A Brief History

Because the full story would bore you.

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Why I Love Video Game Journalism

I find myself more enamored with game journalism today than ever before. At my earliest jobs I was consistently told that I would inevitably burn out and grow to hate this job, but six years later I find that hasn’t happened. Sometimes the stress makes me feel like I’m having a heart attack, and sometimes the excitement of a new story idea literally makes me a little worried I might throw up.

But I wouldn’t change it.

In a vocation as incessantly self-examining (and I mean that in a good way) as game journalism, I thought it might be useful to share with people why I actually really love this job. 

I’ve read the blog about Why X Writer is Terrible at Game Journalism. I’ve read the blog about Why Game Journalism Itself is Terrible. I’ve read the blog about Why X Writer is Quitting Game Journalism Because-The-System’s-Rigged-Man.

Here, for once, is a blog about why one of us loves it.

Community – One of the most wonderful things about the game journalism business is the community of colleagues that has developed. It’s a strange group of quite often strange people bound together by a mutual love of this odd little pocket of the writing profession.

It’s a community that is – intentionally or not – constantly outperforming itself. Just about every week some writer has written something that puts us all to shame, and we’ve all got to go back to the drawing board and come up with something even bigger, even better. I’m driven by that never-ending push forward as much as anyone, and it’s made me a much better writer than I ever hoped to be when I started out.

Ambition – That’s because when I started I didn’t really have any ambition. I don’t remember exactly why I wanted to be a game journalist when I first struck out. I think it was simply that the 1UP Show made it seem so glamorous to 17-year-old-me that I was smitten, but it’s been a journey that’s made me a better person.

I come from a place where to create anything is odd, and where odd is bad. Thinking back, I can’t remember anyone I knew as a kid who created something. I come from a sarcastic family where to try is to risk showing that you care, and in doing so make yourself vulnerable to ridicule. Many in my family were mean, cruel people who praised nothing and mocked whatever slip-up they could get hold of. Bullies, essentially. They indirectly taught me to take the path of least resistance and try to cultivate an image as the calmest, coolest guy in the room. I can’t remember ever having the urge to create anything at all.

Now that’s changed. I want to build things, and I’m excited to see what I’ll be able to build in the future. It just so happens that what I build are non-fiction stories. I still constantly have to push back against the voice in my head that says I’m not capable of doing something cool, and the embarrassment of failing will cost me more than I stand to gain with success. But I have vastly more ambition now than I did when I was younger. Video game journalism didn’t beat down my spirit, as so many predicted, it emboldened me.

Posterity – Game journalism has a nasty habit of self-deprecation masquerading as humility. Nothing we do matters. We just write about electronic toys. Maybe that’s true, but I don’t like to look at it that way. From that stance, the vast majority of people on Earth don’t matter at all, and that’s a really dark view. Few people are blessed with relevance to the species.

Instead, I like to think about the future. I like to imagine that at some point 200 years from now an Internet Anthropologist (a specialist in sifting through centuries of accumulated informational rubbish on the web) might be interested in the electronic game industry boom at the turn of the 21st century, and look to one of our articles for help in parsing the series of events that led up to their time. I like to think about a 2212 A.D. grad student writing a paper on early video games and using one of our articles as a source on some futuristic JSTOR. If nothing else, our articles will form the scaffolding that props up the all-encompassing Wiki-future.

Most of all, I like to imagine that at some point in the future they might think that what we did was cool: Writers of the early Information Age or the early Video Game Age. The same way some of us think that folks who worked in early television or radio were kind of baller for working on what they believed in despite great uncertainty (and game journalists know about uncertainty probably even better than they did.) Because we’re not just writing for today’s readers. Many of our articles will survive…unless you wrote for GamePro.com.

Freedom – I don’t doubt that those people who told me I would grow to hate game journalism would have been right if I did nothing but write hype pieces about upcoming games and reblog news. I’ve been there. It can be fun, but it’s not very fulfilling. Luckily, we’re working in the greatest epoch video game journalism has ever seen, and the amount of freedom I have is outrageous.

Right now there are multiple publications I can think of that will pay a reasonable rate for ambitious, innovative articles. If you’re willing to put in the leg work to break new ground then there are publications that will pay you for it because this is a wonderful time when reputation has become as important to many outlets as pageviews.

Beyond that, the range of pieces we’re able to write is outstanding. In the last couple years I’ve been able to do science writing and international reporting simply because I found a way to focus it through the lens of video games. I never would have been able to cover those topics if I freelanced for a newspaper.

People decry the standard games coverage: news, reviews, previews, and features. But what they’ve missed is that “feature” has become code for “other thing.” There’s nothing standard about it. In any given week I see more unique features than I have time to read.

