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The Cuphead Runneth Over Dean

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GamesBeat writer Dean Takahashi, @deantak, recently had some trouble playing Cuphead:

This new video has, in many ways, brought back the game journalist competency debate that last reared its ugly head when Polygon’s Arthur Gies played Doom and didn’t do it very well.

The emergent arguments and accusations levied at the person in question have been as various as they are dubious: That Mr. Takahashi’s specific position, as a video game journalist, requires him to be good at all games, or flatly refuse to touch anything and everything that he is not “good enough” at; and that his incompetence at one game now renders him entirely incompetent on the whole, furthermore throwing his entire review history under question. In addition, his performance has not only at once “embarrassed” him, but also the entity he works for.

Finally, it was to be noted, Takahashi’s flub had once again illustrated – nay, revealed – the review charade, calling into question the entire premise of not only games journalism, games journalists, but also journalism and the media on the whole!

This is to say nothing of the dismaying meanness directed at Takahashi, which quite obviously relates, in large part, to a collective psychosis, an osmosis into social media -based outrage culture, wherein any and all faces protruding from the otherwise ubiquitous and oblique mass media diet are instantly bandwagoned upon, to be smitten with holy anger for daring to err, in public, or in private. There were also those that simply tried throwing further fuel on the fire, like @stillgray, who chose to abandon professional courtesy in favour of blatant populism.

In this post – which is, by the way, not a defense of Takahashi, or in favour of any other specific person – I discuss the idea of whether we can have, at all, a shared criterion of competence that can be applied uniformly, and fairly, to video game criticism. I also discuss the unique – and very, very difficult position – that games journalism, and especially reviewing as one of its sub-sections, occupies amidst different types, or forms, of the objects of aesthetic analysis.

If you, in your heart of hearts, think that Mr. Dean Takahashi is a bad, or a flawed, person because he’s bad at Cuphead, and that as a journalist, this would then imply that he essentially fakes his his way through reviews (also discussing game endings), then I guess that’s fine, too. Takahashi makes for an easy target for criticism, after all: One can easily bring up some of the more indefensible things that he’s written, even discounting all the PR release talk, like his claim that a Warhammer 40 000 game ripped off Gears of War.

That being said, I think it might be pertinent, for this article, to read and attempt to understand his personal response to the debacle, which unfortunately ran with the same clichéd headline I had prepared for my own article.

The essential point of this article is simply this: If you at all believe that occasions such as these are clear-cut, open-and-shut cases in favour of the idea that “games journalists are all bad and should feel bad,” then I want to present an argument to the opposite. I also detest the idea of intentionally avoiding the complexities, difficulties, and ambiguities of the topic and believe that does a great, great disservice to all of us: To those writing reviews, and to those reading them.

There is nothing simple at all about the constant negotiation and balancing act that a games journalist does, between the three terrible pillars of competence, objectivity, and public servitude.

The Illegitimate Criticism of Criticism

First and foremost, the primary thing to keep in mind is, appraising someone’s competence without first establishing a set of rules decreeing such competence is almost always a fraudulent, illegitimate enterprise.

By this I simply mean that I do not believe we yet have a shared, common standard installed for the performative competence of video game reviewers. Yes, some of us are actually trained, and schooled, in journalism, in tech, or in writing, etc.; some are ex-developers, some simply good at writing, and/or at games. Many, of course, are none of these things. In other words, to make an analogy to other spheres of society, the professionalization of this particular type of job has yet to develop true academic and/or practical requirements that would render the profession inaccessible to those without the decreed qualifications.

To some parties engaged in this topic, this very fact may even form the very basis of their critique – i.e., “who watches the watchmen!” Shockingly, however, there are plenty of enterprises and areas of human life in which no such firm qualification or basis is necessary, as we do many things without ever defining the qualifications or necessities in the philosophical sense.

The downside of this fact, of the lack of this strong scientific basis, is the fact that it also leads to the prevalence of three trendy expressions: gatekeeping, moving the goalposts, and the no true scotsman fallacy. Thanks to this lack of a firm standard, we all unfortunately have to make do with an uncertainty of ideas, a multiplicity of competing standards, and a general lack of clarity. This puts both the topic at hand as well as its critiques into question.

The Importance of a Hobby

I fully understand that hobbies are extremely important, perhaps even increasingly so, to people; the way people enter and graduate into hobbies, either by accident, grooming, or via self-research, always forms a deeply personal connection not only to hobby itself, but also to your personal history of it, to the way you were first introduced into it. This personal interrelationship between the hobby as an idea, and your experience of the hobby as an idea makes your whole person extremely embedded into it, making it seem like a personal issue.

