What, no game criticism?

Over on Play This Thing!, Greg Costikyan has posted a critique about the lack of game criticism — as opposed to game reviews — in the industry as a whole.

I thought this was pretty interesting, because it hadn’t previously occurred to me as a problem. It’s true that I don’t see a lot of criticism of mainstream games myself, but then, I don’t own a console or a Windows computer, don’t play most of these games, and don’t regularly read the relevant websites and magazines. So I assumed this stuff was out there somewhere, even if I never ran across it. (And, in fact, several of Greg’s commenters argue it does exist.) But this got me thinking about the situation in IF.

Game criticism of the kind Greg describes is part of the IF culture: since IF is almost all free and is almost all played over a very long span after its initial release, there is neither an emphasis on the immediate nor a need to tell people what to buy. Perhaps that’s the reason we get writing that comes closer to criticism. Look at the sporadically-run but always interesting SPAG Specifics column; look at some of the very thoughtful and deeply informed pieces over the years by Paul O’Brian, Duncan Stevens, Jason Dyer, Dan Shiovitz, Victor Gijsbers, Jimmy Maher, et al. Some of these pieces appear in the same venues with more conventional reviews, and may even call themselves reviews or structure themselves like reviews, but do dig into the kinds of issues that Greg is interested in:

Some valid critical approaches? Where does this work fall, in terms of the historical evolution of its medium. How does this work fit into the creator’s previous ouevres, and what does it say about his or her continuing evolution as an artist. What novel techniques does this work introduce, or how does it use previously known techniques to create a novel and impactful effect. How does it compare to other works with similar ambitions or themes. What was the creator attempting to do, and how well or poorly did he achieve his ambitions. What emotions or thoughts does it induce in those exposed to the work, and is the net effect enlightening or incoherent. What is the political subtext of the work, and what does it say about gender relationships/current political issues/the nature-nurture debate, or about any other particular intellectual question (whether that question is a particular hobby-horse of the reviewer, or inherently raised by the work in question).

We’re not so bad on the history, the individual creative background, the craft and technique, and the success of the creator’s ambitions. There’s quite a lot of writing about those sorts of issues in the IF community, relative to the number of reviews total. (I don’t want to exaggerate — compared with the commercial game world, there’s not a lot of anything pertaining to IF — but in proportion to the total quantity written, we’re not doing so badly on those fronts.)

Besides being largely non-commercial, the IF community encourages this kind of craft-focused writing by being very largely a community of player-authors. There are relatively few players I know who haven’t at least tried out an IF language once or twice. They might not have released anything, but they’ve dabbled. They probably speak wistfully about a WIP; they’ve probably done some reading about how to write good IF themselves. This outfits players with a common vocabulary, a sensitivity to details of implementation, and a general fitness to produce craft-based criticism. I seriously doubt it’s possible to write really intelligent criticism of the craft aspect of any art work unless you’ve at one time or other experimented in it yourself.

We tend to shy a bit more away from the later kinds of questions Greg suggests, though:

What is the political subtext of the work, and what does it say about gender relationships/current political issues/the nature-nurture debate, or about any other particular intellectual question (whether that question is a particular hobby-horse of the reviewer, or inherently raised by the work in question).

Those topics are interesting too, but we see far far less about them. The naive argument would be that IF simply doesn’t have much to say about politics, gender relationships, or any other intellectual question, because it’s too busy being about locked doors and missing keys. I mention this because I want to head it off: it’s nonsense. Even when gameplay used to be considerably more restricted than it is now, the descriptive content of IF alone provided quite a lot to talk about, in terms of its cultural significance and its assumptions about the world.

So, though there’s plenty out there to say, there’s not as much ideological criticism in the IF community. This might be because there’s a sense in (part of) the community that that kind of criticism is pretentious academic wankery, a weapon of political correctness used to bludgeon the unwary, or both at once. I’ve received a few complaints for even raising a question about the gender politics of Heroine’s Mantle or The PK Girl. I wasn’t, in either case, attempting anything like a formal feminist treatment of the work; I was more trying to describe and analyze the disorientation I felt, as a woman, playing a game where I felt I was being invited (by the author) to join in, enjoy, and through my interactions be complicit in a universe in which females are inherently alien and incapable of subjectivity. By which I mean: they’re incapable of being meaningful agents, active determiners of their fates, or viewpoint characters whose thinking the players/readers might identify with as similar to their own.