In closing…game journalism has made my life better, and continues to do so as the years go on. Because the gaming industry is a frontier of opportunity that gives ordinarily dull people like me the chance to do something unique with our time on Earth, rather than working on garbage trucks (the Groen family business).

There are those who will tell you that journalism is the opposite of creativity and art (usually after getting a bad review.) That we’re leeches. Ignore these people and go write an article that brings knowledge into the world and conjures emotion that didn’t exist before. 

I don’t believe I would be saying things like this if it weren’t for games journalism. 

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Your Story Sucks: A Rebuttal

Recently, my colleague and friend, Jason Schreier, honored me with a smackdown (in essay form, as all the best smackdowns are) of an idea I’d posted on Twitter the day before. Today I’d like to offer an official rebuttal.

“It’s always baffling that so many people place so much importance on the story of a video game when game stories are near universally shit,” I wrote. 

I still stand by that statement. I didn’t make it lightly. It’s been something I’ve considered for many years. What I regret is the truncated Tweet-form of my argument. 

I’m a loud arguer and often a boisterous voice. So sometimes, to retain the impact of a statement that’s being chopped down to 25 words I subconsciously resort to generalizing more than I’d like. Though “near universally” isn’t far from what I believe is the real truth.

In his article, Jason points out a number of games which conflict with my statement. He writes (and quite accurately, I think) that storytelling is a deeply personal experience. He says it’s impossible to judge a story’s objective quality because it’s a personal judgment by each player. What fails to resonate with one player, may strike a chord with another.

"To call those stories “shit” is to belittle the people who can empathize with love or revenge or betrayal, no matter the trappings,” Jason wrote. “Sometimes, even the most ridiculous plot can make you feel something real. And who among us has never fallen in love with a silly story?”

What I think this argument ignores is that the average video game has no story at all. And a significant portion of the games that do have a story are like Super Mario Bros: you’re not really supposed to be paying attention (not counting Super Mario Sunshine.)

Certainly some game stories have resonated with people. Lots of people. Anybody who says otherwise is a fool. However, just because a story resonates with somebody does not make it high quality. What makes a high quality story, to me, is one that makes those players who are not intrigued, be intrigued. I’m not interested in a story that can make someone who empathizes with the lust for revenge…empathize with the lust for revenge. That’s neither interesting nor significant. I’m interested in stories that transport people who can’t understand revenge into the shoes of a character that does, and helps them understand the mind and life of that character.

With respect, I think the argument that a story can’t be judged because it’s relative to each player is confusing “quality” with “value.” Any story can have value to a person, but that doesn’t make it well-told or engaging to an audience of millions.  

The gaming industry’s characters (again, by-and-large) are designed to be blank faces or lowest-common-denominator heroes specifically to (corporate executives think) appeal to everyone and turn-off no one. They’re cardboard cutouts at a carnival designed so you can put your face on top of a muscular body and pretend you’re fabulously ripped. This works great on teenagers, but as the audience for gaming matures, so must their portrayals of people and life. Most of the game characters I can think of don’t even act like actual people. Because they’re not. Most of them are action figures.  

Video games have a tremendous potential to bring the player into the life of a character. Perhaps more potential than any other storytelling medium. Heavy Rain proved that to me with its abysmally bumbling tale that still managed to keep me emotionally engaged. But in the games industry that is a very rare thing.

I said in the original tweet that somebody who is passionate about quality stories would do better to follow film or literature. Because in those mediums, the focus is almost always on the story first. Even the most rudimentary film stories and releases (say…1990s Adam Sandler films) contain characters that evolve and grow, which is exceedingly rare in even the best stories this medium currently has to offer. At this point, most games have more in common with sit-coms than literature or film: the same characters doing essentially the same things over and over because (coprorate executives think) that’s all the customer wants. Never growing or changing because (corporate executives think) that would alienate newly arriving players. Hopefully one day we’ll have a revolution in video game storytelling similar to television’s at the turn of the millenium when The Sopranos introduced the casual audience to long-form narrative, and as a result, began to share the airwaves with Ray Romano and the Kardashians.

Furthermore, (getting back on topic) the selection of games that are discussed in Jason’s essay is selective to the point of being ridiculous. I wouldn’t criticize the stories of Dragon Age 2 or To the Moon. However, I would criticize the story of Turok (2008) which takes place on a terraformed planet filled with dinosaurs (for reasons I don’t think they even bothered to try to explain.) DA2 or TtM may have stories with emotions like love and revenge, but the only emotion I can find in a game like Turok is something I like to call Angry-Flex, which I think is self-explanatory. Turok’s story exists as an excuse to blow up dinosaurs. No more. 

