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Monday, Jun 9, 2008
The last installment of the ZA series (for now) is finally here, with L.B. Jeffries talking about why the critical focus should be on the experiences games can potentially generate as opposed to other approaches.


At long last, we come to the final entry of the Zarathustran Analytics series. The question proposed in the first essay of this series was essentially this: if we define video games by player input, how do we go about assessing that? Since the game design illustrates what the input precisely is and the plot defines the meaning of that input, the thing game critics should be looking at is the overall experience the game generates rather than just one of these particular elements. Then we took into account how to categorize games by experience rather than game design, exceptions to this concept, and the basic philosophies that govern what people think games should be. We also made the decision to not factor in graphics or A.I. in order to not inhibit creativity in the medium (and somehow, no one called me out on it). After taking into account what a critical language for video games should not do, we finally get to the point of why we need to be talking about the player experience in the first place.


 


In a blog post by Henry Jenkins in 2006, he points out the basic problem that interactivity creates for a critic. Unlike Gone with the Wind, in a video game the player’s input may result in an extremely different outcome. Rhett may have gotten shot a while ago, or Scarlett might be level 80 and fully capable of running the farm herself. The basic problem of re-addressing art’s quality in terms of seeing the audience’s response to the show rather than the show itself is that most people aren’t used to the audience response being a factor. For someone like Roger Ebert or a literary critic, focusing on the audience response is reverse-thinking. Not what does the game project at me, but what does the game allow me to project back. Jenkins and others compare game criticism to assessing architectural designs and discussing how a person will inhabit a building. I personally tend to think of them as miniature languages and what those languages allow me to express. Whatever the mindset of the critic, rather than dismiss the audience experience as impossible to discuss we should tackle it head on. We do this not by talking about what a player should be thinking, but what a player could think in the space given to them within the game. That’s what it means to assess a game experience. Since we can put so much of ourselves into a game, the critic must assess where our response can go in such a place. 


 


So how big of a difference does adding player experience to our criticism really make? In a link from Jenkins’ post, Timothy Burke goes over several examples of games that by themselves sound downright dull. Planescape: Torment is a basic D&D affair about an immortal who can never die. The average player spends the whole game wandering huge dialogue trees, sometimes behaving and sometimes being cruel depending on what’s advantageous. Yet what made the game profound was that at the very end, the game asks you what all that meant in terms of your identity. What made you help people, what made you abandon them? And every person has their own, self-realizing response to that. Or Burke’s comment on Katamari Damarcy being impossible to explain without sounding idiotic. You’re a tiny man rolling a tiny ball into a gigantic one, going from items on a desk to entire cities. Beyond the complete control of what you roll into the ball, the sheer pleasure of progress and happiness at rolling together an entire planet of junk is what makes the experience amazing. Or perhaps the most profound story on the web thus far is the incredibly personal reaction to Animal Crossing that one player had with their mother. That brief story about one person’s reaction to a game played with their mom is probably one of the highest emotions art can ever achieve, and we need a critical language that can talk about how that experience was created. Otherwise, we’re only talking about half the story.


 


Finally, we need to talk about player experience because this element, this way that games allow audience input which makes them art, is going to be neglected if we don’t. If no one notices game developers for producing profound player expressions in their games, why should they bother making them? If no one bothers to look beyond the plot or the game design, then no one is going to ever really get into what makes games so amazing in the first place. The late Joseph Campbell, whose works with mythology inspired Star Wars and countless video game plots, was asked in a PBS interview what he thought of video games. He said that they were another way of imparting wisdom. That games were still functionally doing the same thing as a group of people practicing hunting or sitting around a fire. Games were just a new way of teaching and sharing experiences, whether that experience be making a successful kill or hearing the legend of an epic hero. Such is the function of myth, philosophy, and art amongst people and Campbell thought video games would eventually take their place with them. We need a new critical approach so they can finally start doing it.


 


Joseph Campbell was the first person to make me sit down with video games and start looking at them in a new way years ago, so I’ve decided to end with a quote from his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. He writes:


Art, literature, myth and cult, philosophy, and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expanding realization. As he crosses threshold after threshold, conquering dragon after dragon, the stature of the divinity that he summons to his highest wish increases, until it subsumes the cosmos. Finally, the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form – all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void.


If the audience response is where games become art, if that response could become so powerful that it could allow a person to achieve personal breakthroughs, or to gain new perspectives on life, then it is not enough for game developers to create more complex games. It is not enough to just make them more realistic or incredibly satisfying. We must now, both as critics and as gamers, start to ask ourselves something far bigger when we play a video game: What are video games for?


