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E3, IndiE3 and Uncritical Criticism

Posted by Martin Falder on 10th June, 2014
indie3

I tune in at five to midnight and watch a game about driving along a highway at night while listening to the radio. @hananahammocks is playing through a list of experimental games created by friends and community members. Meanwhile, in the other stream, Solon Scott (@SolonCubed) and tj thomas (@TRONMAXIMUM) are running what’s listed as a ‘trailer showcase’ but what is, in actuality, more of a mishmash of concept images, promotional shoutouts, ad hoc interviews and gameplay demos being live-curated with viewer input in front of a greenscreen cycling psychedelic visualiser effects. This is IndiE3 2014, and it’s already off to a great start.

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I remember the first time I saw the Giant Bomb – It’s A Website video. In 2008, YouTube Poops were still popular and Tim and Eric were only two seasons deep into their nightmare version of television. There was something reassuringly human – already a squishy, loaded term, but I’ll let you unpack that in your own time – about Giant Bomb’s scrappy, cobbled-together goofball auditorium of a basement office. It’s a little odd, looking back, how clearly I can visualise that basement, from the cut-out of Shaq pinned above a desk to Luchadeer taking pride of place above the sofa. They were going low budget but not trying to fudge it to look high, leaning into the slight jank and the technical screw-ups and the heat and the weird lighting situation. Their coverage was never the most thorough, nor the most critically savvy, but it was cheerful and excited about games and unfiltered in a charming, unabrasive way. It felt like what it was; a handful of talented people having a good time with video games, and at that point, no other site was really hitting that mark as convincingly as they did.

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It’s 12.30pm. Solon is talking about a QBert game where you grow gardens around you as you jump. Zoe Quinn answers a few questions in the chat about the game she’s working on right now, alongside tactfully not answering questions about Pepsi due to her still being under contract for Game_Jam. A trailer plays for Cascata and the developer pops in to link to their itch.io page. It’s a twitchy platformer where you have to switch between two identical rooms to catch the orbs dropping from the ceiling. I’m reminded of the first time I tried to play Rock Band drums at a friend’s place, awkwardly flailing in what felt like the right time signature to try to appease the naggingly arcane game of Tetris which was supposed to somehow teach me how to play (Don’t Fear) The Reaper. Cascata isn’t technically out yet, but the developer decides to put it up on itch.io after seeing the positive reaction from the stream. It’s quickly hailed as ‘The first IndiE3 world exclusive’.

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E3 2014 has been greeted with what feels like even more cynicism than usual. Sure, there’s always been a smirking, side-eyed undertone to coverage of the most ridiculous excesses of the show, but this year it feels like every site is rushing to put together some kind of jeering liveblog or snarky commentary team to narrate the avalanche of PR bullshit and glitzy non-events which comprise the majority of E3’s events schedule. There are a handful of genuinely insightful writers criticising the still utterly ass-backwards gender skew of the show among other things, but there are also a lot of people in it just to giggle at the execs playing Just Dance or to rank who they think Lost E3 The Least. Giant Bomb are offering a live narration service of each press conference, a sort of MST3K for content which they’ll later post up anyway. Nobody wants to make the mistake of being too sincere about it all.

I know the answer before I ask the question; people cover E3 because that’s where the money is. If you’re a journalist working for a major site, you can’t not cover E3. There will be reveals, there will be scoops, and above all there will be Content, easily packaged and distributable for ad revenue. There’s a big pie and you don’t even have to scrabble for a slice, and everyone knowing that said pie is made of pre-chewed baby food and gravel (at best) isn’t going to stop them from taking it. On some level, the worse the ingredients get, the more fascinated everyone becomes with it; you can run twice as many articles on What Went Wrong as you can on What Went Okay.

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Pizzarian is a shoot em up about pizza delivery in space. Solon is so excited he can’t speak for about 30 seconds when he hears the synthesised voice at the end of the trailer. Hananahammocks plays Morning Coffee, a deeply peaceful game about slowly waking up on a rainy morning, and then Sluggish Morss, a space-age glitch collage nightmare of neon, poetry and claymation. There’s no particular plan, beyond the list they’re working from, and developers are stopping in to see their game get played and chat with the streamers as they go. It’s loose and exciting and scrappy; it pushes boundaries despite the low budget; it stands in stark contrast to the legions of sites who are railing on E3 while hanging desperately onto its coattails.

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Look, I’m not asking for you to stop writing, tweeting and talking about E3. That would be harmful, above all else; the games industry needs to be watched like a hawk, lest it become as utterly indifferent and insusceptible to criticism as Hollywood in 2014. On some level, I prefer the healthy cynicism which I see permeating the major sites to the uncritical reprinting of feature lists and press releases you see in the worst corners of the internet. It’s also heartening to see a greater variety of critical voices writing about and deconstructing the often harmful messages embedded in the legion of Gruff White Dude games which dominate E3 year after year.

At some point, though, I have to wonder when journalists – and, more importantly, editors – are going to take the next step. It’s not enough to simply roll your eyes while shovelling the industry’s shit; we need courageous writing mandates and strategies which promise equal coverage for independent titles as for mainstream ones. IndiE3 took three days to organise and they’ve filled out the schedule. Imagine what your gaming site – even with your tiny budget! – could do for independent games if you set your mind to it. We need sites committed to (at least) a 1:1 coverage ratio of independent games to mainstream titles. If someone desperately needs to see the trailer for the newest manshooter, chances are they’ll go to YouTube first; if they’re coming to your site, you’ve got a level of responsibility to shape the industry rather than just giggle at it while cashing cheques. Use your powers for good for once, shit.

From now on, on the ONVG podcast, I’m going to try and ensure that for every mainstream game I talk about, I devote an equal amount of time to an independent release. Tom has been picking up my slack for way too long on that front, and it’s far too easy to spend all my time talking about what’s wrong in the mainstream industry without giving equal platform to what’s right elsewhere.

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It’s 2.40am and I’m waiting for something titled The Grand Reveal on the primary IndiE3 stream. I’ve literally no idea what they’re building up to, but they just put up a title card saying ‘Reticulating Splines’ and the chat went wild. An ominous drone is playing in the background, possibly one of tj’s tracks, although I’m not sure. I don’t know what’s coming next, but it’s the first time I’ve been excited about – or, hell, felt permitted to be excited about – video games in a long while.

5 Responses to “E3, IndiE3 and Uncritical Criticism”

  1. […] and early gameplay footage don’t necessarily mean that anything put forth will come to fruition. Cynicism seems to be the name of the game at […]

  2. […] and early gameplay footage don’t necessarily mean that anything put forth will come to fruition. Cynicism seems to be the name of the game at […]

  3. […] was pointed in the direction of this post earlier by a retweet on Twitter, and while I agree with some of its points — the games press […]

  4. […] rather than calling out games for what they lack, Martin calls out the journalists who are too busy rolling their eyes at the AAA industry to provide equal coverage to independent […]

  5. Eron Rauch says:

    I just wanted to say thanks for this article. Being a regular reader and occasional contributor to the world of video game criticism and essays, I muddled through all the E3 postmortems like everyone else. But this article was a wonderful surprise – I found out about a couple of games that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about and am excited to play (which is more than I can say for all the E3 bashing, even though it was certainly warranted, combined!)

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