Does Video Game Criticism Need a Pauline Kael?

Greg Costikyan, who co-founded Manifesto Games and writes for the indie games blog Play This Thing! wrote an impassioned piece in February of 2008 calling for real criticism in video games. He argues that video games, caught up in consumer culture, only produce buyer’s guides. Proper criticism, he argues, does not depend upon whether or not you should buy something, but rather answers the “why, and how, and to what end.” One of the people he distinguishes from consumer guide writing is Pauline Kael. She was a critic who would better inform the audience, hold filmmakers to task, and explain the cultural impact of films to a broader audience. How would a person go about doing that in video games?

Kael is an interesting person to hope video game critics will aspire to given the intense relationship she had with her artistic medium. Being mostly unfamiliar with her work, I was told I Lost It at the Movies was her best book and picked up a copy. I’ve seen about a third of the movies she references, but many of her larger observations about some films are outside my personal experience. As with the Lester Bangs piece, the goal here is to study her methods and see what someone dealing with a superficially unrelated medium could borrow.

Kael, much like video game critics today, was faced with a massive philosophical shift in her chosen artistic medium that large quantities of critics were against. This occurred during the ’60s and ’70s when sex, anti-heroes, and films that didn’t mindlessly make everyone happy were being released. David Cook, in A History of Narrative Film, marks this era of film with the release of Bonnie and Clyde. Its advertising slogan sums the film up decently: “They’re young! They’re in love! And they kill people!” Many critics panned the film, but it went on to become a box office smash. The problem with the movie is that if you walk in expecting a traditional gangster film, it’s not very good. If you walk in expecting a sharp political satire that blends comedy, violence, and sex, then it’s brilliant. Kael, at the time of Bonnie and Clyde’s release, was one of the few who stood up for it.

She sums up the entire critical bias of this time period in her essay on Shoot the Piano Player: “[Film Critics] want unity of theme, easy-to-follow transitions in mood, a good, coherent, old-fashioned plot, and heroes they can identify with and villains they can reject.” By the time Bonnie and Clyde came out she had been a film critic for ten years (working for almost no pay), had a decent following, and was popular enough to make an impact with her impassioned support.

In much the same way, video games are now facing a massive shift toward ease of use, accessibility, and a general broadening of their medium through the Nintendo Wii. The argument against the Wii and the casual gaming movement is that they require significantly less skill or thinking. The argument in favor of them is that they are games for beginners. Playing more complex games involves getting a grip on a wide variety of skills, like moving in a 3D environment or aiming with a controller. In the hopes that they will eventually want to play more complex games, many people see the Nintendo Wii as a launching board. But with the Wii removing any skill barrier, seasoned players often find these games boring or shallow after only a few play sessions. A more complex game like Call of Duty 4 will stay entertaining for much longer because its gameplay has not been watered down. John Lanchester notes in a column at The London Review of Books that despite his earnest enjoyment of Bioshock, the game is still tedious and held back by its demands on the player. The issue with either stance is that you’re dictating to the audience what they should enjoy about video games.

Kael’s own position on telling people what kind of art they should enjoy is that people will do as they please. She comments, “People take from art and from popular entertainment only what they want; and if they are indifferent to story and motive and blank out on the connections, then a movie without physical action or crass jokes or built-in sentimental responses has nothing for them.” Players who enjoy exercises in skill and ones who enjoy narrative are rarely going to be appeased simultaneously. The same problem comes up with the art game movement, and the slowly-dawning realization that simple graphics can still make for a great game. Once your artistic medium can support several different messages and meanings, you have to accept that just because a piece of work does not appeal to you does not mean it isn’t working.

The first thing anyone takes away from a curt glance at Kael’s writing is the sarcasm and wit. She was a single mother in the 1960s and had to endure every manner of slur as a consequence of her sharp writing. One angry reader snidely comments that Kael isn’t married because she’s so hateful, proceeding to brag about her own husband. Kael gamely responds that heaven forbid a woman ever behave any other way than submissive, happy, and desperate to please her man. Another declares that she should make a film of her own before she trashes them so extensively. She comments that one does not have to lay an egg to know if it tastes good. One reader cannot believe that she didn’t like The Parent Trap, and that all she ever does is praise indie films while ignoring ‘name’ movies. She does not disappoint: “What makes a ‘name’ movie is simply a saturation advertising campaign, the same kind of campaign that puts samples of liquid detergents at your door. The ‘name’ pictures of Hollywood are made the same way they are sold: by pre-testing the various ingredients, removing all possible elements that might affront the mass audience, adding all possible elements that will titillate the largest number of people…Was it popular in any meaningful sense or do we just call it popular because it sold?”

Another example is her habit of actively insulting critics, such as The New Yorker’s Bosley Crowther in regards to his unfavorable review of The Cousins. She comments, “Why did American reviewers consider the honest, plodding, unimaginative, provincial cousin the hero? Possibly identification.” In the film, it is the innocent bumpkin who fails miserably at life while the drunk and cynical nihilist succeeds. Her point is that the film is simply being honest about who survives in a Bohemian culture.

Yet the habit of actively insulting other critics and popular movies does not work the same way for video game critics because their work is mostly published on the internet. Thanks to blogs, comment sections, and e-mail, almost anything you post online that’s controversial is going to generate a response. Being tough enough to endure angry letters and criticism from critics is one thing, but being able to endure a full blown internet flame war is quite another. There is also the issue of a video game critic not having quite the same power that a film critic in the 1960s once did. If a film was panned by reviewers, then theater houses would not buy it and people would not get to see it. There was no VHS or Netflix, no way to watch an obscure film. Critics like Kael were not just fighting to get an audience to care, they were fighting to get a film distributed and even be given a chance.

