Late last week, I read a newspaper opinion piece on the new Call of Duty that was so hamfisted in its invocation of the "are games art" debate that I had a strange half guffaw, half jaw-drop response. It's been said by other, better writers before me, but I'm very glad that topics like those largely don't get rehashed in the enthusiast press anymore. In the circles of those who regularly write about or read writing on games, that dead horse is usually left undisturbed at this and every other time of year.
This is no ordinary year for video games, however; an observation I know seems trite given that it's likely the most unusual year that most people alive today have ever seen.
Back in April, when I wrote about the dire threats the pandemic poses to arcades, I pursued the topic in part because I wanted to flip a script I'd already fallen into—as the world stumbled into lockdown and reports of event cancellations, work-from-home struggles, and game delays came in fast, I tried to acknowledge in my work that there was much more at stake than games as we know them. By looking at arcades, I wanted to emphasize that things will indeed be different for gaming culture on the other side of this, and that those changes and losses are still deserving of attention, even with the death count climbing and mass economic strife looming on the other end of this. Both approaches work.
You can imagine my frustration, then, when I saw a popular politics writer single out and criticize Kotaku's Ian Walker and his review of the PlayStation 5 for its note on the state of the world. The critique in question arrives late, too, as Walker's acknowledgement of the intertwined political, economic, and health crises facing the United States had already been met with the usual dissenting views about keeping politics out of games coverage many days earlier.
In an installment of his personal newsletter, Vox co-founder Matthew Ygelsias says plainly that the contextual analysis Walker presents in his PS5 review "is bad," and that because it "conforms to the predominant ideological fads, it just sails through to our screens." To him, the passage is an example of how "coverage has gotten really weird" in recent years or—as Yglesias's headline suggests—it's emblematic of "what's wrong with the media." It seems this is the part of the review that Yglesias takes the most issue with:
[A] lot of people simply won't be able to buy a PlayStation 5, regardless of supply. Or if they can, concerns over increasing austerity in the United States and the growing threat of widespread political violence supersede any enthusiasm about the console’s SSD or how ray tracing makes reflections more realistic. That’s not to say you can't be excited for those things—I certainly am, on some level—but there's an irrefutable level of privilege attached to the ability to simply tune out the world as it burns around you.
Yglesias's argument for Walker's analysis here being "bad" is because the national household savings rate "soared" beginning in March, and there are now people in the country with plenty of money sitting around to buy new consoles. He might even be satisfied to hear that the PS5 and new Xbox consoles are indeed selling out! But the existence of people who can and are buying the consoles doesn't erase the existence of people who would like to but can't. It doesn't mean we shouldn't acknowledge or write with an eye to those who are in a position where simply making ends meet or coping with the trials of this year doesn't go nicely with the excitement around new gaming consoles. To adapt a regrettable turn of phrase from Yglesias himself, different places write for different audiences, and that's okay.
I feel compelled to give the same response to Jesse Singal, who recently pointed to Charles Pulliam-Moore's io9 piece on how Spider-Man: Miles Morales handles its depiction of the police as evidence for why "mainstream/majority opinions are now unwriteable[.]" It's preposterous: there is no shortage of coverage about Miles Morales that freely side-steps the police, Miles himself, and the game's giant Black Lives Matter mural to talk about the things that ostensibly would still matter to players disinterested in politics—the novel take on the game's central villain, implications for a sequel, Teo's cute cat.
Singal is a well-known writer whose rants on the spectre of "unwriteable" subjects come after numerous critics have argued that his reporting on transgender issues amounts to respectable packaging of mainstream transphobia. Despite these critiques, he (like Yglesias) now makes a healthy living off of a paid newsletter. If the types of opinions Singal believes are "mainstream/majority" really are that, he's also found no trouble connecting with a fittingly wide audience for them.
It's frustrating seeing Yglesias and Singal parachute into the already fraught discourse surrounding games coverage with half-baked takes like these. Their arguments amount to little more than lengthy versions of those same dashed-off "keep the politics out" messages that litter the comments sections of various game websites. Yglesias comes armed with charts that are beside the point while Singal levys a weak hypothetical that someone would suffer professional damage if they dared suggest that people not "overinterpret" a Spider-Man game—meanwhile, plenty of good writers and analysts have devoted themselves to speculating on how the industry will fare in a possible recession, and there are tons of articles on Miles Morales that touch on all kinds of topics.
In other words, while games writing isn't lacking in variety, disgruntled missives on gaming media from writers who clearly don't follow it is fast becoming its own stale genre.
The truly absurd thing is that I, and so many others who've tied our professional and mental wellbeing to covering games, can testify to how taking games seriously in the context of the larger world rarely leads to gains of any sort. As paid work, it's precarious, and as a passion it's often overlooked. Most people who care deeply enough about games to write about them won't ever get commissioned to write a magazine feature or build an audience large enough to support a newsletter, which is why it's heartening to see the degree to which games media has diversified, has uplifted new voices, and has made space for writing that can simply ignore the naysayers coming out of the woodwork just because there are new consoles out and everyone's stuck at home.
