9 Thoughts On Being a Videogame Journalist
by Peter Tieryas Liu
Writing about videogames is kind of like being a food critic at a Las Vegas buffet. It’s hard to grasp what exactly it is you’re judging in-between the pounds of steak and sushi that flow interminably. While games are spectacle, they’re also art and philosophy bound together into a series of trials testing your physical reflexes. Keeping up can induce mental obesity, the kind of corpulence that makes it easy to overload the senses. Only in game journalism can you write about legions of bikini-clad zombies, a boss made entirely of shit who sings opera, talking Seamen that question your existence, and the Legend of Zelda, the perpetual love triangle that pits an elf against a thievish pig-monster for the affections of Princess Zelda, all in one sentence without blinking an eye. I’ve been in game development for the first half of my career, working as a character technical director and writing some of the paper manuals you can read in games. It’s only in the past year that Iâ€™ve taken up the mantle of game journalist. Here are nine observations/guidelines that I’ve had along the way.
1). Games, like novels, have themes. The central thesis is usually called the ‘game mechanic.’ In Super Mario, the principal mechanic is running and jumping. The other elements, say, invincibility and fireballs, would be considered variations or supplements to those two themes. Identifying the core of the game and determining how effectively developers have implemented those mechanics is one of the key roles in reviewing videogames. Sounds simple, right? Not exactly, even when you spend days playing the same game over and over. The reason is because like fiction that blends genre’s, itâ€™s harder to pinpoint the exact â€˜game mechanicâ€™ of recent titles. For example, what’s the game mechanic in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG)? Is it the social aspects, the combat, the customizable characters? Figuring out how to streamline complex games into 1000 words or less is a huge part of the challenge.
2). A factor thatâ€™s helped in my journalism is knowing some of the people behind videogame development. Iâ€™ve been friends with photographer-surfers whoâ€™ve masqueraded as programmers at major studios. I’ve known a painter who stopped off from a trip to Asia so he could fund his next trek to map the backroads of Vietnam. Two supervisors helped build a gigantic wooden chicken for Running Man while working on a Star Wars game. With the increasing diversity reflected in the genreâ€™s of games available, itâ€™s equally interesting to note the diversity reflected in the developers. Whenever I can add snippets of personal knowledge about the development team, I find it adds an extra layer of insight that also helps me in my approach to the article. For example, I did a retrospective on Super Mario where I recounted a story about Shigeru Miyamoto (the creator of Super Mario) a friend had told me. Miyamoto was helping the developers at a game company, Retro Studios, who were working for Nintendo on a game called Metroid Prime. They were struggling to get the jumping of the character to feel right as the game made a transition into full 3D graphics (versus the 2D side-scrolling of the older games). Miyamoto spent just fifteen minutes detailing how it should work. When the game was released, all the reviewers mentioned how perfect the jumping felt. It was an illustration of Miyamotoâ€™s brilliance as a game designer as well as a partial explanation in my article of why Super Mario became a classic.
3). Like any other form of entertainment, games are filled with sequels and titles that try to mimic other successful games. Derivative gameplay can lull a journalist into using the crutch of comparing and contrasting the title in question with another. Letâ€™s pretend there was a game inspired by Super Mario called Super Jane. It’d be easy to write a review along the lines of, Super Jane is a poor clone of Super Mario for this and that reason (list reasons). The mechanics are the same and while the environments are unique, it’s not enough to distinguish the title. Bad score given, job complete, right? Not so fast. What about readers who have no idea what Super Mario is? Or even worse, what if someone hates Super Mario, but would have loved Super Jane for the updates it made on the original? While comparisons aren’t bad in themselves, I try to steer away from them as much as possible just so I can give the reader an unbiased look at the game by itself.
4). I got an important lesson in game journalism a few months back that seems obvious in retrospective. Don’t believe anything you read on the internet without checking it first. Check it again. Check it thrice. I was assigned an article to list the â€˜Top 10 Reasons to Play Call of Duty: Black Ops.â€™ It was supposed to be a brief preview to tide readers over until our site’s review of the game came out. I researched information from the official site as well as a couple other sources. One of the reasons I listed was the motion capture studio (technology that captures movement from real actors and applies them to their digital counterpart in 3D) behind Avatar, Giant Studios, was doing the motion capture for Call of Duty. The information was on Yahoo Games and a few other places as well. Although the information wasn’t on Giant’s site, I assumed it to be true because it had been reported by a few other places. I sent my article in, it was published later that day. The information Iâ€™d listed turned out to be inaccurate. It was another company, House of Moves, doing the motion capture. A day later, corrections popped up on the other sites and my editor was contacted as well by House of Moves. She was very kind and told me to be more careful next time. But I was embarrassed. How had I made such an amateur mistake? More than that, where had this information originated? Had someone just fabricated it? And why was I so willing to accept it as fact just because it was on the internet from a â€˜reliableâ€™ source?
5). It’s epic. No. It’s grand, a momentous scene that is compelling! The gameplay is absolutely riveting and mind-bogglingly good! Those are all phrases I’ve used in my game writing and I have to ask myself, am I committing every language crime George Orwell advised against in his essay on â€œPolitics and the English Language?â€ Orwell laments the impoverishment of language and the vapidity many words have taken, especially in the form of unnecessary metaphors, overly complex jargon, and oblique descriptions that make simple sentences nebulous.
