All posts by Mike Rybicki

Game Journalism and “The Hype”


Game journalists occasionally grumble about “the hype,” the overwhelming (and duplicitous) marketing of major franchise games. The hype is presented as an unfortunate fact of consumer life, something we all endure together. Reviews of big titles usually begin with some variant of the eternal question: “does this game live up to the hype?”

By referring to “the hype” — an amorphous, agent-less hype —  game journos are being too modest.  The hype couldn’t have done it without them. Game journalism is hype’s primary conduit.

Game sites give AAA titles months if not years of breathlessly-uncritical pre-release coverage: unveilings, announcements, updates, interviews, teaser trailers, developer’s diaries, screenshots, first-looks, demos, hands-on previews and more, a carefully orchestrated hype crescendo. Any and all hype generated by game publishers is posted, tweeted, podcasted and video streamed, with matching banner ads and “sponsored content” if they purchase the deluxe package.  It’s money well-spent: the veneer of journalistic objectivity is absolutely essential to the hype.

So, game pundits, don’t ask if the game lives up to the hype. Ask if the game lives up to your hype. Better yet, ask if you can possibly be trusted to evaluate a game you’ve been hyping.





Hooker Safety Only Matters in Grand Theft Auto


Did you know you can kill hookers in Grand Theft Auto? Of course you did. Everybody knows that. People who know nothing else about Grand Theft Auto know you can kill hookers in it. The murder of prostitutes in GTA is cultural shorthand for all that is immoral and depraved about modern video games. Whenever the U.S. Congress holds a hearing on video games it’s guaranteed to come up.

It’s rich hearing outrage-peddlers mourn Liberty City’s hos. Who knew there was so much concern for the plight of sex workers in America? Non-polygonal flesh-and-blood prostitutes are killed all the time by abusive pimps and johns, largely owing to our Taliban-like criminalization of prostitution, which denies hookers the protection of the police.  We arrest thousands of prostitutes — locking them in cages, breaking up their families and destroying their lives — for something that’s not even a crime in most other countries. So if violence against women is what you’re concerned about, forget regulating video games; legalize prostitution.

America is Too Violent for Video Games

Admittedly hilarious final boss bin Laden

In Grand Theft Auto 5 there’s a torture scene. It prompted some rote outrage, but the reaction was mostly subdued. Why? Because in America, we’re okay with torture. No one in charge of our torture program went to prison; they went on book tours and talk shows and bragged about their crimes. The current administration promised not to punish them. We didn’t even close Guantanamo Bay, our most notorious torture site, the symbol of our national disgrace. Americans can’t object to video game torture, we’d look like assholes.

Oh and in GTA 5, you torture one guy. Dick Cheney implemented a world-wide torture regime. When it comes to violence, vidya just can’t compete with the U.S. government.

Take another outrage-prompting Grand Theft Auto game, GTA: Vice City (national controversies are the easter eggs of GTA).  Here the protagonist feuds with a Haitian gang. At one point the indelicately-phrased objective “KILL ALL THE HAITIANS!” flashes onscreen. Haitian groups protested, and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg threatened to investigate the game’s developer for human rights violations.

The 3,457,985th worst thing we’ve done to Haiti.

Put aside that  Bloomberg has probably stopped-and-frisked every Haitian in New York City. “Kill all the Haitians” is practically official U.S. policy. We invade Haiti all the time. Once we occupied it for 19 years. We backed Haitian despot Jean-Claude Duvalier, who tortured and killed thousands of Haitians and sold their organs on the black market. We refused refugees fleeing Duvalier’s terror, in violation of international law; when an uprising finally deposed him, we helped him escape. Did Haiti receive reparations for a century of oppression? No. Did Haiti receive an apology? No. Did Haiti get the bad words removed from GTA: Vice City? Yes.

Though depicted here with four, the exact number of chainguns on Hitler’s mech-suit remains a historical debate.

Video games are always more humane than the U.S. when it comes to war. In video games, U.S. soldiers only kill evil people who can fight back. Nazis are a popular foe, or Nazi zombies, or Mecha-Hitler. But players in military shooters almost never kill defenseless civilians. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 made headlines in 2009 when it allowed players to participate in a civilian massacre. Your character is a CIA operative in deep-cover and helpless to stop the killing. The level came with a warning and the option to skip it.

There's a Blackwater game? Are you shitting me?
There’s a Blackwater video game? Are you shitting me?