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Monday, Jun 2, 2008
L.B. Jeffries notes some of the classic mistakes and problems that face criticism today in the next to last post in the ZA series.


The outcry for a critical language in video games is something that is now necessary for video games to continue progressing as a medium. As Clint over at Click Nothing points out, a critical language doesn’t just give us more to talk about. It gives developers feedback, real insights into their game, so they can go back and improve their work. There simply isn’t a way for people to properly explain criticism in the current culture of “I’m not having fun” reviews. Nor is there a way to reward innovation or successful elements of games beyond gushing “I’m having fun” praise. It’s one thing to say you like a game, but figuring out a way to go beyond that gives developers a better understanding of their audiences reaction. As that audience gets older and starts demanding more complex experiences from their games, it’s essential that developers get a more advanced form of feedback to create those experiences. To figure out how to tackle these issues, we’ll begin with what current video game criticism is having trouble with.


 


The biggest issue with game criticism at the moment gets pointed out by Greg Costikyan in his blog: critical pieces are still just reviews. Telling someone they should pay to see a movie is not the same thing as explaining why a movie is important culturally, or even what it adds to cinema. Yet the problem is mostly conceptual; video game critics need to recognize that they are not talking to consumers. Literary critics circumvent this dilemma because they usually have the privilege of assuming you’ve already read the book they’re discussing. There also isn’t much to discuss in terms of whether the reader actually liked the text or not. If you’re reading a thirty page essay on masculinity and feminine authority in Macbeth, it’s a pretty safe bet you already like the play. The same goes for a reader going over repressed homoeroticism in R-Type. You probably liked the game, or at least video games themselves, if you’re reading that blog. The problem with game criticism, then, is that many of us are still subconsciously selling the game to people. It’s what we read all day and it’s what our mind instinctively does to fit in with other video game essays. We all devote a paragraph or two to how great this part of a game is or how superbly this part works. And as fun as those sections are to write…they tend to be about as informative as “teh game suxorz”. Why given parts of games work is still the question of the day.


 


One of the most prolific critics in video games right now is Yahtzee, and he is rapidly becoming video games’ Lester Bangs. The ranting style of Bangs gets mixed with a Charlie Brooker wit that makes for really fun viewing and a lot of insights into the games he covers. The problem is that the people imitating Yahtzee seem to be pulling an Alan Moore. When Moore published The Watchmen, the idea was to make a comic that told a much more powerful story by tempering the superhero fantasy with reality. A superhero is actually a sociopath if you think about it, their childhoods were really disturbing, etc. The problem that arose was after The Watchmen experienced such success and popularity, comic books mimicked it by featuring lots of their own gritty, dark realities. Which wasn’t the point. The point was to use a comic book to tell a really new and interesting idea about social dynamics, not to have every comic feature pedophiles and torture as motivation. The same thing is slowly happening with Yahtzee: People are imitating the jokes but not understanding that the joke still needs to make a point. Yahtzee uses humor to pad out interesting and insightful critiques that would otherwise be fairly dull. Just like mindless praise or negativity, most of the time a joke is still a means in an essay, not an end.


 


Beyond reviewer mindsets and jokes, however, is forgetting that the purpose of criticism is to ensure that there is a home for new games. We’re trying to advance the medium by stripping it of boundaries, not by imposing them. Saying that a good game doesn’t have to be replayable or even fun is pretty weird, but all those beliefs really do is inhibit growth when applied broadly. If a game still works but violates those tenets, why should it be an issue? A prime example would be The 7 Commandments All Video Games Should Obey by David Wong. It’s all very good advice: get rid of repetition, forget save points, and that graphics don’t make games better, etc. But beyond the constant nagging question of why these things are bad, is the equally poignant why are they not? Orson Scott Card, in his book Ender’s Game, wrote about a video game that tested the player’s capacity to accept defeat. Ender was subjugated to the same impossible level over and over again, with the game testing to see when Ender would give up. It was an exercise in learning to not be suicidal to win. It’s a very interesting challenge in a game, but one that won’t have a home if critics continue to close the doors on what a game can do. Case in point, Wong lists off one of the criminal offenses of an FPS is to have jumping puzzles. It’s something I’m inclined to agree with, except then you have some like this come along. Are we going to denounce it before we even play it because of some critical rule set?


 


It can be difficult to get people to think beyond what they like or don’t like. It can be even harder to get them to accept something they don’t like as a viable approach. And there is certainly still plenty of room for those kinds of discussions, but they aren’t the goal of a serious critical analysis of a video game. It’s got to get into the actual experience of the game itself. Because here’s the thing: the people who used to be kids playing video games are adults now. The people who never played games at all are starting to pick them up as well. And if this momentum is going to last, we’re going to have to change the way we think. We’re going to have to change the way we talk. We’re going to have to take all these values that established video games and break them down. Kenneth Tynan, a theatre critic, once said, “A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.” We have to make sure that we don’t give bad directions to the women and men pushing video games forward.


