PC Gamer Goes To War

PC Gamer’s Tim Edwards, a top-chum and occasional employer of the RPS hivemind, wasn’t terribly happy about Greg Costikyan’s controversial assertion that a game review is a different, lesser beast to game criticism – a nobler species Costikyan claims barely exists. So he’s posted a riposte on the PC Gamer blog.

It includes stuff like this:

Greg’s is a purely semantic argument based around trying to define what reviews and criticism should be, that doesn’t take into account what reviewers and critics are already doing. Games criticism doesn’t /have to be anything/. There are no rules of what reviews can and cannot include – the only question for writers should be: what will the reader gain from the review?

There may be blood. There already is in the Gamer blog’s comments threads, in fact – but you lot will, I’m sure, keep it civilized over here.

Which side of the argument am I on? Well, personally I feel that – oh! Look over there! It’s a badger, with a gun! Yoink!

Oh.

You’re still here. Damn.

Well, okay. I’ll dance around the subject a little. I don’t wholly agree (somewhat inevitably, what with games writing being my trade’n’all) with Greg’s analysis, and worry that he’s either not read or has discounted some great games writing – but I can entirely imagine that reading yet another dry graphics/audio/gameplay breakdown on UltraMegaGamesNetworkSite#14 would incite such frustration. I also have some concerns about the artificial structures of reader and editor expectations even the best-intentioned review is usually subject to (and I have the scars to prove it). Gamer’s in something of a privileged position for this debate, being as it is a magazine that’s become so established and respected over these long years precisely because it often deviates from preview/review norms.

Deviating myself here from Tim’s defence of reviews onto Greg’s wider claim that there is little or no ‘games criticism’, I can point to PCG pieces such as Kieron’s incredible Cradle feature, Jim’s eye-opening Korean gaming investigation or John’s teary text-love for The Longest Journey, and his concerns seem a little hasty. Furthermore, I’m certainly not convinced that worthy critical discussion of this young medium, with its wealth of unique, deeply personal experiences, is necessarily the same as film or literature criticism. (Christ, I was in some danger of a “travel journalism to imaginary places” just then). Still, it’s true that most mags and sites default to the path of least resistance (or the path of most audience, depending on how you look at it). Whether you agree with Tim or not, you should be very glad someone in his position cares as much as he does.

I sometimes worry that Amazon user reviews and Digg ratings will eventually kill off traditional games journalism, and those such as we men of RPS will end up penniless and starving. Perhaps instead that would increase the demand for games writing outside of a buyer’s guide structure (and hey, maybe it’ll even mean we actually turn a buck from this damned place) – then Greg will get his wish, while simultaneously games writers get to prove he was wrong about them.

Oy, I’m rambling all over the shop. And, distressingly enough, it’s because I’m trying to avoid reviewing an RTS.

39 Comments

  1. Jives says:

    Would it be better if all reviews were constrained to one limerick

  2. Pidesco says:

    I don’t see what’s controversial about Greg’s point. It’s the same difference as between film reviews and film studies. Or book reviews and literary theory.

    The specific problem involving game’s criticism is that it really doesn’t exist, and game reviewing ends up taking its place. This is a problem because game reviews usually only amount to “is it fun?”, or if they don’t, they still are shallow and superficial, because they have to be, essentially, a buyer’s guide.

    I think gaming needs people to be organized about games in an elitist way for it to grow in depth, and not just in breadth. I say some gamers should get together, pick up Bloom’s “The Western Canon” and go from there.

  3. Pidesco says:

    I posted the above comment without reading Edwards’ rebuttal, and now that I’ve read it I’d just like to say the following:

    [Someone with your desire for more critical discussion can surely find a way to say it without resorting to insults. Thanks, Admin.]

  4. Buceph says:

    So Edward’s accuses Costikyan of abusing semantics? It’s a bit rich when his criticisms of Costikyan’s piece is predicated entirely on semantics. Edward’s isn’t addressing the main issue of the original piece, which is the dearth of properly critical pieces available.

