Thursday, November 04, 2004

A Letter to The Los Angeles Times

Sir and Madame,

I've made a habit of avoiding the Los Angeles Times' video game reviews since Aaron Curtis' tenure as critic. I found the Senior Technology Editor to be a tad out of touch. His Andy Rooney-like diatribe against Sega's inline-skate-propelled graffiti crew simulator Jet Grind Radio (which I'd link to if your website didn't require registration) was enough to turn me off for good.

Many years later, I ran across across a copy Mr. Metzger's column. I was relieved to find that Pete genuine enthusiasm, but was a tad disappointed at the exceedingly breezy tone of his writings. When his reviews weren't wasting time being flippant they provided shallow and usually ungrounded generalizations about controls and graphics. I wrote the column off again. This time, because your paper was taking the low road – a sight better than shrill Curtis' high moral ground, but by not much.

Then today, my neighbor Mike hands me the Tuesday, November 4th Calendar Weekend. He thought I'd be interested in reading Metzger's review of Katamari Damacy. He directed my eyes toward the trite headline, "Game Gets Lost in Translation" (and I say trite because most conscientious editors should have called a moratorium on headlines evoking Sophia Coppola's movie for Japan-related articles a year ago). Mike, who is also an avid gamer, knew the piece would infuriate me and it did.

Metzger's closed-minded dismissal of the game for its strangeness was more than disappointing. In a time when the regularly off-beat subject matter of Japanese cinema (Kill Bill, The Grudge), anime (Pokemon, Cowboy Bebop) and even manga (Chobits) is now stirring up the waters of the often-tedious mainstream it's shortsighted and downright stupid to allow analysis of such a unique game to boil down to "Huh?" and "What?" But then again, this is coming from a critic who wonders "who comes up with" stuff like Bloodrayne 2 – a tedious hack-and-slash game starring (now here's a new one) a scantily clad, ass-kicking heroine.

Now, I may be a geek, but I'm not the kind of geek that fires off an angry letter every time he reads a negative review of something he likes. If I did, I'd never have the time to play games, watch movies and not pay enough attention to my wife. No, I'm perfectly capable of giving critics a pass. In fact, I love to read well-reasoned criticisms of films and games that I love. I often disagree with David Denby's taste, but I'm always engaged (as well as amused) by what The New Yorker's film critic has to say when he tears a movie apart.

Sadly, Pete Metzger's review of Katamari Damacy wasn't well-reasoned at all. It was mostly ignorant. If he doesn't enjoy the vaguely nihilistic pleasure of rolling up cats, dogs, people, cars and houses and firing them into space that's his loss. But to spend the entire review recoiling is mock-horror from the game's loopy setting is a waste of space. Near the end of the paragraph Metzger finally mentions that the game made him feel sick after ninety minutes of play. A better criticism of the game's apparent nausea-inducing point-of-view would have been a much better reason for his pan.

In my mind Katamari Damacy is one of the better games released in 2004. Both its subject matter and game play are wholly original. In a time when the market is flooded with sequels and stale rehashes of tried-and-true genres (first-person-shooters, I'm talking to you). Katamari Damacy's quirky sensibility and clever game mechanic come as a breath of fresh, faintly wasabi-scented, air. That's not to mention the game outstanding original soundtrack – an infectious mix of glitchy electronica and J-pop that serves as a much needed antidote to the awful major label fodder like Hoobastank and Breaking Benjamin that taint most games.

Still, my opinion is neither here nor there. It's Metzger's opinion that's in question. And it's absolutely valid. It's just poorly argued and completely out of pace with a the high critical standards of The Los Angeles Times.

And so I write this email, not just because I like Katamari Damacy and Peter Metzger doesn't, but because of your paper's historically poor track record when it comes to game reviews.

I fully realize that, despite the boat-loads of money being made by the video game industry, most of their output is nowhere near the level of critical and cultural relevancy of film. We still await our Cahiers Du cin?ema and we've yet to find our Pauline Kael (though Peter Olafson formerly of The New York Times came really damn close). But with critics the level of Kenneth Turan and (until this June) Manohla Dargis penning thoughtful, informed and entertaining film reviews in the same paper, it's my opinion that you ought to try raising the bar a little when it comes to video game criticism.

So in the spirit of full disclosure and self-promotion, I'll finish by letting you know that part of my frustration with Metzger's column is that he's the competition. I'm a freelance writer working in (among other things) the video game press. For the past couple of years I've been writing a monthly game column for Hustler (laugh, see if I care) and I just recently landed a regular gig with Men's Edge. I also occasionally write for the enthusiast press (Gamespy and Game Over) when I can afford their miserably low rates.

Additionally, I'll be posting this letter on a website where I post culture-minded game writings with the frequency of a true dilettante.

I mention my credentials out of a genuine concern for Peter. I know he has a weak stomach. And I know he has his hands full with his reviewing duties. The next time a strange-looking Japanese game comes across his desk send the reviewing duties my way. I'd hate for him to get a stomach ache over Katamari Damacy 2.

You've got my e-mail address.


Gus Mastrapa