The Escapist's Zero Punctuation is the funniest video games review show on the internet. Its maker, Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, is a Brit abroad, a resident of Brisbane, Australia. He reviews new releases in a way the Pythons might be proud of: quick-fire acerbic wittiness that doesn't skimp on the facts and, most importantly, has the common decency to not take itself entirely seriously.
Yes, there are thousands more goofs on the internet chatting about games – Swedish let's-play megastar PewDiePie racked up 351 million views in June of 2014 alone, making him more popular on YouTube than Katy Perry – but none do it with the elegant turns of phrase synonymous with Zero Punctuation. More than 300 episodes have gone live since 2007, and its minimalistic cartoon imagery has become immediately recognisable.
Croshaw's prose is terrifically sardonic, but he never falls into the trap of berating a game because it's not for him. Instead, he focuses on the games that do interest him, that fit within his specialist frame of reference – and if they suck, nobody can say that the right man isn't telling them so. I wanted to speak to the critic, writer, novelist, developer and renowned wearer of hats about Zero Punctuation's continuing excellence, and some other stuff. So I did.
VICE: Hi there. How's Australia at the moment? I always think of it as being a place that doesn't allow bloody games into the country – as in, games with lots of blood in them. Is that still the case?
Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw: Fortunately, there's now an R18+ certificate for video games in Australia, after a lot of work and petitioning and all that. The problem is, some games are still refused classification.Saint's Row IV was given that treatment, even after the R18+ certificate was introduced because it contained drug use. So I'm not sure what the hell we're supposed to petition for now. For the classification board to stop being such dicks?
You have experience across the games spectrum – in so much as you've made games and played games. What's easier? Making games, or writing and talking about them? If you make a game, that's a terrific investment over a long period. But doing Zero Punctuation videos every week must carry its own stress.
Making a game certainly takes longer than making a video, because a video takes a week, but I've been working on my current game project, Consuming Shadow, for about two years now. But it's mainly taking so long because I only work on it at weekends. And I find I have a terrible habit of second-guessing myself about the design and whether or not it works on all levels, just from constantly playing and analysing other games for my work-work. I don't know if I can say if it's easier to generally be a game designer or a game journalist, because both flow from this same commanding passion for and knowledge of video games I've been building for most of my life.
On the topic of games making, can you explain a little about this you-being-asked-to-work-on-Duke-Nukem situation? Given how that game turned out, you must be a) relieved to have not been a part of it, and b) maybe even a little annoyed at the same time, because surely with a more subversive script in place it'd have at least one element of surprise going for it?
Okay, well, the story is, several years into DNF's development a new producer came onto the project and asked me to write an audition script for the game, so I did a thing that was overtly taking the piss – as I felt irony was the best way to go with a character like Duke Nukem in this day and age. Apparently a lot of the studio liked it, but the lead guy nixed it because he wanted Duke to be a serious guy, and that didn't make a whole lot of sense to me. Can't say it's a regret of mine, because the game really was pretty appalling, and fixing it would have taken a lot more than what my snarky ass could have provided.
Zero Punctuation reviews Spec Ops: The Line
You made a pilot for a games show on the telly, Game Damage. That didn't seem to go anywhere. Over here, we've had Charlie Brooker front Gameswipe and How Videogames Changed The World, as well as trying to teach Jon Snow how to play Call Of Duty. But not even he's made it work. Can games work on the box like they did when GamesMaster was a thing?
The impression I got from my experience with the Game Damage pilot and afterwards was that TV networks tend to be antsy about gaming content, because video gaming is one of TV's main competitors in the world of living room entertainment. When they do gaming stuff, they want to present it as a kid's thing – like GamesMaster or Good Game here in Australia – or as some fringe phenomenon to be analysed, as in Gameswipe, which was excellent regardless. They see it that way, rather than something people just do as part of daily life. That's what we were going for, a more Top Gear-esque vibe.
But I've got no interest in trying that sort of thing again. I don't even watch network TV any more. Mainly just stuff on YouTube, which has tons of gaming content. The internet is, as ever, the great leveller.
