Review: “WTF Is Wrong with Video Games?”

WTF is wrong with video games? — asks Phil Owen in an article written by Phil Owen and with the introduction from Phil Owen, advertising a book by Phil Owen.

A lot of people disagreed with Phil Owen’s message, but some of them went a little further and blamed Polygon for the whole thing. I disagree with those people, but I also blame Polygon for the whole thing. This particular gaming website is not the place you associate with the video game love. Unless your definition of love includes articles accusing perfectly innocent games of racism and misogyny, explaining how gamers terrorize the world, or discussing the state of politics in the Philippines.

It’s no wonder, then, that some people confused Phil Owen’s message that video games generally suck with a regular Polygon’s article.

But that’s not it. What we have here is the first chapter of Phil Owen’s booklet titled...

I took one for the team, and bought and read the whole thing.

One conclusion is that I wish the book were re-titled “WTF Is Wrong with Video Game Journalism: How gaming critics refuse to grow up”. Then I could point everyone to the book, maybe add Jim Sterling’s video on Quiet, and voila, we would have our answer.

Alas, that’s not going to happen, so let’s talk about the book as if it really was about video games.

I will spend some time discussing the book’s first chapter, as it’s something everyone has access to. Then I will talk about the preface, because it’s very special. Finally, I will quickly go through every single chapter of the book, and offer my final thoughts.

CHAPTER 1: ART

You can read the entire chapter here.

This is one of the more interesting chapters, and the reason I bought the book in the first place. While I disagree with a lot of what Phil Owen has to say here, I can appreciate a different perspective. Also, the style was so disarmingly uncombed that it felt refreshing. Most of the game writing is boring, and I enjoyed the idea of reading something that’s clearly not.

Using foreshadowing as an example, Phil Owen announces that:

Films are calculated works from start to finish, and as my friend said, everything that happens in them matters to the work, or at least that’s the goal. Because that’s what art ultimately is. It has a purpose, to communicate something to you.

The fragment about the movies is true. Not everyone can pull off the required internal consistency and cohesiveness, but that’s exactly when we feel that something is wrong with the movie. A properly executed movie makes every scene and every second serve a purpose and work towards a certain goal.

To be clear, most movies or novels do not achieve that, and that is why we have Sturgeon’s law, which informs us that “ninety percent of everything is crap.” But not achieving the goal is not the same as not having one.

How does it all relate to video games? Phil Owen explains:

Video games work quite a bit differently most of the time. You won’t see all the key elements contained within the full package that is a AAA video game have the meaning that a [foreshadowing] sneeze will in a movie.
Even when we look at those games considered to be the best that the medium have to offer, we see this problem constantly. The Last of Us, which some had referred to as “the Citizen Kane of video games” when it was released in 2013, is rife with arbitrary design choices that hold no meaning for the complete work of art.

The thought here is that games are full of stuff that has no connection to the main theme, story, or message. Phil Owen uses The Last of Us’ shivs to explain it further:

[…] in a bit of blatant absurdity you’ll need to scavenge four scissor blades and some tape in order to make one. The reason you’ll find yourself making so many shivs, though, is that these monstrosities can only be used once, either plunged into the neck of a human or zombie, or to unlock a jammed door.
[…] Why you would need four scissor blades to make a single shiv is a question so silly as to be pointless. How four scissor blades taped together could possibly break or become otherwise unusable and unsalvageable when you stab them into a human neck isn’t even a question I would bother to ask […]. The shivs exist as an element of challenge for the player, but they are not part of the art created by the writers and designers at Naughty Dog.

What that tells me is that Phil Owen does not exactly understand video games.

Video games have their own language. They use what I call “gaming metaphors”. Tools, conventions, techniques. A health meter is one, and an unlimited pause time before making a difficult choice in Mass Effect is another. Both are not something that exists in real life and makes logical sense, but we understand and can decipher their symbolic and practical value in a video game.

All art forms have their own “metaphors”.

For example, on the surface level, movies are incredibly weird. You watch people as if you were a ghost standing near or even floating above their heads, and yet these people do not seem to be aware of your presence (so-called “camera view/angle”). For some reason, your ghost is able to jump in time and space (so-called “cuts”). And in some scenes, you can clearly hear the music being played by an orchestra, even though there’s no orchestra in the place our ghost is observing (so-called “movie soundtrack”).

