Missing the Objective, Not of the Game, But of Games Themselves
What are developers striving to produce and what are audiences hoping to gain from games, their communication or their raw stimulation?
In over two years of writing for PopMatters, I’ve never scored the review of any game higher than an 8 out of 10, and I've only reached that plateau on three occasions. Those three games, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams (8 Nov 2012), Expeditions Conquistador (17 Feb 2013), and Hate Plus (28 Aug 2013) earned those scores because I knew I’d have plenty to write about in the weeks after playing them. I found every time that I tried to write about these games that I couldn’t -- and still haven’t -- given all the ideas they dealt with the treatment they deserved. It might come across as trite, but these games gave me a lot to think about, and in some small measure, they had an impact on me. Recent coverage on the latest major release, however, has made me wonder if I've been doing it wrong
When editor G. Christopher Williams handed me my reviewer’s badge and gun he warned me against scoring anything higher than an 8 out of 10 and that a 10 out of 10 probably doesn't exist. Though doing away with a score entirely would probably be for the best. If one must have a review score, then PopMatters’s standards are probably the fairest to go by (they’re in the right column on any review page). But with Grand Theft Auto V making the rounds in every major gaming publication associated with Metacritic, it begs the question of what we're hoping to get out of video games in the first place.
As the reader is no doubt aware, Grand Theft Auto V was released last week, and immediately every critic worth their salt has promised that in moment one can expect to be having at least 9 of a possible 10 worth of fun. Some moments in the game reek of misogyny (Carolyn Petit, "Review: Grand Theft Auto V", Gamespot, 16 Sep 2013), and sometimes the violence therein is gratuitous and disturbing (Simon Parkin, "How Evil Should a Video Game Allow You to Be?", The New Yorker, 17 Sep 2013). However, there is apparently still enough "funs" available in the game for it to represent the art of interactivity. There is an exceptional fun to dollar ratio to be had in the game, making it the Citizen Kane-themed Slip 'n Slide of video games
Questions about what kind of fun it offers and for whom the fun is intended are not fun to answer. In fact, questions of any kind aren't fun. Looking too deeply into GTA V isn't just pretentious, it literally devalues the game. So what is the point of GTA V other than to preview GTA VI? Why was it made if not to raise the standard of fun a little bit, but not so much that it can't be raised yet a little further that next time?
Games very frequently communicate thought provoking ideas. They are a powerful mode of communication that often say beautiful, frightening, and meaningful things. Even GTA V might be capable of such things, as suggested last week on this very site (G. Christopher Williams, "Grand Theft HBO", PopMatters, 18 Sep 2013). But that still begs the question of what developers are striving to produce and what audiences are hoping to gain from games, the communication or the raw stimulation?
It isn’t just that games are often reviewed like kitchen appliances (Lana Polansky, "I’d Give It a 7: Reviewing the Weight of Reviews", Bit Creature, 31 Oct 2012) or that every new triple A release is fawned over by self important yes-men (M. S. B. "Satire Doesn’t Change Anything But I Still Enjoy It", Magical Wasteland. 20 July 2013.), the problem is that it's unclear what the point of video games is. Games may do many things, positive and not so positive, intentional and unintentional, but around the time of a major release sometimes it's hard to see what the objective is.