Penny Arcade Report: Way In Over Their Heads
As you may have heard, Penny Arcade Report is ending. In the announcement of its cancellation, Ben Kuchera wrote “We didn’t fix game journalism, but the whole idea of it being broken and needing a white knight to run in and make everything better was arrogant and more than a little pigheaded.” In some sense, this admission of failure confirms my sympathy for Ben Kuchera. He was hired to fix gaming journalism. What I suspect happened instead was that he found himself way over his head. Penny Arcade Report will be primarily remembered, I think, for how bad it was at actually doing what it set out to do: games journalism and social critique.
The evidence for the high hopes of Penny Arcade Report being far beyond its writer’s grasp is huge. As many have pointed out, Ben Kuchera’s article on the Xbox One DRM was hilariously wrong. If we used the same metrics on games journalists as political pollsters, Ben Kuchera would be the Dick Morris of gaming. Others frequently point out his article comparing a DualShock controller to breasts. I am personally able to give him a break on this one- video game writing is full of overwrought, sexualized metaphors- how many Rock, Paper, Shotgun articles compare something to an erect penis? His analogy doesn’t work, but it’s not far from the norm of video game journalism. Or witness his article that yells at people for calling certain public figures in gaming assholes, and yet somehow manages to also call them “assholes.” In the title no less.
These things are all embarrassing, but it’s whenever Kuchera decided to don the hat of a social activist that Penny Arcade Report obtained peak derp. See, the thing about being a social activist is that you are supposed to be speaking for the weak, the powerless, the poor, etc. You are supposed to be providing a voice for those who lack one. What’s striking about PAR’s social criticism is that it consistently did the opposite. Kuchera regularly elevated the most privileged, first-world problems to the level of social injustices. People mocking you for waiting hours in the cold for a new console? Kuchera’s got the back of those with enough disposable income and free time to stand in line for hours: “I’m not going to be made to feel guilty because I take pleasure in new devices” he defiantly sneers to the Man. And even when he had a point, like when he called out a mean-spirited post on Kotaku about bronies, he overreaches by coining the term “nerd-shaming.” Because nerds are a blighted underclass fighting for the barest scraps of human dignity. And even when Ben Kuchera tried to fight for the little guy, he still managed to do it wrong. Witness the article calling critics “assholes” who dare suggest that small games like Gone Home are as worth your time and money as over-bloated pieces of crap like Skyrim. Also note that despite his portrayal of a horde of sneering, pretentious games journalists, he doesn’t cite one who is actually sneering at the little guy with only $60 to his name. It’s the strawiest of strawmen that Kuchera is erecting here, one that would be at right at home in an angry NeoGaf post.
But the award for migraine-inducing, face-palming idiocy goes to Ben Kuchera’s bigot-shaming article. The sheer insanity of this article belies belief. Without a hint of irony, he uses the phrase “lynch mob” to describe the outrage perpetuated by sites like Buzzfeed against racists. You got that? Lynch mobs against racists. The mind reels. And the quotations! Witness this gem: “we’re raising up the voices of a crazy group of people and giving them way more power than they deserve, and thus give the illusion that America is filled with vile racism.” Umm, Ben, America is kind of filled with vile racism. That’s no illusion- it’s motherfuckin’ reality. And what’s worse about this article is that Kuchera has a point. Other people (like the now-defunct Twitter account of the user @amaeryllis- which I would link to, except it is, you know, defunct) have argued that maybe it is not best practice to snatch up the ignorant words of teenagers and permanently associate them with their name. Sites like Buzzfeed could indeed do a much better job of presenting this information in a less intrusive way. But you know what? These guys said something racist and stupid in a public forum. I have only a finite amount of sympathy available to me, and my sympathy for this group is VERY low. It’s an amazing indication of Kuchera’s tendency to support the powers that be that he penned an entire article about protecting racists’ rights.
Penny Arcade Report will be considered a failure, and not a noble one. It is the unseemly and messy bricolage of a man who was in way over his head. For all that, I do genuinely believe Ben Kuchera has interesting things to say. He is one of the only critics, for example, bringing to the fore the fact that Battlefield 4 is a broken product, and realizing that 86% Metacritic score for a broken product does not exactly vouch for gaming journalism’s veracity. And even some of his comments which he received a lot of flak for, like his suggestion that we need to stop thinking of PC gaming as PC gaming, have more sense in them than critics allow. Valve would like nothing more than to decouple “PC gaming” from the Windows operating system, and you can bet every business move they make in the following years will be aiming for this goal. One day Ben Kuchera may change game journalism. But he needs to evolve and grow as a thinker and writer much more than he did for Penny Arcade Report. Ben Kuchera’s time at Penny Arcade will be remembered as an example of what happens when a writer finds himself hired for a job he cannot do.
Review: 6180 the Moon (PC / Mac)
A platformer! And an indie game too! Who would have thunk? Sarcasm aside, 6180 the moon faces a stiff field of competition, as indie developers have been transforming the platformer into a mode of expression more than a genre. And 6180 the moon manages to stand tall and proud amidst this flood of indie platformers, despite the title’s E.E. Cummings approach to capitalization . In 6180 you control a ball (the game claim it’s “the moon” but it’s really a ball) through obstacle courses of boxes and spikes suspended in outer space. The main schtick of the game is that the top and bottom of the screen are connected. If you fall, you reappear at the top, and vice versa. It’s like old school one-screen platformers with their horizontally looping screens refigured to the vertical plane. You therefore cannot die when you roll off a ledge, and if nothing stands in the way, your ball will fall from top to bottom in an endless loop. But there is a catch: your ball speeds up and quickly careens out of control when it starts looping. Once it is caught falling perpetually from top to bottom, it becomes very hard to control, and only the easiest of jumps can be safely completed. It’s therefore essential that you reach the next platform before the cycle of falling kicks in, or the moon will break on the nearest spike. This schtick, like all the best schticks in gaming, is simple yet ingenious. It forces the player to rethink the basics of platforming. Do you jump through the top of the screen and out of the bottom to whizz through that gap below you? Or do you fall through the bottom and land on that platform nearby? Unlike most platformers, falls are just as important as jumps in 6180.
What completes the package is the story and general atmosphere. If the children’s classic “Goodnight Moon” was made into a video game by a indie team with a zest for black and white minimalism, it would look something like 6180. The black and white graphics nicely capture the simple and strange beauty of space, and the plot unfolds like a bedtime story. The sun has disappeared and the it’s up to you, a surprisingly bouncy moon, to find out where the heck he has gone. In the course of the game you visit each planet between the moon and the sun, and inquire into the current whereabouts of the suddenly dark sun. But the prize goes to the sparse and haunting soundtrack, which manages to sound both alien, slightly haunting, and relaxing all at the same time. I found myself frequently playing the game before bed due to its calming beauty.
The game’s not perfect. The levels seem slightly uneven at times, where one difficult jump is followed by an ass-easy one. It doesn’t help that midway through the game the developers slightly modify the “schtick” mentioned above, and you proceed through the same levels with slightly different physics. While even these “reskinned” levels all remain of a high quality, you can tell that they were not designed originally with this dynamic in mind. And unlike the best platformers, which have a certain flow where you can feel the developers playing with and bringing a gameplay mechanic to its logical conclusion, in 6180 the levels seem themeless and scattershot. I didn’t really detect any themes building in the level design. And worst of all, there was not even one cow in the whole game, ruining my great “moon jumps over cow” joke! This is unacceptable.
6180 the moon therefore comes as highly recommended- it’s a beautiful little game that will remind you what’s wonderful about indie games.