Games Journalism and You

The subculture surrounding video games has become a tricky beast in the last two years. More accurately, it’s been a mess since around 2009-2010, but finally reached a head in 2014 and has shown no signs of stopping since. Sexism, racism, politics, academia, social jockeying and posturing, lines drawn in the sand, reputations attacked and ruined, actual conspiracies, wide-reaching madness about “the place of video games in society”, and so on. As someone who spends far, far too much time, money, and thought on video games, I feel like I have a little better handle on it than most people, especially people outside of the subculture itself. But that said, it’s still a labyrinthine thing that can’t easily be reduced or talked about without a great deal of background knowledge, much less something that can be split into simple categories of right and wrong.

So I intend to only talk about one problem within the gaming subculture, but one that I believe is very prominently at the heart of a lot of these issues. That being the gargantuan disconnect that exists between games journalists, those who review video games and write about them and news related to them for a living, and the gaming public at large, those who make up the most significant portion of consumers who buy and play video games, whether casually, as a dedicated hobbyist, or in some semi-professional capacity. Now there’s no clean binary split between these two groups. Plenty of games journalists buy and play games on their own time outside of their work, simply as a hobby with no intention of writing about or reviewing that particular game. Conversely, while most of us might consider Youtube Let’s Players to be journalists after a fashion, particularly those who get early access to games at a developer’s behest to show it off to the wider public and possibly drum up interest in it or even review it, most games journalists tend to not only consider these people outside of their profession, but even look down on them. All this is simply to illustrate that I don’t want to generalize, but I might have to in order to get my point across. Not all games journalists are Satan’s Onions, but a large number of them are.

So let’s talk about No Man’s Sky:

Released in August of 2016, No Man’s Sky is an open-world survival game with some space flight and a bare bones story thrown in for good measure. And if you watched the video (which you should have, go back and do it for full credit), you may get the sense that people were just ever so slightly disappointed in the finished product that is No Man’s Sky. Just a smidgen. Just a tad. Just a wee bit. 

You see, the first public announcement and footage of NMS was presented at 2013’s VGX, Spike TV’s annual video game awards show that is now ended. People were excited almost immediately, but the game was still years away. This meant there was room for people to build up their hopes and expectations about what seemed to be an exciting and novel game with some real heart and imagination behind it. This is more or less what is known as “hype culture”.

Now, I’m a simple man who shuns sunlight and contact with the outside world, so let me take a brief moment to describe what hype culture is on the off chance it’s not a term heard outside of video games. Hype culture has come to describe the period between a game’s announcement and release wherein a great deal is made of the unreleased product by those excitedly anticipating it. It’s very easy to get swept up in the elation among so many people that can come with the announcement of a game. Video games can take a great deal of time and money to produce, not to mention that it may be a new entry in a franchise you dearly love, or a revival or reboot of something you remember fondly that seems to hold a lot of promise, or maybe a game with a lead designer whose previous works you’ve loved, or, as in the case of NMS, something that seems so utterly unique and ambitious. And while this is almost always a purely emotional reaction, lacking in critical thought, and can lead to deep disappointment if the game happens to not live up to the promise that has been built up in the collective imagination of the fans, based off of what they’ve seen in trailers or screenshots or developer interviews, it shouldn’t be considered a fault in one’s moral fiber to give in to hype over something that excites you. Especially not by games journalists, who not only participate in hype culture, but play a rather large role in creating it in the first place.

When I say “people were excited almost immediately” with regards to NMS, I’m not simply talking about people on reddit or in gaming forums, or sitting at home watching the VGX. No, I’m talking about games journalists as well. The breathless and heedless anticipation for NMS was built up by games journalists to an incredible degree with article titles like, Wow. No Man’s Sky Just Stole the Show at the VGX, No Man’s Sky, You Win E3, ForeverE3: How No Man’s Sky took on the games industry – and won, ‘No Man’s Sky’: the game that ‘won’ E3 2014, Stephen Colbert Suitably Awed By No Man’s Sky, and Inside ‘No Man’s Sky’, The Most Innovative Game in Years.

This is a trend that continued well into 2016, until some games journalists began to backpedal a bit about the game as it neared release and it seemed as though there might be some issues with the game, especially after it was delayed for a few weeks from the original launch date. They began to make vague hints and allusions that perhaps too much had been made of this unreleased game that the public had seen so little of. Wasn’t it maybe possible that people were just getting far, far too excited about the whole thing? One can only wonder how such a trend could’ve happened.