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Monday, May 26, 2008
L.B. Jeffries offers an analysis of the various constituencies of gamers, and how the attitudes of those groups can reflect the Zarathustran Analytics approach.


I once attended an art lecture that took on the very unpopular topic of criticizing a well-liked work of art. The pieces consisted of a series of photographs, all taken from a medical journal depicting slaves that had just arrived in America. Lines of poetry were inscribed in each photo as the artist decried the anonymity and inhuman appearance depicted by the journal’s photography. The criticism that the lecturer was offering was that historically the poetry was all utter fiction. The journal hadn’t made these people anonymous at all. Their names, tribes, and even the history of those tribes were listed and often seriously conflicted with the poems themselves. Needless to say, people tended to get pretty pissed at this lecture. Why criticize a work of art because of history? It’s beautiful and evocative, why criticize it for something like accuracy? What was the point of looking at art with a historical mindset?

That kind of discussion is relevant these days in video games because people are becoming very conscious of the demographics and factions within the medium. The casual audience, hardcore gamers, and ex-core players are all becoming distinct opinions that get thrown around video game forums. Yet not everyone is happy about these labels. Jim Sterling at Destructoid posted an interesting column that bemoaned the artificial labels of ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’. He points out that people certainly play both kinds of games and it does a huge disservice to label a game as meant for one particular audience or another. And he’s right, it’s dumb to call these things audience labels because they aren’t. We all play a huge variety of games and those games often borrow liberally from countless others. What the terms casual or hardcore really signify isn’t an identity, they’re a philosophy. They are ways of thinking about the purpose of video games and what we expect from them.


How, then, do we define these philosophies if not by their consumers?


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Monday, May 19, 2008
In part 7 of L.B. Jeffries' series, the previously-defined classification system is applied to a few well-known games


So with all these definitions, variables, and conflicting goals for what games should be, what is the role of the Zarathustran process? How does it work? Essentially, you’re analyzing the experience of the game itself. The important shift that critics must be aware of is that they are no longer judging the game by just one single element. How do the plot, player input, and game design work together to make the experience? Although a game may be extremely cutscene heavy, should this plot device work well to create a powerful experience then that isn’t a flaw. If a game has strange controls, do those ultimately improve the game or make the player feel like they have less input? The application is to see these things as means rather than ends in video games.

With that in mind, we’ll go through the process a few times. One of the more interesting examples of a player’s input facilitating an experience is Gunstar Heroes. The game’s a first person experience, despite the heavy elements of third person setting. It makes this shift by putting the emphasis on the game design of power-ups. You have two power-up slots and one of them is set for the duration of playtime. The second can be picked up during a level and will change the way your gun works. There’s a pretty impressive array of strategies as a result of this that lets the player truly individualize his own approach to the game. Whereas one may prefer the weak but auto-targeting attack, another might opt for the light saber combination. What it adds to the experience itself is that the player-input gives two kinds of positive feedback because you’re relying on strategy and reflexes. You don’t beat Gunstar Heroes, you figure it out. And as a result, the game design features a remarkable shift in connection that improves it.


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Monday, May 12, 2008
In the sixth installment of the Zarathustran Analytics series, L.B. Jeffries explores those games that fall outside the boundaries set by his guidelines.


As any classification system necessitates, there are exceptions to the four basic categories being used in the Zarathustran Analytics. Going beyond the mere nitpicks of innovative games that strike careful balances or parallels, it is important to identify the games that specifically lack one of the three variables. When analyzing a video game by its experience rather than game design or player input, one might conclude that a game that does not feature all three variables isn’t really a video game. You don’t classify them this way to be belittling, though, you do it because these games create a different experience and should be judged by different criteria. Why criticize a game for not having a story when it wasn’t created with that in mind to begin with? Why criticize a lack of options when they would have served no purpose? There needs to be room for purists in the medium of video games and the exceptions to the four forms addresses that.

The most obvious place to start is with games that don’t have plots. Note the difference between that and not caring about the plot for a moment. There are plenty of games where the plot is entirely forgettable or the plot is one sentence long. Save the princess. Get to the end of the level. Or at the very core: beat the game. I contend that the goal of winning is in and of itself a story in a game. It has a beginning, middle, and end. The game may consist of nothing more than jumping off platforms or wanting to be “The Guy”, but that’s simply an incredibly small story. It has finality and the player puts in all the details. That doesn’t always make it a good story, but it definitely should be considered one.


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