Journalists' Game Skill, And Why People Think It Matters


So a video was posted on August 24 of a VentureBeat journalist making his way through the first level of Cuphead. He gets stuck for about a minute in the tutorial area, and continues to struggle with the gameplay. I’ve linked it in the bottom of the thread, but basically he seems unfamiliar with this Mega Man-ish action platformer style of gameplay and is following the tutorial to a T, perhaps more closely than the tutorial was designed to be followed, as there’s something unintuitive that he gets stuck on.

Do not read the comments.

This video has started a rage of many angry reactions in the usual spots and has already spawned many YouTubers to make “response” or “analysis” videos, and, y’all, I think some of them might be jerks! It also started a conversation in a nice Discord community I’m part of and I was shocked at how many people seem to earnestly believe that a journalist having this kind of trouble with a game is a problem with game journalism worth talking about and worse, attacking.

It got to the point where one Twitter user had the take that players with low skill are responsible for Cuphead’s long dev cycle and apparent financial woes, which–takeaways like that make it impossible to forget what kind of industry I’m working in. (That link also includes the journalist’s response to all this)

My personal belief is that you don’t have to be good at a game, 100% it or even complete the game to be qualified to review or cover it. One of the most common refrains of the people who think journalists should have more natural gaming talent is “they play so many games”. Well, wouldn’t you also believe that someone who plays so many games is able to figure out what a game is doing and what it does for them without completing it or aceing its challenges?

The facts are that not everyone is good at every kind of game, and EVERYONE has moments in a game where the goal is simple but you just can’t seem to figure out what to do. When you figure it out, you’re kicking yourself. I have this dozens of times. I’ve witnessed every person I watch playing games run into this problem. It is, in fact, a thing.

I want to see what the Waypoint forums have to say about this, and I’m not just looking to be echoed. Everywhere I’ve talked about this, I’ve never seen someone responding and agreeing that journalists should be better at games without just sounding like kind of a jerk and not taking it further than that. I don’t think the argument has legs, but maybe that’s just because I’ve never seen it walking. What do you think is the point of bringing this up, if there is one?


This comparison I’m gonna make isn’t a perfect corralary, but it works for me.

I think the best teachers (not necessarily the smartest professors, but the educators best at imparting knowledge to others) are the ones who themselves struggled to learn something. If it comes naturally to you, you might not be able to understand the hurdles other are having in learning something, and might not make the best guide for someone else trying to learn the same thing. On the other hand, if you yourself had to really work at something to learn it (algebra, writing, design, soccer, whatever) then I think you’ll be better at understanding where someone else might be struggling, and better at guiding them past that hangup.

I think there’s something similar to journalism perhaps, it’s something I see lots in sports writing, where the best athletes often don’t have the most interesting things to say. Of course, some are incredible writers, and many will have good stories or perspectives, but I find writers who aren’t ex-professionals more often than not find more interesting angles on a game, a play, or whatever sporting situation. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same held true in games journalism. Some of my favorite streams and LPs are with players who aren’t perfect, or great, and them figuring things out and struggling adds real appreciation to a game.

My 2 cents…

Great question.


I think there’s room to say that someone’s opinion on a game doesn’t have much influence on you because they don’t know what you know about that type of game and not be a jerk. Unfortunately lots of people skip the last part. As for it being a problem, I suppose if the main thing you want is in depth coverage of a specific niche of games by people deeply knowledgeable on the subject a lot of the major outlets probably aren’t very satisfying. I’m not sure if that’s something those outlets should try to change or not. They would end up competing with streamers who have a lot less overhead to deal with. Hard to say if it would be a good use of their resources.


The complicated thing about this video in particular is they titled the video and described it accurately. This is different than the multiple polygon videos people got in a kerfuffle over, just listed as gameplay video. But by accurately describing and titling this video Venturebeat has done one of two things. The first possible and healthier view is the publication has some humility and can be honest to their audience. The less healthy view which is more conspiracy based is they did this on purpose. Controversy and anger brings attention, I was linked to this video in a discord. It ia unlikely Dean did any of this on purpose as a quick glance of gameplay videos he has created have garnered the same criticism in Youtube comments.
Now onto the subject matter at hand I don’t necessarily think that game journos should be great at games. As someone who occasionally dips their toe into game journalism, I am not very good at games. I personally would never review a rts as I am god awful at them despite enjoying their elements. Really the only thing I could add to this is, it is very hard to judge skill and whats not a fun for a reviewer could be great for someone else. Danielle gave Dustforce an alright score but I know it has a been a favorite in some pro league of legends streams waiting between rounds.
A better example of something familiar to this is Justin Mcelroy’s lack of a review for Nier.
Looking at the comments you get the typical"can’t believe they employed this guy" but you actually get some people saying even if I did figure it out, this part of the game was poorly conceived and explained to the player and frustrated me as well


