a wee bit of self-promotion and navel-gazing

1. My final piece of Uncharted 4 correspondence is up over at Videodame!  Many, many thanks to Sara Clemens for indulging me in throwing thousands of words onto her site.

2. I know I’m somewhat slack in terms of regular updates here, but I was hoping I’d be able to finish ABZU tonight and then write about it tomorrow, time permitting.  Alas, I’m going to be at a family thing in Chicago and will be away from all things computer-related; and even if I do finish ABZU tonight, I don’t know that I’m feeling that motivated to write about it.  It’s certainly gorgeous and tranquil, which is something I could certainly use right about now; but it also remains somewhat obtuse, and I don’t have a sense if there’s anything under the surface just yet.


3. I’m finding myself in something of a holding pattern right now, given that No Man’s Sky is out next week and I’m sure I’m going to be all over it.  I currently have it in my rental queue, which means I wouldn’t get it until next Thursday at the earliest; if the official reviews say it’s worth checking out, I might ditch the rental and buy it digitally in order to get my hands on it sooner.  My boy Samit wrote up a thing over at Polygon about the pre-release hype and the rush to judgment based on one person’s 30-hour playthrough of an early-acquired copy; needless to say, I’m withholding judgment until I get my hands on it.  I do worry about what might be an infinity of monotony, but I at least hope that there’s enough in the early going to propel me along.

4. Speaking of Polygon, they’re putting out a request for freelance reviewers. I’m posting this here mostly so that I don’t forget about it, though I think it’s time for me to admit that I probably don’t have a future in freelance journalism.  Not if I want to finish this album before my son goes to college, at any rate.

5. Speaking of the album: it’s still slowly coming along, though it’s exceedingly difficult to maintain creative momentum.  I did manage to record some vocals this weekend, for the first time in… oh my god, I don’t even know how many years it’s been since I actually sang into a microphone with intent.  Even though it’s just a scratch vocal, it’s something.


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.

Uninformed Opinion: the Steam Machine

It was rumored that Valve would reveal their plans for the Steam Machine at this year’s CES, and, lo and behold, those rumors were correct.  Polygon has a full run-down of the third party manufacturers, and their respective Machines, right here.

As I look over that rundown, I find it increasingly difficult to know what to think about all this, because the difference between what I thought a Steam Machine would be, and what it apparently is, is so vast that I fear that I might have had the wrong idea from the very beginning.

What I thought we were getting was something meant to compete – not necessarily in ideology, but at least for literal, physical entertainment-center space – with the PS4 and the XB1; a console-sized box for the living room, competitively priced, that would allow me to hold on to my vast Steam library and play new titles with good, shiny tech.

You know what – while I was writing this out, Polygon’s Ben Kuchera basically took the words right out of my mouth.  I’m glad I’m not the only one having this problem:

It’s easy to describe the platonic ideal of what a Steam Machine should be. It should be shaped like a console and offer the same ease of setup and use. It should be able to offer roughly the same amount of power as a PlayStation 4, while costing around $500.

I don’t just want to play Battlefield 4 at the fidelity the PlayStation 4 offers, I also want to be able to try early access PC hits like Starbound, as well as something as niche as the latest Twine game on a fully-functional browser. These systems should play every game available on Steam, with no exceptions, and do everything a standard computer can do in a form factor and price that puts pressure on consoles.

What we have instead are 13 vastly different machines, ranging in price from $400 to $6000, with tech specs that are pretty much all over the place.  Furthermore, it’s now very unclear to me what the advantage of this machine is.   Again, as Ben says:

SteamOS itself, and this fact was somewhat glossed over during the press conference, is based on Linux, and only a percentage of the current Steam library is currently compatible. Why would you buy an able gaming PC only to take away a good chunk of your game selection and functionality by installing a gaming-specific OS?

It’s not a rhetorical question.[…] Newell may brag about the 65 million users Steam enjoys, but many of the games that brought those players to the platform won’t run on SteamOS unless Linux compatibility is added by the developer. Which won’t happen until the market is bigger. Which won’t happen until more games are added. You see the issue.

Jessica Conditt, in her Joystiq editorial, further addresses the sudden overcrowding of the Steam Machine market, without a clear “ideal” with which to base anything on:

“The consumer’s going to look at this landscape and ask, ‘What’s the difference?’ and, ‘Why? Why should I even buy a Steam Box?'” Nguyen said.

He offered an answer, suggesting Valve pick or make one box to be the ultimate Steam Machine, the epitome of what a Steam Machine should be, and market it as such. Give the customer an easy, obvious choice. It’s exactly what Google did with the Nexus phone to clarify the overcrowded Android market.

“They just totally disagreed with that,” Nguyen said. “They very much disagreed.”

Valve envisions a future of openness – open living rooms and open PCs and open code – and that’s a beautiful idea. Or it’s a junk pile. I’m sure Valve believes in what the Steam Machines can be, but the fact that it hasn’t thrown its own hardware into the ring to me demonstrates a lack of confidence in the idea, or at the least a lack of clarity.  (emphasis added)

That last bit is key, for me.  The fact that Valve itself is holding back – at least for the time being – sends an incredibly vague message, and it certainly doesn’t do the concept of the Steam Machine any favors.

At this point, the Steam Machine makes no compelling argument for me to wait.  Indeed, if anything it’s given me more of an incentive to get a better graphics card and leave it at that, and get a PS4 when they finally come back in stock.


Weekend Recap: Operation Backlog begins

1.  Operation Backlog has begun in earnest – even though I did sorta end up buying Need For Speed Rivals as a PC Download from Amazon because it was on sale and I had an extra $5 discount AND I already had a gift card balance, and, so, yeah.  I’m a little disappointed in it, though, which I’ll get to in a bit, and so with that said I do feel very much like I can fully engage with the backlog.  And there was this nice little bit of encouragement from Polygon, today:

Buying games on sale can feel like sending a message in a bottle to possible future versions of yourself, but finding and opening those bottles, and having them enrich your life, is like nothing else. It’s an investment in our own future, and it helps support the industry today.

