Separate Ways: The Divide Between the Player and the Journalist

Toadofsky is a regular reader and commenter that authors an eponymous blog.  This post was originally published in March 2012 and has been adapted for publication on Learn to Counter.

These past months have been very interesting in gaming. The Mass Effect 3 controversy didn’t just open the door on the state of the relationship between players and game critics, it drove a full-speed sports car through it. The gap is far and wide, and it’s not looking to get any better…

A number of vocal gamers gave valid reasons for disliking the ending in Mass Effect 3. Instead of just raging on forums, some tried to contribute to charity. Others sent hundreds of cupcakes to BioWare.*  Three different colors, all the same flavor. The results speak for themselves: Gamers didn’t like the ending. Even the Better Business Bureau stated that Bioware was guilty of false advertising on their blog.* So, what was the reaction from the press?  Journalists and developers scoffed at all of this, calling gamers entitled brats, telling them that changing the ending is the equivalent of putting lipstick on the Mona Lisa.

“Considering how much time people have spent trying to advance the idea that video games are works of art, it’s disappointing to see so many people defending the idea that games are product… Art is supposed to be an expression of creativity. If you’re invalidating your team’s ‘vision’ to appeal to the demands of players, then you’ve crossed the line.”

Chuck Jordan of LucasArts fame, speaking with PC Gamer, “What do game writers and designers think about BioWare changing the Mass Effect 3 ending?”; published on March 23, 2012*

“It bothers the hell out of me. I’ve always felt that games like Mass Effect are all about living with the consequences of your choices, no matter what they may be, and I think BioWare should do the same thing here and stick with their original choice, trust their original creative instinct.”

Games journalist and author Gary Whitta, Ibid.*

Yeah, journalists are trying to use the argument: Games are art, don’t question it.  Once again, a topic that just didn’t seem to die rears its ugly head again.

I have a serious problem with people throwing “art” into the discussion. First off, if games are art, then the game should be complete, because I don’t recall a pay window to see Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”. I give a pass on expansion packs, but when I see Capcom and numerous companies locking content on-disc and forcing you to pay more for the game, I don’t see art, I see extortion. Don’t give me that “used games are killing the industry” bull. If people are buying more used copies than new, then it’s time to for the industry to rethink its bloated business practices, let alone the quality of their games.

Second, the excuse that an artist can’t change his piece because of public outcry is stupid, because there’s this little thing called “reality” that gets in the way. When a book is published, it’s not put out in one go.  It goes through multiple editors for both proofreading and creative input.  When a film is in development, there are test audiences to help see how the film is shaping up. In the original ending for the movie adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Scott rekindled his relationship with Knives Chao. Audiences hated it. The ending undermined everything in the film. Scott fights seven other people to the death in order to win Ramona’s heart, only to change his mind and go with the girl that he didn’t feel a bond for?

What’s my point in all of that?  Art is subject to criticism, and always will be. Artists have every right to ignore criticism and go about publishing their work, but if they think their work with the publishing establishment and their “art” can go untouched, they’ll end up peddling their “art” on the street corner, and thinking people just don’t “get it”.

When art becomes your way of making a living, the rules completely change. Films and literature both undergo many revisions, and the reason is that the investor or financier is applying a consumer viewpoint. People can cry foul at that, but there could be hundreds of millions of dollars at stake. Nobody is going to constantly take a chance. If games are truly art, then they’re subject to criticism, input, and the ensuing changes. They are held to the same standard that films and books are put to. (Of course, that sort of input can often be damaging, especially with thick-skull publishers feeling that every game needs to turned into a shooter.)

I’m sure that someone will interject and talk about George Lucas’ original vision of his movies, blah blah blah. Well, let me tell you something, the original Star Wars films were based on a collaborative effort, not one man, no matter how much Lucas and his studio try to rewrite its history. The original Star Wars film was originally planned as an American rip-off of Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress until major rewrites were conducted. Don’t forget, that Lucas (an artist) used “his vision/art” to revise the original films, as well as creating a second trilogy that made things even worse.

None of these points seem to be getting into the heads of game journalists. You see, they’ve been parroting the notion that games are art, and that criticism of “AAA” games is complete heresy. Most on the internet are well-versed on how game journalists and critics have to work: They do interviews and are encouraged to have friendly relationships with developers. In addition, game journalists will occasionally review large-scale commercial games in plush hotels or at private events, fully catered to their whims.