Unless they're secretly trying to pivot into this space, Singal and Yglesias will lose interest in tut-tutting games criticism soon, or have already. Unfortunately, the rush of interest and web traffic that come with things like record Animal Crossing sales and a new crop of consoles are also sure to fade a bit with time. If we get back to a state resembling "normal" any time soon, you'll eventually see people reflecting on the wild 2020 that games had. With that in mind, it'd be horrible if people working in this industry started trying to write their stories differently just because there are more eyes on our work.
Having an opportunity to write about games and to know that people will actually read it is a rare and special one for people who care about this medium. The work may be hard and imperfect, and it may retread familiar ground more often than we'd like, but I'm hopeful that if we keep at it with the respect it deserves, we'll come out of this year and this generation with an even smarter and more representative body of games writers than we have today. The very best work, at least, will live on past wherever it was published and outlast any inane attempts to tear it down.
Major Game Releases: November 23 to November 27
Here are the major releases for the week of November 23 to November 27. Want to see the complete list? Check out our full list of video game release dates for 2020.
- World of Warcraft: Shadowlands Expansion [Nov. 23 for PC]: Thanksgiving gatherings are off the table for much of the United States, no thanks to the rampant spread of the COVID-19 virus. Since you can't carve up a turkey, why not carve up some orcs in the latest World of Warcraft expansion? Our former (and missed) reviews editor Mike Williams went into great detail about what the new expansion has to offer. Will you tread into the Maw? When you do, drop an "F" in chat for the Activision Blizzard employees who'll be fixing bugs and glitches through Thanksgiving.
- Just Dance 2021 [Nov. 24 for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S]: Under the moonlight. The serious moonlight. The immensely popular Just Dance series has come to the next generation of consoles. It might be what you need if you're feeling a bit sad and cooped-up this winter. It's pretty funny to see the Just Dance franchise come to the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S when it made headlines a year ago by putting Just Dance 2020 on the Wii.
- Android Hunter A [Nov. 26 for PC]: You miss Mega Man X games. I miss Mega Man X games. I believe Mega Man X9 will land in our laps. Someday. Someday. In the meantime, DigiPlox's Android Hunter A seems like a great way to bust up some evil robots. It's a side-scrolling shooter that appears to be action-packed. The main fellow even has a very Mega Man X look to him. That is to say, he has X's mournful puppy dog eyes. How can you resist?
Five Things You Should Know Heading Into This Week In Gaming
- Sweet merciful crap, a new The World Ends With You is coming. I have to admit, I never thought I'd live to see a follow-up to one of the best, most distinct RPGs on the Nintendo DS. It's coming to the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 next year, and it definitely looks like it retains the sharp, eye-catching style that helped make the original a cult hit. How will the shift to a 3D perspective go over, though? We'll see. We'll see.
- The World Ends With you is not Persona 5, why has Twitter collectively forgotten how to use Wikipedia? Look, I understand how The World Ends With You might be mistaken for a "low-rent Persona 5," which is currently happening on Twitter. A lot. Both utilize a bold art style that leans on flash, thick outlines, and crazy wardrobes. (Never forget that the hero of the first game, Neku, wears a backwards hoodie.) And, since Neo The World Ends with You is a 3D game that takes place under the glitz and glamor of Shibuya, the similarities to Persona 5 are stronger than ever. All that said, every single news story about Neo The World Ends with You mentions how it's a follow-up to the first game, which is over a decade old—certainly older than Persona 5. This is just a reminder to think before you tweet, I guess. Maybe I'll take my own advice someday.
- Mike Laidlaw, the former creative director of the Dragon Age series, has given birth to his own game studio. Former developers from Ubisoft, EA, Blizzard, and other triple-A giants are on board as well. The new studio, called Yellow Brick Games, is established in Quebec City. Laidlaw is doing the smart thing and letting his new talent from all over the world work remotely as needed. Yellow Brick Games promises "original new games of high quality." We can't wait to see what's next.
- Bugsnax isn't a horror game, so maybe we ought to stop calling it one. Bugsnax is a wonderfully surreal game, but as news reporter Mathew Olson points out, surreal games aren't automatically horror games. The internet does admittedly have a habit of getting a little over-excited when a game offers a subtle, unsettling narrative, or shows us something that's "dark." That's when we dash over to our keyboards and write opinion pieces about "hidden adult themes" in otherwise harmless games and cartoons. I'm guilty of it. I think we're all guilty of it. I guess we should cool it a little, as Mat suggests. (OK, but real talk, I have no idea how Gravity Falls got away with half the stuff it did.)
- Last week, I (Nadia) wrote about the time I broke my jaw and played Final Fantasy 4. The piece is meant to honor the 30 anniversary of the Super Nintendo (ack, it's old, and so am I!). Not everyone gets a chance to associate a favorite game console with broken bones and mushy food diets that drag on for weeks and weeks. I consider myself privileged.
Axe of the Blood God for November 23, 2020
Axe of the Blood God is our official RPG podcast releasing every single Monday. You can find subscription info here. We also put out an Axe of the Blood God newsletter every Wednesday, which you can subscribe to here.
We're firmly in the teeth of the 2020 release season, and the RPGs are arriving fast. Kat and Nadia circle back on some of the RPGs they missed, including Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin, WoW: Shadowlands, Godfall, and more. Plus: Cyberpunk's performance on current-gen consoles, The Game Awards RPG nominations, and more thoughts on Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Listen here!