The Sunday Papers

By Kieron Gillen on September 6th, 2009 at 5:20 pm.

Sundays are for… God, this is a Long one. Anyway, Sundays are for heading to the evil South, having lunch, coming back and compiling a hefty list of splendid reading about games and similar things while trying to resist linking to one of the may things which were filling my late-night music listening last night, at least until I started playing AAAaaa(“Snip”-Ed) at 3:30am.

Failed.

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139 Comments »

  1. john t says:

    Is it just me or did the author of that Bioshock piece entirely miss the fact that Rapture is supposed to be A Bad Thing?

  2. Rohit says:

    “Her in-advance anti-defensiveness-defensiveness is a bit shitty, however.”

    Thank you.

  3. MD says:

    who decides between incisive criticism and worthless pot-stirring? Genuine question.

    I can’t answer that in a very useful way of course, except to say that while it’s ultimately a subjective judgment we each have to make for ourselves, some pieces of work can, to the extent that we can be ‘objective’ about this sort of thing, be more convincingly argued to fall into one category than the other.

    I should clarify that I wasn’t intending to take one side or another on the worth of your writing (though in context it probably looked like I was implying that yours falls into the rubbish category — sorry about that), just pointing out that ‘getting a reaction’ shouldn’t be seen as the mark of succesful writing. It can be a mark of great writing or terrible writing, and almost anything in between. All I wanted to say was that proof that people care, and your work doesn’t fall into the ‘blandly inoffensive’ or ‘nobody cares about the subject matter’ categories, doesn’t equate to proof that you’ve done a good job. It’s a bit of a bugbear of mine really.

  4. MD says:

    (So basically, my post wasn’t a semi-veiled criticism of your writing in general or the piece in question, just a genuine disagreement with the specific sentence I quoted.)

  5. Mo says:

    On an aside: I love the word bugbear, it’s such a fluffy word.

  6. malkav11 says:

    I think gaming has issues breaking away from the beaten path not only because of things like production costs, but also because it is being treated as a disposable medium. There have been some commendable moves in the direction of making older games available in the last couple of years, and I’d like to see that go further. But that’s quite recent, and somewhat counterbalanced by the trend of attaching DRM that deliberately interferes with the longevity of a game, and the rush to make MMOs that cease to be playable when the servers inevitably shut down. The heavy emphasis on things selling now now now and the first couple of weeks being so critical means that more experimental works often don’t have the chance to find their audience and draw new aficionados by word of mouth. The “cult” game barely even exists.

  7. Jayt says:

    What large medium doesn’t have a shit mainstream. Movies, books, music, gaming, the list goes on.

    This will never change.

  8. Sunjammer says:

    Leigh, WE are the buddies! :D Isn’t it obvious? The arguing here is divided into the camps of yawning peers that agree that “yeah, it’s boring out there in the mainstream”, and the fervent defensive ones that try to make sure you remember all the indie weird stuff you can find regardless of the mainstream. Personally i’ve got a foot in either camp, which can be a bit schizo. However nobody will disagree that the mainstream is flat, which seems to be the basic theme, unless i’m reading it wrong.

  9. TeeJay says:

    My problem with the Leigh Alexander article is that it doesn’t seem to contain a coherent or consistent argument and it chickens out of naming concrete examples of the kind of games it is bemoaning.

    One minute it is criticising the “sameness” of games (be this ‘theme’, characters, structure, gameplay experience), the next asking if they are “relevant art”, then whether they contain ‘stereotypes’ and/or ‘male power fantasies’ etc. These are all different issues.

    It collapses discussion of big-selling shooters, Wii-fit games and all-and-any-other-genre into one big sludge, but even when generalising the author can’t seem to decide what they are saying:

    “What’s wrong with more of the same, if that’s what people seem to want? Keeping to the familiar can cap games’ commercial potential…”

    and then seconds later:

    “…numbers that challenge the assertion that musclemen chainsawing aliens in a sci-fi warzone is a concept with limited appeal.”

    There is discussion about the importance of “culturally significant games” and “games from getting the respect they deserve alongside other media” … but is this really what gamers care about? Surely primarily they want fun games that they enjoy playing. Maybe it’s the games journalists that want ‘respect’ and to feel ‘culturally significant’? Artists who want to experiment with ‘games as art’ seem to do this already without caring greatly whether they are released commercially. Sure – some game developers slip social comments and other ideas into games, but they often seem far less hung up about the whole issue than some journalists do.

