Jul 09, 2009, 05:47AM

Video Game Writing for People Who Don’t Care About Video Games

Action Button Dot Net somehow moves past the genre's inherent awfulness.

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I’ve been playing video games steadily since the late 1980s. As I child I liked the mystery and allure of escaping into a fictional world filled with bizarre rules and plenty of violent conflict. As an adult I enjoy the numbing qualities; now that I have responsibilities, the attraction of video games comes less from escape into exotic worlds and more from the fact that many games are so complicated that one cannot think of anything else while playing them.

Although I play a lot, I don’t think of myself as a video game guy—I don’t want to spend hours discussing the history of Zelda down at the Gamestop, I don’t own any t-shirts emblazoned with Mario or ogres or dwarves, and I have no idea who designed the levels in Halo. Maybe this aloofness is a disingenuous pose, and I’m preventing myself from enjoying a wonderful world because I think it’s dorky, but the fact remains: I understand why people would play games, but I don’t really understand why they would want to talk about them at any length.

That said, I do enjoy reading video game reviews. I haven’t read a print gaming magazine in years, but I do browse the increasingly thin reviews section of Gamespy.com on occasion. From what I can gather “serious” gamers despise Gamespy, and I can see why—the site offers almost no reviews, preferring “preview” features for upcoming games, what an unsympathetic reader might call unpaid advertisements. The few reviews that the site does produce are usually fawning if the game is even mediocre; they also tend to partake of what one might call an expert mentality, assuming that the reader knows the history of the game franchise (video games thrive on sequels) and even the specific developers involved. Imagine reading a car review that casually mentions the fact that the reviewer has loved every other gearshift that some specific industrial engineer designed and you get the idea. It should be possible to strike a balance between outsider generalities (amply demonstrated in The New York Times’ thoughtful but typically out of touch video game review column) and insider esoterica; Gamespy does not.

Combine Gamespy’s poor prose style with occasional musing about why games aren’t considered a legitimate art and you have the general state of the field of so-called video gaming journalism. I like reading reviews mostly because it gives me a morbid thrill to see the paucity of ideas and lack of talent that has marked this field of criticism for as long as it has existed. I’m sure that there are decent, sober video game review sites out there (1up.com has a good reputation, for instance) but I’ve stuck with Gamespy for a long time precisely because it’s bad.

Perhaps all this is due for a change. Over July 4th weekend I stumbled across Action Button Dot Net, a video game review site that took me completely by surprise with its viciousness, intelligence, and unrelenting radicalism. Action Button’s reviews are long, surprisingly literate, and do not subscribe to the banal conventions of mainstream video game writing. The writers for Action Button seem to have few cherished preconceptions about video games; they certainly don’t think that the industry as a whole is verging on the status of art or literature. Some of them do heap embarrassing praise on a few Japanese video game music composers, going so far as to compare one of them to Debussy (in case you were wondering, and even if you don’t like Debussy, video game music is still uniformly terrible). This misstep aside, Action Button mostly seems content to bash almost everything equally, and violently.

The Action Button guys, judging by their prose, care about video games more than I have ever cared about anything or anyone, and they are completely disgusted by the current state of gaming. Hence the earnest, radical tone, which reads like a mixture of Slavoj Zizek and William Burroughs. This sometimes leads to naïve accusations, such as the supposedly shocking charge that some video game corporations place earning revenue above making good games.

Some of these men may be professional writers, but they are certainly not consistently good writers. A few of them also write for other websites, it seems—Action Button does not provide biographies for its writers, and I didn’t find any of them quite electrifying enough to try to figure out what else they’ve written.

One of the allures of this particular site is that the authors often let their language get away from them, following smug or incomprehensible diversions for hundreds of words, or stumbling into ungrammatical or impenetrable constructions. Sometimes this entertains, sometimes it bores, and sometimes it is infuriating. They adore italics, unnecessary capitalization (“a medium that, almost by definition, always affords you One More Chance,”) and boldface. It has a very boys’ club feel, and you get the idea that they’re focused on delighting one another in their sour, hipster way more than they are on pleasing their audience. The site’s aggressively ugly design and nearly indecipherable screen shots certainly make no concessions to the aesthetic needs of the reader. In fact, they seem to be aiming more for shock than for pleasure much of the time—they use “fuck” and its conjugations plentifully, and they tend towards hyperbole and caustic, far reaching statements, as in the following review of some multiplayer game:

I say with a straight face and a true heart that Free Realms, the newest and most gilded cog in the infantilization machine, is killing the minds of children. It is the Final Solution of critical thinking, assembly-line murder of rational minds by the tens of thousands.

When the Action Button crew writes about social movements or aesthetic theory they start to lose me; their ideas and criticism are usually sophomoric, sweeping, and grounded in producing fine-sounding statements that may or may not match reality (of course nothing like that would ever pass muster in academia, right?).

If you can get past the preening, juvenile nerdiness (one of the writers cannot go for much longer than a paragraph without mentioning that he lives in Japan) and overblown ideas, you will be rewarded. When the writers get into the specific mechanisms of video games, they are masters. These gentlemen produce fine-grained insights into the tiniest details of the games they play, bringing a deconstructionist zeal to the analysis of, say, menu systems, or how characters move about.

An excellent example is Andrew Toups’ discussion of the “duck roll,” a move from one of the recent Zelda games:

The duck roll, if you don’t recall, is the default function of the context-sensitive action button that causes link to perform a brief forward somersault that provides a quick, oh-so-slight boost of velocity to Link’s jog. The duck roll is useless. It gives you no advantage in combat, nor are there any puzzles or setpieces that require you to use it—it barely even decreases the amount of time it takes to walk. It is entirely extraneous, yet at the same time it is essential to keeping that game from becoming monotonous.

Toups goes on to argue that duck roll exists so that the player has something to do while traversing the game’s enormous, empty spaces. But without these spaces, which are also useless, the game wouldn’t have needed the duck-roll. It’s a compulsive, joyless interaction with the game that requires no skill and produces no interesting results.

I don’t plan to play any Zelda games, but this is still a very interesting analysis. Why would video game designers even make a game in which the player spends most of his time doing something that, even by the game’s internal standards, has no point? I imagine that this might be interesting even to people who do not play games. Millions of people do play games, and the Action Button writers ask some tough questions about why people play them and, perhaps more importantly, why most of them are so bad and stupid. Even if you don’t care in the least about video games you might find these extremely opinionated young men entertaining.

  • After finishing this article I read through most of the other reviews on this website. In retrospect I erred grossly on the side of generosity; Tim Rogers, the most prominent writer for Action Button, loves himself and his own voice more even than video games. If this voice were not hectoring, tendentious, and unsound in its arguments I might be more sympathetic. The man sometimes comes quite close to brilliance, but he stumbles on his basic immaturity and frenzied desire to demonstrate a literary virtuosity which he does not in fact possess. Action Button is certainly far, far more interesting than any other video game review site, but the cultivated obnoxiousness of its staff becomes grating after even a short while. Once the novelty wears off the writers begin to sound sad and bitter. The site's trademark digressions lose their shine almost immediately - at first it seems charming that a video game review might contain ruminations on children's television and the literary quality of Harry Potter (as is the case with Rogers' review of "Viva Pinata" - Rogers unselfconsciously chides Rowling for using too many words), but these diversions contain so much bile and so little sense that I struggle to read through them. The writers need to decide if they are reviewing video games or simply blogging about their lives and things that irritate them.

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