Hello Goodbye

1.  The short version is that I have decided to stop writing for Gamemoir, for the foreseeable future.  It’s not them, though; it’s me.

The tl;dr version is that I’ve been stressing out about each column for months, frantically trying to find time to concentrate and write something that isn’t terrible, all the while knowing that with one or two exceptions, most of my posts pretty much died on the vine.  I was home sick yesterday, and I hadn’t yet pitched a column for this coming Monday, and I couldn’t think of anything, and I realized that I was going to be super-busy this weekend, and so unless I was able to pull it together under less than ideal circumstances in the few free hours I had, I wasn’t going to get anything handed in.  And I ultimately came to the realization that while I do tend to like the pressure of deadlines, there’s only so much pressure I can take before I feel defeated by simply looking at an empty page.

It’s easier for me to post here, because I can just sit down and stay in my own voice and not be so preoccupied with traffic-grabbing headlines and topics and stuff.  And I think that I’ll probably be able to post a little bit more here, actually, since I won’t feel like I need to “save” anything.  (Indeed, this post ended up at almost 900 words and it only took about 45 minutes to write.)

It’s also a kick in the ass, though.  If I’m ever going to get regular freelance work – and I still feel like I’m a ways off in terms of having the sort of chops that can compete in an over-saturated freelance pool – I need to be able to concentrate, and be able to carve out writing time without losing too much family time (and/or getting in trouble at my day job), and so even just learning what I have to do just to get an 800-1000 word column up every week is an eye-opening experience, to say the very least.

I still plan on trying to pitch to other sites, but only when I feel that I have something good to pitch.

I’m eternally grateful for the patience, the support, and the invaluable experience that the Gamemoir crew gave me in my too-short stay there.

2.  Much to my surprise, I’ve been getting sucked back into The Last of Us Remastered, even though I felt pretty resolute in my decision to bail.  Part of this is almost certainly due to the fact that I’m playing it on Easy, right from the get-go.  It’s still challenging, but it’s not nearly as frustrating as it is on Normal, and so I’m able to explore and move the story forward without getting bogged down in repetitive combat scenarios that lose their effectiveness with every restart.

I’m also surprised as to how much of the game I remember.  True, I’d just played it last year, but I was also playing it under newborn-baby sleep-deprived circumstances.

It’s hard for me to tell if there’s really that much of a graphical difference between the PS3 and PS4 versions.  With other 2014 HD remasters of 2013 games (Tomb Raider immediately comes to mind), the difference between last- and current-gen was actually quite pronounced.  That being said, the PS3 version of TLOU was the best-looking game on that system (and possibly of the entire console generation), and so the PS4 version basically feels slightly more rich, if that makes sense.  Beyond that, I think the only way I’d be able to tell the difference is that the PS4 controller makes the game a lot easier to deal with.

3.  I am really, really, really enjoying The Swapper on Vita.  I liked it on the PC but didn’t get all that far into it and eventually lost interest, but it feels absolutely perfect in my hands (even if I’m currently stuck on 2 different puzzle rooms). I’m especially loving the cross-save support, in that I was able to pick up some orbs on the PS4 (because I wanted to see what it looked like on my TV), and then move that save to the Vita so that I didn’t lose anything.  Cross-save support is the best.  As far as I’m concerned, Sony’s cross-save system might just be the biggest ace up its sleeve in the console war with the Xbox One; having indie games that I can play at home or on the go without losing progress is too good an offer to walk away from.

4.  Speaking of cross-save, I must admit to being a little bummed that I can’t get my PC save of Diablo III over to my PS4.  Blizzard’s doing a hell of a job letting you import console saves from different generations AND different manufacturers, and that’s certainly commendable, but I’m not about to lose over 100 hours of PC playtime just so that I can start over from scratch in my living room.

5.  I am an idiot.  I took a screenshot from The Last Of Us Remastered yesterday and a Twitter pal asked if it would make for a new SFTC mascot, and OF COURSE it would, and now I’m wondering why I haven’t been taking screenshots of couches in every game I’ve played for the last 4 years.

