Git Gud: On Games Journalists and Being Good At Video Games

Git Gud: On Games Journalists and Being Good At Video Games

How good should a games journalist be at a game to cover the games industry?

Two weeks ago, GamesBeat uploaded a video and hands-on from Gamescom 2017, featuring reporter and lead writer Dean Takahashi playing Cuphead. If you play video games on a regular basis, the video will be a maddening one, as Takahashi tries and fails to overcome a column in the game's tutorial stage. The rest of his performance on the video isn't much better, stretching out over 26 minutes of gaming slapstick.

Dean Takahashi is a primarily a reporter on the business side of games. He is well-versed in the gaming industry, able to write and report on the trends of that industry. That's his job, and it's one he does well. The video hurts me as a player, but the error attributing the game to Super Meat Boy's developers is the bigger problem as a journalist, one GamesBeat has since corrected in an editor's note.

On GamesBeat's small team - they're larger than we are, but I believe their total editorial team tops out at 10 people - Takahashi happened to be one of the few (only?) sent to Gamescom to cover the event. That's an editorial decision, probably based on getting more quotes, interviews, and business-centric coverage from the show than previews and hands-on impressions. It happens. Not every outlet has the resources to send a whole team. We here at USgamer generally have to subsist on a single person per conference, with the exception of Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).

So, the Cuphead impressions are based on limited resources. They had an appointment to see the game, Takahashi was the man onsite, and you see the result. It happens. Things doesn't always line up and allow your site to connect up your best resources with a publisher's or developer's title. I'm sure given the option GamesBeat would've sent someone else to play Cuphead - Takahashi admits his faults when it comes to play - but that was what they had to work with.

This video has reignited an argument that sits as one of the pillars of the gaming community. It's one of those arguments that we've had before and will have again, because it's a pertinent question: Should games journalists be good at the video games they cover?

Honestly, I lean on the "Yes" side of that answer. I think that a games journalist and critic should have at least some facility with the title they're covering, especially in the case of a review, which is where my focus lies as review editor. If you're covering Street Fighter V, I'd prefer you to have some understanding of fighting games as whole and the Street Fighter franchise in particular. That allows you, in the case of a review or preview, to provide an informed perspective on a game, which is useful given that many sites cater to an enthusiast readership.

Already though, you run into a few snags and issues.

We All Want Different Things

As Reviews Editor, it's generally my job here at USgamer to align our limited resources - we're only five people - with the wide variety of games launching every month. There is some overlap, as we enjoy a number of genres, but it doesn't always work out for the best. I try to avoid assigning a writer to a game or genre they hate, as that doesn't usually help anyone, but folks will occasionally land on a game they don't have any facility or history with.

I find as long as this perspective is given openly and honestly upfront, then it's fine. I was new to Yakuza, but I reviewed Yakuza Kiwami, coming from the perspective of someone who has not played the series in the past. That's useful information, because while some feel you should only write towards the fans, the readership is wide.

People want different things from a review. There are folks who lack the background to understand a review written for a veteran of a franchise, something I caution myself on when writing about games I'm deeply familiar with. Some readers and writers focus on more different pillars of a game - aesthetics, narrative, or mechanics - and there should be some coverage available for everyone. As such, a reviewer should be open about what they prize and where they stand.

Should I have dinged Breath of the Wild harder for frame rate issues?

I prefer to inform you of my preferences and allow you to take it from there. You might require a locked 60 fps from your best of the best games; I can survive on 30 fps and Breath of the Wild's uneven performance didn't ruin the experience for me. Perhaps you prize innovation in gameplay, meaning you're willing to overlook a game that my lack a number of modes and options for play. Or vice versa, preferring a game that doesn't reinvent the wheel, but offers a clear, consistent experience.

Look at reviews for the Resident Evil series as an example. I'd argue most of them are pretty good games, but folks have various favorites in that list for very valid reasons. Even between the latter four mainline entries Resident Evil 4, Resident Evil 5, Resident Evil 6, and Resident Evil 7, opinions and reviews vary widely. That's fine. It happens.

The list of folks who can review Madden NFL 18 like Kat is small.