I do not agree outright with the sentiment that all gatekeeping is bad, like some folks do. But the moment our intuition, embedded in our personal history, takes hold – that we become alarmed, jealous, or annoyed, of those that aren’t as well-bred, well-educated, or well-schooled, we need to wonder whether it’s our embeddedness, our selfishness speaking, or whether we should give the others some slack.

What’s so truly offensive about Takahashi’s play that it throws everything related to his position in your hobby into question?

There also exists, by the way, a true philosophical reason for “giving slack”; first, recall the fact that we don’t yet have a shared standard of competence for games journalists. Second, imagine @deantak’s case, and try to think a standard of judgement for his performance yourself – a rule that is as reliable, as simple, and as fair as possible.

Even if you could hit on a solid divider, a solid cut-off, something like “The tutorial should take him only X seconds” or “He should be able to clear the first level in X minutes” – even if these lines existed, would you be willing to draw them for every game? Do we consider a historical perspective, or simply a performative one? Where in the hell do we set the cut-off point? Do we only accept the “highest”, the “best” standard in everything? Whose standard is it going to be – yours, or defined by developers, gamers, or some other third party?

To some, this may sound like “semantics” (in the derogatory sense), but without semantics, there are no definitions.

The Common Standard of Excellence

I believe at this point of the conversation someone will want to introduce a concept like “the common standard of excellence,” which is a way of seemingly rooting the demand for skill level. It is a concept that always develops historically, and lineally, on the basis of requirements set by the actions of your predecessors – i.e. by the skill level exhibited by players in a league, for instance. This standard can be utilized to say, for instance, that someone deserves to fight for the UFC because he fights better than fighter X; to play in NHL, or in the NBA; person Y does not, according to this standard, for he or she compares unfavourably to others already playing.

In our particular example case, the “common standard” would then be applied as follows: By failing to perform at Cuphead, Takahashi is putting himself in danger of being pushed out by another person who is better at Cuphead. You can already see how silly this begins to sound, but let’s remain facetious for a moment still: Let’s say that Takahashi sucks. Let’s say he sucks not only at Cuphead, but a host of other games – given the data available.

Let’s even admit that there might be an actual explanation for his poor performance – playing the game on a show floor, under the watchful eyes of the devs, or those of onlookers’, in an unfamiliar place, on an unfamiliar system. Should we always aim for the perfect setting, or the perfect situation? Is our mind and body always clear when we play a video game? Are you always at your best at work? Aren’t there always details in our lives that can exacerbate circumstance?

I’m willing to wager that despite being weak at Cuphead (and Warhammer, sigh) Takahashi is probably a pretty good games business journalist, even if his job description has him parroting effectively inane press releases more often than not. But that’s not the point; the point is that one does not simply walk into Mordor when it comes to forming rules for keeping people in and out – just observe, for a moment, the particular instance of society about you. You know full well that some people are unfortunately going to fall into the gaps of this system, because our systems aren’t rudimentary enough, and certainly aren’t designed to take everyone into account.

Indeed, my point is this: Mr. Takahashi has fallen into such a gap. Just because this gap is very public, and very humiliating, doesn’t mean that our response to it isn’t similarly built on the basis of our own position in the portion of society you are in. There may certainly be a degree of deviation, and differentiation, both between a) your own personal standard of play, and b) your ideal standard of play, and c) Takahashi’s.

But again, how do you define this deviation, an acceptable level of deviation, or, is it going to just be “you know when you see it”? Because I firmly believe most of Takahashi’s critics were simply saying as much. “I know what good gameplay is when I see it.” Which is saying almost nothing. It’s simply saying that you saw Mr. Takahashi fall into a gap. I am not saying all this to intuit some loose relativist position that claims there is no way to define an acceptable standard; I am stating this from a phenomenological perspective.

Gatekeeping Is Kinda Bullshit and Deep Down We Know It

“A 5-year old would play better,” “He looks like a slow child,” “He’s just stupid,” “I’m good at any game in 5 minutes I try, how come he isn’t,” “He lacks the extremely basic competence for playing video games.”

Discounting the ageism, ableism, and general viciousness of the commentary towards Takahashi – I’m not really interested in that portion of the debacle in the first place – almost all of it nevertheless assumed that common shared conception of competence, which the criticisms were then levied from. That undefined, uncertain, undefinable, unfoundable, position.