Songs are just as weird. Instead of telling a story like a normal person, the singer uses their voice to emulate an instrument that speaks (so-called “singing”). The singer also often repeats themselves (so-called “chorus”). And for some other unexplained reason most songs feature one of the instruments offering a variation of the main melody (so-called “solo”).

And don’t get me started on the books. Why are most of them artificially divided into sections (so-called “chapters”)? Why are they presented in a code we need to decipher, like when we have to understand the difference between a period and ellipsis, a row of three periods (so-called “punctuation marks”)? Why can a detail take a thousand words to describe, when no one does it in real life?

The thing is, we do not notice that weirdness. All those methods of an art form’s expression are transparent to us. Why do we notice the weirdness of gaming metaphors, then?

Music, the written word, movies — all of these forms had centuries or millennia of trial and error to morph and adapt to what works and what does not. Today, we are born in the presence of these conventions and methods, they are parts of our lives since the beginning of our existence. They are so natural to us we are rarely distracted by them. They cause no dissonance in our brains.

Unless, of course, they stop being a part of our everyday life, and then they become weird again. Like opera or ballet.

The conventions in video games have also arisen organically but the art form is still relatively young. Even though we did find a lot of what works and what does not, there are still territories uncharted ahead of us. We are still inventing new mechanics or even entire genres.

We also keep inventing new gaming metaphors, and that is what sometimes makes them weird. Today, the fully auto-regenerating health surprises no one, but some gamers were in shock when the feature was made popular in the early 2000s.

However, despite the fact the gaming metaphors that The Last of Us uses are a decades-old standard, it seems to be that Phil Owen would like to see them gone. It’s “video game logic” to him.

The Last of Us is a video game, and video games operate under video game logic. Video game logic isn’t inherently bad, just as the concepts of magic or superpowers in fiction aren’t inherently bad. But in the case of these flimsy shivs, as with most arbitrary video game things, there is simply no meaning to be found there beyond their being a gameplay device.

Nah.

Let’s forget that comparing tools and methods to the concepts of magic or superpowers in fiction makes as much sense as comparing The Last of Us to a fish. The important thing is: there is a deeper meaning to the gaming metaphor of shivs, and contrary to what Owen states, they are a “part of the art created by the writers and designers at Naughty Dog.”

Of course, on the literal level the shivs make little sense, just like the film soundtrack on the literal level makes little sense in a movie. But we are talking about a video game, an art form, and not a reality simulator. And video games cannot exist without their gaming metaphors.

Remember the good old times when the idea was that the journalists and critics are the illuminated ones, who, thanks for their education, knowledge and dedicating their lives to the craft, reveal things to us? Offer a different, but cohesive perspective? Unveil the hidden truths, depths, and layers?

Those times seem to be gone now. Today in the gaming world it’s not weird, but actually expected that the comments section will be more reasonable and more knowledgeable than anything above it. That at least partially it will focus on correcting the obvious nonsense of the main article.

Like this.

Next, Phil Owen criticizes another gaming metaphor: forced linearity of the traversed path. Even though The Last of Us goes out of its way to make sure we never feel like we could easily go in a different direction, even though there’s actually a surprising amount of freedom in some of the areas, and even though the linearity of the path is an obvious standard in games of this genre.

But there are trillion other things we cannot do in the game. Like driving a car anytime we want, or catching and interrogating a bandit. Emulating and simulating everything is impossible. Why single out the adventure’s path, and a very reasonable one at that?

Then Phil Owen goes medieval on Gears of War’s ass. Just as he was unable to appreciate the metaphor of crafting your own survival in a game about survival, he dismisses the act of a quick reload in a shooter as “created in a void”. Then he decides that the feature was “close to having some greater meaning” if not for the silly and unrealistic damage boost it also offers. Because such a thing cannot, apparently, be a metaphor for the adrenaline rush from the successful Active Reload resulting in better combat focus and aim expressed metaphorically as more damage delivered.

Then, finally, Phil Owen reveals something profound to us.

[…] the idea of gameplay as instituted by game developers seems more concerned with preventing you from participating in the art. If the gameplay is itself part of the art, then that’s fine (and there are some games that you could argue are like that), but endless repetitive shooting or dungeon crawls rarely fit that bill. Instead, the gameplay is merely a substanceless activity that just exists.
In other media, we would say that having a large and prominent, totally meaningless component constitutes bad art. In games, we say that’s just how it’s done. Maybe games are art and maybe they aren’t, but if they are, nearly all of them are ineffective at being art.

