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Worth a Look: Video Game Criticism Edition

Worth a Look: Video Game Criticism Edition

Mass Effect: Andromeda stands as one of the most derided games of this generation. It’s to the point that Bioware said publicly that it’s no longer supporting it a mere five months after the game’s release. While I think the game is, indeed, very different from the previous Mass Effect games and, without a doubt, needed a few more drafts with the script, it was by no means a terrible game. If separated from the Mass Effect context––and when considered with all of its animation/texture/gameplay patches––it suffers from the deadliest of video game diseases: it ended up being a game that was just “fine.” Nothing stellar, nothing terrible, things that make it forgettable in the sea of games to get either quite excited about or quite angry about.

Pathfinder Sara Ryder from Mass Effect: Andromeda, a perfectly fine game. Screenshot courtesy of Bioware.

Though I may be biased because I enjoyed the game (aware of all of its flaws), I think Park’s ostensible defense of the game makes a very strong point not only about Mass Effect: Andromeda, but also about criticism in general. For those participating in the conversation around video games, both professional and amateur (though this line is blurring more than ever), a general agreement seems to be that to be “critical” means to look for what’s bad and point it out. I’ll grant some leeway because a lot of professional critics are playing these games during abbreviated periods for review purposes, so the bad stuff stands out even more. With a game like Mass Effect: Andromeda, it has the added burden of being a new entry in a highly venerated video game series, so expectations for the game were set a bit higher than other games. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have qualities worth discussing, remembering, and celebrating, and part of that, at least as Park argues, is because of gaming criticism’s relative youth:

We don’t yet have a critical structure that supports or fosters an appreciation of the misapplication of game language that causes “messiness.” And this is a major problem.

With that in mind, there is a trend away from more traditional reviews into a more personal or culturally critical look at a game. These are more critic-friendly because they don’t really need to be ready by the game’s release (although such timeliness is beneficial for SEO purposes), and such investigations allow the critic to step back from the game and take a more holistic approach to judging a game. Whether Mass Effect: Andromeda deserves or will even get that chance is up to history. At the very least, I hope future games––be they new installments in venerated franchises or new IPs––get the chance to be examined with a genuinely critical eye rather than just a score disguised as a conversation.

Instead of an article, this is an episode from the generally fantastic critical podcast, Bullet Points, where (at least) three games journalists record their thoughts of a video game they all played to write about and talk about for their website. Each episode is accompanied by articles written by the contributors and they’re always very thoughtful and insightful.

However.

This episode, where they look back on Epic Games’ Gears of War (the first installment), is an absolute disaster in the best possible way. In the hour-and-a-quarter episode, they spend about fifteen minutes total discussing the game and, instead, slam critical views together like rams over a ewe. The conversation devolves into an argument about how to read the game, critically. One wants to look at the mechanics and render judgment based on those while another wants to look at the game’s place in a historical context. And, in this conversation, the twain never meet.

C.O.G.s in the Gears of War (from Gears of War). Screenshot courtesy of Epic Games.

Throughout the entire fight, I found myself talking out loud as I listened while walking my dog one morning, hoping my mediation would travel through my headphones, up the RSS feed, and back through time so they could actually realize what it was they were fighting about. While it seemed like they were disagreeing about the quality of the game, the discourse on display was actually a fundamental lack of understanding when it comes to critical analysis. There is no one thing called “analysis” and that’s what everybody does. We have developed different ways to look at the same thing––be it Deconstructionism, Structuralism, Formalism, Feminism, Marxism, and so on. Look at something like Catcher in the Rye through a Structuralist lens will give you a very different argument than if you looked at it through a Feminist lens. And that’s okay. They all coexist. However, the static that can be caused by the lack of agreement on which one to use while looking at a text can lead to an actual halt to discourse and then nothing gets done, as is the case on this podcast episode.

The clashing ideologies between the two journalists was basically a fight between New Criticism vs. New Historicism, but the entire episode propels along a single question that, in itself, is quite interesting: can dumb texts be worth talking about critically? Also, can texts still be important when authorial intent is ignorant, dubious, or manufactured? I’d like to hear the podcast where they discuss that. Maybe more would get done.

