September 22, 2021

“Good at Games”: Electric Boogaloo


So, the “should games journalists be good at video games” debate has reared its ugly head again.

The game this time is the 2D Platform/Shooter called Cuphead. And the website in question is VentureBeat –¬†GamesBeat lead writer¬†Dean Takahashi seemed to struggle to do even some of the basics required of playing a game of this kind and made a sort of humorous video inviting people to come and laugh at his bad attempts to play the game in question. Which seems odd for someone who has supposedly been writing about video games for twenty-one years; that would mean he was at least playing video games in 1996, if not beforehand, where a huge chunk of releases were side-scrolling two-dimensional platformers. Seriously Mr. Takahashi – rule out serious health issues first by seeing a doctor. Not joking here or being snarky. Genuine concern. Better to be safe than sorry.

Anyway, personally I am of the opinion that video game reviewers should be good at video games – this is a given. But the thing is, you don’t need to be good at -all- video games. Because that would be silly.

The video game review scene is still primarily a specialist press – lots of people play video games, but the amount of people who genuinely read reviews and base their purchase on said reviews has grown increasingly small over the last decade or so. This means that the gaming press, and games reviews, actually reach a distressingly small portion of the market. Reviews are often consulted not by those wanting to see if a game is good or not, but reports suggest to see if a game is technically or mechanically better or different than another. In short, this scene is most frequented not by people wanting to be informed about a games quality – but rather, by those who want to know what it is they’re buying into.

My argument has always been that a specialist press needs specialists.

I am a pretty capable gamer. I pure-platinumed Bayonetta. I have platinum trophies in all of the Souls games including Bloodborne. I’m an avid JRPG fan and I’m very capable with both 2D and 3D adventures and platformers. I consider myself a very “gamer” sort of gamer; I take playing video games seriously. I revel in it. However, that doesn’t mean I am good at all video games. Shove a copy of Madden or FIFA or NBA into my hands and watch me recoil in horror, and then sit back as I proceed to make an outrageous tit of myself trying to understand the game and be remotely good at it. Sports games aren’t my thing. I’ve long been open to that fact.

Can I play them? Of course I can. I can even appreciate them. Understand them. But could I, in about ten hours of playtime, tell you what was so different between FIFA 16, FIFA 17 and FIFA 18? No. I’m not immersed in that world. It’s not my specialist topic. Ask me to say what the likes of The Surge did better and/or worse than Dark Souls 3 and I could spend hours discussing every minutia of the subject – but I cannot do the same for Madden, or NBA, or WWE or a host of annual sports instalments.

Personally, I believe as a result of this lack of immersion in said genres, my viewpoints would not hold any sort of weight with fans of those genres. I would be the “casual” in that field; my opinions and deconstructions would be at best of a superficial layer. The bigger fans will want to know more fundamental changes; so for a game like FIFA, I’d presume that covers elements like roster lists, passing and tackle changes, physics and ball handling, team layouts, tactical planning and so forth. You need a very healthy and firm grasp of said games to be able to, with confidence, talk about whether these changes are better or worse than other titles in the field like, say, Pro Evolution Soccer. I’m not that person.

But as I said, ask me to talk about why I actually liked Lords of the Fallen and I’ll wax lyrical about the aggressive and slick combat mechanics whilst lamenting how incredibly buggy the game is in the overall (sound and music often seems to be the first thing to suffer before the game eventually crashes). I’ll tell you the plot is surprisingly compelling, the enemy design is interesting and the world-building is top notch for what is, in essence, a middle-market attempt to do a Souls-like game. I’ll also say that the environments are really quite superb, though the game has a propensity for cheap surprise attacks and some poor scaling in the overall. I’ll say it’s not a perfect game; but I’ll say it’s like Bloodborne. When it works, when everything is going fine and the framerates hold up and the control response is nominal, it’s a thrilling little game. But those parts come in spurts and starts.

The games media has been suffering for years with this issue. There’s a lack of specialists willing to write for games websites on the whole; many will prefer to cultivate and build their own brand on YouTube… or I guess now the likes of with the whole YouTube revenue crisis happening. They want to be able to speak to and interact with like-minded people.

