Tripping on Air: Why Game Journalists Can’t Describe Games

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It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Super Smash Brothers Melee. The first time I played a game on console was the original Super Smash Bros. on N64 at a friend’s house. He warned another friend who had the game not to invite me over, because I’d do nothing but play Smash Bros. I’ve probably spent more time playing Melee and Smash Bros in general than any other game I own, and what initially drew me in about Smash versus other games was the solidity of the combat. I felt like I was making deliberate choices that had a weight to them. In other games, like Zelda, I waved the sword around and it was pretty cool, but I had this craving for the solid feeling that Smash Bros. combat provided. The topic coming up is a bit personal for me, so please bear with my gushing for at least the next part. Recently, Destructoid published an opinion piece titled: “I’m going to miss tripping in Super Smash Bros. 4” written by Jonathan Holmes. Articles like this leave me disappointed, both out of an admiration for my favorite game, and a love for games in general.

My Time With Smash

Ledge_tech_SSBMTo be plain, Brawl was a disappointment for me. When I first played it, I wasn’t into competitive gaming. I had never played Street Fighter or any other traditional fighting game before, or ever owned a non-Nintendo video game system. I’d been fighting online, trying to tell people based on the footage we had that it wouldn’t end the Smash series, it would just be different and we’d still have everything we loved about Smash Bros. in it. I checked Sakurai’s updates on the Smash Dojo every day, frequently staying up to three in the morning to see what was new, but actually playing the game for myself, I felt something was deeply off about the way controlling the characters felt, especially the ones that carried over from Melee.

Despite my initial impressions, I stuck it out. I played the game constantly with my little brother and anyone else I could get to play with me. I unlocked every character on the first night I had it. I beat the story mode on the hardest difficulty with my brother’s help. I went through the event mode matches and eventually unlocked all the stages. I picked up a completely new character, Snake, and learned how to play the game fairly well. I played with items on high. Yet I felt like there was something ineffably wrong about Brawl that I couldn’t put into words. All I could tell at the time was that Brawl was “slow” and “floaty.” I felt there was this disconnect between what I did, and the actions on the screen, and weird unexplainable things would happen at a whim, like attacks connecting weirdly, sliding across the stage from the ledge, or suddenly being launched higher than normal. No matter the character, I found it was easier to win by playing the game in a boring and safe style than actually trying to attack and take stocks off the other players – as if the only way to win was to suck all the fun out of the game for everyone else playing. After a few months of non-stop play, I moved back to Melee, and without any sort of coordination or discussion so did all my friends in the surrounding area. We didn’t need to be experts to feel that something was wrong.

When I first heard from an online friend about how he was replacing textures in his copy of Brawl, my immediate question was, “Is there a mod that makes it like Melee?” He didn’t have an answer for me, but that lead me to finding Brawl+, one of the earlier Brawl mods, and later Project M. I know a bit more about the game now than I used to, and I can finally put into words that feeling of unease I got from Brawl, and all the factors that contributed to that. That’s part of why the aforementioned article disappoints me, because the struggle of Melee‘s competitive scene and fanbase fighting to stay alive and overcome its lackluster successor for thirteen years has meant so much to me. I’ve had fun times playing and learning from other people about these games I love – it means a lot. It is a direct result of the Smash scene’s survival. Without the scene, it would be nearly impossible to find other dedicated Smash players.

Why is Holmes Tripping?

It’s easy to point out ways in which Jonathan Holmes was wrong. Pointing out the ways is exactly what he wants you to do. It’s why the article exists and, intentional or not on his part, everyone upset by it is indirectly paying into his pockets. Further, it allows him (and by extension, other journalists) to continue playing the expert, while the rest of us are stuck characterized as the routinely angry and incorrect mob. By taking offense at articles like this, commenters are forced to accept the message in the form of an argument – the message being that there is a controversy over tripping in Brawl and that Smash fans are separated into two big groups of “casual” and “hardcore” players that hate each other. Through repeatedly bringing in traffic using controversy in the form of opinion articles, reviews, and biased reporting, journalists are able to establish themselves as an asset to their publishers and as “experts” to their readers.

An article like his is frankly more than a little bit rude, and the author knew it before he published it. Jonathan Holmes went into a giddy glee on Twitter about how he made so many people mad and continued to jeer at them. After all, they’re the rabble and he’s the author. It’s expected that any sort of controversial opinion on the internet will attract an inarticulate raging backlash, thereby he is able to claim moral superiority by pointing out how horrible his detractors clearly are, further illustrating how right he is.

