Yeah. My name's Kevin Nguyen, I am 28, and I am based in Brooklyn.
And it's weird, like, I guess I never directly intersected with games. I've almost always had, like, a day job, you know? And kind of increasingly my day job has moved me more and more into the book space, which has been great and deliberate, but I've always worked pretty firmly in tech. Basically, a thing that I'm always doing is I'm sort of at this weird intersection between literature and editorial and, like, technology and product. And so a lot of my day, regardless of where I've been, has always been explaining, usually, what books are to tech people or what is the value of editorial to users. And so, I guess that to me felt like a somewhat unique skillset and I found myself gravitating towards writing about videogames a lot particularly for an audience that is not necessarily inclined to be interested about videogames. So that's why lately I really like writing for The New Republic about videogames just because that audience -- like, my editor there is just like, "Okay, no lingo. Assume that the audience doesn't know anything about videogames." And they really, really don't. [Laughs.]
So, that's been a really good and interesting challenge and when I think about this stuff nowadays, my girlfriend is, like, interested in videogames and she plays a little bit. She might actually have better taste in videogames than me.
But she just doesn't really have a natural interest in it. So, like, the only two games she's ever enjoyed playing have been Rocket League and Spelunky. She didn't grow up with videogames at all. And, like, to me, those two games -- Spelunky actually more than Rocket League are, like, totally inaccessible. They're difficult games. They're not really games that I probably would have liked if she hadn't been so into them. They're arguably two of the best multiplayer games ever made, so. [Laughs.] She has a perspective where -- I think we do too much, where we grew up with videogames and we're used to so much videogame bullshit that we give a lot of games a pass for things that, like, shouldn't be acceptable in this day and age.
You mentioned she has better taste than you? How do you mean? Like, what does "taste" in videogames actually mean?
Yeah, that's true. I guess that's a big, loaded question.
Yeah, I don't know. I think if you -- and I don't judge videogames necessarily this way, but if you think about, like, what is a game trying to accomplish and how perfectly does it do those things or how imperfectly does it do those things? I think Spelunky is, like, maybe a very small vision in a lot of ways but it's almost completely fully realized in every single way. And I think the same thing goes with Rocket League. There's kind of a simplicity with that. I guess it sort of -- you know, it's a very [Shigeru] Miyamoto way of thinking about games, like, kind of a narrow idea and just fill that idea out as much as you can. I don't want to say it's minimalist, but it's a very small way of making a game versus where you look at most AAA games now, they're sort of these maximalist ideals of what games are supposed to be and they're largely poorly done and interesting in other ways. And, like, I find myself gravitating more toward that stuff. Like, Metal Gear Solid is probably the perfect example of something that is just, like, the best worst game. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] We can talk about that more later, but I always think of that series as -- it's like a mash note to videogames but it's also making fun of them at the same time.
Like, it's so self-serious that it transcends into parody.
It's funny that we think, like, someone can be self-serious about one thing can't be funny about other things, but those things aren't mutually exclusive. Like, [creator Hideo Kojima] wants to be really funny about other things and not very funny about other certain things. I think it's like we try to prescribe one personality to a videogame creator or a game, and that game refuses to be one thing.
On the other hand, I think people give it too much of a pass for, like, being weird and interesting. Like, things are still bad about it. They're like, "Well, you know, Kojima makes these big games that are kind of fucked up but at least he's doing interesting things." Like, that doesn't give you a pass for all the fucked up stuff. [Laughs.] Anyway.
No, it's fine. Go ahead.
Oh, I mean, like the egregious treatment of all women in those games, you know? The defense is always like, "Well, you know, a lot of games are like that." That doesn't mean it's okay in this game.
Same thing with any of the storytelling. It's just always, always, always a mess.
You mentioned large games are usually poorly done. How do you mean? You don't need to mention specific examples, but you certainly are welcome to. Metal Gear isn't alone in this strata of the industry.
Oh, I don’t even mean that in an interesting way. I’m just complaining about AAA games being largely boring in the way most blockbuster films are boring. They have to do so many things for so many people that they lack any real vision. I used to watch a lot of Chinese movies. Since many families in mainland China can only afford to go to the movies once or twice a year, all of China’s big films have to include elements of action, drama, comedy, and romance so everyone gets their fill. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as a form of entertainment, but I think it would be tough to argue that great art comes from someone trying to create something for everyone.
You also had mentioned books on the whole are better than games, but you like writing about games because it's such fertile territory. Given the nature of what I'm doing -- you called it an "annoyingly new perspective" before we started -- you know I would agree.
You said in our emails that games are still "bad." That "they're so interesting and they improve by leaps and bounds every year, whereas literature does new and meaningful things at such a glacial pace." Can you tell me a little about that?
