Baiting the Hook

A few weeks ago, I struggled writing a review for Rain, the PSN indie title from SCE Japan Studio. If you don’t remember it, well, that seems to be the general consensus. For all the joy at seeing it at E3 in contrast to the usual violence and sex tossed our way by mainstream publishers, its actual arrival was very muted and quickly forgotten. I don’t know how well it did commercially, but I can’t think that it was an overwhelming success like other games have been in its position. Smaller downloadable titles require a constant feed of conversation and interest after release to get some standing and be a success.

It’s the absence of that conversation that I find interesting. It seems like the type of game that would grab the critics’ attention at the very least if not the general public. I figured my own lukewarm appraisal of the game might be an outlier. After a glance around, I find that, no, I’m pretty much in line with everyone else. The scores may be different, but the general opinion about it is the same. Thankfully another reviewer, Brad Galloway of GameCritics was kind enough to sum up what I had realized I had been thinking with a single word “critic-bait.”

The more commonly known term, which is the cousin of “critic-bait”, is film criticism’s “Oscar-bait”, a terms that refers to movies that try to present an affectation of seriousness or signifiers of artistic value in the hopes of bringing awards home to its parent company. Neither term is an accusation, but rather a quick and easy way to sum up how a work feels regarding its execution. It isn’t about failure. A work can strive for meaning, depth, and everything else associated with the best that a medium has to offer and fail to achieve that and still warrant the label.

It’s about an emptiness of purpose behind the work. Such works feel like their primary purpose isn’t to say something, but to win awards. And they do this though the only method that they know ho, by following a formula. If you want to know what I mean, watch this YouTube video of theTrailer For Every Oscar Movie Ever to understand what I mean. Everyone has seen that movie trailer before or at least thinks they have. But then you have to ask yourself, how many Best Picture winners actually contain any of what you see in there?

Except for a nice riff on Mystic River and a dig at Avatar, those are all tropes of the type of movie that people think win Oscars, but usually walk away with a few lumps from the press and middling response from audiences. The idea of the Oscar movie as the healthy balance to the fast-food-like usual Hollywood formulas somehow fails at any self awareness that Oscar-bait movies are also following a recognizable formula, just a different one.

Which brings me back to Rain. Since Braid pushed the idea of the downloadable/indie/smaller titles into the public consciousness as the more artistic alternative to the blockbuster fare of the AAA game industry, certain conventions have emerged. This isn’t true of all indies and the divide about artistic merit is often a false one, but like the concept of Oscar-bait, it’s more about perception than reality. Award winning indie games feature children in some sort of peril (see Limbo, Papo & Yo, Bastion, etc.), a game with stripped down or simplified mechanics, often a minimalist effort about traversal (see Dear Esther, Journey, The Unfinished Swan, etc.), or it features platforming — but with a gimmick (see Braid, Super Meat Boy, Thomas Was Alone, etc.).

Rain manages to include all three of those elements. It is expertly crafted and with some lovely music and art direction, but it seems to have alerted everyone’s bullshit detector — even if they weren’t sure why. I include myself among them. But it isn’t the only game that seems to have followed that path.

Contrast is another game that I liked well enough, but didn’t have any desire to critically engage further, despite it having baited all of its hooks in preparation for the the appearance of the “game critic.” It, too, is a game about a child in a vaguely threatening situation that is based around traversal and platforming with a gimmick — in this case, being able to shift into walls and jump on the shadows cast on them. It has music and an art style that seem more interesting or at least more engaging than the actual subject matter. There’s obviously something being hidden about the truth of how the world’s metaphysics work and using it as a metaphor for the young girl’s drama regarding her family, but no one has cared enough to try and piece it out. Instinctively, it feels like Contrast was trying to attract a certain kind of attention from the critical community. It doesn’t feel authentic to a creator’s vision, just their critical bait checklist. It’s not the formula of AAA bombast, but it is still a formula.

While neither of these games in and of themselves are inspiring enough or meaty enough to talk about, their existence as what they are — critic-bait — is fascinating. Video games have had their failures before, quite a few just this year. They’ve also had their share of formulaic games. But those games were always chasing what is popular and what sells. This might be the first time in gaming history that games are being made that follow a formula with the intent of gaining critical praise — with the notion that sales will follow after buzz has been generated, of course. It marks a potential shift in the process of game creation. It means something can matter to big publishers more than just blockbuster sales — prestige.

Prestige is an interesting concept, one in which business meets art. On the one hand, while there can be money to be made via prestige, that capital is a pittance compared to that made by the average blockbuster or romantic comedy or mid range thriller or shlocky horror film. Hell, even the average underperforming movie in any of those categories can make more money than your average prestige picture, especially if it doesn’t garner any prestige. Yet, Hollywood keeps pumping them out every year right in time for Oscar season. One could say there is a certain amount of clout that goes along with having a golden statue to your name and the more the better. Maybe it’s good marketing to be known for artistic integrity. Or maybe it really is a matter of pride.

Maybe developers do want to make something meaningful or want to create something different and more off the wall than their contemporaries in the industry. However, either through happenstance or need of a structure, they ended up relying on what they thought would be a successful formula. Both the developers of Rain and Contrast centered their game around themes and concepts that have proven successful in the past, but following a formula to create meaningful art can be far more harsh than following a formula to create mere entertainment. Still, they thought there would be some success in trying out critic-baiting. It’s an interesting bullet point in one of the many directions that video games as a medium is taking.