I’m out of the country at the moment and between that, the baby and some personal stuff I have approximately zero opportunity most days to play any video games. However I’m still thinking about them and reading about them and, now, writing about them. It’s a funny thing.
I often wonder about where the writers’ ecosystem developing around video games is going to end up. There’s a lot of debate (and complaint) about what good games writing should be, with a selection of talented writers somewhat (justifiably) exasperated by the decades of trade cheer-leading that refuses to die in the face of new genres and expectations in video games writing. Comments often fall under the general category of “video games criticism” but the best writing on video games often falls under this umbrella definition only partially or via technicality. It’s actually quite rare that we see reviews of games that touch on some of the finer reviews of other media such as literature and film.
That’s not a bad thing; in fact, many of us are far too concerned with how video games writing compares to critical writing in other cultural forms.[ref]Keep in mind that insisting forcefully that you are very much not doing this more or less includes you in that very conversation.[/ref] However, the reaction to and concomitant influence of writing in other cultural forms significantly and negatively affects the evolution of games writing. Take, for example, differing reactions to THE LAST OF US and GONE HOME. Both games earned considerable critical success, but a certain subset of writer took issue with the former game’s mechanics as being rote and lacking in originality while celebrating the latter for advancing significantly the direct use of game mechanics in storytelling. Such analysis is reasonable but tends to gloss over the fact that THE LAST OF US is one of the most successful video games of all time in terms of complex and morally nuanced storytelling whereas GONE HOME’s strengths do much to obscure the fact its central story is rather limited. The difference here is in the definition of “storytelling,” a bifurcation that highlights the strengths of video games as a cultural form. GONE HOME immerses the player in its story by way of basic game mechanics and by encouraging exploration,[ref]Such exploration remains directed, of course. Much of GONE HOME’s success derives from the game’s ability to allow the player to convince himself or herself this is not so.[/ref] offering a clear way forward for video games as a storytelling medium. THE LAST OF US suffers for not being so daring. However, THE LAST OF US does something special; the game has enough conventional action to be classified (either approvingly or with disdain) as a “Triple A title,” while moving storytelling in video games forward significantly. Much like the considerably more flawed BIOSHOCK INFINITE, THE LAST OF US seeks to implicate the player in the moral weaknesses of the story’s central character and protagonist.
Thus, to fully appreciate THE LAST OF US one must accept that the game is not inherently undermined by checkpoints and the need to kill a certain amount of enemies to proceed. Similarly, one can argue that GONE HOME should be appreciated despite the relative shallowness of its story. This is, in fact, what I argue. If we truly want a sophisticated critical environment in video game writing, we must accept such weaknesses. The major mistake that we are making as a community, I fear, is in the construction of a higher standard, the embrace of a “high brow” form of video game appreciation. This is a backwards step, to take a cultural form that has benefitted precisely because of its accessibility and to introduce a hierarchy of enjoyment. It is also the reverse of what has happened in other cultural forms, as broader audiences and more daring tastes have benefitted the development of popular music, film and literature. It also raises the question of who should assume the mantle of gatekeeper, which leads us into further questions of where power lies in the community which leads to further dispute. I am not against such dispute arising (and in fact, I agree that it is necessary) but I worry further that it distracts us from writing about the games themselves.
The two strongest arguments, in my view, in favour of a hierarchy of taste (i.e. the counter to my argument here) are that a) the hierarchy already exists and b) introducing a hierarchy is necessary in order to cultivate and expand audiences for daring, intelligent and adventurous games.
First things first, the “not a game!” accusation levelled at GONE HOME is both indicative of broad generalizations held by video game enthusiasts and the defensiveness of those of us that feel such a claim is absurd. Yes, there were many complaints that GONE HOME should be considered “bad,” the need to describe a game as simply good or bad the legacy of both a trade-style review scoring system and the confluence of video game enthusiast communities with the less discerning and more abrasive avenues of the Internet. However, like many aspects of social interaction on the Internet, a lot of this can be filtered out. Although such accusations should not be ignored, it is possible to pay too much attention to the ill-informed. I must admit a hierarchy does exist, ranging from people that buy a console in order to purchase two sports games a year to video game enthusiasts that almost exclusively play indie games on PC rigs worth over a thousand dollars.[ref]I myself, um, would be much closer to the latter group.[/ref] However, those of us that wish to write on the cultural impact of games, the history of games, the form and structure and aesthetic of games and the storytelling and art therein… We should work to maintain the boundaries between the various levels of the hierarchy remain fluid, not to erect prerequisites for advancement.
This ties into my response to the second argument: the audience for the games that thrill us, challenge us and amaze us is growing. The PC gaming market, at one point a moribund leviathan doomed to unending supplication at the feet of consoles, now hosts a vibrant game development environment. PC games lead the medium forward as consoles thrash in the waters of corporate greed.[ref]Unfortunately, the greed appears to be in position to be rewarded for some time to come.[/ref] Such games do not require our cheer-leading or our activism. Such games do require that we continue to write intelligently, to critique and not to advocate.
The challenges are steep. The video game community remains frequently offensive and, none too rarely, vile. To write about such issues is natural, as is to champion games that directly challenge the preconceptions, bias and bigotry of oafs and cowards. Activism is welcome and necessary. However, we must not allow ourselves to be sidetracked by the racism and bigotry that inhabits the deepest (but not that faraway) corners of this community. When we conflate those who complain GONE HOME is “not a game” with those clearly uncomfortable with that game’s progressive social content, we identify an ignorance bloc that holds the medium back. This bloc exists, but we should not let it define our critique. Moreover, we must be careful not to (unwittingly or otherwise) create our own little clubs and quasi-elites. In an age when politics in most of the Western world is maimed by the surety of the willfully ignorant, we must be mindful of defining our standards rather than elucidating and presenting them.
To return to the original point, I often wonder about where the writers’ ecosystem developing around video games is going to end up because I have no idea where it will end up. Overall I’m rather optimistic. I dearly want our rigour and critique to march in tune with our passion and our politics.