Thursday, May 1, 2008

Hype Money: The Death of Journalistic Integrity in Gaming

You watch TV, right? Of course you do. Who doesn't? (Don't pretend, snobs. "I don't watch television," you say? We know all about your little love affair with PBS. Yes, Masterpiece Theater is still television. Now go and hang your head in shame.) As such, you're likely used to being exposed to all sorts of commercials. (Unless you just Tivo everything and fast forward through said commercials.) And what commercials are more obnoxious than video game commercials? I'm a lifelong gamer and hell, I have no problem admitting how bad those things are. (Though granted, Nintendo's "Wii Would Like To Play" commercials at least promote a healthy approach to the hobby, as opposed to the others' efforts to convince you that you're some sort of badass for sitting in a room alone in front of your TV jamming on buttons.)

These commercials, desperate to sell you on how awesometacious their product is, will often beat you over the head with its attitude and attempt to paint a very one-sided picture of the product. It's very common for Xbox 360 games to focus on CGI cutscenes over demonstrating actual gameplay in their games. And I have yet to see so much as a single Playstation 3 commercial that shows any actual gameplay footage whatsoever. They focus on only showing the CGI cutscenes to attempt to convince you that that's what the game looks like in motion - for these two consoles, this generation's been all about pushing graphics while pretty much rehashing and regressing gameplay, considering how often game quality has suffered on these consoles as a result of the fixation on visuals. (Remember, kids! If it isn't all about the high definition visuals, it may as well give you AIDS! Also, if the game isn't Rated M For Mature, then it automatically sucks and is aimed at two-year-olds with learning disabilities. Good games compensate for your insecurities. Who said anything about fun!?) When publishers aren't trying to pull the wool over consumers' eyes when it comes to their software's visuals, they're touting review scores.

"Its graphics are more realistic than real life," says

"This one time, I had a sex dream, but it really turned out to be this game I was porking," says

"You're not a hardcore gamer unless you own this," says Game Informer.

"I would kill my own mother if necessary to play this game," says

Veritable sound bites written to be slapped onto game packaging and quoted in commercials are written, and at times going the extra personal route - by implying that you, as an individual, need to make a purchase in order to maintain "hardcore gamer" credibility. Jump on the bandwagon or you're not one of the cool kids! Sound biased? You bet it does. For years, refusing to critically judge games - in particular the big name ones - and instead acting as shills is a problem that's only grown in the gaming media. Publishers have a dangerous amount of influence on the press, and the press allows this - even comes to rely on it - while gamers choose to ignore the lack of journalistic integrity and objectivity that comes with it.

Integrity in general has been a hot topic amongst gamers in the past few months. Unfortunately, most miss the mass corruption forest - allowing the media to continue to get away with its corruption with no mass public outcry or criticism of influence (Even this no-name blog will have no impact, but in the least, I can serve to get the word out there.) - for a few carefully spun trees. The prime example of this being the dismissal of staff writer Jeff Gerstmann at late last year. He wrote a highly critical review of a much-hyped third person shooter, Kane & Lynch, which GameSpot had been paid to promote for a while. The quality of the review was less than remarkable - largely unprofessional, with the video review playing out like a bag YouTube vlog rant. Shortly after his dismissal, Gerstmann opted to take his revenge on GameSpot by outing them as "adjusting" their review scores based on advertising dollars received from publishers, paying them to act as shills - to sell games, not criticize or objectively evaluate them like they claim. GameSpot never aired the reason for Gerstmann's dismissal. Nor did Gerstmann himself state why he was fired. The gaming populace on the internet decided to jump to conclusions - a conclusion, ultimately, so accepted that were the truth to come out, it wouldn't be accepted - that Gerstmann had been fired for "sticking it to the man" and writing an honest review. This is a flawed theory, given that had that been the issue, Gerstmann himself would no doubt have announced it and used it to fuel his efforts to not only burn his bridges with GameSpot, but to burn the site down entirely. Gerstmann claims that he is legally unable to reveal why he was fired, while CNet, the company behind GameSpot, has stated explicitly that it had nothing to do with the review. We don't know exactly why Gerstmann was fired, but Gerstmann and his friends managed to use their biting back at GameSpot to fuel hordes of gamers on the internet to attempt to sink the site at every turn and discredit it as much as possible. These same people never ask themselves why it took Gerstmann so long to out GameSpot, or speculate that maybe, just maybe he was a willing part of the same corruption up until he was let go. He's successfully made a martyr of himself - despite his own unprofessionalism and general poor quality of reviews, in addition to his own clearly exhibited biases that he denies (When all good critics need to be able to criticize and question themselves and their methods, as nobody does in the gaming media. They prefer to ignore their own biases, which in Gerstmann's case, were most often tantamount to apparent efforts to lower Wii game scores on aggregate review sites, making it clear that he does not particularly like the platform, and as such, is not particularly qualified to write unbiased reviews of its games.) - and drawn a reader base to his new, similarly untrustworthy review site/blog, Giant Bomb. (Which is an ironic name in and of itself.) Unfortunately, the majority of gamers are immature, whether man-children or outright children - making it very easy for Gerstmann to make himself look like a victim, when we don't know the whole story, and he's hardly an innocent himself.

