Film Journalism and Game Criticism
Nov26

Film Journalism and Game Criticism

Murf wrote a post this week about the big game journalism sites and why he’s kinda giving up on them. I certainly can’t blame him — I came to the same decision myself a while back. If they’re not just frequently stupid (Kotaku), they’re dripping with privilege and industry connections. (Fun fact: the only active word filter I use on Twitter is “Ben Kuchera“.)

I actually had a draft from back in April with a rant on why I like amateur game writers so much better than (most) professionals, and I still feel that way today. A lot of it is the rotten 24-hour newscycle, which demands that articles with click-happy headlines be churned out on a regular basis whether there is anything to actually be said or not.

Certainly another problem is the close relationship between big game press and big game publishers. I’m not going to dwell on this because it’s been done to death in other places, but suffice to say I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Doritos-scented “journalism”.

geoffk Film Journalism and Game Criticism

Awkwaaaaaard.

I realized while responding to Murf’s post that the problem may start right back with the name: games journalism. Why journalism? I mean, yes, in a very technical sense writing stuff about games for a paper or online magazine is journalism, but that word implies a certain amount of objectivity and an eye for public service. I’d argue neither of those exist with any regularity in games journalism.

People who write about movies (a similar leisure genre), on the other hand, are critics. Film criticism can encompass a number of different types of media, from basic reviews of new releases to discussions of film theory for an academic audience. They are all, though, collectively known as film critics.

If controlled the world, I would replace the label “game journalism” with “game criticism”. So what is the difference? Well first, it’s that “critic” in criticism. Gaming types are notoriously terrible at accepting anything less than a perfect reception for their favorite game. Of course not every review has to be a hatchet job (although for movies anyway that seems to be what we enjoy the most), but I feel like we would all benefit from being remided that real examination includes a critical eye.

transmet Film Journalism and Game Criticism

Never pass up an opportunity to use a frame from Transmetropolitan.

Also, I think games coverage would benefit from the academic theory approach that seems implicit in the term “film criticism”. We often hear that game journalism shouldn’t ever discuss any real world context for games, but film theory has been doing this successfully forever! Feminist film theory, psychoanalytic film theory, even Marxist film theory are all valid and established areas of criticism. Even if we ignore those in particular, it would be nice to see gaming also develop some academic structure for interpretation and criticism.

Games are not politics. There are few causes for “reporters” to write exposes that they painstakingly untangled (although when those occur they’re great!), and regurgitating press releases or writing about your favorite gamer snack* is hardly journalism. At the moment I’d rather hear what Syl or Syncaine or Angry Joe says about a game than any traditional outlet!

What games need is critcism, just like film, from simple reviews to details analyses. “Game Journalism” may look good on a piece of piece of paper and imply a certain amount of authority, but it seems to me that it’s neither what readers want nor what is actually delivered.

* The gamer snack thing, by the way, is great blog material! Blogs are for informal, personal communication by people who do not claim to be any great authority and mostly just like talking about their hobby. In my opinion.

Serpentshrine Cavern: the best raid ever
Nov21

Serpentshrine Cavern: the best raid ever

For some reason game blog folks have been talking lately about their favorite WoW raids, past and present. (See Klep and Doone, for example.) While “best raid” is a pretty subjective title, and one (as Klep points out) that is probably heavily swayed by one’s guild at the time, there are a few names that always seem to pop up in these lists.

Karazhan is a huge fan favorite, and with good reason. While the change from 40-mans in Vanilla to 10-mans in Karazhan to 25-mans everywhere else in TBC was kind of a pain in the butt as a guild leader, the instance itself was beautiful, sprawling, and had some mechanics we had never seen before like the random Opera House boss.

Ulduar is another raid zone that comes up often in these conversations. Again it’s huge and thematically very interesting. The bosses were memorable (“In the mountains!”) and the hard modes in Ulduar were probably the best Blizzard has ever done, both in technique and integration. Also, Firefighter, a.k.a. Mimiron hard mode, remains one of the most fun fights ever in WoW raid history.

I come to you today, though, to talk about a raid instance that doesn’t come up very often in “best raid” lists, and yet is the nearest and dearest to my heart: Serpentshrine Cavern.

