In the summer of 2017, I learned of an independently produced video game known as Cuphead. Its art style immediately grabbed my attention. I thought it was fascinating how the creators drew inspiration from the pioneering American animated short films of the 1920s and 1930s, giving it a colorful, fresh coat of paint. As it wasn’t released until September of that year, one would expect I learned of it through the publicity professional journalists were giving it on the eve of its release. Such an assertion would indeed be the case.
Unfortunately, the exact method by which I learned about Cuphead wasn’t exactly a triumphant moment for video game journalism. Professional journalist Dean Takahashi, writing for a publication called VentureBeat, uploaded footage of himself wherein he demonstrated a complete lack of proficiency playing the game. He missed extremely basic cues and didn’t even clear the first stage. Although he intended for the video to be humorous, it was, in reality, nothing of the sort, being the very definition of the word tedious. I cannot fathom who would want to earnestly watch a commentary-free video wherein someone fails to make any progress in game. As video game journalists had been the subject of ridicule in the years leading up to 2017, the internet erupted. People from all across the world flocked to his video, leaving angry comments and downvoting it en masse until they eclipsed the comparatively few upvotes it received.
This opened up a question that had been thrown around several times over the years. Does a journalist need to be good at games? Personally, I feel the answer to that question is yes. While I don’t expect a journalist to be a master-class gamer who can pull off feats such as clearing Super Mario 64 in fifteen minutes or gliding through Half-Life 2 using physics exploits, they should display some skill with the game. Video games demand a little more out of their audience than films or literature, so professional journalists need to be good enough so that they can give their audience an accurate impression of the work in question. Therefore, if they’re dying a lot due to poorly balanced gameplay or if certain features aren’t working as intended, the person watching the video gets the message instantly. At the very least, Mr. Takahashi should have provided commentary over his abysmal footage. As it stands, the internet received a context-free, boring video that came from a source claiming to be professional.
In doing so, Mr. Takahashi inadvertently showed a lack of respect for the medium. It’s especially important for journalists to accurately convey the experience independently produced efforts provide, for they often struggle to get a second look. Mr. Takahashi’s footage was too terrible to accept as genuine, but what would’ve happened had his footage been slightly less bad? If he messed up just enough to make it seem as though the developers were more at fault for his failures than he himself was, the game would have likely lost sales. Losing sales is a major setback for AAA companies, but it’s absolutely crippling for an indie effort. This seemed especially true in the second half of the 2010s after the scene lost the ego commonly associated with people such as Jonathan Blow or Phil Fish and focused entirely on finding an audience through innovation.
Either way, one doesn’t typically receive this amount of negativity without acknowledging it in some way, so Mr. Takahashi ended up writing a response. Although he did technically apologize in this article, it came across as rather disingenuous – probably because he couldn’t resist the urge to disrespect his dissenters.In the article proper, he claimed the people who criticized his videos were the same ones behind a certain notorious, online incident from 2014. Although I’m not questioning the validity of his claim, I do have to comment that bad people can make good points on occasion. Rather than admit his footage wasn’t professional, Mr. Takahashi ended up doubling down, spending more time calling out his detractors than admitting fault.
Before I continue, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. I absolutely do not think he deserved to be swarmed with death threats or other miscellaneous mean-spirited comments. Anyone who did just that should truly be ashamed of themselves. However, I also have to comment that, despite Mr. Takahashi’s claims of living through a personal Black Mirror episode, absolutely none of those degenerates would have paid him any heed had he not uploaded the footage. It’s not as though said degenerates pirated the game, recorded themselves deliberately playing poorly for twenty-six minutes, hacked the VentureBeat servers, and posted the footage under Mr. Takahashi’s name. It’s not even a case in which this was only obvious in hindsight. He, one of his superiors, or even just a close friend should have taken one look at the footage and concluded that nobody would actually want to watch it. Although the video appears to be entitled “Dean’s Shameful 26 Minutes Of Gameplay”, it was originally uploaded under the name “It’s Not Easy”, which suggests Mr. Takahashi had less self-awareness than he let on. Then again, it’s also possible he changed it to make the joke more obvious.
