Brendan Keogh

Game criticism moves forward: Killing is Harmless is a 50,000-word look at Spec-Ops: The Line

Game criticism moves forward: Killing is Harmless is a 50,000-word look at Spec-Ops: The Line

It’s hard to put a word count on writer Brendan Keogh. During my time at Ars Technica he pitched me what I thought was a great article idea: He was going to embed himself in a game jam, staying up just as late as the participants, and write about the game creation process as it happened. We agreed on a rate and a word count, and the draft he turned is was four times larger than what I had anticipated.

We ended up running the story in three parts, and the response was immediately positive. The problem is that there are few places willing to run a story of that length, and even fewer who would be willing to pay the amount that would make it worth the effort of the writer. Keogh’s next project cut out the idea of a third-party publisher all together. Killing is Harmless, his 50,000 word critical response to Spec Ops: The Line is being sold directly to readers as an e-book. It will be $2.99 for the first month, and $4.99 after the introductory period.

“At first I had no idea what I was actually doing. I just really wanted to figure out my own kind of feelings and interpretations towards The Line so I just started writing from the start of the game onward,” Keogh told me in a conversation about the project. “A few thousand words and only half a chapter of the game later I realized I was onto something quite substantial. So the process from there was much like my 48 hour Game Jam piece for Ars Technica. I just wrote and wrote and wrote and hardly edited and just kept writing through the game, saying everything I felt I needed to say.” The first draft was finished around early September, but the editing process took a significant amount of time.

It’s an interesting approach to game criticism. Instead of writing a single article about a game, Killing is Harmless tackles Spec Ops on a chapter by chapter basis. You can play the game like a book club, going through each section, and the reading a deep look into what the game is trying to do, and how well it succeeds.

“I think this kind of prolonged close analysis of a single game hasn’t really been tested much before. I don’t doubt there are websites out there that would post it for me, but I can’t imagine making the kind of money of those blogs to make it worthwhile,” Keogh said. “I think a lot of people would be surprised at just how little money there is in writing about games beyond the core review/preview/news stuff. There just isn’t really an outlet for stuff like this. At least, not an outlet than can afford to pay people a significant amount.”

It’s rare for a critic to spend this much time and energy on a single work, and even more so in the world of video games. I asked about the metric for success; at what point would Keogh consider this worth the time and effort?

“Even if people decide they hate my particular book or this particular game, all the hype around it alone has proven that there is an audience of readers hungry for this kind of detailed, in-depth analysis of the games we play,” he said. “Players are smart. They think things while they play, and it’s the role of the critic to really help find the vocabulary for those players to understand those thoughts. Killing is Harmless is an attempt at doing that for a game, and I think the response it has already received has shown that that kind of discourse is really wanted. That alone is enough to count this as a success, I think.”

Killing is Harmless is available now, for $2.99.