Sunday, November 23, 2014

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: Dragon Age: Inquisition's Inquisitive Initialization!

I bought Dragon Age: Inquisition.  Didn't just buy it.  Pre-ordered it.  It's the first game in a while I've been excited to play, which is why it's so hilarious that it's premier timed almost exactly to the busiest part of my year: for the next three weeks, I'll be spending the bulk of my time editing papers and providing feedback to students, leaving me with precious little time to sit down and do things like "enjoy amazing video games."  But still, I'm trying.  I've put a decent chunk of time into DA:I, a few hours so far.  But even before that, I found myself investing a tremendous amount of time in DA:I's legacy "web app." 

To those of you who didn't pre-purchase Dragon Age: Inquisition, or even play the first Dragon Age, the "Dragon Age Legacy" app is essentially a giant spreadsheet that EA is asking its players to complete before they begin playing Dragon Age: Inquisition.  It's a floridly designed, wonderfully artistic spreadsheet, but a spreadsheet it remains, resplendent with variables that detail the outcomes you determined in previous games.  The events in question vary in memorability and severity from "Did you sacrifice your life killing the Archdaemon?" to "Did you give a bracelet to a young woman in a fruit stall in a flybitten shithole town just outside of the capital city?"  These choices are, in fact, presented as having the same level of import to the game itself, and who knows just how accurate that portrayal is.  So far, I've seen some variables manifest themselves that I didn't consider significant at all, like the outcome of a quest that I may or may not have represented accurately, in some pretty dramatic ways, like the well-being and disposition of the starting location of the game itself.  Characters from the game who could potentially die are already popping up, and references to the King, who could've theoretically died, are popping up as well.  This spreadsheet has already had a massive impact on my gameplay experience, which is good, because I spent around as much time filling it out as I've spent playing Dragon Age: Inquisition itself so far (around five or six hours, all told).

How did I spend that time, you ask?  Largely attempting to reconstruct my playthrough of the first Dragon Age game, which features the largest concentration of variables, an unsurprising fact considering how long and detailed that game is.  I picked over Dragon Age's surprisingly porous questlog, locating a number of suspicious outcomes that indicated I'd done things like had a child with a woman I'd never met (seems unlikely) or sprinkled blood on the holiest of ashes that I remember gaming my way around defiling so that I could still unlock the class that required destroying an important piece of Thedas' shared cultural heritage.  I spent an entire evening after I finished teaching picking over those variables one by one, trying to sort out just what the vague post-quest wording behind each one meant, or where the quests might actually exist in that framework, until finally I gave up and, hat in hand, filled out the outcomes that I could remember, and improvised the ones I couldn't.  It was easier for Dragon Age 2, which was both fresher, and possessed of fewer variables (though I couldn't for the life of my remember who I'd romanced; either Isabella's fine pirate booty of Merrill's sweet and shy heart) but I still spent more time than I should've checking and double checking my results against the quest log, and even shifted a particular variable that had an immediate impact on Dragon Age: Inquisition's plot.

All this effort occupied a place for me adjacent to the game itself, a space where I could reflect on what had come before in various Dragon Ages, and what would come next in this new adventure.  The raw number of variables was so overwhelming, so intoxicating, that it made me remember just how queerly wonderful the sense of choice and consequence was in the first few Dragon Age games.  Some of them were obvious, for sure, but the very notion that some of those decisions, things as simple as completing a particular quest line, might reverberate through other games, is impressive in a way that even the Mass Effect series' heavy interconnectivity doesn't manage.

It also highlights my lone disappointment with the first few hours of Dragon Age: Inquisition: the limited character background options.  I know, it's a bit silly to harp on considering the history of the series, and the way that options were so dramatically scaled down in Dragon Age 2, but I still miss the thorough interactivity that Dragon Age: Origins allowed you to impose on your character.  The raw, overpowering number of variables available to you was tremendous, and the way it shaped gameplay simultaneously so minor and yet so fundamental.  I desperately wanted to play as an elf from an Alienage who had carved his way into a position of authority, only to be laid low by a single ill-timed explosion after a career of taking advantage of such moments, but no joy.  My options were limited; only one selection per race/class combo, many of those outright duplicates.  While it's far from the worst thing to happen to the series, it was somewhat disappointing to encounter after reflecting on the rich array of choices available to me in previous games.