    Alec has gotten it correct, PC Gamer is one of the best gaming magazines out there. It is better than 99% of reviews from Official Nintendo 360 Magazine, and that’s the problem. PC Gamer, as standard, only scratches the surface of the critical depth a lot of people are asking for. It’s something a good few people have been arguing about for quite a while on the PC Gamer forums.

    I’d love to be able to read, on a regular basis, a properly critical piece on a particular game, genre or aspect of the industry, but I can’t find such a thing. I’d write it myself but I apparently appear to be not quite good at writing.

  5. Olick says:

    I think we have plenty of sites(blogs mostly) that simply discuss a game, rating or no. However most(or all) commercial outlets don’t discuss a game, but describe it and then give a numerical value, which as time goes by seems less and less applicable. This bleeds down to some, but not all the less commercial productions, but more in-depth discussions are not unheard of.

  6. Leeks! says:

    It was touched on in that Gerstmann-1up-summary article that was posted back in the first age of the fairies, but what I think is important for everyone on both sides of this debate to remember is that games are very, very expensive. Unfortunately, it means that any kind of games writing consumers will be willing to pay for will have to straddle the product review/intelligent writing chasm in order to be salable, but even that isn’t terribly different from criticism in any other medium.

    Ultimately, a lot of people will spend a lot of money based on your opinion, and that’s a responsibility that I, personally, don’t think is entirely worth compromising in some self-aggrandizing quest to be taken as a serious “critic.”

    There will always be a place for intelligent, sometimes-aimless critique. RPS and the Escapist are probably the two best examples of popular websites that make this work for them, but I don’t think either would be possible without that consumer-review foundation this spin-off industry is rooted in.

  7. Buceph says:

    Olick: I dunno if this place is too fond of turning things into a messageboard type thing, but can you link me up to some sites?

  8. unclebulgaria says:

    I do not need to see a feature list of a game.

    I need to know if it’s any good or not and if it’s from a genre I fancy at the moment.

    Anything thoroughly unique also merits mention.

  9. Alex says:

    Waitwaitwait.. that yoink!.. was that the badger? Or the gun? Or you, mr. Meer?

    WAITWAITWAIT! Was it.. WAS IT.. something entirely different..? Oh wow, I just blew my mind.

  10. Mario Granger says:

    I’m fascinated by that comment Kieron, does RPS not turn a profit? Or was that just exaggeration for the sake of making a point?

  11. Alec Meer says:

    Man. Last week I was Walker, today I’m Gillen. My meagre sense of self-worth will collapse if anyone calls me Jim.

    To answer your question: no exaggeration. RPS is something we do more or less unpaid, during the scant spare time we have from our paid work. Clearly, we hope to change that.

  12. BrokenSymmetry says:

    For me the perfect pieces of games criticism are EDGE’s Time Extend features. Their treatment of games that are a few years old always leads to some greater insight in gaming as a whole. Absolute high point: the Time Extend feature on Sands of Time.

  13. Aimless says:

    A badger with a gun? Are you an Eddie Izzard fan, Mr. Meer?

    Do Edge’s ‘Time Extend’ features count as games criticism? If not I think someone’s going to have to tell me what a piece of writing has to do to constitute criticism.

    Terminal fence sitter that I am, I agree in part with both Costyikan and Edwards. I don’t think there’s enough criticism in the gaming press — as opposed to on blogs or forums — but, from my understanding of term’s prerequisites, it certainly exists. The real problem is that most mainstream gaming magazines and websites are, to adopt Kieron’s turn of phrase, “a bit wank”.

    I think games criticism can still act as a buyer’s guide, but the ‘Graphics, Sound, Gameplay’ brigade obviously only manage to be the latter. However, as Mr. Edwards rightly points out, not all reviews are the same. It is a shame that the good games writing tends to drown amidst a sea a crap, but I suppose it’s wholly appropriate given the subject matter.