In real-life the U.S. military routinely kills civilians. We blow up weddings and schools and pharmaceutical factories and execute bound-and-gagged pregnant women gangland style. Imagine doing these things in a video game. You can’t even kill civilians in the Blackwater game! Blackwater, a US mercenary outfit known only for slaughtering Iraqi civilians, made a game where they “help people out in dangerous situations.” Dangerous situations like…being patrolled by Blackwater? Maybe you help people out by leaving, like the U.S. is mercifully doing after a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only in video games are we greeted as liberators. Only in video games is it warranted.

A digital fantasy world where bin Laden is captured by a nation of laws.

Even the Osama bin Laden raid was less violent in video games. In Fugitive Hunter: War on Terror players fight the surprisingly spry Al-Qaeda leader mano-a-mano. You capture Bin Laden alive and fly him to the U.S. for trial and sentencing, demonstrating the respect for the sanctity of human life that supposedly separates us from mujahideen. In real life of course we shot the unarmed washed-up masturbating old geezer in the head and dumped his body in the ocean, like Tony Soprano did to Big Pussy. U-S-A! U-S-A!

This is exactly what we did to the native people.

There is one game that doesn’t whitewash U.S. history: a deranged no-budget porno Western for the Atari 2600 called Custer’s Revenge. The game’s sole objective is to rape a squaw tied to a post. That’s it. You walk across the screen naked, with an erection, and violate the indigenous peoples of America. The symbolism is blunt, and quite effective. Our tumescent anti-hero embodies centuries of genocide, broken treaties, stolen land, military equipment named after exterminated tribes and sports teams named after racial slurs. Such honest self-reflection should be applauded. I’d say it was time for a critical re-evaluation of Custer’s Revenge if the game didn’t suck so goddamn bad.

Finally, here’s then-Senator Hillary Clinton warning us that violent video games hurt children:

And here’s then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s boss, joking about the drones he uses to kill children:

Remind me again which video game this screenshot is from.

You’re worried video games will make us violent, Hillary? Don’t make me laugh. I’ve never played a video game where you execute mentally-handicapped people, like Texas does.  Or a game where you stalk and murder black kids legally, like in Florida. This savagery doesn’t come from video games. It comes from a nation convinced that everyone it kills by definition deserves to die.

So, everyone decrying game violence: please blow me. There will never be a video game as destructive and morally-monstrous as the United States of America.

You Don’t Know How to Fix Final Fantasy

Final Fantasy, in happier times
Above: Final Fantasy, in happier times

Bloggers have some pretty crappy plans to revive Final Fantasy.

Take Gamasutra’s Christian Nutt. Nutt says Final Fantasy games became an industry “pillar” but now “lack something fundamental: a coherent, logical story.” Because if FF

Above: The logical coherence Christian Nutt craves
Above: The logical coherence Christian Nutt craves

games are known for anything, it’s logic and coherence. Like in FF VII, when Sepiroth wanted to destroy the world because something about clones and his mother. Or FF VI, where our heroes battle a ghost train, tame a yeti, and star in an opera. Nutt claims his essay was inspired by spending 4 hours on YouTube with the flu, and it definitely has that vibe. He rambles for a bit about vision and crystals and mogs  before ultimately recommending “throwing it all away, and starting fresh.” So to save the series, throw it away. Square Enix definitely shouldn’t hire Christian Nutt.

Still, it’s better than Gamerant’s idea. They list “5 Things We’d Like to See in the Next Final Fantasy.”  Number three: more cutscenes.

Part of what blew gamers away back when the first PlayStation hit was its ability to render some extremely impressive cutscenes, highlighted most notably by those contained in Final Fantasy VII

Think about Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, a fan service film that was essentially one long cutscene, and how well it satisfied fans’ need for visual splendor. Sure, interactivity might be important at certain points, but just setting the controller down and basking in some beautiful graphics is part of what makes Final Fantasy great.

I had to re-read this a few times to make sure it wasn’t some sort of Swiftian modest proposal. Cutscenes have a fair reputation as gaming’s bane: dull, long-winded exposition-laden QTE shitshows possibly antithetical to the medium itself. And the only way Final Fantasy could have more cutscenes is if it was Xenosaga. But Gamerant wants more. Gamerant has a fever, and the only prescription is more cutscenes.

To be fair, Gamerant is referring to a specific fancy kind of cutscene, but this is the first time anyone’s ever demanded more cutscenes from a JRPG.  What else does Gamerant want? Longer spell-animations? Randomer battles? How about multiplayer?