This is the crux of my argument: The biggest problem we have on our hands is not simply the pure hostility of the response, but the scientific, philosophical, and societal untenability of these critiques. If the name-calling was rooted in some sensible premise, I might almost tolerate it. But the arguments are devolving at such an alarming rate that soon those defending Takahashi are taken to be defending shoddy journalism!

Journalistic Competence

That’s the thing. On the one hand, we hold our press up to a very rigid journalistic standard, and on the other, expect them to fill many important informational roles in our lives. In addition to being subject to outside scrutiny, media houses ordinarily also employ in-house fact-checking, self-policing, and self-censorship (so that state apparatuses do not, which is seen to be the worse alternative), and have strict standards for their hiring process. There may be additional internal house rules about politics, social issues etc. etc.

The ordinary journalist – working for your standard news-station or newspaper – inhabits a fascinating position between actual competence and total pretension. S/he will behave like an expert up until s/he can’t, at which point they have the luxury of choosing to utilize access to other professionals, or academics, or officials, for further clarification.

In the case of video games journalism, however, this is simply not possible. I will make the case that not only does the deeply experiential and personal nature of playing video games make the use of outside help almost impossible, but in addition, all the potential so-called professionals available are uniquely unsuited to giving such help. Developers are biased, and our academic @raphkoster & @ibogost types – as well as non-gaming academics interested in video games as a medium among others – are often unequipped to handle the super-specific complexities (and simplicities!) of modern video games.

We can’t turn to professional gamers for help, either: Firstly, out of necessity, their play style takes any and all advantages. This is not normal. Secondly, to them, mechanics are everything, and the rest means absolutely nothing. This is also not normal. Thirdly, their eyes are trained to always and forever rest upon the most miniature of things, like matters of balance.

Even if a potential interviewee did exist, interviews in the games media can almost never be about tangible data, for if data is being spoken of, it is about release dates, or feature sets; more often than not, they are specifically about opinions and viewpoints, not about getting us all better reviews.

You might as well do the review all by yourself!

The Profound Uniqueness of Games Journalism

The immersive nature of the medium simply forces us to accept data that is experiential, personal, and yes – subjective.

That games journalism inhibits a curious space between public service announcement, and aesthetic analysis, is a position only barely shared by the criticism of other semi-artistic mediums, like that of the movies, or of music. Even technological reviews, while experiential and personal to a large degree, can incorporate some “objective data.” Is the reviewer supposed to be speaking on behalf of the players, or the developers, or the publishers – or is s/he trying to create more sales? For the game, for the magazine, for advertisements?

The position of the games reviewer also cannot be compared successfully to other types of reviewers; a film critic, for instance, is seldom required to have quick reflexes. A hockey analyst has to know the rules, but does not need to shoot the puck well. It is common for mixed martial arts fighters to demand that their referees and judges also fight, to gain the necessary insight into the profession.

In the case of the video game reviewer, the whole question is obviously rendered preposterous.

Journalistic Objectivity

Video game reviewers face a challenge almost no other type of journalist does: How to make their personal, subjective experience relevant to all? This is coupled by the fact that all reviewing, including the reviewing of the standard of games journalists, is by default a fraudulent enterprise – whether you believe in the existence of an objective standard or not.

In the world of video games, the unique position of the reviewer, who has to rely on his or her own inputs, his own sensory aesthetics, and his or her unique experience, by default renders any chance at shared “objectivity” by default impossible. The same applies, of course, in varying degrees, to all members of the media, and in the press, but so far in my experience, the aforementioned happens in the most pronounced way in video games.

It is one thing to strive towards maximal neutrality, disinteredness, apoliticism, and impartiality, and perhaps even a lack of prejudice. This, however, is not in any sense the same thing as an “objectivity.” Even then, I hope we should ask whether we want to promote any or all of these standards in video game reviews in the first place.

Personal history, familial connections, peers, cultural norms, mores, education, and a multitude of other societal dimensions of existence all form bonds, biases, prejudices, and preconceptions that can sometimes be noted, but never entirely bypassed. Even the simplest of opinions, or thoughts, is always embedded deep in a sludge of historical opinion.

We use the words that formed the thoughts of our forefathers. No word is ever free of a connection to another word.

The closest we can come to a shared understanding is by way of those sciences that poll data by asking people what they think or feel. This is how aggregates like Metacritic work in effect. These all work on the basis of the idea that by collating data, the margin of “error” in judgment shrinks. The adherence to this ideal, however, also renders it vulnerable to a host of other criticisms known to us all.

