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Some thoughts on the new gameswriting establishments

February 27, 2012

Anyone following video game news in the past month has no doubt heard of both of the placeholder named (but totally going to be called that) Vox Games and The Penny Arcade Report. If you haven’t, well, after years and years of status quo at the top of the gameswriting food chain, now we’ve got two new types of sharks. And I’d love to say some words about them.

These two sites are connected by a common thread: they both want to supplant quantity for quality. Sites like Kotaku, Joystiq, and IGN work not necessarily off novelty but off of brand loyalty and endless streams of reposts. Sure, all these sites (particularly 1Up and Kotaku, though Joystiq might be going in the same direction) have made inroads into providing better, more frequent feature content, but they are still, at heart, sites devoted to the endless news cycle. “Here’s five screenshots of Popular Game X!” is their most common type of headline: the endless repetition of news and media.

There’s been deviations from this, of course. I’ve always loved Destructoid because they weren’t so focused on churning out news rather than on having strong, opinionated, well-voiced content. You can tell a Destructoid post from another site’s, and that’s brilliant.

As for Vox and the PA Report, I don’t feel either is 100%. That’s good, though: 100% would mean the rest of us should just quit and fight for the winner’s scraps. Though honestly, the PA report is very, very close. I’ve really enjoyed much of the work they’ve put out. I also really like “The Cut” feature. Sure, I’m biased as hell because they’ve highlighted something from my site , but I am allowed my biases. And as an idea, it’s brilliant: my favorite feature on sites like Rock, Paper, Shotgun is the collection of links, and this makes it dynamic and constant. Someone writes a good feature, and it’s immediately highlighted for a larger audience. Sure, they haven’t done many from “critical” sites (us and Kill Screen are the two “small” blogs cited, and KS isn’t that small), but that’s fine. It’s still a lovely feature.

And I don’t want to say I quibble with the content. I don’t. Ben Kuchera’s a fabulous writer. The thing is he’s not a writer with a particularly profound, show-stopping voice, and Vox is killing the journalistic voice category. They’re both going for generally the same idea–replace a reliance on churnalist news with interview features–but Vox, by nature of having so many more people, is putting out better work. The PA Report has one man writing five or so feature interviews a week, which is a really impressive output, but Vox, by nature of numbers, can have each of its more than half-dozen writers write two or three big, fat articles a week and produce an epic amount of content. And each writer has more time to work on each piece, so they’re better just by nature of time. The fact that the PA Report is hanging around with such a titanic presence is praise enough: it’s David vs. Goliath, and David’s not gone down yet. In fact, David’s produced about as much truly memorable, fantastic work as Goliath has, which is terribly impressive. The best of Vox (this killer article on Sol: Exodus, which did the very, very rare and made me buy a game I’d never heard of immediately after reading it) and the best of PA Report (this surreal interview with David Jaffe) would end a fight to the death in a bloodbath. They’re pushing the boundaries of Games Journalism (not necessarily games writing: they are pushing how we report the news) to new heights.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Vox’s killer layout. So I am. This counts as a transition.

Here’s the problem I have with both sites: the soul. I was talking with Adam Harshberger of Pixels or Death (got a piece up there, supposedly today; look for it!) about what the ideal games site would look like, and we kept touching on something that neither Vox nor the PA Report caters to: voice. Style. Our most cited site was Bill Simmons’ Grantland, which is about sports and popular culture. The thing is, you could put any post from Grantland in front of me and I would know it’s a Grantland post. Even more, there’s a style to it that is unmistakeably theirs. It’s even more apparently looking at sports site The Classical: this is not only a website catering to a specific audience, but it’s designed to really appeal to their sensibilities. It’s a cultural thing, above all else. These posts are dripping in a culture.

The closest video games sites come to this unified culture and voice is Rock, Paper, Shotgun, which, like Destructoid, has gone a little downhill in the voice aspect. Their present staff is definitely British, but it’s missing that snarky super-cool indie kid sensibility imparted by Kieron Gillen and Quintin Smith. It’s still my favorite video games site, and I love reading it every morning, but its cultural center has shifted to something a little bit more British rather than a universal “Fuck the man” sentiment. The culture’s the reason I obsessively click on Shut Up and Sit Down every morning even though I play board games maybe once a week: the voice is just outstanding. Something like The Dice Tower cannot begin to compare to that, because it seems so bland.