Having a co-op experience in Final Fantasy would definitely be a challenge given the length it takes to complete each game, and the amount of freedom that is given to the player, but if done right it could be the closest thing to an MMO without all the MMO tropes.

Above: Final Fantasy's salvation, according to Gamerant
Above: Final Fantasy’s salvation, according to Gamerant

So wait, you want a MMORPG that’s not really a MMORPG? And you refuse to give us even an inkling of what that means or how it might work? Screw you, Gamerant. It’s people like you who ruined Dragon Quest.

At least Tim Turi of Gameinformer respects tradition. Fellates tradition, in fact. Tim wants a 16-bit style Final Fantasy. “I wonder why Square Enix doesn’t consider eschewing the high-budget spectacle new Final Fantasies have become in favor of something simpler. Something 16-bit,” he writes. Well Tim, Square Enix doesn’t consider that because only the grayest neckbeards would buy it. The drama and storytelling would be crippled. It would take a series synonymous with epic grandeur and make it small. It’s a pointless stupid terrible idea and deep down Tim Turi knows it. He gives exactly one argument for a “return of the pixel” : FF VI is awesome.

(Tim is also forced to contend with the fact that Square Enix actually releases dreadful new 16-bit Final Fantasys all the goddamn time.)

Or hey maybe we’re all just too old for Final Fantasy anyway. That’s the premise of a pretty interesting dialogue between Nightmare Mode editors Tom Auxier and Adam Harshberger.

AH: …at 23 and enslaved to a cubicle, those stories don’t resonate with me that much anymore… Squall, at a certain point in my life, was basically me. At one point Edgar was the most badass dude on the planet, Tifa was sexy as hell, and Aerith was the most perfect creature to ever exist. Not anymore, though. The Final Fantasy games these folks should make is the same kind that would speak to me.

So Harshberger admits to being Squall, the most annoying emo twat in gaming history. Then Auxier and Harshberger decide that, since the once “punk rock” FF developers are now broken-down middle-age company men, they should make a game in the same failed, empty spirit.

AH: They have to write what they know. They used to know youth, but now it’s something else. Something older and more cynical. And it doesn’t matter if it isn’t youth, it just has to come from the heart.

And yes, I realize I just seriously advocated for the “mid-life crisis” Final Fantasy. Because I would play the shit out of that game.

TA: A mid-life crisis Final Fantasy would be great, I agree with you.

What? No. A mid-life crisis FF would be the diametric opposite of “great.” Mid-life crises are for losers. Loserdom is precisely what people go on video game fantasy adventures to escape. No one wants to be your “miserable, trapped” protagonist, guys. We have real-life for that. We want to be mighty heroes with cool friends who conquer

Above: Adam Harshberger
Above: Adam Harshberger

the world. Save the mid-life crisis for your shitty indie browser game.

Auxier and Leonhart Harshberger aren’t the only smart gamers driven to madness by FF‘s woes. Jason Schreier writes an excellent JRPG column for Kotaku, and he denies there’s even a problem. Addressing FF‘s creators, he writes “Speaking of Final Fantasy, you need to stop worrying about how to ‘fix’ that series. You don’t need to fix it.” I dunno, Jason. There hasn’t been a good Final Fantasy in 10 years. They should probably worry a little bit. That’s why a few months earlier you yourself said FF was on “life support.”

Schreier continues:

Let me help you out. Even at its very worst, Final Fantasy is still a platform for new, experimental ideas, and even its most mediocre games (ie: Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XIV) are always innovative endeavors. You continue to surprise us both aesthetically and mechanically. Don’t give that up. I’d rather see a crappy, original Final Fantasy than a decent, boring rehash.

Above: A foppish betailed chibi dandy from FF XII
Above: The characters in FF IX looked like this. Seriously.

Okay first of all, Final Fantasy XIV wasn’t “mediocre.” It was so broken and horrible Square Enix had to make it free-to-play and completely relaunch it. Second, they haven’t surprised us aesthetically since FF IX, and that super-deformed chibi shit was one profoundly unpleasant surprise. (I love IX but its look was dumb homage to the 2-D era. A retro modern FF should look like the artwork of Yoshitaka Amano. It’s not too late! We can do it now. We have the technology.)