In other words:

  1. Games can only be proper art when all elements of a game work in unison.
  2. What usually stands in the way is the gameplay. It may be a “part of the art”, but more often than not the gameplay “prevents you from participating in the art”, and so because of the gameplay, this “substanceless activity”, nearly “all of [games] are ineffective at being art”.
  3. The logical conclusion is, then, that by itself and on its own, the gameplay, the only thing in video games that is not taken from the other art forms like music or movies, the only thing that is unique to video games, is not art.

This is like saying that in a musical piece, the lyrics are art and if the music is there, “it’s fine”. And if there is a clash between the lyrics and the music, we should seriously do something with the music. Also, if a musical piece features no lyrics, then it’s not art. It “just exists”.

That’s just silly.

At best, what Phil Owen is saying is that the gameplay should support the story told. Then “it’s fine”. Not for a second he considers that maybe the gameplay, this thing wonderfully exclusive to the video game art form, comes first and it is everything else, including the story, that should support it.

Why?

Look, we already have incredible stories in endless books and movies. Neither Phil Owen nor I will ever be able to watch every movie and read every book worth our time. And dozens more are created every day.

Meanwhile, a new art form was born in front of our eyes. Okay, maybe Phil Owen is a bit too young for that, but we can all agree that video games are new. Why, instead of cherishing what is unique about video games and trying to find solutions that would support this uniqueness, should we try to make this new art form be as close as possible to the art forms we already know?

Take comic books, for example. I want comic books to speak to me through the minimum text and maximum imagination to what happens between their beautifully crafted static panels. I don’t want to hear characters speak, or to have animated panel elements that make the comics look like seriously under-budgeted animated movie. I want this art form to play to its strengths, not to try to become other art forms.

The same goes for games. Engagement and interactivity are elements unique to video games, and we should build the video game experiences around them, not despite them or against them.

So this is where I fundamentally disagree with Phil Owen. He does not just dislike the uninspired gameplay, which is something that most gamers would get behind. He does not just advocate for a closer relationship between the story and the gameplay, a subject close to my heart. He dismisses gameplay as an empty activity that should get its shit together in order to support the real art: the story.

Considering the critique I have just presented, why did I buy the book, then?

Because I believed Phil Owen, despite the obvious issues with his article, was on to something.

That something is actually a couple of things.

First, two years ago I speculated that the increase in visual and story-telling qualities will produce a dissonance. I called this dissonance a sim-toy dissonance, and you can read all about it here.

In short, though: the more abstract the visual design, the crazier your designs can be. That is why Terraria or Lego games work. On the other hand, the more realistic your visuals, the more harmful dissonance the strong game metaphors and designs detached from the story-telling and visual layers can deliver. That is why it started bothering some of us lately that Nathan Drake is able to kill four hundred men alone, and why 2007 brought us the definition of the ludo-narrative dissonance.

Second, three years ago, when I was re-discovering myself as a designer, I wrote an article literally called “Why We Need to Kill Gameplay to Make Better Games”. Which, as you can see, had an idiotic click-bait title — even worse, as it was entirely misleading — and resulted in a couple of follow-up posts I needed to explain myself. But the point is: some time ago, I also started to see the issues of the mechanics and the wide palette of emotions clashing with each other. It was a journey, and before anyone passes a judgment I would suggest reading everything design-related I posted on our website first — but still, even if my position evolved, these issues did not suddenly stop existing.

In his article, Phil Owen circled around these interesting subjects. And while he seemed to be wrong most of the time, he was not wrong all the time.

For example, he failed with the shivs, but he is right when he says this:

Instead of creating a variety of environmental obstacles to traverse as you travel across the country, there are only a couple, repeated ad nauseam: you need a wooden plank, one always conveniently and inevitably located nearby, to move past a gap that’s too far to jump; and since Ellie can’t swim, any bodies of water will require you to find a wood pallet for her to float on. Occasionally you’ll also get to search the foliage for a ladder to place next to a wall that is too high to climb.

And yeah, that ladder is also magically located nearby.