Unsourced information was presented as facts (As is commonplace.), and the gaming blogs - such as Kotaku and Joystiq - in no way helped to provide intelligent commentary or framing for the Gerstmann firing scandal, instead helping to whip up the self-proclaimed "hardcore" masses into a frenzy of GameSpot hate. What we watched then was any semblance of journalistic integrity go right out the window in the name of getting hits on the internet - crass, tabloid style writing intended for consumption by masses dying to crucify a site over methods like this. (When they're known to be common enough in the industry as is. Even Japan's must-beloved Famitsu magazine openly admits to giving games better reviews based on how many advertisements companies buy for said game in their pages. But even they manage to maintain some semblance of integrity when reviewing games that publishers aren't bothering to advertise - like Opoona.) And instead of diving in and looking for the truth of what happened, the gaming masses - as the blogs made the connection for them - decided that Gerstmann's dismissal was done for his refusal to conform to corporate pressure and give Kane & Lynch a higher, paid-for review score. (Gamers do love the image of a bad boy renegade. And it isn't hard to trick them into seeing and believing in that image.) The bottom line is, the entire scandal was the result of terrible journalism, lack of actual facts, and conjecture being tossed out as legitimate conclusions in their place to get people stomping their feet. We may never know the real reason GameSpot fired Jeff Gerstmann - and people might not believe them if GameSpot/CNet disclosed it, anyway - but he's come out of the whole thing smelling like a rose. And does he deserve to? Absolutely not. No part of the scandal and its aftermath in any way served gamers, nor the improvement of the gaming media. GameSpot's scrambled ever since to improve their image, which Gerstmann has effectively shattered, despite being no more trustworthy - but they continue to adhere to the same old groupthink that Gerstmann himself represented. Games simply don't get bad reviews unless they're small name and the mainstream market doesn't care about them.

Groupthink too is a scourge on journalistic integrity. The market is currently divided into two camps, one slowly fading into the other - the conservative minority that refuses to play anything beyond the more "traditional" consoles that do nothing new in terms of controls that contribute to gameplay (Awkward use of webcams that serve no purpose or as any means to the furthering of gaming and tacked on, poorly implemented tilt for some "Me too!" motion control in the PS3 controller do not count.), and instead focus on high end technology specs and fancier graphics, while there is little seen and done in the way of new and innovative gameplay. The systems in question are Sony's Playstation 3 and PSP, as well as Microsoft's Xbox 360. Those who cling solely to these systems largely came in during Sony's decade of dominance in the industry, in which they in no way moved it forward in a meaningful sense - their contribution to gaming has been to provide a line of consoles that found success in that developers wanted to put their games on CDs, not N64 cartridges, and that the Sega Saturn was far too difficult to program for with its overly elaborate internal architecture. (The internal architecture's haunting Sony years later now, as developers are having a difficult time developing games for the PS3 that even feel like solid PS2 era games.) But as a big corporation that entered gaming for the profits - and no doubt in part because Ken Kutaragi (The father of the Playstation brand) was sore at Nintendo for refusing to sell (Complete with all their properties) to Sony in exchange for a Super Nintendo Entertainment System CD add-on - they've demonstrated repeatedly that on the whole, they don't understand the first thing about gaming, let alone gamers. Their designs over the past decade were largely built upon copying the Super Nintendo (All the way down to their basic controller design, simply tacking on more buttons and awkward analog sticks in time, creating controllers too complicated for their own good, then refusing to try - and actually commit - to anything new, when new controllers had been the standard each generation in the past.) and its style of games, as the game industry made the move into 3D.

