Middlebrow Video Game Criticism

Unfogged links to a Chuck Klosterman essay in which he asks why there isn’t more mainstream video game criticism in various newspapers and magazines.

I’ve thought about this issue myself. There’s a huge difference between what a magazine like Entertainment Weekly does with movies and games. Even in the very short two-paragraph movie reviews, the critics often try to say something about the aesthetic worth and design of the film, about its social or cultural meaning, about the effects it has (or fails to have) on its audience. In a game “review”, it pretty much amounts to a repetition of the press kit or prerelease hype and a few remarks on technical problems or issues, in a straightfoward consumerist mode (e.g., buy or no buy). More like a report on refrigerators than a cultural commentary.

There are a lot of possible reasons for this absence, some of which came up in the Terra Nova thread I link to above. Games make more revenue than films, but with a much more concentrated and restricted audience. The general public may not follow older cultural forms that have small audiences, like opera, but they understand what opera is. And opera has built-in cultural cachet: video games do not. It’s still perfectly ok for most educated middle-class people over 30 to regard video games with undifferentiated contempt, based on little to no personal experience with the medium.

However, it’s also just difficult to describe a game in the context of a mainstream review. I like the suggestion from Steven Johnson in the Klosterman piece that the closest useful analogy isn’t a film review but an architecture review. An architecture critic has to write in such a way that you can imagine a space, and the effects of being in that space. A mainstream game criticism would have to write about video games so that you could understand the experience of playing a given game. I tend to think this is the more profound problem with inventing mainstream video game criticism: not the cultural image of games, but the technical issues involved in inventing a rhetoric and voice for that criticism.

When you strip away the experience of play, not just how sound and image come together, but the interactivity that defines the medium, a lot of the greatest video games (great both in the sense of being pleasurable to play and in their aesthetic achievement) can sound, well, stupid. Plot and narrative matter in games, meaning matters in games (at least I think so: this gets into the terrain of the simmering “narratology vs. ludology” debate in academic game studies) but games are less reducible to plot, to narrative, or even to meaning than films or novels.

Let me give four examples of video games that really deserved a mainstream criticism, that even people who don’t play games should know about in the way that we know about important films, novels, music and so on that we don’t directly consume–and then try to identify what such a criticism would need to zero in on or communicate to a mainstream readership.

1) Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Yes, this certainly got lots of mainstream attention, but it’s a good example of how reducing a game to its content can leave a lot of people misunderstanding what it is as a game. As a story, it’s a relatively formulaic gangster tale. Visually, it’s laden with stereotypes. There is plenty to find offensive in the game. What makes it interesting to many players is not the setting or narrative but the sheer openness of the play experience. There are games which are amusement park rides, where you experience the game as if you’re riding on rails. Grand Theft Auto is the opposite: it’s an environmental game with very few constraints on your movement through the spaces that the game models. The narrative sets some boundaries on the kinds of action you can take within those spaces: you can’t convert other characters to Buddhism, you can’t become an up-market real-estate developer in northern San Andreas, you can’t write a book about your experiences in prison and become an inspirational speaker for high school students. But neither are you required to beat up prostitutes. A lot of people who “play” Grand Theft Auto just drive around its open spaces, explore its world, change channels on the car radio within the game. Grand Theft Auto’s closest sibling as a game isn’t any number of other ultra-violent gangster games with more constrained architectures of play; it’s a game called Shenmue.

2) Planescape: Torment. You could describe this game as a conventional role-playing game in which you control a fantasy character who gains in power as the game progresses through its storyline, with this power described as a series of statistics and discrete abilities that the player has some ability to choose between during the game. Or you could describe the storyline: your main character is an amnesiac immortal who awakes in a morgue in a strange interdimensional city and seeks clues to his past. The storyline isn’t quite hackneyed but neither does it sound wildly original. The gameplay conventions of a role-playing game are largely appealing to devotees. To anyone who has never played such a game, they seem peculiar and unwieldy. But Planescape is an amazing game that I would readily recommend to anyone. Partly it is that its whole is so much more than the sum of its parts. The voice acting, the music, the look of the setting, and the elements of the plot as they unfold are all powerful, but the real achievement of the game is to take a necessary feature of a game and turn it into an aesthetic asset. You have to be able to restart a game, otherwise you’d have to play a 40 or 60 or 100 hour game in a single setting and never make a mistake. When you can save and reload a game, you tend not to experience it in an unbroken and continuous manner. Any time you think something bad is going to happen, or has happened, you just go back to the last save point and do it again. When a game has a ridiculously difficult portion, that becomes a punitive, masochistic ritual of play: you will have to repeat the same sequence again and again and again.