Whenever I encountered such a section in the game, they always felt forced. They felt like an abstract puzzle in a narrative skin existing not to make the experience better, but just longer. They felt like there were there just because it’s a thing to have in a video game.

And heck, to be entirely honest, even the shivs and the Active Reload can just be considered the question of opinion. For some people like me and you they are totally fine gaming metaphors, but for some people they might be too detached from reality to not affect their immersion.

Let me give you an example.

Currently, the shivs in The Last of Us are a one-time-use thing. It’s very arbitrary, right? It’s a bit hard to make a connection between this gaming metaphor and how it’s based on the real life or how it translated the real life to the language of video games.

But what if using a shiv had a chance — one that increased with each use — that it would break? This means you could usually use it once, or, if you were lucky, twice, or, if you were insanely lucky, five times in a row.

Wouldn’t that make this particular gaming metaphor easier to swallow in a pseudo-realistic game like The Last of Us? Wouldn’t it add a nice extra tension to the gameplay that is all about tension?

Of course, any such design is a house of cards, so we would need to counter-balance the sudden increase in non-broken shivs. But it’s doable. For example, we could have it so a shiv could break when being crafted and connected the chance of that (not) happening to the protagonist’s level or skills gained.

Now let’s go in a different direction for a second.

What if crafting a shiv out of not four, but ten blades, and then using that shiv activated the Berserk mode in which bullets were unable to hurt you for 30 seconds? One could argue that this would be a metaphor for the confidence gained through the successful gathering of blades and crafting a powerful weapon.

But in reality, isn’t that gaming metaphor too detached from our real life experiences to not negatively affect your immersion? Does the idea of the protagonist being completely unaffected by the storm of bullets hitting his head fit this particular game well?

(What I just talked about, by the way, is art. Designing convincing gaming metaphors that fit a given gaming experience is making art.)

The modern gaming public is changing and becomes more demanding, just like the movie public. Here’s a quote from the recent — and great — interview with Quentin Tarantino:

And so yes, for the last few years we’re having these discussions about the merge of gameplay and story-telling, about the issues affecting the immersion, engagement or sense of presence, about the dissonances, amplifiers and palette cleansers.

None of these discussions means that any genre or any existing solutions need to die. But, as Jonathan Blow observed in 2007, we still have a lot to discover. And these discoveries keep happening because the public becomes more and more sophisticated, and because game developers are creative and ambitious people.

And so bearing all of the above in mind, I kind of got where Phil Owen was coming from. Were his complaints about the linearity of the journey totally baseless, or did we become more demanding after tasting open world games and choice-based games, and linear action-adventures don’t quite cut it for us anymore? Do all developers strive to maintain the feedback between the theme and the core gameplay loop? And while the gameplay is king, aren’t we all a bit tired with the grind, fillers, and padding?

So, after the first chapter, even though I disagreed with Phil Owen a lot, I was intrigued.

Also, a day before the booklet was released I tweeted this:

And so when something that had a hint of insightful critique appeared, I paid money for it.

I don’t regret it, even though every reasonable person could easily say I should.

Let’s start from the beginning.

PREFACE

I only ever wanted one thing from video games: for the act of playing them to be a good experience, and meaningful in a way that is reminiscent of other forms of art that I enjoy. People around me are constantly insisting that games today deliver that. Those people are very, very wrong.

To claim that today’s video game cannot deliver a good, meaningful experience is ludicrous. Even if we narrowed it down to single-player, story-based games — what seems to be Phil Owen’s main interest — pretending that Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect, Journey, The Witcher, Metro: Last Light, The Walking Dead or literally any other Telltale game from the last couple of years do not exist is dangerous to your health, because it means your head is currently up your ass.

Is every game great? No. Is every movie great, or every book, or every song? No. And those that are, are rarely perfect in every single aspect.

Same with video games.

Games still have a lot to learn and discover. But they can already be pretty awesome.

I don’t say that out of spite. I want games to be good and effective art, but games are not good or effective art. The accepted current consensus is that games are good enough, and that’s brought on a period of rather intense (to me) artistic stagnation. For me to say, then, that games are not good enough is not an insult, but constructive criticism.

What “accepted current consensus”? I literally do not know a single person who says “we’re done here”. Are you talking about the same art form that keeps evolving visually and technologically with the speed of light, and keeps inventing new genres and new ways of interactive expression every couple of years?

