Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Hungriest Games Journalist

You really should go and read this post at its original home at, but Bad Things can happen on the Internet, and I'm re-posting it here in case anything happens to the original.

Kevin VanOrd is an editor at Gamespot and syndicated videogame journalist, but he’s also a pretty hungry guy. That’s got to be the case, right? Because I can’t think of any other reason why someone would describe a game as "chewy." And yet he chews through three different games, telling readers about Opoona (a tale that "is a sweet, chewy morsel"), Eternal Sonata (describing the "soft, chewy center of the story"), and NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams (lauding the game's "warm, chewy center that's tough to resist").

VanOrd has been writing game reviews for several years now, and even Noah Webster is allowed a little repetition from time to time. As a journalist, VanOrd should also be given some artistic license to work a few metaphors into his columns when developing an overarching theme. That’s why he should be commended in his ability to turn a phrase and a stomach with this opening paragraph for his review of The Sims Carnival: SnapCity:

Sometimes, two unique flavors belong together, like peanut butter and bananas, or bacon and anything. Other flavors, like pickles and chocolate, are best left separated. And so we have The Sims Carnival: SnapCity, a little title that combines Tetris and SimCity into a weird casserole of boring, half-baked gameplay mechanics that will disappoint fans of either of those classics. Like a horseradish milkshake or herring cream pie, it's a curiosity you should leave others to experience.

What’s unique is the way that he can work food into even the most inedible concepts, like his discussion of Too Human, a cybernetic re-imagining of Norse myths. "The game does offer a few meaty moments," although it "drops a juicy plot development at the most inopportune time." It’s a shame that the designers didn’t realize that "a good narrative doesn't need to spoon-feed plot points to you," but fortunately "you'll still sometimes find morsels of that smooth groove so important to action RPGs."

He also finds NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams to be "deliciously vibrant" even if "some of the dialogue is simply cheesy." While he enjoys the game’s previously mentioned warm, chewy center, it appears to have been a little draining. All that chewing left him little energy to cope with some particularly bothersome level mechanics, although if they "were the exception rather than the rule, they would be easier to swallow."

VanOrd is no glutton. When it comes to Opoona, his appetite is quite limited. "The candy coating goes only so far, and tedious side missions and other frustrating elements sprinkle too much salt onto the sweetness. The first few bites of Opoona are scrumptious, but you'll be full in no time." And it’s snackably awful that "the in-game map (called a GPS here, which is as accurate as calling a fast-food burger patty a filet mignon) is no help at all." Fortunately for anyone interested in playing Opoona, "like that spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, the game's adorable presentation makes it easier to stomach the bitter shortcomings."

His skill at merging the electronic and the edible may be most visible in his discussion of Eternal Sonata, where he discusses the "French Impressionist color palate and gorgeous lighting." His intentional misspelling of palette reminds us that the French are noted for both their painting and their cuisine, showing that Eternal Sonata is a feast for the eyes, even if the color saturation is "sometimes a little too Candy Land for its own good" and some of the voice actors "get too syrupy after a while."

VanOrd’s willful "palate swap" also occurs in his review of The Maw, where he notes that "like most sweet morsels, the pleasant feeling dissipates when the sugar leaves your system, and you’ll find your palette struggling to remembering [sic] the taste." Here we are taken in the other direction to see how a game that does not seize our imagination with arresting visuals can be as bland and flavorless as gum that has been chewed for a little too long. And with a game like The Maw, about a giant alien mouth with a voracious appetite, who could resist noting that "the gameplay doesn't have much bite"?

Unfortunately, I sometimes feel like VanOrd's writing is just a little too sophisticated for me, and his jokes go over my head. For example, when he discusses the function of a bon-bon in Opoona, he notes that "it's a floating ball that each sibling possesses (though in an ironic twist, sister Poleena has two of them)." Is the irony to be found in the stererotypical image of a fat housewife sitting on the couch eating bon-bons, suggesting that this game both employs and subverts that stereotype by showing a strong, confident woman using her bon-bons as tools of empowerment? Or is he talking about breasts?

Wait, I get it! It's a dick joke! The girl is the only character in the game with two balls! Well played, Mr. VanOrd, well played.

And with all this discussion of the many mouth-watering images that VanOrd brings to bear, I haven’t even touched on his repeated use of the phrase “half-baked,” a term that is practically industry shorthand. Which brings us back to chewy. VanOrd’s repeated use of the term from September 2007 to April 2008 suggests that it was part of a personal crusade to make it a new journalistic standard, but it never seemed to catch on. Perhaps describing games as chewy was kind of like The Sims Carnival: SnapCity. In VanOrd’s own words, "like an anchovy enchilada, it's an interesting idea that just didn't work out."

Luckily, VanOrd appears to be far from running out of other food-based metaphors to draw on. If they want this quality of work to continue into the foreseeable future, all Gamespot management needs to do is to keep him hungry.

For the record, Kevin responded quite graciously to this article, and I'm grateful for his ability to take a joke.

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