Concise, thoughtful, quality writing about a new videogame — in the British tabloid The Daily Mail, of all the unlikely places to find it. Compare the Mail‘s coverage to The Guardian‘s coverage of the same game — which incidentally is tucked away in their ‘Technology’ section rather than ‘Arts/Culture’. Of the two, only The Mail‘s writer convinces this reader that he actually played the game for more than an hour.
As the games industry grows in economic clout and aesthetic sophistication, it’d be nice to think that newspapers would start to junk their one-paragraph ‘reviews’ in favour of, well, actual reviews. But, given this week’s rapid 5% to 10% cuts to the staff of several notable newspapers and magazines in the U.S., I suspect that videogame critics had better get in line behind the editorial cartoonists, staff photojournalists, book critics, and all the others deemed to be expendable by the ‘we can just print more press releases’ accountants.
Does it matter, given that a few reasonably in-depth reviews of new videogames can be freely found online, once you start searching for them? Off the top of my head I can think of a few reasons why we might still welcome intelligent newspaper reviews in print: i) they could help to expand the market for immersive ‘big world’ games among those who don’t currently play such videogames; ii) they would have the potential to champion small high-quality British niche products such as The Lost Crown; iii) it might be useful for politicians to be reminded that there’s an intelligent and vocal audience out there, who prefer not to have censorship stomping around in their games; iv) it might help in toning down tabloid hysteria and TV dumbness about videogames; v) many longer online reviews are formulaic and aimed at hardcore gamers who rush through about two or more games a month. The writers often have tight deadlines to meet, and sometimes only get review copies of the game days before the review is due for publication.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for quality writing to happen, though. Fallout 3 is said to really need about 50 hours of play, and it’s likely that only fans will be up for putting in 50 unpaid hours to then be paid for a (max.?) three hours of journalistic writing. Especially if the game under review isn’t ‘the pick of the crop’. And games like Fallout 3 really need far more than a two or three-hour writing session, if the writing isn’t to inevitably lapse into a rushed formulaic approach. Morrowind, for instance, needs at least 100 hours.
I think our best hope for really intelligent and timely writing about games will be a free PDF ad-supported magazine — one that’d be a cross between: the level of industry knowledge offered by Edge or Gamasutra‘s features; the sort of polish and intelligent debate found in the Times Literary Supplement; and the passion of the Brainy Gamer blog. All written by intelligent fan-players and (perhaps) the very few academics who have the time to play large-scale videogames. I don’t know of any such magazine/website at the moment, other than the sort produced in-house for players of specific ‘brainy games’ such as Eve Online, but suggestions are welcome.