Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Jan 8, 2009
Some thoughts on the demise of the one-time top dog of gaming magazines.

If you’re the type to follow a blog like this one, you’ve no doubt heard the news of UGO Entertainment’s purchase of the 1Up network and all of the properties underneath it, followed closely by the news of game rag stalwart EGM’s sudden (not to mention unfortunately timed, at one month before its 20th anniversary) cancellation.  The entire fiasco has resulted in a confirmed list of at least 30 staffers suddenly finding themselves having to check the “unemployed” box on every form they fill out for at least the near-term future.


Thus far, UGO’s been saying lots of nice things about letting 1up remain its own brand while simultaneously getting rid of a whole bunch of the people that made that site stand out (that is, the podcasters) among the major game sites, but I’m not going to be too hard on UGO here, because when you get down to it, it’s just business, as much as we’d prefer to think of it as more than that.  That’s small comfort to those who were just pink slipped, but turnover always happens in these situations, and we’re just not in the sort of economy that welcomes exceptions to that rule.


Gamers of a certain age will never forget this page.

Gamers of a certain age will never forget the Sheng Long hoax.


For many older gamers such as myself, the disappearance of EGM is really hitting home.  This is the magazine that gave us the infamous secret of Sheng Long, the magazine that started the “Lair is crap” wave of anti-publicity, the only magazine that most of us would ever have thought to have bought despite the presence of Fabio on the cover.  Heck, I remember the first one, which I bought shortly after spending way too much time with an Issue of Nintendo Power trying to figure out whether those Mega Man 2 screens were too spectacular to be real.


Still, the departure of EGM is just another domino to drop in the course of print media’s apparent march to extinction.


One could argue that print is already flirting with complete irrelevance as far as gaming goes, given that the only major American gaming rags left are Play (whose primary claim to fame is its “girls of gaming” feature), Game Informer (whose circulation will continue to thrive due to its status as a “free” bonus for signing up for GameStop’s membership card), GamePro (I’m sorry, I just never much cared for GamePro) and the official platform-specific magazines.  Europe still has a couple of solid mags in the form of Eurogamer and Edge, and Japan’s Famitsu continues to be a nationwide tastemaker (nothing solidifies the hype of a Japanese release like a 39 or 40 out of 40 from a Famitsu review).  Even so, with the ease of internet access still exponentially increasing and the shrinking window that separates “breaking” with “outdated”, it’s hard to see much of a future for print.  On an online source, you can see video previews of upcoming games; in print, you need to look at pictures.  Online sources can publish instantly, leaving print sources at least two weeks in the dust when it comes to news.


Maybe if they put Fabio on every cover…

Maybe if they put Fabio on every cover…


If a print publication is to succeed, it is going to need to a) appeal to the nostalgia of an audience that grew up with print, and b) provide a service that online outlets can’t.  In the case of Famitsu, for example, that service is in the presentation of scored reviews by a core set of reviewers which still garners as much or more respect than any of the current online crop of reviewers.  For English-language audiences, however, this approach is more difficult because any of the writers who could pull this sort of clout are already gainfully employed online.


Perhaps if there were a print mag that was structured more like an academic journal, in which experts, scholars, and the rest of us were encouraged to submit essays to a prestigious editorial board, the best of which would be published, we would want to subscribe to it.  Of course, The Escapist already does this online, so it’s difficult to see it succeeding in a subscription-centered arena.  Gonzo game journalism already has its place online, as does some surprisingly well-constructed fan-fiction.


The truth is, there really isn’t anything that print magazines can offer that online outlets can’t, and even the most nostalgically-minded reader is going to favor something free, current, and dynamic.  Even I’ll admit that despite my own subscription to EGM, I wasn’t really reading it anymore; maybe I maintained it for the fresh-ink smell that a just-delivered magazine has.  Still, EGM was something of an institution in its own right, a holdover from the Nintendo age that managed to hold on longer than it could have thanks to some sharp editorial minds and solid writing.  Inevitable as EGM’s demise may have been, January 6, 2009 was still a sad day for gaming as we knew it.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Dec 30, 2008

“Each chapter also has its own small story arc, with background flavours involving targeted marketing campaigns, beauty products, brand loyalty, evil products with glossy packaging, etc. Just like the story, these themes inform the artwork and level design, but are never ever crammed down the player’s throat. You’ll notice them only if you read between the lines.”
-Kyle Gabler, 2D Boy


World of Goo is a work of art in the way that The Butter Battle Book is a work of art.


Perhaps it’s too simplistic an assessment, given that the Seussian inspiration that World of Goo sports is immediately evident from the title screen alone:



Where the homage is most pointed, however, is in the narrative that it presents.