And no, that’s not “constructive criticism”. The definition of that requires a positive approach to the communication of the issues, and the criticism needs to be actionable. Meanwhile, even the title of your book is purposely antagonizing (“WTF Is Wrong with Video Games: How a multi-billion-dollar creative industry refuses to grow up”), and the book does not propose a single solution (“I don’t like it, change it” is a demand, not a solution).

As with any sort of criticism, it isn’t enough to just say that a thing is a problem. You have to say why it’s a problem and, if possible, how it can be fixed. My goal here is to do just that.

Then you have completely failed. The book offers no solutions. It’s a false advertising, actually.

The purpose of this book is to connect those dots for you by explaining many of the core problems all in one place. This sort of endeavor is long overdue, but it’s unsurprising that it hasn’t been done before — that inability by the games industry and those in the community, which includes the enthusiast press, to see the big picture stems from a lack of understanding of how all of this works. As a result, we point at symptoms of problems without truly grasping what the problems actually are. And the system is set up so that those who do start to see the big picture are typically cowed into silence because dissent means you aren’t a #truegamer or whatever.

Phil Owen, the only man who can see the big picture. No person in the games industry can see the issues. Phil Owen is the only one who can.

Phil Owen, the only brave and honest critic in video games history. Literally no journalist before Phil Owen offered any big picture critique of video games.

I guess by now you get a vague idea of the tone and quality of the book.

But you have seen nothing yet.

For obvious reasons, I won’t be quoting everything from the book nor commenting on it, so let’s skip the rest of the preface, then the chapter one I have discussed earlier, and let’s see what goodies await in…

CHAPTER 2: SAN ANDREAS

Phil Owen describes San Andreas as a movie that is a series of badly connected set pieces. He then argues that most games are like that: not created as a cohesive whole, but focused on features, be it the aforementioned set pieces (he uses Uncharted 3’s ship level as an example) or a fresh gameplay mechanic (he uses Dead Space’s dismemberment). “The design of the game isn’t serving the vision; the vision is serving the design”, claims Phil Owen.

Of course, that’s just an attempt to prove a hypothesis through cherry-picking, as if GTA, Batman: Arkham Asylum or Skyrim did not have their designs serve the core idea.

But it’s not just the hypothesis that’s silly, even the cherry-picking itself is awful. If you fail to see the cohesiveness of Dead Space, and how the design of this game served the top level vision, then that’s really your problem, not the game’s.

That’s not to say that all games are well thought out, of course. But how is that different from the Phil Owen’s beloved movie business? How many times we exit the movie theater asking ourselves, “What were they thinking?”? Have you seen the new Fantastic Four?

There’s more fun like that in this chapter, and it’s actually uncanny how little Phil Owen, a gaming journalist, knows about the process of creating a modern AAA game.

But let’s move on to:

CHAPTER 3: EXPLOITATION

In this chapter, consistent with his belief that story is art and gameplay is “substanceless activity”, Phil Owen argues that writers, not designers, should rule the act of creation and production of a video game.

He also confuses a narrative designer (a person who is a part of the team responsible for the totality of the experience) with a writer (a person who understands story-telling but does not necessarily understand how gameplay, mechanics and systems affect the player’s second to second and hour to hour experience):

Of late, some studios have even come up with a new position for such people which has a name that reflects the industry’s disdain for writers: “narrative designer.” A narrative designer actually just is a writer, but that title is a demonstration of values status — something easily understood in the tech-driven ecosystem of games.

CHAPTER 4: DEVELOPMENT

Phil Owen announces that the iteration process that game developers use is harmful.

All of this tangibly matters because the development system isn’t good for business, nor does it produce good games. When a game is good, it’s probably just an accident.

This is silly, but I’ll bite. What Phil Owen does not understand is that emulating the process of creation that is used in movies is impossible. The movie business is over a hundred years old, well established, and with not a lot of questions left unanswered. And yet, despite all of that and the fact they deal with linear, passive entertainment, Hollywood still produces a lot of duds.

Meanwhile, video games are a new kid on the block, with thousands of questions unanswered. And the art form is interactive. Which, basically, changes everything. How is it surprising, then, that the act of creation must somewhat differ from that of a movie?

