An Analytical Discussion of the Industry, Culture, Progress and Nature of Video Games.

June 27, 2006 - Sorry it's late!
Klosterman's Call to Arms
I know that this may come as a surprise to a number of people out there, but I am not made of money. In fact, whenever I see commercials for car dealerships that offer financing as long as, “you have job and earn at least $300 a week,” I die a little death inside. Because of my financial situation, I am not an “early adopter.” At this rate, I can’t really afford to be a late-adopter (sample phrase: “$129 for a Playstation 2?! Outrageous!”).

During the halcyon days of cutting lawns to feed my expensive gaming habit, I was little-concerned if a game was a good buy. Did it have a Ninja Turtle in it? Can I stomp and/or shoot something? Does the box describe something as “Rad”?
These days, while I’m seriously considering renting out my ipod for Bar Mitzvahs to earn money, I’m more selective with my gaming dollar. To find objects worthy of my $50 I routinely visit some of our friends to the right. I read magazines. I visit the blogosphere.
Basically, I turn into a 75 year-old man with a subscription to Consumer Reports.

The sage consumer advice from the likes of Dan “Shoe” Hsu and Matt Cassamassina has shaped my game collection into veritable Hall-of-Fame – with most games rating 8.5 or better. What have I received by heeding their words? Years of excellent gaming experiences and dozens of kick-ass games in my collection. And, just maybe, a few extra dollars in my pocket because I didn’t waste cash on Odama or X-Men: The Official Game.
And it’s my thankfulness to the reviewers at EGM, 1up, and IGN that has provoked me to write something about a recent article in Esquire, “The Lester Bangs of Video Games,” in which the state of video game journalism is decried as being little more than consumer advice. “It tells you what old game a new game resembles, and what the playing experience entails, and whether the game will be commercially successful,” writes Chuck Klosterman. He suggests that video game criticism should rise from this mindless droll, shed the film-criticism-inspired structure of game reviews, and embrace the feeling of the game. How does the game affect you? How are your choices influenced by your experience? What does the game mean? The metaphor? The context?
Klosterman suggests that game criticism is stuck in consumerism because the game industry itself is stuck in the same realm: milking old franchises, pumping up graphics, adding downloadable episodes in lieu of fresh development. There’s little room in the development of a game for a message, an attention to context, or the construction of meaning. Even when games like Halo are seen to have a subtle anti-war message, developers deny it and reviewers ignore it.
For music, Lester Bangs had it somewhat easier. Music is timely (and, when done extremely well, timeless). Individual artists (the John Lennon, Van Morrison) were in control of the message, and that message was regularly meaningful to the times. Bangs was a great writer, influenced by Burroughs and H.S. Thompson, but writing about how music makes you feel, analyzing lyrics, and basking in the beauty of the art is what music has been about since the first ritual dances were done in the Pleistocene.
Pauline Kael is also singled out by Klosterman as embodying a style that should manifest itself in the world of video-game criticism. Indeed, her reviews concentrate on the meaning, the art direction, the subtext, and the context of the film. But she also pays attention to the script, the acting, and the plot – the same kind of mindless minutiae that Klosterman lambasts game reviewers for doing when they spend ink on gameplay description, voice talent, or plot.
Klosterman urges game reviewers to explore the meaning of free will in games. He paints a scene where, if at the end of Gone With the Wind, Rhett Butler never said his famous exit line? What if he did, but changed his mind and came back for Scarlett anyway? In games, he believes, this is possible. And it is this possibility reviewers should explore in their writing.

Even though I benefit directly from current game criticism (could you imagine if I bought the DDR: Mario Mix? Ick!), I agree with Klosterman on his main points: Game criticism should mature and tackle the meaning of content, the embodiment of experience, and the subtext of action. However, this criticism is of limited use at this current age. Games such as Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid, and Eternal Darkness (among others) are so heavily scripted, free will enters only briefly when deciding which gun to use. (Sam Fisher: “To neck snap or not neck snap, that is the question.”) A Gone With the Wind game would give Rhett no other choice but to walk out because the next level would be a horse-riding mini-game taking him out of town. Other games, particularly ones with no plot whatsoever, like Lumines, Tetris, or Bejeweled would verge on absurdist if reviewed in the manner Klosterman suggests.