Then Schreier says this:

Keep experimenting. Keep trying new things. Surprise us. Shock us. Make us say things like “this isn’t Final Fantasy!” and “WTF, Square Enix?”

This is the kind of mindlessness that leads to baby-with-the-bathwater decisions like “let’s not have towns in FF XIII.” Sometimes, when fans say “WTF, Square Enix?” it’s not because they’re hidebound nostalgists who need their minds blown. Sometimes fans say “WTF” because they deserve an explanation for the stupid shit Square Enix does. Screier once wrote a column defending disc 2 of Xenogears though, so he might not be the guy to ask.

Look, there have always been crappy Final Fantasys. You do not know pain until you have played FF II (I did, all the way to the end, children). VIII stunk. I love it but it stunk (sorry, Squall Harshberger). XII maybe sucked, no one’s sure. Between 1991 and 2001 Square produced an incredible run of all-time (or near all-time) classics: FF IV, FF V, FF VI, FF VII, FF IX, FFX, FF Tactics, Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross,Vagrant Story, Xenogears. We can’t expect decades of uninterrupted artistic greatness. Not every company can be Nintendo or Pixar or Studio Ghibli.  Almost no companies are.

Maybe FF XIII was a Mario Sunshine-like aberration and Final Fantasy is fine. More likely Square’s post-acquisition talent exodus was too much, and the next great FF was Xenoblade. We’ll find out with Final Fantasy XV. Until then for the love of Aerith do NOT tell the internet how to fix Final Fantasy, because your ideas are terrible and you’re a moron.

In a Perfect World, Every Game Would Have Its Own Controller

Above: Holy shit, this ruled
Above: Holy shit, this ruled

Nintendo’s Wii U propaganda may be vile, but specialty controllers make games more fun. The old arcades were full of them. Uzis to rescue POWs.  Steering wheels for every vehicle known to man. Full-scale motorcycles. Lightsabers to duel Darth Vader, X-Wing cockpits to shoot him down. The original Street Fighter used two pressure-sensitive punching pads. Connoisseurs knew the only way to play Marble Madness was with a track ball.  Atari 2600 peripherals included keypads and paddles. We’ve had guitars, maracas, taiko drums, dance mats,  balance boards, fishing rods, and whatever the hell it was that came with World Class Track Meet. Capcom attempted to market — even in the States! — a mech sim with its own 40-button two-joystick control panel. It was awesome. We said “hey you” to Pikachu with microphones. A company called Mad Catz makes a nice profit selling $200 arcade sticks every time a tournament fighter is released. Extremely annoying PC gamers never stop reminding you first-person-shooters should be played with a mouse. Real-time strategy really does require a keyboard. It was often said the N64’s controller (an unheralded precursor to the Wii-mote) was designed for one game, one of the best: Mario 64.

So, like a lot of devices, Wii U’s tablet will enhance a game or two.

Don’t Expect Much From Wii U’s Tablet

Above: Not the future of gaming
Above: Not the future of gaming

If you’ve been following Wii U launch coverage, you’ve probably read a sentence like this:

The Wii U, successor to Nintendo’s blockbuster Wii console, presents several intriguing possibilities for interactive entertainment, thanks to a tablet-style controller, the GamePad.

Reviewers are extremely intrigued by the thrilling potential of this tablet. They shouldn’t be. We actually already know what game developers will do with it: not much.

Since the days of the NES Power Glove, gimmick controllers have promised new frontiers of immersion and interactivity they could not possibly deliver. The mighty 8-bit mitt purported to “track the position of your hand in space” with “3-d sensors.”  “Now you don’t just guide the action. You’re in the action,” the ads hilariously lied.

Nintendo’s own Virtual Boy console set the industry standard for chicanery when the futuristic virtual reality of its marketing clashed so violently with the migraine-inducing monochromatic hellscape  of its games. But the main reason to doubt Wii U’s paradigm-shattering potential is this:  Nintendo’s been pushing the tablet’s basic ideas in one form of another for about a decade. Mindful observers will recall the GameCube’s GBA connectivity, which introduced  “asymmetric gameplay” with a game called Pac-Man Vs.;  the Wii U launch showcase Nintendo Land features not one but two barely-disguised versions of Pac-Man Vs. It takes balls the size of late-stage katamaris to promote your “revolutionary” controller with a ten-year-old game, but then this is a console with a 2-D platformer for a killer app. How Will U Play Next? Like U always have.