Planescape takes that mechanistic fact and makes it an aesthetic virtue. You play an immortal: he’s supposed to die. In fact, if you always save and reload every time the character might die, you can’t finish the game. He has to die for the plot to progress. Moreover, the game takes the open possibilities of interactivity and writes them into the core narrative structures of the game. Role-playing games often give you choices when you interact with characters within the game: will you be gruff? hostile? Smooth-talking? Altruistic? Players will play each encounter several times to see all the branching possibilities that precede from a dialogue. The cost is that the protagonist is a kind of plastic, generic figure who changes personality depending on what the player perceives to be advantageous. In Planescape, you’re an amnesiac who has lived many lives. If you’re kind to the people you meet, you sometimes find that at some past moment in your long career, you’ve been cruel or thoughtless or dangerous to the very same person, or left a very different reputation behind you, and the same in reverse. You can redeem past sins, or decide to be heartless in your pursuit of the truth. It’s not just that the game gives you the option, and make the option meaningful, it is that this openness of choice is consistent with the character and narrative underlying the game. Play reinforces meaning here: something that is not true of the vast majority of games, where the experience of play often awkwardly intrudes into the representational space of the game.

3) Shadow of the Colossus. Here I could talk some about the narrative structure of the game, which puts your protagonist in a morally ambiguous position. He has to travel across a faded landscape hunting truly huge giants who in many cases seem largely innocent or innocuous and kill them in order to satisfy an essentially selfish goal. But I think more this is a game to talk about for its visual feeling, for the way it makes you feel: the hugeness of the colossi, the richness of their visualization, the sparseness of the world around them. Maybe an SAT-style analogy will help: Shadow is to conventional “kill the monster” fantasy games as spaghetti westerns or the western “Unforgiven” are to the Lone Ranger television show. The experience of a hero questing for his dragons is moved into a morally evacuated space and the protagonist is reduced to literally a miniscule parasite flitting about a blasted and haunted land, and yet the overall feeling of play is for some reason beautiful, full of a kind of aching melancholy.

4) Katamari Damacy. It’s the game you’d give to someone who had never played a game. It’s also one of the hardest games I can think of to describe, particularly in a way that captures its charm and makes clear why it’s one of the greatest examples of the medium to date. If I were going to make a list of the ten most original, compelling game designs, I’d put Katamari on it, even if we were including non-video examples of games like chess or backgammon. And yet Katamari is possible only within a video space. The basic mechanic is that one is trying to roll up balls composed of very different shapes in the most symmetrical and rapid manner possible. But the whole package involves a quirky narrative background, memorable music, and a surreal visualization of the balls and objects (you progress from rolling up teeny-tiny objects on a desk to rolling up entire cities). In a way, Katamari shows how “open” the medium still is. In comparative terms, video games are still back in a creative era roughly similar to film at the time that directors were only first discovering that you could move the camera around, or radically change its perspective. This is also a dreary comparison in some ways, because for all the open potential of the medium, there are very few Katamaris out there: most game design is heavily path-dependent, recycling a very narrow range of arcane or baroque mechanics and structures that largely make sense only to those who have played many, many games.


In any event, I do think there are a goodly number of games that come out each year that deserve some kind of mainstream criticism which could be read and appreciated even by people who do not play games and do not intend to play them.

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9 Responses to Middlebrow Video Game Criticism

  1. jccalhoun says:

    While I agree that most videogame reviewing is boring, I’m not sure that the route you’ve selected is the best one. While these games are fine games, they are also the ones that are quite often trotted out when people ask that old question, “Are games art?” It seems that by buying into the notion that some games are “deserving” of the label of “art” or thoughtful criticism is buying into the same mentality that says that videogames aren’t as good as other media. Instead of saying pointing out the artificial and constructed nature of elitist categories, it is trying to join the club. I think that any game is worthy of and can recieve more sustantial criticism than is seen in the gaming mags.

