In Praise of Tough Questions

I heard yesterday that games journalist Brandon Sheffield gave a tough interview to some of the guys who made Rage, this week's big new first-person shooter.

"Hostile" was the word floating around in my Twitter feed. Pete Hines, marketing man for Rage publisher Bethesda and an overall good sport couched that. He described Sheffield's role in that piece as that of an "almost hostile interviewer."

"Almost hostile"? I had to check, and as I'm wont to do, I took a guess that Sheffield probably asked some good questions, because, well, one man's hostile interview is often my idea of interviews we need more of in this video game reporting world.

You should check out the interview. Though I'll excerpt the tiny bit you need to see to know how this went down....

Sheffield, who, like Hines, I know professionally but have never worked with, starts his interview asking what the unique element in Rage is.

Todd Hollenshead, one of the honchos at Rage dev studio id Software replies, in part, by saying: "When you look at Rage, regardless of what platform you're playing on, it is a game that doesn't look like any other game."

.... to which Sheffield replies: "I don't actually feel like it looks unlike every other game. It does kind of look like Borderlands or Fallout to me. I mean, I'm sure, when you really get into the tech, it looks different. But it does have a similar kind of look and feel."

And they go on from there with input from one of the game's artists, Andy Chang, who talks up some the nuances of Rage's impressive graphical tech.

The comments below the interview are mixed. The top commenter's take: "Wow. Is it just me or was the interviewer being kind of a jerk through the whole thing?"

Another commenter, one whose take is closer to mine: "Okay, seriously people? An interviewer with relevant difficult questions rather than pandering fanboyism is 'being a jerk?'"

I say, bravo both to Sheffield and to the id Software guys for the interview. I want my games journalists to respond to answers that don't match what their eyes see by saying, "yeah, but that's not what I just saw." That's what Sheffield did here. I want my games journalists, as Sheffield did (on page 3 of the interview), to push the developers on their claim that there are meaningful choices in the game, especially if the reporter just played the game for 2 1/2 hours and didn't detect meaningful choices. What do you know? Sheffield pushes and he gets an interesting 398-word answer from the id guys about how, in their shooter, the type of ammo you use is a meaningful choice. That actually is true, but it's also, of course, not at all the kind of "meaningful choices" that are usually implied or inferred when discussing an upcoming game. Sheffield sits down expecting a game that's more open-ended and plays through something that's more or less a narrow channel. Good on him for asking to compare his expectations with what's in the game. And good on id for explaining what the deal is.

The last time I saw or read any hysteria over a supposedly hostile game journalism interview was last June, which, now that I look back, isn't recent enough. How disappointing! That last notorious interview was by Geoff Keighley, who supposedly hammered into Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime during a live E3 interview. One of the gamers on all-seeing message board NeoGAF described that interview as "quite an entertaining and surprisingly confrontational/tense interview. Body language was also interesting." The only thing that bummed me out about that interview is that that chat is similar to so many others that I've had with Fils-Aime and that I've even seen Keighley have.

An example of a tough Keighley question: "Did you guys basically admit this morning that the Wii wasn't successful with core gamers?"

Look, when some of us conduct slightly hostile interviews, we're doing it as a joke. Overall, though, "almost hostile" doesn't sound too bad to me. I expect Sheffield intended to come off as skeptical, while professional. In my eyes, he did.

It's common, when reporting on video games, to have the tables turned. You're shown a game and the developers often then ask what you thought. The inertia of decent manners and the reluctance to make snap judgments can keep any games reporter from failing to give an honest reaction. Gratitude for access to these games can also temper reactions, though it really shouldn't. The seasoned reporter, be they Sheffield or Keighley or whoever else, should be able to resist that, should be able to think on their feet, compare words to actions, hype to reality, and ask good questions without worrying how friendly things will feel when the interview ends. The folks who make games can handle these questions, as the id team and Fils-Aime proved in these tough interviews.

It's easy to complain when game journalists just lay down and let the hype slide from publisher and developer right down to gamers. Good on those reporters who don't bend so much and challenge the course of hype. Here's to more "almost hostile" interviews.