We’ve Already Got Our Lester Bangs

There are a number of exceptional games critics, and they often remind me why I exist in this space. A reader asked me for my Required Reading recently, and I sort of sighed because I knew it would be a huge undertaking.

This is not an exhaustive list, and I’m sure some people will be offended I left them off. But these are the pieces that are personally useful to me as a critic.

Kieron Gillen on Deus Ex

I feel a lot like there’s a dearth of games that deserve critics. Does that make sense? There are a lot of trash games out there, ones that do not provoke, ones that do not try, ones that prevaricate something new. They have a banal fixation on putting in ‘player’s money’ and getting out some abstract idea of ‘fun’ as if fun is all we look for and all we need from our art. These games are fine; the problem is you don’t need a heavyweight critic for those. In many ways the Lester Bangs problem was, for a long time, just a problem with the sequel-obsessed AAA games industry Keiji Inafune once railed against. Would you ask Lester Bangs to review an Eiffel 65 offering? That’s what the game industry asks of game critics a lot more than we’d like.

But sometimes a great game critic and a groundbreaking game crash into each other like psychedelic butterflies fucking and you get Kieron’s grandstanding, self-involved arrogant strut of a Deus Ex review. There are a lot of people who say reviews are dead. But they’re wrong, it’s just that no one keeps doing them like this.

“Because games – like most other entertainment – have a terrible habit of making you less than you are normally, simplifying you into a stripped down cartoon. …Deus Ex is one of the few games that make you more than you are normally. …After a session with Deus Ex you feel more alive. It’s a slap in the face, a reminder how good art can be.

And this is art. It’s beautiful. And I’m going to stop now before I start to cry.”

Ellie Gibson’s reviews

There are a bunch of people out in the ether right now saying that women can’t be funny, or aren’t as funny as their male counterparts or whatever fucking bullshit it is that sexist netpeople say, and they couldn’t have been proved more wrong by the fucking hysterical writings of the great Ellie Gibson. Every time I need reminding that someone can illustrate how bad something is in a funny manner without offending everyone’s mum, I remember that Ellie can get away with sentences like this on Leisure Suit Larry Box Office Bust:

“It’s impossible to understand why Codemasters plucked this from the rubble of the Vivendi-Activision merger, like a shellshocked Blitz victim retrieving the dead cat instead of the family jewels… Less erotic than psoriasis.”

Ellie Gibson’s outrageously great. She’s a writer you turn up for even if you have no interest in ever playing the game.

Jim Rossignol on Street Cleaning Simulator

Jim Rossignol is one of my favourite critics, merely because he can make the bare bones of how games work, and how they fit into our lives, so clear. His clarity is incredibly frustrating to me, because I see the world in such kaleidoscoped terms, like everything is in fractals. Jim makes things so clear, and yet never lets games seem uncomplicated, even when they are. And he does it with such dry, smiling wit, too.

“Things spiral onward in time, like a weak cup of tea left to go cold in a grey room. The machine trundles along, picking up dirt, picking up dirt. As long as I occasionally correct its path, I have little to do.

I start Googling boredom. This is an amazing quote:

‘The essence of life is the smile of round female bottoms, under the shadow of cosmic boredom.’

– Guy de Maupassant

That Guy de Maupassant guy was so right. That actually is the essence of life, now that I think about it. And I have plenty of time to think about it, because I am travelling along the side of a street at about the same speed the pedestrians are walking along beside me.

This simulator, however, isn’t even boring enough to -FUCK! My street cleaning machine has spun off the road and somehow become stuck half way up a traffic light! Action has found me, just when I’d written it off.”

I can’t put all RPS writers in this, so I just wanted to say all the RPS feature writers are fucking fantastic and I’d go on holiday with any of them if they’d just call me back one time.

Chris Donlan – The Night and the City

Chris Donlan’s superpower is contextualising video games as more human than they actually are. He can map out how games fit into our lives, rather than the usual how we can fit into games. That’s what I want to see: how he and his father recognise themselves in the otherwise incredibly flawed LA Noire, how games mirror memories, feelings, evoke the noise of living. I have a well documented pedigree in Noir literature, but what Chris Donlan does with The Night and The City is make me realise that real people lived and made that era, and that the stories we tell each other over video games are part of video games. Eurogamer are so lucky to have him.

