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1+1=1 : Collaborative Criticism

September 2nd, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 4 Comments · Me, Media

Jenn: people should not be able to finish another’s sentences before they start them!
Troy: nope. but here we are

As I tried to unravel what was left to do this week from the things I should have done last week, I was pointed to the PAX panel on freelance games journalism hosted by many people I love and respect. If you want to know the basics and are too afraid that I will call you an idiot, listen. It’s a good panel.

One thing that it really missed, though, is that even as gaming becomes more multiplayer and linked, and as our experiences are more varied and separated, games writing is still a very singular practice. People like me play a game and talk about what we have seen with very little reaction to what someone else might have seen, or how they reacted to it.

Creativity sucks. There’s no getting around that. I can think of a lot of one man studios and five man studios, but two man studios are few and far between because creativity and – importantly – the expression of that creativity requires a slight submission of the self to the creative enterprise.

Time for some obvious history here. There really was no serious sustained collaborative criticism of games from real professional critics until my friends Tom Chick and Bruce Geryk did a monthly column in Computer Gaming World magazine. Tom vs Bruce was regularly funny, very insightful and was one of the inspirations for Three Moves Ahead.

I was once told that Tom vs Bruce was the second most popular thing in CGW – after the back page column – and I believe it. For a while I wondered why no one copied or adapted it, and then I realized that Sartre was right. Hell is other people, and if they are playing the same game as you then writing with them is worse.

Here is how hard collaboration is. I’ve been friends with Tom and Bruce for many years, but when Bruce went on a Medical Emergency Save Madagascar’s Ports trip, I stepped in to take his place in a CGW (then Games for Windows magazine) column with Tom and it was not easy. Sure, Tom and I could play well together and banter and insult, but the writing is the thing. It takes a special rapport, and though I think I would have had it with Tom given more time, finding a collaborator takes time.

First, a collaborator cannot be you. Someone who is the same as you or agrees to everything you say or edits you and then you bow down to them is a poor collaborator if you want to really find a collective critical voice. Writers are notoriously egomaniacal and self absorbed, so being willing to work with someone that is NOT YOU is neither obvious nor welcome.

Look at Tom and Bruce: Easy to dismiss their work as funny, but they were different kinds of funny. Tom was the clown, Bruce was the cop on the edge of retirement wondering why he was there. Both genuine personalities – trust me – but types that worked well together.

Second, a collaborator cannot NOT be you. Some common ground is essential, which is why I started the post with the chat selection from yesterday up top. Your collaborator has to know where you are coming from even if they disagree and it cannot be a surprise. Collaborative criticism is based more on trust than any other relationship in the critical field. Yeah, early Siskel and Ebert looked angrier, but they only really became great once they had an inkling where the other was coming from.

Just when I was about to give up on collaborative criticism, along come Leigh Alexander and Kirk Hamilton, two very different writers who have moved beyond the two-snarky-writers model of TvB and something I pitched a couple of places to a more Slate/Salon style of writing where two people exchange letters. The twist being that one person knows the game better than the other. It is discovery vs rediscovery.

The two games they’ve done so far are Final Fantasy VII at Paste and now Deus Ex at Kotaku. Alexander is, I know, a divisive writer, but someone I greatly admire for her openness about her evolution in writing and thought plus her Thought Catalog entries. Hamilton is, I think, a critic with voice still searching for a style, but a voice worth listening to – possibly one of the best young writers in the business.

Their collaboration works because there is a sense that either can say anything. There is a well of respect and confidence that sits there – in spite of the inequity of experience and knowledge. It is not that one is deigning – it is that both are engaging in a cumulative discovery. As much fun as it is to experience something with a friend or colleague at the same time, there is a special magic reserved for people that can relive that experience with someone that hasn’t had it before – that can translate their excitement and analysis.

I hope Hamilton and Alexander’s letters aren’t just tossed aside because they aren’t about the newest, hottest game. The very fact that the time delay is there makes both the criticism more relevant, since there is a legitimate concern that gaming moves too fast for us to grasp its meaning, and also more relative since it touches on the fact that we experience games – like music – at a specific time in our lives.

The best piece of advice from the PAX freelancer panel was Taylor Cocke’s admonition to seek out good editors, but he stopped a bit short for me. He implied that the editors you should look for were the ones that were publishing you, but that’s really guesswork for most starting writers and even a stretch for experienced writers like me. To really be a good writer or critic or anything, you need someone that knows you and trusts you.

Podcasting is sort of collaborative criticism on the fly. A few weeks ago, I was asked how I met the podcast people and I answered honestly and truly. Of the four of them, only Bruce and Rob could really qualify as collaborators, I think because we are both similar enough in some areas, but different in others for any collaboration to pay off. But my imagining of the original panel (me = strategy/war, Bruce = war/board, Julian =board/general, Tom = general/strategy) was a cycle of collaboration that worked well, and that people still email me as if it is the “classic 3MA era” which is balderdash.

I’ve had many collaborative ideas in my head, and now that I have moved on to the Elysian Fields of regular pay, these ideas belong to the last person I wanted to collaborate with. But even if you get nothing published together, or never share a screen or your podcast appearances are few and far between it never hurts to find that one brain you trust – that person who fights and argues and smirks but knows where you are going and understands that we are all in this together. I’ve been blessed to have a handful I will trust with anything, and a single one I ask to read my blog posts if I am sort of uncertain.

Find that one and you are touched by the gods – a single friend or colleague or what have you that will always read you, fight you and – most importantly – WRITE BACK. Collaborative criticism is born out of email and IM and friendly rivalry. You can do it with your best friend, but he/she better have his/her own voice.

Remember that your collaborator might just be someone willing to tell you that you are full of crap before an editor gets his/her hands on it. The lines between editor, collaborator and other-self blend into nothingness. If the person that makes you better can also write or create, then you are in a special place that you should exploit for every cent you can. Even if there is no money tree, hang on.

Yes, the internet is isolating, even as we come together. The screens become our mirrors and we assume that mere text substitutes for interaction. It doesn’t. Gaming is becoming persistent, collective and universal. It may be time for more journalists to pick up on that, and find a way to translate shared experiences to a wider audience.


4 Comments so far ↓

  • garion333

    With the release of DXHR I noticed at least two, perhaps three, reviews that were done either in tandem or in a round robin manner. To be honest I didn’t think any of them were very good and I think it has to do with chemistry and being comfortable. It’s a lot easier to round robin a game on a podcast, but to structure it into a review takes a skillset that I don’t think is quite prevalent in the gaming press since, as you point out, it’s rarely done.

    In time, I do hope it comes together. Reviews need a breath of fresh air.

  • Ginger Yellow

    RPS quite often do collaborative reviews. I like them.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    Yeah, when I wrote this I totally blanked on RPS, and admitted as much in my Google+ blurb. They are a small and tight team, which makes their site perfect for the collaborative post-game reviews the do.

  • Ginger Yellow

    They’ve also done some great Tom vs Bruce style AARs, most notably on Solium Infernum and Neptune’s Pride.