Why did Holmes choose to talk about tripping? Why did he elect to do this during Evo, for a game that fans raised $90,000 for cancer research just to get into Evo? Smash Bros. has other random elements that are disruptive to competitive play, like random items and stage hazards, so why would he choose to focus on the one element that is mandatory, and has no function other than disrupting how one plays the game? Especially an element that he describes as discouraging people from playing the game, or playing the game in a more static and defensive way? He chooses to highlight how allegedly no one can tell the difference between Brawl and Melee unless there is a direct comparison, despite it having no real relevance to tripping. This serves to aid his later conclusion that Melee players are control freaks. Is this article really about tripping, or is it his vendetta against competitive Smash players? Especially when he closes it by telling people who don’t want to deal with unfairness to go play Checkers, a game that he calls boring.

Holmes isn’t acting as a player of Smash, he talks as if he’s an observer, looking in from the outside. He’s someone watching other people play the game and telling them that their way of playing it is boring, as if he knows what goes through the heads of tournament players. The commentators do a really great job explaining things like players reading their opponents, attempting to keep composure when they’re losing, or taking measures in and out of matches to keep their psychological momentum up or kill their opponent’s momentum. As an observer, Holmes doesn’t understand what goes into playing the game. Of course, the people who are good at the game can’t possibly be good because they enjoy (watching) the game like Holmes does, it’s because they’re impatient control freaks.

This isn’t something he would ask of Street Fighter. This isn’t something he would ask of Starcraft. One of the magic things about Melee in the time before Brawl was how it brought people together. It has a relatively low entry level compared to other fighting games, yet had a depth to it that dedicated players could learn about and improve through. This gave Smash Bros Melee. a strong lasting appeal, because it is so easy to get into the game, yet you could do so much with it, and it never gets stale. Jonathan Holmes doesn’t want a game for everyone, he sees others playing the game in a controlled way and finds it offensive. He wants Smash Bros. to have a nonsense feature that he wouldn’t ask of any other game, because he doesn’t actually care how Smash Bros. plays, or whether it’s a fun game at all. He said himself he or any “average” player can barely tell the difference between Melee and Brawl by looking at them.

Again he sounds like an observer, using a visual demonstration to try to get his point across, and vague statements like “hang time” to describe characters moving slower, rather than facts about the exact differences. The differences between Melee and Brawl are something you can feel, especially because Brawl has input delays and buffers. This can’t be seen in footage of the game, but can be felt by anyone playing it. Just like how an HDTV with high input latency looks fine to anyone watching, but if you try to play a game on it, you suddenly feel the intense sluggishness between your controller and the screen. Since the differences aren’t obvious, the series should stop being geared towards a balanced play style, and instead towards one based on playing the game and interacting with opponents as little as possible, trying to edge them out in the long run, because he doesn’t mind that as long as those pesky fans of the game go away.

Genre Blindness

The points brought up in Holmes’s article reflect a failure on his part to understand the games he criticizes, and rely on the general audience not being knowledgeable enough on the topic to simply dismiss him, while still having an audience knowledgeable and opinionated enough on the topic to combat him. This is common in games discussion and criticism. Most people operating as journalists and academics aren’t experts on games. It’s unlikely that they’re even fairly good at games. There are regular signs that journalists simply don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to games with a significant depth to them (as is routine for most competitive multiplayer games) and that they struggle with games above the average level of difficulty, frequently resorting to use of an easy mode, or simply reviewing the game incomplete and marking it down for its “difficulty” or “inaccessibility.” A recent example of this was Revision 3’s review of Metal Gear Rising, where it is notable that all of their gameplay footage included the auto assist indicator in the upper left corner that only appears on easy mode. It’s worth contrasting this with the interview Platinum Games recently conducted with Saurian Dash. In this interview, Saur is able to explain how the game works on a fundamental level that all of the journalists reviewing the game simply passed up on.