    This comment in particular seems very weak:

    “The commercial nature of the games biz may constrain the risk inherent in breaking new ground, but that’s not a sufficient excuse – all art is commercial.”

    All art is commercial? No it isn’t, nor does it cost millions. I’ll quote this last bit:

    “Consumer demand has the largest influence over the games that hit the market. So, if games are limited, it also suggests that the legions of fervent gamers, bloggers and enthusiast writers who devote endless words to their desire for culturally significant games are simply paying lip service to an ideal they won’t back up with their wallets … The same games keep getting made largely because that’s all the core audience is interested in. So maybe it’s gamers, not game developers, who need to get a life.”

    Sorry but is a naive analysis of market mechanisms. If full-length games could be made and distributed as easily as someone knocking up an mp3 and sticking it on their myspace page then maybe there would be a classic ‘efficient market’ in games…

    …you would also have a diverse range of tastes, ranging from (to use a music parallel again) mainstream pop o obscure indie, from african folk to classical orchestras etc etc…

    In reality full-length ‘first-person-style’ games take significant resouces to produce from scratch and so only a limited number are produced. There isn’t a ‘perfect market’ where supply and demand are instantly and perfectly matched – there is actually a lot of second-guessing and pre-filtering going on producing a relative handful, not thousands, of games per year.

    Moreover, even if you just look at FPS games over the last five to ten years, there have been lots of imaginative and ‘different’ games that have been deemed awful by reviewers and gamers – mainly because despite having novel ideas they have failed to realise them, either technically, artistically or in terms of creating a playable and enjoyable game.

  10. TeeJay says:

    … ie: business/economic issues and technical issues play a far bigger role than they do for other media.

    Also, I was happy to play Halflife in ’98, HL2 in ’04, then ep1 and ep2. I will be happy to play Ep3 and HL3 when they come out. This isn’t a “problem”. I would happily play the next Hitman, Deus Ex, NOLF, Thief, Max Payne, STALKER or Fallout game and I doesn’t bother me that they are ‘just sequels’ (and hence ‘less original’). There is always the risk that they will be dumbed-down or otherwise screwed up and I am open to any new game that is good. Why make a such an issue about new IP? Why be bothered about inventing a new genre to replace FPS-ers when so many people still nejoy FPS games? There is still a lot of scope to improve and refine the FPS genre, with only a few games managing to hit the top levels of quality and many more failing in various ways.

  11. Jim Rossignol says:

    malkav11 makes an interesting point, and it’s one of the reasons why we wanted to run a PC site specifically: there’s a huge back-catalogue of games, and plenty of inventiveness across the years. The console companies are only just beginning to realise that the past twenty years of games still contains things worth playing, whereas the PC has always been adapted to access its heritage.

    Games as novum is great, but it’s creatively exhausting, and it’s one of the reasons why a rehash-with-better-tech has become the norm.

  12. Mo says:

    @TeeJay: “so many people” don’t enjoy FPS games. Our tiny gaming niche enjoys FPS games. That “shooting” is the only action a player can perform in the majority of mainstream games is a big reason why games aren’t appealing to more people.

  13. Lyndon says:

    @TeeJay: All art is commercial. I happen to have a good friend who is an emerging fine artist. No shit while preparing for his first gallery exhibition out of art school he did a painting that happened to contain a naked lady. When the galley owner saw it his reaction was “Paint more of those, naked women sell”. My friend didn’t really want to and even found the suggestion slightly creepy but as a new artist working with an established gallery owner he ended up painting more naked ladies.

    See every artist needs to earn enough to eat. Most artist’s work sells in the thousands of dollars range, it has to because of the amount of time they cost to create. Pay two grand for a painting and the artist is still making a shitty wage as far a $ per hour goes.

    Do you know many people willing to fork out that kind of scratch for a painting? Most emerging artists don’t. That’s where the gallery owners come in, they know the potential buyers, they can get them to the exhibition. So in exchange for providing the audience they not only take a percentage of a show’s earnings but often put presure on the artist to deliver what they believe will sell.

  14. Kieron Gillen says:

    Have to run off, more later, quickies:

    Just to stress, the Gen-Y article was linked for eyerolling scaremongering. Amused me to see them go after something else other than games.

    Casey: I love Sleater Kinney. Sympathy scares me because sympathy is scary song.

    KG

  15. Kieron Gillen says:

    Actually, before I go, a handful of perennials on the mainstream=shit position.

