Destructoid interview: Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw

He is one of videogame media’s most recognized voices, a quick-witted, fast talking Englishman with a bitter world view and a need to be pleased. He was named one of Destructoid’s icons of 2007, and his weekly posts ignite message boards up and down the Internet. The man behind The Escapist’s weekly Zero Punctuation review, this is one game critic who doesn’t care how vulgar he has to be to get down to the grim truth at hand. If your game is bad, this man is going to let you to know about it.

His name, of course, is Ben Croshaw, better known as Yahtzee, a British born resident of Australia whose career as a games writer took a turn for the explosive when his video reviews, in which he spends several relentless minutes ripping a videogame limb from bloody limb, became an Internet phenomenon in just a matter of weeks.  

The man known as Yahtzee was very kind enough to devote some of his meager spare time to answering some questions for the Destructoid readers. In this exclusive interview, Yahtzee discusses how he first got the idea for Zero Punctuation, what he thinks of his audience, and shares his views on some of the controversial current events that have affected our industry in recent history.

Hit the jump for the full interview with Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw.

Destructoid: The Zero Punctuation review has obviously taken the Internet by storm, and made yourself quite an iconic name among the gaming public. What first inspired you to start talking very quickly into a microphone while cartoon images struggled to keep up with your voice? How well were you expecting it to go over when you made your first one, and did you imagine you’d become an Internet gaming icon?

Yahtzee: Of course I’ve been running my own website for years which you could interpret as one long quest to continually sling stuff at a wall until something sticks. As for inspiration, I’d been watching a lot of youtube videos at the time and I had an idea in mind for making a video without any actual video recording hardware, by stringing still images together with narration. Then, after playing the Darkness demo, I had some subject matter to talk about. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I certainly didn’t expect it to get as popular as it did. I was expecting to put it out there and maybe a few more like it before getting bored and ditching it for the next fancy.

Destructoid: When you first started, was the angry vibe something you’d intended from the start? Was the aim of the videos always to unleash the cynical and vitriolic personality known as Yahtzee, or was the reception of your audience a factor in making it the focal part of your reviews?

Yahtzee: I think I’ve always been a vitriolic writer. My chief influences are humorous British critics like Victor Lewis-Smith and Charlie Brooker. The cynicism was always going to be in there regardless of how the audience reacted, so it’s lucky they seemed to like it. There’s something about the sardonic British man with exacting standards that gels well with people, which might explain how Simon Cowell keeps getting work.

Destructoid: How constraining is the need to always find something to criticize in a game? In your Orange Box review, for example, the only problem with Portal is that you couldn’t find fault with it. Is there a thin line between being informative about a game, and giving the viewer the level of anger and hatred that they’ve come to expect?

Yahtzee: I like to think I give most games a fair go. If I have any sort of fun with the game on any level I’ll usually say so. Believe it or not I don’t consciously decide going into a game how much I’m going to hate on it in the review. Every game has the chance to get the kind of lip service Portal did but nothing else has, for me, reached the same level of quality in entertainment value and balance of story and gameplay.

Destructoid: Writers in the games media industry are often accused of being cynical and jaded to appeal to their apathetic readers. As someone whose entire review style hinges on this much-maligned cynicism, do you think it’s sometimes too easy for us to be negative and ignore the positive aspects of the games industry? Do you think it’s even fair to be so miserable all the time, or do games developers deserve a dose of harsh truth?

Yahtzee: I believe in being cruel to be kind. I love gaming, I have done all my life. I want to see it lifted in the eyes of the general public above how they view it now. Pottering endlessly about with the same dreary plots and game mechanics isn’t helping any of us evolve.

Destructoid: What reaction has the industry itself had to your work? Is there any tension between you and certain publishers, or do they understand what it is you do? What do you think of companies like Eidos and Midway who have thrown hissy fits about bad reviews from media outlets in the past? Is creating fear and enmity from publishers ever a concern for yourself?

Yahtzee: In some cases I’ve corresponded with the developers of games I’ve given a bit of a lashing and they’re almost always good sports about it, unless they’re putting on a brave face. I remember after I did the Fable review Peter Molyneux told me he agreed with a lot of my points, which is a very respectable attitude. As for publishers throwing hissy fits, that strikes me as immature. An artist should appreciate constructive criticism, right? Unless all they’re worried about is making money, which speaks rather poorly of them.

Destructoid: On the subject of the reviewer/publisher relationship, what did you make of the Jeff Gerstmann controversy?

Yahtzee: I thought it was ridiculous, as you might predict from my previous answer. Eidos seemed to miss the point of a ‘review’ somewhere along the line.

Destructoid: How well do you feel the games industry is doing creatively right now? 2007 was hailed by some as one of gaming’s greatest years, and it’s generally considered to be a good time to be a gamer. Is this something you agree with? Do you think the games industry is churning out enough hits to make the misses not so glaring, or are we still mired down in a sea of pap?

Yahtzee: It’s been a pretty good year, certainly. I think there’s better competition in the current console generation than there has been in many previous ones, which is keeping standards high. There’s still an inevitable amount of mass-market drivel splurging from all cylinders but we’re living in a time when there are so many different avenues for gaming – consoles, PC, handhelds, digital distribution, casual games, mobiles – that the spread will ensure you never need to drink down more than a few tall glasses of sh*t.