But perhaps it shouldn't be.  Given Dragon Age: Inquisition's focus on previous events, and the dexterous little character creation system that, while not as robust as Dragon Age: Origins, still provides enough options for me to be the person, more or less, that I want to be, perhaps this is just a nod at how important those previous choices I made were and how, in time, the choices I'm making in Dragon Age: Inquisition will rise to prominence as well.  Perhaps these limitations aren't limitations at all; they're strictures placed on a system so that all the choices I've made before can have a chance to play out and create a world, a narrative all my own, fulfilling the apparent goal of the Dragon Age series since it kicked off its early days as a roughshod Facebook game that gave you a chance to piss around on the Deep Roads, pre-Origins' release.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: The Poetics of Hip Hop!

The poetics of hip hop occupy my thoughts, if not as much as they used to, quite often still.  Hip hop as a genre has saturated popular culture, moving from a musical subculture to an effective subset of pop music with its own indie movements, entrenched "classics" and bubblegum sweet iterations on genre themes aimed at providing commercials, movies, and pabulum television with evocative soundtracks.  The genre now reaches from Drake and Chris Brown to RZA and Snoop Dogg all the way out to the old school indies, like Aesop Rock and Blockhead.  The last two hold a special place in my heart; Aesop Rock remains one of my favorite rappers, and his approach to the genre of hip hop actually helped me see the poetic quality that it inherently possesses.

Because hip hop is poetry.  It's a particular idiomatic form of poetry with its own ill-defined rules and traditions and constantly shifting boundaries, oft confused or conflated with existent subsets of poetics like spoken word and performance poetry.  But hip hop isn't either of those things.  Hip hop is its own genre of word play conflated with musicality into an intellectual slurry of extraordinary potential.  You can break down the lyrics of a particular piece of music and examine them the same way you'd examine the lineation and measure of a particular piece of poetry.  You can pick through the imagery of Aesop Rock's Labor and come out richer for the experience.  You can look at how cadence, measure, and meter all function in a given rapper's work, and, for your effort, understand how things as fundamental as enjambment and stanza structure function in other, more conventional works of poetry.  In fact, I owe much of how I understand cadence and flow in my own work, as well as how I conceive of line and structure, to the poetics of hip hop - Marianne Moore and Ian Bavitz both taught me how a line should work, in very different ways, at around the same time in my life.

But there's a problem with that comparison I just made, a problem buried in the connection that I just elucidated: cadence, measure, and meter aren't terms native to the discourse of hip hop.  And their equivalents, things like tone, flow, and beat, aren't things that poets are particularly game on discussing.  Hip hop exists outside of the discourse of contemporary poetics, at least in part, because the people who normally sit down and "talk poetry" don't have a language to actually engage in a discourse about it.  They often don't even have the language to acknowledge the foreignness of certain concepts.  A contemporary academic poet knows slightly less about flow than a particularly active teenager who spends all of his allowance trying to hit up all-ages shows and building up enough clout with the people who run the venues he frequents to sneak into 18-plus shows.  In fact, I'd bet on the teenager being able to talk intelligently about how structure influences poetic flow over the academic poet, who'd probably talk your ear off about Mandelstam's bleak imagery.  They're both valid conversations to be had, and they're actually both pretty important to having a fully realized discussion about poetry in contemporary culture.  The issue isn't these two interests exist; it's that they have trouble co-existing.