    1) Any world where the Beatles are the most popular band of all time… well, the rule doesn’t hold. Good stuff sells. Moreso: I tend to think good stuff sells best when a medium is at its most vital. You look back historically, and some of the greatest works of literature sold phenonemally when they were released. Byron was a superstar in poetry’s heyday.

    2) That there is pap which is popular in any medium doesn’t have anything to do with Leigh’s main point. She argues that there’s far too much of one sort of pap. This isn’t like movies, which do a variety of pap genres taking from a lot of sources. This is more like American comic books, where there’s a predominance of a single genre. Games isn’t as much of a monoculture as the latter, or as wide as the former. She’d like to see more pushed towards it rather than moving towards the latter. As much as beautiful work is done in comics – both inside that dominant genre and outside of it – they’re still kicking against a general societal perception.

    3) Believing to be good is to be obscure is as self-defeating myth as have ever been created. It will ruin you.

    KG

  16. Jim Rossignol says:

    “you’d also have to acknowledge that even the mainstream and the genres it dabbles in still allows for creativity”

    Absolutely. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that many creative advances in games are dependent on the mainstream, precisely because many types of games require huge amounts of money to be made.

  17. Eli Just says:

    My problem with the Leigh article was that it seemed very one sided, but at the same time totally schizophrenic. She keeps coming in from different angles, but all of them end up being the same and she lays out her views so strongly that they overpower anything her interviewees have to say. Also, I feel like she’s saying that as of now, we are advancing only incrementally and that it would be best to scrap every aspect of the current “shallow, limiting archetypes”. I think the article she should have written would outline various efforts to break the status quo by indie studios and then show some examples of this new fresh influence showing itself in big budget industry games, and compare this to the perceived lack of innovation from other developers. Also, I feel like she really chews out CliffyB. That guy has a gun with a chainsaw on it. Watch out.

  18. Cooper says:

    Must. Resist. Urge. To. Scrape. All. 2008. Sales. Data. From. VGCHartz. And. Produce. Larger. Sample. Size. And. Put. Data. Through. More. Involved. Statistical. Models.

    Seriously. If there was a magic button to produce tab delimited data for 1st 10 week sales in 2008 I’d happily match that up with metacritic and throw out some lovely confidence intervals for you all…

    I guess this kind of horriffic, disgusting urge is what happens when a statistician finds himself neck deep in continental post-structuralist and post-phenomenological philosophy. All hail the aporia.

    Someone needs to put Derrida into a comic…

  19. Cooper says:

    Sorry, I forgot about Google.
    http://chickitychina.com/comics/independent-comics-critiques/action-philosophers-5-hate-the-french-review/

    This proves that, on occasion, the world is indeed made of win.

  20. jarvoll says:

    Forbidden
    You don’t have permission to access /comics/independent-comics-critiques/action-philosophers-5-hate-the-french-review/ on this server.

    :\

    Not all art is commercial. I have a painting my grandfather did about 15 years ago hanging on my wall, for which he didn’t charge a cent. Whoops, an exception! SweepingStatementFail. Try again please. Perhaps “all professional art is commercial”? Nah, that’s just saying “all artists that get paid for it, get paid for it.”

  21. DMJ says:

    I have nothing really to add here, apart from the fact that V. Tchitcherine’s post is the sort of thing which normally goes in the top of The Sunday Papers.

  22. Gap Gen says:

    The Metacritic article could do with a follow-up with some more cunning analysis. Its current conclusion “critically acclaimed != commercial success” is something we’ve known for ages, although perhaps not stated explicitly in the form of a Metacritic analysis. I’m not sure what you’d have to do to model the commercial success of a game, though. It’s probably not that simple, and relies on complicated, human things.

  23. JuJuCam says:

    It’s interesting to me that alongside the Leigh Alexander article decrying the sameness of games is posted a concise and clear overview of Kurt Vonnegut’s analysis of dramatic narratives. I’d argue that modern games have leaned toward shootybang violence simply because it’s a quick and dirty way to get an intense dramatic rise out of game players (whether or not they define themselves as “gamers”). Broadly, the basic objective of every game ever made is to shift the status of the gameworld to some ideal status quo. Even if it’s a sort of rolling short term objective to simply return to a status in which you aren’t being attacked. The desire to defend oneself from a hostile enemy is primal and immediate, you don’t need to define their character or yours or what the specific conflict is between yourselves, it’s simply a case of them wanting you dead and you wanting to stop them from succeeding. Of course, games that do define those traits in interesting ways are applauded and rightly so.