Turok also illustrates the long-standing outline of lazy video game storytelling: “Hero with mysterious past arrives to combat a bad situation or villain, only to find out villain/threat wasn’t the real enemy after all! There was a bigger villain the whole time and now we’ve got to kill everything on our way to go blow up his/her/their base!” That’s the basic plot of Final Fantasy 7 (and some of the other FF’s if I remember correctly), Half-Life, Metal Gear Solid, Halo, Resident Evil, Mass Effect 1, Call of Duty 4, and many many more. Most of those deviate from the path a small bit (e.g. Half-Life does most of it except the “mysterious hero” part) but by-and-large that’s how it goes. And those are some of our best tales.  

And some of the narratively-focused games that do manage to break away from that trap fall into other problems as well. Take Bioshock for example. Long has it been lavished with praise as a masterwork of storytelling. And it is. But its story has nothing to do with it being a video game. The important story of Bioshock takes place years before you even arrive. The part you actually play is a kinda-cool, kinda-mindless shooter with awesome horror elements and great atmosphere. The story of your play is no more than a series of fetch quests on your route from Point A to Point B followed by a quip about how they tricked you into doing so many fetch quests. I think this is significant, because even some of our best stories have zero ideas on how to bridge the achingly large chasm between story and gameplay. The best Bioshock could do was to pretend you were “discovering” the story in podcast form randomly strewn about the world. Make no mistake: this is no less random and silly than a full turkey popping out of a dead enemy in Streets of Rage 2. 

I don’t mean to suggest that video games have no capacity for good storytelling. I really don’t mean to suggest that, because I believe the exact opposite. Interactivity is a tool of immense power. And to back that up, I present you with Metal Gear Solid: a fascinating plot and universe presented in what may be one of the most poorly told stories I’ve ever seen. I have never once met a person (remember, I work with some of the biggest video game geeks alive) who could describe to me anything more than the most basic outline of MGS. Most people who have played it only once probably couldn’t even do that much. I’m a fan of the series as well as the story and even I’m not fully sure what happens.

But I still love it. I feel the same way about many of the Final Fantasy games. In my opinion, these stories manage to still be great despite their failings because of interactivity, not because they’re competently told.

I would like to thank Jason for writing the original essay, and would also like to give a shoutout to Richard Goodness, the author of this very good piece on the same topic. Substantive debate is always good, and I very much respect their opinions and writings in the industry. 

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Player Participation in Skyrim

I’ve come to the conclusion that much of the misunderstanding players have with Skyrim stems from a misunderstanding with what their role is as the player. I largely blame Bethesda for this, actually. They tend to market the game as being about epic quests. They don’t work hard enough to distinguish themselves from other games like Dragon Age which focus on characters and narrative.

As a result, a lot of players get into the game with preconceived notions of what a video game product must be. Notions which are severely at odds with what Bethesda is doing with Skyrim. 

Skyrim is a game that includes quests and a main storyline, but they’re only a part of the larger experience. The larger experience is about living a virtual life in a fantasy world. Maybe that’s corny, but I think it’s the truth.

Players tend to treat Skyrim as being “about” its main story with the overworld as icing on the cake. This approach doesn’t make much sense to me. I can’t understand why someone would assume an enormous, gorgeous world like that would merely be window-dressing for a canned story about destiny and dragons.

I’ll be clear in that I do think that Bethesda mangles their game a bit in order to sell copies, and make it more palatable for traditional audiences. I think Skyrim is a below-average RPG layered on top of a truly amazing fantasy sim. I just think it’s sad that some people are writing off the entire experience based on the below-average top layer. The game is best when the main quests are viewed as little more than a tour guide. A motivator that keeps you moving when you don’t know what to do next.

The problem with this style of game (and part of the reason for this misconception) is that the player needs to bring something with them into the play experience. You can’t just go from moment to moment and expect the game to constantly entertain you with new and amazing activities. Maybe that’s what you want a game to do. That’s totally fine. There are times when that’s what I want too. However, you’re barking up the wrong tree if that’s what you’re trying to extract from Skyrim.

One of the reasons I can see Skyrim losing its allure for players is because we experienced game-folk can see behind the curtain. We know that the game has algorithms in place to deliver special quests to us based on our previous decisions. We know that we triggered certain events because of our playstyle or by going into a certain area.

What I’m asking players to do is to forget all that for a moment and pretend. Make believe that you don’t actually know those things, and delve into the world with fresh eyes. Don’t roll your eyes when you’ve obviously hit a trigger point for a quest. Take that quest and incorporate its events into your character’s story. Maybe even keep a journal of the things your character has done in the world, and think about how that might impact them. Make decisions through the lens of your character. Consider how they might react, and live this life through another person’s eyes.

Modern action games are like explosive action films. These experiences are so tailored that the developers can hide all of the seams, triggers, and code such that you can effortlessly transport yourself into that experience. The trade-off to that is freedom. You can’t have both.

