I watched Indie Game the Movie and it reminded me a bit of a conversation I had with Jon Blow on Twitter about games criticism. Blow was upset at games journalists for not talking more about Starseed Pilgrim, and I said something snarky in response, the gist of which was, maybe it’s okay if games critics aren’t interested in exactly the same things you are (which was kinda unfair of me of course). Starseed Pilgrim is really clever and interesting but it’s not the game that gets me most excited about video games the way I’m sure it does Blow (knowing his taste in the games he likes and the games he makes) despite those sorts of games being really really good and him having generally excellent taste within the genre of games that fascinate him.
But on the other hand, I also really agree with Jon Blow’s frustration with game critics because even though it’s okay for not everyone to be interested in Starseed Pilgrim, it’s a huge problem when virtually no one is until Blow makes a fuss about it on Twitter. Starseed Pilgrim falls into the category of game that gets designers who I greatly respect really really interested while generating only the mildest buzz from critics. Which is not to say zero, or that no one heard of Starseed Pilgrim before Blow talked about it, but in general, that seems to be the trend.
I have a general idea of why, and it’s that some games critics tend to have a background in English or Literature or Art and are looking at games from a framework that favors aesthetic, character, story, and from this perspective, it’s difficult to understand what’s really interesting about the game “mechanically” without having the tools to describe it and furthermore it’s less likely to interest anyone in the first place. I really did not like Limbo, from its mechanics to the metaphorical meaning it was sort of having, but Limbo is a crystal clear game to analyze aesthetically. I feel similarly about Spec Ops: The Line, in that it’s basically got nothing, but it does have a plot and characters and we can have a ready set of tools for talking about them.
So this is where I start really agreeing with Jon Blow, because while I’m not the most interested in the games he is, I also can’t stand a lot of the critical darlings either, that have plot and aesthetic of a sort maybe but are incredibly shallow compared to say, an actual gosh damn book, especially when their form and craft is otherwise weak. Spec Ops has plot and characters, but its pacing is ridiculously awful, the delivery of its message eye-rollingly blunt and lacking in nuance, and the supposedly mediocre shooting is mediocre to no interesting end. Look at the plot and characters in a vacuum and you can almost reconstruct the game they were trying to make, but that is not the actual game. I feel a lot of criticism of games like this constructs an experience that is far too generous to what is actually contained in the game data. On the other hand, I think that aesthetics, writing, and sound are super important and absolutely worthy of being talked about, and no games criticism has to really talk about the frames of the reload animation if they don’t want to. However, any criticism’s gotta be grounded in something.
Anyways I watched Indie Game the Movie with my parents and they asked me to explain all this so I told them what I just told you. They wanted to know because they both teach literature themselves. “Must be nice to not have our problems” I was going to say, but the my mother replied saying that was pretty much exactly the problem she has with her English majors. They love to talk about character and plot, but they won’t spend any time on craft, structure, or form. These sorts of things are pretty much the “mechanics” of writing, and really aren’t actually that different. This repeated word hammers in emphasis, this sentence with lots of commas sounds breathless, these short sentences create a terse and minimalist aesthetic throughout the novel, etc. This stuff is actually more important than characters and plot, and my mother’s frustration is that her students treat characters as if they were actual people, speculating about their motives outside the novel and creating intricate justifications for their actions, all the while ignoring that they are craft elements themselves. Characters that are nothing but a metaphor are obnoxious, but characters are still crafted elements and they serve a function. They’re part of how the author says whatever it is they are trying to say; unlike humans, they have a purpose.
Talking about character and plot without form rapidly becomes ungrounded and airy, because I’m hearing about people that aren’t real and things that didn’t happen without any grounding in the countless craft and form choices that made all of that junk matter. If plot and character was all that mattered, Wikipedia would be a sufficient replacement for literature. Any description of the effect a game has on the author should come with your explanation of how that happened. What exactly was it about the heartbreaking indie puzzle platformer that made you feel nostalgic? What did Jane Austin do to make you like that dour Mr. Darcy so much? These are not strange or unusual or “academic” questions, they are questions of very basic specificity and clarity in any sort of writing. It’s incomplete to talk about the emotional reaction the game effected in you without describing the cause. This matters for “game mechanics” but it applies equally to writing, art, and music, and the mechanics and form and craft that drive those as well
Which is to say, this is exactly a problem in games criticism as well. Craft and form are incredibly important to writers and artists, and they can be important to designers as well without the unpleasant prejudices of formalism. For my personal taste, my favorite games tend to be either highly frictive games like ZiGGURAT, or highly structured tiny word webs like Cyberqueen or Conversations With My Mother. The latter too are considered “not interesting when thought of as games” by some branches of formalist thinking, which is entirely correct. However, they still contain extensive mechanics identical to those used in games, as well as other craft and form choices identical to those in literature.
I don’t think we should really ever say, stop talking about game X if people want to do that, no matter how annoying it is, but I’m really not into losing sight of craft and form, no matter if the game is “lacking” in what we’d immediately recognize as “game mechanics” a thing I do not actually think is possible, because art is craft and form always on every level. Maybe if we scrutinize this side of games more heavily games that shouldn’t be worth dignifying will naturally appear shallow and we’ll get to finally shut up about them and encourage designers to move on too.
[EDIT]: ADDN. OUT OF ORDER NOTES
1. I will begin spinning in my grave if I am accused of being a formalist so I REALLY WOULD LIKE TO CLARIFY. One of the reasons I’m mad at formalists: they have sort of appropriated talking about mechanics completely, and they only want to talk about certain kinds of mechanics in certain specific ways because they want to unlock the mysteries of the universe and more power to them as long as they do not pop out of nowhere to tell me what is and isn’t a game.
So: criticism that looks at form is not the same as formalism. I don’t think it’s the most important thing, and I certainly don’t privilege it over personal experience because I am a writer before am an extremely underprepared and unskilled academic. Rather, I think form is a tool that allows writers to be ultra clear and specific when they talk about how games affect them. Personal experience and journalism were the sorts of writing I was thinking about when writing this as much as criticism or review. It’s probably too long to go on about it here, but I do think that personal experience writing tends to be really vague if it isn’t very clear and precise about not just what the personal experience was, but how it happened and what that means. That really means talking about how the art functions as much as it does the effect it had on you. A lot of personal writing stops at saying “this game is like this personal experience” without ever talking about how they are similar and doing the work of showing and conveying that connection to the reader. To do that you have to be extremely articulate and clear about the specifics both of personal experience and games, and recognizing the details of craft and form gives you lots of those to talk about it. I talked about this at length in this essay about Electron Dance’s “Ethics of Selling Children.”
I am not really interested in mechanics for their own sake. I’m not trying to give actionable feedback to game designers. I want to tell a story about something that happened to me but I also want you to understand me. If I just say what I felt when I played a game, well, you’re going to feel something different and then you won’t understand. So I have to explain. Show how I got from this experience to the game to this experience in my life. That starts by pointing at the specifics in the game and how they affected me.
I’m looking for the the most specific and clearest way to communicate to a reader how a particular work has affected me. “I felt lonely playing Lone Survivor.” Why? “Because there are people to talk to but there’s something wrong and we can’t quite reach each other.” How does the game do that? “The characters are put in places that are a trek to reach and their dialogue references events that are inconsistent with the player’s experience playing the game.” What does that have to do with your personal experience with loneliness? “When I’m alone I feel like I’m crazy because my experiences don’t match reality and when I talk to other people they reinforce that feeling, that I’m crazy because it’s clear they don’t have this experience and would think it was crazy too. This is what loneliness means to me.” This applies to writing that isn’t about games, too.