It’s nothing to do with being offended by sexuality in games, or by women being shown as desirable. Throughout Heroine’s Mantle, I was asked to play a female character who viewed herself in ways women generally do not think about themselves, and who interacted with other female characters for the purpose of pleasing the player (rather than because she, qua character, wanted to). I was reminded of “lesbian” porn shot for straight men. Through its assumptions about my motives, the game cast me-the-player as a straight man (rather than imposing that personality on me-the-protagonist, which is an entirely different issue) so strongly that the result was a sort of cognitive dissonance. I don’t want to come down on this too hard, because (a) explaining it makes it sound like a larger component of the game than it was; (b) I’m not sure it was intended quite the way I experienced it; and (c) there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in HM that makes it worth playing anyhow. In fact, I might even say that this feature of the game makes it worth playing. I may have been a little put off by it, but that was a pretty interesting gameplay experience.

I suspect that a willingness to dig into that kind of experience might actually be fairly revealing about aspects of the player/viewpoint character/protagonist/parser relationship that we don’t yet understand.

Until then: people interested in IF criticism that goes beyond points of history and craft and instead explores deeply the way the finished work conveys meaning may be interested in Jeremy Douglass’ dissertation, which includes among other things a long and thoughtful critical investigation of Rematch, and shorter readings of several other works.

Why is this worth doing? As an academic, I would say something about the value of understanding for its own sake. As a member of a community that often worries about its own vitality, I say: because this kind of criticism can help us get more out of the works that are available to us, to experience more fully what the author was trying to communicate; and because it provides a kind of nourishment to authors that even a glowing player-oriented review or the most insightful craft critique does not. To know that one person really got your work can make the whole project seem worthwhile.

I spend my professional life on the work of people who (having been dead over two millennia) can never be affected by my response; but I am frequently amazed and grateful that, thousands of years later, as a speaker of a different language, in a country they knew nothing of, I can still take comfort and insight from Greek drama. Between those men and me there are vast oceans of intellectual and cultural difference, but it is possible for our shared humanity to be more important. My favorite scholarly criticism is not that which, through pinched and disapproving lips, catalogues (say) Euripides’ offenses against women; it is stuff like Kenneth Reckford’s warm and wise volume on Aristophanes, which with all its learning and insight does not shy away from also being personal. The best criticism, that which goes to the heart of what the author was trying to do and why, transcends media and becomes a kind of art in itself. It is the second voice in the conversation.

12 thoughts on “What, no game criticism?”

  1. Fascinating stuff. I enjoyed both of your essays very much.

    I’d like to offer an hypothesis: computer gaming — unlike other art forms such as literature, painting, theater, or even film — evolved as a business primarily and an art form secondarily (if even that, according to some). Two things must precede criticism: the art, of course, and a study of the art form. Criticism of computer games has probably been largely nonexistant, I would think, because the field has yet to be widely accepted as an art form, and the study of the field is still very much in its infancy.

    I agree with your position that IF criticism is more evolved than criticism of other computer game genres, and perhaps that is because IF has had an extended period of time to evolve as more of an art form primarily (and not really a business at all anymore).

    I think another point worth considering is that criticism of art has, traditionally, focused on both the artist and his or her piece, and its historical place in both the artist’s and the field’s portfolio (and beyond). To a large extent, the focus is on an individual and their work, even for pieces (like film or theater) that involve large groups to produce, but still are guided primarily by the vision of one individual. Computer games, by contrast, often do not fit this view — at least, the best known pieces typically do not. IF most often is the expression of an individual and lends itself well to the traditional critical approach, but games like Halo or Far Cry do not.

    Then again, we do see games like Spore or Sim City that can be largely attributed to an individual, and smaller indie games often do fit that view. So there is definitely a space for game criticism to emerge and grow, but I wonder if “games as business” preceding “games as art” is one of the reasons we have failed to see this so far, at least outside of IF.

  2. I’d like to offer an hypothesis: computer gaming — unlike other art forms such as literature, painting, theater, or even film — evolved as a business primarily and an art form secondarily (if even that, according to some).

    I disagree with that. I would say that computer games evolved first as craft, and only developed as a business and art form after that. And in fact, it’s the craft-oriented criticism that seems to be the sort that Emily points out at as existing for IF.