There have been a handful of attempts to rectify this.  Yale released the Anthology of Hip Hop a while back, a well intentioned and deeply problematic book written by two academics, with limited input from Henry Louis Gates Jr., a wonderful academic in his own regard whose conflation with the fields of both poetry and hip hop is somewhat baffling to me, and commentary from Chuck D of Public Enemy and Common, two artists firmly rooted in the popular hip hop movement, with Chuck D moving closer to that sort of "old school" or "classic" hip hop that many cultural commentators focus on when they discuss the evolution of the genre.  The scope of their discussion was predictably limited, in part because of the necessity of determining an effective scope when anthologizing a particular body of work (you can't fit everything into one book, to paraphrase Basel King) and in part because the book itself seemed to be largely influenced by the interests of the writers, rather than any sort of exhaustive study of the field.  Much of their discourse focused on interrelated artists from similar schools of thought and movements, and their effort to include an exhaustive list of artists seemed to look forward, rather than backwards, anthologizing contemporary artists whose impact was still largely unknown in favor of older, more established obscure artists whose important work at the fringes of the community  has had a tremendous impact on the genre as a whole.  Even without that issue, the book is riddled with transcription errors: there's a great Slate piece that details many of them.

The existence of the book, again, isn't the problem: the problem is the slapdash way much of the subject material is dealt with.  It's part of a borderline disrespectful pattern of behavior that academics often engage in, wherein they insert themselves into a subculture or subgenre and attempt to define it in their own terms, projecting their own hierarchies on to fields where those hierarchies are both unnecessary, and ill-fitting.  Here, academics did so to the extent that they limited the scope of their discussion while focusing heavily on artists they believe will appeal to a mainstream audience, undermining the impact an anthology can have on public awareness.  It's great to have MIA and Slick Rick in an anthology of hip hop, but if the artists can bring awareness to other lesser known and still important artists, like M.O.P. for example, the anthology has actually done what anthologies are meant to do: it has expanded the notion of what we should consider art, and allowed us to establish a broader context for a genre beyond the "first thought-best thought" response we usually bring to bear on discussing popular culture.  There's also the issue of just developing a shared language for the discussion of hip hop and poetics.

This is a deeper problem, and it's something that occurs whenever you're attempting to avidly discuss a subculture or subcultural institution: without a shared language, it's impossible to have a real dialogue about something.  Hip hop doesn't even have this shared language internally, and some of the terms inherent in hip hop, like beat and rhythm, mean completely different things in poetic terms.  The end result is that two people entrenched in their own communities could have a very long, very thorough dialogue about the subject at hand while thoroughly mis-communicating with one another.

So how do we address that issue?  One way is to organically develop terminologies as they're needed, but that just patches the issue; it doesn't help us fix the problem long term.  The real answer is to have academics sit down and seriously examine hip hop as a subgenre of poetry, and to have a real effort to engage with hip hop as an appropriate academic topic in higher education.  A freshman class taught by an enthusiastic professor who knows and loves the two or three dozens artists he wants students to listen to over the course of a semester could build a terminology that we could use for years to come.  A full cirriculum oriented around writing papers about the social real-politik of The Diggable Planets buried in dope, structurally simple lyrics metered out hypnotically would be a god damn dream to teach, but the first steps need to be taken before we can get there, and at present, it's difficult to find a professor who even knows Blackalicious from Berryman.  Perhaps this paradigm will shift in time, but for now I'll keep dropping Aesop Rock references into my own work, and keep breaking down how hip-hop isn't performance poetry for my students whenever they ask, because it's important that we acknowledge that hip hop is simultaneously poetry, and its own wonderful genre with its own rich history and cultural background.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: Obliging Teamwork!

Multiplayer games that rely on teamwork are often have some pretty core problems.  Gamers are all too often conditioned to avoid seeing aspects of their environment as anything more than potential threats.  Consider the way a first person shooter works conventionally: you're surrounded by dozens of enemies, forced to fight your way through them with guns blazing.  If allies are helping you, they're usually either set pieces in action sequences, or working invisibly on the sidelines, so that you feel like you're the center of the action.  As a result, games that mimic these forms often have difficulty actively encouraging the kind of teamwork they rely on, or even just establishing an effective framework for it. 

