The Player’s Journey: This cake is delicious

A clearer view

Games are a young medium, but they’ve grown up with the internet and under the influence of much older art forms. I personally think video games have changed faster than film and literature, but we shouldn’t be in a hurry to forget how those art forms operate.

In its current state, games criticism assumes too much about the player. This is a unique challenge, because talking about sculpture or literature without a viewer can be debated lots of ways; critics can ask whether art is a subject or object concerning its viewers and all sorts of other confusing questions. A traditional game with no players, on the other hand, is a grim thing.

Current criticism assumes that players will all react in a specific way–usually as if they were a critic, which is rarely the case. This notion usually frames the player as extremely sensitive to any narrative foibles, but disregards any possibility of narrative muckery being worth the payoff of the overarching story. The result is that instead of judging games as disposable media like many reviewers do (which is somehow a bad thing as opposed to every other kind of media and most art being treated this way without much fuss), critics tend to phrase games in immutable terms, with the the player as a mythically inscrutable figure who is never tricked by flimsy plot devices or other narrative crimes, before saying whether a game is crap or not.

That last bit is important. If you find yourself talking to someone about games criticism and want to test them, try bringing up Fable II or Uncharted. If they sneer, you’ve found the largest problem currently facing that school of thought, because when criticism does reach public consciousness, it’s usually the the form of “X is bad, this is why, and that’s qualified, objective fact.”

Which brings me to the part of literary criticism I don’t hate, which is that it doesn’t usually attempt to judge texts as good or bad, thoughtful or inane. Instead, literary criticism is about viewing texts through different perspectives. Other common topics include what the goals of criticism should be, how to reconcile classical cannon with minority authors, and what differences affect how readers interpret texts. These ideas could be applied to games, but they usually aren’t, especially this last bit–remember my complaint about how games critics assume there’s only one type of player?

A common defense of this treatment is “I’m not trying to make the things you like less fun, I’m trying to make games better.” That’s the same thing as telling you your tastes suck. Lee says as much:

But people like these games; they have fun and they enjoy the stories. Well, I don’t mean to diminish their positive experiences. Rather, I hope to show that enormously greater experiences are possible. We have very low standards, mostly because there are such few good examples out there.

He does okay until that last sentence, right? More important than any flaws with his argument or anything I can say is this fact: if you enjoy those things, he is trying to diminish your fun. He is saying that he thinks you like bad things, he’s trying to stop that, and he is using academic and historical perspectives to persuade you. Furthermore, if anyone tells you the goal of criticism isn’t making better games by taking things apart, they are being disingenuous. Feminists can critique games as being fun and offensive at the same time, then argue that they would be more enjoyable if women were portrayed better. Literary scholars can argue that more works by women, GLBTQ, and racial minority authors should be added to English cannon without reducing Shakespeare.

But it is patronizing to say A Midsummer’s Night Dream is worse than Moby Dick from a critical perspective, then say it’s okay if you still only read the former. Humbug. That person is actually saying one is better than the other in absolute terms, and anyone who doesn’t read the latter is doing it wrong. This is one reason most literary criticism restricts itself to examining meanings and symbolism within a text; it’s also impossible to read every book one should. See also: games.

When critics say Bioshock: Infinite tells its story poorly and Dwarf Fortress tells a story well, they are saying you should play the latter over the former if you want a compelling narrative. When a reviewer tells you Bioshock: Infinite is the game of the year, they’re saying you’re missing out if you don’t play it, but that doesn’t necessarily say anything about whatever you do play instead. Even if it does, you have plenty  of other sites you can listen to, and reviewers don’t generally write books about what makes games art. When a critic says Bioshock: Infinite is the worst game of the year, they’re saying you have poor taste if you enjoy it. Any critic who tells you otherwise just wants you to like them, but they don’t really get to decide that, do they?

Gaming culture is full of snobbery; we’ve all seen ridiculous comments arguing why X system or game sucks and why Y is better. It doesn’t take much consideration to think of a time when gamers have gotten upset and looked like jerks. Volumes could be written about why people feel the need to do this, and when viewed externally it’s insanely juvenile.  So on one hand, games critics claim this is terrible and claim gaming can’t grow until its artists and patrons get over their protective impulses. That’s a reasonable thing to say.

On the other hand, here’s a lovely pearl from Robert Yang. To be fair, the speech this was meant to be in was cut short and did make some good points at this year’s No Show Conference. The following is from his notes, and I think is a succinct statement of things he’s said before:

I have a huge problem reading video games straightforwardly as texts because video games ARE SUCH FUCKING BULLSHIT…if you try to read all this earnestly on its face as an actual text of literary merit then YOU ARE A FOOL because you are taking this bullshit seriously in the same way that 7 year old boys will eat-up the GI Joe universe and the Ubisoft CEOs are laughing at you. All the story and lore and “world design” in Mass Effect is designed for the sole purpose of justifying laser swords and space magic. IT IS ALL BULLSHIT. Why are you wasting your time on this? UGH.

…How can you call out intent when a game malfunctions, but then ignore intent when you want to argue that Final Fantasy isn’t one of the most boring things in the world?The author isn’t dead. The author is often racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic or makes up bullshit sci-fi narratives to sell you a laser gun game.