    I like to sit on the fence; it offers the best view.

  14. matte_k says:

    Hey Jim, nice article…(sound of collapsing self worth structure in distance)

    (Just joshing Alec. Anyone with a Freelance Peacekeeping Agent Gravatar is not to be tangled with)

    Edit: In case anyone was wondering what Alec’s self worth structure looked like prior to collapse, I imagine it’s something similar to the statue park level in Goldeneye, only with Alec’s head instead of Lenin’s

  15. roBurky says:

    I don’t quite understand what the complaint is here. PC Gamer is the exception, not the norm.

    The vast majority of games writing /is/ just buyer’s guides. I don’t really see how anyone can dispute that as the current state of affairs.

    From Tim’s blog: “But whatever we do, whoever these writers are, we can’t place rules on what they can and can’t write. That would miss the point.”

    But that is what is happening at the moment, is it not? For most games writers, the only available avenue for writing about games is writing reviews. That any other form of games writing is being presented as a review, or misinterpreted to be a review (Bow, Nigger?), should be evidence of that.

  16. Frida K says:

    Edge’s reviews normally sit thoroughly on the side of criticism and the ratings reflect that. They almost never discuss anything except gameplay and art direction; graphics, sound and longevity don’t really get a look-in, and rightly so. Eurogamer’s reviews are more balanced between the What You Should Buy and the What Is Culturally Significant, which makes them also brilliant.

    Sidenote: Edge have given me what I have to consider the best line in any games review this century – from the Pursuit Force: Extreme Justice review, E182: “[the game] piles on the permutations – car on tank, car on tram, chopper on fire truck – with the pressurised inventiveness of a jaded automotive pornographer.”

  17. Buceph says:

    I think Edge leans more towards the pretentious. Pretension isn’t a substitute for critical analysis. It’s just that they often look similar.

  18. Aimless says:

    Only if someone likes to bandy around the word ‘pretentious’. Especially on the internet the term’s become shorthand for, “I don’t understand/care what your opinion is, so I’m going to give you a label and then, in an award-winning display of irony, act is if I’m better than you.”

    Having said that, I do wish Edge would drop their tiresome impression of the Many and include bylines, at least for reviews.

  19. Buceph says:

    It can also mean pretentious.

    I prefer GamesTM. I find they’re much more likely to cover games that are commercial, but not AAA. Their comparisons are generally more accurate. Edge will compare to the ‘brand leader’ GamesTM will compare to the specific case. Edge is the safer magazine. GamesTM is more likley to offer solutions in game design to Edge’s simple complaint. And of course Edge as a name is pretentious in and of itself.

    Yes, Edge does some fantastic articles, and it’s better than most of what’s out there. It doesn’t stop it from being pretentious.

  20. Damien says:

    Look, I wrote an essay…

    People write because they have some meaning they’re trying to convey to the reader. At least you’d hope they do.

    In the end, what’s more useful to the world: a review that conveys whether or not you should buy a particular game based on an established reviewing track-record and knowledge of the industry? Or another work of game criticism that yet again informs me of how Ultima IV examined player morality, and also, how Pac-Man was a cultural sensation in the 80’s? Did you know the character was created after Toru Iwatani saw a pizza with a slice taken out of it? It’s true! How crazy! Those sure were different times…

    Exactly.

    Writing shouldn’t be judged as to whether or not it conforms to an arbitrary standard of “art” based on the opinion of any old douchebag with a keyboard, however well meaning. Writing should be judged on how well it manages to fulfill the promise of it’s existence and of your relationship to it via your time reading it. If it informs you, great. Thrills you, awesome. Makes you laugh, you probably love cake references. Makes you cry, go talk to David Jaffe, he’d like to take some notes.

