Best of British – Yahtzee

One in a short series of articles recognising British people who’ve made a notable contribution to gaming in some way, whether as writers, artists, developers, publishers or gaming enthusiasts. What they all share in common is their country of origin and, importantly, a passion for gaming. This one is a few words about everyone's favourite internet misery guts, Yahtzee.

Back in 2007 an aspiring writer, reviewer and developer of point and click adventures by the name of Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw was living in Brisbane, between jobs, when he decided to experiment with making videos, using only static images and with a voice over. Originally called “FullyRamblomatic Reviews” after his personal website, Fullyramblomatic.com, his first video was a review of the demo for Starbreeze studio’s The Darkness on PS3.  Several days later he posted a retrospective review of Lionhead’s Fable that caught the attention of Peter “Promise Machine” Molyneux himself, who assured him Fable II would meet his unrealistic standards (it didn’t). It also caught the attention of The Escapist who offered Yahtzee a job doing more videos on a weekly basis. The rest, as they say, is history. “FullyRamblomatic Reviews” became “Zero Punctuation” and catapulted Yahtzee to internet superstardom, where he now lives in constant fear of a mad fan breaking into his home and knifing him.  Or hobbling him with a sledgehammer like Kathy Bates in “Misery.”

The basic idea of Zero Punctuation is so simple a horde of people have no doubt kicked themselves repeatedly for not coming up with it first.  Yahtzee plays a newly released game and writes down his opinions about it, then reads them into a headset mic and illustrates them with still images before mashing it all together like so much cake mix into a 5-minute video.  Minus the reading-into-a-headset and the video-processing bits that pretty much describes any text review you’d read in a gaming magazine or on a website, and that’s the simple brilliance of it. Zero Punctuation capitalises on the strengths of both the written word and the video medium. Your standard written review doesn’t allow for much in the way of visual humour beyond a pithy caption or a funny screenshot, whereas a lot of internet video reviewers go overboard on the visual aspect with things like overlong comedy skits or shoddy green screen bells and whistles that usually detract from whatever point they try to make.  Yahtzee successfully manages to straddle the two by using simple visual humour to complement an informed and entertaining writing style. In theory it shouldn’t work, with internet attention spans being what they are, yet somehow it does.

Although The Escapist bills Zero Punctuation as a review series, what Yahtzee actually does is videogame criticism; a fact he’s repeatedly stated in many podcasts and interviews.  Whereas a reviewer’s job is to weigh up the pros and cons of a game as impartially as possible and deliver a summary tinged with their own subjective opinion, a critic’s job is purely to pick at all the flaws in something; however petty or insignificant they might be.   If a game has nits to pick Yahtzee will be there with a pair of tweezers in one hand and a jug of piss to pour over your cereal in the other. With the exception of Portal no game escapes a Zero Punctuation video without at least one or two acid burns, to the cheer or chagrin of publishers, developers and gamers alike.  Taking Yahtzee’s verdict on a game as holy edict is therefore possibly one of the dumbest things you could possibly do – a fact sadly lost on much of his vast legion of “dedicated” fans.  Some of the nits he picks are the pickiest of nits indeed and he sometimes clutches at the proverbial straws to find something negative to say about a particular game.  His observations are still valid ones, not to mention funny, and his videos can provide a good general idea of a game’s overall quality.  Just make sure you have a salt shaker or three on standby.

If taking his word as gospel is misguided then so is taking it as a personal attack, like the way Nintendo fans did over his scathing critique of Super Smash Brothers Brawl for the Wii.  Rather than let it wash over them as any reasonable person would, being fanboys they sent him a cartload of whiny emails complaining he wasn’t fair to the game.  Yahtzee, being Yahtzee of course, devoted a whole video to mocking their protests with sarcasm and biting scorn. Incidentally he’s done videos covering a number of games I’ve enjoyed that includes, to my genuine surprise at the time, “The World Ends With You” (TWEWY) on the Nintendo DS. Despite TWEWY being one of the few JRPGs actually worth a damn, Yahtzee hated it in a way that make my overall dislike of the genre seem like slack-jawed devotion by comparison. Funnily enough it didn’t detract from my personal enjoyment of the game in any real way, nor did it put me off his videos.  You see, you can still enjoy someone’s work and – shock horror – disagree with their opinions.  It’s called “Being an Adult.”

I’ve rambled on at length about Zero Punctuation but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Extra Punctuation, another of his weekly Escapist offerings in which he usually elaborates on a specific point from one of his videos.  If he can’t get a whole article out of that he usually muses about something else relating to gaming, like the noise a gun should make in games or how dismissive he felt about the offerings at this year’s E3.  Perhaps his best Extra Punctuation article, in my personal opinion, is “Roleplaying Homosexual in Dragon Age 2,” a thoughtful and mature reflection about choosing Anders as his character’s love interest that’s surprisingly bereft of the dick jokes he’s usually fond of.  Not that there’s anything wrong with a bit of ribald humour of course.  In this case an over-abundance of penis jokes would have seemed crass and it’s to his credit that he toned it down a lot, the result being a insightful and sensitive piece that’s well worth a read wherever you sit on the Kinsey Scale.  In fact all his Extra Punctuation articles are worth reading if you have more than a passing interest in videogame design and criticism.

Although now legally Australian, Yahtzee is still a quintessential Brit at heart; cynical, self-deprecating and dismissive.  Thanks to him every adult male in the UK who uses voice chat in an online game is often asked “Are you Yahtzee?” by people who can’t grasp the subtleties of UK regional dialects, which is still preferable to bad Dick Van Dyke impressions and “hilarious” jokes about tea, crumpets and bad teeth.  On a more serious note Yahtzee has also done a great job helping to legitimise video game criticism outside of academic circles, and encouraged gamers to be more discerning about what they buy with the hard earned money their parents give them – a Sisyphean endeavour only slightly easier than shifting the moon out of orbit by squinting at it.  Perhaps the most important contribution Yahtzee has made to gaming however is the British lesson that every silver lining has a whopping great cloud attached to it: something over-enthusiastic gaming fanboys with a hard-on for hype should pay more heed to.

Matt McDermott

About Matt McDermott

Matt is the irresponsible degenerate behind bitscreed.com.