Zeboyd Games posted an article on their blog titled, “Why Games Like The Wonderful 101 are a Poor Fit for the Gaming Press,” addressing the common trend of skill-intensive games with a deeper mechanical underpinning being dismissed by the press because the press simply doesn’t have enough time to get good enough to understand how those games work. Penny Arcade Report’s Ben Kuchera chose to write a piece on Wonderful 101 with Robert Boyd’s article in mind, coming to the conclusion that the game’s depth and complexity were more alienating than inviting, and that this in itself was inherently a point against it. In numerous reviews of DmC: Devil May Cry it was brought up how the game was made “more accessible” but still had the same deep fighting system. Despite a legion of legitimate complaints related to game features such as the framerate, lack of hard lock as an input modifier, and broken style meter, gaming press chose to dismiss the majority of these complaints as the fans complaining about Dante’s hair color or simply whining because they can’t handle the game being changed. Such a disconnect between critics and readers is common, as demonstrated by a study conducted on Metacritic by Xentax that scores users will give a game and the opinions of critics have next to no causal link.

Word From the Experts

Jonathan Holmes cites Smash Bros. experts too, but only to deride them as being control freaks upset about something that is, in his view, extremely minor to the game. This is because he lacks the ability and experience to understand how this particular change, increased landing lag, ripples up and affects the other game elements. Gaming journalists cannot envision how the parts of a game fit together and affect one another, they can at best address the basic features the game possesses and render some vague judgment based on how the game feels. In Holmes’s article on tripping, he attributed the static and defensive style of play popular in Brawl to tripping, when landing lag and shield stun actually have a much larger influence on that.

In fighting games, a large component of the game is the ability to beat out your opponent’s move by throwing out your own first, or to punish it by attacking them when they miss. Stronger moves tend to take longer to start up and recover, so they are easier to punish and harder to land on your opponent. I’m sure everyone here has had the experience of your opponent messing up a rest with Jigglypuff and being caught sleeping, allowing you to punish it with the strongest move you have. The longer the recovery time of attacks, the more severely opponents can punish you for attacking. All the Smash games have relatively quick attacks, but Smash 64 and Melee had lower landing lag, allowing you to attack sooner, and your opponent could only punish you with moves that were of a certain strength, and only if they were capable of predicting and reacting to your attack’s recovery.

In Brawl and Smash 4, increased landing lag means that not only is it easier for your opponents to punish your attacks on reaction, but that they can use stronger punishing moves on you. This means that there is an imbalance between the risks and rewards of attacking. If every move is relatively fast to come out, but can be punished hard for missing, then people will naturally avoid attacking except with their weakest and safest attacks. Look to the grand finals of the Smash Invitational Tournament at E3 for an example of that. Shields also play a role in this, because when the duration of the stun on a shield is lower, then the defender has more advantage time on block to punish the person that just attacked them, and even lower commitment attacks become punishable from a shield where they might otherwise be safe. What Jonathan Holmes dismisses as the obsessive ramblings of control freaks is an easily overlooked but important factor that will literally define how the entire game is played.

Picture 2014-07-14 22_37_39It is worth contrasting the opinions of Mew2King and Armada here with those of professional Street Fighter players in response to the new version of Street Fighter 4. In a recent interview, six of Japan’s top players discussed the changes in Ultra Street Fighter 4. It’s not a surprise that the number of frames in advantage time comes up frequently in this discussion. Games are displayed in successive series of animation frames, and these frames serve as a convenient standard timer for discussing the duration of things like attacks and stun. Advantage time is how fast you recover from your attack versus how fast your opponent recovers from the stun of being hit by it. Changes of as little as one frame of advantage time for a character were enough for these experts to re-evaluate changes in ranking, power level, and play style.

If you check the average fighting game review, they’re able to inform you of the big new features the developers added with this iteration, like the typical Ultra Street Fighter 4 review being able to describe how focus attacks work, and the new delayed wakeup system, and some superfluous side features like the combo trials, and describe the general vague feeling of the game, but they’re incapable of really describing why that fighting game is better or worse than any other fighting game. They lack the ability to process the way the game is put together and work out the strategies and game dynamics inherent in the play of it.

This isn’t a skill that is exclusive to the best players in the world, even average level players of these games are typically capable of discussing these things, because the deep nature of these games require players to understand how the whole system works in order to beat others, or play the game well on the higher difficulties. After all, I was able to explain how much the landing lag influences the game, and I’m no top player. A typical forum for a competitive game of any type will usually have a great deal of discussion about how even the smallest elements of the game influence how the entire thing works. Seth Killian was able to write about information like the mental game of Street Fighter long before people had access to home console versions of the games to test on, and he has never been a world class player.