Yeah. It's just the nature of the fact that the novel has been around for so much longer. And it's something that more people have made, more people have engaged with, and there is just more of. So, over time, you know, it's just, like -- the early days of the novel, it's just like every next novel that comes out is infinitely better than the last. And you sort of reach a point where progress and creativity just slows down because we've explored so much more of this space.
And videogames, like, they've been around for, what, 30 years?
Maybe 50, 60 if you want to be generous.
That's a, like, a really generous definition of what a game is in any way that people can interact with them. And so, games are still improving by leaps and bounds and I think you don't see that same leap every year with literature. Although I still feel like books are on the whole getting better and I know that's a very broad statement, but the rate at which games improve is really impressive because it's something that a lot of people are working and care about.
At the same time, I don't know, it still feels like such an immature medium.
Like, we all feel like -- I feel like almost everyone would agree that the potential of videogames is nowhere near reached, right? With novels or writing, I don't think we're ever gonna hit that point, but we're getting pretty close to the end in a lot of ways.
Novels are still getting better, but they’re not improving by leaps and bounds. Videogames, on the other hand, are still so young that they’re taking big steps forward each and every year.
Thinking about games, it feels like people who are making them appreciate other mediums and try to emulate them but don't seem to understand how they work.
[Laughs.] Do you ever notice that?
I feel this way, like, completely. Actually, like, just to bring up Kojima again, right? Like, the dude loves movies and he just loves movies for all the wrong reasons. [Laughs.] Like, he completely hasn't picked up a single note about storytelling from a single film. All I can pick up is emulating, like, shaky cam footage, right? [Laughs.]
Well, it's almost like it's a view from the outside is -- and it's not just Kojima, but they pick up from movies the way that they look.
But not what's actually happening.
No, it's true. No, absolutely. And I feel like we have this weird expectation that AAA titles should emulate movies in some way and I don't know why that is. I mean, maybe there are just certain expectations of -- yeah, you know? I don't totally know where it comes from.
I think it's been around since at least the '90s where as soon as games started being on CDs, there were a lot of new systems that came out at that time that failed. But, like, there was 3DO -- they set up production studios to shoot full-motion video games. But I never really understood back then that just because you could try to do the technology, like, why is it the implied goal of a medium to completely emulate another one?
Yeah. I mean, it must have just come out of a place of laziness at first, right?
And I think insecurity a bit, as well -- in addition to it just being something else to glean from but I don't think it was necessarily always asking why, other than it was around.
Yeah. I mean, it's strange. So many of the best-selling games ever are really just -- they're basically game adaptation of movies. And now you're kind of seeing the weird inverse where a lot of very successful movies are based on videogames. All of those things are -- none of those things are good, right? Like, they're bad movies and they're bad games on the whole and vice versa. [Laughs.] Yeah, it's a weird relationship.
It's weird. I feel like -- and maybe you're on the same page -- I almost understand but I don't quite understand why.
The relationship between why games are so inspired by movies. Because I don't think they're really inspired by really any other medium in the same way.
People have told me who were around in a professional capacity when that happened is that it is kind of an insecurity thing of, like, "Movies are cool. Hollywood is cool. Games are nerdy."
I don't know, though. If that's how it started, why is it like that still today?
Yeah, I mean. Maybe it's still a holdover. At the same time, too, like, all of the biggest franchises of games are riding on expectations of their predecessors. So, you can't have a Call of Duty without a bunch of cutscenes.
You could, actually.
You actually could.
But you won't, right? Like, you won't see that.
Yeah. So, but we were contrasting storytelling in games against that in books today. Like, you said that "new, meaningful things happening are very glacial." But what's happening right now?
I'm not sure if it's specific exactly to this moment, but I think a lot of great novels that do well commercially, do well critically, they don't even tell conventional stories. Like, there aren't a lot of conventional story arcs anymore -- well, there are. But you're also seeing a lot of folks do well among a mainstream audience even without that.
Just take [Jonathan] Franzen for example. Like, none of his books -- for all the criticisms you can lobby at him, he knows how to move a novel. And people always say that. They're like, "Oh, well, it's kinda shitty but he's immensely readable." And he really doesn't even structure his books in a way that would make you assume that. So, I think as far as storytelling goes in fiction, we're kind of at this cool place where stories don't even have to tell stories for it to be meaningful and satisfying and commercially viable.
I do have to ask: What are your thoughts about PewDiePie hitting No. 1 on_The New York Times_ bestsellers list?
Oh, I don't know. People think it's -- I mean, celebrity books have done very well for a long time.
Especially since about the '90s. In the '90s, a lot of the publishing houses, they kinda combined and formed into basically what at the time was six different conglomerates, which was the big six of publishing.
