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The Webcomic Overlook #145: Critical Miss

When all’s said and done, webcomics are a damn cushy media to be reviewing. While the total audience isn’t small, it is somewhat fragmented with readers spread out over different genres and formats. At the same time, there are few centralized communication channels. Reviewing webcomics are not too different than reviewing books, only without gray ladies like the New York Times to give everyone an air of legitimacy. On the plus side, the low-pressure environment means that webcomic reviewers are, for the most part, free to state most controversial opinions and not have to worry about backlash.

Compare that to, say, video game reviews. Pretty much everything that can be said about video game reviews is encapulated in the story of its patron martyr, Jeff Gerstmann. For Webcomic Overlook readers unfamiliar with the controversy, here’s the Reader’s Digest version: in 2007, Mr. Gerstmann was the Editorial Director of the Gamespot website. Eidos Interactive had bought up a bunch of adspace on the site to promote it’s new Kane & Lynch game. Gerstmann gave the game a negative review, and shortly afterwards, he was fired. Rumors quickly circulated that his termination was directly tied to Eidos pressuring Gamespot to fire the guy, and those rumors only escalated when several Gamespot staff members quit in protest.

There’s a lot of stuff digest here. There’s the confirmation, in many people’s minds, that video game reviews are basically just big ads for the video game companies, and you can lose your account like an advertising agency would if things don’t go right. So how do you, the reader, know that the review you’re reading is not merely of a multi-million dollar marketing strategy to trick you into dumping money on a worthless game?

Then there’s the issue with the rating. Did you know the controversial review actually scored a “Fair”? That’s a middle of the road 6.0-6.5, according to Gamespot. I video game reviews, this is called a bad score. Video game reviews live and die on Metacritic, which is supposed to aggregate all reviews everywhere. If a game doesn’t score at least in the high 80′s, it’s considered a bad score. And we can’t have one guy’s opinion ruining the average, right?

Worst of all, video game companies aren’t the only thing putting pressure on video game reviewers. There’s the gamers. Gamers are competitive by nature. So when a game they love is given a low score, they bay and cry and accuse the reviewer of being ignorant about video games. How dare they bring the Metacritic score down! Woe to those who commit the heinous crime of daring to say that they didn’t enjoy Fall Out or Grand Theft Auto.

So there you have it: the messy double-edged sword of video game reviewing. Give a game a good grade, then you’re in the pockets of the game companies. Give the game a bad game, then you’re an ignorant moron who should never touch a keyboard again. Yet people want to put up with video game reviews because a new game is upwards of $50, and no one has the sort of disposable income to throw away on a game that’s no good at all.

This is the sort of cutthroat world that Erin Stout, the heroine of video game webcomic Critical Miss, finds herself in. Yes, Virginia, this is another video game webcomic review! Critical Miss is hosted on the Escapist website, and it’s written by Jonathan Grey Carter and illustrated by Cory Rydell.

Earlier this year, several webcomics competed for the right to get published by Escapist Magazine (“Yahtzee Croshaw, Yahtzee Croshaw…. and Yahtzee Croshaw!”) The winner was decided by a judges panel that included webcomic luminaries Ryan North, Brian Clevinger, and Shamus Young. Between those three, they’ve written Dinosaur Comics, Machine of Death, 8-Bit Theater, Atomic Robo, Stolen Pixels, and DM of the Rings. As you can guess, Critical Miss emerged the winner. I’ll let Shamus Young explain the victory:

I’ve always been a fan of the “charged attack” school of web-comicry. (It’s the approach I strive to use most often.) Instead of going for a single surprise punchline, you tell a series of mild half-jokes. It’s like a warm up act to get the audience ready for the final panel. It’s like a warm up act to get the audience ready for the final panel. … This is one of very few comics in the entire contest that got me to burst into real, sustained laughter. (And note how much funnier this joke is because our lead is a female. You two-guys-on-a-couch writers are handicapping yourselves.)

Lots of contestants did the “gamers talking about games”. A few did the “game developers talking about games”. Here is a game journalist.

The series has a unique premise, a unique voice, a unique protagonist, and a joke about instant beardification.

Erin Stout stood out as a character for me. In a sea of “this person is a gamer” introductions I think she made a solid first impression.

First of all, I’ve covered many of the new generation gaming comics on this site, and most have rightfully shelved the whole two-guys-on-a-couch theme as a stale, decades-old relic. Second of all, how does the phrase “instant beardification” not induce epic eye rolls? Humor: so super-subjective it hurts sometimes.

Erin Stout is a professional video game reviewer. Her editor, Sharon, doesn’t even bother to hide the fact that they’re basically writing reviews to shameless promote the latest releases from the gaming publishers. As lifeless, factory-produced positive reviews are churned out en masse, the honest, hard-working reviewers have to fight for the bottom-of-the-barrel games like Kane & Lynch 2 and Virtua Shit Eater. (What, no reviews for Daisy Fuentes Pilates?) As a result, Erin is bitter and jaded, to the point where she no longer seems to groom her gigantic sideburns.

The title Critical Miss is loaded with meaning. It’s a wordplay on “critical mass,” a reference to the video game term (“critical hit”) about making that one strike that saps a lot of hit points (or not making that strike, as the title seems to be implying), and the snarky — or should I say, “critical” — nature of Erin’s employment… and oh, she’s a girl! A GAMER girl! Anyway, the incredible triple-entendre is fantastic in both its simplicity and elegance.