Sony themselves did not facilitate these advances, the third party developers and publishers taking the lead on their platforms - Sony's own first party software frequently being mediocre at best, making their hardware's lifeblood its third party support. Even as conservative as the console's hardware was, Nintendo made more real advancements with the N64 than Sony did with the Playstation. Super Mario 64 was the premiere platformer that brought the genre into 3D and set a precedent for a good decade plus of games in the genre. Likewise, The Legend of Zelda franchise's transition into 3D set the standard for 3D adventure games. Nintendo was the first to bring an analog stick to a controller as a standard feature as well, as awkwardly designed as the N64 controller was. They introduced force feedback in game controllers through the Rumble Pak, which you would plug into the back of the N64 controller. Sony would go on to follow them with their Dual Shock controllers, adding their own rumble - which they'd later lose late into the PS2's life and early into the PS3's for using technology the Immersion company had patented, without permission - and tacking on a couple of awkwardly placed analog sticks and never moving them to more comfortable positions, taking on the complacent position that their designs didn't need fine tuning and were essentially perfect as it was. (And I wish I was kidding about their arrogance, but when the PSP came under criticism for some noteworthy hardware flaws - particularly in using its buttons - Kutaragi himself boasted that "Nobody can criticize the design of a genius architect," his own massive ego on full display.) Overall, Sony's legacy in gaming has largely been an attempt to monopolize the industry while in no way moving it forward - in fact, making as few changes, let alone improvements, to their systems themselves beyond making them more powerful from generation to generation. Absolute conservativism in gaming - an absolute killer on gaming, an industry that thrives on finding new ways to do things, new kinds of gameplay, and new ways to interact with software. Their success continued to go to their heads over the course of their decade of dominance, getting to the point at which they treated their fanbase like idiots who would eat up anything they said or sold - from insulting marketing campaigns (Yes, this is what they think of us.) to boasting upon unveiling the PS3 that we "would buy it even if it didn't have any games." Naturally, they've gotten their just desserts since then, with the arrogantly designed PSP a failure in the gaming market due to a combination of mostly uncompelling software and ease of piracy, and the PS3 representing a sort of extremely poorly designed "Hindenburg of gaming" that fell flat on its face shortly after launch, with its limited software offerings, poor quality software overall, and general design by which it is entirely unfriendly to game development. (It was a Blu-Ray player with gaming options tacked on. And its arrogantly high prices - thanks to the incorporation of expensive technology that in no way actually benefits gaming, in an effort to compete with Microsoft's own powerhouses, when historically, the most powerful gaming hardware has never won a console or portable war - sure as hell didn't help either.)

In retrospect, Sony's biggest accomplishment in their decade of market domination was market expansion - essentially, doing successfully what Sega tried to but never quite made it - selling video games to the crowds that beat nerds up, rather than just the nerds themselves. They groomed a new, very large generation of gamers around the time much of the NES/Master System/SNES/Genesis generation was quitting gaming as they grew up. With Nintendo becoming an underdog and Sony completely dominating, media biases immediately shifted to vilifying Nintendo - as they have yet to break away from after a year and a half of the Wii having successfully dethroned the Playstation brand, and it'll no doubt take longer yet - while virtually deifying Sony. They were the newcomer bad boy to the gaming hardware wars, after all, both kicking ass and taking names. (In console sales anyway, they took long enough to get into portables, and Nintendo summarily destroyed them there with the DS.) They told their fans that they were the "hardcore" gamers, especially during the PS2 years, while pushing M-rated ultraviolent games as the standard of quality and image for games to look up to. The insecure masses latched on to this kind of image they wanted to associate with themselves. And throughout all this, Sony successfully groomed a large generation of uber-conservative gamers who clung to Sony hardware, controllers, and largely mainstream games. (Even while Final Fantasy VII was largely accredited with "making RPGs mainstream," this is largely untrue. What it served to do was make Final Fantasy mainstream, as that franchise shifted its focus to a new, shallow demographic, focusing more on attitude than quality gameplay and worthwhile stories. Instead, it began the trend under Sony's dominance of more traditional Japanese RPGs (JRPGs, as they're commonly referred to) coming under attack, and the entire genre being judged by the question of "How much like Final Fantasy is it?" and if not enough, the game automatically "sucks," so while Final Fantasy enjoyed mainstream success, the RPG genre itself did not. The only sales boosts its games saw came from Sony-pushed advertising campaigns - particularly when they focused on having a bad attitude for the teenagers - and as a result of the general larger gamer base for the console than Nintendo's platforms had enjoyed. These games largely saw a push away from gameplay to more cinematic focuses in presentation, Sony and Square - the company behind Final Fantasy - sought to Hollywoodize video gaming, ultimately to its detriment as a medium.) These gamers pick a very few types of games by which to judge all others, and don't want to see changes in hardware beyond added power. Naturally, when Nintendo's DS and Wii hit the market to record, unforeseen sales, while bringing major new forms of input to the table - allowing for some fantastic and sorely-needed innovation in gaming - along with better prices with moderately powered, well-planned, and designed hardware, they did not take it well.