Video Gaming Competence

Whether we believe in the search for an objective review or not, or in a shared standard of excellence, I think we can all agree:

We are only, barely at the stage of “I know it when I see it.” If nothing else, it’s worthwhile to stop and think whether this kind of intuitive, responsive ideal can be used as a standard for lambasting someone, when this standard is entirely built on the basis of someone feeling of right and wrong.

Whether we want to talk about core “competence,” “fundamentals,” or “skills,” none of them are criteria formed on the basis of an established system. These concepts exist simply to give a name to phenomena that are yet to be carefully defined. Certainly, no definition of these would ever stop or start at a particular button combination in Cuphead.

The topic of “competence” as it relates to video games is so complicated, so multidimensional, that I almost don’t even want to start with it: It has everything to do with age, sex, culture, personal history etc. Do we assume, for such a standard, for instance the control of hands and feet? What about seeing, hearing, or speaking? Do we even start with other types of technological access and competence – all with their own clauses and modifiers – to barely get started.

Installing Steam and buying a game off their store is probably like drinking water to you – you only stop to think about it when you’re dehydrated, or need to take a piss, and even those come to you mostly automatically. For others, installing and using the required OS to access Steam is difficult. You need to make accounts, add payment methods, have a hard drive with space prepared for installation. What if the game doesn’t run?

It’s one thing to internalize the connections between the use of a simple interface, and the signals it produces on the screen. What this whole debacle proves to me is that many believe they have internalized a system by only scratching the surface. Gaining access to and knowledge of the system is not so intuitive.

Knee-jerking oneself into anger at a games journalist is much easier than gaining access to the systems that lie beneath Takahashi’s mistakes. What Takahashi’s failure to bridge two paradigms of movement together does, however, is to make the liquidity of video game competence suddenly concrete, smashing spectators in the face with an icy, slippery slab. To me, this simply means that some things are harder to internalize, and some things easier.

For Takahashi, it was a dash jump. For his critics, it was the foundations of aesthetic criticism.

The Cuphead Tutorial Is Just Not Very Good

Although my point has now been made, I want to add, finally, that those lambasting @deantak very conveniently “forgot” about a crucial aspect, which makes me wonder if we are suddenly to pretend that we all love tutorials? Hey man, can you sell me some more of that sweet tutorial you got there?

The Cuphead tutorial simply is not very good. At all. A tutorial is not the place to put up walls or borders. The moment a player has started your tutorial, s/he has already invested something into your game as product: thought, time, bandwidth and/or money. If we expect video game journalists to perform a public service evaluation of goods, then we also must uphold developers to the same public service standard.

At this point in time, in Cuphead, a mistake has no doubt been made; either marketing has failed, the target audience has been misunderstood, or the tutorial is poorly designed. I saw absolutely no-one mention this fact. I repeat: A tutorial is not supposed to be a gate.

As I have tried to illustrate above, there are gates everywhere in video games; some of them are guarded by others, some of them are naturally formed. Some of these gates exist for a good reason, some do not. Tutorials are not the place for emergent epiphanies, or revelations of great nature; they are the place for rudimentary necessity, and for firm hand-holding to ensure that no player is left behind either by omission or by mistake.

More often than not, tutorials fail the player in some way: Either they are too quick, or too slow, to explain. Too rigid, or too loose. Too verbose, or too tight-lipped; too expository, or too minimalistic. Too disconnected from the main game, or too embedded in it. What does this tell us?

That there in fact are different standards; different players; different preferences. The video game company can only take into account so many of these – and yet they need to be able to consider all of them in order to be successful. To pose a question of generalities in a specific way, let me just ask; in the case of Cuphead, why did not the jump-dash tell to use both buttons instead of just one? Why did it not Cuphead-Tutorial-160x120.pngtell Dean to jump off the platform? Why was the dash not introduced separately earlier?

Why is there just one icon illustrating a dash jump, for A, instead of the required A + Y. How did this not come up in testing? Or is the answer “aesthetics”?

This whole debacle reminds me of how frustrating and annoying video game tutorials can be. I am almost never left feeling welcomed after their completion. It’s hard to think of one single tutorial I would not have amended or changed somehow.

Closing Words

All this leads to the following question: Do we want people to enjoy video games, or to be good at them? Do you?

Some might argue that no controversy exists in Takahashi’s Cuphead play at all. I remain of the opinion that this competency discussion is worth having. I also, however, remain of the opinion that this discussion can be engaged earnestly, or it can be engaged with malice. The earnest part of this discussion can only begin once all of us agree exactly what competence is and how it should be measured.

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