In fact, there are very few games that lend themselves well to the reflexive, insightful criticism Klosterman extols. Sandbox games, such as Grand Theft Auto, The Sims, Nintendogs, Oblivion, and Spore are particularly ripe. The exploration of self through the participation in the game world would be a fascinating thing experience and read. I would also like to suggest that games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Beyond Good and Evil, Mass Effect, Half-Life 2 and even Ocarina of Time could benefit from a deeper review. These games, and others like them, contain larger meanings and their investigation through the lens of surrounding political and environmental contexts would be equally fascinating. It can be done, but the right games have to be chosen.

Aaron and I would love to write these reviews.
It would be even better if you paid us.
For your information, Clive Thompson does wonderful work. As does Chris Suellentrop. The ladies and gentlemen at the 1up Show also explore games in an entertaining and humanistic fashion.
June 23, 2006
Grant McCracken is Wrong, A Stupid Head
Aaron Gets Cranky, Drops McCracken, and Goes On A Rant 

To belatedly respond to both Stev and Grant (like Stev, I like to pretend me and Mr. McCracky go way back) I would say I actually agree with Mr. McCracken to a very limited extent, and with a sea of caveats. McCracken's assertion about games being like superhero comics in their fulfillment of power fantasies is true for many games, but it is also true for all popular media. The best-selling books are trade paperbacks or genre fiction (sci-fi, fantasy) and romance novels (the female equivalent of comic book power fantasies), and the highest profiting films are usually populist blockbusters led by improbable heroes performing impossible stunts.

However, McCracken seems to display an ignorance of the histories of various media, and how they inevitably begin as geek pursuits and only become democratized over a great deal of time. Photography began as the purlieu of curious chemists who noticed the odd properties of certain materials when exposed to light. Much of the early development of film can be credited to no less a geek than Thomas Edison and his labs, and, while modern film often generates it's artistic worth from the singular vision of a director, the technical aspects of film making such as sound, cinematography, and special effects are still created by the skill of highly trained specialists. Geeks in other words. To single out video games as a geek driven enterprise is a little misguided. Furthermore, (and I will continue to shout this from the rooftops until we all realize this) no one arguing about any aspect of video games seems willing to admit that the industry is a little more than thirty years old. The expectation that video games should be making masterpieces is unfair. Consider where other media were at thirty (and sorry if we all have to do some research to learn this) and the expectation that gaming should be producing Citizen Kanes can be seen as the absurdity it is.

Art and artistic movements are as generational as they are reactionary. While some artists look at the art currently being made and decide to do something different, the larger changes that occur, from romanticism to modernism to post-modernism, could only occur when a young artist surveyed what had come before, realized the nature of those old works as a whole, and decided to go in a different direction. And for a young game developer, there isn't much a history from which to draw. We're on the sixth generation of consoles but, in my opinion, we've just started the second generation of games. McCracken singles out Myst for artistic merit, and while it was one of the first games to display what a thorough sense of design could do for a game experience, it was, to my gamer eyes, little more than a brainy (read: geeeeeeky) variation on the adventure and puzzle games that had come before. Others, such as LucasArts' Monkey Island had managed to do the same thing with a great deal more charm, and much less morose and overbearing pretension just to solve a logic puzzle. For a game to even begin to have substance, and I mean deep substance, not only do games have to have what other media have; design, script, narrative, character, humor, charm, etc.; but games also have to have solid game play, control, and all the other crap that makes a game good. And not even a Kojima, Jaffe, or Shafer is there yet. We're working our way up to it though. And with the changes in control the Wii will hopefully bring developers might just decide to be experimental enough to do something new. We will probably have to wait quite a while longer for games to have 'art,' and we may someday see playing games with controllers or on TVs to be as archaic as daguerreotypes.

As Stev noted, and as happens with all artistic media, the tools are becoming democratized, and as go the tools so goes the form. Several commentators have noted that with X-Box Live and the Wii's highly anticipated Virtual Console, independent creators of small but worthwhile games will now have a viable and dynamic market in which to ply their worthwhile wares. And when a game as simple as Geometry Wars can be not just popular but cultishly adored, a viable marketplace for solid and innovative game play won't be too far behind. And gaming will have taken yet another awkward, stumbling, lurching, unbalanced step into the future.

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