Your Viewpoint Is Represented Out There

The hope is that across the entire spectrum of games coverage, that you can find a viewpoint that aligns with your own. Between written reviews at sites like Eurogamer, USgamer, and Polygon; video reviews on the technical side like Angry Centaur Gaming or the critical side like Errant Signal; or Let's Plays from generalists like Jim Sterling or deep dive veterans, there should be something out there for you.

I understand it may be frustrating to have your specific viewpoint not represented on here, or some other site. If you've spent the last 20 years rocking Age of Empires exclusively, my review of say, the upcoming Age of Empires IV will likely not satisfy you. But I do my best to show you where I'm coming from so you can get an informed perspective from my coverage, or at least understand that you should look elsewhere.

That focus is consistently an issue. Over May of this year alone, I've reviewed Ark: Survival Evolved, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, Yakuza Kiwami, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, Nidhogg 2, Agents of Mayhem, Telltale's Batman Season 2, Fortnite, Sundered, Gigantic, Master x Master, Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood, Elder Scrolls Online, Galactic Civilizations III Crusade, Endless Space 2, Injustice 2, Ultra Street Fighter 2, Disgaea 5 Complete, Farpoint, Minecraft: Switch Edition, and Prey. I am better at some of those games than others, but if you're telling me you're amazing at every single game on that list, I'm going to outright call you a liar.

I don't have the resources to make sure every game has a person that has spent decades on the title and understands every single facet of a title, like focus attack dash cancel, strafe jumping, P-speed, or animation cancelling. If you're really looking for something that deep, we here at USgamer have certain genres where we can achieve that, but for the most part, you're better off looking for a writer, video-creator, or streamer that focuses on that game directly. That's one of the best parts about the internet, providing a wide variety of places to find content that's tailored to you.

Other Issues Persist

And that's before you get to other problems, like the potential blindness of the veteran. I know Assassin's Creed very well, but that may blind me to mechanics that I understand deeply, but are actually off-putting or obtuse to a neophyte player. We try, when the time allows, to offer dual reviews, like this Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin review.

It allowed a veteran like Bob to offer his perspective and a newcomer like myself to provide a different look at the game. If I could do dual reviews for every game, I would, but it's not feasible. Regardless, opinions and perspectives from those who are an outsider to a specific genre or unfamiliar with a franchise can still provide value to a reader. (Not necessarily reviews in that case.)

Then there's critique. Depending on what you're actually critiquing, you should have a deep understanding of facets of that work. If you're critiquing Destiny 2's gunplay or Assassin's Creed's movement mechanics, then you should have a more than cursory understanding of those mechanics, so you can clearly state why they do or do not work.

You probably don't get Assassin's Creed like I do. That's fine.

If I'm focused on a game's aesthetics or narrative though, then play becomes secondary at times. Play is a part of the narrative being told, but it's more useful in my critique to have an understanding of proper storytelling and current story trends in other entertainment media. Critique leans towards having literary merit and illuminating some facet of a work, while a simple product review seeks to tell you what work is and if you should purchase it. On USgamer, Caty leans more towards critique for example, I generally write reviews on the "product" side.

Which is to say, all that comprises video game coverage and games journalism is complex. (Yeah, YouTubers and Twitch streamers are a part of this, though their mediums dictate different issues and constraints.) Should a reviewer be good at the game they're reviewing? As I stated before, I lean towards "Yes", but reviews aren't one single thing (product review or artistic critique) and resources don't always allow for a person that has a deep understanding or a franchise or genre.

You can cringe about Dean Takahashi struggling through Cuphead. That's fine. But he's not a reviewer and he does his job as a reporter on the business side of games quite well. And he's also not me. He's not Jeff Grubb, Kat Bailey, Austin Walker, Danny O'Dwyer, Heather Alexandra, or any number journalists and critics working in the industry today. Games journalism has issues, but trying to make some larger point about it from a single video is odd and perplexing. There's no conspiracy there. We don't hate games. Sometimes we just have differing opinions, perspectives, and abilities.

I hope that I can provide you with what you need, but I understand if that's not the case. I'm a generalist that has to cover a wide variety of games; I can talk about Final Fantasy XIV, but if your litmus test coverage requires bleeding edge Savage clears from me, I'm not going to be able to help you. And that's not a problem, because there's folks out there who do just that.

Mike Williams

Reviews Editor

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.

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