And I don't mean that in a bad way.
There's a traditional idea that the critics – that's us guys who write stuff about games and lob a number between 6 and 10 at the end to drum up a comments thread and/or death-threats – have rarefied and/or completely counter-populist tastes. We'd more happily hail a game made entirely of the string and weeds that's emerged blinking into the sunlight from the anus of a man quoting Proust than a good four-square solid meat-and-potato game like our mum used to make. And, to a degree, it's true. Problem is, it's just not true enough.
But I think it's growing more so, and there's a chance this year could be the turning point.
The thing to understand is that while you may think games writers pretty hoity, in reality, the vast majority of our taste matches the mass majority of gamers. In terms of games aimed at gamers, the games which get the highest score are almost certainly the most popular ones. World of Warcraft. GTA4. Oblivion. Take your pick. Scores highly. Sells well.
(At which point you're probably saying “I'm a hardcore gamer and I hate GTA/WoW/Oblivion” ergo critics aren't hardcore enough and... silence, mortal. Bear with me. You're right, but we need to go the long way round to get there.)
Most cultural forms don't work like us. You look at the critical end of year lists in music or film, and you're going to get a far greater proportion of works more akin to the string+weeds-constructed/anus-emerging/Proust-quoting of the opening and less of the just lovely, nice and fun stuff. Sure, the populist will show its face, but they're not nearly as naturally predominant. On average, critics will hail odd stuff more, because... well, mainly because it's more interesting and worthy of note, but people like to think it's because critics are a snooty bunch of toe-rags. Point being, games don't. In games, we're voting the equivalent of The Dark Knight universally to Number 1 in the end of year round ups. The peaks of mass-market entertainment. And, yes, I'm sure Dark Knight may be on some lists as film of the year... but it won't be on all of them. If films were like games, if Dark Knight wasn't topping your list, you'll probably have to deal with 2000 comment-thread posts and death-threats.
The exceptions are interesting. There are games which sell enormously and score badly, but they're actually the equivalent of pop music. Most pop music sells a lot, but doesn't get in the NME's (or else actually credible) list. A few years ago, I sat through a seminar of Paulina Bozek, Producer of Singstar, talking about how she was disappointed its marks grew more lacklustre in games magazines with each versions. The mechanistic changes those magazines desired just weren't what the audience would be interested in, and the magazine should understand that. I wish I'd put her straight – the people who buy her game don't care about magazines and the people who buy magazines don't care about her game – and it's for /those/ people who critics are writing. To follow the music analogy, you don't see genuinely trashy fun pop bands get much time in the traditional music press. Just make do with your enormous sales. It takes a certain sort of weirdo to want to read about any cultural form, and they're rarely interested in what's culturally predominant.
(As an aside, there are of course REALLY weird weirdos who are deeply into obsessive analysis of absolutely mainstream pop records. Hell, I'm one of them. But there's never been enough of them to sell a magazine solely based of it, and the critics who attempt to hail it do it as part of forwarding a grander aesthetic. And the ones who are /really/ radical may go end up having to actually put their entryist theories into practice. I suspect the same is true of games – I think of Ste Curran Ex-Edge forwarding his PARTY GAMES ARE THE BEST GAMES mandate, who I suspect by crossing over to development may be videogames' Paul Morley. But I'm really digressing now, as I'm drinking.)
Returning properly to games – in end of year lists you'll generally get the big hits which appeal to the audience (i.e. Things which appeal to the same part of the hindbrain as the Terminator) interspersed with random pop-esoterica that have caught people's eyes. Eurogamer – who become important later in this piece – are a good example, with their last few years Top 10s including things like Brain Training and Wii Sports, much to the ridicule of a certain sort of fan. This is, returning to the analogy, is the equivalent of Rhianna's Umbrella: a pop-song which transcends and appeals to even cold-hearted critics.
But in games what you don't often get is the really fucking odd stuff in end of year charts. For even the equivalent of pop-records which show up have the maintream's level of production and accessibility – both in terms of being able to pick up and play and the fact they may have actually seen a copy. There are two problems in getting genuinely indie stuff hailed. Firstly, the problem in that not enough critics have actually experienced it. Secondly, the problem of expectation, with critics failing to understand their emotional response to the game is what counts, not some odd check-list of what a “great” game should be. On the 360, Earth Defence Force 2017 is a better game than Gears of War. Stepping more PC and indie, Desktop Tower Defence is a better game than Supreme Commander. Until critics are willing to actually fight for stuff they actually believe in, we're screwed.
I think both problems are well on the way to a solution.
Last week I found myself on a press trip with Eurogamer's Tom “Tom Bramwell” Bramwell. We ended up talking about what may end up top in Eurogamer's Top 50. Which is always fun. It's an absolutely democratic system – literally, the reviewers collating their votes and the numeric totals deciding the victor. No sneaking in things people haven't voted for, which leads to major, major games missing their places, which drives the threads mad. But it's fundamentally honest, which leads to some genuine and surprising results.
Two years back it was Psychonauts. A game from a major team which critically underperformed but created its own distinctive vision which enchanted the majority of critics.
A year back it was Portal. A game from a tiny part of a major team – an indie dev team snapped up by a supportive mother company – which charmed everyone through its wit and twisted mechanics. Tiny, yet perfect.
You can see the way that's heading. But what's it to be this year?
Tom suggested one dark horse.
Trials 2. After I introduced it to them, it obsessed virtually everyone at Eurogamer. If everyone votes for it at all – and, if they are honest, they should – it'd collect a healthy enough spread of marks to claim a high position. Hell, it could even claim number one.
And then I look at the rapturous, semen-throwing reviews of the rapture-and-semen-lobbing- provokingly-brilliant Braid, which is clocking up a metacritic score to rival pretty much everything. And I think of Audiosurf outselling Call of Duty 4 on Steam for much of the early part of the year. And...
The key thing is that these most obscure games are easily available. The console direct sale routes. The PC direct download culture which, I suppose that RPS exists to forward. That means more critics will have played them, because it's so much easier to do so, which deals with the first of my problems. And the progression in Eurogamer's Number 1 to ever-esoteric quarters shows the second is also beingdealt with. I think if people are considering voting for these games over the mega-hits, I think it's not nearly as big a leap from those games to – say – an arty webgame or Sumotori Dreams or whatever. And suddenly critics are voting in these polls for stuff they find interesting rather than stuff which is just what people expect to be in it.
In other words, rather than an end of year list including all the games you know about, it includes many games you simply don't. As a listener, I use music end of year lists as a way to catch up on all the great stuff I missed. Come December, I find all the incredible records which slipped me by. That's a big chunk of the part of criticism for me – and games writing, traditionally, has been obsessed with talking about stuff people already know about, and ignored the Stuff You've Never Heard Of But You Desperately Need To part of the gig. But as gaming grows ever-more mainstream, the former loses importance – if you can find out about the latest Nintendo game by opening the daily paper, why read the game press? - and the latter grows ever more important, as those disillusioned by the mainstream pay attention to those who help them locate something to sate their ennui.
In other words, the weirder and more abstruse the critics become, the more chance they'll be of use to you, the gamer who's looking for something a little new. If they're not afraid to say they prefer Trial 2 or Braid over GTA4, the chance of them doing their real job – that is, leading to you to nifty stuff – is increased hugely.
With any luck, the End of Year lists this year will provoke an unprecedented cries claiming these critics are crazy and just trying to appear cool. Because if they manage to do that, then we're well on the way to doing our jobs the way we should be.