Friday, October 4, 2013

What to See: Great gaming sites and shows

Following up on yesterday's post (Where to Go), as promised, today I elaborate some of my favourite non-news focused gaming sites and shows. As with yesterday, this list is presented in no particular order and is not intended to be a 'top 5 countdown' or similar type list. Instead, it can be considered a representation of some of my frequent haunts for quality content. Many of these are extremely well known to gamers but hopefully most will find at least one that they aren't aware of.

I almost put this site on yesterday's list but ultimately opted for today as its primary focus is entertaining content as opposed to news. Every day the active staff of Screwattack pump out a variety of content beyond news ranging from top-10 lists to hour long discussion panels. Head personality/owner Craig Skistimas has taken a backseat in the past few months to focus more on the business side of the site but the other personalities have been competently filling his shoes. At times, perhaps due to the predominantly male staff with an average age in the low twenties, the content is a bit puerile and borders on misogynistic, but, for the most part, it is well produced high quality entertainment.


Beyond the staff, Screwattack is constantly pushing for fan created content and the front splash page is usually adorned with several highlights from the community. This level of community engagement is pretty much unheard of on any other gaming site and it really sets Screwattack above the competition. I think that opening the site to the community at large ensures that there is a constant string of fresh ideas coming in. While some of what the community produces falls flat, the sheer volume ensures at least a few gems. Screwattack is on my daily roll of gaming sites and I do not hesitate to recommend it to any gamer who is looking for something new. That said, I think non-gamers need not apply as much of the content is likely to go past them; the entertainment is most definitely gamer focused.

James Rolfe is a film maker first and a gamer second and manages to blend these two passions to hilarious results in his Angry Video Game Nerd series. Each episode of approximately 10 to 20 minutes focuses on some of the worst games from the 8bit era through a hyperbolic character called The Nerd. The Nerd typically spends the majority of each episode dissecting awful gameplay while spewing vitriol all while sporting a trademark grimace. Part of what makes this series so appealing is that it purposefully takes the nostalgia glasses off when looking at classic games and pulls no punches just because a game came from a supposedly golden age. Rolfe is also quite engaged with his fans and frequently answers questions and provides behind the scenes looks of just how he puts episodes together. It is clear that he loves what he is doing and that he strives for precision in every aspect of his work.

Beyond the AVGN, Cinemassacre hosts Rolfe's other film ventures which include a collection of shorts, reviews, other non-gaming content. The same passion that Rolfe shows for The Nerd is applied to his other endeavours and you can't help be feel engaged because of it. I highly recommend the AVGN to fans of old-school gaming and think that the rest of site is well worth a look as well. James Rolfe's work is continuously gaining in popularity and this is, undoubtedly, a reflection of his hard work and dedication.

Every two weeks, MatPat releases a new episode of, for my money, the smartest gaming show on the internet. Game Theory covers such esoteric topics as 'Why Princess Peach Keeps Getting Captured' and links them to real world facts and science such as Stockholm syndrome. The presentation is tightly edited and fast-paced packing a ton of information into a 10 minute clip. Relying on hard data and mathematics whenever possible, Matthew Patrick brings an element of research seldom seen in gaming shows. The best part, of course, is that the educational aspects are presented with an energy that ensures that they aren't perceived as dull. While some argue that Patrick's cadence is annoying, I find it perfectly tolerable and well complemented to the pacing. While Game Theory rarely treads into masters level material, the unique presentation of science is refreshing and I would highly recommend a watch to any gamer who has spent a night with Wikipedia's random button fascinated by what the world has to offer.

One of the first web comics, for over 17 years Penny Arcade's Jerry Holkins (writer) and Mike Krahulik (illustrator) have been poking fun at gamers and the games industry. Although a bit acerbic for some, most of their comedy relies on a sarcastic bite that fits well with gaming culture. Beyond the comic, Penny Arcade has grown to be a home for a wide variety of gaming related shows, the subject of a their own series of video games (On the rainslick precipice of darkness), and the banner for one of the biggest gaming conventions in the world (Penny Arcade Expo). With so much content, anyone who says they can't find something on the site that appeals to them isn't looking hard enough or is clearly suffering from pants-on-fire syndrome.

One of the shows hosted on Penny Arcade, Extra Credits presents condensed lectures written by game designer James Portnow and narrated by Daniel Floyd. The series is visualized by different artists but generally opts for a simple approach to not detract from the actual scripted content. Portnow isn't afraid of serious topics and discusses them with maturity whilst bringing the insight of being an industry veteran. While not explicitly focused on game design, several episodes each season typically cover the aspects that make games great from a design perspective. Beyond this, Portnow routinely links games to the broader world and highlights those games he feels shouldn't be overlooked due to their handling of major social issues. Although I haven't tried every game recommended in Extra Credits, not once have I been disappointed with their suggestions. 

If I have one complaint with the show it is that it is often too short. Five to eight minute episodes often just scratch the surface of some of the heady topics that are discussed. While, often enough, topics are spread out over several shows, it can be frustrating when a show ends just as the ground work has been laid and the discussion feels like it is hitting its stride. I would recommend Extra Credits to those who enjoy deep and reasoned philosophical discussion. Gamers will certainly feel a bit more at home here but I think the issues covered, often enough, transcend mere entertainment and thus non-gamers may find the series interesting as well.

One of the telling points of the entries on this list is that they are, almost all, the machinations of an individual as opposed to a large company. I think this is pretty inspiring as it means that some of the best gaming related content out there is being produced without the oversight of a large corporation. While this doesn't guarantee that censorship isn't taking place (everyone is responsible to their advertisers), I think it is safe to presume a good deal of creative freedom. Hopefully, at least some of my suggestions will be of interest to gamers and non-gamers alike.