And by the way, the iteration process is actually heavily used in movies. Scripts undergo multiple revisions. The point of rehearsals is to increase the quality of delivery. Filming involves multiple takes. Editing takes weeks or even months, and multiple versions of a movie are produced and tested on the audiences.

What’s different in games is that the iterations can only partially happen in easily separated phases like they can in the movies. No one can fully predict how all systems — gameplay, visuals, audio, etc. — will co-operate when they are put together, but you can argue that’s also true in movies to a certain extent. However, a movie director knows immediately if a scene filmed was good or not: they first watch it through the camera, then watch the dailies — and can correct the course quickly if they missed something the first time around.

Video games do not have the same luxury. Nothing is produced as fast as recording two people talking in front of the camera. Game/narrative designers use all of their knowledge and experience to anticipate the outcome of the implemented designs, but if something does not work, correcting the error is not just a question of “one more take”.

In other words, because of the nature of the beast and because of the relative youth of the gaming industry and because we are still discovering the potential of video games, producing a gameplay moment in a video game is more difficult and more costly to correct than in a movie. It simply has more unknowns than the well-established process of creating something that is more or less created the same way as it was created in the 1950s. Iteration in game development is, then, inevitable — unless you try nothing new.

To be clear, I don’t write this to convince Phil Owen he was wrong. I write this to explain it to those who wonder. Phil Owen does not wonder. Amy Hennig could not convince him, so I don’t expect it happening now.

Industry stalwarts like Amy Hennig (lead writer and creative director on the Uncharted series, now working on a Star Wars project at EA) preemptively brushes off any concerns about that by saying things like this: “Making a game isn’t like making a movie — it’s software engineering, which by definition is exploratory and iterative. You don’t create a plan and then implement on it, you experiment and refine.” I’ve spoken with a number of developers who defend that mindset by saying things like “you never really know how dynamic systems are going to interact with each other.”
I can understand that point abstractly, but on the other hand I also know that people have been making games for a long time and so that explanation, consequently, comes off as a rationalization. It’s an excuse that belies their true priorities. Software development is what [game developers] actually care about, not making art. And that sucks.

CHAPTER 5: THE AMERICAN DREAM

Halfway through the book — there are nine chapters — Phil Owens stops analyzing video games, and decides that we should talk about socio-politics. I guess the idea is to explain that one of the reasons why games “refuse to grow up” is the industry’s refusal to co-operate with people who hate the current video games industry.

The Video Game Dream is the means of continuing that cycle by scaring off folks who don’t fully buy in to the way the industry does things. To succeed in video games, you have to really, really like video games. You have to be committed to the cause, in a sense, before you even start that quest. And so the issue is that not a certain personality type is drawn to games. The issue is that the ruling hegemony inside is intent on making sure only those they see as being One of Them are welcome.

This is idiotic enough, but Phil Owen does not stop there. In a completely dishonest, venomous attack on the industry he claims that it “props up the status quo”, “fully adopting the rhetoric of American Dream”, one that he defines as a system of racist and sexist oppression. And so the gaming industry…

It’s an industry run mostly by white people who are mostly men, and they’ll keep it that way as long as they can.

This is a serious accusation, and something that is 100% not true. It’s also when I realized I just paid three dollars not just to a failed gaming journalist often incapable of coherent thoughts and lacking basic knowledge on how the industry and video games work, but also to a liar.

Oh, and Ken Levine telling people they need determination to make it in this business apparently means this:

They say that using the skills you’ve obtained and honed for years to make a living will require a constant and painful struggle, but they just use this, knowingly or not, as an excuse for how obscenely unfair the business is. The truth is that many people — mostly white, mostly male — will not have to go through all that. [Ken] Levine himself being white and male is also convenient for dismissing claims of institutional racism and sexism. That Levine had to struggle and suffer for years before undeniably achieving much according to the metrics of the video games also helps the rhetoric. If Ken Levine of all people had to experience a decade-long struggle to make it as a creative, then what right do you have to complain? If it’s good enough for a famous veteran like Levine, it’s good enough for you plebe fucks, too.

CHAPTER 6: ETHICS IN JOURNALISM

This is a really weird chapter which can be divided into three parts.

In part one, Phil Owen talks about Phil Owen, despite the fact the next chapter is titled “Me”, and is entirely devoted to Phil Owen. For what it’s worth, Phil Owen also talks about Phil Owen in many more places, so it’s not like reading about Phil Owen is limited to these two chapters only.

