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.