Thursday, February 20, 2014

On Zero Punctuation

I met Yahtzee once, at a convention. I live in the same country as him, so it's not too surprising. It was back when he and his much less funny friends were trying to start their own TV show. I was dressed as Ganondorf at the time (and in green makeup) and I've occasionally been worried that I was one of people Yahtzee had in mind when he used to make occasional digs about bothersome costumers. Well, I don't really do the whole convention or costume thing much anymore, but I still follow the works of Yahtzee. My review of his first novel, Mogworld, can be found here. I also have a lot of fondness for his Chzo Mythos adventures games, imperfect as their creator might consider them to be with hindsight, and some of his other old adventure games, like Odysseus Kent and Adventures in the Galaxy of Fantabulous Wonderment are good for a laugh too, the latter also being a fun hybrid of various game genres. I still have a screenshot of when I got the perfect score in Trilby: The Art of Theft. I didn't really get into Poacher but I have enjoyed his more recent gaming foray, The Consuming Shadow. My point is, I would consider myself a reasonably well-versed enthusiast of Yahtzee's work.
But the thing he's best known for these days is his web review series on The Escapist, Zero Punctuation. I watch new episodes when they come out fairly regularly, and every so often when I'm doing something else I'll put old episodes on in the background just for a laugh. I like the background sight gags and the running visual jokes particularly, as well as some of the more elaborate descriptions. I think Zero Punctuation has had its ups and downs, reviews that were better or funnier than others and periods of time over which it seemed like perhaps Yahtzee was too busy or too bored to put as much effort in as he might at other times. That's purely an assertion, however. My point is that as a general rule I like Zero Punctuation.
Now Yahtzee's a big boy and he definitely doesn't need an internet nobody like me to defend him, although someone on Twitter did once ask of this blog "Is this the text version of Zero Punctuation?" which rather tickled my fancy, to be compared to one of the heavy hitters of cussing out the generic, overrated crap churned out by ruthlessly exploitative entertainment corporations and gobbled up by the undiscerning. I just wanted to give my opinion of Yahtzee's review show, because I do see criticism of it from time to time. That's fine, of course. Criticism of anything is good, and as someone who produces freeware Yahtzee has no incentive to not take criticism of any form, which I think is why he's so harsh on his own work from years gone by.
Among a lot of pretty negative reviews of Zero Punctuation on tvtropes.org, these remarks from a more positive review stood out to me:
"Yahtzee does not try to be a conventional reviewer. He talks about games in the same way your mate probably would; in the vaguest possible terms, emphasising the elements that stood out, bitching/praising odd details, and going off on wild tangents. Friends do not regard stuff like a professional critic, but the thing is that when people are buying games, their choices tend to be more influenced by their mate's advice as opposed to the critic's. A lot of it is down to the fact that you know your friends. You know their tastes and prejudices, and that helps a lot when forming a decision. I think Yahtzee does us a favour by being so transparent about his prejudices and preferences. Like my mates, I am able to contrast my own preferences with his refreshingly pithy and informal comments. I often find that more useful then (sic) the words of some faceless IGN reviewer." (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/review_comments.php?id=1053)
This is not unlike how I see it. The complaints I tend to see about Zero Punctuation are that the reviews are unsystematic and unstructured, that they gloss over details and make mistakes when Yahtzee seemingly couldn't be bothered to try. Putting aside the question of the balance of analysis and humour in the videos, the thing I find the most useful about Yahtzee's reviews are that they voice immediate, practical frustrations and issues, be it with the controls, storyline or what have you. These days for whatever reason I simply don't have the patience for a lot of video games, so I actually find this kind of thing relevant. Similarly, if Yahtzee plays up something for the sake of humour, or makes a mistake or glosses over an area, I don't really care because I feel after watching many episodes that that's the kind of person he is. It really is like asking the opinion of someone you know. They'll give you their impressions, potentially in a humorous way, without necessarily weighing the pros and cons. There are plenty of reviews out there that are super structured and detailed, so what does it matter if these ones have different priorities? I think Zero Punctuation generally succeeds at what it's trying to achieve.
Some viewers (and I apologise for the weasel words but I couldn't be bothered getting any more links for you) tend to object to his mistakes, which is reasonable enough, I suppose, but I figure that if he isn't enjoying a game there's probably more to it than whatever he overlooked or misunderstood. I also don't think his criticisms are driving sales away from games. I would imagine that the big gaming sites that give out numerical scores have a good deal more influence than one person's humorous videos. It'd be like blaming me if New Who got cancelled. Additionally, what does it matter? Do you want the game you like to sell well so that the developer will make more games you like? How do you know you're going to enjoy those hypothetical future games too? Alternatively, do you just want more people to buy it so that more people agree with you on the internet? Of course there's also the notion that certain heavily-marketed, glossy and subsequently popular games are, subconsciously, regarded as objectively good in the community and that disagreement with that is a form of heresy, although I think as a general rule it's a minority that suffer from that delusion. One of the clich├ęs is that Yahtzee bashes Nintendo a lot, but despite accusing them of being uncreative and repetitious he often seems to find things to like about certain Mario and Zelda games, so that's hardly a fact.
Let me put it this way. Imagine there was some game I really liked that Yahtzee gave a really negative review to. Let's use The Last of Us as an example, although saying I "really liked" The Last of Us might be pushing it a bit. I liked it, but might not go so far as to say that I really liked it. It hardly changed my world. Anyway, Yahtzee gave that a pretty negative review, and I think that for whatever reason some of the game's more overt themes just didn't engage him. But you know what? I couldn't give a shit. Back when Super Smash Bros. Brawl came out I really liked it. Yahtzee's review of that was pretty negative too, but I didn't remotely care. Why would I? It's a video game. Similarly, I quite like RTS games. He doesn't, and often pokes fun at RTS gamers as either being amoral bastards who like to send innocent soldiers to their deaths or as boring accountant types. You know, there's work to be done in the RTS world: a game where you're made somehow to feel guilty about the deaths for which you're responsible like a real general. Anyway, I don't care that he dislikes RTS even though I do like them. What does it matter? Maybe I'm thick-skinned from finding myself liking so many unpopular and unfashionable things, and disliking the reverse, but I don't see why it matters. It really comes down to insecurity, and the mind-numbing kind of insecurity to which modern Western society has given rise, where people's interests and hobbies, which is to say the products on which they spend their money, start to infiltrate their personality and sense of self. It's one of the more insidious downsides to a capitalist economy. As a result, people identify too closely with their interests and take it personally when products they like are criticised. It's irrational. You won't die if someone dislikes something you like, you know. Reality doesn't work that way. Introspect and try to perceive subconscious reactions.
This can basically outline the schematic of how I find my experience of Zero Punctuation:

Negative Review
  1. A game I wasn't interested in: "It's funny to see him ripping into this game I either didn't even know about or had no intention of playing. Even though this is his job, I kind of feel sorry for him having to deal with this dross."
  2. A game I was interested in: "Maybe I'll look a bit further into this game and see if I really want it."
  3. A game I already own and didn't like: "It's nice to know other people have had a similar experience."
  4. A game I already own and do like: "Well, that's his opinion, and his criticisms help me evaluate my own thoughts."
Positive Review
  1. A game I wasn't interested in: "Yahtzee actually enjoyed this? Maybe I'll check it out."
  2. A game I was interested in: "Now I feel more justified in my desire to get this game."
  3. A game I already own and didn't like: "That's surprising, but fair enough. Maybe I ought to approach this game again, if I could be bothered."
  4. A game I already own and do like: "That's cool."
So really, what am I losing in this situation? It's due to Zero Punctuation that I've played a number of games I probably wouldn't have bothered with otherwise: Just Cause 2, Saints Row 2, X-Com: Enemy Unknown and Spec Ops: The Line are all examples of these, although I have to admit that I've never finished any of them. As I say, I don't have nearly as much patience for video games as Yahtzee does. Probably the one example of a game I bought due to Yahtzee's recommendation and still didn't enjoy is Bastion, but that's just how it goes, and to be fair that was on an old computer with an overheating problem where it was impossible to be patient with a game because you could only play it for a few minutes before the computer had to have a little rest.
Personally I think Zero Punctuation has its place. It's somewhere that heavily marketed triple-A titles can be lambasted in antithesis to the paid-up '7 out of 10 is bad' state of the mainstream video game journalism industry, it's reasonably funny and it can be revelatory of potentially worthwhile games that might otherwise have been lost behind the big marketers. Having a diversity of opinion is always a good thing when it comes to reviewing products, and personally I think Zero Punctuation helps to balance things out a bit in a culture of hysteria and bandwagons. Basically, reviews are meant to be aids and not instructions. If you're undecided about something, seek a variety of opinions on it. If you want something regardless, it shouldn't matter what other people think. Most importantly, if someone dislikes something you like, or the other way around, don't take it personally. That's life.

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