And that didn't exist before then. And so, by consolidating, there started becoming more of a focus on blockbuster titles. And partly, you know, once you can consolidate a lot of these things, you save a lot of money, you can also pay a lot more for advances and you can also throw a lot more money at celebrities. So, celebrity bios and memoirs have been a huge, huge part of the industry for the past 25 years in a way that they weren't before. So, the most popular YouTube channel, like, of course he's gonna have a successful book. I don't find anything wrong or cynical about that at all.
Nah, me neither. I was just curious because that is an intersection of, I guess, literature and videogames.
Yeah, I guess in a way. Have you read the book at all? I have no idea what it's about.
I read the reviews on Amazon and have gotten some press releases. If you can believe what a bunch of parents have written on Amazon about a book that they bought for their children, it seems to be a stringing together of a lot of pictures and things that are phrases of his. And I would assume some sort of writing.
But I didn't request a galley and didn't see anyone talking about the prose in there or what's being said. I don't think people would really expect him to see this as his opportunity to break out as a storyteller.
Which is not a knock against him, it's just not what he's known for, right?
Yeah. And I think in a lot of ways, it probably has less to do with videogames than just the way publishing wants to approach these YouTube stars.
t's hard to generalize on this, but how has the consolidation of publishing houses like you mentioned sculpted or impacted what types of stories get told to bigger audiences? Is it narrowing or broadening, overall? Or does it not fit neatly into a binary like that?
Publishing houses are still deeply interested in supporting great literary works, but there’s now an acknowledgment that houses can only take those books on if they are also taking on titles with more commercial viability. This isn’t specific to just books -- I think every creative industry is increasingly moving this direction -- but the way to succeed as a business is to move toward a tentpole strategy.
So to answer your question: publishers want to keep a narrow, “literary” audience by also selling books to a much broader audience.
I always like asking this question to people "outside" of videogames: What is the perception of videogames and being involved with videogames in a personal and professional capacity when you work "outside" of the game industry? What do people make out of your trying to comment on it or being involved with it in some way?
That's a really good question.
Maybe I don't have the self-awareness to answer that fully, but sometimes -- I don't know. So, I've mostly for the past three or four years written about books. So anytime I write about videogames, all the people that are in book Twitter that follow me, they don't seem to interact with it at all. They don't care. They don't understand. Which is funny because I feel like I'm trying to write to these kinds of people and not really succeeding entirely yet. But I don't think there's anything negative about it.
Especially, too, I think with literature, people are pretty narrow about what they consider interesting and artful. And then videogames isn't quite there yet. Although, I think it is in this place where it's not necessarily, like, the killbox or whatever or this thing that people waste their time on.
The thing I always wonder about is if you're not super-enmeshed in the space, how are you supposed to find out about things that are interesting?
Yeah! I mean, I think that's a great question. And in a lot of ways -- I read less. I don't really visit any videogame-specific website anymore. Just, not as a destination. And so, it's like, "How do I find out about games?"
I just think -- I would love to see more mainstream coverage of games. You know, I would love The New York Times to write about games as frequently as they do movies. Maybe not that frequently. But you know, having something show up weekly or every few days. And I think that's sort of the chip that videogame journalists have on their shoulder: You can be one of the best videogame writers and it doesn't mean they're gonna make a videogame reviewer position for you at The Times or The New Yorker or something like that.
You said that the way thinks game coverage works could change.
I would agree. You just said that you wish "the writing was better."
That's another part of it, too. Right?
I would agree with you there, too. Please tell me about the ways you think it could improve?
I mean, actually, I will say that it's not necessarily that lots of games writers are bad. It's just that, again, I think it's an immature medium. Like, on top of the fact that people have been writing fiction for a long time, people have been writing criticism and writing about fiction for a long time as well. So, we really have developed a vocabulary of how to talk about literature. And in a way, I think the vocabulary is not all the way there with games yet. So, yeah, I think that kind of thing just takes time.
The weird thing is, like, Roger Ebert made a comment however many decades ago and it seems like a lot of the ecosystem around games internalized this comment that games can never be art. And they're still caught up on it.
Do you think that drama is still really playing itself out? Because if so, who are the proverbial they trying to prove wrong? And if so, how? It feels immature, the ways those shifts are attempted. I don't know.
Yeah. It's strange. I feel like, too, that a lot of people in the games community are, like, really siloed. And I'm not sure if it's really people who play videogames or the people who write about videogames. Many writers that cover videogames, that's all they do. And you see the freelance economy for people who write about, like, music, books, and movies, they move between those things a lot. You know, like, there's a lot of interdisciplinary interest in the broader culture. And so, I think the problem is a lot of games writers -- not all, but seemingly many, when you only come at it from this one angle and you write to this one audience all the time and you're never or really exploring outside of that, I just don't know how you're gonna connect that with anyone else.