I often use the ‘strong phrasing’ because it helps illustrate a feeling about a game in a way that’ll draw readers in. At that point, I can further expound upon whatever it is I want to delve into. It’s a powerful lure and one many gaming sites exploit. Sifting through the titles of gaming articles, I read how one small incident in a company is a death knell for the studio in question. Game ‘X’ is the worst game some reviewer has ever played and will destroy the franchise! Poor sales one month spell doom for the industry!
At its core, game journalism is a business and a big part of the business is garnering hits. More often than not, the dramatic titles with lots of hyperbole are the links readers (including myself) click.
6). I got a taste of this in an article I wrote. My editor at the principal site I write for, GameDynamo, has a sharp instinct for marketing. On top of being a great writer, she selects the best bylines and knows how to craft my stories to appeal to a broader audience. My article was a retrospective about the Legend of Zelda for its 25th Anniversary. I included a paragraph describing how the manual from the game inspired me in my childhood to want to write manuals of my own. My editor changed the title from ‘Zelda Retrospective’ to ‘How the Legend of Zelda Changed My Life and Yours.’ There was no one more surprised than me to see the new title. But I understood and supported the decision because it got people’s attention, especially those who were genuinely curious about the question; what kind of videogame can change a personâ€™s life?
7). Time to time, when I send my gaming articles to friends, they tease me by asking questions like, â€œDo you find it ironic you’re writing these literary essays about gaming for teens who just want to know whether the game’s good or not?â€ It got me wondering in turn, who exactly is my audience?
A fellow journalist introduced me to alexa.com earlier this year. It’s a website that lets you check the ranking of any site as well as a brief description of the demographics. Ours was, “Users tend to be under the age of 35, and they are disproportionately low-income, childless men browsing from home and school who have no postgraduate education.” Though pretty specific (scarily so), 35 and under was still a broad range.
I’ve seen long threads and discussions over articles I’ve written (some positive, some negative, and some just trolling), but I donâ€™t have any idea who the audience actually is beyond a nebulous string of quirky names representing their avatars. So I had to wonder, should I tailor my writing towards this ‘imaginary audience?’ Just because the articles are about gaming, is there a specific type of diction or style I should adapt to make it easier and more entertaining to read?
8). One of my absolutely favorite game articles was written by Rio Liang called â€œA Videogame Manifestoâ€ (http://ruelleelectrique.wordpress.com/2010/06/13/a-video-game-manifesto-final-fantasy-xiii-as-a-prototype/) using Final Fantasy 13 as a prototype. The article was an in-depth exploration of the implications of gaming as art. I was fascinated because here was someone who wrote with a sophistication and literary bent I hadnâ€™t thought possible in videogame journalism.
On the opposite end were a new breed of popular game journalists I think of as the â€˜new gaming historians.â€™ They use YouTube and personal websites as their primary venue of distributing video reviews of old games. â€œIt fucking sucks balls!!!â€ the Angry Video Game Nerd (AVGN at cinemassacre.com), my favorite reviewer, shouts. He dresses up like a nerd, plays â€œshitty games that suck ass,â€ and surprises with his witty insight into older titles. The same applies for the Spoony One (spoonyexperiment.com) who splits the Final Fantasy series apart in a meticulous frenzy. I know the internet is home to a lot of crazy stuff, but these guys take crazy to another level. I love their video reviews, and more importantly, I love the passion with which they rant against these horrible games. As can be expected with anything thatâ€™s popular, theyâ€™ve inspired copycats. The imitators pale in comparison because itâ€™s very clear theyâ€™re just cashing in on the trend rather than being genuine â€˜haters.â€™
Itâ€™s the genuine â€˜new gaming historiansâ€™ that reminded me of an important fact in videogame journalism. The vehicle of your delivery, whether it’s rage, humor, or literary exploration, doesn’t matter. Only the passion (or should I say courage) with which you explicate your central message. Yes, sensationalism and crazy metaphors help. But that passion, whether for the artistry in gaming, or the debilitating flaws that mar a old-school title, is the essential tenet- the core ‘mechanic’ that shines through. Of course, like my reviews, identifying the core mechanic is the hard part. But as long as you never lose sight of it, the details will take care of themselves.
9). Over the past year, the process of writing these gaming articles has me feeling like I’m at the Las Vegas buffet of gaming history, picking and choosing the dishes/stories I want. Itâ€™s a privilege being able to share my thoughts on videogames with a wide audience. I loved writing a tribute to the Japanese RPG’s I was addicted to as a kid, especially one called Phantasy Star II. I heard about it one night when a friend’s older brother told me about a star system with three strange planets run by Mother Brain with a climatrol system and all sorts of advanced technology that had gone awry. It was a fantasy, a trip to another world. It was also my first true understanding of the power of words. My core mechanic, at least for now, is trying to analyze that sense of wonder and excitement I felt all those years ago. I’ve tried to convey that feeling in every gaming article I’ve written, whether I’m describing the genetic quandaries of Solid Snake, or videogaming’s first feminist action-hero, Metroid’s Samus Aran, or even the strangest moments to pop up in videogames. Only the readers out there dreaming of different worlds can tell you if I’ve succeeded or not.
Peter Tieryas Liu likes to wander the world with his wife and play videogames most people have forgotten about. Some of his fiction is published or forthcoming in places like the Bitter Oleander, Camera Obscura Journal of Literature and Photography, decomP, and the Indiana Review. You can follow his game writings at tieryas.wordpress.com and gamedynamo.com.