November 8, 2007

What the bleep do we know?

Charles Herold, who reviews videogames for the New York Times, is one of the best game critics around. Kotaku's Mark Wilson recently complained that "The fundamental problem with game reviews is that they're analyzing products, not pieces of art. Or more clearly stated, art reviews decide if something is worth your time; game reviews decide is something is worth your money." Charles — whom I've met several times through our mutual friend, Francis — is the exception who proves that rule. You'll rarely hear him talk about frame rates and playing time. Plus he has impeccable judgment (he's the guy who told me that Half-Life 2 was way better than Halo 2) and puts actual attention into his prose. His mildly comic reviews are a pleasure to read, even if you have no intention of ever playing the games he's writing about.

So after reading his review of the new Sam & Max today, I was curious to get his thoughts on our recent discussion about censoring profanity. In the review, Charles describes one character as "a profane young rat named Tiny Tim who alters the ladís famous blessing with an expletive."

Surely, as a critic who takes his work seriously, Charles would prefer readers to know if the actual line is "Goddamn us, every one" or "God bless us, cocksuckers."

Turns out, the story behind this particular elision is even funnier than most. Here's what Charles told me:

The actual quote wasn't bad at all, actually, because all the profanity was bleeped out in the game itself, leading to long sentences of nothing but beeps, which was very funny. [All Things Considered recently had a piece on this comic trope — dr] So when I wrote the line originally it was "God *bleeping* bless us, every one." I don't know why they changed it. Perhaps they assumed the "*bleeping*" was mine, rather than the game's.

With the Times, the problem is less a matter of not being able to swear than to not be able to be at the least inappropriate. For example, when I reviewed Max Payne I wanted to use one of my all-time favorite game quotes - "Life is a hooker and I'm all out of cash." But even though I put that in my original review I knew it would never get in the Times and actually included my second and third choice (they choose the third, which was ''I was already so far past the point of no return I couldn't even remember what it had looked like when I had passed it.'')

I must admit I envy writers who can say anything they want to. But my philosophy is, I make a living playing video games, so if I have to deal with a few limitations it's well worth it.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


Lenny Bruce died for someone's sins, but not mine.

While we're talking about Charles and his reviewing skillz, remember how you were expecting to get flamed to hell and back for your Halo 3 op-ed piece? Turns out all the trolls were waiting for someone to write about Bioshock.

leading to long sentences of nothing but beeps, which was very funny.

Related, of course, is Martin Mull's old routine where he would hum the words in the song that were too dirty to sing, and the song eventually degenerates into just humming - and further back, the Smothers Brothers' "Marching to Pretoria" where Tommy claims that the reason the theme song to "Bridge over the River Kwai" is whistled was that "the words were dirty," and then proceeds to sing "You sleep with me and I'll sleep with you..." and launches into whistling.

As long as we're exhausting this topic, it's always good to have the historical perspective.

Francis - especially weird since he really liked BioShock. I'm in the middle of it now and it's easily my favorite game since Half Life 2, but his few criticisms of it were entirely fair.

Clearly any criticisms were too many for the rabid videogame nuts.

Actually I'm going to backtrack. Having finally gotten to the big twist in BioShock, I think it's haunting and brilliant, not just in terms of story, but as a commentary on how narrative games work. Charles is entitled to his opinion, of course, but he's wrong.

Also, his complaint about the failure to move forward from art deco misses the whole point: Rapture IS a static society. The Soviet Union never got beyond socialist realism, did it?

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