Yeah. What about the language itself? What do you feel is insular about it? Or what are buzzwords people are using that they don't even realize?
Well, "AAA." I think there's just a lot of assumptions, too -- you know, actually, what is kind of interesting is I do feel like in some ways the average videogame audience has a better sense of how videogames are made than the average reader does about how a book is made. And so, like, the average gamer might read an article about Call of Duty and they'll know what "AAA" means and that's an industry term. You know?
They already have certain expectations of what that is. They know that it's the equivalent of a blockbuster. Maybe that goes back to movies, too? There's something similar to how those are constructed, and so once you separate it -- like, it doesn't feel like humans make games. It feels like companies make games. Same thing with movies, right?
Whereas, like, with a book, you pin it on the author and you don't know anything about publishing. Same with music, right? You have a band, and most people don't know anything about the record industry. Considering how much I engage music, I feel like I know very little about how that sausage is made. So maybe that has something to do with it.
How do you think coverage of games could change? A lot of people talk about the -- this is another term used a lot -- "hype cycle."
I found myself in a really odd position of wanting to write about the business side of games, the business culture, how that ripples out. But no game publications care. And then I go to a more mainstream place and it's too granular.
Yeah, I don't know if I have, like, practical solutions.
Well, but maybe even what it could learn from coverage of other media?
Yeah. I mean, you know, there are publications that cover film just the way videogames usually do, right? Like, there's a lot of previews, people going to press junkets where they report on nothing. [Laughs.] It's just a bunch of PR. Like, the point of showing up at the press junket is just so you're there? I don't know. It doesn't give anything interesting to the reader. But people eat it up.
And there are magazines that do that, and there are publications -- and most publications that have a movie or film section, they don't care about what the movie is like as it's coming out, they just review it when it's there. And I think that separation is really important.
You know, if you're Kotaku or you're Polygon, you've been covering buzz around No Man's Skyfor three years now and how is that not gonna influence your final statement about it when you review it or you look at it critically? Or, like, you've set up a certain expectation with your audience, right?
Maybe another way to think of this is: What are things you wonder about when it comes to games or the game industry? That could be an indication of what extra coverage there could be, but also ways to chisel away at the notion that companies, not people make games.
[Pause.] I feel like I have a good grasp on it. [Laughs.] I'm as deep as I wanna be. I brought up music because I have a friend who's a music publicist, and she works with some pretty cool bands. Every time I'll read an article or something about Spotify or artist royalties or things like that, my gut instinct about those things, like, I'll bring it up with my friend and she'll just be like, "Oh, well, this article actually has a bunch of false assumptions in it, etc., etc. and a lot of this stuff is not written by people that have ever been in the industry." She'll explain all these things and I feel like my gut feeling about all that stuff is always, like, a few degrees off, you know?
So, I guess that's why I'm curious about that.
Sort of like with videogames, I just -- I don't know. I don't think the industry itself -- the way it handles PR, like, it's not that interesting. You know? I just feel like -- I don't know.
It's a weird question, but what's uninteresting about it?
I guess just the relationship it is going after with publications, you know, they're just trying to control the story.
And, you know, I've worked for tech companies. I still do. You know, it's the same thing. You grant access and you punish those that write something negative about you by withholding access.
So, I don't know. I wish there were videogame publications that didn't do previews at all so they wouldn't have to -- like, that's the only leverage that a game company has over you, is access to things early. And that doesn't really matter for most other industries.
I guess there's galleys of books, but I've never heard of --
It's easy to get a galley. Like, do you remember -- unlike videogames, very few books are actually legally embargoed. Because there are galleys out there and it would be impossible to enforce, but for the Harper Lee book that came out this year, that was obviously embargoed, and I think The New York Times ran a review of it a week early or maybe two weeks early. It was the first one. And it was strange, because I'm sure TheTimes got a galley, but it was embargoed, so how did they break this? And what The Times claims is that they didn't break embargo because they didn't agree to an embargo because they actually got a copy of it elsewhere.
And so it's like, if they get a copy of it elsewhere, they don't have to go through the embargo. That just seems, like, crazy. I don't know. I forgot where I was going with that.
The closest thing I can think of to an embargo in the literary world -- and this is just my brain tap dancing with you here -- is that Mark Twain autobiography that was to be published 100 years after he died.
[Laughs.] Oh yeah.
But that's not exactly the same thing. [Laughs.]
But that would never happen at a game company where Activision is like, "All right, don't release this game until our CEO dies."
That would never happen.