I think that’s a really good takeaway to have without being a jerk! Haha. As much as I believe anyone playing a game should present the most natural experience possible, including the ups and downs of getting stuck or hitting difficulty ramps, it’s also really great to watch someone very experienced in a game just blow through it while talking about and analyzing the minutiae of it. Tim Turi’s playthrough of Resident Evil 2 for Game Informer and the Super Best Friends Silent Hill 2 LP come to mind. I would love for a journalist to get to do something like that with a game they ARE really good at and have it supported by their outlet.

@MixedUpzombies Oh, I didn’t even see anyone saying they did it on purpose! That’s… wow. No, this is clearly a journalist coming back with some embarrassing video and showing it to a few others, at which point they realize “people are going to hate this, we have to lean into this”.


I think I understand where some of the frustration comes from.

One is Fear. Misguided fear, but still fear. People are afraid that a game they have been looking forward to will get bad press. Because the Journalists didn’t “understand” the game. I empathize with this one the most. I was really worried with the upcoming release of Nier Automata that some mechanics will turn Journalists off. I remember getting a little anxious listening to the Giant Bombcasts and they were confused about the endings. I think though sometimes someone not understanding something does lead to interesting conversation on how games can be more adaptable.

Another is Jealousy. I really believe people feel this in situations like these. They feel as if they have more of a right to that persons job because they are better at video games. When they probably don’t understand that there’s so much more involved then just being good at video games.

I’m sure theirs other reasons. Like the fact is some people are just jerks. Or people really just not believing people who are bad at some video games not being qualified to talk about it. I’m too tired right now to think more about this. My Personal belief does pretty much line up with yours though.


In general, I just flat-out disagree with the idea that someone having trouble with a game is grounds to be a dick to them. Sometimes it can be frustrating to watch a video where people play badly, but if someone took a video of any of us when we were new and fresh to a game, there would be silly deaths and roadblocks aplenty. Additionally, I feel like expecting game reviewers to be aces at whatever they lay their hands on is just not realistic. Game journalism isn’t just ‘playing games’ for a living and there’s a lot of additional work that goes into writing for a website, producing audio/video content, and marketing what you produce.

I also think there’s a tangentially-related topic, which is what people feel safe assuming everyone should be good at. In my view, there’s a surprising amount of people interested in games who just assume that everyone must know about this set of games, including Mega Man-style action platformers. I also think that’s worth challenging; games are immense and diverse, and there’s nothing wrong with being unfamiliar with something.


Yeah, any “video game canon” voted on by the public as necessary for journalists to play, if anyone was ever bold enough to start such a conversation, would likely be packed to the gills with games that require a lot of skill. I feel like Cuphead in particular is basing its gameplay around some combination of Mega Man, Metal Slug and Contra. There’s a few things those games have in common, and the one that first comes to mind is that they’re very hard and you’re definitely not going to be good at them the first time you touch them.


A lot of this feeds into the usual irritating gatekeeping gamers do in the medium as a means of trying to cognitively disqualify more-critical reviewers from having their views be read as “invalid”.

One potential problem you get into though is that, while game difficulty and film narrative complexity aren’t a one-to-one comparison, it does fall into the ideological trap of assuming “more complexity equals better”. I would think of a game along the lines of Dustforce, which had mixed reception at its original release for the severe difficulty curve that made it hard to get into.

The common response was “well you should have had people better at platformer games review it then”. The issue there is, if a game does a poor job of pacing out its difficulty, or is needlessly difficult in spots (as I would argue Dustforce honestly was), that should be pointed out as a problem. Comparatively, Super Meat Boy was an incredibly critically well-received game, because even as difficult as it can be, it very naturally ramps up that difficulty in a smartly paced way.