What confuses me is how journalists let the HD release of Silent Hill go by without so much as a single outrage prior to its release. For many, Silent Hill is the pinnacle of survival horror.  (Resident Evil held that crown until it decided to go all third-person action ala Gears of War.) You would think that an HD release of a much-lauded series would be a big deal to the press. You’d also think they’d cry foul when something like this is done to a treasured series:

Ito was shown some comparison shots of the old and new games on Twitter, and he was pretty unimpressed. You can see the screens in the attached gallery, where the notable lack of fog reveals unfinished portions of the environment.

“Left side is HD, isn’t it? It’s poor,” he stated. “… It’s really a released version? Really?”

When informed that the screenshot was indeed from the final retail copy, his reaction was pretty self-explanatory. He simply exclaimed, “OMG!!!!” He would then go on to say that Konami did not have to release a version in that condition, further expressing his surprise at the port job.

Destructoid, “Silent Hill designer unimpressed by Silent Hill HD”; published on March 23, 2012*

See that? That’s what happens when you try to cash in on the HD re-release craze. The fog in Silent Hill, while originally a technical crutch to accommodate the hardware, is actually a character in of itself, and a deceptive one at that. The fog keeps a veil of mystery in the game, making you wonder what lies beyond it. It also plays up your anxiety of what horrid creatures could be lurking behind it. So where was the gaming press in all of this? Here’s a story for them to pounce all over how “art” has been changed and ultimately sacrificed for a quick buck. Clearly, it wasn’t important enough for them to make an issue over it, as they quickly moved on to the next big release.

The biggest problem with game journalism is that it has become nothing more than a public relations mouthpiece. Hard-hitting questions are rarely asked for fear of losing ad space and “scoops”. Reviews are massaged to have a higher score than they deserve. Popular game sites post things that have nothing to do with games, and are offended when people call them out for it. It’s like watching a spoiled six-year-old telling an educated, responsible adult to grow up, while telling them how hard their life is. I can name several offenders: Kotaku, whose editors have deleted comments that cut pointless articles down to size; Destructoid, whose authors have often gotten into arguments with readers, while touting the tagline “For Gamers, by Gamers”; IGN, who can’t rate a big-budget release below a nine, featuring site content whose opinion and commentary is as straight as a wet noodle.

Forbes’ Dave Their has been running circles around journalists on this Mass Effect 3 ending debacle. He’s wrote some very pointed things about the journalists in their perfect little bubble with publishers, viewing their readership as little scabs roaming the streets below. Those articles struck a nerve; game journalists have been “banding together” against the criticism.

Some of the same journalists have admitted that there are problems with game journalists, but choose to do nothing about it, other than complain about their readership.

The Hall & Oates song, “Out of Touch”, is ripe for application. Game journalists have no one to blame but themselves for this. They’ve bred their audiences to gobble up the big reveals and first reviews. They’ve bred gamers to soak in hype with game after game after game, calling a game the Second Coming of Christ, only to admit that it was mediocre in subsequent months. If you want an example, look no further than IGN’s “Most Disappointing” lists, often featuring games that they scored above an eight.* Grand Theft Auto IV received a perfect ten, yet it barely made the top ten in their list of the Top 25 PlayStation 3 games.* A number of gamers seem to be waking up to this nonsense, questioning the ethics and motives of game journalism, and thus you have journalists railing against that backlash.

Of course, there are also lazy “journalists” (Destructoid), who’ll use the excuse that they’re just bloggers. I’ve heard plenty of lazy, limp arguments before, but that’s the worst. Even if you’re “just a blogger” and this is more-than-likely your job (as a professional blogger), you have a responsibility. Hiding behind that excuse of “just a blogger” is like an unemployed father of five scoring a good job and not working, “cuz he don’t wanna”.

Nobody should expect a journalist to hit the right note every time. They can be wrong. They are human, after all. And nobody is expecting them all to nod in agreement on all games and news. But game journalists, bloggers, and developers can’t use fancy prose to call games an art form, and then refuse to hold themselves to high standards. If your only argument is “games iz artz, don’t question it”, then you do a disservice to your profession, and continue to make that profession a joke. The only way to improve the current state of the gaming medium (the gaming press included)—and God-knows they have plenty of room for it—is to promote feedback on all levels and challenge it.

Game companies have forgotten that the consumer is the one who can dictate what’s quality, but the game journalist has to assist that decision, to help look out for the consumer, not go against them. To do otherwise makes you look like a petty tool. It doesn’t matter what bridges could be burned by making a stand, it doesn’t matter how “hurt” that game publisher will be for a journalist refusing to change their score. If a game journalist was to do either of those things, they would gain trust and support from the gaming community.

So while Mass Effect 3 will go down among the most controversial endings in gaming, it will also be recognized for showing how ultimately out of touch the gaming press is with its readership. It will also show how much fanboyism has gotten in the way of critical analysis.

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