April 16, 2008
When I was ten years old my VideoGames magazine subscription was suddenly replaced with Electronic Gaming Monthly. It was, as I recall, sudden and unexplained — one month VideoGames simply didn’t come, and EGM took over as though nothing had happened.1 I distinctly remember it happening, too; the first issue I got was #89, and Street Fighter III was the cover story. Immediately I fell in love, and for years I read EGM religiously.
My favorite reviewer back then was was Dan “Shoe” Hsu. I’ve tried to keep up with his work over the years through 1UP, and have been happy to see that he’s been quite successful; he’s worked his way up from associate editor to editor-in-chief. I was therefore a bit shocked to see the Kotaku post last week about him stepping down.
On some level, it’s a personal thing — this is a guy who I’ve been reading for literally half of my life, and now he’s gone. (For now, anyway.) But it got me thinking about something.
With all the thousands of bloggers, reviewers, and journalists that cover video games, it’s hard to find a gaming personality with a truly far-reaching influence. Shoe was a popular and well-respected reviewer, but I wouldn’t call him famous, even in the gaming community. Who, I started to wonder, is our Roger Ebert — our universally known and widely respected critic whose very popularity demands that we dialogue with his opinions? Who is our tastemaker?
The first person that came to mind was Jerry “Tycho” Holkins, the writer behind the comic strip Penny Arcade. By the estimation of Holkins and his cohort Mike “Gabe” Krahulik, they have a readership of three million, so the “universally known” criterion is certainly met. But what about the critical role?
Every Penny Arcade strip is accompanied by a long screed from Holkins, which covers the gaming news du jour with his trademark wryness and prolixity. Over time, this has become just as much of a draw as the strip itself; it’s telling that the home page actually displays the latest news post and not the latest comic.
While Holkins’ posts are entertaining and insightful, one side effect of Penny Arcade’s popularity is that he’s become increasingly reflexive. We still get discussion about video games, to be sure, but it’s hidden among personal anecdotes, reports from conventions, and other stories from the lives of the PA crew. Add in announcements of new merchandise, updates on the annual expo they host in Seattle, and news about their charity, and Penny Arcade is as much about Penny Arcade as anything else. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that — I just think Holkins and Krahulik are best understood as gaming celebrities, not as critics.
After thinking about it some more, I’ve decided that the real tastemaker is Ben Croshaw.
Croshaw, who goes by the name “Yahtzee,” is the man behind the Zero Punctuation video reviews. “Review” is probably too kind a word, actually; they’re usually more like eviscerations. The quick-witted Croshaw uses his biting sarcasm to ridicule games — even ones that he likes — while speaking at top speed over subtle visual gags. It’s a lot like watching His Girl Friday — you have to force yourself not to laugh too hard if you don’t want to miss the next three jokes.
Like Penny Arcade, Zero Punctuation strikes that balance between erudition and vulgarity which seems to ignite the community. The Escapist first picked up the series in July of last year, and since then their traffic has quadrupled. The videos average over a million views apiece, get hundreds of comments, and are discussed across the blogosphere. The television network G4 is even getting in on the action. In short, Zero Punctuation’s popularity and influence have already hit critical mass, and they’re still growing.
Give him another year or two, and Yahtzee might be the most important critic in the industry.