Let’s begin by stirring the pot a little with some food for thought and discussion as ILG’s own Mordy discusses The State of Gaming Crit in 2011.
Here are my credentials for opining on gaming criticism in 2011:
1. I read a lot of gaming crit.
2. It is mostly terrible.
I realized we were in trouble when reading Slate’s 2011 end of year multi-part round table on the state of gaming. However many years ago it was that I read Slate’s first round table, I was primarily thrilled that anyone would deem gaming worthy of writing about in the first place. I’ve had rich somatic experiences playing video games – addictive experiences where I play through the night, intellectual experiences where I solve puzzles or problems or develop strategies for handling challenges, emotive ones where I am touched and moved by a development. It has been clear to me for a long while that if writing can illuminate and convey serious phenomenological experiences to readers, then there should absolutely be great writing about video games by now. But it’s 2012 already. The NY Times reviews AAA titles (and sometimes even iPhone titles). Andrew Sullivan runs ridiculous tripe about Angry Birds every other week. The AV Club reviews games every week (NB: their Sawbuck Gamer column is a bright light in a blighted field of subparcolumns). Even that bastion of cutting-edge gaming journalism, Time Magazine, had a list of top 10 games of the year. So I’m expecting a little bit more out of Slate than the regular, masturbatory “what IS gaming about, anyway?” schtick. But that’s what I got.
Worse: All over that Slate piece were expressions of world-weariness and boredom. Tom Bissell, who seems like a nice enough guy but whose primary contribution thus far to gaming criticism has been a half-okay essay about how doing lines of cocaine increases the verisimilitude of GTA IV, decides to talk at length about how he can’t be bothered to finish games anymore. He only needs to play them for an hour or two and then he’s “got it,” and doesn’t need to bother. He treats this like a virtue — that he’s so sophisticated about the ludic elements of gaming that he grasps them immediately and doesn’t need to waste his time. Not only does this ignore the précis that his big GTA insight was that a game can own your life – can invade your living space and imprint itself upon your imaginative space and basically take control – but it pretends as though he’s an enlightened spirit for not caring that much. It’s essentially taking the same tact I’ve been hearing about games for years – that they are a juvenile waste of time – and rephrasing it to sound fresh. This is a guy, by the way, who having been given free reign by Bill Simmons’ Grantland to write about whatever he wants has chosen to write about Madden NFL, Skyrim, Uncharted 3, Batman: Arkham City, Catherine, Dead Island, Gears of War and Angry Birds. With the (kinda?) exception of Catherine, his scope of vision is confined to the biggest, most-mainstream titles being released. Some of those games are great, don’t get me wrong; Skyrim and Arkham City are certainly high on my own Coint and Plick ballot. But with all the journalistic freedom in the world, this is how curious he is? What a missed opportunity.
Okay, now I feel like I’m just bashing Bissell, but it’s hardly only his fault. Kill Screen, the independent gaming criticism site that not only stole Pitchfork’s insider-deep model of reviewing music but actually signed up to publish game reviews on Pitchfork’s website, is a source that does review interesting and new games but generally takes profoundly vapid approaches to talking about them. Apparently having decided that the only way to create legitimacy around video gaming is to engage in over-the-top sentiment, Kill Screen has become so embarrassingly pompous that even Proust (well, Stanley Cavell at least) would tell them to tone down the sappiness. If Bissell is constructing a secret history of dismissiveness, Kill Screen is implicitly suggesting that the only valid vernacular of games is one where we’re barely talking about games. Instead we’re talking about feeling up high school girlfriends, or about how this game is just like how life is like a game, dude.
There’s one guy that I think was doing it right in 2011 and that’s Tom Chick. I first read Chick in Computer Gaming World, where he helmed Tom Vs Bruce. He’d take a game, often an RTS or a turn-based strategy war-game and play against his counterpart Bruce while recording their commentary about the game as it was being played. It was routinely amazing and not because Chick is an incredible writer (he’s got journeyman chops but nothing flashy), but because the writing was about how gamers actually play games, what happens when different pieces of design and execution gel together. He described complex systems and how they affected his enjoyment of play. We saw him fail or succeed. He does much the same thing now on QuarterToThree. The telling point is that even though it’s rare that I agree with his opinion about games (he often seems to contrarily set himself against big releases), when he rewards a title with a great review, I feel like that’s reason enough to check it out. His obsession with gaming inflames my own. His personal website features numerous playthrough diaries and his forums are overflowing with fans who play together and organize massive season long Madden games where every in game player has a real world player controlling it. These are people who love Pinball FX2 with a passion generally reserved for fine wine, people who have formed a community around loving games because they love games. They’re not trying to convince Ebert that games are art. They’re trying to have fun.