There’s nothing wrong with your backlog, as long as you’re not going into debt to buy games you may not play in the near future. You shouldn’t be ashamed of the stack of games that seem interesting but remain unplayed. They won’t spoil. They will be there when you need them. And the people who made the games? They’re more than happy to have your money and interest.

Your backlog isn’t a source of shame, but a matter of pride; it’s a well-stocked library from which you can take comfort, a pile of blankets waiting for a cold night.


There’s a neat feature in Steam that lets you organize the stuff in your library by categories of your own designation.  I didn’t even know it was there, to be honest, and I only discovered it by a combination of wishful thinking and the sheer, dumb luck of an accidental right-click.  It’s a very small feature, and not one that’s necessarily all that noteworthy, except that it is exactly what I need in order to keep myself from getting distracted by other things.  Moreover, the fact that I can’t really do this with my XBLA library or my PSN games makes it a feature that I appreciate all the more, which is why I’m bringing it up in the first place.

2014 BacklogThe point is, this is what I now see at the top left part of the screen when I open up my Library page in Steam.  It’s a to-do list, easily managed and maintained, and cleansed of the other distractions in my library.

This Operation Backlog project is a little intimidating, is the thing.

Because even after organizing all this stuff (and then procrastinating by creating 2 more categories, one of which is for stuff like AC4 and BAO, where I’ve beaten the main game but still have tons of collectibles and side stuff to finish), I kinda just sat at my desk, staring at this list, not knowing where to start.  I suppose that the reasons why these games are in the backlog at all is because there was something a bit…. off… about them at the time of purchase; maybe I was already fully engaged by other games, or perhaps I tried them for a few minutes and for whatever reason couldn’t get sucked in quickly enough.

I did end up starting Outlast last night, for some stupid reason.  When it comes to horror – be it movies, games, even books – I get startled and frightened very easily, and being that I’m already in a heightened state of anxiety because my wife and I are binge-watching Breaking Bad, I had a feeling this wouldn’t be a particularly long play-session.  Sure enough, it wasn’t; the first real jump-scare happens around 10 minutes in (the Library, for those of you who’ve played it), and I audibly shrieked in my chair, and as soon as I got out of that room I turned the game off and went back into the living room to watch football.

It’s hard to pick one game out of that list to get started with, I think.  Rayman Legends is excellent but I find that I really only want to play it in quick, short bursts – same thing goes for BitTrip Runner 2, as a matter of fact.  I’m probably free of my anti-Diablo bias at this point, so I suppose I could get back into Torchlight 2, but I don’t necessarily want to start this project with a 20-40 hour clickfest slog.  I’m still scared of XCOM, and after that spectacular Polygon piece about the Spelunky eggplant run I’m seriously wondering what the hell I was thinking even picking that game up in the first place.

I’m starting to think I should give Kentucky Route Zero another go.  I think that’s my speed right now.  And maybe on the side I’ll get back into Shadowrun Returns, which I recall enjoying.

2.  So, yeah:  Need for Speed Rivals.  I’m an idiot for buying it on the PC, where absolutely nobody is playing it, and also because if I were to suddenly splurge on a PS4 right now, that’s the one game I would’ve picked up (unless I wanted to play AC4 again at full price).  My initial impression with it is that it’s basically a souped-up version of Need for Speed Hot Pursuit, except it’s always online – which means booting the game up and finding a server can take a long, long time.  Also:  you can’t actually pause the game, which is completely insane – if you’re in a single-player race and you miss a turn (because some arrows are easier to miss than others), you can’t restart (or, at least, I don’t think you can; I tried to find the option, and while I searched for it my car drove into a tree).  What I really should do is get back into Need For Speed Most Wanted, which I actually was enjoying.  At least I didn’t actually spend real money on it…

3.  Finally:  I normally don’t do any behind-the-scenes stuff here, but what happened on Friday was pretty incredible.  I’d written that piece about in-game collectibles, and in the promo tweet for it I included Patrick Klepek’s twitter handle, just simply in the hopes that he might see it.  Thought nothing of it.  An hour or two later, I hopped onto this blog’s dashboard to check something, and saw that my hit total was abnormally high.  I quickly discovered that Patrick had retweeted my link with some positive feedback, and by the end of the day this site had seen more visitors – over 1200 in all – than in all of 2011 combined.  (See (1) below.) What’s more, the spillover into the following day was also the 2nd biggest day this site’s ever had (see (2) below).  I’ve removed the actual numbers, but the spike is pretty obvious:

site stats1It should be noted, here, that I don’t do this blog for the sake of getting “numbers”, or anything like that; if I was doing this for the sole purpose of generating traffic, you’d be seeing a lot more stuff like a list of 23 things Microsoft needs to do to improve the Xbox One’s chances accompanied by animated cat gifs.  That’s easy, and dumb, and it’s the sort of tactic that I think is going to flame out pretty spectacularly in a year or two, when people have even less active attention spans than they already do.  (Personally, I believe there is an audience for thoughtful discussion and analysis, and that’s the sort of audience I’d like to attract.)

I do this blog because I want to get better as a writer, and because I would like to do this professionally some day, and the only way to do that is to write and write and write, and apply, and pitch, and apply, and pitch, and write and write and write, and hope that somebody notices.  I’m glad that people come here, of course, because I do want people to read what I write; it’s just that I don’t want to be a dick about getting people here.

All that being said, that spike above was pretty goddamned awesome.  (And I did end up reaching out and thanking him, and he was very cool about it.)


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