Video game websites, and by extension most reviewers, aren’t often able to fixate on one or two specialist subjects. They need to appeal to as many people as possible and this often means that they have a select group of writers and reviewers who play games, sometimes not realising said person may not be able to provide much more than a glancing insight into the inner workings of the game in question. And fans of said games and genres want, need and I’ll say it – demand better.

Getting specialists who understand genres and specialise in genres is a tricky business because in reality there are no hard and fast rules that define what a “specialist” is. Some might say I’m a specialist in Souls-like games; I have multiple platinum trophies for Souls-like titles across the board. But even then, whilst I love them and understand them and love seeing what people do within the confines of what is a relatively recent addition to the sub-genre line-up, can I be a “specialist”? Do I need to kill X amount of people in PvP in Dark Souls 3? Do I need to be able to do an no-upgrade run, or a no-levelling run? Okay, I did a no-bonfire run in Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin on PS4, but does this make me an expert in this field? It’s not like I can go and get a Phd in Souls-like Reviewing (though my thesis would be amazing. And long-winded!).

I think the gaming media needs to work on defining some clear boundaries on what a “specialist” is. Of course, the truth is specialists aren’t always the best writers. You need to find people who are good enough at juggling both elements sometimes – one person may be more qualified in one or the other element, but at some point they’ll be caught out. Then you’re in for a rough ride.

But the games industry also has to stop pretending that skill doesn’t matter. It does. Like it or not, many game genres are a meritocracy. The good players rise to the top and the bad players sink to the bottom. There are often rarely shortcuts here. Everyone is given the same tools, the same access to weapons and upgrades. It’s learning what to do with them and how to utilise them to the most effective manner which dictates which side people will fall on. The people who read your material are fans – and often, very avid fans who understand what makes the genre tick. They want to see a viewpoint that informs them of important things, perhaps things they may not like or things that they want reassurance on that aren’t going to impact their enjoyment of a game.

But such specialists also need to be able to be critical of the genre. They can’t be so blindly in love with it that they’ll excuse anything, which seems to be the order of the day with Destiny 2 (and people wonder why more and more are rolling their eyes at what seems to be a double-standard?). They’ll need to also be able to deal with fanboys – and fangirls – who’ll question their expertise. That’s fine too. People are all too ready to dismiss someones viewpoint because they’re “not close enough” or “not in-love enough”, which I’d argue is essential if you are to be genuinely critical of a video game. Appreciation, understanding and love is necessary – but distance does help bring some clarity.

The problem is that these kinds of people aren’t common. They’re really not. So the gaming press is often times doing the best it can within an increasingly limited pool of talent – as more and more of this heads to video platforms where people can be their own boss and not need to deal with an editor at large, or runners with a chip on their shoulder or the possibility that they’ll have to talk about something outside of their general expertise.

(Of course, the downside to this is being so niche can be an issue in and of itself, but that may be a topic for another day.)

By and large, I do think most games media does a decent enough job of toeing this very tricky line. It’s not perfect – but that’s okay. It doesn’t need to be perfect all the time, and it does bring up topics like this where we can at least appreciate by and large that even though many writers aren’t the most versed in a video game, they actually do a damned good job with limited time, materials and experience.

Saying “all games journalists are bad at games” based on one video which may or may not have been done tongue-in-cheek by one guy at one outlet is almost as stupid as… well… saying all white people are racist. Mass-generalisations are not going to help in the discussion. Nuance is essential; you need to prove more that multiple outlets are guilty of the same thing, and most of the time… you could even argue it’s an issue with just a few of these media outlets. I’m not naming any names. Ahem. *cough*Polygon*cough*

I do believe that the gaming press needs more specialists. But that’s a long-term ideal – realistically, expecting change so rapidly and getting angry that your angry response isn’t changing anything doesn’t actually help anyone. In the meantime, I’m prepared to cut most outlets a little slack. Theirs is an industry in decline, money is tight and adblock is literally strangling them. And they will always made mistakes. Don’t take one stupid video out of its humorous context, or use it to make sweeping generalisations.

In an ideal world, this wouldn’t even be an issue for discussion. But I’m not a millionaire and I don’t have a super tricked-out mobility scooter that can fly.

So it might be time for some realism.


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