Yeah. And I guess the other thing, like, The Times? They don't really care about embargoes and they usually don't sign them. And I kind of wish that games journalism had that leg to stand on. Like, I'm empathetic to the idea that, yeah, previews drive a lot of traffic and traffic is what keeps the lights on, but at the same time -- maybe that's getting back to why I think, like, it doesn't have to be The Times or New Yorker necessarily -- but why there needs to be more coverage of games in mainstream, because when you're Kotaku or you're Polygon or you're whoever else and you rely on these handful of companies, you have to be in their good graces enough to get early access. Whereas, like, to The Times: "Oh, you didn't get a preview copy of Call of Duty?" Then you're just not gonna cover it.
But I don't ever see that happening. My perception and my experience is that the game industry is so in awe of mainstream legitimacy that the stuff they'll let Conan O'Brien do is the stuff they won't let --
I'm sure they pay him for that.
That's true. Are you implying Conan O'Brien doesn't have strong journalistic integrity? [Laughs.]
It's like all those late-night shows, right? Like, everything is sponsored. Which is fine.
Yeah, but what's really the difference between that and a preview?
There is none. You're totally right. I actually want to watch the Conan thing instead. That's the difference. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Well, but I mean, too, it might sound in the transcript like we're being flippant or dismissive, but the points that he brings up are far more interesting because he doesn't have the baggage and trucked-in knowledge. Where, he'll just point out really simple stuff about, like Resident Evil or something, and how it's uncomfortable to be this white guy shooting Africans or how if you're supposed to be this big tough dude why can't you jump over any tables?
Maybe it just goes back to the importance of an outsider perspective. And maybe he's playing it for laughs. But I think he's viewing it the way most people view these things.
Well, but I mean, I know you wrote about Metal Gear, the new one. How often did you laugh when you were playing that? Like, just because a game is about war doesn't mean that it can't be ridiculous.
Well, yeah. I think that's fine. Metal Gear -- it's funny because some of the pleasure of his games is just like: Is it trying to be funny in this moment? Or is it just not self-aware enough? And just, like, moment to moment you never know.
Branching out further, talking about criticism of games: How many different schools of thought do you feel like you see in game reviews?
So this is actually more of a personal definition to me, the difference between reviewing and criticism: And so, to me, reviewing exists to tell you if you should go to the movie or don't go to the movie. So that's what reviewing is in its core to me. And criticism is more about contextualizing something in the greater canon.
I'm not saying one is more valuable than the other. And I'm not saying there's not writing that crosses both. And generally speaking, especially in games, when something is really well written, it tends to be both I've noticed.
So, I guess, you know, we run into a lot of problems with reviewing in games because there's still this holdover of treating it like software. Like, I honestly -- it's weird because I personally do not care how reliable the multiplayer server is. Like, that's just not interesting to me. But, at the same time, I don't know how you don't mention those things.
Maybe separately. I don't know.
Yeah. You had mentioned a review of Grand Theft Auto V where there was a paragraph at the end about the misogyny in the game, but then it got a 9.5 --
-- out of 10, so the sexism is only worth .5?
It's weird, right? And you can't -- actually I think maybe in a review you could actually not bring that stuff up. But it's like, when you kind of are in the middle of those things and then you knock off .5 points for it, even though it's the last two paragraphs of your review, it certainly sends a strange message.
Yeah. For people who aren't familiar or those who might not agree, though, what's strange about that?
Yeah. It's funny because -- yeah. It's just weird, also, that the grading system is always so granular for videogames. [Laughs.] So that's part of it. But it's just weird to talk about the misogyny in Grand Theft Auto as if it's not, like, core to what the game is. I don't know. What do you think?
I mean, it's always weird because those games are horribly misogynistic but then the men doing stuff in those games don't look all those great either.
Like, no one comes out looking that great. And people often say that that series is a satire and I don't know that is still true. I feel like the main thing people say about GTA is you can hire prostitutes, then you can kill them, and then you can take your money back. And that's sort of the main takeaway people have.
And while I think that's true, I do think it misses some of the bigger picture about the way that it's painting everything. Like, those games are also horribly racist.
[Laughs.] Yeah. There's other things wrong with it.
Yeah, there's a lot of things wrong with it. Can we only fight one fight at a time? Can we only talk about sexism?
I think that's totally fair. Sometimes it maybe is -- the other thing that's crazy, too, is something like Grand Theft Auto as just an object, it's so big. Like, there's so much to engage within it and there are so many ideas in it and so many things that are great and so many things that need to be criticized. You could probably write a whole book about it, and usually what we're reading are 1,000-word reviews.