    I mean Sin Episodes isn’t reallly noteworthy aside from the fact that it is episodic in nature, but that doesn’t mean that a reviewer can’t take it to task for its horrible depiction of women or examine the corporate-controlled society that it puts forward.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree that almost any game could be reviewed–after all, bad movies get reviews all the time, and are deemed bad in middlebrow criticism for all sorts of reasons, including their content or possible impact on audiences. But if I were going to start trying to invent a distinctive game-review “voice”, I think I’d want to start with the games that I find most interesting, both interesting to me as a gamer and potentially worth knowing about even for people who rarely or never play games.

    Another way to go might be review essays, a comparison of several games in the same approximate genre. That was one thing that the NY Times column on games, especially when JC Herz wrote it, did very well.

  3. bbenzon says:

    I tend to think this is the more profound problem with inventing mainstream video game criticism: not the cultural image of games, but the technical issues involved in inventing a rhetoric and voice for that criticism.

    Speaking both as a non-gamer and as a liteary (and occasionally film) critic, this makes sense to me. It’s the style of play that matters, and you can’t capture that with the rhetorical strategies appropriate either to written fiction or to film. When you play a game you have responsibility for a character of characters in that game. Their fate depends on your actions. That’s different from reading a novel or watching a movie. No matter how much you may identify with one or more characters, no matter how much you may want this or that fate for them, your desires have no effect on the outcome. In the game, that’s not so. And it’s not just a matter of your desire, but your skill and experience. You’re in the imaginary world in a different way.

    I remember when Myst first came out, all the hype it got about being the first “art worthy” game, mostly, as I recall, on the basis of the appearance of its world. So, it’s a pretty world. That’s nice. But how’d it play? I surely don’t know. But how it looks is only one aspect of that.

  4. Nick says:

    I think part of the difficulty is that games as a medium borrow heavily from certain other aspects of popular culture that are equally demographically isolated, though I’ve no doubt this will change in time – there’s a strong age-related disconnect between those who ‘get it’ and those who don’t, though of course that’s not an absolute. If you’re not involved with any of the subcultures formed around gaming and the types of movies/music/comics/books that gamers would typically enjoy, you’ve got no cultural “bridge” to cross and are less likely to find anything to relate to, hence no basis for a decent review.

    To take the Planescape Torment example, I happen to entirely agree with your assertion that this game is so well written, so well made that it is entirely deserving of a place in mainstream culture. But let’s take my mother. I could speak to her all day long of Planescape’s engaging narrative, its moral ambiguity and amazingly well realised characters. But she lacks the cultural connections to be able to appreciate any of it. Despite being an intelligent woman well versed in many artistic forms, and despite the undoubted virtue of Planescape, there are too many barriers to entry for her to truly appreciate what a masterpiece it is. That is another difficulty that games face as a medium – most games require the player to have at least a moderate degree of gaming experience to understand any control metaphors, gaming conventions etc.

  5. waxbanks says:

    Tim sez:

    Grand Theft Auto is the opposite: it’s an environmental game with very few constraints on your movement through the spaces that the game models.

    No, damn it. This is the most commonly-made claim about the GTA3 games but it’s not true in any meaningful way – or rather, it’s only literally true. You can move through the space, yeah. But that’s it.

    GTA3 and its sequels are nominally open-ended, trivially so. There’s no meaningful freedom in the games. For one thing, there’s only one real metric for advancement – doing the missions. The powerups and secret packages and whatnot just hang off the edge of the world. There are no characters to speak of, so you learn nothing about the world; the depth of the world is zero. Its ‘breadth’ is theoretically interesting, but consider the constraints placed on your action as a player: you can run around or drive around. The player’s interaction with the world is impoverished to a shocking degree. When you finish the game (the plot is on rails) you’ll have done everything of substance that there is to do in the game.

    And no, you don’t have to beat up prostitutes, because that action is in every way except the purely financial and the merely humourous irrelevant. It’s just a mechanism for getting money and getting your jollies, and the game makes no effort to connect it to anything else. Sure it might set the cops on you, but so do the in-story actions.

    The point is, GTA3 and its sequels let you do exactly two things: play the plot, or wander around killing time. The claims for the ‘open-endedness’ of the series mark the worst case of game-‘critic’ overstatement in recent years (the Myst example is also a good one – dullest ‘classic’ game ever, was my reaction at the time).

    A truly open-ended game is Nethack – in which your wandering and non-‘plot’ activity is woven into the fabric of the game/story. Of course you’re basically powering up the entire time to prepare for tougher enemies – it’s not a great story – but your wandering does deepen your interaction with the world. The fullness of the game’s meaningful experience requires wandering. The GTA3 games don’t offer any of that. Morally speaking they’re basically porn; but gameplaywise they’re way, way simpler than people make them out to be. Artfully-constructed false feelings of openness. But that’s it.