Weekend Recap: Dreams Achieved, Dreams Dashed

1.  My essay for Videodame was featured in the most recent Critical Distance round-up, which has been a wish/dream/goal of mine for the last two years or so.  So that’s pretty great.

2.  What’s not great is that, well, it would seem that being a professional games journalist sucks.  Gamespot broke my heart for the second time last week by laying off a bunch of really talented writers, one of whom I consider a good friend.  My Twitter feed is full of immensely talented freelancers who are far more talented and experienced than me, and almost all of whom are broke.  There’s hardly any full-time openings, and the few available openings tend to go only to people who have extensive experience (and are young, white and male) (even though the job listings always make it sound like anybody has a realistic chance), and even if you do manage to land a full-time gig, there’s not much money and even less stability.

Even more terrifying is the apparent reality that video is replacing the written word as far as game journalism is concerned.  This makes literally no sense to me, because I primarily consume my game writing at work, and I can’t watch hours and hours of YouTube videos at work.  When given the choice, I’d choose the written version every single time, which is why when I see that video is the way of the future, I feel like an old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn.

It’s hard enough finding the time to write for this site, where I have a minuscule audience and which generates absolutely no revenue.  Making videos that I wouldn’t even be able to watch seems ridiculous.

This is a long way of saying that this article by Peter Skerritt is sobering, harrowing stuff.

3.  Speaking of harrowing and sobering experiences, I rented The Last of Us Remastered last week but didn’t get a chance to put it through its paces until last night.  I’d already beaten the original game, so I decided to jump right in to the Left Behind single-player DLC that had been written about so positively upon its release.

I’m maybe an hour or so into it.  (If you’ve already played it, I’m in a solo Ellie chapter, trying to get to a medical helicopter, right after the Ellie/Riley chapter where they turn the power on at the mall; Ellie, alone, has also just turned the power on and now she’s in her first real sneaking gauntlet.)

My opinions of the game haven’t changed.  It’s gorgeous, the writing is wonderful, and the atmosphere is relentlessly tense, and I’m not really all that sure that I’m having any fun.

Horror movies are fun, in their own way, and clearly there’s an audience and appeal in this sort of apocalyptic undead nightmare scenario, being that there are tons of games and movies and books in this particular vein.  I do not find these things enjoyable, and I acknowledge that it could just be me.  I acknowledge that “having fun” is maybe not the point of TLOU, or The Walking Dead, or etc.  So let me restate it:  as much as I appreciate the artistry on display, and as much as the PS4 version is clearly the way to experience this game for the first time, I can’t say that I’m looking forward to going back and finishing it.

 

on writing for other people

1.  My living nightmare has come to an apparent end; my new PS Vita Slim arrived yesterday, and it actually appears to work.  I haven’t had a chance to do much of anything with it yet, though, as its download speeds are still as dreadfully slow as they were before – Borderlands 2 is maybe 30% downloaded and I’ve had the thing continually running since last night at 8pm – but I’ve held it in my hands and configured settings and such, and it feels… better, somehow.  My memories of my original Vita are dim, as you might imagine, being that in my 4 weeks of ownership I only actually had it working for 48 hours.  In any event, the new Slim feels nice in the hand; it’s a little light, but that’s probably OK over the long haul.  I look forward to the day when I can actually talk about playing games on it.

(Oh – I did manage to import my PS4 save of Fez over to the Vita, and that’s just a super-cool thing to be able to do.  I also tried using the Vita as the PS4’s second screen, and that kinda looked a little janky – it looked like a very poorly compressed YouTube video.  So I’m not sure how much mileage I’m going to get out of that feature.  But, still, hey.  Maybe I can use it as a BluRay remote for the time being.)

2.  I have a column due on Monday for Gamemoir; it’s a rebuttal to an opinion piece about “The Shame of Playing on Easy Mode” and it ought to be a slam dunk, and yet for some reason I’m having a much more difficult time than I anticipated in making it work.  The most important thing for me is that I don’t want to be mean; I mean, I’m writing a column, I don’t want it to read like it belongs in a comment thread.  But I have very strong feelings on that topic and I’m afraid that I’m going to screw it up somehow by either throwing too much into the post, or else not throwing in enough, or else dwelling on minutia and rushing through the points I actually want to make.