    We lose the “Kiss kiss” in games because it’s difficult to translate romance to some sort of immediate action. Nor should it be easy – cheap romance is unfulfilling, in real life or in a game or in art. Indeed, it’s not even an immediate need for most people, and no shorthand for love akin to pulling a trigger exists in our cultural heritage. If you don’t stop an enemy from shooting at you, you will die. If you don’t get to tumble with a romantic interest, better luck next time. How would you even go about constructing a gameplay mechanism around such a nebulous affair? Now try and give it the adrenaline pumping immediacy of a gunfight.

  24. Helm says:

    The statement ‘all art is commercial’ does more than assert that there was a monetary exchange involved somewhere in the process of some piece of art coming into existence or prominence. It is misleading to suggest ‘that’s just that’, because it really also implies a judgment of the intention of the artist, meaning “all artists are marketers” which really isn’t the case.

    You can sell a piece of art to make a living where the intention behind the art is as far away as possible from commercial concerns, or even set against commercial concerns. We are living in a capitalist world, but that doesn’t mean we are obliged (as artists or human beings) to adopt their standard of commercialization in all aspects of our lives. Not everything involving an exchange of one thing for another is capitalist commerce. Exchanges that aim towards the maximization of profit are very different to some writer slaving for months over a book and then having it published and getting like, 300 dollars for royalties. Different intentions.

    Which isn’t to say that most mainstream games aren’t marketed very hard so as to maximize the companies’ profits, but let’s not generalize, please.

  25. mister k says:

    “Must. Resist. Urge. To. Scrape. All. 2008. Sales. Data. From. VGCHartz. And. Produce. Larger. Sample. Size. And. Put. Data. Through. More. Involved. Statistical. Models.”

    I know what you mean, I really want to get data together- was really tempted after the whole piracy hurting data thing.

    The problem with metacritic score*n=sales is that the model is likely to be more complicated than that, so we might get

    meta*a+advertising*b+meta*advertising*c+drm*d+release*e+price*d+platform*f

    effectively you really, really need to do a linear regression and consider far more factors before you can talk convincingly about any trend in the data. Looking at that graph theres actually what looks to me like a fairly convincing trend, with a reasonable amount of noise. Almost certainly the majority of that noise is going to be caused by these unconsidered factors. Once they have been included I think you will actually see a reasonable trend. I’d also be surprised if big companies don’t already do this. This is why everyone should hire statisticians, by the way!

  26. CaseytheBrash says:

    Gillen: Heaven’s to Betsy is ok if you dig S-K. Also, I’ve enjoyed Quasi live a few times (Drummer and her husband from S-K). What i really want is some Bratmobile right about now…

    P.S. My brother used to think S-K sounded like a goat being murdered by some sort of Lovecraftian beastie.

  27. Kieron Gillen says:

    Your brother is weak.

    KG

  28. SteveHatesYou says:

    @Kieron:

    I don’t think the issue is with mainstream being shit. It’s that if a product is tailored to appeal to a mainstream market, it’s going to naturally be derivative.

    It’s the “like x but with y” problem… if you’re trying to pitch a game to a publisher, and convince them to give you $30 million for development, they usually expect you to be able to point to some similar, preexisting product that was successful. They’re businessmen, not artists, and they want you to prove that you can make them a profit.

    Of course creatively fantastic stuff can break out into the mainstream, but first it needs a space in which it can be developed with minimal risk. It doesn’t take any significant cost for a band to play music and get people to listen to it. It took Jonathon Blow three years and $180,000 to make Braid.

  29. clive dunn says:

    err, i really don’t want to get involved but plenty of people thought the Beatles were shit at the time, (my best friends dad would spit on the floor everytime he heard them). And for that matter a lot of Byron’s (probably just jealous) contemporaries thought he was a steaming pile of populist shite.
    As i keep telling people, to quote Bob Dylan, “the truth is a lie”

  30. Will Tomas says:

    As a Beatles fan verging on anorak I agree with your point, Kieron, but actually it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t all hailing the masters at the time. When they went (even) more creative than before and changed what they were doing they weren’t as astoundingly popular as they had been during the mop-top years, and it took a (small) degree of hindsight for their experiments to be as popular as they were critically acclaimed.