No doubt Zero Punctuation has made your name. It's a predictable question, but are you surprised at all at the longevity of the series?
We've managed to keep ZP going with a relatively stable viewership, and I think it lasts well because it is, essentially, just a visualised essay, and essays don't get old. I've tried to avoid the trap of relying on too many running gags and gimmicks, beyond a few core concepts, and kept it about discussing games, because with a new game each week that will always be fresh. I like to think I've settled into a nice comfortable At the Movies-style groove.
Have you encountered any significant criticism of ZP from PRs, publishers, whoever – those on the marketing side of this set-up?
I've never really experienced pressure from publishers, I guess because they don't have many ways to pressure me. I always buy the games myself on launch – The Escapist pays me back – so I'm not reliant on publishers for free review copies. And I also don't give numerical scores, because I think that's fucking nonsense when you're criticising from a subjective artistic standpoint, so I don't affect the Metacritic score. I always tend to get along with developers, since they know their game's flaws better than anyone, but I suspect publishers regard me as this weird outside thing they don't know what to make of.
How much time goes into each five-minute ZP episode? And if you don't mind me asking, do you set yourself a minimum amount of play time per game covered? With a weekly slot surely you can't finish everything.
It takes a week to make an episode. During that week I work on the video in the morning and spend the afternoons playing the game I have to review the following week. I try to play to story end, but when that's not possible I play at least to the point that I'm fairly sure my opinion isn't going to change.
Let's Drown Out : Alex Kidd
I'm a fan of your Let's Drown Out series, too, with Gabriel Morton – they're probably my favourite let's-play style videos. With that, how much of it is purely improvised, and how much based on notes that you might have bullet-pointed pre-recording?
Let's Drown Out is completely improvised. I have enough on my plate that I don't need to add more scripting to my workload, especially on something I don't monetise. I started it because I wanted to keep my improvised banter skills ticking over, since ZP is very script-reliant. It was helpful to have built that skill when I started the new Escapist series with Jim Sterling, Uncivil War, which is also unscripted banter – although it is edited a bit. Having said that, for Drown Out we do compile a small list of bullet point topics, usually from current events or questions posed by viewers.
Have you found any games that are better to watch than to play?
There are plenty of games that I don't have any interest in playing but I'm happy to watch, such as one-against-one fighting games. My Drown Out colleague Gabriel is very into those. Sometimes I like to watch him pull off all these ridiculously complicated combos, just so I can then be completely unimpressed at him. This is how I amuse myself.
Regarding social gaming: should we be seeing more public get-togethers in smaller spaces for people just to play games and hang out? You have your massive DOTA things in their arenas, but what about Mario Kart in pubs?
I think the concept resonates pretty well. It's hard to just introduce yourself to new people and make friends in a bar, but if someone's playing Mario Kart or Street Fighter and they need another player, there's an automatic in there.
Relatedly, I do think that consoles trying to concentrate on online rather than local multiplayer will be remembered as a huge mistake. Because PC gaming does online multiplayer almost without effort, and it's harder and harder to find something you can just play on a console with friends when they come over without too much faffing about. There are new driving games that don't even have a split-screen mode.
How invasive are games on your personal life, and do you see them as addictive? The Sun over here ran a spread in the summer with a headline suggesting gaming was as addictive as heroin.
I might not be the right person to ask about this because I've never had playing video games take over my life. Sometimes I wish they would. Certainly writing about them is my main source of income, but that's hardly the same thing. Occasionally a game really grabs me and I'll want to play it constantly for weeks, but after a while that just stops. Something new comes along. Maybe that's just my personality. Do I think games can be addictive and take over your life? To certain kinds of people, yes. But if it weren't games, they'd probably be addicted to something else. Maybe worry more about what's wrong with a society that makes certain individuals want to escape from it for eternity.
If someone has a PS3 or an Xbox, or whatever, at home, and is really only using it for FIFA or Call Of Duty, could you recommend just one game to begin their exploration of what else is possible in this medium?
Give them Spec Ops: The Line. Because they'll think it's a standard CoD-like shooter at first, but once they get through to the other side, broken and changed, they'll be ready to dance to a new tune.