Gameswipe, then. For those of you who don’t know (which, probably, means you live somewhere other than the UK) clever and opinionated but slightly-overrated (ooh!) journalist and TV presenter Charlie Brooker put-together a one-off TV show called Gameswipe for BBC4 which went out last night. The idea behind the show was to give an overview of videogames, where they came from, what flavours they come in and what they’re all about. Brooker is an ex-games journalist and famously good fun when he spouts off about stuff as well as shamelessly knowlegable so this looked good…
I’m not really in the mood for a big ol’ essay so I’ll divide this review into appropriate sections:
What Gameswipe Got Right
Probably the most impressive thing about the programme was that it covered a lot of bases. A major bugbear for me when the media deal with videgames is the “Pacman-Sonic” syndrome whereby Ian Journalist has only heard of the games the mass-media has meaning that he thinks it all started with Pacman then there was probably some other stuff which wasn’t important and then that fucking blue hedgehog appeared and that’s when games were important again. This is infuriating because, of course, there was a very successful gaming industry in between these two periods and, most importantly, Europe had its own almost self-contained industry at the time with the British side of things basically being an overblown cottage business largely staffed by people under 25. Gameswipe mentioned this era plenty of times and we saw more than enough snippets from games of the period from Manic Miner to Elite to Knight Lore. Jolly good stuff. I also thought it was clear that Brooker was a proper gamesplayer who Knew What He Was Talking About rather than the sort of mouth-breathing idiots who too-often become games journalists these days and are impressed by fancy graphics and a “good” (ie sub-Hollywood-B-Movie) storyline. Brooker’s dismissal of the new Wolfenstein in favour of the 1992 original because the latter is a bit more, well, fun was a perfect case in point. Who cares about the protagonist? Who cares about what blokey has to say about the super nazi-gun? Just get on with it! This is a game!
I also liked the talking heads. I don’t quite agree with Dara Ó Briain’s argument against unlockable content since I think such arguments are a demonstration of how consumerist and WANT IT NOW we’ve become – well-done unlockables increase the lifetime of a game and give us more to work for – but I enjoyed his rant against difficult bosses. Graham Linehan was really good value, though. I’ve said before that I don’t like the emphasis on storyline in modern games because too often I think it detracts from the gameplay, but I thought he made excellent points about why game storylines suck – because game developers simply try and ape some film(s) they saw once giving us tiresome cliché and hackneyed characters (although using GTA: Vice City – a deliberate parody – as an example probably wasn’t the best idea). Linehan argued that game developers should do proper research (as, for example, writers do) into the scenarios they develop adding more realism and atmosphere and gave some very good examples of how this can pay-off.
What Gamewipe Got Wrong
This wasn’t so much a fault of the show as a fault of having to cover so much in so little time (50 minutes) but too much of the show felt incredibly rushed. Brooker referred to the terrific Manic Miner as “pythonesque” but didn’t actually explain why this was the case because there simply wasn’t the time. And that wasn’t the only thing that was given short shrift, the coverage of the different genres was also too brief. Beat ’em Ups, for example, were condensed down so that only one-on-one fighters were included and genre classics like Target Renegade and Streets of Rage 2 (which represent a whole subset of the BeU genre) were ignored; Role-playing Games were even more poorly represented with about ten seconds of Final Fantasy VII having to stand-in for a genre that consists of everything from Heavy on the Magick to Dungeon Master to Oblivion.
The show’s desire to squeeze things in also lead to a certain unevenness. The new Wolfenstein and a Fifty Cent game were given what essentially amounted to full reviews for no other reason than, apparently, that Brooker thought there was entertainment value in doing so; but in a show where most of the items discussed were lucky to get more than twenty seconds it felt weirdly jarring and, given that neither game is especially important, a little inappropriate. I suppose it was an example of how games reviews will look on Screenwipe, all well and good but maybe it would have been better to stick to Gameswipe as an overview of the videogaming phenomenon and not the same but with a couple of full reviews thrown-in. It was also hard to work out who the show was aimed at: much of the show seemed to be about explaining gaming culture and history to newcomers and yet I doubt newcomers were those watching.
As you might expect, overall I thought it was a pretty good show if rather flawed. What’s really needed is for the BBC to commission a full series so that each genre (or era) of videogaming can be investigated properly with interviews with designers, proper explanation of gameplay mechanics and gaming quirks. Gameswipe showed that you can do TV about videogames without it being boring or just a succession of five-minute clips of games being played whilst a voiceover states the obvious (far too many youtube bedroom reviewers take note). All we need now is for someone to make that series; and put Dr Ashen as Noseybonk in it, of course.
UK residents can catch Gameswipe on iPlayer. Non-UK residents can, ahem, probably find it elsewhere…