    You’re spot on overall in this article though, Tim. As usual.

  6. CMarko says:

    Completely tangential question: how much experience do you think is required for Planescape: Torment? You say you would recommend it to anyone, but you also imply that it is complicated and based in RPG traditions. I’m thinking of giving it to my father for his birthday (partly based on your recommendation), but he has no background in RPGs and he isn’t a regular player of video games. He liked Grand Theft Auto, though.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Hm. On whether to give Planescape to a RPG newbie, I dunno. The game’s design is in many ways awkwardly plopped on top of the RPG engine used for the Balder’s Gate games, because that’s what its designers had available to them at the time. And that does have a lot of confusing stuff about stats, levels, and so on to deal with. It’s a tough call as to whether the mechanics would be so off-putting that the experience of the game wouldn’t be appreciated.

    Wax, I disagree with you on two points in your view of GTA. First, you’re arguing for a purist’s sense of open-ended, which I also deeply hanker for in games, and I’d agree that GTA is not what I think of as *truly* open-ended. In some ways, the branching plots of Deus Ex, for example, came closer to that–there were a few points in that game where you could do things that put the game’s plot into a very different track. Not many, not nearly so many as I would like, but that’s closer to what I’m thinking of when I’m thinking of truly open-ended. Or Oblivion has elements of this–you can be a thief, you can be an upstanding warrior, and so on. However, it’s non-trivial that GTA lets you wander around killing time, and supplies plenty of little bells and whistles to fill up that wandering. I can think of a few RPGs where you could similarly wander, but where there was absolutely nothing to do while wandering. GTA offers quite a lot of “time-killing” activities. Your sense of open-endedness has to do with plot; what I’m talking about here is an open-ended of space or topography. The contrast would be with many first-person shooters where you are absolutely in a thrill-park ride and completely unable to get off the rails.

    Second, my point is, “What do many people like about GTA?”, and my suggestion is, “It’s not necessarily the content, but the structure and topography of gameplay, that what they like is the game mechanics, not the game’s meaning.” You and I could suggest that the gamers who like GTA for that reason are deceived, that they’re perceiving openness where none exists, but the point is still that this is what many players do in fact perceive about the game.

  8. akotsko says:

    There was a series of games in the ’90s, of which I can only remember the game “Arena.” It was really too advanced a concept for most of the hardware out at the time, and it was buggy besides. But there was a genuine attempt at a much more holistic open-endedness — there were various guilds that you could join, you could buy ships, you could go on side quests that have nothing to do with the plot. It had many of the drawbacks of GTA, most notably the “sameness” of all non-player characters, and it also had the drawback that the main plotline was incredibly disproportionately difficult compared to everything else in the game. In fact, I played for hours and hours doing all kinds of stuff and never got around to completing even a part of the main plot.

    I agree that Myst was dull. It might even have signalled the beginning of video games’ truly “decadent” phase where hardware advances allowed them to improve graphics to an amazing degree, while impoverishing the gameplay experience itself.

  9. abstractart says:

    The main reason that Nethack would be impossible to sell as a commercial game is that “true” openness doesn’t actually make for a great gaming experience for ordinary people — that is, a world where cascading interactions are taken to an extreme and as much random crap as possible is allowed to happen with no regard for internal rhyme or reason.

    That’s only partially true of Nethack anyway — Nethack has “everything but the kitchen sink” in that it wraps tons of cascading interactions between an ever-expanding set of monsters, objects and so on around the most simplistic structure imaginable — go down, and down, and down until you get the amulet, then go up, and up, and up. But it’s those cascading interactions that make the game nigh-impossible to win, and that mean that if you tried to use a modern rendering engine to make the game it would take several DVD-ROMs worth of space.

    A game needs to be a *coherent* world as well as an interactive one, and GTA does a good job of balancing the *feeling* of being able to wander around with a world that has certain well-defined limits on what you can and can’t do. It is a game where it *feels* like you can do anything, and where you are pushed in various ways to mentally define “anything” as “committing petty crimes, beating people up, and cruising around the city listening to music”. In that sense it’s no different from a film that invests the audience with a feeling of freedom, possibility and uncertainty even though the film, by its nature, obviously has a predefined and unchanging plot.

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