  3. I’ll second Jota. The first games were non-commercial, mostly because the first computers were so expensive that people weren’t likely to own them in their homes. (Actually, Tennis for Two required not a computer but a hacked oscilloscope!)

    Geeks of all sorts tend to interpret and understand a thing by hacking it and adding to it, rather than writing an essay about it. So Adventure grew, thanks to contributions by Don Woods and a host of others.

    Emily, regarding gender, I think Graham Nelson’s XYZZY News comments on gender in Jigsaw are worth a mention.

    I’ve said many times before that the IF community was producing serious criticism long before the field of “games studies” coalesced. But fans of other genres of games do not have the body of intellectual work that informs our understanding of IF, so I can understand why Greg felt the need to express his frustration.

  4. That’s fine, I wouldn’t disagree with that; going back far enough, I think it’s very fair to say computer games began as craft. But I think the evolution to business happened not long after, particularly as the medium was so closely tied to business. Evolution beyond the craft/business stage to art form has lagged behind, and I wonder if the hypothesis still applies.

    Craft-oriented criticism is an important component of artistic criticism, as suggested, but it’s that higher-level ideological criticism that’s still largely missing. Perhaps it’s because the approach to the work has been primarily from a craft/business perspective and only secondarily from an artistic or ideological perspective, which may be contrary to other art forms.

  5. I can only speak for myself, but I pass on political-gender type analysis because when I was doing film theory back in college I had a strong preference for the historical type. So that’s just what I’m used to.

    (I guess I riff a little on sexuality in my Snowblind Aces review, but that’s ’cause it’s sort of hard to miss.)

    Regarding the specific bit of Heroine’s Mantle I think you mean, it made me uncomfortable as well. I felt like it was author-wish-fulfillment, not general-heterosexual-male fulfillment.

  6. I agree that we do have some good criticism, and I also agree that out criticism is not yet good enough and broad enough. But there is a flip side to this medal: we also need more IF that lends itself to in-depth criticism. Such IF exists, but not in abundance.

    But didn’t you just argue that such a view is nonsense? That every game lends itself to analysis? Well, sure; even quite restricted games allow you to talk about their ideological assumptions, for instance, but that is not yet in-depth criticism. You can only write a warm and humane book about Aristophanes because Aristophanes’ work is warm and humane; and in the same way, you can only write warm and humane criticism about IF that already is warm and humane in some sense. But many, many authors seem to be perfectly happy to recreate the trappings of a pre-existing genre without adding the essential component that would turn their work into something deeper: a claim about human nature, an attempt at redemption, a vision of states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.

    As for gender politics: it appears to be no different in the world of static fiction that it is in the worls of IF. :) I once read a trilogy by R. A. Salvatore, the best known writer of Dungeons & Dragons novels (I was ill, anything better was beyond me at that moment). These books were appallingly sexist. Not a bit sexist, no, extremely sexist, and of that bad kind where you know that neither the writer not most of his audience even notice it. So I wrote a review on Amazon and on my blog, neither of which was very much appreciated. The Amazon one has an approval of 4 out of 17; on my blog, I got comments like this:

    I might have to get that book. Most fantasy these days is so feminist, it’s sickening. At least this would be a change of pace from.

  7. I just came across this quote from Michael Kinyon about The Legend Lives (from March 1995):

    “I actually wonder whether the purposelessness that pervades L.L. is, unlike other IF works, deliberate. Back when I tested the game, it bothered me, but because of my familiarity with the rest of the Unkuulian universe, I let it go. Upon reflection, I have decided that the seeming randomness is, in fact, a commentary on human existence itself: just as the flap of a butterfly’s wings today affects the weather of the world in a week, so too do the meaningless acts of insignificant people affect the lives of everyone on a scale beyond individual comprehension.”

    It takes a certain kind of work of IF for players allow for the possibility of deeper meaning like this — a sense of “purposelessness” in most IF would be seen as bad game design, not as commentary on the nature of human existence …

  8. It’s interesting that when I first started getting into IF I was interested first and foremost at approaching it from a critical theory perspective, and that remains my most comfortable home. I have found myself surprised by the lack of even what Jeremy Douglass’s dissertation (a wonderful work, if, I felt, incomplete and tangential at points) called “close reading” of IF works, and I’d like to see more than that happening. Maybe this calls for a raif thread to see if anyone would be interested on a critical theory IF group . . .

