[22 October 2008]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
Over that past year, a new trend in videogame writing has been gathering steam and pushing itself into the forefront: what if we tried to talk about games in a more sophisticated manner? Rather than brag about our high scores or graphics, what if we went a bit deeper? Numerous bloggers and journalists have started writing seriously and asking tougher questions about their games. What does it mean to keep trying to save a princess who’s never in the castle we’re looking in? Why do I have to kill so many people to save the planet? It stems from a desire many people who have gotten older but still like playing video games have expressed: they don’t want to be treated like a kid anymore. What’s interesting about this intellectual movement is that it’s manifesting itself all over the internet. Besides just writing about it, even critics on Youtube have begun converting the message and handling the “games as art” movement.
Moviebob is the internet name for an ex-local T.V. host who majored in Interactive Multimedia with a minor in film studies. Originally posting videos that were film reviews, moviebob jumped onto the video game wagon the same way a lot of people do. “I’m not gonna lie: I saw Yahtzee and James Rolfe—“The Angry Nintendo Nerd”—blowing up and it kinda planted a seed of ‘hey, you’ve got a big mouth and lots of free time…could YOU do something sort of on those lines?’ Anyone who started doing this AFTER those guys who tries to tell you they weren’t a big influence is probably lying.” Indeed, the world of video game criticism can sometimes seem to be almost exclusively sarcastic commentary. It’s not a terrible formula, but when a writer is counting clicks and relying on advertising dollars it often leads to the writing being more entertaining than interesting or informative. There’s nothing wrong with cracking a few jokes, but it does lose sight of why people are watching your video in the first place. They want to hear about video games.
In fact, that’s the observation moviebob made right after his first Game OverThinker video went up. He explains in an e-mail, “Initially, I concieved of ‘Game OverThinker’ as being a character thing that was more of a meta-parody…the idea of going off on comically over-analytical tangents about gaming minutia and sneaking my actual point in around the edges of the ‘he can’t be serious’ stuff. Like…the idea of looking at Mario Galaxy in terms of neo-pagan Gaia imagery is (mostly) the exaggeration, but I was quite serious about wanting to challenge the idea of the Princess Peach archetype as being inherently anti-feminist. Thing is, when I looked at the feedback people were responding to the serious-discussion aspect MUCH more enthusiastically than I’d expected, and I gradually got the idea that maybe that—examining broader, bigger issues in and around the medium—was a niche I could be filling.” It’s something of a transformation that you can see going on with a lot of different critics. There’s a huge audience of people who want to discuss the games that occupied their childhood and the ones that are still entertaining them today.
But where do you start with having an intellectual discussion about video games? Particularly in a YouTube format, which comes with a very different set of expectations than the ones involving a blog or journal piece. Moviebob’s Game OverThinker videos run like a weird mixture of collage, narration, and PowerPoint presentation. Pictures will sync up with what’s being said or combine in anecdotal ways with the theme of the video. “I use whatever I think will best and/or most humorously convey what I’m talking about visually. I’m working at keeping certain visuals as recurring elements because it helps cement an identity…but right now it’s all really pretty slapdash. A lot of it is just trying not to bite off anyone else’s style, and so far having no real style to speak of is a pretty good safeguard. I’m working toward doing some “live-on-camera” stuff that’ll make it’s debut in an upcoming episode, it’s something I’ve been working toward for awhile.” It’s an effective method, particularly with a video that’s ten minutes long and exclusively about video games. Constant shifting of visual information combined with sharp insights that take the audience as seriously as it does the subject matter make up the foundation of the Game OverThinker series. He says, “My goal is to facilitate my fellow gamers to engage both the gaming culture and the mainstream culture in more productive, intellectual ways.”