Destructoid: As a fan of your work, I’ve noticed that it’s not just games, but your own audience that comes under fire from yourself. In your personal blog post following the Call of Duty 4 review, for example, you told anybody who missed the ironic part of your ending question that you hated them, with a genuine level of contempt and disgust that ached your abdomen. As someone who deals with gamers on a daily basis, I can certainly understand their tendency to sometimes drive one mad, but how much of your hatred toward the mass audience is genuine, and is it played up for laughs? What do you think of your fans, really?

Yahtzee: I admit that the fans do tend to annoy me. That post was driven by having to spend a morning wading through an entire inbox – for I always try to read all my mail, if not reply to them – reading that same bloody non-joke over and over again out of what I presume was either a misguided attempt to impress or a very savvy attempt to deliberately annoy. And then there’s the constant recommendations of games to review when I tell them over and over again that it’s futile. And the really long, verbose diatribes I have no time to do more than skim-read. But the nice short mails – ‘Hey, I love your work, keep it up’ – are the ones I like. More like those, please.

Destructoid: You obviously inspire strong feelings from your viewers — anybody with personal opinions on videogames will inevitably make some people angry, as gamers can be amazingly defensive about their favorite consoles and games. Have any accusations or hatemail stood out to you as particularly jawdroppingly stupid? I’ve no doubt you’ve been called every name under the Sun, but is there anything in that has surprised you among fan reaction?

Yahtzee: I’m surprised by how little hate mail is sent to me directly. Plenty to be found when I search around on forums, but I guess people are afraid I’ll swear at them or something. Weirdly, while I seem to brush off a lot of appreciative mail, hate mail really gets to me, and I agonise over whether I’ve lost it. I put it all down to self-loathing. It’s just one of my many quirks that make me work well.

Destructoid: As a British gamer, I’ve often complained about the way the European market is treated by publishers, but I am often reminded by my Australian readers that they have it worse. As someone who moved from England to Australia, what do you think of the gaming situation out there, especially when it comes to lengthy release dates?

Yahtzee: I don’t know what America and Japan have against us, maybe we slept with their wives or something, but it’s really hard to defend the arbitrary release dates and price jumps over here. I’m not so worried since other people pay for all my games now (tee hee) but I’ve seen in some cases that even when buying software online, just saying you live in Australia can tack 20-30 bucks onto the price. Why can’t you just be nice, publishers? We just come to you to get some nice games and you kick us in the balls. That’s kind of rude.

Destructoid: Videogames as art is a debate that crops up more and more these days, especially as titles like BioShock strive to achieve more and more in terms of storyline and style. Do you think videogames are, indeed, art, or merely possess artistic elements? Will they ever be accepted as an art form, and what’s currently stopping them, if anything?

Yahtzee: I do believe that games are art. That’s part of my passion for them, and why I distrust people who only seem to be in them for the money. I think it was Ebert who said that games can never be art because of the need for player interaction, but what did he know, the big fat chinless git? For me, that’s just what makes them so unique and fascinating as an art form. I love games that truly explore the possibilities of a user-driven art form, generally games that mesh gameplay and story well, rather than just interrupting the shooting for a cut-scene every now and again.

Destructoid: What’s your opinion on the other thorny issue of videogame violence and its portrayal as a “cesspool” in mainstream media? Are the likes of Jack Thompson a problem or just irrelevant idiocy? Are they ever right to attack videogames as “murder simulators,” or is biased and uneducated reporting like Fox News’ Mass Effect “sexbox” scandal more damaging than any simulated gunplay?

Yahtzee: Here’s the thought that comforts me. People like Jack Thompson are the same sort of people who decried comic books, rock music, women’s suffrage, films, theatre, novels. None of their influence remains today because they were usually the older generation, and the good thing about the older generation is that they eventually die. Leaving us, the younger generation, to pass on our values to the generation that follows. It’s just a fact that old fogies are scared of change because it makes them feel like they’ve lost control of the world, and they justify their prejudice with whatever they can latch onto. The struggles of a new media are always temporary. You shouldn’t let it bother you.

Destructoid: To finish up, we’re going to be incredibly trite with a tacked on word association. Fun.

Xbox 360.

Yahtzee: Shooters.

Destructoid: Nintendo Wii.

Yahtzee: Gimmicks.

Destructoid: PlayStation 3.

Yahtzee: Fat.

Destructoid: PC.

Yahtzee: Nerds.

Destructoid: Fanboy.

Yahtzee: Twats.

Destructoid: Games journalism.

Yahtzee: Yes.

Destructoid: Angry Videogame Nerd.

Yahtzee: No.

Destructoid: EA.

Yahtzee: Satan.

Destructoid: Activision.

Yahtzee: Weirdoes.

Destructoid: In-game advertising.

Yahtzee: Whatever.

Destructoid: Online gaming.

Yahtzee: Shouting.

Destructoid: Casual.

Yahtzee: Goldmine.

Destructoid: Hardcore.

Yahtzee: Pale.

Destructoid: The Escapist.

Yahtzee: Cha-ching.

Destructoid: Yahtzee.

Yahtzee: Me.

Destructoid would like to thank Yahtzee once again for taking the time to talk to us, and reminds you that you can catch the Zero Punctuation review every Wednesday at The Escapist. You can also check out his written work and videogame creations at Fully Ramblomatic.

Jim Sterling