The real issue, the one that wakes me up in the night, drenched in cold sweat, screaming, blood shooting from my eyeballs, is games journalists denying their complicity in building up hype around NMS as well as their elitist attitude towards people who bought into that hype and found themselves let down. At this point, it’s become a moral issue for these people also, a way to separate themselves from the unwashed gaming masses they all hold a barely concealed contempt for. This also goes to the disconnect between the two groups, as games journalists as of late have adopted an attitude of pseudo-intellectualism, insisting on peppering videos and articles with references to academics and philosophers and books they’ve read, demanding that some games focus more on real world political and social issues, and generally decrying concepts like “fun” and “escapism” as so much nonexistent bourgeois degeneracy that is beneath them anyway. Here’s probably the best possible example of what I’m talking about:

BOY, is there a lot to talk about in that 7 minutes. I’ll start by saying that this is supposed to be a general satire of popular Youtubers, specifically Angry Joe in this case, who hated No Man’s Sky and made a rather lengthy review video about it. Personally, I think it falls flat, especially given the moralizing about the character and personality of those who don’t like or were disappointed in NMS, but that’s not the point. No, I’m more interested in the content of his little rant. To pull a few quotes from the video:

“For me personally this generates a sense of ennui and humility previously consigned only to obscure, poorly translated games from Russia, and is an experience so rare for video games that I fear many players may not have the capacity to even appreciate the attempt.”

“And ultimately this small indie team has created a truly honest recreation of the intense vastness of space by showing that everything is ultimately very similar…There are doubtless many critics who will see this as a bad thing, as an objective mistake, or as proof that they’ve been lied to by an evil developer, out to deprive them of the mythical prelapsarian concept of fun.”

“But I feel I must politely disagree with that perspective, because as someone who distanced themselves from the inevitable marketing hype and therefore managed to experience the game for what it actually is, I found myself falling in love with its particular kind of calm, methodical pacing, the kind that doesn’t lend well to obnoxious, over-the-top, angry, cynical, platitude-ridden videos that get that sweet, sweet Youtube ad revenue money flowing.”

“I felt lonely and adrift in an endless sea of stars and made to appreciate my smallness in the face of the unending, nihilistic darkness of the cosmos. It reminded me of the year I spent dealing with insomnia by binge-reading Nietzsche and Cormac McCarthy novels. NMS forced me to meditate on the nature of my own existence in a way I’ve never done with any video game. And it does this with its very precise use of simple mechanics and relative emptiness other game critics are complaining about. I have a sneaking suspicion that No Man’s Sky is so perfectly designed to force moments of introspection that gamers will be angry about it for forcing them to confront the darkness within their own souls, what Hegel referred to as ‘The Night of the World.'”

“It’s at once straightforward, massive, tiny, daunting, and enriching in a manner one might be inclined to describe a spiritual. However, the current expectations of space games is to be all-singing, all-dancing experiences of being an epic cyber-marine who makes #importantdecisions. So I highly doubt too many people will approach this game with the good faith required to make this game’s interesting facets truly blossom forth.”

Arrogance, self-aggrandizement, and a placing of himself as both separate from and superior to the average gamer. After all, he’s read Nietzsche and Hegel and can appreciate the deep, unsatisfying emptiness of a game with missing content and broken promises in a way that we poor, uneducated plebeians will never be able to comprehend. No, his time with NMS has been unfettered from the terrible, soul ravaging sin of hype, his experience of the game as pure as a unicorn laying its head in a virgin’s lap. Where others might approach a game expecting a decent story or engaging gameplay or something as banal as “fun”, or, God (who is dead) forbid something like a point, he’s found the deeper truth of the meaninglessness of existence staring back at him from his PS4. Now, he must spend his days bemoaning the fact that he is surrounded on all sides by such dullards who cannot see the nobility in paying $60 to be metaphorically kicked in the junk by an indie team that made promises they couldn’t keep, without ever correcting the built up hype along the way. No educated or sensible person would ever dream of disagreeing with his belief that life is empty and meaningless. It is the truly thoughtful position, after all, and in no way a convoluted mess of intellectual posturing combined with projecting one’s own insecurities onto others, declaring one’s self to be “polite” and “humble” while casting aspersions on the moral character of others and demanding that your interpretation of a game is not only the only correct one, but the only one that an educated, well-read, moral, or honest person could ever possibly reach. Just lay back and let No Man’s Sky fill you with its ennui.

