Why There Are No Great Video Game Critics (Yet)
In the e-mail box today, a question from one of the great new writers of the day, Joe Hill:
On the assumption that you’re always hunting for material for the blog, I thought I’d point you to the Chuck Klosterman article in the latest ESQUIRE. The always interesting Klosterman wonders why, if videogames are the dominant pop art form of our day, there isn’t a Pauline Kael or a Lester Bangs to remark upon them – why the form has failed to produce a body of interesting criticism. I know you’re a staff guy for PS2 magazine, and someone who has given more than a little thought to the place video games have in our culture. I thought maybe you’d want to check the Klosterman piece out and respond.
Well, as it happens, I know the reasons why there are (currently) no great video game critics. Here are the reasons:
1. Video games are too immature for valid criticism. “Immature” not in the sense that the stories/material is infantile, or aimed at such a low common denominator that useful criticism is not possible. Some video games are, of course, but then so are some movies and music, so that’s not really saying anything.
What I mean is that it’s immature as a narrative medium. Video games are no longer anywhere near new — the first home consoles came out in the 1970s, and Space Invaders is on the verge of its 30th anniversary — but it’s only been in the last decade or so that consoles and computers have become powerful enough to allow the sort of meaningful interactive narrative that is the hallmark of video game storytelling. You can argue with me on the specifics, but I think the first truly notable interactive video game narrative presentation was Myst, which dates back only a dozen years. Other people might choose Civilization (1991) or SimCity (1989) instead, and I think those are valid choices, too. But however you chop it up, the video game as a criticism-worthy medium is, at best, about fifteen years old, and to my mind it’s only been since the emergence of Half-Life (1998) that there has been a substantial number of games worthy of genuine criticism. So we’re talking less than a decade’s worth of games worthy of criticism.
Now, let’s go back to the examples of critics offered earlier: Pauline Kael and Lester Bangs. Pauline Kael began writing film criticism in the 1950s, but only really became Pauline Kael when she started writing for New Yorker in 1967. By the time Kael made her name, film, as an artistic medium, was six decades old and artistically significant films had been made for half a century. It was a mature (if still radically evolving) medium. Likewise, Lester Bangs started reviewing rock in 1969, fifteen years after rock and roll emerged as its own genre, and of course decades after pop music of any sort had become a fertile ground for criticism — and pop music in general (as opposed to rock itself) should arguably be the metric we use for the medium.
If we grant that Kael and Bangs typify mature (or, given Bang’s style, at least fully engaged) examples of criticism of their media, the reason there is currently no Kael or Bangs for video games is clear: It’s awfully damn early for someone like them to arrive for the video game medium. Possibly the “Kael of video games” is the age of my daughter right now, and like her banging out rhythms on Dance Dance Revolution or getting immersed in some Mario World. Like Kael or Bangs, she’ll never have known a time in which games were not fully narrative in their way, so like them she won’t have to rely on metaphor or perspective that inherently views video games as a disruption (or the supplanter) of other artistic media.
Which is a problem with at least some of the people who have attempted “serious” video game criticism. Before he became an “embedded journalist” for a video game company, writer Wagner James Au used to write portentous, pretentious reviews of video games for Salon magazine and others, breathlessly exclaiming how this video game or that would forever change the way we look at the world, or whatever. It made me want to brain the man with a heavy limb of oak. These games Au journalistically slobbered over may or may not have been great games, but his rush to pump up the importance of video games in the world (and in the process, position himself as a chronicler at the vanguard of social change) made him look a little foolish. Good idea, overwrought execution. He may have gotten better since then — I’m not sure, I haven’t read him in a while — but he was an early example of why possibly the real significant critics aren’t even in the business yet. The real significant critics will take for granted that the medium is significant. They won’t have to worry about justifying it.
(Likewise, of course, by the time Kael made it to the New Yorker, the magazine didn’t have to explain to its readers why it had a film critic — in 20 years, perhaps, the New Yorker won’t have to explain why it has a video game critic.)
Joe Hill notes that in his essay, Klosterman suggests that now is for video games what 1967 was for rock music. I disagree; I think now is like 1956 was for rock music, or 1928 was for film. We’re not yet at the point where the creative aspects of the medium are simply undeniable, but we are at a point where most of the tools exist that game makers will need to state their case.
2. You actually have to be able to play the video games. Useful and valid criticism requires some academic knowledge of the field you want to criticize. But once you’ve got that, the input portion of criticism is generally pretty easy: With film, you (primarily) watch with your eyes. With music, you (primarily) listen with your ears. You’re done. Video games, however, require an additional skill, and that is to be able to play the game. Therein lies a problem: The hermeneutics of video games require a whole lot of button-mashing. How many critics are both able to get through a boss level and tell you what it means as a social construct? In the future, probably a lot. At the moment: Not so many.