Jenn Frank – Allow Natural Death

Jenn Frank is an gentle, emotional powerhouse of person who just happens to distill that into writing about games. More than anyone else, her frailty at being human is something she opens up for you, so that you can see, you privileged few. She just gently peels out the edges of her soul and puts them into words so that you can know your own humanity. Jenn has been shown the face of death in her life a few too many times. She writes about how games illuminate the nature of human mortality in this piece; through her grief you can see something you never saw before.

“I sat in the darkened ICU and thought a lot about videogames. I thought about possibilities and branching decision trees.

One very bad night, I realized I’d started thinking about games in which you, the main character, are tasked with giving your victims the “best” possible death, games in which a death can somehow be botched.

It was September 23, near midnight, and the nurse was switching out my mother’s fluids. I watched, alarmed, as my mother’s vitals plunged. Then new bags were connected and the little line graphs on monitors, illustrating how “alive” she was, righted themselves and straightened.

I stared at the nurse. “There isn’t time to get her all the way home,” I said.

“I’m not allowed to guess,” the nurse said. “But—”

I’d worked so hard to improve my mother’s condition; in reality, I had bungled her death instead. I had encouraged what was already, with or without my stabs at intervention, a complete shitshow.”

Charlie Brooker on games as a ‘language’

Charlie Brooker made me into a writer, pure and simple, and he’s been doing great work ever since PC Zone.

If you’re a gamer, you’ll naturally want others to share the experience. So you try to introduce the game to your flatmate, your girlfriend, your boyfriend. But they’re wary and intimidated. From their perspective, even the joypad is daunting. To you it’s as warm and familiar as a third hand. To them it’s the control panel for an alien helicopter.

But you persevere, press the pad into their unenthusiastic hands, and offer to talk them through a few minutes of play. And almost immediately you have to bite your tongue to avoid screaming. They run into walls or hit pause by mistake. They swing the camera around until they can see nothing but their own feet, then forward-roll under a lorry. They try to put the controller down, complaining that they’re “no good at this”. You force them to have another go, but within minutes you’re behaving like a bad backseat driver.

“You’re in crouch mode,” you sigh, as their character waddles comically up the street. “Take it out of crouch mode.” Instead they throw a grenade at their own feet, killing themselves and several bystanders. They moan that it’s too hard. You force them to try again. Their character respawns. They run against a nearby door and jab at the buttons. “You can’t open that door,” you offer helpfully. “Why not?” they ask, “I opened another one a minute ago.” “That one’s just scenery,” you sigh. “How do you know?” they say, jabbing all the buttons again. “It just is. Stop it.” “Maybe it’ll open in a moment,” they suggest, jabbing. “It won’t.”

But they stay there, running against the door. And then, apparently just to annoy you, they start spinning the camera round and round and in and out, going “wheeee!” as they do so. And then they blow themselves up with another grenade, say they can’t see the appeal, drop the controller, and leave you sitting there alone, impotent and furious.

Veteran players have years of experience. We’re schooled in the way games work. It’s as if we have learned a new man-made language, like Esperanto. And games are the equivalent of Esperanto-language movies – except they’re better than movies. They’re engrossing and exciting, playful and challenging, constantly evolving, constantly surprising. They’re interactive and, thanks to the rise of modern multiplayer, infinitely more social than mere television. But because they’re in Esperanto, it’s hard for non-speakers to appreciate them.

Tom Bissell on GTA IV

I think Tom Bissell is a phenomenal writer. He likes a lot of games I don’t care for, but when he writes about them I can understand their appeal: he is illuminating. He wrote about his experiences with GTA IV (a game I worked on) and it was like looking into a warped mirror, where I was inside it, and he was outside of it. Lost in the map of Liberty City’s bugs, I can understand now where his experience came from – those neon streets, the addiction, the lights, the death, and the machine guns of the virtual alleyways. When I went to work, Tom got to playing. I still read this from time to time to remind me of what I escape when I vow to never play GTA IV again.