Many journalists rushed to Mr. Takahashi’s defense, and a common thread among them was that dissenters didn’t know how gaming journalism works. When taken at face value, these statements would be like if people contracted a severe illness at a restaurant only for the owner and many of their peers to claim that because nobody afflicted understands how food criticism works, they have no right to sue the establishment afterwards. Mistakes can be called out for what they are – it doesn’t matter who does it. Moreover, I would argue such an assertion is secretly a damning commentary on the state of gaming journalism. There is something inherently wrong with a system that allows such unprofessionalism to exist. It’s even worse when you realize a blunder of this kind wasn’t without precedent. A similar scandal had occurred with Polygon a year prior concerning the 2016 edition of Doom.
The second of these articles was quick to point out Mr. Takahashi’s merits, highlighting his decades-spanning career writing about technology. Again, this just raises the question of why he didn’t know any better. I, and I suspect many of his detractors, would have been far more understanding if it turned out he had recently gotten the job. However, somebody who had been covering technology for twenty-five years and video games for eighteen of them shouldn’t be making mistakes like this. This would be akin to a veteran director forgetting to take the lens cap off of the camera before shooting their film’s climax.
To be fair, these articles did provide many good points, but they didn’t quite address the fundamental issue at hand. At the end of the day, Mr. Takahashi’s footage was unwatchable, and attempting to pass it off as piece of legitimate journalism failed to do any justice to the hard work the Moldenhauer brothers put into their game. The only positive result from this debacle is that it likely drummed up a lot of enthusiasm for Cuphead, for a lot of people, myself included, didn’t even know it existed beforehand.
I can empathize with Mr. Takahashi’s plight, for being bombarded by many angry people at once would be mentally exhausting. However, as cold as it may sound, I do have to comment that his reaction along with those of his peers speaks to one of the biggest problems plaguing contemporary critical circles: they themselves cannot take criticism. In his response, Mr. Takahashi made a fatal error in that he profiled his detractors, implicitly declaring them all to be far-right trolls with backwards-looking political views. He didn’t even consider for a second that maybe, just maybe, it was possible to dislike his video without being a terrible person. Instead, he came up with various, tenuous reasons as to why they shouldn’t be taken seriously.
However, when all is said and done, I can believe that Mr. Takahashi’s mistake was an honest one. It was a severe miscalculation on his part, but it thankfully didn’t cause any lasting harm – except perhaps to his own credibility. The same, however, could not be said of another journalistic scandal that would occur almost exactly one year later.
In July of 2018, a critic who went by the e-handle Boomstick Gaming uploaded a review of an indie game known as Dead Cells, which was to be released the following August. The review was well-received and successfully sold many people on the game. On the eve of the game’s release date, a journalist by the name of Filip Miucin, working for the prominent news outlet IGN, uploaded his own take on Dead Cells. The video was seen by tens of thousands of people – one of whom happened to be Boomstick Gaming. However, as he watched the video, he found it to be oddly familiar.That’s right, Mr. Miucin copied Boomstick Gaming’s review verbatim. Although critics are liable to make similar observations, it was clear that Mr. Miucin had watched the lesser-known video and plagiarized it. Like a smug middle-school student who thinks that by changing a few words around in their research paper, they can fool their teachers, he was called out on it immediately. As a result of his unacceptable behavior, IGN announced that they and Mr. Miucin had parted ways the very next day. Three days after this decision was made, Mr. Miucin created a video in response to his circumstances. This was the prime opportunity to apologize to all of the wronged parties. He never did. For whatever little it’s worth, he did offer words of encouragement to Boomstick Gaming, but he never admitted any fault, claiming the plagiarism was “not at all intentional”. One wonders how he – or anyone else, for that matter – could unintentionally copy somebody else’s work. To make matters worse, Mr. Miucin then proceeded to challenge Jason Schreier of Kotaku, who was investigating his body of work at the time, to find any more instances of plagiarism. Mr. Schreier proved to be more than up for the task when he uncovered an entire slew of copied reviews. The list includes, but is not limited to, a Bayonetta 2 review lifted from Polygon, a commentary about the Nintendo Switch’s HD rumble taken from NeoGAF, and numerous videos in which he just straight-up read Wikipedia excerpts. He wasn’t even above ripping off the work of his peers at IGN, for he had copied Seth Macy’s review of Octopath Traveler as well.