So, how do you pick out the things that are the most important about that? And I think the reason a lot of Anita Sarkeesian is so great is because she's like, "Here's a specific lens through which I'm going to look at a bunch of these things." I'd actually kind of love it, too -- what she's doing is great, but it would also be cool if she did one where she focused on a specific game and picked it apart from this lens. Criticizing something is not a wholesale condemnation of it, right? [Laughs.] And that's super-important.
Maybe this is something audiences don't understand because they don't have to be in the position of doing that, but it's very plausible that you can be a fan of something and still have a lot of problems with it.
Right. Like, to me, I would rather read a Grand Theft Auto review and the crux of this review was that it want to give it a 9.5 and it is mostly about all the things that it does well, and then I'd rather read a separate piece about the misogyny in the game.
And sometimes when you cross those things together -- I'm not saying that's the wrong thing to do, but that's where there's this weird discomfort. And it's almost, like, two clashing perspectives and it ends up with one score.
[Laughs.] Yeah, and some of this gets into publishing on the internet and the sad fact is a lot of the stuff is gonna be ultimately forgotten or who knows what's gonna happen 100 years from now if people are going to be reading reviews of GTAV. I guess by then it will be GTA25 or something?
And they'll be like, "Oh wow, GTA used to be misogynistic?" But I don't really see that changing --
The weird thing, too, I think with GTAV in particular is as I was playing it, and I've played them all. This one felt noticeably more misogynistic. People pointed out, "Well, the series has always been this way." I thought about it and it's like, that's probably true, but our bar is a little bit higher for this stuff now.
I feel like Grand Theft Auto takes the Seth MacFarlane approach to evading criticism where, in GTAV, they have a black male character and they have Trevor, the bald guy who is gay or at least they heavily imply he might be bi or something.
Yeah, there's something weirdly homophobic about that, too. [Laughs.]
But I think that's how they try to get away with all these really cartoonish depictions of everyone because they can they say, "But look! We're moving the bar forward in some way." Like how Family Guy says, "Oh, one of our main leads is in a wheelchair." Never mind that they just drew him in a wheelchair, and they don't really deal with anything that comes along with that.
Isn't that in some way, too --
Some of the same argument is, "Well, it's satire." It's like, just 'cause you make fun of white people doesn't mean you can't also be racist.
[Laughs.] I'm aware.
[Laughs.] It's like, there's this great piece that Jazmine Hughes wrote in the New Republic earlier this year about how she hates white people making white-people joke because it's ruining the joke. And sometimes I kinda think that Grand Theft Auto does that, too. You know, the whole perspective, "Well, we're racist towards everyone." It's like, that's not really how that works. It's like, "It's misogynistic but we also make fun of men." It's like, this is not taking into account a historical precedent that's very important.
I mean, videogames I feel do this a lot, where they're very aware of tropes and I don't think there's anything inherently bad about tropes, but they will point out how stupid a trope is and then they'll do it anyway.
My school of criticism is that just demonstrates you're smart enough to know you should have done something better.
[Laughs.] Totally. Right.
I feel like it was three or four years ago that there were a bunch of games that tried to be really meta about this stuff. Especially with violence. Did you play Hotline Miami?
At the end, when it's just like, "Oh, well, in the game you're a guy who picks up a phone and goes and kills people. How is that different than being the player of this game?" And smashing the heads of women, and it's just like, Jesus: You made this game. You created the scenario with which I could participate in that. So it's like, it doesn't exonerate you, the creator from making this.
I don't know. I guess it's the same argument with Grand Theft Auto: If you find the ability to kill prostitutes and take your money back repulsive, just don't do it in Grand Theft Auto. It's like, "Yeah, but I'm still playing a game where someone worked on the prostitute-killing engine."
That looks great on a résumé.
What about the metric of thinking a game is good because it made them cry? I'm glad you mentioned that in our emails because I hadn't thought of that in a while. But that's under the umbrella of pushing that games have to be art or that they are the most important medium, right?
I find it annoying that people say that all the time, like, "Oh, it made me cry." I'm surprised it had any emotional resonance, because it's kind of condescending games: "Can you imagine a game actually made me feel a certain way?" But there's never any engagement with, like, "Well, why did it make you cry?" Just, like, "Oh, it was sad."
Like, "That's how powerful this game was. It was sad." A lot of things can be sad and not good.
Well, there's other emotions, too.
Well, The Notebook makes people cry. That's not what makes it a good or bad movie. And I think it goes back to the fact that maybe we just still don't have that vocabulary to talk about these things well.
Like, if a movie reviewer ever mentions that, like, it made him or her cry, that can't be the crux of the whole review, right? And sometimes it just happens -- even coverage of games that I like, I think there's a lot of articles about Gone Home and how it made people cry. Like, who cares? You know? There are so many more interesting things that that game does besides making you cry.