Microsoft's Xbox line has suffered from some of the same issues, and largely contributed to the same gaming groupthink - "only these games are good," "traditional controllers are perfect, we don't need change," "we only want peripherals to praise as an option but never real changes to gaming input," "rated M is rated awesome," "colorful games might make me gay," and so forth - while their approach to the market was largely in pushing high end technology (Which largely goes unpushed in the end, and the PS3 and 360 both suffer from longer development cycles, much shorter gameplay, and often less meat to their games in general because so much goes into the graphics over everything else now.), and making first-person shooters huge on consoles for the first time since GoldenEye with the Halo series. The Xboxes are largely high-end (At least at launch) gaming PCs in console boxes with a focus, largely, on first person shooters - a PC gamer staple - with the occasional hit western RPG here and there. They don't push anything genuinely innovative as gaming hardware, and are largely a different variation on Sony's conservativism, without nearly as much focus on image consciousness, seeing as even Microsoft seeks to draw in more casual and generally wider audiences. They fail at this, however, in having spent all the early years of the brand pushing it as being "the hardcore console" next to the Gamecube and PS2, when they were all fairly on par in their own ways. The biggest problem the Xbox really brought to gaming was the beginning of efforts to reintroduce PC gaming elements into consoles, while using tired, overcomplicated controller designs, which largely served to alienate by the PS2/Gamecube/Xbox generation. Console gaming has largely replaced PC gaming in popularity over the years because of the very problems in PC gaming we've seen resurface in full force on the PS3 and 360 - messy games with little to no bug testing, requiring patches, forced installs to reduce load times on disc games, space management issues despite larger hard drives without the ease of swapping memory cards, and so forth. Especially in the PS3's case, these issues have gotten them some bad PR.

Ultimately, the ultra-conservative groupthink spawned by the generation of gamers that came in with Sony and Microsoft has helped to not only taint, but break today's gaming media. Conservative gaming groupthink largely serves to hold the industry back by discouraging free thought and new ideas, saying that things shouldn't change, that they can't get any better beyond processing power and graphical advancements. (They often tout higher end hardware leading to better physics and AI too, but let's face it - most AI in gaming is terrible, and it'd make games too hard and upset gamers if it were better than it is. Likewise, realistic physics, while an interesting feat, don't serve to improve quality of gameplay at all, and in fact often contribute to additional gamer frustration. The more a"realistic" Sony and Microsoft push games to look and feel, the less fun they become. This approach seeks to essentially strangle the imagination out of gaming, the fantasy the industry has built itself upon.) Gamers cling to notable centers for their groupthink to originate from - hence why Jeff Gerstmann remains popular and his own corruption denied. He tells them what they want to hear, so as far as they're concerned, he's innocent. Unfortunately, the video game industry has no real center of true media and journalism, just shills masquerading as journalists with no integrity.

The next issue in the downfall of the industry is hype. It's a damn hype machine. I've rambled enough here as is, but over at Kombo, Michael Kelly says well how the media impacts games, ultimately how our review scores are bought as a standard part of the marketing process, killing journalistic integrity. Games get hyped to death, and Kelly articulates the effects well as being "The Phantom Menace Effect." We were all dying to see a new Star Wars movie, critics all raved about it, and it saw more hype than any movie in a very long time. We all saw it, most loved it, caught up in the hype. Others' jaws dropped at how terrible it was. After enough time had passed and the hype finally wore off, most of the rest of us were finally able to look back and admit to ourselves, "Man, that movie sucked. What the hell were they talking about?" Final Fantasy VII saw this treatment back in 1997 when the press was largely bought off to call it the "greatest game ever made." Nowadays, it's lucky if it makes it into top 100 lists, simply because it wasn't a good game, and has aged terribly.