    As for the notion of whether or not game criticism itself even exists, whether or not we’ll ever see our very own Pauline Bangs: the way this continues is to drop it entirely and discuss instead all the various ways criticism is mutating alongside video games and the internet in this [buzzwords go] hyper-connected, always-on, multi-mediated society [buzzwords cease] to become something unlike what has come before — whether it be the comic/posts of Penny Arcade or blogs like RockPaperShotgun (notice the blatant suck-up I did there?) or GamersWithJobs or the now long-defunct running commentary of Lum the Mad or the flash animated Zero Punctuation or any other examples I could, but will restrain myself from, naming.

    It’s not a matter of whether or not game criticism exists — it’s just that the people winging about how it doesn’t exist keep expecting it to appear in the wrong places.

    Those places are old. Don’t look there anymore.

  21. Alex says:

    I think Edge leans more towards the pretentious. Pretension isn’t a substitute for critical analysis. It’s just that they often look similar.

    Edge get on my tits, too.

    Basically, any medium gets the criticism it deserves – most games aren’t made with much depth in mind, why bother going to lengths to forcedly find it there.

  22. malkav11 says:

    I just wish Americans got the British version of PC Gamer. I don’t *dislike* the American magazine, but the UK version sounds like a lot more fun to read.

    (And no, I’m not going to do an international subscription, if I even can. Those things cost a fuckload of money, especially given the current dollar-pound ratio.)

  23. Aimless says:

    Fair enough if you prefer GamesTM, Buceph, but I maintain that Edge isn’t pretentious. Bearing in mind that you haven’t given any reason as to why you think it is, I’m afraid I’m going to have to assume that you’re labelling it as such out of convenience rather than consideration.

    That’s a good post, Damien. The internet has certainly changed the way I clue myself up on gaming news and opinions: no longer do I suffer the monthly wait for a fresh copy of N64 Magazine to tell me what’s on the horizon¹ or which game is to be my next worthy purchase. In fact, and this is quite strange now I think about it, I only tend to read reviews of games I’m interested in after I’ve bought them, relying on early forum impressions and ‘gaming instinct’ to decide my pre-orders.

    Still, for all that the internet has on show it still can’t beat the old fashioned tactility of a good magazine.

    ¹Not much back then. It was an N64 magazine, after all.

  24. Buceph says:

    It is pretentious because through it’s language and style it presents itself as the pinnacle of games journalism and review (not games reviews, that’s different.) When A.) GamesTM treats games in a serious manner B.) GamesTM treats the game in a more serious manner, without losing sight of a very important element, fun and enjoyment. C.) GamesTM keeps sight of the fun and enjoyment without deriding or being snide about it. I can go on.

    I find Edge pretentious because it presents itself as highbrow, but on average it just uses bigger words and doesn’t add much depth to what you get from other good magazines.

    But everything I’ve said is just an indication of why I think it’s pretentious. I don’t prove it, I’m just expanding on the definition. Never mind that any example I give will in the end just reinforce the definition of what pretension is. That is of course unless I dig out scans of the magazine, and then I’m sure you’ll disagree.

    But of I course I’m using pretentious without knowing what it means. Because that suits you. Everyone else is the retard who doesn’t know what words mean.

  25. Kieron Gillen says:

    I tend to think that something as relatively inoffensive as Edge can be considered pretension says a lot more about videogames discourse than anything else.

    KG

  26. solios says:

    NEW QUEUE! *zip*

    It’s been my experience that game “reviews” by magazines and major websites aren’t actually reviews. They’re ads. Ads that detail how great the gameplay, story, production values, etc. are. If an aspect is complete shit, it’s soft-pedalled and downplayed, or not mentioned at all. I think the big culprit is ad revenue – why would a game company advertise with a magazine or site that calls a shit game shit? Anyone remember the stink over that crap Eidos title a couple of months ago? Yeah.

    I’ve found game “reviews” to be useless in determining rather or not I’ll enjoy a game – I get more accurate intel from Amazon user reviews and word of mouth than I ever have from a paid reviewer – of any product, not just games.