Even the most teamwork intensive games, like Left4Dead, encourage their teamwork on a subtextual level: in Left4Dead, you live or die based on how well you act as members of a team, but there's very little on your HUD to that effect.  Keeping track of your fellow players is a responsibility largely left to VOIP chat.  It's still a bit of a crapshoot: an uncommunicative or inattentive player will still trash the whole game, and just what good teamplay is might not be apparent to such players at first.  Consider some basic formations in Left4Dead, like the corner phalanx, wherein players back up against a wall and do their best to hold off a large number of enemies by having two players use melee attacks to push the horde back while the other two mow them down with ranged weapons.  It's a highly effective strategy (so much so that the game was actually rewritten to make it less sustainable as a tactic) but explaining it to a new player can be challenging, and engaging in the strategy seems counterintuitive.  It's best to enact it in a confined space with absolutely no avenue for retreat, something most players are rightly nervous about doing.  In the early iterations of the game, it involved two players forgoing heavy firepower in favor of the ability to knock enemies back.  If even one of the meleers slacked off or didn't do their job, or if anyone was grabbed or knocked loose from the formation, it could prove disastrous immediately.  All of these issues hung on deliberately maintained voice communication - the game was little help on anything but informing players when one of their teammates was incapacitated by an enemy.  Then it would help out with a little outline, giving allies a sense of where they need to shoot around to free their ally.

It's all slapdash, and yet, despite that, quite fun.  Teamwork is pretty great, and games built around teamwork are becoming more and more common in the landscape.  Payday 2, for example, is a heist game which works best with other players, even if the AI does its very best, and a team of good Payday players can do some amazing things.  But Payday is godawful at actually making this sort of teamplay into a mechanic.  Some basic elements of the game, like forming a fire line to move bags, and floating between objectives, aren't clearly established as mechanics, and are actually problematically implemented.  Certain roles are less valuable than others, or just less viable.  It's a well crafted game, but the teamwork that actually ties all of its various elements together often feels like an afterthought.  And really, who can blame them?  Teamwork in and of itself is something that relies on strong, direct communication, something that games often have to rely on third party programs for.  A good team doesn't just fall together, it has to practice together until the entire team doesn't just know their own role, but the role of every other person they're working with.  How do you make something like that into a mechanic?  How do you incentivize that kind of play without making the game lock into a fail state the moment you commit a teamfail?

If you're MWO, you create an internal system of incentives that overwrites your entire existing scoring architecture.

MWO's scoring system functions along two channels.  There are experience points, which gate progress and allow you to make general improvements to a specific chassis, and C-Bills, which allow users to buy equipment and upgrades for their mechs.  In days of old, MWO's score system was oriented largely around the amount of damage players could do.  There was some technical stuff behind it, where destroying components of enemy mechs and landing a killing blow earned you cash, and a neat little trick where just tapping every enemy at least once with the tiniest of lasers would earn you the full payout for a kill assist, but for the most part it was all about the damage you did.  Do more damage, get more money.  That meant heavier mechs with bigger payloads tended to get higher payouts, and lighters mechs, a necessary part of the game, had to kind of suck it.  Teamwork, a fundamental part of a game where two teams smash into one another, was actually sort of discouraged: if you were part of a pack of light mechs running around, spotting targets, you'd just be earning money for some back-line missile boat, raining fire down on foes.  Even with a victory under your belt, your winnings would be paltry compared to what the heavier mechs you were assisting earned.

But Pirahna Games, who seem to be on the right track more often than not, have been iterating on their scoring system to try and make the kind of activity that light and medium mechs engage in more rewarding for players.  It makes sense: light mechs are riskier to pilot, often more challenging to use effectively, and do considerably less damage, but they fulfill a necessary role in the context of the game, acting as scouts and spotters for the rest of the team, and using their ability to cover vast distances relatively quickly to control territory in certain game modes.  Without lights, a team can't win matches, but the incentive to play a light mech is pretty low.  Pirahna changed that by actually adding reward mechanics for doing all the things light and medium mechs were meant to do anyway.  Spotting for missiles gives you a nice little cash bonus, and an impressive experience bonus as well.  Neutralizing ECM cover so that those missiles can rain down on your foes will net you even more bucks.  And if you're hanging out with your light bros, or just piloting a light or a medium mech near other mechs, you'll receive a cash infusion for every few seconds you spend in combat.