We're seeing the exact same thing repeated now with Grand Theft Auto IV, which I'll get to in a bit. (If you're still with me. I can't imagine that many of you are sticking with this whole thing, there's so much reading here.) What we should have learned from this is that no flawless review should be trusted, especially when this universal, but like Square did back then, Rockstar is pulling a fast one on us in 2008. And the press hasn't lifted a finger to stop them. Gamers say they want serious criticism and commentary - for games to be treated like art - but after one well known site's review of the PS3/360's Iraqi-killing/high-five-getting simulator, Army of Two, tore the game apart for its reprehensible politics and gave it a serious critique, gamers on the internet largely threw a tantrum in getting what they want not equaling all M-rated games being given top notch scores and called "art," as they want to call all games now. (These are not people who understand art, either. Speaking as a lifelong gamer and patron of the arts, most video games are no more art than the average bad show on television.) The truth of what they want from the press is this - to hear exactly what they're expecting, in continuing conservative groupthink. If a game has been hyped up to be amazing, then you have to call it that. If it has a big name behind it and it's rated M, it's automatically awesome. You can't criticize these games. Not Ratchet & Clank, not Uncharted, not Devil May Cry, not Halo, not Gears of War, and especially not Grand Theft Auto. (Or anything Take-Two/Rockstar makes, for that matter.) Games like these have their reviews bankrolled - and at times, even written - in advance. The media's job is ultimately made to be to satisfy publishers with high marks for their money. And if they don't get what they want, they lose advertising revenue and at times even risk being cut off by that publisher. While if a game is small name and isn't getting pushed hard on the market and - god forbid - E-rated, it's automatically garbage, regardless of how good it actually is. If there's no hype and extra money coming from that title, it's no good. (I'll be addressing Opoona as a noteworthy recent example of this in a bit.)

The divided market itself plays a major role in the shattering of any semblance of journalistic integrity in gaming these days as well. The gaming media and its dialogue is dominated by conservative groupthink, where games are not judged by their own merits, but in comparison to other games that conservative gamers would rather be playing. (And they like to call themselves these "hardcore" gamers, claiming open-mindedness, while ultimately acting on just the opposite, and refusing to recognize their own conservativeness and bias, since they'd lose the ability to use these matters to attack and criticize games they don't like and segments of the market who don't think the same way they do. This is hardly uncommon human behavior, even outside of gaming.) The broken media caters to these gamers - as many developers try to - in an effort to wage war with progress and change in gaming, the progress and change represented by Nintendo with the Wii and DS and the massive market expansion they represent, bringing all sorts of games. to anybody interested, with more accessible new control schemes that further gaming as a medium. Instead of judging games like Wii Sports, Wii Fit, Elebits, and so forth on their own merits, they tear them down because - a) Wii Sports isn't a "serious" sports game, b) Wii Fit is seen as a huge threat that somehow could possibly cause all of gaming to collapse on itself and all previous games to disappear forever in giving us exercise software (That most gamers could sorely use), and c) how dare a game be light, humorous and colorful while taking the FPS approach! They'd be better suited to blasting aliens with blood everywhere! Don't you know that cute, light games with a sense of humor are all for children?! (Remember, being a "mature" gamer entails having no sense of fun.) Nintendo doesn't bankroll their reviews. And Wii games by third parties largely don't get advertised much. As a result, the media here tends to tear the system's games apart more often than not, nitpicking games to the Nth degree to reduce their score instead of giving you a balanced review weighing the pros and cons. (Conversely, they'll excuse many, many flaws - both big and small - without their impacting reviews on the PS3 and 360.) It's what the conservative crowd wants to hear, after all - that the Wii sucks and is just a fad machine being purchased for Wii Sports (Actual attach rate numbers and software sales numbers show it easily overtaking the 360 this year and completely dominating this generation like the PS2 did last time, with a much wider variety of software selling than on its competitors.), while the 360 is amazing (Because the real important things in gaming are pay-to-play online and voice chat so you can hunt each other down in FPSes online and feel like big men.) and the PS3 is somehow magically on its way to becoming a juggernaut that will take the market by storm and crush the Wii. (Which isn't happening, and it's not even taking off as a Blu-Ray player, since the format hasn't picked up in sales like it was predicted to with the demise of its competitor, HD-DVD. There's no reason the market should adopt a high definition successor to DVD at this point, after all, so it isn't.)