I’ve gone off track here (or maybe I made my own track), but that’s what I miss about Vox or the PA Report: I miss this unified sense of style. I’ve laid it out in much, much more detail in emails, but my vision for an ideal site would feature a cast of writers with similar sensibilities, more than just a variety of extremely talented ones.

(Here is a massive, paragraph length aside: as much as I love the writers on Nightmare Mode (y’all are the best!), this is the point we violate the most violently. Even in the editorial staff, our needs and desires are INCREDIBLY different. Patricia loves pieces that, to send a shiver through my liberal liberal arts college bones, are socially conscious. Fern loves analysis, and gets mad when something isn’t breaking a game down into its component parts. And I just want a good story. I don’t think we’ve all agreed on a piece being brilliant…well, ever. So we have writers we’ve recruited who cater to each of these things. So we have NOWHERE NEAR a unified voice. And if we tried to, we’d have to each get rid of 2/3rds of the staff, pretty much. Which I would never want to do. That’s why this is, at present, a hypothetical pipe dream.)

The other important thing: an art direction. Someone with a sense of visual style. An artist. Someone to create a visual culture complementary to the written culture. Have a clear editorial vision in terms of how our ideas are presented. Because while it might have worked four years ago, “producing more thoughtful content than everyone else” is no longer a good enough hook. There’s a million sites producing thoughtful content. Look at the variety of content on Critical Distance! They cite ten different sites a week, and rarely repeat too many week to week. Vox and the PA Report have succeeded because of their approach to thoughtful news, which is an idea not common in the marketplace, built on the idea that founded our wave of blogs (thoughtful feature content rather than “Would You Date a Gamer Girl?”). And I feel like the next iteration of video game features content will focus on style.

Because we’ve gotten to the point where we can hit the content out of the park consistently. There’s so many incredibly talented people working in this field right now that even sites that don’t get tens of thousands of hits can have people who are just so excellent. Just using Nightmare Mode as a handy example, we’re full of people who I’m surprised haven’t been scooped up by bigger fish because they’re just so good at what they do.

I’m going all the off topic here. Here’s where I’ll sum up and get out of here so I can write something else. Someone’s going to come along one day with a blog with six writers with very similar values, at least one person who’s only concern is visual culture, and they’re going to make a hell of a lot of noise. Because it’s not only about the words anymore, not really: it’s about culture. It’s about telling people your theories about video games while they’re on a website that makes them think about all the awesome experiences they’ve had as part of this culture.

  1. I don’t think this is very fair. There ARE hints of a voice. That voice that demands better narratives, that loves Chrono Trigger and Earthbound and that LOVES to talk about Bioware.

    What I DO sense is a lack of a proper mission statement. Ours is outdated. I do sense a lack of branding. I do sense we must state our values.

    I don’t believe a unified voice is that important really. In fact, we are going the other way around! The people we want to write with us all do something unique. They talk about sound, themes, Jeffrey… We are certainly not getting people for thinking the same as us.

    What we need are unified VALUES. Voice? Not so much.

    • That’s not a voice. That’s a mission statement. 😛

      Voice is more artistic. RPS has a voice, because they all write with similar amounts of intensity. And I wouldn’t want us to have a singular voice because…then we’d have to get rid of everyone! I don’t want that. What I’m saying is, more, that someday someone will make a site that pushes editorial content about games forward using this sort of blueprint.

      I think we do have unified values, too. We value intellectually interesting games, or intellectually interesting approaches to stupid games.

      In general, though, I didn’t mean this as a “We are doing these things wrong!” post, but instead a “If I started up a hypothetical new website here’s what I’d want.” We have too much history to do a lot of these things. xD

  2. Dan Cox permalink

    Hello, Tom. I am going to share my thoughts on voice and on Nightmare Mode specifically.

    It’s interesting that you mention Nightmare Mode not having a unified voice as that is what I have been trying to copy. I don’t write the way I usually do when I write for Nightmare Mode. My “blog voice” (i.e. this) is much closer to how I actually talk while the one I use on the site is different. It’s me pretending to fit in over there and abandoning, at least in part, my fast and loose style that I use when I talk about being rather morose (of late) or my months worth of theory on my own blog. I purposely try to be more objective and step away from this stream-of-consciousnesses style.