  27. devlocke says:

    My initial reaction to this debate was to agree with Tim Edwards, but that may be because I mostly read RPS, GameSetWatch, and Gamasutra when I’m reading about games, and they all probably tend more towards critical analysis than most outlets. Obviously, everyone here is familiar with RPS, but GSW has a number of columns that regularly analyze specific games or types of games, and try to place them in a historical/political/social/what-have-you context. Gamasutra seems to feature things that are not reviews, but also aren’t what I’d call criticism, on a pretty regular basis, like their histories of the major gaming platforms. I’m not certain where the boundary between “history” and “critical analysis in a historical context” lies exactly, but sometimes they put stuff up that meanders back and forth across that boundary.

    Kevin Gifford seems to be making a case for print magazines dropping reviews entirely, and taking up a lot of the slack where criticism is concerned in his most recent column on GSW: link to gamesetwatch.com

  28. calday says:

    I’ve found game “reviews” to be useless in determining rather or not I’ll enjoy a game

    I’ve found them useful a bunch of times. Professional reviews are much better as buyer’s guides than Amazon cruft when (i) they’re decently articulate (ii) the reviewer makes some attempt to highlight their own prejudices. This is the ‘professional’ bit.

    A decent stand-in for (ii) is that you can read enough of their work to learn where they can and can’t be trusted. (i) is a bonus here because it means their work isn’t painful to read that much of.

    A lot of the best reviewers (and RPS has at least a couple of those) could write great criticism, but they’re terrified of being taken too seriously. So a lot of the keener insights are buried under self-deprecating of-course-I-didn’t-pay-attention-at-uni jokes, or carefully offhand references to complex points that need more detail.

    Pretension isn’t a substitute for critical analysis. It’s just that they often look similar.

    plus 1 for this. Insightful criticism is difficult. It needs real, grounded engagement. Cargo-cult criticism, where you borrow the forms of real criticism and salt with buzzwords, is much easier and very very popular.

  29. Aimless says:

    Buceph, I didn’t call you a “retard”. You’re probably more of a linguist than I; when my friends went off to Uni I stayed at home and played videogames.

    My suggestion was that you were labelling Edge as pretentious because it’s the easy thing to do. Everyone’s a little bit prejudice, after all; sometimes you have to pigeonhole things so you can get on with what really matters.

    Clearly you’ve given the subject quite some thought. I still disagree, but that’s okay: it’s only a gaming magazine. I can certainly see why someone would think Edge pretentious even if I don’t subscribe to that point of few.

    The term itself is a pet hate of mine and I often see it used with little or no validation. It isn’t that people don’t know what the word means, I just find it’s over- and lazily used to the extent it’s become little more than a semi-polite form of name calling. To attribute it to something is to assume its intent, and that is always shaky ground.

    Still, you seem to genuinely think Edge is pretentious so that’s fair enough. I don’t agree, but it’s no skin off my nose.

  30. Buceph says:

    Cheers.

    I still think it’s one of the best magazines out there.

  31. Buceph says:

    Cheers.

    I still think it’s one of the best magazines out there.

    And to add to the thing, the debate is still going on over on the PCG blog section.

  32. josh g. says:

    Why is Edwards writing in “defense of reviews” when Costikyan’s argument was not an attack on reviews in the first place? At least that’s not what I took from his rant – I saw it as a complaint about the lack of good games criticism out there. I certainly didn’t understand it to be saying, “Hey, you reviewers, you shouldn’t be writing anything intelligent.” But for some reason that seems to be what Edwards is getting defensive about.

  33. Kieron Gillen says:

    It’s because Costikyan was openly insulting against reviewers in the piece. There’s an implication that reviewers can’t do it, because they’re too dull.

    KG

  34. Buceph says:

    But doesn’t Costikyan have a right to feel insulted. The industry has been asking to be taken seriously for ages, to be treated as an artform, something that deserves to be treated as a serious medium. Magazines have been agreeing for quite a while, often by addressing the 15 year old spotty nerd* they presume reads their articles and tells them to stand up to the bigger boys in the playground and all those stupid grown ups and let them know that gaming isn’t just for kids, that’s as good, if not better than telly. And then, for the most part, write fairly shallow reviews. And even the best reviews pale in comparison to the proper critiques other media enjoy.