What’s particularly distressing about this scandal is that, unlike the case with Mr. Takahashi, Mr. Miucin was completely and utterly in the wrong. Even so, his choice of words made it sound as though he had some claim to the moral high ground over his detractors. He was under the impression Kotaku took advantage of the situation by attempting to generate clicks off of his name – all while flagging videos discussing his slight to get them taken down. The ludicrous supposition that perhaps this was a serious issue worth discussing apparently eluded him. For bonus points, he, continuing to display no self-awareness, proceeded to monetize his non-apology video, which killed off any remote semblance of earnestness he may have had.
Similar to Mr. Takahashi’s situation, I will point out that Mr. Miucin claimed people were going after his family in their anger. That is the only point I will give him, for a mistake, even one as grave as this, does not warrant getting entirely innocent parties involved. However, the other points against him are entirely valid. As a journalist, he had no right to take the words of a lesser-known critic and post it as his own, and because his slight was not isolated incident, he destroyed his credibility in one fell swoop – and he has absolutely nobody to blame but himself.
Even after the innumerable scandals plaguing gaming journalism, many enthusiasts were left wondering how such a thing could happen. However, I posit that with critics’ inability to handle any kind of criticism, a scandal of this magnitude was inevitable. The situation with Dean Takahashi demonstrated that the critical circle would sooner swallow multiple sharp objects than their pride. As long as even the tiniest shred of plausible deniability exists, they will double down. I say this because when Mr. Miucin’s mistakes were exposed to light, his handling of the backlash was very similar to Mr. Takahashi’s approach. Rather than admit to any kind of fault, he too tried to hide behind his peers. However, while Mr. Takahashi had little trouble gaining supporters, Mr. Miucin realized, too late, that there was nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. He did issue a true apology in April of 2019, but he attempted to carry on as though nothing happened in the intervening time, which failed to deter his detractors. Because he took so long to acknowledge his mistake, I can’t help but conclude that he only bothered apologizing when he realized he was well and truly out of options. It didn’t help his case that he continued to flag videos discussing the incident despite having not a leg to stand on.
Ultimately, any kind of circle needs to be open to an outsider’s perspective. As it stands, journalists take a very authoritarian, hierarchical approach to their craft. They’re the experts, you’re the readers, and anything you have to say is irrelevant. If you, as the reader, do not worship the ground they walk on, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t like it? Too bad – them’s the breaks. People who subscribe to this line of thinking forget that the common person can instantly home in on problems painstakingly obvious to them, but go unnoticed by the experienced. To allude to a classic tale, it is up to the fool and the child to point out the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Plagiarists such as Filip Miucin are exactly the kind of people who can thrive in an environment that actively dissuades constructive criticism – at least in the short term. These systems need to be open to scrutiny, and if journalists continue to lash out at those who disagree with them, it’s only a matter of time before the next Filip Miucin arrives.
Fortunately, the manner in which IGN handled the scandal was absolutely perfect. They correctly recognized him as a liability to the company and fired him immediately. When one considers their spotty track record, this was highly commendable. If nothing else, it does demonstrate to me that, as flawed as the gaming critical circle is, they do realize the importance of retaining an audience to a greater extent than their film-loving counterparts. We can only hope that journalists of any kind learn from these blunders and strive to improve their damaged relationship with readers.