And thus, we get to Grand Theft Auto IV. It just hit shelves the other day, and naturally, it's selling like gangbusters. (For a PS3/360 release. Which ultimately means that it won't quite reach the series' usual PS2 sales last gen with its market dominance, considering that neither the PS3 nor the 360 will never achieve what the PS2 did, as is more than obvious at this point.) The game was hyped to death. Literally to being the most obnoxiously public example of the death of integrity in gaming journalism. Rockstar has a disgustingly aggressive policy of effectively bullying the press into hyping their games and giving them near flawless to flawless reviews. This was something they were just outed for last fall. Very few segments of the media covered it, largely trying to stomp out and ignore the story. It was in Rockstar's interests, after all.

And after those revelations, we're seeing the worst case scenario come true - the entirety of the mainstream media manipulated and hyped into agreeing that Grand Theft Auto IV is the greatest game ever made, and getting it to the top of the aggregate review sites - Gamerankings and Metacritic - dethroning the #1 game there (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which I don't personally agree is the greatest game of all time either, but it certainly belongs far up there and was a suitable game for that slot.) and the #2 as well (Super Mario Galaxy, which managed a great feat in getting up there in Nintendo's not bullying the press, and frequently seeing much harsher reviews as a result. Mario Galaxy belongs up there too - it is effectively gaming bliss, representing the best of gaming's roots, modern gaming, and the future of gaming in input and interaction.), Rockstar essentially moving to take that spot as a fuck-you to Nintendo's traditional dominance of the top 10 (Though The Orange Box managed to get a couple of its versions up there too, though honestly, as good as that is, it's kind of overinflated for FPSes.), given that GTA was supposed to be a major weapon against the success of the Wii, which they've only laughed about. (Ironically, given that the best version of Bully - which is honestly the only game of theirs that interests me - being on it. Their only other releases on it were their Table Tennis game, a superior-controlled port of the 360 original with added motion controls but some unfortunately removed content, and Manhunt 2, which was a terrible game and a general clusterfuck of controversy to hype the game up, when it just honestly wasn't good.)

And what we've gotten as a result of their stranglehold on the media with the GTA franchise is the most blatant lying we've seen yet. Gamers've been reporting numerous problems with the game, from freezing to crashing to console bricking, the game has plenty of issues with the in-game engine running properly and consistently, and the controls are clunkier and less intuitive than before, a sacrifice made to "more realistic" physics. Then they tacked on a so-so online mode, which got hyped up tremendously as well despite not being anywhere near as remarkable as they made it out to be - in not being remarkable at all. And the core of the game? The cardinal sin - it's a rehash of the exact same core game, same kinds of missions, same exact gameplay, with little to no fine tuning and a few new clunky additions - such as taking cover when fighting - that in no way enhance the game. It's a popular PS2/Xbox franchise's awkward, heavily flawed transition to the conservative high-end hardware consoles, bringing nothing new of note to the table, and ultimately serving as a tired rehash of a series that has overstayed its welcome, having stopped truly innovating beyond its initially bringing a vast world to the table - the series was never known for its quality gameplay, just a large variety of half-assed gameplay, like - as it was recently put best on - "a bunch of used up bars of soap squeezed together to make a big new one." Rockstar manipulated the media and hyped the majority up into giving the GTA series far more credit and praise than it ever deserved, and this is the gaming media's biggest offense to the gaming public in breaking away from journalistic integrity - blatantly misleading the masses in calling it the greatest game ever made despite numerous flaws that nobody could responsibly overlook. There was nothing impartial, unbiased, or even intelligent and honest in IGN's multi-page masturbation of the game in calling it better than watching movies - when GTA's always been B-movie gangster writing at best, and this is no different - and worth $300 easily, when that's outright pandering to Rockstar and spitting in gamers' faces. (No game is worth that kind of money. Let alone the $50-60 most go for these days.) And even after Rockstar was outed for their corrupt practices in working with the press? The average gamer's raving about the game - drinking the kool-aid - because it's exactly what they wanted to hear. That "the best game of all time isn't on the Wii and couldn't be done on the Wii, fuck Nintendo and their success," while the game itself is nothing to write home about, let alone deserving of the kind of blatantly excessive praise it's received. There's no objectivity, no impartiality, no honesty.