In some ways, 2011 was my personal worst year for gaming yet. I had my first kid and, as any gamer with a kid can tell you, you don’t get to game much for a long time afterward. I was really excited after we ferberized the little girl because that meant I might be able to sneak in an hour or two of gaming after she went to sleep. Even as a new father, I still played far more focused hours than the average casual gamer would consider healthy; my C+P ballot easily could have included twenty or more games. The problem is not the market. As far as I’m concerned, video games still offer plenty of thrills and anyone who was disappointed by this year’s crop was either not paying attention or just hasn’t figured out how to properly communicate natural enthusiasm through writing.
It’s depressing that so much gaming criticism is depressing because the games certainly aren’t depressing at all! They’re beautiful and exciting and they take up way too much of my time and space… both my actual tactile manipulation space (I love holding an Xbox controller) and my mental space. Reading serious contemporary video game crit, I feel like I’m mostly reading the work of people who honestly don’t care for or about games. They care about being at the forefront of a new body of critical literature so that maybe they can be considered the Lester Bangs of video games one day. Or they just want to develop a website where they can be a Pitchfork-style tastemaker. Or they’re just so unsure about how to best address the new, wider, non-gaming market that they use methods of writing and language about gaming that ignores the intrinsic truths of playing games in the first place.
The secret is that what is appealing about gaming is the gaming, not the literary illusions or the intellectual property being exploited or that, ya know, this game right here (Braid! Limbo! Bastion! Passage!) might finally, seriously, actually, really be art and you love art, don’t you dear reader? So see? Games aren’t that bad. But games are bad! They’re bad in the way that Woody Allen said sex is dirty; only if it’s done right. The things that most often turn people off to games are the things that make them great in the first place.
As a for instance: think about how difficult most games are to play, much less gain mastery of. I am sure the sequel to YOU DIED, Dark Souls, is going to place high on this year’s list and part of the reason it evokes so much love from its fans is because it’s nigh on impossible right up until the point you figure out a personal, difficult, evolving strategy to cope and when that fails, you have to figure out another tactic until finally it all works and suddenly you feel like you’re a better human being. You have gained an admittedly untranslatable skill (no one will ever get a degree in killing that particular demon in that particular corridor) but a skill nonetheless; you can do something you couldn’t do before. Or another example of the seduction of difficulty that’s hard to translate to clean critical prose: when you game online against thirteen-year-old kids who yell sexual and racial epithets at you while they’re shooting you in the head for hours, the frustration can be excruciating, but as you slowly grow better and better until you’re fragging them, damned if it doesn’t feel good. As bad as it feels to lose is as good as it feels to win. That feeling is powerful. It matters. You can’t tell the story of the game unless you tell the story of how it feels to play it.
The ideal literary critic doesn’t provide a consumer guide and they’re not supposed to judge the value of literature. A great critic creates a parallel paradigm that discourses with, not about, the material. That paradigm is what allows a thing to be great; essentially you can’t have great literature without great literary critics. Critics establish an audience that allows the work to rise to the highest possible plateau, but they also can transcend, through properly articulated appreciation, what makes a work most gorgeous and significant. It’s the second more than the first that is missing in video game criticism today.
The popular opinion is that we are in a pre-Cervantes stage of video gaming; still awaiting our proof of greatness. Ignore for a moment that there was literature of merit being written in the pre-Cervantes era and that, should we choose to pick up this gauntlet, the games we played in 2011 meet that standard. Focus instead on the possibility that if we want to embrace gaming’s Cervantes era that we may need writing gamers, not gaming writers, who can find the Cervantes in the games we have. And not just in games like Braid or Limbo that wear their artiness on their sleeves, but in games where one would never expect to find beauty or deeper meaning. We may discover that the beauty and joy we bring to gaming is the missing element that will elevate games, in spite of ourselves, to the level of art. You’ll know you’re reading great game criticism when the author evokes the joy of gaming, not of reading. They’ll make you excited that you’re still a gamer, sneaking in that hour while your child sleeps. You’ll know you’re reading great game criticism because when you’re done reading, the first thing you’ll want to do is start to play again.