In part two, Phil Owen talks about #GamerGate.

Its campaign of terror against women in the business is some legendary evil, and no doubt GamerGate has won some battles in that arena simply running off progressives of all sorts who eventually deemed the industry to not be worth the effort (or the sustained harassment). […] the reason why “it’s about ethics in game journalism” is such a joke is all the GamerGaters were doing was incessantly harass women and people of color within the community […]

It’s all a laughably pathetic lie, but hey, I am ready to mourn those progressives that #GamerGate ran off the industry. Please send me the list. If not delivered, I will accept watching “I am a big fat liar” being tattooed on Phil Owen’s forehead as an equally satisfying activity.

As a bonus, Phil Owen proudly informs the world that the fact that some journalists avoid discussing ethics not because it might cause all kinds of trouble for them, but because fuck #GamerGate being right.

In part three, Phil Owen talks about journalists not really doing their job. “Between the elements of control enacted both by the industry public relations and the commenters, game journalists are constantly terrified of fucking up their revenue streams.”, he says, and offers mildly — but still — interesting examples.

CHAPTER 7: ME

I guess this was an attempt to tell certain “truths” about the industry through the recollection of personal experiences. I’m not sure what these “truths” are, though. But hey, at least a book titled “WTF Is Wrong with Video Games?” made me learn so much about Phil Owen!

It’s also the chapter full of gold like:

As that sort of company operating with a network of sites, the purpose Break had for building up editorial content on FileFront was not to do journalism, really. It wasn’t about serving the public good or pushing a political agenda; it was about hitting the gaming demo by aping existing successful game websites and channeling Mark’s SEO wizardry.

Or:

The next day, Mark fired me. I could not possibly tell you if my disparaging remarks about TMNT had anything to do with that, but I suspect it was just the last straw, given how long he and I had been in conflict over GameFront’s editorial direction. Plus, I had done exactly the thing he was afraid I would do: piss off the shitlord audience we were trying to cater to.
In case it wasn’t super obvious, I’m still bitter about this.

CHAPTER 8: ACCESSIBILITY

Phil Owen describes how he cheats in games to avoid filler and grind, which I can totally get behind. Then he talks about games being long despite the fact that most people do not finish them, which is a mystery I am also intrigued by. It’s a nice little chapter with a pretty puzzling ending:

All the industry talk of mass appeal and how games are bigger than movies is a smokescreen. Games are only bigger than movies in terms of revenue; it’s certainly not the number of people who would actually call themselves gamers. Earning a billion dollars in movie ticket sales involves a whole hell of a lot more people than earning a billion dollars in sales of a game. And what the games industry calls mass appeal usually only counts within the context of the existing core, rather than, like, the actual population of Earth. And they wouldn’t have it any other way.

They …who? Is it industry who does not want more people to play video games? Or is it gamers who occupy GameStop shops and threaten to beat up anyone who does not have a gamer id with them?

If it’s the former, why? If it’s the latter, and, as Phil Owen concludes, the “small core” is nothing compared to the potential customers who are the “vast majority of the world’s population that isn’t part of that [core] group” — why does the industry keep catering to them? What does Phil Owen know that tens of thousands of industry people do not?

CHAPTER 9: MASS EFFECT

Phil Owen discusses Mass Effect, a game he believes represents “just about every issue I have with the games industry, media and community”. The analysis offers such gems as the gameplay being “kind of bad” because of “graphical problems like texture pop-in”, or:

And that supposed requirement — fulfilling the player’s power fantasies — has been the real tragedy of video games as an art form thus far.

This is typical for Owen. He smells there’s something potentially wrong with some games, then he extends the issue to all games and incorrectly identifies the culprit.

For example, nearly every detective fiction is also a power fantasy in a way, as it’s about outsmarting the criminal and bringing them to justice. And yet there’s an incredible amount of depth to the trope, if you know your craft. I don’t see Dashiell Hammett being the real tragedy of literature.

More importantly, once again Owen proves he is years behind and oblivious to any developments in game design. The tragic journey of John Marston (Red Dead Redemption) or the helplessness of Geralt of Rivia (The Witcher 3’s Red Baron quest) show that at least some game developers do understand the power of disturbing the player’s comfort zone.

