gone home

What’s the deal with game journalists? Why are so many of them enamored of art games like Stanley Parable or Gone Home? Why are they so biased against X or Y? Why do they spend so much time bitching about shooters or gruff 30-something white male protagonists? Why do journalists so often fail to reflect the ideas and preferences of the gaming public?

I don’t normally call myself a “games journalist”. I like to keep a line – blurry though it may be – between the op-ed stuff that I do and the more structured and responsible duties of a real journalist. I’ve never done a consumer-oriented review, never assigned a review score, and I’ve never written a news story. Instead of trying to temper my many biases to provide an objective viewpoint, I usually just say what I think and wear my biases* on my sleeve. But for the purposes of this discussion I’m going to go ahead and call myself a journalist. I get lumped in with them often enough, and there’s technically enough wiggle-room in the definition to include people like me. I’m doing this so I can speak from my own experiences instead of pretending to speak for all journalists.

* If you haven’t been reading me for long, my biases are stuff like: Plain cover-based shooting is a flavorless form of gameplay. DRM is is stupid and destructive. Dumb story is worse than no story at all. Non-interactive cutscenes are a terrible game design crutch, and quicktime events are worse. We’ve lost far more than we’ve gained by chasing photorealism. Things were better in the old days, etc.

As for why I don’t seem to think or act like the general buying public, it’s because I’m a critic. Making the transition from playing games as a hobby to writing about them for a living will change your outlook.

I’m sure most of us have taken those marketing surveys that ask you, “How often do you purchase [some euphemism for brand-new AAA game] for yourself?” The answers will be something like: 1) Twice a year or less. 2) Once every three months. 3) Once every month. There’s no answer for “I’m provided numerous review copies every week, and I need to play at least one of them all the way to completion and sink at least a few hours into a couple of the others.” Even the most hardcore dedicated gamers would have trouble keeping up that sort of pace. They never have to face the situation where they need to put down a game they’re enjoying because they’re obligated to play a game they’re not excited about.

I’m not trying to get sympathy. I’m just saying that if you do this for enough years then it will change your perception of games.

Note how many movie critics treat formulaic stories like romantic comedies or buddy cop movies with such disdain, even though audiences love them. That’s the effect of repeated exposure. Very few of us will see more than one rom-com a year, but your average movie critic will see nearly all of them. They know the tropes and gags and story beats so well they can look at one scene and tell you who is going to be in the next scene and what will happen, because they’ve seen this movie in various forms over a hundred times in their career.

Catacomb 3D Screenshot

The other thing that sets us apart is age. While the average gamer is supposedly 30, that includes Facebook-gamers and Wii Sports types. Those people are gamers too, but they probably don’t spend their time on places like The Escapist, reading reviews and engaging with critics. Which means that the average age of the people reading this article is still under 30. Conversely, most of us game journalists are over 30. (I’m 43.) We have spouses and careers and we’ve been playing longer. I have been shooting dudes in a first-person way since the very first id shooter. No, I don’t mean Wolfenstein. I mean the actual first id shooter.

I’ve been doing this a long time. I devoured shooters in my 20s. I played them with waning enthusiasm in my 30s. And now that I’ve been steering the same generic angry white dude through gunfights for over two decades, I’m kind of looking for something new. And no, I don’t mean, “Our game also has a flamethrower and an upgrade tree” kind of new. I mean new ideas. Symbolism. Depth. I find myself leaning towards the arthouse scene because that’s where the new ideas are coming from. That’s where I find experiences that will give me the kind of stimulation I got out of Unreal 16 years ago. While lots of gamers thought Gone Home was “boring” because there weren’t any physical conflicts or fail states, I got an emotional jolt out of it because it was packed with stuff that I wasn’t getting in all the other games I played that year. I’m good on conflict. I’ve reached plenty of fail states. But this? This felt different and novel, and I don’t find a lot of novelty in games these days.

“Well then,” you might say, “No offense to you, Shamus, but maybe it’s time we got rid of old codgers like you and got some young blood that better reflects our views!”

Fair enough. (You meanie.) That does happen sometimes. There’s a pretty good turnover in this business. But it turns out that accurately reflecting what the audience is thinking isn’t the most important part of the job. At least, that’s not what gets the articles written and brings the eyeballs to the page. As games journalists age, they refine their craft at writing. Their historical perspective becomes deeper. Their discipline increases. (In my experience, kids fresh out of college don’t tend to keep deadlines the way the older folks do.) Their list of industry contacts gets larger. It makes very little sense for a web site to ditch someone like that in favor of someone who will give “more accurate review scores”. Whatever that means.

Movie audiences and movie critics face this same problem, and they have basically made peace with it by now. MovieBob talked about this last week. Game criticism is just following the trajectory set by movie criticism decades ago: The people doing the reviews eventually – by the very nature of doing their jobs – diverge from the tastes and preferences of their own audience.

Don’t hate on a critic because they’re “pretentious”. You too might someday experience that moment where you’ll stop right in the middle of a gunfight and find yourself thinking, “Who are these guys? Why am I shooting them? Why should I care? Is this all there is?”

It’s not an agenda. It’s not a conspiracy. This is just how criticism works.

Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and crank. You can read more of his work here.

You may also like