When I was six years old, I didn’t get The Butter Battle Book. I mean, I found it funny enough, what with its increasing levels of Yook and Zook technology and the clever way in which Seuss found the most trivial thing possible for the two sides to disagree on (probably not in those terms at age six, but you catch my drift), but I didn’t know what it meant. There is no way for a six-year-old to understand that the story is based on an all-too-real arms race, and that the strange, unsatisfying ending to the story—a Yook and a Zook at the top of the wall that divided their people, waiting each other out for a good time to drop a civilization-ending bomb—was uncomfortably close to the actual political state of affairs at the time.


At least, there was no way to understand it until my mother explained it to me and proceeded to give me nightmares for the next week.


Similarly, my 29-year-old self didn’t really grasp the allegorical nature of World of Goo until, provoked to comment on it, all I could come up with was to mumble something about an “anti-establishment” sort of undercurrent, which, while sort of accurate, is hardly insightful. The truth is, to that point, much of the play time that I’d devoted to World of Goo had been by the side of my own six-year-old daughter, as it’s a game that truly shines as a family-centered experience without being obviously marketed toward kids; the huge fonts and the wry humor of The Mysterious Sign Painter are, as it turns out, awfully appealing to young children, as is the almost Tinkertoy-esque nature of many of the goo structures that are built throughout the game. As such, my understanding of the undercurrent of the game was victim to a sort of willful ignorance as my time was spent focusing on the stuff a six-year-old would like, the stuff a six-year-old would get.


What could I do but play it again?


(there are spoilers ahead. click at your own peril.)


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Oct 28, 2008
Ryan Smith takes a look at the sudden onset of political ads in video games.
Image courtesy of gamepolitics.com.

Image courtesy of gamepolitics.com.


Barack Obama has often lectured kids and their parents to “put the video games away” on the campaign trail, but if people insist on playing the stupid things, they might as well vote for him. That’s the message many are getting from the news that the Democratic presidential candidate has taken out ads in 18 games for the Xbox 360 that will feature on virtual billboards and other in-game signage. The games include EA titles like Burnout Paradise, Madden 09, NHL 09, Skate, NFL on Tour, Nascar 09 and Need for Speed Carbon. Of course, the ads will only be seen by gamers in the all-important swing states playing online (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Indiana, Montana, North Carolina, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio and Wisconsin).


Evidently, both the Obama and McCain camps were approached by online advertising company Massive, but McCain’s campaign passed on the opportunity to put his message out into the virtual world—perhaps wisely considering the huge advantage Obama has in the 18 to 34-year-old demographic (though perhaps McCain maybe should have at least considered ads in a Republican-friendly NASCAR game). According to a poll of 100,000 Xbox Live users that asked gamers to select their nominee for president, 43 percent chose Obama, 31 percent went McCain and the rest were undecided or for a third-party candidate.


So maybe it’s not a bad move for Obama to ask Xbox Live users to hold off on another game of Madden long enough to get off their couch and vote for him—he certainly has the money to spare.


Image courtesy of destructoid.com.

Image courtesy of destructoid.com.


This does however beg the question of whether this convergence of politics and games is a good thing. Some gamers say they don’t like the idea of these types of real world invasions into their fantasy realms. But in reality, advertisements have been creeping into games for years now (anyone remember Marlboro ads in Sega racing games in the 80’s?). Does it really matter if it’s a giant corporation trying to sell us a product or a presidential candidate trying to grab our vote? An ad is an ad.


Also, I think an in-game billboard with Barack Obama telling you to vote seen while you’re speeding down a highway in Burnout is pretty inoffensive. If, however, Master Chief’s face got replaced by Obama’s when you turned on Halo 3—well, that’s a different story.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Jun 11, 2008
Jack Thompson has finally ticked off enough people to get disbarred. The final step on the way to that disbarment was just kind of sad.

“‘I strenuously object?’ Is that how it works? Hm? ‘Objection.’ ‘Overruled.’ ‘Oh, no, no, no. No, I STRENUOUSLY object.’ ‘Oh. Well, if you strenuously object then I should take some time to reconsider.’”
-Lt. Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak) to Lt. Cdr. JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) in A Few Good Men


For the last day or so, it’s been a little bit difficult to avoid coverage of the disciplinary “hearing” that Jack Thompson took part in last week to determine what sort of punishment he would undergo as a result of his being found guilty of professional misconduct.  Of course, I use the scare quotes around the word “hearing” because it wasn’t really a hearing at all, in that Thompson had no part in it except to fiddle with the podium, berate the judge, antagonize a couple of members of the press, and stomp off in a huff.  As a result, in addition to the case against Mr. Thompson, the prosecutor was also left to offer mitigations, actually helping his case to an extent in, as best as I can tell, the interest of fairness.


They strenuously object.

They strenuously object.


In the midst of his belittling of Judge Dava Tunis, Thompson even managed to forget the lesson offered by the above exchange in A Few Good Men, telling Judge Tunis that he “[objects] strenuously...to the very notion that this proceeding can even occur on various grounds.”


