Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Videogame Criticism Needs a New Magazine. Scratch That – It Needs A Magazine.

Batman-Arkham-City-485x582 As a young antisocialite, I read gaming magazines until the edges softened and curled upward. Computer Gaming World, and later PC Gamer – these were my sacred texts. I pored over the full-cover screenshots and devoured column after column of previews, reviews and the rare state-of-the-industry feature. In the mid-90s, gaming was still a niche hobby and the media surrounding it read like trade literature, like model airplane or miniature train rags.

Gaming is different today, maturing rapidly as an industry and as an art form. For every big-budget retreading like Halo or Modern Warfare 2, there’s a Limbo, or a Portal , or a Braid – games deserving of the critical analysis usually reserved for high literature or cinema.

But we won’t find this criticism in the press; at least not in print media. Computer Gaming World is long gone, and magazines like Game Informer can verge on being glorified advertising boutiques. If games are art – and I believe they are – I want a magazine where they’re treated as such.

If I come down hard on Game Informer, it’s because the magazine does so much right. Just look at the August 2010 issue, which boasts the first real feature on Batman: Arkham City: the caped crusader is shown in stark, soapy white, wiping blood off a presumably busted nose. The blood is a striking crimson against his gauntlet. No big-font teasers. No glitz. The image speaks for itself.
The rest of Game Informer’s design isn’t quite so restrained, but it’s still tasteful. No matter how complicated the spread, the text is always cleanly and clearly presented, the composition always logical, sensible, pleasing. Reading Game Informer isn’t just easy, it’s effortless.

Which is part of the problem. The copy, while competent enough, is without substance. The majority of stories in the Arkham issue were previews, comatosely glossing over their subjects – at worst, Game Informer’s opinion on a pending release was reserved. Previewing Spider Man: Shattered Dimensions, writer Ben Reeves blunts his obvious skepticism with some unforgivable platitudes: “We wonder if [developer] Beenox has bitten off more than it can chew…However, from what we’ve played so far, each world in Spider Man: Shattered Dimensions features some entertaining sequences.”

Congratulations, Mr. Reeves. You’ve just described nearly every game ever previewed.

A story on beta testing – a process where developers debut their game to a large test audience in order to work out glitches and conceptual flaws – is interesting, until it ends two pages later. Bryan Vore’s cover story on Arkham is rich and informative – you’ll just have to dodge the photos to find it. Game Informer does a great job tastily presenting pretty pictures, and a serviceable job keeping its readers up to date. But enlightenment is a different beast, and among issues of Game Informer, it is rare.

Game Informer’s chief flaw has more to do with the industry. When it comes to daily hash of news/previews/reviews, many gamers turn to the Internet, where magazine-ish sites like and blogs like Kotaku serve up words and pictures of indistinguishable quality. They do it for free; they do it faster; and they do it without the considerable overhead of printing and shipping issues (with the quality of Game Informer’s print job, the overhead must be stratospheric).

Happily, the evidence speaks against my doomy grumbling. Game Informer enjoys nearly 3 million subscribers, a healthy base for any magazine. If this holds, it will reign over a small court of print sources, including Electronic Gaming Monthly (back from the dead after a brief suspension in 2009) and PC Gamer, which is miraculously still alive.

We’re still left wanting for intelligent, critically-rigorous game writing, which might still be seeking its legs. In Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Tom Bissell argues that videogame criticism is yet in its infancy, trying to find itself before it finds a venue. There is a reason gaming journos don’t ponder aesthetic lineages in print, he writes:

“The reason game magazine reviewers do not ask these questions is almost certainly because game magazine owners would like to stay in business. But there is a lot of thoughtful, critically engaging work being done on games. It is mostly found on the blogs and almost always done for free.”
This warms my heart, for obvious reasons. But I like magazines; I like the tactile satisfaction of sinking into my couch and reading something that can’t be minimized in favor of a g-chat conversation. I want to enjoy a higher level of discourse while enjoying the smell of fresh paper (why is it that print media aficionados suddenly sound like fetishists?).

Enter EXP, gaming media’s most exciting and promising experiment. EXP posits itself as a kind of anti-Game Informer.

“The purpose of EXP is to reject the idea that a video game magazine has to be comprised of reviews and previews of the latest games,” wrote EXP’s Cory Schmitz. “It hones in on the gap between game magazines and design magazines, embracing the relationship between video games and artists.”

EXP has currently raised $5,499 via, a fundraising website used by non-profit organizations. A $15 pledge will buy a copy of Book 1, shipped to wherever you are. As Kotaku notes, EXP isn’t the first magazine of its kind – it stands, confusingly, with exp., a magazine founded and edited by journo Matthew Kumar, who presents a similar ethos:

“Intended to offer a different and defiantly print-orientated style of video game writing, the magazine takes the form of experiential articles written exclusively to be read on the page,” he writes. “No articles from exp. magazine will ever appear online.”

Seven dollars will buy a copy of exp., a price apparently considered fair; the first print run sold out.
The industry needs magazines like EXP and, er, exp. Bissell is right – you’re more likely to find a compelling article about gaming on Kotaku than you are in Game Informer – even if that article is by longwinded, digressive writer Tim Rogers (and even if it takes you all day). But gaming needs a surge of “little magazines” akin to the kind that stormed literature in the early 20th century, when The Partisan Review and The Kenyon Review helped revitalize the American short story.

If you’ve read these far, odds are you agree with me: videogames are a serious medium and deserve equally serious criticism. Let’s get past big, splashy photo pages and get down to the grist of gaming: not just how we play Halo, but why.