[2 June 2008]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
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.