One of Kael’s most impassioned essays, Why Are Movies So Bad? or, The Numbers, goes into great detail about the change-up in Hollywood in 1980. Although her principle complaint is that making films that only exist to sell tickets tends to result in very drab films, she is silent on the consideration that once films all move to television there isn’t much left for a critic to do except advertise. For a person whose active duty was to fight for films to even be seen, being demoted to just strongly suggesting people lift a finger is a drastic shift. Roger Ebert’s column complaining about the death of film criticism shows a similar symptom. Culturally, thanks to the internet and the ability to consume any media with but a few clicks, a critic of any medium no longer has the power they once did. They can only suggest and explain a piece of art to others, helping to improve the overall impression of the medium itself.

This may be all that a critic can really hope to accomplish anyways. Kael’s insults and witticisms, which were topical at the time, mostly come across as crude or unnecessary now. Her withering review of West Side Story may have been appropriate for illustrating to people that the film was not good for that time, but today, the insults and comments mostly come across as intellectual overkill. What is the point of explaining with such great particularity why a blatantly formulaic musical is a formulaic musical? In her essay criticizing Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film, she is so busy picking apart his sentences and insulting his intellect that nothing of actual use can be gained from the article. Much more effective are her impassioned and supportive essays, such as her emotional reaction to Shoeshine and the broken relationship that caused it to resonate so deeply. Her support for Kurosawa’s films, along with outlining an appreciation for the comedic elements of Hud, also show her at her best.

The problem a critic must avoid with sarcasm and insults is something that Renata Adler detected in her withering review of Kael’s book When The Lights Go Down. She starts out by explaining that the basic film critic is typically writing either consumer reports or the occasional expanded essays on a particular film. The reality of any artistic medium is that while plenty of it is worth enjoying, very rarely does every piece of work require outside explanation. There is no need to write an extensive essay explaining the plot of Quantum of Solace because the average person was able to follow it on their own. A critic instead steps in and explains something about a film that people seem to be missing or not appreciating. Adler explains that the insults and sarcasm so overtook her work that nothing worth calling criticism actually remained by the time she published this latest book. Kael, embittered after seeing hundreds upon hundreds of films, had nothing left to say but insults. Adler writes, “[She is] an extreme case of what can go wrong with a staff critic. Prose events that would, under ordinary circumstances and on any subject other than movies, have been regarded as lapses — the sadism, slurs, inaccuracies, banalities, intrusions — came to be regarded as Ms. Kael’s strong suit. Ms. Kael grew proud of them.” For as much as we praise Kael for writing about movies for almost 37 years, Adler points out that any sane person would be pretty sick of film after constantly seeing them for that long.

Yet even in Adler’s critique, she acknowledges that Kael, during her prime back when movies were moving in strange and new directions, helped to change people’s perceptions of the medium. Her obituary at the New York Times quotes Louis Menand: “She made it possible to care about movies without feeling pompous or giddy by showing that what comes first in everyone’s experience of a movie isn’t the form or the idea but the sensation, and that this is just as true for moviegoers who have been taught to intellectualize their responses to art as it is for everyone else.” Although the sentiment of not over-intellectualizing everything is a key tenet for any critic, in video game criticism the opposite problem exists.

The reviewers, the audience, and the critics all engage with these games on emotional and sensational levels. The thrill of being in a shootout, saving the planet, or just exploring a new world are all experienced in this manner. What Kael was undoing is precisely what Costikyan and other critics have been calling for in the medium: an intellectual approach of thoughtful analysis. Kael is contrary to this as well on some levels because she was adamantly against having any particular set of rules or guidelines for art or criticism. She claims that the only real requirement for a great piece of work is to astonish us, and that critics who obey stricter guidelines quickly start to miss these moments. Her maxim was to hold herself to a strict standard about what a critic should aspire to:

The role of the critic is to help people see what is in the work, what is in it that shouldn’t be, what is not in it that could be. He is a good critic if he helps people understand more about the work than they could see for themselves; he is a great critic, if by his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized. He is not necessarily a bad critic if he makes errors in his judgment. (Infallible taste is inconceivable; what could it be measured against?) He is a bad critic if he does not awaken the curiosity, enlarge the interests and understanding of his audience. The art of the critic is to transmit his knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others.

It’s a standard that is much harder to achieve than one would expect. Convincing people that you yourself are excited about a work of art, be it film or game, is not difficult. Convincing them that they should be excited with you is where the genuine craft and skill of the writer shines through. Perhaps the biggest problem with game criticism today is not simply that many publications only write consumer guides, but that these alone do not generate any appreciation or enthusiasm for games. All of that energy comes from the advertising, the screaming fans, and all the love of newness that consumer culture so vapidly generates.

Consumer Reports are just scorecards ticking off facts and never bothering to remember that eventually all those ads and fanboys will have moved on. That even the greatest of games or films will be forgotten by a culture that only reflects on its latest titles. As companies begin to actively sell old classics, as casual gamers look for new games, and people are free to try anything they want, they are going to begin searching through these titles again, but the excitement and interest of million-dollar ad campaigns and mob mentality isn’t going to be there to support it. All that will remain are the reviews and essays people wrote that can be checked before trying the actual product. If the critics can follow the standards of Kael while avoiding her pitfalls, that should be more than enough.