Game OverThinker: “Patriot Games”
This is easier said than done. Moviebob is perfectly willing to criticize gamers and all their quirks. The ongoing problem of older people with no video game experience blaming society’s problems on the hobby still haunts the industry today. Yet whenever FOX news has a story about sex in games or someone blames youth violence on games, it is not as if a rational and sophisticated response comes from the game community. “We’re justifiably upset when we’re portrayed in the media as psychotic shut-ins or blamed for school-shootings, but when the culture actually DOES try to engage us on a meaningful level we tend to slam the door and grumble “It’s a gamer thing, you wouldn’t understand” followed by “and unless your opinion of us or the medium is 100% positive and uncritical, you have no right to it because you never played through Duke Nukem on Hard,” he notes. Part of this bizarre behavior simply comes from the mixed relationship people have with the hobby. “Telling a gamer that video games are toys is somehow the WORST thing you can say. There’s an insecurity that hamstrings some of us, I think, that we feel like we should be ashamed of still gaming at our age but somehow having the game be brown and excessively scatological makes it okay.”
Another problem a game critic has to deal with is that it can be a bit of a strain to find new games that are worth discussing. For every Braid, there are a dozen games that are strapped together with the sole purpose of making money. There is also the issue of hype, which can make any coherent discussion about a newly-released game something of a headache. There are always plenty of fantastic gems on the indie scene, but you risk becoming irrelevant when you totally tune out the mainstream. Moviebob’s frustration with this scene often comes from how creative and bizarre people were back in video game’s infancy. “Now…development is so expensive and the audience is often so resistant to going really, really far outside the box. I mean…can you imagine trying to make the kind of jump that Super Mario Bros. made from the original Mario Bros. with a modern franchise? Say, if you were in charge of Saints Row 2 and you went into the production office and said ‘okay, so…this one will take place in another dimension, and with a totally different gameplay style.’ You’d be out on your ass, and not without reason. But it’s a shame, from where I sit.”
moviebob cites Yahtzee of The Escapist’s Zero Punctuation
series as a major influence.
Unlike reading a book or watching a movie, the player input means that a video game can offer a highly different experience depending on the person. So there’s an equally large array of theories and approaches floating the web. Whether it’s Iroquis Pliskin’s theory on the pleasure of mastering rule structures, Mitch Krpata’s Taxonomy of Gamer Needs, or Michael Abbott’s classroom-like discussions, there is a lot of debate on just how to even intellectually discuss a video game. Moviebob comments, “This is a young medium, and we’re still figuring out how to approach it on a level deeper than “this sucks/this rocks.” Video games are a different animal than almost any prior form of entertainment in that it’s interactive and frequently has a sort of narrative or at least a purely visual aspect to it’s appeal. That means a game critic has to be both a product tester looking at the nuts and bolts of the game and an art-analyst looking at the experience, the story, etc. And since those don’t always go together you might tend to get “average” scores for stuff that you feel should rate higher. But if you just go by that it’s like you’re back to “it sucks/it rocks” again. It’s not like a movie where one great performance can cancel out a bunch of so-so ones—if you’re reviewing a game that has damn near the best story you’ve ever heard and you think every gamer needs to experience it…but the controls are wretched, what do you do? This is hard to navigate, and there’s no real map to give us an idea where to go.”
Which is what makes moviebob such a refreshing member of the YouTube culture. There are plenty of people writing intelligent blogs about video games, but how many are doing insightful videos that are about more than just getting a laugh? The fact that he approaches it with a sense of professionalism and duty makes his work all the more refreshing. He advises, “If I could offer one suggestion to anyone else doing video-commentary: EDIT AND REHEARSE. Unless you’re a one-take dynamo, it’s usually not a great idea to just boot up the webcam and tape yourself freestyle-yakking.” Fact checking and engaging with the audience in the discussion boards are also qualities that moviebob relies on to keep his audience involved. It is YouTube we’re talking about and it takes another kind of beast to survive in that climate. “Working on the web is a great motivator—you can do the best damn video-commentary piece ever (or, if you’re less ambitious, you can do the kind of schlock I do) but if you screw up and forget that Stanley the Bug Man was the hero in Donkey Kong 3 instead of Mario there’s going to be twelve guys all lined up to correct you.”
Having so many ideas and methods for approaching video games is nothing new. That’s not what drives people like moviebob or the critics cited, nor is it what demonstrates that video games are growing into a healthy new medium. It’s that a variety of people are approaching the issue from a variety of different angles. Having moviebob display the same critical views and questions as “games as art” movement but portrayed in a humorous yet interesting YouTube video is a testament to that diversity.