I think the thing that's alienating for a lot of people who have lost interest in games but still keep an eye on it is they're kind of burnt out on the industry games being super-bleak, being super-long, basically being very similar and being creatively afraid, and then being told, "Well, you should just pay attention to the independent space." But then they see a lot of copycats over there or a lot of smaller games that are --
There's just as much sameness happening in indie games. [Laughs.]
If I have to listen to another chiptune soundtrack -- [Laughs.]
But Gone Home comes up a lot and so, for people reading about this who don't really know about it, what does it do well beyond the fact that you just walk around a house?
Yeah, and actually, back to the notion that we don't have the full vocabulary for it, I really do think that it does something that I haven't seen anyone quite explain well. It feels like a game. Right? Like, it's just about moving around a space. And something about that just, like, that level of interaction -- it's like, every interaction you have with the house creates the narrative for you really. You find little hints of things, but it's really about how you engage and how much you engage with those things. And then it has a little bit of cinematic, movie holdover stuff where, like, it tries to create a feeling based on something that almost seems like cinema-graphic. But yeah. I think it does all those things well and it kind of culminates in a pretty short and satisfying experience.
You said that, too, though, that almost every game is too long and you said you saw that as an outgrowth of arcades. I don't know if the question is why you think that is, but maybe it's: Why is that still so popular? Is it just people perceive that as value?
Mm-hmm. Well, also, games are expensive. They're $60. [Laughs.] So, I think that's certainly part of it.
I think it's just a reflection, too, of they're not really aimed at people our age.
Like, my friends are like, "I don't care about Fallout 4. When am I ever gonna have time for it? I just bought Metal Gear Solid V and I'm just on the tenth mission two months later." Do you get the feeling -- has the industry kind of forgotten the fact that they age group that they're making games for now, they were there 10 years ago and are still interested or would like to be?
Yeah, it's strange because in some ways the most profitable demographic is still ours, right? Like, males between 25 and 35. But, yeah, it does kind of feel like games are basically made for teen boys who have all the time in the world and no funding, which is kind of strange.
Because games are $60 or $80 or $100.
Yeah. I think there's also something to a lot of games being built around multiplayer and that is such a wildly lucrative area, both as someone who makes the game that makes the money and then the platform, too. So I think there's a lot of industry push in those directions, but you are seeing, though, I will say, that most narrative games or games that seek to have a narrative getting shorter, I feel like.
Something like The Last of Us, which I think has very high-minded aspirations as a AAA title, I think you can beat that game in, like, 10 hours, which is pretty short for a game.
Right. But depending on your lifestyle, that could be two weeks or that could be two months.
[Laughs.] No, it's true.
I think when I was a kid, I was like, "Oh, I wish I had a game that was 100 hours and they were really deep." Now we're there but those games don't feel really deep. In fact, when I talk to a lot of people for this and they talk about those games, they sound like they're describing a Model T that they're trying to build in their garage or it's just a series of tasks and shopping lists.
They don't sound very fun. [Laughs.]
Not at all. Do you ever, like -- I feel like I do this every three years, where I try and go back and play Final Fantasy VII and it's, like, a totally miserable experience. [Laughs.]
I had that experience a couple of years ago with Secret of Mana.
I wonder if this says something more about how we lose our attention span and how we just get patient --
I think you start to realize -- it's certainly a little bit of both -- but I think we start to realize that a lot of games were designed to keep us engaged for hours and they would engage us in ways that weren't interesting or meaningful, right? But since we're teenage boys or middle-grade boys, we don't have other interesting or meaningful experiences in our life yet. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] This is true.
You know? We just alternate between JRPGs and homework.
Yeah, and nerdy cassette tapes.
It's also kinda crazy to me that people may be discovering David Bowie now because of Metal Gear.
We were talking about Kojima before, and I will say that at the very least, one of the upshots of those games is at least he can entice people who play his stuff to be curious about things other than games.
Yeah. I mean, I will play any Metal Gear Solid game. I'm interested in anything Kojima does. I do think, like, people give him too much of a pass for being weird and interesting. But it's true. I wish there were more people making games like him.
Like, I'd rather something be interesting and bad than good and safe.
Yeah. I think all reviewers and critics feel this way, right? And I think maybe -- I finish a lot of books that I think are interesting and not good. And I think maybe one problem in games is there aren't that many games that are interesting and bad, just like a lot of games that are good to neutral and pretty straightforward and boring. At least in mainstream games.
Yeah. No, I would agree. But it is true, the people with the most money in games are the most risk-averse, which may not be a profound statement, but it's not often acknowledged.
It's like a rush to the middlebrow, right?
Yeah. How is the fact that people don't really seem to care what writers get paid or the fact that they aren't able to make a lot of money -- how does that contribute to a lot of the stagnation? Or does it not?