  9. I think the reason you don’t see this kind of criticism with IF is relatively simple: most of IF is not really all that good. Yeah, it makes for fun games for people who already like IF. But I haven’t found too many games that do have a great deal of “subtext” or that take on nature/nurture or the other things mentioned. I think people have concentrated too much on the mechanics of IF and not the story format at all. That’s why “criticism” has basically always boiled down to reviews.

  10. Well, nature/nurture is a fairly specific issue, I suppose — and that was Greg’s quote, not mine. But theoretical criticism provides tools for taking apart games without requiring them to be good; part of the point of this style of criticism is that it’s not about evaluating the game on a simple quality axis.

    It’s not always even true that criticism is limited to being (at maximum) as good (whatever we decide that means) as thing it’s responding to. The question is really whether the critical tool combines with the work in question to produce some interesting lines of thought.

    But I also do reject the premise. People have not concentrated on the story format at all? Untrue. The results may not be what you’re looking for, but people have given lots of thought to the story aspect of IF down the years.

  11. I don’t play a lot of pc games. I tend to play more video games.

    But, it is an interesting comparision when it comes to movie reviewers and video game reviewers.

    I bring it up because…movie reviewers often rip apart a publicly popular movie. I often
    see movies with ranges from B+ to D in Entertainment Weekly.

    Whereas, rarely do I ever see any video game magazine or website rip apart the most popular
    of video games. Best selling video games usually are gushed upon by professional video
    game reviewers. Not the case with movie reviewers.

    Ironically, movie reviewers often give the highest marks for obscure movies. Whereas
    obscure games are often overlooked by mainstream video game media even if they are great

    Also, another problem with video game reviews…this is VERY true whether the game is
    given a positive or negative review. Some games take more than 50 hours to complete.
    Many RPGs take at least 25-40 hours to play through and that often doesn’t include optional

    So, many video game reviews are done by people who definitely haven’t finished the game.
    They probably don’t have the time to do so. Since, they have to review many games. But,
    that can create distorted reviews. There are games that start out great for the first few
    hours and then either go really bad or get really repetitive. Like how people debate Portal.
    Some people love it…some say it drags on too long.

    Also, there are games where the first few hours feel like nothing is really happening or
    it’s a complicated game system to get used to…yet if you have patience and get the hang
    of the system/mechanics then you are rewarded for continuing. Often these games get bashed
    because the reviewer only plays for a few hours. I’m talking about really long games this
    type of review can be unfair.

    Plus, I think the video game industry is a big business entity. They are becoming more and
    more snobbish. You know E3 held in Los Angeles isn’t open to the public anymore. At least the Tokyo Game Show
    still allows the public to get access.

    And, it also means that
    advertising and relationships between media is more and more big. Therefore, I doubt
    any magazine wants to go out on a limb and find a reviewer that doesn’t like a particular
    popular/mainstream game and give a negative review. They want their biggest advertisers
    happy. Like I said…unlike movie reviewers. Very rarely does any professional reviewer
    go against the grain so to speak and harshly criticise a best selling game.

    Although, strangely they do often assign people who openly hate certain genres and let them
    review certain games in those genre. Not a very credible way of reviewing in my opinion.
    I mean if you already hate a certain genre…then you would probably dislike even the best
    type of game in that particular genre.

    One thing I will say…when it comes to either a simple grade A-F or a number scale 1-10.
    Letter grade is usually better when it comes to averaging all reviewers. Because, I’ve come
    across reviewers who don’t seem to like a game and give it a 7 or even a 8. And, I’ve come
    across reviewers who think a game is average (not bad or good) and give it a 5 or 6. There’s
    less margin of difference when it comes to the letter scale or reviewing.

    I will say one interesting thing about Famitsu magazine…it has been around since 1986
    and it grades on a 40 point scale and it’s only given out seven perfect scores (40/40) for games. And, even
    they have been accused of trying to appease to advertisers and the gaming industry.

  12. Just to make one thing clear…when I said I see movies with a range of B+ to D…I mean
    the scores of many reviewers for the same movie. I even saw a movie quite awhile ago
    get a range of A- to F.

    That never happens in professional video game reviews. I’ve never seen any game get an A or
    even a B in a magazine…then receive a D or F in another.

    Or, if they use the 1-10 scale…0 stars to 5 stars. Or even like Famitsu which uses a 40
    point scale.

    I think there is more “kissing up” to the big companies in the video game media.

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