I don’t think skill is a requirement for being “allowed” to critique games. Though, for genres I’m into I will listen to some people’s opinions over others. Like, if a fighting game came out, I will be listening to the gb west podcast as I know they know fighting games well. But it’s also important to note their experienced opinions aren’t any more valid than those of someone new to fighting games who was having a tough time getting into the game because of the steep difficulty curve. Both opinions matter to different people. Unfortunately some people don’t think that and it leads to some real shitty gatekeeping.


I didn’t mention the jealousy thing; I’m definitely suspicious that it could be either personal jealousy or jealousy that their favorite YouTuber doesn’t have the platform this outlet does. (A lot of the people complaining about this seem to prefer YouTubers)

I have to admit that I have also found myself repeatedly yelling about coverage of NieR: Automata, due to journalists occasionally making it sound like the most incredibly confusing thing ever. Recently, someone on the Giant Beastcast was describing a mind-hiccup moment they had with Automata early on very similar to the tutorial thing in the Cuphead video, and I was screaming “IT’S RIGHT THERE, YOU’RE MAKING THIS GAME SOUND LIKE A NIGHTMARE!”

NieR: Automata sold well. I can probably chill.

@Glorgu Your comment about both opinions mattering to different people actually made me remember something–since I’ve publically talked about the reaction to this video, devs have come to me saying it’s actually really helpful to them to see someone getting badly stuck or having trouble, because it helps them improve. Assuming that devs are willing to be perceptive to the criticism they are getting about their game’s difficulty, and they sometimes aren’t.


There is kinda a precedent that makes people weary in general, what with the insistence to call everything with some amount of difficulty a game “like dark souls” that can be seen negatively and also there was the Polygon “I am not playing anymore Starfox Zero” that I think has been extremely damaging. It comes to a point where people don’t know if any review comes with an accurate representation of issues in a game or a deep frustration because of a failure to understand mechanics.

I’m also very bad at megaman-style gameplay though, I remember playing Mickey Mania and having such a hard time. Let’s not even talk about Ghost’n’Goblins. One thing I am convinced is that this video should not have been uploaded simply on the grounds that it doesn’t show anything constructive for people who are expecting an overview of the game, ESPECIALLY without commentary.


god… Automata completely blew me away to the point where i have a (completely irrational) reaction to hearing games media people talk about it. it’s the exact same “god!! it’s right there!! it’s not that hard!!! stop saying this!!!” thing you describe. it’s extremely rare that i get so fanboy defensive about a game so i just skip through those parts and stop popping veins over people having a hard time with a game i really liked.

i really don’t understand the impetus to go and comment about how this or that journalist is terrible at games or whatever, though. in 2017 there’s such a tremendous amount of games coverage that if you think one person is doing a bad job of demonstrating the game to you you can just go find someone who you think is better. i guess the only way it makes sense to me is if you think person X doesn’t deserve a job or popularity because they’re worse at a game than person Y, which is a really shitty way to think.


Is it ok to be a dick to reviewers that are bad at a game? No. Actually let me re-phrase that one:

Is it ok to be a dick? Still no. Unfortunately, it is a lot easier for a reviewer to change their reviews than it is to make thousands of viewers just stop being dicks.

Why are people angry that a reviewer is bad at a game? I really don’t think that jealousy and insecurity paints a good picture here. I think it stems from the frustration of seeing someone fail at something you would find easy, doubled down because this person is supposed to be a professional. Like, if you would just give me the controller I could do it in 5 seconds, but you’re a video, and you can’t… but- how did you not notice that, it was written right on the- just jump to the- Jesus fuck, are you actually blind?!

Should reviewers be good at games? Sometimes? It depends? Up to a point? This is complicated! I think we’re going to have to break it down into some sub-questions.

What constitutes bad? Struggling to figure out what to do next isn’t bad. Maybe they missed something. Maybe they had a brain fart. Bad is about a person’s inability to perform the mechanics of the game.

How bad does a reviewer have to be before they shouldn’t review a game? Pretty terrible, I think. Like, if you can’t figure out twin-stick controls, you probably shouldn’t review first person shooters. A reviewer should have basic “literacy”, so to speak, in the genre, just like how you shouldn’t review literature if you’re still struggling to read The Cat in the Hat.