“Soon my biweekly phone call to my cocaine dealer was a weekly phone call. Soon I was walking into the night, handing hundreds of dollars in cash to a Russian man whose name I did not even know, waiting in alleys for him to come back – which he always did, though I never fully expected him to – and retreating home, to my Xbox, to GTA IV, to the electrifying solitude of my mind at play in an anarchic digital world. Soon I began to wonder why the only thing I seemed to like to do while on cocaine was play video games. And soon I realised what video games have in common with cocaine: video games, you see, have no edge. You have to appreciate them. They do not come to you.”

Evan Narcisse – A Game That Showed Me My Own Black History

Evan’s Tomb Raider 2013 review came to my attention last year because right out of the gate it stated boldly that he wanted a Lara Croft to identify with and take on a journey, and that many Tomb Raiders before had put obstacles in the way of this. This is something I’d always wanted to say outright but never quite realised it before, and cutting to voicing such problems is a hallmark of a lot of his work. Often Evan’s eye turns to holding games culture accountable for its generally dreadful attitude towards people of colour. His critique of Assassin’s Creed Freedom Cry was uplifting and important in many ways: he outlines the intricacies of his childhood, how his mother’s Haitian history means something to him, and how the game design evokes a complex cocktail of both happiness and sadness in him. An important read.

Flaws aside, Freedom Cry draws significant power from the place where it’s set, like Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation before it. It hits on some real feelings that swirl around in the Haitian diasporan soul. Maybe it’s mostly my own experience talking here but I’ve always found there to be a mix of resilience and fatalism to the Haitian personality. The history of my ancestors is mythic but the reality of their descendants has been brutal.

That singing I mentioned atop this essay always felt a little haunted to me and as I grew up, it occurred to me, it was part of Haiti’s history that hung in the air around me that never got talked about. My mom used a machete in the garden. She could’ve used a hoe or a hand shovel but a machete was what she grew up with. Later, when my siblings and I all left home and the suburban neighborhood started going to seed, I seem to remember her keeping one in her bedroom. And while she could’ve just knelt and prayed to her dead mother and left it at that, she also set out two cups of strong black coffee on a serving tray in the living room. Without ever explicitly talking about it, I knew these things—the machete as tool and protection, that particular form of ancestor veneration—were vestiges from when Haiti was a slave colony filled with African people. Call me cynical but I never thought that the history that spawned where those things I saw at home would ever matter enough to the people making video games in 2013.

Maddy Myers – A Ship Sailed Into Port

Maddy Myers is a phenomenal writer because she has a very clear, conversational tone, a way of discussing issues that makes it clear how she thinks about them. It’s a very inviting cadence she possesses, and she can report too in a manner that I can’t. But she also has the power to lay things into stark relief. She can make broad brush strokes that can really sting with reality. I feel like Maddy is a journalist’s critic in that she comes from a traditional journalism background, but she’s capable of fighting in the ring with the theorists too.

A Ship Sailed Into Port seems to believe there’s some perfect, objective middle road that you can take in order to “win” at journalism. I hated the game back when I thought you couldn’t win it, but I hate it even more now that I know there’s a “best” ending. Because, see, that implies some journalism is “good” and some is “bad,” and we’ve got to give readers their medicine with a spoonful of sugar. Because, apparently, people are too stupid to know which stories matter, and we need to trick them into caring about the “good” journalism by cajoling them with just the right dosage of cutesy listicles.

There is no perfect middle road for journalism in the real world. It’s not even about which topics you cover, anyway—it’s about how you cover them, and in what context. When that big controversy comes, people will read about it regardless of what you’ve covered in the past, and they will judge you based on how you cover that controversy. Are you a god damn human being? Or are you a faceless sky god who just clicks on topics in order to orchestrate The Platonic Ideal of Media? I’d prefer to read a story written by the former.

Tim Rogers – In Praise of Sticky Friction

Tim can reel off thousands of words in a day and have an essay ready by midnight that uses more colourful terms of expression than most of my writing has used in an entire lifetime. In part because Tim can’t not analyse something to death, he can become this bullethell of language that assaults the brain until you submit. People talk about loving or hating Tim’s writing and I’m not about to say that either is wrong, but what is evident is that he has a critical ability to understand the fundamental ‘funness’ of games like no other person. I am not entirely sure that Tim likes or wants to write about games without a regard to ‘fun’, so I consider ‘fun’ Tim’s personal focus and expertise with regard to games. His essay on Sticky Friction is an incredible piece of analysis, and if I were making a game I think I’d treat it as a bible.