Game journalists lack knowledge or capability of this type both for specific genres and for games as a whole, leading to erroneous notions like throws being cheap, professional players only being good for memorizing combos in games like Street Fighter, or playing out from a static “How to win at Smash Bros.” cookbook based entirely on reflexes and dexterity rather than the mental game of understanding and predicting your opponent, while also trying to keep composure and momentum going. The commentators did an excellent job explaining to unaware viewers, but to some degree you have to play and see for yourself. There are whole elements of the game that most people will never see or experience because they don’t think about it or try it out, and those elements frequently get relegated to obscure articles in niche communities.

The Fault of Game Reviews

It’s easy to take the last segment as an indictment of a typical journalist’s ability to understand fighting games or action games with advanced techniques, rather the typical journalist’s inability to describe is only more obvious with those types of game because what they fail to understand about the game is better documented and more obvious to the players. What should be noted is that the style of game reviews is uniform across all games. They are failing to describe all games for the same reasons, it’s just easier to point out with games that rely on their mechanical systems to make an impression, rather than their story. The reviewer will typically summarize the theme of the game, the major mechanics used by the player, and a general statement on the “experience” of playing the game.

Some academics have criticized this, claiming it is shallow, and we need more criticism of games and less mere reviews. These academics are correct, but more frequently than not what they mean by “criticism” of the game isn’t discussion of how the mechanics operate to create a fun, interactive experience, but rather analysis of the cultural significance of the game, how interactive functions are used for a narrative resonance, or the message the game is supposed to convey. Yet the problem remains that when I read the typical game review, I have no ability to tell from their writing whether the game is good or not and I am forced to rely on my friends or longer segments of gameplay footage to help give me an idea how the game actually works, and feels to play. Describing gameplay in an explicit way that people can understand is hard and not well explored, so critics and academics tend to fall back on elements of film or literature theory that have dissolved into the public consciousness, and vague opinions on whether the game feels nice or not. This is part of why there is a general trend of the gaming press highly praising works with large narrative content.

Being reviewers, it’s expected that they’re experts on judging games. Apart from the fact that they’re writing on a big-name game sites (and everyone else isn’t), what places their opinion above anyone else’s? As more incidents of reviewers panning a game because they didn’t “get it,” and bias in review scores come out, it becomes increasingly obvious that reviewers are unskilled, and that this lack of skill and background knowledge is limiting their ability to act as what their job title implies they are – people who are capable of delivering insights about the quality of a game because of their above average knowledge of games. Issues with frequent bias have lead to a call for more objective games reporting, leading to things like Objective Game Reviews, journalists such as Jim Sterling, and a PAX panel, attempting to lampoon the idea that a game can be reviewed on the basis of its components, while minimizing the reviewer’s personal preferences, because every reviewer’s experience is subjective and therefore inevitably biased. So they indirectly claim that objective or non-biased reviews can’t exist, and aren’t a thing consumers want, reviews can only be a person’s individual reaction to a game, therefore all reviews are fallible and you might as well continue to read theirs.

Despite this, reviews profess themselves and inevitably serve as consumer guides, attempting to inform consumers which games are worth their time and which should be avoided. Criticisms that reviewers are incompetent tend to be met with defenses that they beat whatever token hard game is being bandied around at that time, and don’t translate to an improvement in the quality of their writing that would be correlated with skill in both performing well at games and understanding their functioning well enough to review them. Rather than limiting one’s ability to relate to an audience of “average” gamers, being skilled at games means being able to spell out to consumers what the strong aspects of a game are with more accuracy than an unskilled reviewer. This is something that gaming journalists will attempt to dismiss because it removes their credibility and because them getting good at games isn’t going to happen. Anyone who is good at games is usually too busy enjoying them or doesn’t have the right connections to get into journalism.

If games truly couldn’t be judged as good or bad, then the only reasonable alternative format would be to describe them unambiguously enough that a reader could determine if the game is likely to be something they are interested in, rather than the reviewer vaguely attempting to sum up how much it bored them. At least in that scenario complex games wouldn’t get the shaft because reviewers deduct points for them being “inscrutable,” as Ben Kuchera put it. The trouble with this is of course that game reviewers would still need to actually be able to describe how the game works objectively on a level below the obvious surface features in order to allow people to understand the game’s operation well enough to judge for themselves whether they will like it. This approach is harder to put into short simple words, and thereby harder to market and make money off of, unattractive for both journalism sites and the game publishers that fund them, despite being more useful for everyone involved. That, and game reviewers would need to be good at games.

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