Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Pleading The Fifth, I Submit: Loudmouthed Jerks Are Ruining Gaming Journalism

87631-jim3 If videogames are the redheaded step children of creative art, videogame journalism is even more ostracized.

How did this happen? I’ll blame the internet – the great equalizer that turns every opinionated jerk with a webcam into a critic. Nearly a decade into the viney jungle of Web 2.0, mainstream rags like PC Gamer and Electronic Gaming Monthly now share elbow-room with louder, brasher web-based publications like The Escapist and Destructoid. While both venues are capable of pumping out good content – The Escapist manages to put out good copy of feature length and quality, and Destructoid once hosted Anthony Burch, one of the better games-as-art apologists – they are best known for their resident loudmouths, who, like most assholes on the Internet, are long on bluster and short on substance.

Succumbing to Snark

Before I lay into “Zero Punctuation,” The Escapist’s snarky game review show, I need to give its creator some credit. Ben “Yahtzee” Crowshaw, an English transplant living in Australia, is a smart guy, and an insightful critic. “Zero Punctuation” is so named for his rapid-fire delivery, cramming a review’s worth of critique in observation into a four-minute cartoon-video. The Escapist so loved Croshaw’s first episode, reviews of Fable: The Lost Chapters and a demo for The Darkness, that they whisked him off YouTube and gave him a paycheck.

The beginning episodes offer some of the funniest and sharpest critiques in gaming journalism. His review of Valve’s embarrassment of riches The Orange Box is confident, smart and just cocky enough. His review of Saints Row 2 rightly points out that sandbox games don’t have to resemble Russian novels to be worthwhile. The self-described persona of a “jaded, friendless misanthrope” is clever and endearing – until it verges into smarmy, self-satisfied snobbery.

Take, for example, Crowshaw’s recent review of Splinter Cell: Conviction, a blockheaded military action-adventure that seemed ripe for a good, smart dissection. Crowshaw chooses to slam the absurd 24-esque conspiracy plot at Conviction’s core with ham-fisted political criticism (with a little scat humor on the side:

“Speaking as a foreigner, who the fuck would want to take over the United States? It would be like trying to keep a giant, diseased ape in your apartment that eats money and suffers from life-threatening obesity and constant diarrhea but viciously savages you every time you try to give it free health care.”

Casual political commentary never makes anyone look smarter, and it nearly flounders his review before it’s started. Why would I want to hear the opinion of someone who reduces complex politics to a clumsy poop joke? Unfortunately, potty humor has evolved from garnish to supporting buttress in ZP’s recent episodes, and snark has replaced criticism at center-stage. Crowshaw still makes some good points – get past the dunderheaded U.S.-bashing, and he neatly skewers some of the game’s core mechanics – but he readily falls back on calling the artificial intelligence model an “esteemed professor of pigshit” which, combined with Conviciton’s main character, makes for a “big retard jamboree.”

During a recent episode, I opened a new tab at the two-minute mark to check This is also when I stopped watching Zero Punctuation – the jaded, friendless misanthrope too often relies on old tricks and a chum-bucket of snark that, lately, smells more than a bit rank. When a shock-heavy delivery is your hook, you should worry when people totter away to check the news wires.

Less Than Sterling

Still, Crowshaw has a brain sloshing around in his skull; Destructoid hack Jim Sterling shows no evidence of intelligence or taste. He doesn’t profess to be a gaming journalist, which in no way excuses him – I don’t call myself a plumber, but I’d probably be arrested if I crawled under your house and started screwing with your piping. For his transgressions, Sterling should be similarly punished. He’s the reason I no longer read Destructoid.

The website enjoyed a startling rise in profile since its founding in 2006, thanks in part to a no-holds-barred reporting style that borrows as much from journalism as it does 4Chan. They play it fast and loose, which is okay, really. If you’re comfortable with an unrelated picture of a cat accompanying a news story, you’ll be fine at Destructoid.