Now, Mass Effect can certainly be seen as objectifying women, and the asari can definitely be seen as problematic. As Anita Sarkeesian notes, part of criticism should be identifying when games are fun, but admitting when they are problematic. Mass Effect definitely isn’t perfect in that regard, but most games aren’t. 

But Yang is pretty clearly saying that anyone who enjoyed the story in those games is either stupid or fooling themselves. Does my negative reaction to this notion have something to do with me enjoying that story? Sure, but I’m not alone in saying that Shepard’s journey–which felt substantially different than how my friends experienced it–really made those games for me. Yang is very smart, and often gives great talks, but he clearly thinks that scripted stories are bad, procedural narrative is better, and taking a sprawling game narrative seriously is laughable. Well, even if the narrative felt huge to me, and despite having read lots of books without lasers or dragons, maybe it all comes down to me and lots of other people having poor taste.

But what about women who identify with the ability to play a strong female character? What does it mean when a developer says their game is for everyone, and if being propositioned by a gay elf makes things too weird for you, you can shove off?

What about people who say that some of the games Yang scoffs at saved their lives?

Look at some of the Bioware panel titles from PAX, then consider what effect stories in their games have had on who’s playing or what those people want. Now, despite how much I like those games and despite how some people have reacted to rare, positive (albeit not perfect) portrayals of people like themselves in games, maybe we’re all being tricked into caring by an evil company that just wants us to pay them dollars. Maybe we’ve been trapped into believing that the game equivalent of a Michael Bay film has a rich story, while an attempt at portraying sexual and gender equality was just bait. Maybe the feeling of relief and joy at seeing someone like yourself represented as confident and respected is bullshit.

Maybe selling stories with positive representations of people who are normally ignored or objectified is just an elaborate ruse to make us better humans who want to play more games like that. Gee. That would be awful, wouldn’t it.

Saying something is terrible is one thing. We all do that, and sometimes we are jerks about it. Using criticism to denigrate bits of an art form you don’t like, then claiming you’re an academic so anyone who doesn’t have their masters in comparative whatever looks stupid when they try to make a counter argument, portrays the exact same spirit as everyone who gets irate in Youtube comments. If you claim that developers push back against artistic critique (which may even be true), but make that allegation while claiming that every game is crap except for the handful you like, you’re reinforcing the same attitude that you claim to hate.

Some people who examine games are humble and adroit, but we need more of them. Nathan Altice recently gave a FANTASTIC talk comparing video games and fashion. I know what you may be thinking, and I was likely with you, it offers a fascinating way to view the difference between playing obscure art games and major releases. If you disagree with every word I say, you’ll still probably agree that games criticism needs more ideas like this.

Literary criticism has been scoffed at by writers for centuries. Most readers don’t give a damn about literary theory. No one owes games criticism anything, and it is very different from games design. Anyone who wants games criticism to become a more common (and practical) tool needs to stop using it as a basis for making declarative judgments about what the worst game to come out this year was. This includes indicting reviewers as an extension of publishing companies. If you want to talk about games critically, do that. If you do it well, people will even read it. Using criticism as an opportunity to vent artistic rage doesn’t help anyone. Ask writers; they know.

The good news

Three years ago, Call of Duty: Black Ops came out and lots of people got very excited/angry. On the one hand, you have a story about being an action hero who can kill everybody, which is appealing if that is your deal. On the other hand, it’s probably just an interactive movie that will keep prodding you until you do exactly the thing you’re supposed to (or, in nastier cases, won’t let you fail at all). Negative criticism about the game is hard to mention without being aware of the fact that it sold a bajillion copies.

This terrified some critics, who worried that more votes for COD: BlOps meant fewer dollars for games that would really nourish the art form. Wasn’t every dollar that went towards this shite a dollar taken away from indie games with heart or even other AAA games with an interest in treating the player like a person?

At the time, I thought so. But no, not really. Mostly because Bastion, The Witcher 2, Dark Souls, Skyrim, Saints Row: The Third, Journey, Fez, Portal 2, The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, Papers, Please and the official release of Minecraft. Maybe you don’t dig all of those titles, but if you don’t like at least a few of them, you are probably a monster. More to the point, they’ve all been fairly successful. Good games are still shockingly, staggeringly, brutally difficult to make, and their current support system certainly isn’t perfect, but they are clearly thriving.

Games have a tremendous opportunity. They are an art form that can be engaging, transparent, and complicated without requiring thick layers of abstraction. Contemporary art museums are often inaccessible to normal people because really appreciating them relies on a stew of knowledge, and one usually has to physically visit them. Games, on the other hand, usually make their demands extremely obvious. There are the bad guys, here is your goal, try to not die. To appreciate a game as part of a larger context still requires a viewer to possess broad knowledge, but games can express ideas and identities using the language of film and literature in ways that those arts can’t accomplish. They can put us into the bodies of beings very different from ourselves. They can empower us, and then take that away. They can give us an excuse to hang out with friends. They can give us some of the best memories we’re ever likely to have.

Games certainly have room to grow, and as many people say one of the best ways to do so may lie in developing a precise vocabulary of criticism. But far more important than this is developing more of a consensus on what the goal of games criticism is. Some of this may come from existing art forms, and some should be wholly unique to games.

There’s no simple solution to these problems, so we shouldn’t rush to dispose of any tools.

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