Does any reviewer deserve to lose their job over their lack of sick gamer skillz? Only if they are truly, unrealistically, never-touched-a-game-before bad. In that case, their ability to review games is probably hampered by a lot more than not being good at games! Maybe some reviewers shouldn’t review games of a certain genre, but even then, prefacing their review by saying, “Hey, I’m terrible at platformers, this is a review that will capture ‘how good is this game for people who suck at platformers’” will help a lot.

How do reviewers prevent viewer rage? Be upfront about skill level. If the reviewer is a pro at this genre, they should say it. If they are new to the genre or just not great at it, just say so. Establish the perspective the review is being taken from. If you say nothing, everyone will assume that you are around their skill level. Also, avoid showing raw footage. No one wants to see a reviewer wander around for 5 minutes because they didn’t see a sign or read a text box and as much as it shouldn’t, it will hurt the reviewer’s credibility in a lot of people’s eyes. Just find a good time to cut to them realizing their mistake.

Really that’s what it’s about. It’s about establishing and maintaining the credibility of the reviewer’s point of view, even if it’s not the same point of view as many viewers’.


Oh God, yeah. I get where they were coming from, but that game was basically “unfamiliar strict mechanics: the rougelike” and I hoped they understood how daunting a hill to climb that is, even in the genre.


Unfortunately, in the case of this Cuphead video, though they don’t edit around the bits where the journalist got stuck, they do title and present the video explicitly as amateur gameplay. They even call it “shameful”, and it didn’t do anything to stop viewer rage, unfortunately. As previous commenters say, in some cases it actually exacerbated it and caused talk of conspiracy :stuck_out_tongue:

I agree that something I do expect of game journalists is to be able to understand the basic control schemes present in games or find a method of control that works for them if they are differently abled or have strong personal preference. Being able to control a game is the first means of interacting with it that will eventually lead you to discover all the things that help you form an opinion on it. Unfortunately, it seems a lot of people have much higher needs from them than that.


Sorry for the aside but I think Tumbleseed is a good example of devs listening. They made a big overhaul of the way the game was presented and changed how some of the powers worked to try give people a better introduction to how the game works. They saw people commonly taking the ‘wrong’ approach (ie. Not the one they designed for) and found ways to encourage that play more.


I do think this is a point worth talking out, especially given that we’re also talking about familiarity and experience in genres. My understanding of the market is that YouTubers and Twitch streamers tend to have fairly consistent beats, whether that be in single games (e.g. Hearthstone streamers) or genres of games (here, I’m thinking Quill18’s ‘strategy games’ beat). That is, fairly naturally, going to tend towards meaning that they’re going to be able to cover fewer games in greater depth and, generally, be better at them (although the YouTube comments on Quill18’s work disagrees with this point).

At most games journalist outlets (again, from my understanding), even if someone may tend to cover certain kinds of games, they have to play a lot of different types of games, often not for particularly much time. This seems more true now than ever, in a moment of constricting workforces, higher demands for multidisciplinary skills, and vast content schedules. I just feel like this is such an apples-to-oranges comparison, and I think it’s worth talking that out.


Ah, I feel sloppy now for not clarifying. There’s a section in that postmortem where they talk about having ignored people coming right up to them at events, as well as friends and peers telling them that it was too difficult, during development. It does sound like they’ve focused on remedying it now and the majority of the postmortem is about how they’re trying to improve it.

@robowitch Absolutely; if you’re a YouTuber, you’re probably going to want to be as focused as possible on the things that you know are your comfort zone, and over time, become what your audience expects. That’s just good business. On the viewer side, it’s completely unfair to directly compare YouTubers, who have such freedom of choice, to outlet journalists, who don’t have nearly as much choice of what they play and how much they get to sharpen their skills. It is fair to prefer one over the other, but it’s not fair to say that a journalist doesn’t deserve their job because they’re not as good at a run and gun game as MegaManGuy420.


This is of course just a personal content preference, but I definitely do seek out videos of skilled people playing through a game to get a better impression of what it is and how it plays. I’d much rather spend my time watching someone deftly jumping around and landing nice shots instead of watching a video of someone stuck in a tutorial area wandering aimlessly and missing everything.

That said, we’re all fortunate enough to have dozens of media outlets covering new titles, and if you don’t like the video content from one, just head over to another instead of raving in the comments about how a reviewer/journalist is trash and should quit their job. There’s no shortage of coverage to choose from, so people should just use their time wisely and seek out a site where they appreciate the presenter’s playstyle and skill level.