Worth A Look

Worth A Look

I have always had too many hobbies, especially when I was younger. Like a lot of people, some of these fell away for awhile, some of them I picked back up for nostalgic reasons or with a new appreciation. Some have been left behind. For me, one passion remained constant throughout (aside from writing). With comic books, I stopped reading them for over a decade. Sure, there was the occasional trade paperback here and graphic novel there, but there was a long time where I checked out of the culture and community for good (until I was drawn back in, pardon the pun). With regard to other nerdy passions, I started playing music rather late and I basically stopped drawing for a long time before starting up my first webcomic in 2007.

But my oldest nerdy pastime––one that never went away––has been playing video games. I’ve always kept in touch, I’ve always had an ear to the discourse, and I’ve always followed the developments. It’s strange, then, that I never really thought about video games critically until relatively recently. Until I started using the tools I was practicing as a college student and graduate student, I never really absorbed games as statements on (or of a) culture.

However, there were a few times when I played a game and recognized that there was something more here, even if I couldn’t put my finger on it. Metal Gear Solid was one (as was Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater after it). Another was Shadow of the Colossus. There was also Red Dead Redemption. When Red Dead was released, my excitement was tempered with shock because as a fan of its predecessor, the Playstation 2 game Red Dead Revolver, I had no idea that it garnered enough attention to warrant a sequel––not from the fans nor from the industry. But I greeted it with anticipation and my reaction to it was on par with most people who played it––I loved it.

Image Source: Bullet Points Monthly

It felt big and cinematic, the story felt important, but what it was trying to say eluded me if only because I wasn’t thinking about that with regard to games. More importantly, I wasn’t quite sure about how to analyze a text like this. My instinct when it comes to fiction is to be enveloped by its tone and characters. Though I had become more critically aware of movies and books (what with my English degrees), such skepticism never leapt the barrier into video games.

Now, as a neophyte pop culture critic, I would like to analyze this medium but worry if I could do so as objectively as I would like. It is one of those “special” games to me, a pane in a stained-glass assemblage that is my personality, nostalgia, and taste. Furthermore, so much time has passed since its release that I wonder––with all the developments in the technology and expectations––if I could go back to it without some immediate deconstruction of my love for what made this game great in 2010.

Furthermore, most of the conversation around the game has been cultural rather than critical. Most discussion I come across is done by those who love it like I do, so the talk is mostly about how it has become “the game of its generation” or how video games can have impactful, cinematic storytelling while also being good games. While I don’t disagree with those sentiments, I haven’t found any real conversation around the game that delves deeper than a nigh dilettantish affection for the game, so I let more time pass and the possibility of actually developing a thesis around it slip away.

And then I found the brilliant podcast, Bullet Points. In a way, linking to Jess Joho’s article is a slightly veiled excuse to gush about the Bullet Points podcast and its long-form criticism companion site, Bullet Points Monthly. The core of Bullet Points is the trio of critics Ed Smith, Reid McCarter, and Patrick Lindsey who all write freelance for a variety of different culture sites. Their monthly episodes bring in assorted guests (such as Joho) and, together, approach video games new and old with an intelligent, skeptical scalpel that makes for an engaging listen. Each episode focuses on one game (ostensibly their focus is games with shooting mechanics, hence the title) that they all play and come to the recording session with their individual critical takeaways from the experience. Bullet Points Monthly contains articles written by the hosts with one guest contributor to hone their experiences into deft and penetrative articles about the game to be discussed on the upcoming podcast episode.

Back to Red Dead Redemption, their talk about the game (Episode 24 of the podcast) immediately gave me what I was looking for, which also pointed to article Joho wrote for the discussion and is also a perfect example of what I hoped to see in the discussions about this game––an incisive dissection of what this game means:

Red Dead Redemption doesn’t just portray a revisionist western story. The game itself plays like it’s a revisionist western cowboy on a quest to erase the past misdeeds of its genre—only to perpetuate those same misdeeds under the guise of revisionism or redemption.

