The Alligators Have Good Graphics, Vol. 1: Beginning Game Criticism, Vol. 1

Looking at story, character and design while ignoring interactivity would be akin to analyzing a movie based solely on the script; the entire point of the medium would be lost.

The Alligators Have Good Graphics, Vol. 1: Beginning Game Criticism, Vol. 1
Photo: Capcom

The Internet has been extremely successful in making things seem bigger than they are. If you judge by the Internet, you’d probably think film criticism, amateur and otherwise, is a healthy and thriving hobby that a large portion of society partakes in. We know that’s not really true, with most of society paying to see movie sequels where the only thing new are the articles that have been taken out of the title. But the Internet is still full of highly-read film, TV, music and literary criticism. Much of that criticism is good criticism. Decades of slowly evolving art criticism have finally given birth to a world where a large number of people do engage in meaningful discussion, by reading or writing, on a daily basis.

It seems strange, then, that the most technological of all entertainment forms, video games, has almost no criticism to its name. There are thousands of sites devoted to writing about games and hundreds of thousands of people talking about games, but almost no one is doing so from anything resembling a critical perspective. There’s the occasional exception, but most game writing is either industry analysis or qualitative reviewing (usually amounting to some variation of “EA (Electronic Arts) is evil” and “I can’t move and shoot…FAIL”). Video game criticism, as a form, just doesn’t exist.

Do a quick Google of “video game criticism” and the evidence is compelling. The first page results show one site devoted to the type of game “criticism” which spends its time praising the realism of alligators in Resident Evil 5, and nine sites lamenting the lack of quality in video game criticism. The first result, one of the lamentations, is Chuck Klosterman’s essential Esquire piece, “The Lester Bangs of Video Games,” where he concludes “there is a void, but there is still time to fill it. Somebody needs to become the first significant Xbox critic, stat.” It was written three years ago. We’re still talking about the alligators.

Now, to be fair, there absolutely are exceptions. Articles can be found that delve deeper, usually analyzing the game creation process or phenomena like sexism in gaming (Kotaku is especially good for these pieces). Video game reviews are also really good. They’re by far the most useful of all the functional media reviews. If you want to know what exactly a game contains and what does and does not work, you can’t do better than video game reviews. They’re a shopper’s best friend.

They’re useless, though, if we’re interested in something more, something deep and meaningful. A functional review is fantastic before I go to the store but largely useless after I’ve played the game. Unless I’m looking to disagree with someone or have my own feelings reinforced, reviews are best had as an appetizer. Good luck finding that post-game dessert.

But why do we even need game criticism? Because criticism enriches art. There’s something rewarding about watching a film, reading a piece of criticism, re-watching and the film and feeling like you get it. Likewise, there’s an immense pleasure in being a critic and unlocking a complex piece of art. Criticism is an empowering form. Which brings us to the main question: If criticism is so great, why is there no great game criticism?

This is initially a hard question to answer, largely because there’s no one place to lay blame. The blame lays everywhere, from the community to the industry to games as a medium. Game criticism doesn’t flow as naturally from film criticism as film criticism did from literary criticism. There’s a hurdle to overcome, because our interactions with a game are not the same as our interactions with film or music. The malleability of a gaming narrative makes it difficult to analyze in a traditional way. This requires extra effort. Criticism has to be forced out; there will be no Caesarean sections for game criticism.

This is where we encounter our first problem: the gaming community. In order for there to be game criticism, there has to be someone willing to work on it. That requires the gaming community to show an active interest in criticism as it develops. That interest is sorely lacking. Why? The easy answer is audience. The average gamer is a male between twenty and forty and he plays Grand Theft Auto and Halo. This is a stereotype, but even with female friendly consoles like the Wii, the majority of active gaming is being done by the male demographic. These are the kids who grew up with Super Mario. I’m one of them.

The Halo set, if we dare call them that, aren’t exactly prime targets for analysis. They’re largely equivalent to the mythic “average moviegoer” or that juicy TV “demo.” If they don’t want to read criticism, then it’s hardly surprising that hardly anyone wants to write it. Even the most selfless critics want some kind of audience.

But, this is the easy way out. Blockbusters can be discussed in meaningful ways. Blade Runner, initially a failure but now seen by millions, has a thriving fan community that tears the film apart and finds incredible secrets hidden inside. Academic works have been written about these fans. And yet, gaming fans seem different. A quick browse through a gaming message board or the comments section of a gaming blog, will show a strange preoccupation with brand loyalty and a tendency towards the type of qualitative arguments that reviews rely on. Discussions on the level of the meaning of humanity, a Blade Runner staple, rarely show up.

This disparity seems to have two causes. First, the gaming community is disadvantaged. Film fans have a massive body of criticism to model themselves after. When the internet came along, film criticism was already fully developed. Gaming criticism is a blank slate. It seems disingenuous to disparage “lolomfgisuck” or “xxXX_Insanities_Birth_XXxx” for not creating a new form of criticism. Second, the interest of fans is largely reliant on the games being produced. We can’t blame fans for a lack of serious analysis if the industry itself isn’t taking itself seriously as art.

(“Are games art?” is an entire discussion, or more, in and of itself. In lieu of that discussion, I’m just going to dismiss the debate outright. I’m not a fan of low or high art distinctions, and I’m also extremely leery when engaging in any type of “art” and “not-art” classifications. If games can provide an experience that is meaningful, either as entertainment or something deeper, I’m willing to engage them as art. I also suspect that after a decade or so of serious game criticism, we might see this debate become a relic of a naïve earlier age.)

