On The Ethics of Game Criticism

[This is an IM conversation between me and my buddy Greg, regarding Arthur Gies’ non-review of Star Fox Zero over at Polygon.]

G:  in other news, arthur gies continues to be
a bit of a pretentious tool (by refusing to review star fox

J:is that good/bad, re star fox?
from everything else i’ve read, it’s a bit of a shitshow

G:  it’s essentially a bad review that has no score
and claims not to be a review.
i.e. it’s such a mess i can’t even be bothered to
finish it to review it (even though that’s
my job and the game is maybe 5 hours long)

“It is, to be blunt, a miserable experience, and
the idea of playing more fills me with the kind of
deep, existential dread I can’t really justify.”
i mean, jesus howard christ, that is quite a thing
to write about playing a janky video game
to complete a work assignment.
J:  at least he’s not mincing words

we’ve all played games that shitty
G: sure
J: for it to be a big-name exclusive for an ailing system,
and for it to be a terrible game – well, one can make
the argument that keeping the piece as is
is a good way to get page views and get nerds all angry

G: but i think he needs to suck up
his existential dread, push through the
last two hours of the game and put a number on it.
J: what difference would that make, though?
G: i see it as more of a way to feed gies’s ego.

well for one thing, it would pull down
the metacritic average of a game that advertises on their site.
like, ok, his piece is essentially a scathing review.
but then why go through this whole charade about
refusing to review it on some kind of purportedly
principled basis of how it is offensive to his immortal soul
that nintendo might have expected him to finish the game?
the game has a 71 on metacritic. gies could have
sucked it up instead of making an arbitrary stand here.
i should mention that i have often liked gies’s writing
and podcast musings in the past, but he occasionally
lets his brash egotism show too much, and i think
this may be the flagship instance of that.
J: i don’t know, though. for one thing, fuck metacritic.
for another, if a flagship title is going to suck that badly,
why not stick to your guns? there is nothing that will be gained
by his finishing a piece of shit. the idea that
his opinion can only be “complete”
once he puts a number next to it bothers me.
G: i hear you, but i also think polygon has put in place
certain standards and procedures – including putting
numbers on games which, while admittedly sometimes
arbitrary and always reductive – as part of
the core content they provide to their readers.
J: i agree that not finishing a thing for an assignment is dicey.
you don’t often hear movie reviewers walk out of a film,
a food critic walk out of a meal,
a music critic walk out of a concert / turn off an album.
G: while i think he should have finished the game
and written a review, i’d also have preferred if he
put a number on it without having finished it,
which i think in instances like this is totally fair.
the score would reflect that the game is so bad that
the first couple of hours extinguish any desire to
finish the rest, i.e. even if the last two hours
was ingenious the game would be a 2.
I don’t think reviews have to have numbers, but
where you’re the reviews editor at a site that does it,
then it seems very prima donna to be all
“ugh, finishing this 4 hour game that
has an invincibility mode is beneath me”
J: that being said, there is no other popular medium
i can think of where *not* finishing a thing is par for the course.
G: well, this is also one of the only mediums where
most of the actual consumers also don’t finish.
J: right, exactly.
i guess i’m less inclined to be bent out of shape over it
because i simply don’t give a shit about Nintendo right now.
i can’t even update my 3DS system software, which is
the only Nintendo product I still own –
i’d been thinking about getting Bravely Second,
but I’m not sure I can even buy it if I can’t update the firmware.
G: right, i don’t care about nintendo or star fox,
so am not really bent out of shape about it…
but the story has pushed me over into
the “arthur gies is a douchebag” camp.
was it FF12 or 13 that had like 15 hours of
corridor battles and then opened up?
games like that illustrate the insufficiency of a single number score.
see also gies’s review of bayonetta 2 which dinged it
for its over sexualized character design.
in those cases i don’t really care what the number score is
as long as the objections to the game are spelled out in the text.
J: I think FF13 is the one that you’re thinking of.
but of course, FF13 also had a part 2 and a part 3 as separate releases

so if Gies’ objections to Starfox are spelled out
in his non-review, why are you giving him
a hard time this time? because he didn’t finish it?
(i’ve not yet read his piece.)
G:  because i think it was very ego-driven.
poor me, i’m not going to follow our site’s standard policy
because i have existential dread about… playing this video game.

