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.