    *ok, this may have changed in the past few years.

  35. KingMob says:

    Deviating myself here from Tim’s defence of reviews onto Greg’s wider claim that there is little or no ‘games criticism’, I can point to PCG pieces such as Kieron’s incredible Cradle feature, Jim’s eye-opening Korean gaming investigation or John’s teary text-love for The Longest Journey, and his concerns seem a little hasty.

    Haha, when you punctuate your points by citing work by other RPS members it seems a bit too much like patting yourself on the back…

    That said, I agree with Alec’s point in this article. Good game criticism is out there. In my opinion the difference between review and criticism starts with omitting a numerical score. Now if only both reviews and criticism would work harder at focusing on the game and its significance to the industry and leaving out anecdotes and referential humor…

  36. Cueball says:

    Personally I think Kieron Walker is being too kind to Costikyan in the main post here. His entire article reads simply as self-aggrandisement, rather than an opening to a discussion, and one of his closing comments is a bit of a giveaway.

    “we are still viewing the works under question from an inherently critical stance.

    Would that anyfuckingone else in gaming did so.”

    If he’s limited his reading to mainstream websites and consumer mags to allow himself to come to his conclusion, that’s his loss, frankly. Do film buffs have the same arguements about there not being enough heavyweight articles in Empire, or book lovers bite down their fury when the Guardian’s book section isn’t penned by Terry Eagleton (or, that when it is, he merely ‘reviews’ a novel rather than ‘critiques’ it)?

    More relevant is the fact that Pauline Kael wrote – as far as I’m aware – primarily for the New Yorker, not for a film mag, thus enabling her to reach a far wider audience (and therefore recognition) than film buffs. If the New Yorker had a games section, and appointed any one of the RPS quaduvirate as its editor, you’d have a your Pauline Kael for film – ie intelligent criticism taken out of the confines of ‘enthusiast’ outlet. It’s as much about the cultural relevance of the medium as it is about the actual writing.

    Or, to put it another way, if Mark Twain had written Literary Offenses today, it’d be just as memorable as Cotskyan’s article will be tomorrow.

    I’d disagree strongly with Buceph as well – “even the best reviews pale in comparison to the proper critiques other media enjoy.” That’s just not true – ask the award-winning Kieron Gillen what he won his award for.

  37. Buceph says:

    Fine, you’re right, I concede. Gaming journalism is bastion of high brow intelligent critique. It has far surpassed nob jokes. Every sentence of any worth isn’t preceded with self derision. Games journalism is in no way hypocritical, it does not demand that games be treated as art and a valued element of society all the while writing the literary equivalent of pull my finger jokes.

    You’re correct. Games journalism isn’t a joke. It isn’t something the developers themselves are laughing at.

  38. mister slim says:

    Does Tim Rogers still write for GamesTM?

  39. calabi says:

    Hi, Just thought I would add to the enumerable comments to point out. There is some evidence that people are crying out for criticism as seen in the popularity of Zero punctuation.

    The popularity isnt just because of the funny anecdotes and rude language, but because the things he does point out are true. Rarely do we here or see how absurd some of these things in games are. He exposes these games, with there shallow and overused gameplay elements.

    In general I think a lot of the media is rose tinted, caught up in empty hype and promises of gold. A lot of games now have changed very little from their core beginnings(in the gameplay sense), no one seems to see or care. I wonder at why games in general have not evolved or come as far as they could, but it could be because no one cares to see anything wrong with the current games, or expects much more from them.

    Anway I dont think the lack of criticism is specific to games at the moment. There seems to be a fear in general of criticism perhaps in part because of possible reactions to it, jihads, litigations, nasty forum posts. You need to have tough skin and be prepared for the backslash which is all but impossible to avoid now.