Game or Shame

AGE OF THE GEEK COLUMN: Should we expect games journalists to be good at games?

That's been the big question this week among the gaming community following the release of a 26-minute video where VentureBeat's Dean Takahashi embarrasses himself while previewing the upcoming, "Cuphead," a highly anticipated platform shooter with a classic cartoon aesthetic.

The video is hard to watch. Takahashi, a 25-year veteran of the games journalism industry, struggles to follow the on-screen instructions in the tutorial and spends most of his game time under the impression that he can defeat enemies by running directly into them.

These are mistakes one would forgive a non-gamer or a small child for making. Not a person who makes their living in the video game industry. "Cuphead" isn't breaking new ground when it comes to game mechanics. The game treads familiar ground long ago paved by "Contra," "Metal Slug," and "Gunstar Heroes," along with countless other games in the genre.

In Takahashi's defense, he is not really a professional reviewer. Most of Takahashi's coverage focuses on the business side of the gaming industry. He only reviews a handful of titles a year and the reason he was previewing "Cuphead" at Gamescom was because he just happened to be there.

Presumably under the impression that any coverage was better than nothing, and perhaps hoping that their audience would get a laugh at how badly Takahashi played, VentureBeat posted the video.

The reaction was not received as well as they expected.

Much like last year's similar video of a Polygon writer playing "Doom" as though it was the first time holding a controller, the VentureBeat video reignited the antagonistic relationship between games journalists and gamers as the latter questioned what qualifies the former to act as an authority on games when they don't know how to play them.

The problem with VentureBeat posting the video of Takahashi's gameplay is two-fold.

The first problem is that they initially blamed Takahashi's difficulties on the game itself, stating in the title of their preview "Cuphead is more difficult than you think," giving the impression that the game was simply too difficult to be played competently. Now "Cuphead" is said to be a relatively difficult game, but you wouldn't know it from the VentureBeat video. It's hard to gauge the difficulty of a game when the player is making virtually no effort to avoid damage. It was only after reader backlash that the title was changed to a more self-depreciating "Dean's Shameful 26 Minutes Of Gameplay."

This isn't the first time that Takahashi has projected his own ineptitude onto a developer. In 2008 he was forced to retract a scathing review of "Mass Effect" after realizing that the difficulty spike he encountered was not due to poor game design, but because he had neglected to assign talent points to his companion characters.

Nobody expects games journalists to set speed run records, but displaying a basic proficiency is not too much to ask, which brings us to the second problem.

Who exactly was that 26-minute video-of-shame meant for?

If you were a potential customer, 26 minutes of somebody failing to get halfway through the first level offers little of value. How much can you really get out of a preview from somebody that clearly doesn't understand even the most basic concepts of the game? I'm sure Takahashi is knowledgeable about industry affairs and business dealings, but when he says that "Cuphead" is a difficult game, what use is that judgment when he's admittedly bad at the game to begin with?

The principle issue isn't really so much that Takahashi is bad at "Cuphead," but that his preview of the game was a waste of everybody's time. It offers no value to the consumer and if I were a developer I wouldn't be thrilled that 30 minutes of floor time at Gamescom was wasted on a guy that couldn't properly demonstrate how the game was supposed to be played.

Had the video been posted purely for entertainment purposes that would have been one thing, but, even in the games industry, there is a time for playing around and a time for work. The whole point of a preview is to demonstrate how a game is supposed to be played, which the VentureBeat preview admittedly fails to do.

I wouldn't trust the opinion of a food critic that tried eating soup with a fork. I wouldn't trust the opinion of an automobile reviewer without a driver's license. Likewise, the value of a games journalist's opinion on a game they clearly don't understand has no value.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to communication. It's a games journalist's job to effectively communicate how a game is supposed to be played and that, by necessity, requires an understanding of the game's rules and mechanics. Even if the reviewer lacks the physical ability to play the game well, they should still be able to communicate what those basic mechanics are. That's where Takahashi failed and why the video put so many people off.

Games journalists don't have to be good at games, but they do need to at least know how to play them.

Travis Fischer is a news writer for Mid-America Publishing and can't wait to get his hands on "Cuphead" himself.