Serpentshrine Cavern bosses 500x334 Serpentshrine Cavern: the best raid ever

Certainly a great deal of the joy I experienced in SSC was a product of my guild. We had a great group, many of whom I still talk to and play with today. (And if you are reading this and we haven’t talked lately, say hello!) Our guild had some amazing in-jokes from SSC, like warning people about the “veranda hole” outside Leo’s cavern that newbies always fell through, or everyone popping their sprint abilities to be the first one to activate the bridge to Vashj.

However even beyond the awesome people I was there with, the bosses themselves were also really fun. The Lurker Below had to be fished up to start the encounter, and diving underwater to avoid spout was pretty unique at the time. Hydross had lots of running around to stay on the right side of debuffs, and Karathress was one of those crazy council-style fights with a ton of bosses and tank assignments. Morogrim (who we called Karl for some reason) had a giant ship wheel as a belt buckle which inspired a million “Arr, it’s drivin’ me nuts” jokes, and Leo not only allowed for a warlock tank but also had the potential to let us kill mind controlled guildies.

(We had an enhancement shaman named Doomikov, and everyone knew that if you didn’t kill your shadow and got mind controlled the last thing you would see was Doom’s giant mace.)

And then there was Vashj herself. While Kael’thas in Tempest Keep actually took us much longer to learn, I think Vashj was probably the more complicated fight. Everyone in the raid had to be assigned an area. While killing adds we tossed “cores” around like a basketball, trying to position someone to dunk it. In the middle, a couple of kiters ran around in circles, tossing nets and stuns and being followed by gigantic fen creatures. And then once you did THAT, you still had a DPS race phase where people would avoid standing in green stuff and get horrible debuffs.

Vashj in her day was a crazy, crazy, crazy fight, and killing her the first time was satisfying in a way that probably no other boss aside from Kael would ever match.

SSC had everything I liked in a raid zone — difficult and interesting encounters, killer elevators, and good friends.

Cat Context 39: Hearthstone Misgivings, PS4 First Impressions
Nov20

Cat Context 39: Hearthstone Misgivings, PS4 First Impressions

cat context vertical Cat Context 39: Hearthstone Misgivings, PS4 First Impressions

Guess who’s back? Back again. Aro’s back! Tell a friend.

Yes, it’s the triumphant return of Arolaide to the podcast crew! She and Ellyndrial sit down this week to talk like grown-ups about the latest news in games.

Elly got a Hearthstone invite and he’s not sure how he feels about it as a veteran Magic player, while Aro refuses to play any TCG she can’t use her teeth on. Also, the PS4 launched last week and Arolaide has one! She talks about her first impressions of the new console, her favorite games so far, and the pain of exclusive titles.

Also Elly is playing Magic with real people! Aro is destroying nature in Assassin’s Creed 4! They both mock Liore a lot!

Liore was away this week, so this week’s episode is audio only. It would be downright awesome if you gave us a vote on iTunes. :)

* Free Music Archive page for our theme, in THE crowd by The Years
* Arolaide’s screenshot blog
* The Uncharted 4 trailer

Where are the Moms of Azeroth?

When Chris Metzen said at Blizzcon that Aggra, Thrall’s space-wife and baby momma, would not be going to Draenor because “that honeymoon is over, it’s more of a boy’s trip,” you could almost hear the cries of thousands of women players shouting “WHAT?”.

I was discussing that comment over some beers yesterday and my drinking companion noted that Azeroth and other WoW worlds are very good at making mothers disappear after they produce an heir or two. Admittedly my knowledge of WoW lore is pretty superficial, coming entirely from WoW itself and none of the books or whatnot, but I suspect that’s the case for the majority of players.

For example, who is Anduin Wrynn’s mother? Amusingly enough, WoWWiki describes him as “the son of King Varian Wrynn” alone, as though he leaped fully formed from Varian’s brain like Athena. In fact Anduin’s mother is someone named Tiffin, who I have never heard of before now, and she died a long time ago.

So who is Arthas’ mother? We know that his father is King Terenas — he was in both the Wrath of the Lich King cinematic and made a special appearance in the final Lich King battle. Looking at WoWWiki again, apparently his mother was someone named Lianne and “her fate remains unknown”. Okay then.