Theater is to Skyrim as action films are to action games. With theater you gain a vitality and an energy that is practically impossible with film. However, the trade-off is that the audience can obviously see that the story is fake as it’s being performed on-stage. The same is true of Skyrim. It’s freedom achieves something a linear game could never hope for, but it’s so large and cumbersome that the strings and seams can’t be entirely hidden from the player.

In order for the production to work, the audience has to come into the experience willing to be deceived. It’d be a disaster if everyone showed up and scoffed because a theater production didn’t have Michael Bay production values.

It’s not too different with Skyrim. For the experience to work, the player needs to bring with them a suspension of disbelief. It’s a game about the meandering path your character takes through the world, and that story is incomplete without you putting something back into it.

It’s impossible to enjoy Skyrim by sitting down and saying, “let’s see what’s so good about this game.” That’s swimming against the current. But if you lie flat, lay your head back and float, the game will take you wonderful places. 

At risk of overloading on analogies, Skyrim is a bit like a coloring book to me. You can’t just look at the content (the blank pictures) and say “man, this sucks…it’s just…missing something.” The experience is incomplete without your input.

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Can You Be a Games Journalist? Of Course, but Probably Not.

I’ve decided to sound off on this new “can you be a games journalist” debate because I find it insanely interesting, and it offers me a unique chance to procrastinate this afternoon. (As well as a reason to finally start a work blog.)

Here’s the list of things you should probably read before getting to my two cents, because many have written about this before me and they all have wonderful thoughts as well: Andrew Hayward, Xav de Matos. And the negative nancies: Michael Walbridge, Aaron Simmer.

Synopsis: Several essays have surfaced in the last few days debating whether or not it’s possible to make it in the video game journalism business.

I feel like I’ve got a unique story to tell young freelancers in this business, because I am one myself. I’ve been a full-time freelancer for only about 8 months (worked in the mainstream press and volunteer hobbyist gaming gigs before that) and I’ve been fortunate enough to write articles for GamePro, Joystiq, GamesRadar, and CheatCC. I’m at the point where I can consider my monthly wage to be the bare minimum of “livable” after taxes. I have a degree in Journalism, which taught me an incredible amount about how to be a professional writer, but as Andrew Hayward said, has yet to come in handy as an actual degree.

My stance straddles the line between the positive commentary of Andrew/Xav and those that are telling people to stay away. For those who want a straight answer: yes, you absolutely can become a professional video game journalist. But here’s a fact that is not debatable: you must be better than everyone else trying to make it.

One of the main problems with so many aspiring journalists these days is that they don’t seem to understand this fact, and rather assume that if they hang around long enough accruing experience eventually it will be their right to rise to prominence. But they forget that there are thousands of other people out there trying the same thing.

The view that it’s impossible doesn’t even really make sense because it doesn’t explain how people like Andrew, Xav, Mitchell Dyer and Nathan Meunier (great freelancers who live far from San Francisco) are succeeding at the magnitude that they are.

Becoming a video game writer is no different than becoming a pro basketball player (though the odds are at least a bit better in this business.) You have to practice a lot, and learn from those who came before you. You have to get yourself in front of the right eyeballs, and above all, you’ve got to be really damn good at basketball. Where many go wrong is in their assumption of what makes a good writer.

The problem, I think, is that many assume that they can be a successful writer, because their articles are very well written/thoughtful, or because they have better grammar than others. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Being a successful writer as it turns out has surprisingly little to do with your writing skills. It’s necessary, certainly, but it’s maybe 25% of the whole pie.

You also have to be a networking fiend, a salesman (the most criminally unappreciated aspect of a freelancers life), and most importantly you have to be willing to recognize that you’re a laborer not an artist. Very few people in this business are ever going to pay you for your brilliance, and that’s something you’ll need to accept before you even take a step into these waters.

The reason everyone says you need to be a writer first and a gamer second is because if you’re going to make it then 90% of your (writing) time is going to be spent on articles about stuff you don’t really care about. Because it doesn’t matter what you care about, it matters what the outlet that pays you cares about. If you’re really good then you can mold an article to fit both needs.

If you don’t fully understand that then you will fail.

Here’s a good self-test you can take to find out if you’ll be able to “make it”: How would you make a living if gaming journalism wasn’t an option?

Give it some thought…

If you answered “writing about other things” then you’ll probably be a very good video game writer. (It doesn’t necessarily rule you out if you answered differently of course. I just think it’s a leg up.) If games are your only interest, and the only thing you’re willing to write about then it’s likely you don’t want to be a writer at all. But rather that you just want to be a part of this industry, and journalism happens to be the lowest door of entry (at least in terms of necessary skills to get started.)

Video game journalism is an extremely competitive field, but fortunately it’s a small enough field that if you have the chops to be a professional writer (in all the ways detailed above) then you’ve got a good chance.