To understand why Benjamin “Yahtzee” Croshaw, a British writer living in Brisbane, Australia, is more interesting than 99 percent of the video game critics out there, let’s look at how a couple of big outlets reviewed “Halo 4” when it was released last November.
Here’s the entertainment website IGN on “Halo 4”: “The Xbox’s original king has returned to his rightful place on the throne” (9.8 out of 10). Here’s the gaming website GameSpot on “Halo 4”: “The thrilling and emotional return of Master Chief and Cortana is the highlight, and the campaign breaks new ground in narrative quality for the franchise” (9 out of 10).
And here’s Croshaw’s take, delivered in his game-review video series “Zero Punctuation”: “So rejoice, ‘Halo’ fans! Your stale, pretentious franchise for 12-year-olds has had just enough embalming fluid injected to keep it riding high on the level of ‘stagnant’ as opposed to ‘dead.’ ” As in all of his reviews, there’s no numerical score.
Now, anyone can hate on a game. Whenever a new one is released, in fact, countless Internet forums blaze with nerdy fights over its quality. But Croshaw, 30, is a great critic not because he is biting and cynical — although he is both these things — but because he wraps these qualities in a witty sense of humor and a unique presentation style, combined with a keen eye for the game industry’s worst tendencies.
Each episode of “Zero Punctuation,” which is hosted by the online gaming magazine The Escapist, is like a PowerPoint slideshow on steroids — a cavalcade of observations, criticisms, and occasional praise delivered as a series of still shots of rudimentary figures. So when Croshaw explains that “By ‘Halo 3’ I was feeling like a Cub Scout at an S&M club, lacking the capacity to comprehend the things around me and wondering if I was supposed to call the police,” on-screen we see a “South-Park”-ish Cub Scout confronted with . . . well, a strange sight.
Croshaw discovered this style, he wrote in an e-mail, “from toying with the idea of making a video with no actual video making equipment, just by making still images in Photoshop and stringing them together over a narration in Windows Movie Maker.” The first such video he did, about the Playstation 3 game “The Darkness,” quickly won him a following when he posted it to YouTube in 2007, and soon thereafter The Escapist offered him his current gig.
These videos, relying on a rapid staccato of references and observations, wouldn’t work if Croshaw weren’t so clever. He says he draws influences from such humorous British writers as Douglas Adams (“Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” the first adult book he ever read, Croshaw said), Terry Pratchett, Robert Rankin, and P.G. Wodehouse. He’s had two fantasy novels published, “Mogworld” and “Jam.”
“Zero Punctuation” episodes are enjoyable enough to watch for their own sake, but if you watch regularly, as I do, you’ll get a sense of Croshaw’s disappointment with certain aspects of the game industry, particularly with the big, so-called AAA studios.
“As with Hollywood films, the main thing hampering the creativity of triple-A games is the obligation to make money,” Croshaw said in an e-mail. “Mainly because making triple-A games costs so bloody much. So no one wants to take risks, and whatever worked before is thrown out again and again with a fresh coat of paint and a gimmick or two.
“The other problem with triple-A games is that they are often used to sell consoles, especially when exclusivity deals are made. So that will mean pushing graphics to the limit no matter how little they add to the actual game . . . and crowbarring in support for whatever hardware gimmicks the console manufacturer has rashly banked on, such as motion controls.”
Croshaw — like many others, myself included — thinks far more interesting stuff is going on in the indie world (Croshaw has developed and released a bunch of free games). But, he noted, there’s an awareness gap: “Indie games will only pose a threat when they are listed side-by-side with triple-A titles, and equally exposed to the wider audience.”
Overall, Croshaw sees game criticism and game development intertwined, both of them in the early stages of what will be a long trajectory.
“[V]ideo gaming is still a comparatively young medium,” he wrote. “They’re going through pretty much exactly the same process movies did throughout the 20th century. For a time, people were saying the same things about movies that they say about games now — they’re frivolous, can’t possibly be ‘art’, etc. And without wishing to oversimplify, it was critics that eventually changed that.”
That might be the most important lesson to draw from “Zero Punctuation”: that if enough critics make a big enough racket, developers will stop playing it safe all the time. If there were a lot more Croshaws out there, this would happen sooner rather than later.