I want to be careful and not paint all game developers as financially motivated, as I doubt the ratio of financially- to artistically-motivated developers is not that different than in the film industry. Most people, whatever their primary motivation, want to make something good. They want their work to be remembered. But gaming is a much less individual-driven medium than even other collaborative art forms like film or television. The average cost of games, at least until the XBOX Live Arcade/Apple App Store era, was exorbitant. Most games were developed by large companies. They were, by and large, blockbusters. There are indie games, but their average consumption is far less than many indie films. There are no second-run consoles focusing largely on indie games. Games are funded by big companies, and by and large, big companies care about money.

This severely disadvantages a game critic. Not only is the auteur theory rendered almost useless, but the industry is the equivalent of a library full of only Steven Spielberg films. There are brilliant gems, many of them rich and meaningful, but the general intent is one of entertainment. For every Schindler’s List there is a Lost World, while Sansho the Bailiff is nowhere to be found. There is great potential to analyze Spielberg, but his films often work on a mostly surface level. The advantages of engaging Spielberg critical are not as profound as the advantages of engaging Mizoguchi critically. (I should add this isn’t a qualitative statement, both filmmakers are indispensible to the medium.)

Likewise, as much as I love Super Mario Bros., the game doesn’t instantly lend itself to criticism. There are interesting discussions there, but my replay time is enhanced very little by a study of feminist archetypes in the Nintendo classic. It’s an interesting topic, but the Koopas don’t care. Many games do attempt to contain a somewhat richer intent, but by and large, these games are concerned with play experience and not theme. The men and women of Bungie may aspire to create a commentary on humanity and war, but Halo’s success is measured by enjoyment per frag, not intellectual stimulation. This cause isn’t helped by foul-mouthed teenagers who render the multiplayer experience nearly unbearable.

The industry needs to mature past these tendencies for criticism, if it develops, to thrive. Developers need to step up their game. While this seems unlikely—the current model is a cash cow—there is some motivation. The biggest boon to the “violent games corrupt our children!” argument is the relative lack of purpose to game violence. The more seriously games are taken, especially if taken as art, the less the industry will have to defend itself. There will still be battles, as we see in the film industry every so often, but the argument for games would be stronger. Everyone would be better off if people saw Grand Theft Auto as a comment on violence in society and not a murder simulator.

Which brings us to the one hurdle of game criticism that we cannot actively change: the nature of gaming. Auteur theory is not the only critical tool that falls by the wayside once the secret gaming weapon, interactivity, is introduced. The minute you give control to the player you encounter a plethora of problems. Roger Ebert went so far as to say, rather naïvely I think, that “art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices.”

The problem with interactivity for a critic is that it defies traditional criticism. Most of our critical tools are geared towards analyzing a given text. The text may be of any of a number of varieties, but the text is, usually, the text. We can touch it, watch it, read it and analyze it. It may not be easy, but by and large, it is consistent. The blue key will always be the blue key, whether we comprehend its meaning or not. Mario, however, won’t always grab the same mushroom or play all the same levels. Niko Bellic won’t always beat up prostitutes. The text is ever-changing. Somewhere, physicists are laughing; quantum mechanics have finally found their way to art. Nothing is anything anymore. Instead, everything might be something. Or nothing. Or both.

We can’t simply ignore interactivity, either. Looking at story, character and design while ignoring interactivity would be akin to analyzing a movie based solely on the script; the entire point of the medium would be lost. To make it worthwhile, we need to analyze what the game allows the player to reveal. Be it a revelation about a player’s own tendencies in a given environment or a deeper thematic connection through immersion, game criticism needs to address how the player plays.

When we do this, we begin to lose interest in the artist and begin gaining interest in the player. There is little use in asking “What is the artist saying?” and every use in asking “What has this game helped me to say?” That type of change defies most notions of criticism, which is why gaming demands new forms. Our old standbys aren’t good enough any more. Game criticism needs us to go one step further.

Is it any wonder, then, that game criticism has taken so long to develop? The community is stuck in a Catch-22 of supply and demand, while the industry is being given little motivation to challenge the minds of its audience. Add to that the need to develop new techniques just to begin work, and it’s somewhat surprising that there’s any game criticism at all, however feeble. It’s hard. It’s different. It’s demanding.

So, if we’re serious about game criticism, where do we begin? I think if we’re going to give it our best shot, we should start with the games that take themselves seriously, games that challenge the player. There is value in Mario and Halo, just as there is value in Star Wars and Indiana Jones, but if we want more Sansho the Bailiffs we need to engage and reward those who attempt to reach those heights. Games such as Jonathan Blow’s brilliant game-deconstruction-as-game platformer, Braid, deserve serious criticism. Games that offer something more when understood on deeper levels will prove criticism, however hard, worthwhile.

We also need to really take a good, hard look at what interactivity means to individual games. It rarely functions the same way. We need to examine the player’s role in a story, and we need to be willing to offer different analysis for different players. The more we engage the interactive aspects of a game, the greater our toolset will be. If we’re starting nearly from scratch, then we need to dive in. If interactivity is our bane, then the more quickly we turn it into our boon, the better. Interactivity is what makes games special, and it is almost certainly what will make game criticism special.

Ultimately, though, we need to begin. We need to stop asking why there isn’t game criticism and start writing some. Maybe it will fail to distinguish itself. Maybe few games are ready for serious critics. We still need to try. If we don’t, then someone, sometime down the road, is once again going to ask why there isn’t any real game criticism. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be off discussing how realistic the alligators are.

Next time: A deeper dissection of Braid and what it has to say about interactivity.

Logan Crowell has a degree in film from York University. He is a lifelong gamer who has written for both print and online media.

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The Alligators Have Good Graphics, Vol. 2: Princesses in Other Castles