it fresh? There are so many directions in which things could go. But let’s face it: The odds are pretty good that game writing’s going the way of the E! channel.
But it could still be something different again. Something with the same unrealized but slowly waking potential games themselves have. Imagine bringing that into the world. For my money, the thought is definitely worth hanging on some bloody tree for nine days until harvest.
Colin Rowsell is a writer and strategist based in Wellington, New Zealand. Talk to him on [email protected].