It's not a perfect system, by far.  Piranha originally set the payouts for these rewards so low that in-game progress slowed down dramatically in most games.  Even after they tweaked the numbers so that they became more reasonable, certain kinds of play are aberrantly profitable for players to pursue.  Want to get a lot of money?  Engage and disengage from combat with enemies your allies are engaging, so you can grab a bonus for hitting an engaged target for the first time in a while, and a bonus for surviving a quick, brutal engagement.  Both those rewards are larger than the rewards for staying in the fight with your team which is, fundamentally, a problem, especially when you consider those rewards are pretty substantial.

Of course, the biggest rewards in the game are still levied towards destroying enemy mechs, but in a whole new way.  Standing toe to toe with an enemy nets you about five different kill bonuses, if you do it the right way, which incentivizes a particular kind of solo play (or perhaps merely acknowledges that that kind of solo play can only really occur once in a given game).  Even so, the application of incentives for teamwork is an interesting conceit, and it seems to be working.  While games remain hit or miss, I see people working together and sticking together as a team more often than not, now.  No one wants to miss out on the money you get for sticking with your teammates, after all.

Incentivizing the framework for a given game can't operate as a panacea for the issues that face designers.  It seems to be working, sort of, for MWO's developers, but Payday 2 actually attempted to implement a similar reward system to encourage players to complete missions stealthily and play a variety of missions, and that system, rather than inviting a particular kind of play, actually just makes the already intense nature of Payday 2 even more frustrating.  It's a slippery slope: you can lead your players towards one another and give them cookies when they play as a team, but if you're trying to get them to do things they don't want to do already, incentivizing that behavior doesn't seem to be particularly effective.   At least, it doesn't seem to be that effective yet; a proof of concept to that end would be interesting as all getout, though.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Super Nerd Sunday Presents: The Problem with Gamergate's Problem with Games Criticism!

#gamergate has made it out of the cultural sidelines and into the main stream, with talking heads regularly appearing on network news over the last week.  The fact that the issue has achieved such critical cultural mass is shameful.  The level of vitriol and sexism touted by the movement's proponents is unconscionable, as is the exceedingly queer rhetoric of the movement's inexplicable celebrity spokesperson, Adam Baldwin.  It's to be expected; the movement spawned from an attack by a jilted ex on a vulnerable (culturally, emotionally, physically, fiscally, or whatever) young woman, an old story.  The only new thing about #gamergate is the scope of the attack: the young man who attempted to defame Zoe Quinn managed to shape a movement out of his weird MRA bullshit, instead of just quietly receding to some corner of the internet.  Perhaps the only good thing about the entire movement is that it has given Anita Sarkeesian some much deserved national attention, as she is repeatedly brought in front of national news broadcasts to quietly call out video games on their problematic past.

And Sarkeesian really does deserve her attention.  She's been trying to fix the broken apparatus of games criticism from the outside for years now.  Her Feminist Frequency series began in the early days of Kickstarter, and serves as a case study for the incredible things that an intelligent person at the fringes of an intellectual framework can do given a little support from an interested subset of the community.  She's been doing a fine job of it, too: Sarkeesian's intelligent, well considered and thoroughly researched videos are a breath of fresh air in the fetid swamp of gaming criticism, and they give us exactly the kind of insightful commentary on the overarching latticework of games as an art form that the existing myopic, "enthusiast press" centered media outlets that have dominated games journalism and criticism over the last two decades have lacked.

Which brings me to my point, as it exists: #gamergate's sexist, childish tone does a disservice to gamers as a whole.  It's inexcusable.  That's a thoroughly undeniable component of the dialogue that's occurring right now, but a lesser evil, one I still find thoroughly infuriating, is that the #gamergate asshats have been using a call to reform video game journalism as a shield.