it’s obviously a very small deal in the scheme of things…
but polygon is a video game website, at which
he is the reviews editor. their readers have
certain reasonable expectations, and i see
very little reason other than self-indulgence
that he needed to write it up this way.
J:  if he forbids anyone else on staff to play it to completion,
that’s one thing. if he (and the rest of the staff) feels
that his statement speaks well enough to not
need a rebuttal, that’s another thing.

i used to get bent out of shape at Pitchfork all the time;
their numbers were so completely arbitrary, and
reviewers would purposefully be hyperbolic
if only because that’s what the readers expected.
they ruined more than a few careers with some “0.0” scores, frankly.
and lots of really positive-sounding reviews only got stuck in the upper 6s, low 7s
and in the early days, their writing was far more
obtuse and pretentious – reviews written as one-act plays,
dialogues between people, etc.
i can’t necessarily get bent out of shape at Gies
for taking a stand here. maybe he has a
particular fondness for Star Fox from his childhood
and this game was making him so miserable
and unhappy that he decided it wasn’t worth it to continue.
i guarantee that in a month, nobody will even remember this happened.
G: sure, this will come and go quickly and again is not at all a big deal.
but i’m not so forgiving of gies refusing to do his job.
or, doing his job (posting what is basically a negative review)
under the guise of some grand offense to his integrity
as a gamer having been committed by this game.
[At this point, I finally read the piece in question, and skimmed through the comments, and saw that this same exact conversation was more or less taking place over there already.  Also I had some day-job work to attend to, and at this point I decided I wanted to post this conversation here.]
J:  Ultimately, yes, in the grand scheme of things it’s not that big a deal.
but i guess I’m finding myself surprisingly OK with him
leaving it as-is. I have little-to-no time these days,
and if I’m playing a game that sucks, I feel little-to-no
obligation to finish it. Granted, if I write about it,
I’m writing for an audience of maybe 20 people
and I’m not getting paid, nor are my opinions affecting
people’s salaries and bonuses because I affected a Metacritic average.
but as it is, i barely have time to finish the games that i actually DO enjoy, too.
G:  but i think the fact that you are not
a professional game reviewer – much less the head
game reviewer at a leading gaming site –
makes that much, much more excusable.

it’s a little silly to speak of the “rights” of polygon readers
to a full, scored review, but NO one could suggest any of
your readers has a right to expect certain specific content from you.
it just seems to me that instead of doing what
polygon does, gies decided, OKAY, I’M GOING TO MAKE A “STATEMENT”!
J: yeah, but i think that’s his right as a critic to say “fuck this.”
G: i wish he had either (a) just shut up, or
(b) recognized that his non-review was as much
a review as any numbered piece on their site.
instead, i saw this as him preening.
J: i remember flipping through (I think) an issue of Rolling Stone
back in high school, and they were reviewing
Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Some Gave All”, and the entirety of
the one-star review was “Some don’t give a shit.”

this sounds more like you v. Gies.
if it was anybody else, do you think you’d be this aggravated?
or, rather, what if this was Gerstmann?
[Editor’s Note:  Greg does not care for Jeff Gerstmann.]
G:  i would generally agree that it’s his right
as a critic to say “fuck this”… if he weren’t
the reviews editor at a major site that has
certain requirements about reviews.
what do you think gies would have said to
a freelancer who came back to him and said
“sorry dude, i can’t finish this cuz existential dread.”