(It’s notable that Arthas has a sister, named Calia, and her fate is also unknown! Apparently the Menethil family has a problem with misplacing its female members…?)

Who is Moira Bronzebeard’s mother? As far as I can tell she didn’t even die, she just never existed.

Finally, who is Thrall’s mother? Surprise, while Draka is the one mother I had even heard of before, she too died suddenly and tragically at a young age.

So as I see it, aside from Aggra we have two living mothers in WoW. One is Moira Thaurissan, who was either mind controlled into having a Dark Iron Dwarf baby or just kind of a bad person who abandoned her family for an evil dwarf lover. The other is… Onyxia. And we kill her in part for trying to protect her whelp babies.

So what’s the deal with mothers, you guys? If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because the Blizzard people are running with the trope of mothers being killjoys. (That is also the reason that often the mom is dead in movies where kids go on epic journeys.) “Thrall, you can’t go master lightning powers until you finish your vegetables.” “Arthas, if you’re going to try and conquer the world from an icy tower at least wear a scarf.”

It’s a pretty limited view of the role a mother can play. The Game of Thrones series has something of a similar faux historical context (battling kingdoms, sword fights, moderate technology) and Cersei Lannister and Catelyn Stark are forces of nature in their own ways, both supporting their children and fighting their own fights.

Adding Aggra to the pantheon of Warcraft women who are merely baby incubators and toddler nannies (bets on her dying suddenly and tragically?) is not only frustrating, it’s just bad storytelling.

The Casual Scrubs of Hearthstone

I’ve been in an interesting conversation on Twitter over the last day about Hearthstone’s place in the pantheon of online collectible card games. It seems, perhaps not surprisingly, that some serious CCG players are not impressed by Hearthstone’s fairly simple gameplay and casual rules.

Take, for example, this tweet by blogger Scree:

I kind of disagree with Scree here — I suspect Hearthstone’s gameplay is not as shallow as presumed — but more importantly his response reminded me a lot of… me, like 4 years ago.

Blizzard is dumbing down MMOs for a mass audience! They’re making raiding for the lowest common denominator! Ugh, why are you making WoW for tiny casual babbies ugh I hate it whyyyyy.

And now, years later, I still believe those things and I think I was right, just like I’m sure Scree and others are right about Hearthstone being a simplification of online CCGs. However, what I have come to realize over the last few years is that not everyone wants the same thing from their games and a diverse marketplace makes for happy players. The casual-ification of WoW is only a tragedy if WoW and WoW clones are the only MMOs available.

For example, my sense from blogs and podcasts is that Hearthstone’s playerbase is different from, say, the player pool for Hex or Sol Forge. Hearthstone seems to be drawing from past and present players of WoW, past and present players of Starcraft, and previous players of the paper WoW:TGC. In short, it’s a Blizzard property and has drawn in a ton of Blizzard players.

I could be wrong, but I feel as though most of these people are not leaving one CCG to play another. In fact, in the alternate continuity where Hearthstone does not exist and Garrosh runs free in Draenor (*cough*), many of these same people would not be playing a CCG at all. I know I would not!

(I also think that WoW’s audience has a lot of women in it, arguably moreso than the traditional CCG audience, and some may feel more welcome to dip their toes in the card genre now strictly because Hearthstone has a simplified ruleset and is set in the Warcraft universe.)

I have sympathy with the view of Scree and others, I really do. I can totally understand how Hearthstone seems like a step in the wrong direction for a genre that they like, and it’s disappointing to see a game you think is bad do well while games that you love languish with a fraction of the media coverage and players. But complaining about people flocking to a simplified card game is pretty much the same as complaining about casual scrubs who wants to raid.

For Scree, Hearthstone is “simplified garbage” while for me it’s the game that kept me up until 3am on Wednesday night. (Can’t sleep, winning arena…) That’s marketplace diversity in action! As long as companies are producing games for both of us, I am all for a range of both the complex and the simple. And yes, that goes for MMOs too, Liore-of-the-past.

PS: Links for everyone who is taking part in this interesting discussion on Twitter! Syl, j3w3l, Harbinger Zero, Jazz Panda, and Murf.

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