Rockstar has successfully martyred themselves in the industry through stirring up controversy and ending up the target of figures like Florida attorney Jack Thompson - who seems to be more of a hired joke for PR stunts than actually passionate bout his cause, he's become such a cartoon character. But no, you're not wrong in wondering if that heavily violence-laced game really is the best game ever made. It's just what they want you to think, amidst its numerous noteworthy flaws. If Rockstar's accomplished anything here, it's in openly revealing how broken the mainstream gaming press is. It's all about stirring up controversy and cashing in on a media frenzy. Rockstar's marketing department and higher-ups have no qualms about abusing the system to their benefit. They represent the worst, the lowest discourse in gaming. What they do cheapens it, and is an insult to each and every one of us.

On the opposite end of the scale, we have Opoona. Even more so than the similarly railed-upon Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey on the Xbox 360, it represents media bias ripping an undeserving game apart. Like the other two, it's a traditional JRPG, going all the way back to the genre's NES/SNES roots, with random enemy encounters, stats, spells learned naturally over time, and a more energetic twist on classic turn-based combat. In the western media, every JRPG gets the same sorts of complaints these days, which pretty much amount to this - aside from Final Fantasy, the mainstream does not like JRPGs anymore and finds gameplay elements that define the genre "unacceptable," which is a statement about the players and their tastes, not the game's quality. Today's conservative gamers - who feed on the groupthink, convinced that their opinions are sacrosanct fats - just don't seem to be able to realize that mabye their tastes aren't in classic JRPGs and general JRPGs after complaining after playing games like more recent Final Fantasy titles, judging the genre by exceptions, not the way the majority play. It's like there's a bullet list of classic JRPG cliches that all suddenly make games "suck" now. The genre isn't going to change because a bunch of North Americans are sick of the formula. (Which offers a great deal of variety in and of itself, Opoona being one of the most unique JRPGs in quite a while.)

The western media ripped Opoona apart, and the average gamer here said "eh, I knew it was going to suck," when the reviewers never gave it a chance. The media simply gave them an excuse to deny their being conservative gamers, deciding that every game that they had no interest in to begin with 'sucks' and that's that, while still telling themselves that they're open-minded and justify a lack of adventurousness. (An irony in the RPG genre.) So we get people basically agreeing 'hay if this site sez it sux it sux cuz I like this site,' all an excuse for people to avoid forming their own opinions and falling into the same old groupthink, as most gamers do and miss out on a tremendous amount of worthwhile games as a result of.

It's this same kind of groupthink by which even where they are now, Nintendo can do no right, while so many still cheer on Sony and readily forgive them for everything they've done wrong at the drop of a hat. Just like people when it comes to just about anything else, gamers are rarely free-thinking individuals who work regularly as fully functional critical thinkers when it comes to their hobby. And the fact that there isn't much of a 'real' gaming media to speak of - (Reiterating for the umpteenth time) critics are paid to sell games, not to give honest reviews, and personal biases are rarely if ever owned up to, creating the illusion that anyone is fit to adequately judge any game objectively, while you get no real insight into or criticism of games, generally, when it should be done. Tired games are praised on other platforms where evolutions of classic franchises are slammed on Nintendo hardware. (Zelda and Smash Brothers are criticized for being rehashes, while GTA is praised for doing the same thing, as are games like Devil May Cry and God of War, when those are especially shallow, overhyped games to begin with that do nothing for the medium.) And if a reviewer thinks critically about a game - like the infamous Army of Two review - we see gamers throwing a hissy fit because it wasn't the review they wanted.