see, that’s the thing. giant bomb is irreverent
and that’s part of their schtick.
polygon tends to take itself more seriously,
which is fine and even generally laudable.
i just don’t see how this was necessary or fits into their content model.
i’m not reflexively anti-gies. i often find him
interesting and, e.g., appreciated the issues he raised
about the design of the bayonetta character in his B2 review.
but if you’re going to have standards,
however arbitrary they may be, then be
consistent enough to stick with them.
it just doesn’t add up for me.
he says their general review policy is that
a reviewer must have finished a game or
made a good faith effort to do so in order to review it.
it’s one thing if the game was so awful or had
such impenetrable difficulty spikes that this
represented a real “good faith effort” to finish it.
but in that case, they should have published his piece as a “review”.
otherwise it’s just him excepting himself
from the standards he helped create and oversees.
i’m coming off as caring about this much more than i actually do.
J:  yeah, but it makes for an interesting perspective.
i.e., what is it that we, as gamers and readers
of critical opinions, expect out of the reviews we read?
most reviewers i’ve talked to HATE the fact that
they have to put a number next to what they write at all.
G:  it seems to me the options available to him
based on polygon’s policies were (a) acknowledge
that you made a good faith effort but found the game
so offensive that you couldn’t finish it, and
review it on that basis, (b) push through the
additional TWO HOURS and then review it,
(c) if there was some personal issue that made you
decide you couldn’t finish/review the game,
assign it to someone else, or
(d) shut up about journalistic standards in general.

i agree [about putting numbers next to a review],
it’s not about whether numbered reviews are a good thing.
i expect different things from different outlets.
from SFTC, i expect to get whatever it is you feel
compelled to write, in whatever form, on whatever topic, etc.
for polygon, a site that links to its ethics policy
on every review and has a fair amount to say
on the topic of gaming journalism as a profession,
i expect them not to toss their policies and standards
over their shoulders to indulge their reviews editor’s
egotistical need to whine about the existential dread
a short, bad game caused him to feel.
J: I agree with you in principle, and yet I still feel
like it’s OK for him to have abandoned those principles
in this specific case. I might be chalking that up to
my own feelings about Nintendo, of course;
if he wrote this about something that I
actually cared about, I might feel differently.

it is odd, in any event, to feel any particular way
at all when you see a specific name attached to an article.
i didn’t used to feel this way.
If this is the beginning of a larger trend of
“fuck it, i’m out” at Polygon, that might be something
to consider. but then i’d expect them to
address it a bit more formally.
G:  it’s not that i can’t imagine a circumstance
where he could have taken this approach.
it would have made far more sense for FF13,
e.g. but this is a 4-5 hour game with an invincibility mode.

i think it would be totally fair to write of FF13:
“however wonderful this game may get after 15 hours,
it is unreasonable to expect gamers to slog through
that much mediocre content to get to
the rewarding stuff. i gave up before i got there. 6/10”
J: yes, BUT: when you review games professionally,
you do it in a vacuum; you wouldn’t necessarily know
about the game opening up after 15 hours if you gave up at 14:59.
G: ok… but he gave up after a couple of hours.
if one of his employees had done that, i would expect him/her to be fired.
J: well, but we’ve all given up after a couple of hours.
i’ve given up after 5 minutes.
G: totally different context tho from a professional reviewer.
it’s not like this game has a 22 on metacritic.
however much the control scheme may have
been a failed experiment, it’s not “broken”.
I don’t see how a few hours in he gets to
throw his hands up on a game he’s been assigned
to review for work and instead write a piece about existential dread.
i get how work can fill one with dread and anxiety,
as i know you do. i don’t see how that comes from
a couple of hours of playing a bad game.
and if i went to my boss and said “i’m sorry,
i couldn’t draft this contract any more because
it was filling me with existential dread”, i would
expect either to be fired or sent on
short term disability leave on the spot.
J: I think it’s slightly different here, though.
because in the piece he is very specific about
what he hates, and what makes him miserable, and
why he refuses to finish it, and why his refusal
to finish it constitutes his personal opinion about it.
writing up a legal contract is not a matter of
expressing one’s personal opinion. the inability to
finish a shitty game because the game is so shitty…
that kinda speaks for itself.
G: but then why isn’t that a “good faith effort”
to finish the game and why isn’t the piece a review?
J: i agree with you in that it is not becoming of
a professional writer to give up on an assignment,
and then hand that assignment in anyway.
G: it’s weird that he let himself off the hook
for writing a review, then wrote a review anyway.
J: and i would agree that i’ve never really seen
this kind of thing from a major games site before.
even Alex Navarro’s infamous “Big Rigs” review – he did try.

