In the interest of paying respects to an important inspiration for my founding of LudoCrit (and of finally making a casual post to fit into the website’s Other Stuff category) I’d like to show some love to “professional videogame expert” and underappreciated madman Tim Rogers. Tim’s been publishing criticism on videogames since the early 2000s and garnered some cult status for his influence in the New Games Journalism wave that began soon after. His reviews on his old blog actionbutton.net combined sharp analyses of game design with a knowledgeable (and often verbose and tangential) understanding of how the game relates to its peers and videogame history at large – as well as his own personal history with games. After a brief hiatus from criticism to work in independent game development, Tim became a video content creator for Kotaku where he produced a varied assortment of game-related videos. Earlier this year he left Kotaku to start his Action Button Youtube channel, with which he’s returned to the work he had begun with his blog, now with a clearer focus, through creating monthly 60-minute-plus reviews of classic and contemporary games.
To be honest, I’ve never spent too much time reading or viewing mainstream videogame reviews. Maybe I just wasn’t going to the blogs or critics that would speak more to my personal interest in games, but I found most of the game reviews I was trafficking to lack compelling writing or a substantial angle beyond: is the game good/fun. When I came across Tim’s videos for Kotaku, though, I was immediately taken by the wit, passion and knowledge that fueled his scripts. It soon became apparent to me that this guy loved videogames more than any critic I ever came across, and his unique writing style and breadth of videogame literacy made this love shine through. More than anything, though, his criticism struck me as a sophisticated treatment of videogames that solidified my belief that videogames deserve sophisticated treatments.
At the beginning of his first video review under the independent Action Button banner (a whopping 3-hour video on the Final Fantasy VII Remake)Tim outlines the “Action Button Method” that he follows for creating his reviews. He breaks down six steps, but in the interest of universal application I’m going to leave out the last two (which pertain strictly to video reviews):
- Play game, take notes.
- Watch game, take notes.
- Review notes, analyze data.
- Write Script (“Bury Data”)
The first two steps of the method involve a rigorous process of playing and replaying the videogame in question and then viewing the captured footage – all while taking notes. While not explicitly stated by Tim, the first step (playing and replaying) will likely yield notes towards a subjective criticism of the gameplay experience, while the second step (viewing) will yield notes towards an objective analysis of the game’s design and structure. Together, these two steps guarantee that the reviewer account for the interrelated yet distinct subjective and objective engagement that I argue is crucial to grasping a videogame aesthetically. In the third step, the gameplay footage is broken down into what Tim calls a structure atlas, a colour-coded chart that breaks down how much time is spent in each of the game’s “varieties of moments” (e.g. in menu; in cutscene; in battle; exploring environments, etc.). Together with the notes, this data provides the outline for the review script prepared in step four.
I feel compelled to break the Action Button Method down here because it is a concise process that, if followed more widely, could lead to the production of more thorough and varied analyses of videogames. Most mainstream videogame criticism is based in a consumer-oriented approach that adheres to brief qualitative descriptions of gameplay, graphics, systems etc. Now I’m not saying that this standard approach to gaming reviews doesn’t have its value. Videogames are very expensive products and it’s helpful to have at least one reviewer whose opinion you trust assign a numeric score to a new release that can inform your decision whether to purchase it or not. At the same time, however, we are severely limiting the general discussion of videogames by framing critical discussions as answers to the questions: “Is it fun to play? Is it worth the money? Who will this game appeal to?” Although some media outlets have already begun to deviate from this purely consumerist focus, as long as it remains central to their foundation the expansion of critical discourse in videogames will be unfortunately limited.
Although Tim Rogers was certainly an inspiration on my decision to found LudoCrit, our focuses differ. Action Button’s angle is a totalizing and scientific one, and Tim brings the expertise and (admirably insane) work ethic to provide a thorough analysis of each game he reviews. LudoCrit, on the other hand, concentrates primarily in developing and applying a hermeneutic approach to game criticism; that is, we are interested in establishing a philosophical framework for the interpretation of games as aesthetic experiences based in narratively contextualized play. This is to say that what I appreciate about the Action Button Method is that it doesn’t impose a particular critical angle. It merely provides critics a methodology to dissect their experience with a game in a manner that turns personal playthroughs to objects for analysis.
Thanks for your passionate dedication to videogames, Tim. I encourage anyone reading this to check out Action Button reviews if you haven’t already (link included in citation).
Rogers, Tim. “Action Button Reviews: The Final Fantasy VII Remake.” Youtube, uploaded by Action Button, 25 May 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hu4H5ykBP0I