    To comment about the voice of Rock Paper Shotgun, they have it because all of their writers have that level of talent. And, while I’m saying that there are not some really talented people writing stuff for Nightmare Mode, very few of the articles I have seen in the last two months I’ve been writing there, including my own, are trying to specifically have a very direct and personal voice. It takes some major talent to bring that out in works and I am very jealous of people who can just do it without the work it takes me to drop into that mode.

    I’m also very curious now about what you think I write about. So far, I’ve done mostly fictional world building stuff. (That is, of course, the root of my title too. In writing fiction, as you know, the term is world building, so if you turn that process around, you get “building worlds”. Hee hee.)

    Also, if you want that layout, do it. Nightmare Mode runs on WordPress and I have seen themes that support that type of layout with grid and then three-column. Get whomever does the web stuff to investigate that idea. I am certainly of the opinion that Nightmare Mode could look better and, while I don’t adverse copying their layout exactly, it certainly is a good idea to look at what other sites are doing and then make something similar but different enough that it looks specifically Nightmare Mode when people visit. (I should probably note here that I did web development in the past and have, at one time of another, hacked WordPress to do different things.)

    • Well, I write differently here than I do on Nightmare Mode, because I’m aware no one reads what I post here so I’m trying less hard to make my voice palatable to an audience. I think that’s not necessarily a different voice, though: it’s just a refinement. And you (and I) would write different things for NMM than we do for other places (for instance: if I come up with a good mainstream idea I try to get it published somewhere big, if I come up with weird, close narrative-y analysis it goes to DLC), but that’s not what I mean by voice. It’s more a mission statement, like Fern said. You fit world building-y stuff at nightmare mode, but do more controversial stuff and a little more analytical work on your own blog.

      I don’t think the voice is a product of RPS’ higher level of talent, either. Talent helps, of course, but I can write posts in RPS’ style, in Grantland’s style. That is, the talent bar for doing this is pretty low, especially for people like me who’ve background in the creative arts (I was a poetry concentrator for two years of college, then fiction since). What it is is a conscious attempt at creating a culture among the writers, something we don’t really have besides, “We’re all pretty good games writers!” Which is a hook that is totally satisfactory right now! My argument isn’t that all games writing outlets need to tear themselves down and build up a voice, but rather that someday, someone’s going to realize that voice is something that can catch the eye of the reader better than just being smart.

      Also, we do *not* want me doing layout. I have the artistic and aesthetic skills of a snail. I also like the look of Nightmare Mode pretty well; my ideas are again more long term, that the commitment to artistic appearance is going to be the other hammer that sets apart a brilliant blog one day.

      • Dan Cox permalink

        I don’t know. I guess what I’m saying is “If enough of us feel like something should happen, let’s do it.”

        I am still really a guest on the site. Patricia doesn’t seem to like it when I say it like that, but it’s true. I’ve only written a handful of things for the site and, when I’ve tried to be a part of things on the forum, no one replies. Part of that, I feel, is that I can’t monitor Twitter during the day. (I’m either at work or in class.)

        You have to cultivate that culture or voice if you want it. I might argue against me writing “controversial” things on my blog only because few people comment most of time and my traffic is very low — but better in the last six months. For Nightmare Mode, I’m at a loss about what the, if you want to call it that, “mission statement” is or what the ethos of the site is. “Talk beyond play” is nice and all, but what does that mean?

        I like voice in writing. It’s what I have tried so very hard to create in my own writing because I like seeing it in other writers. For example, I have been reading some stuff Jenn Frank wrote recently and I love seeing her work. I can tell, without even looking at the name, that it’s her. It’s extremely rare that I see that on blogs and I treasure it when I find it.

        I’m not a fan of the colors of Nightmare Mode. Nor the title for that matter. However, what made me want to say “yes” to writing for the site was that it was full of people passionate about their work and willing to write what they were thinking about. I wanted to be around people like that, so I decided to join in the dray.

        You are not the only one with a poetry and fiction writing background. I’ve done both too. I’ve even written a novel and did daily poetry for awhile. I lean towards aesthetic more than functional. I would even, if anyone would let me, write things in poetic forms for Nightmare Mode. (That’s something, by the way, I haven’t done for my own blog because I know it would scare people off.)

        Reform is what you make of it, basically. If we want better writers or those with greater voice, it’s up to us — you, me and others — to do it.

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