An opposite problem of bad writing about games in the enthusiast world is when people in the real world try to write about games for people who don’t get them and overreach, trying to impress the audience with how artistic and literary and important and serious games really are. Last year, Lev Grossman in Time magazine wrote that the towering alien architecture in Halo “recalls Piranesi,” prompting a colleague of mine to roll his eyes and say “okay, we get it, you went to college!” And now Tom Bissell, who is also a respected writer with good credentials in “real” journalism as well as a working knowledge in the culture of video games, has produced an article for The New Yorker about Cliff Bleszinski and the Gears of War series which seems so reductive and fawning that I’d be surprised if the piece wasn’t at least partially the result of a plot hatched by Edelman, the public relations firm for all of Microsoft including its games division.
Bissell begins by mentioning Bleszinski’s “many fans and occasional detractors” without ever going into why anyone would criticize him, shortchanging his subject matter by portraying him as a game-designing man-child without any other dimension to his being. Maybe that hollowness is actually the truth of CliffyB, but wouldn’t that be unsettling and worth noting in turn? John Seabrook, writing in The New Yorker two years ago, contributed a profile of Will Wright that dug deeply at what drove him. It explored not only Wright’s triumphs but his awkwardness and his failures. He portrayed Wright at home with his wife when she points out she doesn’t play games (Bissell mentions Bleszinski’s divorce offhandedly and abruptly changes the subject). Seabrook also managed to summarize the history of video games in parallel with Wright’s story.
What Seabrook did, in other words, was he made the usually unpalatable subject matter of video games go down more smoothly with The New Yorker’s audience by calmly and carefully explaining things as they were. Bissell, in turn, seems to want to explain things in a way he imagines a man of letters might understand— such as comparing one of Bleszinski’s ridiculous outfits to those of “a twenty-first-century Tom Wolfe” (this is much less charitable than I believe it was meant to be). He also manages to name-check Cormac McCarthy and John Gardner and others— this is about Gears of War, remember? The game, you know, about the linebackers with boom boxes on their chests who take chainsaws to aliens made out of equal parts rubber and cottage cheese, and who ejaculate Smucker’s grape jelly all over the camera at every possible opportunity? Why not write about heavy metal in the nineteen-eighties, for goodness’ sake, or H.R. Giger, or anything that might have had the slightest bit to do with the culture from which this game sprang?
Worst of all, Bissell is clearly bowled over by his visit, wasting too much time describing what exotic cars he sees in the lot, what CliffyB wore the day he visited, what it’s like to be in the Lamborghini with the Man Himself. To what end? The feeling these details evoke is the journalist as a fish out of water surrounded by an illuminated pantheon of young (“the aroma of lingering adolescence”), smart and rich people who are saving the world or taking over the world; it strikes me as nothing so much as a typical dot-com profile of the late nineties, replete with the red herrings of the founders’ personality quirks mixed in among the far-reaching insights that they have deigned to let us overhear. We in games would probably find this perspective familiar to us: it’s that of a fanboy.