It’s a shame Tom Wolfe only wrote about the art scene in 1975, because he’d have a field day with this sort of bullshit. See? I can reference stuff, too.

I’ll end with this: whereas a glut of people are now using NMS to portray themselves as deep or artistic or intellectual in a way that the average gamer could never be, or declaring that the fallout from the disappointing reality of the game shows how entitled, thoughtless, and lacking in empathy gamers are, and how all of this could’ve been avoided if they’d just not once more fallen into the trap of hype that they created all on their own (no, don’t look at all those Kotaku articles, those aren’t real, shut up), the average gamer just wanted a game. A game that was promised and hyped by a bunch of people who quickly turned defensive and contrarian once said game ended up kind of sucking and missing features that had been promised along the way. If you can play NMS and find something to enjoy about it, good on you. But if you believe that this somehow makes you an ubermensch, maybe it’s time to stop and consider why you had no friends in middle school. And if you think that the fault of hype lies solely with the player base for the game, then you’re probably a games journalist. A bad one, too.

Next time, I’ll ramble about good stuff in video games. And for now, I’m gonna go play good video games. Because video games.


And have some supplementary stuff on NMS, if you’re so inclined:

  1. No Man’s Sky is Elite for the 21st century. Pointless? Maybe – but also sublime
  2. Rock, Paper, Shot Takes: Hype, Bullshots & No Man’s Sky
  3. The Broken Promise Of No Man’s Sky And Why It Matters
  4. No Man’s Sky is a fine example of one type of game (but many people were expecting another)
  6. A simple explanation of No Man’s Sky and its internet-fueled controversy
  7. No Man’s Sky Doesn’t Need To Be ‘The Ultimate Video Game’
  8. No Man’s Sky Proves Games Don’t Have To Be About Winning
  9. No Man’s Sky’s greatest resource is isolation
  11. The No Man’s Sky Hype Disaster
  12. No, Steam Isn’t Offering ‘Special Exemptions’ For No Man’s Sky Refunds
  14. Just Played: No Man’s Sky – E3 2015 (youtube video, and I’d recommend this one if you look at nothing else in this list)
  15. Everything We Know So Far About The Impressive-Looking No Man’s Sky
  16. Why I’m Excited for No Man’s Sky
  17. How A Seemingly Impossible Game Is Possible
  18. What No Man’s Sky Is
  19. Before It Was Revealed, No Man’s Sky Had Some Skeptics
  20. No Man’s Sky Still Looks Spectacular
  21. I Played 15 Minutes Of No Man’s Sky
  22. 18 Minutes of No Man’s Sky In Action
  23. Guy Starts Leaking No Man’s Sky Videos, Changes His Mind Because He Doesn’t Want To Spoil People
  24. The No Man’s Sky Review Copy Debacle
  25. ‘No Man’s Sky’ Is Like 18 Quintillion Bowls of Oatmeal
  26. ‘No Man’s Sky’ Designer Sean Murray on New Gaming Horizons and Never Giving Up
  27. No Man’s Sky Review
  28. No Man’s Sky Lets You Explore a Universe-Sized Universe
  29. Here’s What the Most Jaw-Dropping Game of 2015 Looks Like Up Close
  30. This Is the Most Beautiful Game You’ll See All Year
  31. Here’s Hoping No Man’s Sky Isn’t the Next Elder Scrolls: Arena
  32. WATCH: Latest No Man’s Sky Trailer May Literally Blow Your Mind
  34. Where’s the NMS we were sold on? Here’s a big list of things that are missing from the game, complete with source links for everything and quotes. Also, an unpleasant revelation concerning how the game is being advertised. (LONG post)
  35. No Man’s Sky’s biggest thematic problem, explained in four tweets
  36. Sony Issues Manual Copyright Strikes Against YouTubers Just For Discussing No Man’s Sky
  37. I will now talk about No Man’s Sky hype for about 40 minutes (youtube video)
  38. Disgruntled No Man’s Sky players thrust Sony’s PS4 refund policy back into the spotlight

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