It gave me a place to start, critically, with which I can go back to the game without the worry of being dragged down by old controls or distracted by out-of-date graphics. A lot of times their discussions touch on cinematic criticism or literary criticism but never as a crutch. Instead, they are citing those critical fields as peers to the texts being discussed on the podcast, which is exactly a tenet Andrew and I yearn to do on this very website with a similar general theoretical approach. If Bullet Points continues to do more writing and discussion like this, then I am even more excited for not only what other games they turn their attention toward, but also what I will have to say about games in the future, because it’s one of the first times in a while where I’ve been inspired to go play a game with a critical eye. It’s as if hearing them do it––and do it so well––finally gave my brain the permission to hop the fence and give this thing called video game criticism more of a shot than before.

Canon has been an undercurrent of a lot of what Andrew and I talk about on the podcast lately, though not necessarily whether it’s good or bad, necessary or fanciful. There is no doubt that canonizing properties has been a long-standing tradition for a variety of reasons: first, a continuity helps keep future iterations and sequels in line so that the thematic or tonal essence of a property is preserved; second, that universal structure helps to also solidify, as Mike Chen notes, “the backbone of a community” as well. This has been put to the test in the last decade.

From the dissolution of the Star Wars Extended Universe by Disney to the increasingly interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe, canonicity has become an important talking point in the nerdy-geeky world in some form or another. Both Marvel and DC, in their comics divisions, are struggling with it; it’s hard to decide whether the best move is to honor the canon established by including the upwards of seventy years of existing stories (for some) or to start anew and revised in a clean cut with the hopes of attracting new readers to old characters made relevant once more. Either way, our tendency towards canon development fosters in readers a deep attachment to the characters and their stories. While the emotional importance of canon among fans is undeniable, and is something that Mike Chen paints with affection in his article, he touches on what I think is the more damaging––and therefore more pertinent––side of canonicity: gatekeeping.

Grand Admiral Thrawn. Artist: Tony Foti (from Star Wars: The Card Game)

I am on the verge of arguing that gatekeeping mentalities are at the heart of the problems that are tearing the nerd world––and, by proxy, popular culture––apart. As these properties and franchises expand outward from the once niche pocket of fandom to greater cultural acceptance (something we all wanted in the first place), it is admittedly hard for some fans to accept that people that have only watched the Marvel movies can call themselves fans of Marvel.

But here’s a fact: they are.

But so many of us try to keep people like them out. Post-2005 Doctor Who fans. Fans who discovered Star Wars with the prequels. Abrams’ Star Trek fans. Mario fans whose first game was Super Mario Sunshine. For some fans, any of these people should have their fandom challenged and tested by their own twisted metric, but it means nothing. As much as we would like to––and as much as we already assume to––have ownership over the properties we have built the core of our personalities around, we simply do not. Passion and fervor, while important for the survival of a fiction, are not authors of it nor the metric for deciding who gets to like it. We cannot decide who gets to love movies, games, cartoons, comics, and television shows. Besides, what good does keeping people out do? If anything, Chen argues that it could even damage our identity within a culture:

[G]eeks often discover their passions while searching for some form of acceptance. With geek culture exploding into the mainstream over the past decade, it often becomes less about ‘are you a fan?’ and more about ‘how much of a fan are you?’ But fandom—the enjoyment of creativity and art—shouldn’t be placed on some finite metric to be analyzed and judged, as long as it’s being expressed positively.

Being a fan of the Marvel comics is not the same as being a mason, nor should it be, with tests to administer and rituals to memorize. They are meant to be enjoyed; again, what good does it do to actively damage a person’s enjoyment of something you or I enjoy so much? Instead, we need to look at things like canon as what it is: fiction. And fiction is meant to be fun. I don’t know about you, but even if someone comes to a fiction later than me or for different reasons than me, if we’re all enjoying it then it’s elevating not only the culture as a whole but, if I were to be honest, also my enjoyment of it.