I think part of the reason Tim is so good at writing about games is that he sees everything in game terminology, as if everyone in his life is a pawn or an NPC in his own personal game. Take this:

I never failed to have a conversation with Itagaki at every trade show or convention that didn’t spiral near-immediately into some bizarre direction, eventually touching either directly or indirectly on sexual harassment or homosexuality. Itagaki was a real button-presser.

Nothing’s off the board for Tim in terms of games critique. He even ‘reviewed’ soccer. And it was excellent.

Aevee Bee – Small Talk

Besides possessing a critical vocabulary I am personally jealous of, Aevee has a wonderful way of seeing details in games, and how they can be illustrative of their designers’ thoughts and processes. She can look at the smallest things and understand how they evoke thoughts, memories, pleasure. She can also see the cultural structures surrounding games alarmingly clearly.

Patrick Klepek, Jason Schreier and Simon Parkin are the best investigative reporters we have, and it is very important they carry on their work. Simon in particular has a very good interview technique which brings out some wonderful stories in people. His Nolan Bushnell piece is particularly touching.

Patricia Hernandez’s Gaming Made Me – Fallout 2

Patricia is responsible for encouraging and directly supporting some very diverse and important voices in games criticism* through her curation of the website Nightmare Mode, but Patricia is a writer who can write about anything and have people listen. She has a deep understanding of how cultural issues impact the making of games and the playing of games, and she also has a really palatable vocabulary in which to talk about them. Her personal, sometimes gonzo stories, are the best, but her Fallout 2 essay is one where you can see her cultural criticism, her analytical skills, and her storytelling chops all displayed neatly in one place.

During this time, I also attended a history class unlike any of the ones I’d taken before. It was a real history class, basically. The teacher was young, having the sort of punk-rock aesthetic (piercings, funny-colored hair, that sort of thing) that makes parents worry about their child’s education. You could tell that she took up teaching because she was the type of idealist that wanted to give back to the community, and to her this meant dropping truth bombs on us impressionable kids. The hope was that this real talk would allow us to go further than we might if we believed the wrong history books or believed the things said in conservative Spanish media.

So when I started asking about the United States government and their ethics, my mother was quick to blame that professor–oh, she must’ve been poisoning my mind! What my mother didn’t know was that it was good ol’ video games that were corrupting me, making me ask questions.

*My contributions since then have been massively diminished in importance by my love of knob gags

Patrick Miller’s Fighting Game Primer

I have never told Patrick that I’d read his book and loved it, and I’ve never told him that he’s a writer with the warmest, most welcoming tone I’ve read. I think I also partly like Patrick’s writing about games because it’s so deeply embedded in how he grew as a person through fighting games, and I think fighting games too are how I came to know who I was when I was a kid. Street Fighter II in the arcade taught me in all sorts of ways that firstly, I could believe in myself, and secondly, that I could exist in a space mostly dominated by the opposite sex – and make the opposite sex even respect me. Imagine that? Respect from the boys who before wanted to pull your hair.

Anyway, Patrick’s love of games is so apparent in this book that I’d recommend it to anyone. The phrase ‘it sharpens his soul’ (below) is part of how I feel about the friction of games on me, that grip-feel of excitement and achievement one gets from fighting games is the purest form of Video Game.

What matters to Ryu is that he tests himself against the best fighters he can find. If he wins, he searches for even better fighters. If he loses, he sharpens his technique and comes back for a rematch. For Ryu, no concerns about good and evil, pride or honor, winning or losing, or any of that. It’s just the fight itself, and how it sharpens his soul.

This is, I think, what Street Fighter is about as well. Yes, there are now huge tournaments with thousands of people playing and tens of thousands watching — and even some professional players. Yes, it feels bad when you lose, and great when you win. But when it comes down to it, it’s about the act of playing-fighting itself, and how that act enables us to connect with other people at a very intimate level, and about connecting with ourselves at a very intimate level.

This is all I can think of for now, but I will add more good reading as I remember them. Bookmark this page, if you are interested.