That title, incidentally, is the wittiest the comic will ever get.

The downside to reviewing a video game webcomic is that ultimately you’re going to run into that tired old defense of “you’re not a gamer so don’t criticize something you don’t know, stfu n00b.” Seriously, it never fails. It doesn’t matter if you play video games or not… you’re always going to get this sort of response because no human being on God’s green Earth can play every single video game on the market. Thus, it’s inevitable some jokes will go over a lot of folks’ heads.

However, I will tackle in depth one strip about a game I am intimately aware of: Sid Meier’s Civilization franchise. The gag starts with Erin chastising people who were upset about Kurt Cobain in Rock Band, and how those same people would flip their lids if they saw a non-pacifist Gandhi in Civilization 5. The controversy in a nutshell: Cobain fans insist that he would never have played other bands’ songs in real life, and letting an avatar resembling his character play songs other than Nirvana songs was an insult to his personal ethics … especially when there are avatars in existence that are keyed to their bands’ songs only. So, long story short, Carter and Rydell portray Gandhi as a vicious warlord.

So, first of all, why would gamers specifically have issues with Gandhi in Civ 5? I mean, the infamous pacifist has been in the game since the first game debuted in 1991, and we were making “badass Gandhi” jokes back then, too. So why Civ 5, specifically? I’m probably assuming much, but wouldn’t the staunchest Kurt Cobain defenders have grown up in the 90′s, which means that they’d have been pretty familiar with Civ’s 1-4 if that was their thing?

Second of all, the gag is played as something of a fresh observation. What, you mean the same gag that everyone has made since, I don’t know, Gandhi started his hunger strike? Weird Al Yankovic already made this joke in the movie UHF. Hell, I am almost certain the people who run the Civilization ad campaign have already made this joke: I seem to remember some magazine ads for Civ 3 playing off the “violent Gandhi” theme. A “series of mild half-jokes” is hardly worth it if all of them are old, tired, and hardly funny.

I understand how incredibly nitpicky this sounds. Here’s my tortured, belabored point: Critical Miss combines a tragically misinformed understanding of video games with really, really terrible jokes. And you sorta need a good understanding of video games and good jokes to do a good video game comic.

As a result, the final punchline of a typical Critical Miss strip hardly ever feels earned. What’s the joke behind this strip lampooning a re-release of Star Wars in 3D? Is it basically how every 3D joke goes, in that things are being thrown at you? Or is it that nonsequitur boxing glove in the second to last panel? (Which, incidentally, would have been a lot funnier if either Han or Greedo were drawn better, parhaps with Greedo’s face looking ridiculously deformed. As it is, it looks like a lifeless trace of the original stills.) In any case, that last unnecessary panel feels like salt in the wound. The Critical Miss guys are, more or less, telling us how awesome their gag is. Erin’s completely stoked and flippin’ the double bird. Meanwhile, everyone else is crying or looking on in shock or throwing up. What a totally rad reaction for an extremely lame joke!

Now, I’m not going to say that Critical Miss is never funny. Don’t be silly. Even the worst webcomics have a few good strips. And with Critical Miss, there were, like, two good strips. Total. While I’ve never played Shaun White’s skateboarding game, I did appreciate the takedown of how its surface message of anti-authoritarianism just did not jive with the game’s fulltime product shilling. And the Blade Runner/Duck Hunt mash-up? Not too shabby.

Most of the time, though, the jokes are atrociously lazy. Having a hard time coming up with a punchline? Nothing that random, wacky violence can’t cure! Or, hell, instant beardification! Because purple monkey dishwasher!

Want to do a joke about how Assassin’s Creed could be more imaginative at the whole time-travel thing? Let’s do a sequence showing assassin astronauts! This is, by the way, the standard Critical Miss set-up: Erin says some random things that are video game related, and then we get a few panels of those random things happening. I think I liked it better when it was called Family Guy.

And, hey, did I mention that the star of the comic is a GIRL? And not just any girl … a GAMER girl! Which means she’s like one of the guys, only with boobs! She’s crass, which means she farts and cusses. But she also talks frankly about sex and feminine hygiene to make all the guys around her uncomfortable. That’s some moxie, amirite fellas? Erin Stout is totally not some sort of wish-fulfillment Mary Sue for gamer guys who are too afraid to approach women unless their speak the girl version of their dorky gamer language! And, man, the jokes really are much funnier because our lead is a female!

Rather than being anything new and fresh about video game webcomics, Critical Miss becomes Exhibit A in everything that’s wrong with them. Toss in some Jack Thompson jokes, a bad attempt at starting a new video game holiday and/or religion, and an unintentionally left turn toward the maudlin, and I think Ctrl+Alt+Del just might have a successor. I’m tempted to say that Critical Miss may have already crossed Buckley’s infamous “Don’t Fuck With Us” line with a painfully pretentious Martin Niemöller-inspired strip, but I couldn’t tell if Carter and Rydell were being serious or not.

Rating: 2 Stars (out of 5)

Filed under: 2 Stars, comedy webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, video game webcomic, webcomics Tagged: Critical Miss