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No Flash Photography: A Fraps Fiend Frets

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One of the side-effects of re-viewing vid-eogames for a living, is you end-up deeply confused about hyphens. Another is that you end up with a hard-drive full of screengrabs. While spring-cleaning  my bmp store the other day, the following, slightly uncomfortable thought, pounced on me like a hungry piano. Are the images I deliver to my employers/enslavers/empowerers anywhere-near as honest as the words?

Take the game I’m playing at present. Most of the time I’m in its charming company, the image flickering on the wall of my ocular cave looks something like this:

When the review is finally despatched (to Eurogamer, if you’re interested) it will no-doubt be accompanied by lots of pics like this:

Give me words to wrangle or opinions to air, and I’m an aspiring scientist, a chin-stroking Solomon, an Accountant of Fun. Put a virtual camera in my hands however, and I become a shameless hagiographer, a PR cog, a corporate lickspittle. What in the name of Magnum (photo agency & P.I.) is going on?

Complicated Stuff is what’s going on. Behind every hour I spend pausing and unpausing, zooming and unzooming, enduring single-figure framerates in search of that jaw-dropping money shot, is a deep personal loathing of bland, unpainterly review plates. It scourges my soul to see poorly composed, lifeless screengrabs littering a mag or website. I want beauty. I want the Golden Ratio. I want swishing sabres frozen inches from throats, Panzers caught mid-immolation. Waterfalls. Cherry blossom. Lambs laying down with lions.

But the motivation to show games at their dramatic best, is not wholly internal. What those ‘How To Break Into Games Journalism’ articles rarely mention is that you’re unlikely to get far in the business if you supply consistently drab screengrabs. The style guides sent to new recruits sometimes contain as many words on screenshot gathering as wordsmithing.  Few if any of these words are likely to be part of sentences like this:

“Above-all, ensure the screenshots you supply accurately reflect the play experience.”

No, quite naturally most art departments and editors are after spectacle and splodes. They regard images as decorative first and informative second. Sticky pine resin to trap the restless, gadfly gaze of the readers. I understand. I sympathise, but still feel slightly uneasy participating in the system.

Could there be an alternative, more honest, approach to screenshooting?

In my wilder, sleep-deprived moments I picture a chill Huxleyan future in which the reviewer has no power whatsoever over screenshot selection. As he or she plays, background software stealthily shutter-winks at random. When the time comes to submit copy, the opinion-sharer simply selects how many images they need and the machine rolls its dice and dispenses.

If, due to a quirk of a game’s view system, the reviewer has spent hours staring at a sweaty barbarian’s buttocks then a significant proportion of the images illustrating their copy, will be cheek-filled and glistening. If 50% of their time in combat flight sim F-16: Talons of the Viper, is spent fiddling with MFDs or staring at clouds, then 50% of the Cameramatic’s ouput will be fluffy or buttony. There’d be no opportunity for meddlers like myself to stick their oars in, and start distorting things.

Ideally, the autosnaps would nestle alongside hard facts like:

i) How long the reviewer spent playing the game.
ii) How the reviewer had rated similar games.
ii) How much the reviewer was paid to review the game.

They’d be ingredients in a Disclosure mouthwash so potent it could bleach your teeth.

Sorry, slipped into my ‘Campaign for Transparent Reviewing’ spiel there. Back to screenshots.

My point is, right now there’s an inconsistency in the midst of many game reviews. While the words trudge the unglamorous but important treadmill of reader-centred analysis, the pictures are busy doing something entirely different. They’re strutting like street strumpets. All a person can learn from them is how a game may look when the wind is in the right direction, a top-end graphics card is sweating like a pig, and a reviewer has spent hours ambulance-chasing.

As that ambulance-chasing reviewer, I’m really not sure it should be my job to ensure a game looks its absolute best, yet find it impossible to stop myself searching for pleasing compositions. As a reader, I don’t want to give up my kabooms and my sunsets, but I think I’d also appreciate the odd ‘control’ image or some acknowledgement that the pictures I’m perusing may be rare delicacies rather than the set menu. It’s a sticky situation for sure.

What’s your take? Would you rather have ravishing review screenshots, or representative ones?

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Tim Stone

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