Games journalism is broken.  It's apparent to anyone with half a god damn brain that it's broken.  It's so broken that Penny-Arcade founded the Penny-Arcade Report to try and fix it, and then abandoned that tack after two years.  It's so broken that seminal Newsweek critic N'Gai Kroal straight up left the field after making it quasi-respectable a little less than half a decade ago.  That's not to say that there aren't good critics: Sarkeesian, PAR's Ben Kuchera, Kroal, Stephen Totillo, Leigh Alexander, and Tom Chick, to name a few, are all fine writers, and most of those writers have fought tooth and nail to remove themselves from some of the more arbitrary constraints of the field.  But much of the dialogue of gaming journalism and gaming criticism is dominated by vapid fan-boyish diatribing.  Sometimes, this is the product of genuine enthusiasm which, while perhaps not good writing, isn't necessarily toxic in and of itself.  But just as often you can map the patterns of publications to a sort of queer cronyism, wherein the work of certain publishers or certain series receive favorable treatment, regardless of the product that is produced.  Big ticket series, like Call of Duty or Madden, can release games that actually don't work, and reviewers will give those games favorable reviews time and time again. 

There are a few reasons this could be happening: the underlying vitriol behind #gamergate could be saturating the consciousnesses of the reviewers as well, prompting them to hedge their bets or curb their critiques for fear of aggressive fan response.  Tom Chick is an especially noteworthy example of this.  Chick's forthright criticism has earned him a great deal of ire from people who feel he "hates games" because he sometimes says they're bad, or not even bad, but just not great.  There could also be some fear of reprisal from studios or publishers: reviewers or publications who give bad reviews to certain products may no longer be given advance copies to complete reviews with, which puts reviewers in a very awkward position, if they're reviewing for the purpose of guiding consumer confidence.  And sometimes, it's just the issue with the enthusiast layer of the press in general.  There are a lot of middling to poor writers out there who write not because they see the form as culturally important, but because they just love the products.  These people will sometimes write effusive prose about how great things are because, dernit, they're great. 

This last variety is perhaps the least deleterious to the dialogue as a whole, because it's a product of genuine enthusiasm instead of fear, but it's still problematic.  While genuine enthusiasm is necessary to propel a medium forward, if it isn't tempered by a strong critical perspective it can lead to stagnation in a medium.  Consider the Call of Duty franchise: everything it does now it did in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.  The manner in which its new releases iterate on that framework is mostly a matter of set pieces, and the new bits that work (things like the Zombie mini-game from World at War) are sometimes little more than afterthoughts that take on a life of their own after release.  But Call of Duty: Ghosts had to be all but unplayable on release in order to earn even moderately critical reviews, and even then it sold like hotcakes.  Broken multiplayer aside, the fact that the game was little more than a repackaging of previous iterations of the franchise was secondary to many reviewers (though some did speak on it quite effectively, praising, first and foremost, the dog-murder sequences of the game over its faithful reproduction of Call of Duty's tried and true game play model).

Even without the unfortunate binary of effusive praise and respectful silence that an enthusiast press brings, games journalism has problems.  The Escapist, one time respectable publication now lain low by editorial mismanagement, produced a problematic, tacitly sexist frame for much of its #gamergate coverage.  Much of the dialogue that doesn't occur on a cultural layer, the dialogue that occurs surrounding the works themselves, is also problemitized by norms in the industry like the idea of "scoring" games, which fundamentally places minimalist, independent, or high-concept games at a disadvantage: Wasteland 2 being an 8.5 to Dragon Age: Inquisition's 9.5 doesn't actually speak to the relative quality of each game so much as it speaks to the fiscal power of the marketing and production teams behind each project.  They're both excellent, but one game plays to a niche audience, and the other plays to a mainstream audience.  The higher number doesn't reflect relative quality so much as it reflects relative reach, or projected market impact.  The end result is that games journalism has oriented itself almost entirely around a kind of consumer-guidance mindset, one where it's less important to establish why objects will be culturally significant, and more important to benchmark just how culturally significant those objects may eventually become.

There are bastions against this, but these are largely the very institutions that #gamergate seeks to disenfranchise as part of its "movement."  The press that targets work they see as significant, rather than profitable, has long been marginalized, and it's that kind of press, the kind that focuses on projects like Quinn's and the work of studios like Tale of Tales, that really promises to revolutionize both the apparatus surrounding games and the reach and framework of games themselves.  This is the very press under attack by the #gamergate movement: the critically minded press that attempts to expand the discourse beyond a "best values" catalog, not the enthusiast press that borrows its journalistic standards and approaches from magazines that were, at their inception, owned by the industry they wrote about.