You're kind of asking two different things. Does it matter that the average reader doesn't know how much a writer gets paid or doesn't care? I kind of think it's not their job to care. That is our job as writers to care about that.
I think we care but it doesn't seem to really change much.
No, that's true.
Which is why I also lean towards, "Well, someone else should probably start caring about this stuff.”
Yeah, I mean, the flip side is to be a writer, it's easier to start writing and start doing good writing and be published than it has ever been. The flip side is it's just harder to make a living at that than ever. So, I don't know if I have such a bleak outlook on it, but then again I have never really gone full-time freelance. I've always just held down a job and written on the side.
So, yeah, I don't really think it's the reader's responsibility to understand that. I think it should be more on writers and editors to wrestle with that: How do we make things better given these constraints? It seems kind of like a copout of an answer, but sometimes I just feel like writers and editors, they feel like they're victims of an environment that doesn't care about what they do and that's certainly true on some level, but kind of up to us to fix it, right? [Laughs.]
Yeah. How do we fix it? [Laughs.]
Yeah, apparently the solution is to just get a lot of VC money and then be funded by NBCUniversal and then -- [Laughs.]
Oh, okay. We'll just do that. Problem solved.
It's gonna just fluctuate. I actually think we're gonna move into this place where it's gonna be harder to write if you're not established, but there will be more stable jobs. So, like, the accessibility is gonna go away but what people actually get paid if you're in there will go up.
With games, I mean, it's interesting because it's a space that's never really been given a lot of mainstream scrutiny or a lot of attention there. And I think that is starting now. But do you think the rates now and the difficulty with establishing yourself, does that in some way contribute to the industry or its output in some way, sort of less creative looks at it or less curious looks at it because the model is you want to stick to the model?
Yeah. No, that's true. I was looking at your spreadsheet of what different game publications pay and it's very low. I really like the way you laid it out because there was a low end and then there was a high end. I think for any kind of media writing, the low end is always gonna be about that, but the high end, at least you have some aspiration to get there. And there's no aspiration for getting paid in games journalism or game reviewing. So, that's certainly tough. But I do think there is a reluctance from people who usually cover videogames to -- there are only so many publications that will run something about videogames, so it's hard to make a living at that.
But so many videogame writers just want to be videogame writers and videogame writers only. Like, every music writer I know writes about other stuff, too.
And so the number of opportunities they have to just get work increases so much when you're engaged with a bunch of different other cultures and communities. And I think there's something that's still very insular about games and inaccessible and that writers aren't looking outward enough.
So. I don't know if that kinda answered it.
That's okay. I don't know if any of these questions have answers.
[Laughs.] That's true.
[Laughs.] You had mentioned how there's a lot of talk about multiplayer games but very rarely anything about how those interactions play out.
I was thinking about this kind of recently, but, like, if you're gonna talk about multiplayer, you know, you have to talk about the way that people interact with it. And I think that the interaction is not just between people who are auto-matchmaked online and what if you have people over to play, you know? So, I think one thing that's great about Rocket League is that you get a few people to play and you dick around for a little while, and then people start to get more and more into it, and then people in the other room, they see it. No one has really talked about that experience at all.
And it's because a lot of reviewers, they just review it in a bubble. They just only played it online with other people. And I know not every game necessarily has local multiplayer, but even then, the experience of how things actually play out online is interesting versus whether maps are balanced. That necessarily isn't the most interesting part about playing games online. I think it's also moot, too, to take multiplayer games really seriously. And I think that's interesting, that there's this whole other realm of it that no one's really touched on.
What do you think videogames have accomplished?
I almost want to say nothing, but that would be a cop out.
I just think, like, videogames as a whole, like, is opposed to accomplishing anything in the way that music and literature and film, like, do those things have to accomplish anything as a whole?
I think a lot of the tension comes from an insecurity around how games are kinda fun and adults are bad at acknowledging that fun has a value.
Yeah, that's probably true.
It's that they need to accomplish anything. You can say nothing and that's valid.
I think it's like when you talk about an industry accomplishing something, it's like asking, "What has tech accomplished?" You're gonna get a lot of aphorisms. It's like, "Well, we've disrupted blah-de-blah and connected people all over the blah-de-blah."
Asking that about games, like, the only answer is to give you something similar to that. No, I think if you think of videogames as an artform, I think they accomplish things on individual levels. Like, every great game seeks to accomplish something and its success is how close it gets to that. You know, on an individual basis. So, it's funny. It's easier to think about all the things that videogames haven't accomplished. They haven't emulated movies well. [Laughs.] And that's certainly been the goal of some games.
So, yeah, I would say that videogames have accomplished nothing on the whole. [Laughs.]