Tuesday, April 10, 2012

super.hype: When Friends Become Frenemies

Games Journalism is a necessary evil, as regarded by gaming vets. We all know the score, they're out to sell more copies, get more hits, and make more of the almighty dollarinos. This means they've always got ulterior motives: unbalanced reviews, fawning editorials, and of course page-crushing interactive and flash-based advertisements. Games Journalism, what is it good for?

But the sad truth is that the emphasis of the phrase is not the "evil" but rather the "necessary": we all need somebody to fish out that ocean for us from time to time. It operates on the same principle as the good ol' fashioned industry it's fathered by. Without it, we'd either be stuck following only what we know and referred from place to place by one samey individual to the next, or worse be completely devoid of contact with human life and degenerate into HG Wellsian troglodytism.

Is there a middle ground to be had? Recent coverage of Deus Ex: Human Revolution may have the answer.


Need to Know - The Basis for Success in Games


Deus Ex: Human Revolution was recently released to some pretty impressive critical reception. It certainly earned it, in some sense, but I feel that it didn't do so on the merits of being a game. Deus Ex: Human Revolution scored well amongst critics because it is an institution. It is an institution of the collective gaming psyche that seems to exist in some strange otherworldly place that is populated solely by games journalists. It is a place that can't be seen by human eyes due to the intense pyschomagnetic fields surrounding it, which distort perception of space and time in such a way that information and images flow out, but none of that crap flows in.

Well, some of it flows in. The rest of it swirls about in that distorted space, tidbits of which flow back out like some kind of twisted version of a "that.can.be!" machine spewing out phrases like "A masterpiece of vomit and grapples with 10 different kinds of weapons!" or "Marvelous! Groundbreaking visual gameplays from stealth-bending genreism". (Yes, this is the detritus of an unused game review.)

What does flow in is what gets compiled proper, placed one in front of another without algorithm-based automatons but with real, human wit and wisdom. At least, presumably. But a deeper study of the critical reception by DX: HR tells a different story.

QUALITY VS QUANTITY

The untainted fact is that DX:HR contains very few new mechanics in comparison to its first ancestor. In fact, in may well be argued that there are even fewer mechanics than the original. And while this is mostly addressed in every published review, it never seems to detract from them.

In a world where things are quantified, the following question must always be asked:

What exactly are we quantifying?

If we are indeed quantifying quantifiable things, then there should be a direct and obvious relationship between the number of things present and the quantification given. If we are not engaged in such recursive activity, then there must be a further line of questioning in order to establish a concrete foundation upon which we can claim quantifiability.

So clearly, based on the evidence in the first paragraph, we are not dealing in pure quantifiables. If this were true, than all scores (which are quantities) would be equally deprecated by the lack of quantifiable things present in the game. Since they aren't, we're dealing with qualitatives. And qualitatives need qualification.

OLD IS THE NEW NEW

This is where that crazy psychomagnetic repulsion field comes back in to play. I have to admit to a bit of insincerity on my part before continuing, because my use of the word "psychomagnetic" implies some kind of scientific basis for this whole analysis. There isn't. The word "psychomagnetic" isn't real, and it's more a description of the influence this invisible field has upon the attitudes and opinions that float around in the free space of the general public.

At the end of the day, 99% of visible life  and 100% of cultural reality is anthropology, and anthropology is nothing more than people speculating on the remnants of speculations of people who speculated on the remnants of speculations of people speculating on the remnants of people speculating about god and other people. And all this speculation has a general ebb and flow that pulses predictably, understandably, and interminably.

When DX:HR came out, the world had been primed to accept it. The affinity for retro games was (and still is) cresting, the desire for strong narratives was (and still is) at an all-time high, and the reputation of AAA publishers was just beginning to recover from a recent string of bad calls (UBISOFT's horrendous DRM decisions et al.). These are more than just facts, they're facts with a field, affecting all the events that surround them, both positively and negatively.

In the case of DX:HR, the fields lined up perfectly, repulsing the bad and attracting the good, mitigating its misses and highlighting its hits. So essentially what I'm saying is that DX:HR isn't the exceptional phenomenon that reviews said it was. It was simply a good game that found itself in excellent circumstances.

FATE OR FORTUNE

Here's the kicker: the word "circumstances" implies a kind of fortuitousness that is outside the control of creators, publishers, or promoters; a simple auspiciosity that just so happens to peak at the right moment which Square Enix Eidos capitalized on to great effect. But this isn't really true.

Fair warning: the next part is all speculation. I am naming names and calling people out, but not necessarily defaming them. I'm just trying to elucidate a pattern that I see (which may or may not exist or persist once this article is written).

There are power plays in every capitalistic endeavor. It's the nature of capitalism, the nature of the game as its players attempt to win and mitigate losses at every turn. This truth means that no major release doesn't capitalize on this fact, and Square Enix Eidos is no different. With DX:HR they leveraged its prestigious lineage to open access to "underground" sites like Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Gameranx, Destructoid, and GamesRadar. Along with constant positive press on major sites like IGN, Eurogamer, 1up, and Rock, Paper, Shotgun (repeated, I know, ha ha), Square Enix Eidos was able to keep DX:HR at the forefront of both press and public consciousness.

On top of this, developer interviews and reveals on an unprecedented level of depth decreased the perceived distance between developer and potential player, improving public relations and fabricating a sense of transparency about the creative process. These are all conscious decisions: capitalistic acts  employed to increased the viability and purchasibility of the product they are pushing. And this time, the public fell for it. Hard.

THE DEVIL'S VORTEX

What's the point of all this? Well, my greatest fear, as always, is that we are being manipulated. I am afraid that there really is no one to trust, no one to fear, and no one who honestly and actively looks out for consumer interest. At the very least (and this is certainly a positive, no doubt) there are sites focused on honesty of experience or sincerity of intent, but I've always felt that this still falls short of an active and effective bulwark against what are essentially for-hire sites and writers.

On the other hand, this is how business is done, and at every level. I can't deny that there are projects and games out there that I do have a vested interest in seeing succeed, either because I really like the developer or I feel that it's underappreciated. And for these projects, I would essentially "sell out" and perhaps overlook faults for my own reasons. And I'm pretty sure any self-respecting independent developer/publisher would jump on the opportunity to be featured on a major site, at any cost. But does that make it okay?

I guess I just don't think so. And I think the only way out of this ridiculous dilemma is to have each and every one of us get into the game of "journalism" and find out for ourselves what we're seeing, hearing, reading, and thinking before, during, and after we play videogames.

That's what I did.