[Gies] is careful to say that it’s a non-review.
he might’ve filed it in the “reviews” section for it
to be properly located, but he says it’s not a review,
and acknowledges that he can’t give it an actual score.
it’s more of an opinion piece than a review.
which i fully acknowledge is a sentence that doesn’t make any sense.
G:  exactly. especially because at polygon,
the review-writer does not choose the number score.

they write the text, then their review editor panel
agrees on a number.
and it would seem he’s written enough
for them to have done that in this case.
and it would seem he’s written enough for them
to have done that in this case.
(for context, i care not a whit about star fox games,
having no wii u and having never played a single
minute of any star fox game that preceded this one.)
J: i’m right with you on that last statement;
i’ve never played Star Fox, never owned a WiiU,
have no Nintendo feelings whatsoever.
G:  i have nintendo feelings, even if
they’re currently in hibernation.

i never played too much wii, but goddamn
if their mario games weren’t fucking stellar.
i am hoping the NX delivers because when
nintendo is on their game no one can touch them.
J:  it should also be noted that i’m not sure
anybody had any strong feelings about this
particular title leading up to its release.
i don’t recall reading any super-exciting preview coverage of it.
which is to say: he’s not shitting on Uncharted 4.
not saying that Uncharted 4 might not deserve it! who knows?
G: well, it’s a pretty venerable franchise.
i’m not sure how big its following is, but
i’d bet that there’s a very passionate core of star foxers.
J: but rather that this isn’t necessarily AS big
a deal as it might seem, even if he’s shitting
on a first-party Nintendo game.
G:  no i agree, it doesn’t seem like a big deal at all.

to me.
just made me roll my eyes pretty damn hard.

on Lester Bangs and the ethics of game journalism

There were a bunch of things I had intended to write about today – the Tiger Woods / EA split, the generally, startlingly positive reviews for Assassins Creed IV and if that was enough to push me back into a franchise that I’d all but sworn off, etc. – but in light of Lou Reed’s death*, and the subsequent discussions of his life and, specifically, his notoriously hostile relationships with music critics, especially with Lester Bangs (Exhibit A), I started thinking about the current state of game journalism.

Everyone (including me) talks about “the Citizen Kane of video games”, but back in 2006 Chuck Klosterman wrote, rather infamously, about the lack of a corresponding “Lester Bangs of Video Games“, and how the gaming press desperately needed one.  Some people suggested that Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw and his Zero Punctuation series fit the bill; I’d argue, rather inevitably, that Tom Bissell, Leigh Alexander and maybe even Jim Sterling should be in the discussion, too, if we’re assuming that this particular discussion is “necessary”.

In this 2008 response, Kirk Battle (writing as L.B. Jeffries) broke down Klosterman’s agrument and wondered if Lester Bangs was the right person for game journalists to emulate.  There are pros and cons, but he ends the piece with this bit of insight:

What can the video game critic draw from the lessons of the critic of another medium? Stand up for the games that are critically panned for not fitting the mold. Criticize games that are stuck in boring molds and doing nothing but repeat what has already been done. Don’t get frustrated when things don’t change, because that isn’t your function. Like Johnson’s critic predicting the weather, talking about the games that are challenging and moving the medium forward is all one needs to do. These are all essential elements and represent what Bangs contributed to rock ‘n’ roll. Yet at the core of that is the idea of having an image about what that artistic medium should be doing and talking about the moments where that is happening. For every article or blog post about the failings of game criticism, there is an implicit idea about what video games should be doing and this defending or panning of a video game is what defines that vision.

This is all well and good, but there’s something larger at issue here, and that’s what I’m actually here to talk about.

Monday’s Scoops & the Wolf podcast talked in very vague terms about some sort of inside-baseball controversy that cropped up over the weekend; they succeeded in keeping it vague, so I’m not 100% sure I know what happened, but my impression is that certain high-profile journalists at certain high-profile outlets made certain vague tweets concerning… something that may or may not be related to the new console launches, and the console manufacturers being somewhat withholding, and the subsequent difficulty of those sites’ planned coverage for their launch events.  More to the point, Klepek mentioned something about how there’s a “tiered” system – certain outlets have “favored” status among publishers and therefore are afforded better and earlier access than others, and this strikes me, as an outsider, as deeply fucked up.