It’s strange, what writing for other sites is doing to my brain.  I mean, I’ve only written 2 pieces for Gamemoir so far (and in the meantime I’ve gone 0-for-2 for pitches to other, bigger sites), but those pieces have reached far bigger audiences than almost anything I’ve written here, and as such I’ve had to craft those pieces a bit differently than how I normally write.  I also get a week to write those pieces, so I have a bit more time to think about them and figure out how to say what I want to say.

The stuff I write here is generally pretty quick; I’ve gotten quite good at not self-censoring myself the way I used to (even on my personal LiveJournal account), but I’m also very informal here, and I have a tendency to fully indulge all the weird linguistic tics and tricks I’ve developed over the years as a writer without a formal editing process.  Like:  this piece is already over 500 words and it’s taken me only about 15 minutes to write.  But it’s also more than likely that this post will be forgotten by everyone (and me, too) about 15 minutes after they’re done with it.  I’m not necessarily crafting anything here; I’m just putting my thoughts up as quickly and as coherently as I can.

If I want to get better as a writer – indeed, if I ever hope to get some freelance work – I need to get better at the craft.  So it’s probably a good thing, then, that I’m struggling with this piece; it means I’m learning something.

3.  There’s not going to be much gaming this weekend; the wife and kid and dogs and I are going out of town for the weekend, to hang out with both of Henry’s grandmothers.  I keep thinking about maybe bringing the Vita along, but I also know that any free time I manage to wrangle will most likely have to be spent in front of my laptop, writing that post.

the first few hours: Batman Arkham Origins

When Bioshock Infinite was released earlier this year, the first wave of reviews were positively glowing with praise; it wasn’t until a few weeks later that the game’s more glaring flaws started to show.  A similar thing happened with Grand Theft Auto V – that first wave was all 10/10, 9/10, near-unanimous accolades, and then, as the rest of us sunk our 60+ hours in over a more reasonable amount of time, the game’s problems became a lot more apparent.  I can’t help but wonder if the insane timecrunch that most big-league reviewers have to undergo in order to get their pieces out by release day means that they can’t see the larger picture.

I’m not saying those reviews are wrong, necessarily; I’m just saying that there are two different ways of spending 50 hours with a game, and that the one in which those 50 hours are spent non-consecutively are obviously going to have a certain degree of perspective that the time-crunched player simply can’t have.  This is the nature of the beast that is video game journalism.

This is partly why I tend to avoid official “reviews” here on this site, and why I prefer to write these pseudo-real-time documentaries instead.  While it’s dumb to describe the life of a non-profit videogame blogger as “luxurious”, the truth is that I, as a non-big-league writer, have the luxury of not having any deadlines.

In any event, I’m around 90 minutes into the lukewarm-reviewed Batman Arkham Origins, and – at least so far – it’s not nearly as bad as I thought it might be.  Perhaps it starts off strong and then peters out?  Perhaps it’s simply that it’s keeping to the well-worn formula of the previous two games and doesn’t add or improve anything of any significance?  No matter; it’s doing what the Batman games do and it’s doing them well enough for the time being.

If I have one particular nit to pick, it’s that if you happen to get into a random combat encounter, enemies will seemingly spawn in from thin air; you might have a strategy to deal with the 4 or 5 dudes that you can actually see, but then 10 more will fly in from nowhere, and it’s the sort of thing that makes these fights become longer and more tedious than they need to be.

I suppose another nitpick isn’t actually this game’s fault, but rather my own; I just spent 50 hours playing Assassin’s Creed 4, and while a lot of the controls between the two games are similar (especially when it comes to melee combat), there are a few that are very much not; a key example is that in AC4 the run button is mapped to the right trigger, whereas in BAO the right trigger makes you sneak.  I suppose this is actually something that could come in handy, as it’s usually not a good idea to run around as Batman, but it’s still the sort of thing that makes my brain hurt every once in a while as I struggle to get acclimated to a new control scheme.

All that aside, I’m enjoying it.  Maybe it’s not as inspired as the previous two games, but it’s still doing what those games did and doing it well enough, and for the time being that’s quite enough for me.

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.