Thursday, January 03, 2008

Byte: Oh, bloody hell

Just as well I didn't choose to pursue that career as a civil service diplomat, because judging by the hornet's nest I appear to have stirred up today, I'd probably be on a par with Prince Philip and George W. Bush's love-child...

I do have a bad habit of getting into misunderstandings with people like this, and as usual it's more with the way I'm saying things than the actual things I'm saying... or at least I hope so. So sorry again to Alec, Tom and the RPS guys - I've probably put my points across again with all the grace and subtlety of a thirty-thousand pound fuel-air-explosive bomb, and stuck my foot so far in my mouth that my ankles are propping my lips open. My apologies, for any misunderstanding between the words forming in my head and materialising on the keyboard and screen. I talked about how things *might seem* to an observer, I never stated or wanted to infer that what I was saying was what anyone actually did. If the nuance of that got lost somewhere between my brain synapses and my ham-fists clattering the keyboard, it's entirely my fault.

So I'm going to stop talking The Witcher and other people's opinions of it, and how I find them curious, (because I think I've said quite enough on that particular subject already) and try clear a few things up as best I can by talking about something I am an expert on - me - as plainly as I can, and hopefully the only person who can possibly be offended by what I say here is me. And that hasn't happened since, well, New Year's Day, when I advocated mass genocide of all the stupid people as a method of controlling global warming to some friends I was entertaining. But I wasn't being serious about that. Mostly...

I should make ABSOLUTELY clear at this juncture that I'm no RAM Raider. I don't have utter contempt for the videogames journalism industry. I don't think all professional games writers are corrupt hacks who can't find better jobs and give out the scores they're told to by the PRs. Because that's frankly absurd, and untrue. No, every single games journalist I know personally is, without exception, grade A, straight-up, awesome. I haven't personally met a games journo I haven't liked, and I've made quite a few really good friends while doing this. If you've followed this blog for any length of time, by now you should know that I'm not in "the industry" professionally. For me, it's a part-time dalliance that I have in my spare time, and I do the vast majority of my work gratis, because I can a) afford to, and b) want to avoid the tax self-assessment horrors at all costs.

I've done both internet journalism and print journalism for a few years now (though after today, the latter probably never again), but because I'm not "scene" or "industry", I've had a certain amount of freedom to say what I like, because I don't have any vested interests in continuing to get commissions, and because it really doesn't matter one way of the other whether I work in "the industry" again or not... so maybe I say a bit too much about how it all works, or make unpopular observations when I'd be better off keeping my mouth shut.

But anyway, I'm going to try and elaborate on a few of the things I was saying earlier using examples from my own experience, because at least there I can definitively say what happened and why. And they say confession is good for the soul, so here goes....

Like any other profession or industry, games journalism exists in an imperfect world. In print especially, you don't often get the time you want or need to really review a game and this can have one or more of several undesirable effects. Sometimes you have to rush, sometimes you have to cut corners, and occasionally, you're either going to jump to a rash judgement, or make a few honest mistakes, or worst of all, get your "facts" wrong.

Writers are genetically incapable of admitting they've made a mistake. They're doubly right especially when they're wrong. It's just the way writers are wired. Without that self-belief you might as well not bother. Their opinions are the only right ones, and woe betide anyone who has the temerity to disagree. I'm probably as big an unwarranted raving egomaniac as they come. Not something I'm terribly proud of, but it's a fact. So imagine how mortified I was when a reader pointed out to me that the 150 word diatribe I made in the middle of a review lamenting how Neverwinter Nights 2 not having a key to highlight all the selectable objects in the current map area was a regressive step from the functionality of the first game could have been easily avoided if I'd paid slightly more attention during the tutorial and read that the function was indeed still there - just not bound to the tab key. At this point, all I could do was put my hand up, admit I was an idiot and rewrite that section of the review... There's nothing worse in the world than criticising something and finding that the problem is with YOU, and not the game. I wanted to find a warm, dark hole, crawl into it and die, because it was such an elementary error that undermined the whole credibility of the review. At least it was an online review so I could change it, with only the comments thread to reveal my shame. This is the kind of innocent, honest mistake that's so easy to make and that happens to any (every?) writer in this imperfect journalistic world; As I was saying earlier, it's most punishing and damaging for print writers, because they can't take it back, not without calling into question the integrity of the entire publication, and that's just never going to happen - even in a perfect world.

But for sure, even if people can't admit it (for reasons that should be obvious enough), this kind of thing happens, purely because of the pressures of publishing deadlines and PR pestering. There are reviews I look back on and cringe because I'd been rushed to a judgement and either been way too harsh or way too generous. I know that if I were to re-write the Battlefield 2142 and Star Wars: Empire At War reviews I did, I would be inclined to be a little bit more forgiving or a little more generous if I'd had more time to play the games. But as a writer, I have to stand by what I wrote, because they do express my genuine impressions and the feelings I had about the games at the time. In hindsight, that wonderful, perfect 20-20 introspection-o-vision, even if the opinions and observations could be objectively picked apart, at least they were given in good faith. Sometimes that's all you can do, and maybe you'll look back on it and regret it later, or you'll look back and say, 'yeah, I fucking nailed that one.' - but the line between the two can be a lot finer than you might think.

In many respects, because of the position I've been in, as a by-your-leave, unpaid freelancer with a 40-50 hour a week day job, I've been able to pick and choose what I've had to review and wangle longer playing times than the average freelancer and protect myself from those kinds of errors - a situation I wager a lot of games journos would kill for - but despite all that, my body of work is far from perfect or unquestionable, and I'm the first to admit it.

I'm just a big, loud, overly-opinionated, occasionally eloquent Scotsman who loves games and loves writing, and a lot of the time I can't actually believe that people would take the time to listen to what *I* say. 400 hits a month, half of which are me and the other half of which are web spiders that ping my URL for less than a second (if Google Analytics is to be believed) would seem to suggest they don't. So my unerring capacity to piss people off like this continually amazes me... but surely people should be net-savvy enough not to take absolutely everything written on the dick-waving wall of the internet at total face value by now?

Gah. This kind of thing is exactly why I quit internet forums. I'm actually quite a nice, reasonable, inoffensive guy. You just have to get past the first half dozen posts...
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