While Sterling serves as news editor, his real job is shock-jockery. He gave Assassin’s Creed II, a universally lauded game, a 4.5 for no discernable reason. He gave Deadly Premonition, a universally condemned game, a ten-point-oh (to be fair, one might argue this is the only sensible reaction to a game like Deadly Premonition). The least he could do is be clever and amusing, like Croshaw. Instead, Sterling falls back on stock vulgarities, calling animations “absolute crap,” and graphics “piss-poor.” He seldom elaborates. It’s lazy writing backed by lazy thinking.

I can almost forgive his slapdash style – it’s not always easy writing about bad videogames as a hobby, as Sterling does. But then he inflicts the idiocy of two video shows, “The Videogame Show What I’ve Done” and “The Jimquisition.”

Sample this episode of “What I’ve Done,” in which Sterling attacks art games. He spends most of his time scoffing and flapping his wrist in what I assume he means to be a critique of the artsy-fartsy Sleep is Death-playing highbrow crowd. In his flamboyant sarcasm, he forgets to make anything other than obvious points – yes, indie games can be pretentious and esoteric.

“Video games are supposed to be deep, dark portrays of the human soul laid bare,” he blathers. “And if you don’t understand that, you’ll never be taken seriously by the likes of moi.”

If you want to see a fat, foppish English man barely land easy blows, this is your ticket. As it turns out, Sterling’s archetypical art game, “Peaches,” is a one-frame-per-second MS Paint animation. “Am I everything?” throbs onto the screen – followed, a second later, by “Am I Nothing?”

The game tells you to touch the peach. You touch the peach. Game over. You fail. The game taunts you: “We have subverted your expectations and now you see how clever we’ve been.” Then Sterling treats us to an image of the peach, now sporting a toothy grin, penetrating your character with a giant dick.

There’s simply too much Jim Sterling for Jim Sterling’s own good. He can act like a fatass art critic on a in the privacy of his own hovel. On Destructoid, “The Videogame Show What’ I’ve Done” erodes his credibility as a writer. As if he weren’t doing that already.

His new video series, “The Jimquisition,” tries very, very hard to cement Sterling as the kind of non-PC truth-speaker FOX News claims to host. As it turns out, Jim Sterling trying to be intelligent is just as intellectually vacant as Jim Sterling being a slapstick buffoon.

He goes after “Self-styled videogame journalist Leigh Alexander” for an article she published on Kotaku called “Who Cheers For War?” Uncomfortable seeing copies of Modern Warfare 2 fly off shelves, she dissects the bloodlust that seems to grip the gaming market.

Alexander, one of the smartest critics in gaming journalism and arguably its best writer, was trying to advance something; Sterling can only try to tear it down. Luckily, his intellectual chops aren’t up to the task. As ever, he makes his points bluntly and tactlessly, administering a simplistic yes-no test to viewers: he shows us real footage of a man blowing his brains out.

“Were you disturbed by that footage?” he asks behind mirrored aviators. “If so, congratulations – you have not been desensitized to real violence.” The whistly-strummy background music resumes. Sterling tries to conflate her argument with those of Jack Thompson, a knee-jerk anti-videogame activist. Alexander isn’t moralizing – “How far can we push things before video games like these stop being a way to interact with and process the human experience,” she wrote, “and instead cross a line to where they're trivializing it?” – but Sterling seems invulnerable to that level of nuance.

Incredibly, the post intro says the video deals more with “serious business” than “angry ranting.”

Maybe I’m giving Sterling too much credit. Maybe, like the rest of the shock-jocks, he should just be left by the wayside, talking to himself in the mirror. I just hate to see someone like Leigh Alexander taking flack from a mental midget like Jim Sterling.

Look: I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable in this glass house. I’m no Shakespeare. Lord knows I’ve written some subpar prose in my time, and have been guilty of the same flippancy for which I trash Sterling (see this article condemning Halo, and this article vindicating it). But I don’t get paid a happy dime for what I do, and I when perpetrate my hobby, I try to do so with a modicum of class and effort. When people take the time to read my reviews, I don’t want to waste it with an arbitrary numerical score.

Perhaps if Jim Sterling were a little less Jim Sterling – if he pulled his face out of the trough and tried journalism, for once – he could bring a little credibility to the form at large.