‘Tudin’ up the place

Right now the internet is awash with the controversy that is the firing of Jeff Gertsmann, better known as Gertsmann-gate. According to Gamespot, his employer, Jeff Gertsmann was let go as a game reviewer for reasons related to his “tone”. However, many in the gaming community suspect that this was due to Gertsmann’s less than glowing review of Io Interactive’s latest crime shooter, “Kane and Lynch: Dead Men”. Since the publisher of the game is a major sponsor of Gamespot, the fans were quick to construct a conspiracy involving Gamespot and the publisher. This comic from Penny-Arcade illustrates the situation brilliantly.

I thought I would read the review and see the video to figure out what the hubbub was all about. Curiously, I found myself siding with the editors at Gamespot. I felt a little uncomfortable for the developers of “Kane and Lynch”. Gertsmann described the game as “ugly”, starring characters that were “completely unlikable”. There are ways to pull of off a negative review with flare and personality, but Gertsmann’s generic gripes led me to believe that he was simply seen as a weak link on the writing staff. He immediately points out the game’s faults, where a more skilled reviewer would have built the game up a little before taking down Greek tragedy style. It may have just been bad timing that he was let go after reviewing the game of a major sponsor. Despite all this, I think he was on the verge something important. Something that the video gaming industry in America and Europe is just not ready to deal with.

If this game is “ugly”, then by what standard is it ugly? What are we comparing it to? Bioshock? Gears of War? Clive Barker’s Jericho? Any other M-rated shooter on the market? And who’s to say the characters are unlikeable? Surely we can identify with the faceless chap ripping slugs out of creepy little girls in Bioshock! And who wouldn’t want to have a beer with the over-muscled chainsaw-wielding hulks you play in Gears of War?

What I got from Gertsmann’s review is that we consumers are drowning a sea of games where every character is the most badass mofo in the universe, kicking the asses of badasses who are supposed be even more badass than the badass you are playing. Never mind that the government is trying to legislate these kind of games off the shelves. Companies are pouring resources into these Next-Gen titles, for which they may see little return profit. Developing new characters has to be THE weakness of Western game studios. JC Barnett over at the blog Japanmanship suggested we should just give up and outsource all of our character designing to Japan and Korea. And why shouldn’t we? Contra 4 and Metroid Prime are proof positive that Western Video Game companies can do wonders with foreign intellectual property.

“Kane and Lynch” is a logical game to produce. The developer, Io Interactive, previously produced the game “Hitman”, which was quite popular with its strategic approach to murder and mayhem. Making a heist game in the tradition of “Heat” or “The Italian Job” implemented with the strategy of “Hitman” should have been money in the bank for these guys. But it seems that in the haste to make the game more palatable for the Western market and on the shelves by Christmas, the fun and character development of those films was lost in the quest to make absolutely everyone in the game the hardest case on the planet.

Gertsmann seems like he would never be happy working to assess an industry that was so lacking in its self-awareness. The editors may have had the company’s best interests at heart when they let him go, but unless developers treat character and story-line as integral to their process as graphics and gameplay, we are going to see a lot more game reviewers with “tone” problems.

Japanmanship on the Art of Character

The Penny Arcade Comic

Gertsmann’s review of Kane and Lynch: Dead Men.