Pure Folly, Miss Poly(gon)
There’s a draft sitting on my hard drive* of a thing I wrote almost two weeks ago regarding Polygon’s review of SimCity, probably the most disastrously-launched PC game in history. How disastrous? So utterly, unremittingly disastrous that some people received refunds without even looking for one, while others asked for refunds and were denied and threatened with being locked out of their Origin accounts if they kept being so annoying about it. People were unable to play a needlessly always-online game because EA’s servers couldn’t bear the brunt of people trying to play a needlessly always-online game. Those who eventually managed to work their way through the EA Server bossfight only noticed all the problems the actual game itself had.
The Challenger had a more successful launch than SimCity.
Anyway, that draft. It contained a lot of words about how that pre-release review of an always-online game, played on bespoke servers and thus bearing no resemblance to the conditions in which readers would eventually play the game, was at best misguided, at worst a betrayal, and above all else, just factually wrong.
Polygon’s exclusive review (that they’d promised not to do) awarded a 9.5 to a game that didn’t work. (Some panicked lowering of that score in the face of a suitably testy audience some hours later did little to remedy that. Especially since everyone had already bought the game, natch). To use an analogy that’s been floating around in the interim, it’s sort of like a food critic giving a restaurant a glowing review four weeks before opening night, only to find out the restaurant is actually just a rusting caravan filled with discarded hospital sharps and Nickelback albums.
Predictably, hot angry tears erupted from the internet’s every duct, and justifiably so. The question was posed: how could Polygon betray its readers, and plant its flag so firmly in the publishers’ territory? Did they think we wouldn’t notice we were eating syringes off jewel cases?
It seems like people—for some reason—were waiting on Polygon to call the industry out on its crap. Polygon, that Microsoft-sponsored, humourless, 70s prog rock supergroup of games journalism. Expecting any kind of populist uproar from Polygon is like expecting One Direction to vilify the X Factor culture that spawned them – they’re entirely within the system, with no interest in existing outside of it. Probably the only thing you needed to know in order to be sure that Polygon was never going to change the world of games journalism was that they could afford to make a multi-part documentary trumpeting all the ways they were going to change the world of games journalism.
And that was the story as my draft told it. Since then, some interesting interesting happened. Hero of the hour, sidebar-linked since this blog’s messy birth, John Walker of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, led something of a one-man crusade, revealing that a) the always-online game worked offline, to some extent; b) the game didn’t really do anything important with the connection even when it is online, besides functioning as some suspiciously-convenient DRM; and c) some of the writers at Polygon are big silly idiots.
As the fine folks at NeoGaf tirelessly collated, Polygon’s reviews editor Arthur Gies scoffed at Walker’s inside source, insisting that the always-online battle was one the publishers had already won, and pooh-poohing the suggestion that the game could be workable offline. Until—no! But yes!—Polygon newsy guy Brian Crecente threw up an interview with the modder who’d tweaked the game to work offline, neglecting to mention that his mag had loudly refused to believe anything about such a tweak despite John’s publishing a very similar interview with that selfsame modder days previously. Crecente even went so far as to deny seeing that interview, which was fine until it was awkwardly pointed out that he’d actually tweeted about seeing it shortly after it was lobbed online. In essence he went back in time to shoot himself in the foot, somehow managing to be impressively unimpressive.
And, y’know, in spite of all of that backstory, the problem isn’t that Polygon are even more rubbish than we thought. Because we knew they were going to be awful from the very second their website’s trailer hit Youtube. Because their website had a trailer on Youtube. COME ON GUYS WE SAW THIS COMING**
The problem is that people are looking to the “big” websites to fight their corner, when really, any truly worthwhile games journalism will be punk rock. It will be anarchic. It will be outside, and it will look weird and misshapen and different. It’ll be fantastic.
It will come from the likes of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, who set themselves outside the mainstream by default, simply by being a PC-only site back when PC gaming was still considered as dead as Jimmy Saville and just as popular. Discouragingly few websites are as independent or opinionated, as their near-solitary determination to bore into the SimCity debacle freshly proves. (And really, it’s worth arching a wry eyebrow at Polygon being granted early access to hip new PC-exclusive SimCity review code instead of the world’s foremost PC gaming website, I reckon.)
It will come from people young and interesting and absurd enough to not care about being mature and responsible and robotic: wonderful people like Cara Ellison, Brendan Caldwell, Steve Hogarty, Quintin Smith when he remembers to write about games sometimes, or Grant Howitt. It’s perhaps not coincidental that three of these have been regular contributors to RPS.
It will come from people who remember that games writing used to be chiefly about finding funny ways to say whether games were good or bad for not much money, where avoiding any kind of PR-pleasing frippery was a sure sign you were doing it right, and any paragraph that didn’t elicit a giggle was a sure sign you were a miserable failure and probably ill. It will share a metaphorical gin den with Amiga Power, Digitiser, and the confusingly-American Old Man Murray, and it will have concept reviews.
It will come from people who remember that their loyalty is to their readers, not their PR reps, and who value honesty and integrity over exclusives and page views.
It is again probably not coincidental that the most important piece of games journalism in an unlucky dog’s lifetime came from the Lost Humanity series by Robert Florence, who pointedly notes within that piece that he is “not a games journalist”, rather “a writer who regularly writes about games”, and who unflinchingly walked away from that high-profile gig once his outsider’s voice was stifled.
Notice that, besides being responsible for the wondrous Consolevania and VideoGaiden, he’s also a regular RPS contributor.
So: Polygon and their ilk will continue with their nonsense, proudly accepting always-on DRM, or microtransactions, or day-one DLC, or whatever new and harmful gimmick the increasingly obsolete publishers wheel out, as the inevitable industry norm. They will continue to award 9.5 to broken or unworthy games, and then point out the fact that people buy those games as an infallible sign that they were right, as if completely oblivious to the part their exclusive reviews play in that. Because they don’t have the will or the courage or the drunken recklessness to opt out of the loop.
I’ll continue to prefer a different kind of nonsense: one where games journalism is a good-natured laugh; a laugh at the industry’s expense, rather than the reader’s. To paraphrase Amiga Power’s mission statement: always funny, never joking.
*This is perhaps notable for being the first time I’ve ever written a draft of anything, including college essays and award-winning plays and such. I toil FOR YOU, my pretty no readers.
**We doubly saw this coming when they started running features about the palaces in which they doth game, as if anybody cared what chair you sat in whilst playing 50 Cent: Blood in the Sand, but that’s already been beautifully skewered by Alec Meer.