The damage conservative approaches to gaming have done to the industry in and of itself makes the Wii and DS all the more significant as gaming hardware goes, not just in their sales triumphs, but what they bring to the table that's fresh and new. Gamers need to peel off the crusty conservative buildup of the past decade and open their minds to something new - failing that, at least learn to acknowledge their own biases and tastes, rather than trying to write off everything that doesn't fit them as garbage. (Which is what we're seeing now, with the nearly violent reactions we saw to the Wii and DS at their announcements and even more so to their mass market success. And the Wii especially is still a target of that today, though the DS still sees some anger, mostly from PSP fanatics who're still convinced that it's doing well as a gaming platform, when it isn't.) We're seeing close minded-arguments that the market is splitting into casual and hardcore consumers, which isn't true either - Sony thrived for a decade because they captured the casual, mainstream market as well. It wasn't all the same people who're buying Brain Training and such now, but it's a similar idea. But the bottom line is, the market isn't going to segregate itself, and with the Wii on its way to complete market dominance, we're only going to continue to see more third parties put their big titles on it, given that it's also proven that third party games can sell extremely well so long as you treat the Wii owner base as seriously as the other platforms' users. The Wii Sports/Big Brain Academy gamers are not the ones making the Wii the success it is, and even then, the Wii attach rate is higher than the other consoles' fanatics claim it is. The Wii is already a more serious hardcore console than the PS3, and it'll pass the 360 in that regard, library-wise, in time too, especially due to its being essentially the only hit console in Japan this generation. It's the all-inclusive console, not an either/or system. Just as Nintendo was wrong about being able to divide the portable market between the Gameboy Advance and DS and create a new market with the DS rather than swallowing the other, gaming itself is not becoming segmented and separated into casual and hardcore users (With the latter all supporting Sony and Microsoft as they claim), the Wii's simply swallowing up the majority share of the market, period. After a decade of conservative gaming strangling the market and the PS2 suffering from the worst rate of sequels and rehashes of any console in a generation, the Wii revolution is what gaming needed most.

Getting back to reiterating previous points yet again, and following previous trains of though where I got away from Opoona there - it's groupthink that simply leads to nonthinking blind defense of a bad review of a good game someone never played nor wanted to, simply because the review 'proves they were right.' Opoona's a damn good game, with a beautiful, immersive, and incredibly well designed world overflowing with more personality than most games in the past decade combined. Not flawless, to be sure, but the flaws are not huge by any means, and where it shines, it more than outshines the detriments of the game's flaws. It's a quirky, obscure third party game that deserves to be supported - and regardless of reviews, it'll no doubt ultimately sell out its small print run in its entirety anyway (Koei went in knowing the game wasn't going to be a hit, as it wasn't in Japan, given that most new IPs don't sell well there, regardless of critical reception.) - and not marginalized even worse than EarthBound (A similarly quirky, wonderful SNES RPG that hit in 1995 to much crying over its visual style and less focus on a dramatic story than an immersive adventure with the focus on the experience of the journey - like Opoona.) was when it came out to largely the same reaction from RPG fans. 'Look at those graphics! It can't possibly be good!' They want the media to tell them they're right - and so they did. The way Opoona was received, by and large, is an excellent source of insight into - and a strong example of - everything wrong with the gaming media. Smaller name, obscure games get ripped apart. The blockbusters all get raved about. (Though they're more than willing to attack Nintendo ones, as they have the more recent Mario Kart games, which are excellent.)

And in the end today, the western press - and most western gamers - don't want JRPGs. If they get anything in the genre, it has to take itself seriously, like Final Fantasy - too seriously, to the point of painful melodrama. And I can remember that when I was a kid, RPGs were the genre we could pride ourselves on playing because of their deeper stories and huge amounts of text - not to mention the thoughtful, strategic combat. Now it either has to be a near-action game or feel like an MMORPG with no battle transitions for today's ADD gamer, who considers reading in the genre to be a BAD thing. Whaddaya mean the game isn't fully voice-acted!? I feel like I'm doing homework, reading in my games.

In summation, whether you're a regular gamer who pays attention to these things or someone who simply enjoys it as a light hobby - if at all - you shouldn't listen to the words of the video game media - especially not the big, mainstream sites. They're thoroughly in publishers' pockets, and in large part, there's no sense of real journalistic integrity to speak of. Think for yourself, keep an open mind with games, and do your own research. Don't let the media tell you what's good and what's bad, and what to buy.

Yes, this was a freaking long one.

1 comment:

M. Ferreira said...

Just a few comments:

1) Regarding the FF7 comment - the honeymoon period for that title apparently hasn't ended yet, as it's STILL the damn measuring stick for the "Perfect RPG."

2) I'm surprised you mention Opoona so much, when a much BETTER target - Paper Mario 2 - would've been easier. There was a huge scandal over GI with their 7.5 rating to Paper Mario 2, after which the guy that wrote the review had a tantrum on the boards and outright said that he scored the game that way because "GI scores games based on what the READER SHOULD THINK."

Anyway, excellent article. :) Wish I could write my own, but... yanno, ethics and junk. ;)