Perhaps this origin, natural enough in the industry's early days, is what really problemitizes the relationship between consumers, critics, and content-producers.  Whereas the apparatus governing the discourse surrounding literature and film is traditionally helmed by people who either study or produce the material they're discussing (less so in the case of film, to be sure), games journalism is removed from its apparatus: it's rare to see the people who review games produce them.  In fact, when they begin to do so, they're excised almost entirely from the critical apparatus.  Sometimes this is for moral purposes; Anthony Burch has been quite forward about Gearbox and Destructoid's cross pollination, and how it problemitizes critical relationships between the two entities.  But it may also stem from a fact that the writing surrounding games is almost uniformly constructed as "lesser" - games writing, and ergo games journalism, is a secondary concern to a number of other things.  We've come to expect second rate work from the people who produce games, and, as such, when they actually write things, they're asinine or incoherent.  There are exceptions to this rule, like Burch and, to my pleasant surprise, Cliff Bleszinski, but they're less frequent than I'd like to see, and what's more, they're standouts in a sea of mediocrity.  For every pleasant, thoughtful consideration of a game, there's a coarse dismissal of something for its slight difference, or a vapid celebration of a game centered around nebulous concepts like "fun," defined without context from the author, or the medium itself.

It's infuriating to watch a culturally significant medium languish without an effective apparatus for responding to the ideas within it, and what's more, when that apparatus is absent, the ideas that go unseen often go unexplored in future iterations.  Part of why literature and cinema engage in pattern shifts over the years relates to how the apparatus processes elements within them.  Feminist poetry and prose has spawned a body of work which responds not only to the writing itself, but to the criticism surrounding that writing.  Cinematic movements emerge to try and defy critics, or answer challenges from critics.  Games are yearning to do so: critiques of the Tomb Raider series spawned the Tomb Raider reboot, one of the most fascinating feminist games in recent history which defies many genre conventions, and structures itself around eradicating the damsel stereotype.  Tomb Raider was a mainstream success, and a critical darling, and rightly so: it took the resources it had, and did something awesome with them.  It did something socially significant, and it did it in a way that people seemed to largely enjoy.  That's how great art made for popular consumption is supposed to work.  People read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao on the train to this day because it's a good book, and people discuss Junot Diaz in academic circles because he made a body of previously overlooked work visible through his efforts.  An effective critical apparatus had to be there to help Diaz achieve that goal, however, and give him the attention he deserved.  That's what we're still lacking as a medium.

Kuchera might disagree with me semantically.  In his farewell note to PAR readers, he says that "We didn't fix game journalism, but the whole idea of it being broken and needing a white knight to run in and make everything better was arrogant and more than a little pigheaded. There was good game writing before PAR, and there's going to be good game writing after we go away."  I'm with him part of the way.  Good writing will always be around, and there's no white knight that will suddenly shift the tone of games criticism and make it into something better, something more worthwhile.  But there are still problems facing the apparatus of games journalism, and good writers working together can make the medium as a whole something more, something better.  There's a toxicity to games journalism that ties in to its medium, the same toxicity that made #gamergate a thing.  The internet is where trolls live, and trolls will always be there, yammering endlessly, threatening people futilely.  But slowly, steadily, we, as a community, can eke out safe spaces for expression and create frameworks for real critical discourse.  There have already been attempts to create "serious publications" that effectively function outside of the enthusiast press apparatus.  Some institutions of the enthusiast press have even succeeded at breaking away from their limited circumstances and becoming something more.  Gamasutra, for example, does great reporting and, every once in a while, puts out a superlative critique or commentary of games as a medium.  The answer to fixing games journalism isn't silencing voices, and it certainly isn't marginalizing people who have historically been marginalized.  It's creating more spaces for more types of expressions, places where you can find all kinds of discourse, places where works of art are discussed in depth, not reduced to a numeric score.