Here’s the relevant transcript snippet, edited for clarity – they start talking about this thing at 6:27, and the snippet below starts at 7:14:

PK: …Several members of the media over the weekend were tweeting vaguely about stuff (AN: “cryptic things”)… one of the things that people should keep in mind when we talk about console launches is that media outlets are bracketed, there is a tiered system, different outlets are treated differently; that turns into access, that turns into what they get ahead of time or how much they get of something ahead of time… the reasoning[ ] behind that, from what I understand, vary wildly; depends on – maybe they want to target a certain audience that they think that site is better suited for, maybe they’re targeting a more mainstream audience… and every outlet has different things that they use to cover or how they cover or why they cover; some outlets are very specific about wanting to have reviews of every game… The only [concern] that I will throw water on is this idea that publishers somehow have control over final review text… There is no way that is true, I’ve heard nothing to that, that is never something I have heard to be a legitimate or realistic [demand]…

I’d like to think that I’m not naive, and that I understand that the business of game journalism is first and foremost a business, and that there is, inevitably, some necessary degree of symbiosis between journalists and publishers, and that both sides do their best to sidestep whatever ethical weirdness such a relationship may entail.  But how can a professional game critic truly be objective if they’re writing for an outlet that has this sort of “preferred” status?

I understand that as objective as any professional game critic tries to be, they can’t truly be an independent voice.  I’m not suggesting that they can’t pan a tremendously hyped game if that game is deserving of a shitty review; but I am suggesting that tremendously hyped games might not get as objectively reviewed as they otherwise could, especially if the reviewer has had prior access.

This is why “preview events” seem so fucked up to me.  I understand why they exist – game companies want consumers to know about their upcoming games, and game outlets need things to write about – but the tremendous leverage that the game companies have over the outlets (i.e., embargoes) means that it’s very, very difficult for those previews to be truly objective – even if those writing the previews are desperately trying to remain objective.  There’s a very big difference between privately interviewing a game creator and going to a preview event where a publisher only shows a very tightly controlled “vertical gameplay slice”.

Rhetorical questions:  Do movies studios fly New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis to visit film sets and see dailies?  Did Lester Bangs get to watch Lou Reed write, rehearse and record his albums?  The music industry (and the outlets who cover it) is so tremendously fucked up these days that I’m not sure Lester Bangs could even exist anymore; I mean, Pitchfork used to be the vanguard of independent music criticism, and yet now they have an annual music festival featuring the same bands they claim to objectively review.

I’m not sure I know what the answer is.  (Or, at this point, what the question I’m asking is.)  I mean, I’m an aspiring journalist; I’m actively trying to become a cog in this same machine that I’m tearing down.  I’ve heard about “mock reviews” and how ethically horrible they are, but I’m not 100% sure I know the difference between a mock review and a prominently-featured preview article beyond where the paycheck came from.

And so I remain very much on the outside looking in, wondering just what the hell it is I’m looking at.


* I haven’t really talked about Lou Reed’s death yet, as it turns out.  Obviously, he is a mythic, titanic figure of rock and roll, a singular legendary figure on par with Dylan or Lennon or Bowie.  But I must confess I came to him too late for me to feel his loss personally.  It’s a failing on my part, to be sure; in my formative years, I was never introduced to those 4 VU albums, or Transformer, or any of the other many classics in his catalog.  I’m not sure I would’ve gotten into him, though, if I had; I was a prog-rock kid, who valued technical proficiency over all else, and so I probably would’ve heard 5 seconds of his singing and cringed and turned it off.  (Similarly, the primary reason why I got into The Smiths as heavily as I did in my high school years is in spite of Morrissey’s voice – it’s because of Johnny Marr’s guitar playing.  I wasn’t until much later that I appreciated Morrissey on his own terms.)  In recent years I’ve grown to appreciate the Velvets a great deal, and certainly in the last few days I’ve dived deep into Reed’s catalog on Spotify, but I’m not sure I’m ever going to be able to soak him in, the way that I used to, back when I had endless time and no distractions.

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