Sega’s DreamCast, always blazing crude trails, also had a playable screen in its gamepad. But Nintendo is borderline obsessed with offering “second window(s) into the video game world.” The Big N has been making dual-screen handhelds since 2004. Developers mostly use window 2 for maps and inventories. Like the Wii U tablet, the DS and its follow-up 3DS had touchscreensbut the portables pioneered no genres or play styles (Zelda got new controls). Touchscreens revolutionized casual games only.

Which brings us to the Wii-mote. The first Wii was so popular and successful — a bona fide cultural touchstone — that people have convinced themselves its controller didn’t suck. It did. With the nunchuck accessory (usually necessary) it wasn’t even unique, just split in two. It needed more face buttons and a second analog stick. Inputs mapped to the motion sensor ruined games, like Twilight Princess. Enjoying Donkey Kong Country Returns or New Super Mario Bros. Wii meant holding the Wii-mote horizontally, turning it into the world’s least-ergonomic NES pad.Two of the Wii’s greatest hits, Mario Kart Wii and Smash Brothers Brawl, required a Gamecube controller for high-level play. For all its alleged noob-friendly simplicity, the Wii-mote’s synchronizing and calibrating and battery-killing made it considerably higher-maintenance than old fashioned controllers. Only its games were simple. Wii Sports was often called a tech demo, but it was no mere demo — it was the tech entire. 5 years later Skyward Sword‘s fencing fulfilled in a small way the hardware’s promise; it required a $25 expansion to play. Despite its Kinect-spawning sales figures, the Wii didn’t change the way we play games. Microsoft and Sony’s next machines will come with standard control pads. You can buy one for the Wii U, too.

After the Wii U’s underwhelming debut, game journalists (whose job it is to be excited about new products) decided Nintendo just hadn’t properly articulated the new tablet’s wonders. Nintendo favored this interpretation. “It’s a complicated device to explain in words,” a marketing director said. Maybe. Or maybe it’s not that complicated. Maybe you’re just conning casuals into blowing $399.99 on another hideously underpowered soon-to-be-mothballed piece-of-crap flimflam system.

At least Link will be in HD.

The Wii U Won’t be ‘Hardcore’

The Wii craze was a fluke, unlikely to repeat, so Nintendo is (again) courting “hardcore” gamers with its upcoming Wii U. The Wii U, like its predecessor, has a useless gimmick controller and shitty specs. It won’t have meaningful third-party support. It’s a console no hardcore gamer wants, and Nintendo knows it.

(A simple truism game journos never mention: the unending format war is the worst thing possible for gaming. Forcing people to buy three $300 consoles or miss out on titles they want is a major impediment to the medium’s growth, a much more important issue than, say, the rantings of some half-dead semi-retired movie critic, yet it’s barely discussed on mainstream sites.)

By “hardcore” Nintendo means gamers who buy lots of new-release games. So hardcore Wii U better have lots of good games! Here’s Nintendo of America president Reggie “My Body Is Ready” Fils-Aime, madly dissembling:

“What I’ll tell you is that with the Wii we did not have the benefit of multiplatform games from key publishers. I didn’t have The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I didn’t have the best of the Call of Duty games. That’s what I missed.

With the Wii U’s graphics capability, processing power, and HD-output, we’ll get those games. That’s a huge competitive advantage versus where we were with the Wii.”

The Wii U sure will have huge advantages over the Wii (HD-output!) but not over its actual next-gen competition. Nintendo’s withholding CPU and GPU info out of shame, but here’s how we know they’re underpowered:

  1. Shigeru Miyomoto told GameSpot the Wii U wouldn’t “necessarily dramatically outperform the systems that are out now.”
  2. The Wii U launch price ($299) is too low for cutting-edge specs. Nintendo doesn’t sell consoles at a loss (the 3DS price-cut was a traumatic exception).
  3. The rumored leaked specs suck.
  4. The launch titles all look like PS3 games.

So Reggie’s bullshitting us. In a year the Wii U will be as antiquated as the Wii is now.

The Big N hasn’t had “the benefit of multi-platform games” for three generations. There are millions of high schoolers who have lived their entire lives never knowing a Nintendo home console with more than five playable games. Nintendo always promises third-party developer support. It never materializes. You can’t pin all this on 480p.

The Wii U’s not getting Grand Theft Auto VI or the best Call of Dutys. It will, however, have like a new Star Fox or something. Nintendo should probably just go third-party themselves, like every hardcore gamer in the entire universe wants them to.