    After all, Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane never made it to number 1, being kept off the top spot by the endlessly revolutionary creative force that was Englebert Humperdink.

    Point being, they may have created several new mainstreams by what they did, but when it was all spangly and new it wasn’t as universal in appeal as it has since become.

  31. Kieron Gillen says:

    Will: Let’s also be fair. They definitely won the war against Humperdink – which is, really, what we’re talking about. And – y’know – Number 2 is still not exactly buried in obscurity.

    (I’m not actually the biggest fan of the Beatles, but it seems to be neither here nor there when the counter part is The Mainstream Is Trash. Which can only be argued by myopic snobs who believe the mainstream is trash because people like it rather than its own quality. )

    I’m clearly influenced by the generation I grew up in on this, despite where it lead. Ian Brown’s line back in 89 about it not being enough to hate at number 1 – you’ve got to get up and stamp them down always struck a chord.

    KG

  32. Vinraith says:

    Like others above, I’m sorely tempted to perform a statistical analysis on this subject, but just can’t be bothered. My instinct tells me there’s precious little correlation, one way or the other, between popularity and quality. There are some enormously popular things that are great, and some that are shit. There are some obscure, unpopular things that are excellent, and some that are unpopular for good reason. I don’t really know what to check to make the comparison, either, because it’s not like average critical opinion necessarily correlates that well to game quality either. Ultimately, I would hope that something that is critically acclaimed has a better-than-not chance of being good, and I would hope that something that sells really well has a better-than-not chance of being good, but especially on that second one I honestly don’t know.

  33. CaseytheBrash says:

    KG,

    His Kung Fu is weak, he’s got good taste except he avoids punk. He’s more New Order poppish, not quasi-lesbian riot grrl punk. Didn’t DIY kill punk anyways? Well if that didn’t Greenday did, and it’s mounted the corpse…

  34. Will Tomas says:

    I certainly agree about winning the war, but I suppose what I meant was that the really great and innovative stuff doesn’t always sell as well as competition that are really good but more generic. It’s degrees of quality here, but I think that from an accountant’s point of view, if you have a choice between putting the money behind the generic that sells really well and the less-generic thing that comes in second place, it’s going to give you something to think about.

    Or, in counterpoint to the Beatles and the mainstream, Dan Brown’s sequel to The Da Vinci Code is about to have the largest print run of any novel, ever. Including Harry Potter.

    Does this mean I think that all mainstream is shit? Clearly not, but things like that do suggest that there is a large number of people that actively want things that are undemanding.

    In other news, congrats KG on the burgeoning comics stuff – I had no idea about Thor, and huge congrats are due for that. As someone involved in the dearly departed DFC I know a small amount about how tough an industry it can be sometimes, but also what a hell of a lot of fun it can be too.

  35. Will Tomas says:

    On punk, surely the most punk thing of the last 20 years was John Lydon doing the Country Life advert? If the idea is to piss as many people off as possible…

    That said, I still can’t believe Iggy Pop is advertising life insurance. He can’t need the money?!

  36. CaseytheBrash says:

    I think Iggy Pop is doing Life Insurance ads as sort of a joke on all of humanity, is he still alive even? I mean technically, he looks a bit like lukewarm death on a stick. I think he is mocking us, the undead do what they must…

  37. malkav11 says:

    @Jim Rossignol – while it’s true that PCs have been capable of reaching into the PC back catalog more readily than consoles until recently, the back catalog games themselves have been if anything -less- readily available, at least through legitimate channels. It doesn’t matter if you are functionally capable of playing a game if you can’t get it. And I think that all sectors of the industry are figuring out that older games are still worth something at around the same time, in that respect.

    @JuJuCam – I agree that romance is trickier to handle in games. It does get touched on, occasionally. I most commonly see it in RPGs, where, especially in the Bioware model, there’s often at least one romanceable NPC, though there’s little actual gameplay attached to those. And of course hentai games. Insofar as they can be connected to actual romance. (But I’ll say that even though they’re mostly porn, they do usually make you work at getting into bed with the various women at least a -little- bit. And there are nonpornographic dating sims, mostly in Japan.)

  38. terry says:

    Lotus 3 had rubbish music and partially because of the track editor seemed to play very blandly compared to Lotus 2. Come to think of it, Jaguar XJ220 had better music (chiptune A-team theme!) and played better than either. So you can put that in your pipeand smoke it, Mr Spelunky-on-Wheels >:O

  39. party gowns says:

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