The excellent GamePolitics.com has a transcript of the entire exchange, while the Daily Business Review has the audio.  The audio is particularly revelatory, because Thompson sounds just as unreasonable and as belligerent as the common gamer perception of him dictates.  Is this how Thompson has always been, or has he simply been blasted by so much legal failure and so much internet hate that he’s become the caricature of himself that we’ve been led to believe is an actual portrait of the man?


I believe that, at least at the start, Thompson had good intentions, that he was truly determined to make a difference.  I know that having kids (or a close family connection of any kind, really) can make you want to make the world a better place in the worst way, I know that faith can drive someone as well, and it’s hard for me to believe that Jack Thompson was always a self-aggrandizing propagandist with an agenda, unwilling to hear two sides of an argument.  He has gone on crusades for the causes of censoring the lyrics of rap music, he has taken on morning talk radio, and he most famously espouses the evils of violent video games.  And maybe the man has a point—while violence in video games can contribute to the visceral thrill of the play experience, some would certainly argue that it occasionally has the propensity to get a bit over the top and gratuitous.


A sudden change of heart, or his next greatest foe?(Image courtesy of Kotaku)

A sudden change of heart, or his next greatest foe?
(Image courtesy of Kotaku)


Still, what once manifested itself as legal maneuvering has turned into a glorified ambulance chase.  Thompson has no issue with linking games to major tragedies involving high school and college students, regardless of whether those responsible actually played the games.  He comes off as bossy, ruthless, and a blowhard; obviously, something in him snapped somewhere along the way, and he lost the will to make the world a better place, a drive replaced by the undying need to be right.


It is this need that manifested itself in Thompson’s tantrum in court, and it is this need that bubbled up so far as to not even allow himself to hear any argument that might discredit his opinion.  Now, he’s set to be disbarred for the next ten years.  For a little perspective, that means he won’t be able to practice again until he’s 67 years old.  It’s a sad fate for the man, but perhaps it’s what he will need to regain perspective, and some sense of the honor that he left behind long ago.  I’d like to believe it’s still in him somewhere, that the parasitic brand of self-promotion he has offered can be fixed.  Of course, the next time he appears on a news program after a school shooting as an “expert” in the link between gaming violence and real-life violence, well…perhaps my optimism will be tempered.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Is it wrong to be a little bit uneasy about the use of Metacritic as part of the criteria with which to cleanse Xbox Live?

I love Metacritic.  Really, when you want to read about a game, where else can you go to find five, ten, 15 articles on that game, all offering an evaluation and some insight into what it has to offer?  I mean, Wikipedia, maybe, but not for obscure games that nobody knows about.  So please, don’t misunderstand.


The problem I have is this:  When you see rumblings, you see message board postings, you see off-handed comments on websites, but you can ignore those.  It’s no secret that there’s an uncomfortable relationship between those assigned to promote video games and those assigned to review them.  Sometimes, PR will go to great lengths to convince the critic that a game is worthwhile, offering swag, big packs of press releases espousing the virtues of the game, and even the occasional big exclusive to a big outlet (see: the hubbub over IGN’s exclusive GTA IV review).  Why do PR companies care so much what the critics think?


Because Metacritic numbers matter.  Apparently.


Gyruss, a personal favorite, is at risk for the axe.

Gyruss, a personal favorite, is at risk for the axe.


The rumblings (and if these rumblings have been confirmed somewhere and I don’t know about it, please tell me) are that PR people get bonuses if the Metacritic numbers stay at a certain level.  If this is the case, it’s not entirely fair that a PR person should be responsible for the review scores of a product that they had no part in creating, but it certainly explains why the packages we get when we get games tend to be bigger than the size of, well, games.


Microsoft made an announcement yesterday that confirms the sheer presence that Metacritic currently holds in the industry.  Microsoft is cleaning Xbox Live Arcade, removing the chaff from it, the things that nobody’s downloading, the things that were ridiculed when they came out and simply never took off.  The criteria for removing those games from the service?  A title must be six months old, it must have a 6% or less conversion rate (that is, less than 6% of those who downloaded it as a demo purchased the full version), and it must score below 65 on Metacritic.


Perhaps it’s benign, perhaps it’s just numbers and I shouldn’t make a big deal about it, but what Metacritic doesn’t reflect is the “cult classic”, Metacritic doesn’t take into account personal preference, Metacritic doesn’t take into account those games dismissed by the masses that, against all odds, develop a small, devoted, loyal following.  Metacritic is a series of numbers that adds up to one number, a number that allows for no subtlety, for no understanding of how people really feel about it.  Sometimes the most interesting games are the most polarizing, and you can’t express polarizing in a number.  And Microsoft has legitimized that number, by allowing the criteria for their Xbox Live Arcade cleaning algorithm to include it.


And, hell, where else am I going to get Triggerheart Exelica?


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.