And the players love it. One of the themes dominating modern games is no longer the power fantasy, but a struggle and survival, be it choice-based experiences like Telltale’s The Walking Dead, or survival games like DayZ. The reward is that you barely survive to live another day. You do not become the king of the universe.

But as it’s the case with anything design-related that Phil Owen discusses in his booklet, he’s not wrong all the time.

For example, he notices the problem of the conflict between the main story’s push for action and some of the side quests. This was an issue for me even in the greatness called The Witcher 3, where on one hand I was to chase after Ciri before certain evil entities get to her first, and on the other I was invited to participate in a myriad of time-consuming side quests just for fun.

And it’s not an unsolvable problem, as Far Cry 4 proves.

POST-SCRIPT

Phil Owen decides to dedicate yet another section of the booklet to himself. It’s quite amusing. This is how this self-anointed messiah sees his role in the world of video games:

The video game business, I’ve found, is ripe for my brand of weaponized negativity. […]. There is a very vocal contingent of the so-called social justice types who are fighting the good fight in regards to representation (both in the industry and games themselves) and stereotypical depictions of marginalized folks, but even they aren’t more broadly dissatisfied with the overall concept of video games as it exist today. They still seem to want to be part of the club, for the most part.

It seems like the social activism’s attempt to colonize video games is not enough for Phil Owen. He is interested in a reset, a reboot, a revolution. The “concept of video games as it exists today” must die.

What is the replacement?

Whatever it is, you will not learn about it from the booklet. Owen complains about many things, but it still seems to be like simply “doing better” would fix all of his issues. I see no paradigm change, and not a scent of an original idea.

FINAL THOUGHTS

A gaming journalist releases a $3 booklet on video games, promising to detail the issues he believes stop games from achieving their true potential. He also promises to offer solutions to these issues.

It’s a fantastic concept.

It’s a shame, then, that what we are really getting is a random collection of nine blog posts, the subjects of which include the vivisection of the author’s white guilt and his struggle with suicide attempts and mental disorders. However sad, they are not quite the reason I paid money for the book and invested a good portion of my day in it.

I called the chapters of the booklet as blog posts, but this might be insulting to all bloggers who actually care about grammar or the cohesiveness of their thoughts.

Not being a native speaker, I am sure I am often guilty of grammar crimes myself, but that does not invalidate my right to expect better from an American journalist.

More importantly, I would expect sentences that Owen filled his booklet with to logically follow a certain theme up until the conclusion, but sadly that is not something the author troubles himself with. He jumps from subject to subject, drifts away to unrelated anecdotes, often contradicts himself, and loses the connection to the issue currently being discussed.

The frustrating thing is that there are, actually, glimpses of interesting thoughts in Owen’s booklet.

He commits all the sins you can imagine: he misrepresents games, he madly generalizes to support a hypothesis, he pulls conclusions out of his ass, and he often expresses an astounding ignorance on the subjects he should know more about.

And yet every now and then Owen does say something I wish more developers, journalists, and gamers thought about or considered. Because, you know what, the focus on the Batmobile made Batman: Arkham Knight better neither in gameplay nor in the story.

But then again, it’s not a thought you would be unable to find expressed better on Reddit or a decent gaming forum.

If Owen published the booklet in a series of blog posts, I would recommend reading some of them. I would tell you that most of what you were invited to read was nonsense, but I would also tell you that some of it was worth a wonder, and the author’s passionate “weaponized negativity” felt refreshing.

But I cannot ask anyone to pay money just so you also learn how “fun” is wrong, how the gaming industry is white men oppressing women and sexual and ethnic minorities, how gamers demanding better journalism and respect for their hobby are shitlord manchildren, and what Phil Owen thinks about Phil Owen. You already get enough of the first three for free, and that fourth thing is not quite worth the admission price.

Still, I won’t hold it against you if you do buy the booklet, especially if you have a thick skin and are willing to extract the nuggets of gold from the ocean of excreta.

Personally, I don’t regret my purchase. But I was never the one to look away from a good train wreck.

Oh, and we’re not done here yet. Your next stop should be Kindra Pring’s demolition of the book, one she delivered here. Great stuff. Here’s a teaser:

Also, it seems like Total Biscuit chimed in, and we also have people voicing their opinion on Amazon.