Now, perhaps there are some would-be critics who would tell you that they could watch the game as it’s being played by others and give you a reasonable critical evaluation that way, but let’s call that now for what it is: Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. You can’t usefully criticize that which you can’t understand, and you can’t understand video games without playing them, because the play itself is immensely significant. In Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the choice of allowing video game players to save their games only at certain save points rather than saving anywhere is as significant in the experience of playing the game as where Gregg Toland put his camera is in the experience of watching Citizen Kane. Trying to understand the impact of save points in that game without playing the game is like trying to understand the impact of deep focus by being told about it by someone else. No matter how much you understand it intellectually, you don’t understand it as an experience. So your criticism will lack validity.
As I noted, this problem will correct itself in time, because there are a lot people coming up who can think critically about the video game media and do exquisite combo moves without thinking much about them. We’re just not entirely there yet.
3. The current generation of video game reviewers are primarily reviewers, not critics. Which is to say that the reviews are aimed at telling readers whether a game’s play is worth shelling out $50 for, and not about the cultural and aesthetic context of the game and why it is significant in that regard. There can be some of this, of course; today’s best reviewers are quite knowlegable about the genre and also, they’re neither personally stupid nor bad writers (although I’ll have more to say about the latter later), and they know when a game they’re playing is significant as well as fun. But criticism is not the primary role of the review.
This is not a problem. Reviewing tends to be thought of as the idiot cousin of criticism, but as someone who has done both, I reject this interpretation, because it’s jackass stupid. Reviewing a game with an eye toward its playability, the enjoyment it gives to the consumer, and its simple overall fun factor is entirely valid. For one, people tend to buy video games to have fun. For another, $50 ($60 on the next-gen consoles) is not an insignificant amount of money to slap down for a game. Your average player may be mildly interested in the context of the game he or she is playing, but nine times out of ten, what they really want to know is: is this worth my time? Is this worth my money? Having people who can knowledgably say “yes” or “no” on that criteria is a good thing.
Professional video game criticism at this point is almost completely review-driven rather than criticism-driven because that’s where the money is, and the companies who traffic in video game reviewing (including Ziff-Davis, for whom I freelance) see the bottom line value in that. As far as I know, there is no video game equivalent of Cahiers du cinéma, and if one is to come into being, it will be done by someone other than the current crop of publishers, and by people who want to tear down the existing critical structures surrounding video games. People gripe about reviews or declaim about the need for genuine criticism, but no one’s done anything about it to any significant effect. Again, this may also be an issue of time — Cahiers du cinéma popped into existence after a half-century of film; its closest equivalent in popular music, Rolling Stone, also happened long after pop music established itself as a viable artistic form (hold this thought; I’ll come back to it).
4. Many current video game reviewers suck and will likely never stop sucking. The best of the current generation of video game reviewers are good writers and smart observers of the field, even if they are confined for various reasons to reviewing rather than criticism. But let’s be honest here and note that the best writers and thinkers tend to be concentrated in the print magazines, who can afford to pay well for the most competent writers (as well as competent editors and copyeditors, whose input is, to put it lightly, not insignificant).
Quite a lot of the Web-based reviewers, on the other hand, are guys who happen to love video games and think it’s damn cool they get to play games for free and maybe get a little money on the side. Many of these reviews are not especially good as pieces of writing, or show any particularly interesting depth of thought. Serious video game criticism is not likely to come out of the current commercial magazines, but I regret to say that I don’t see it coming out of most of the current Web-based writers, either, because I don’t see all that many looking up from what they’re doing now to see a larger picture.
Now, this is all part and parcel of a larger issue in video game journalism in general, which is the perception that it’s in the pocket of the industry itself because it is highly dependent on the largess of the video game companies, who offer sneak previews to games and access to programmers, etc. in an informal quid pro quo situation. In other words, there’s a general perception video game journalism is largely corrupt. Speaking from my own experience, I think this true the further down the food chain you get (for the record, I’ve never been pressured by anyone at Ziff-Davis or anywhere else I’ve done video game writing to write anything but what I wanted to say), and again, it does put a damper on genuine criticism of video games coming from those who perceive themselves to be in “video game journalism.”
This isn’t meant to be a general beating on Web-based game writing — there is some good Web-based writing on video games. But I do think that game sites that grew out of enthusiasm for games and without notable regard for legitimate journalistic standards and practices find themselves vulnerable to manipulation and misinformation by video game companies. Yes, this is a problem, and it’s a problem that I wonder if some game sites are at all interested in solving, because it runs the risk of them losing access to cool stuff (and possibly readers). This is not a fertile ground for deep thought.
5. Video games lack a human story. Film has its auteurs; music has its singer/songwriters. Each of these archetypes of their media are romantic and also (conveniently enough) a useful peg to hang criticism upon. These media also have other useful archetypes: “the band,” movie stars and crew, producers (both in music and film), exhibition events (concerts and premieres) and so on. The human story in video games is much harder to find. Video games do have their auteurs — Wil Wright, John Carmack, Sid Meyer and Shigeru Miyamoto are examples — but what they do and how they do it is frightfully opaque. Does a long discussion about Carmack’s work on specular lighting or his latest game engine have the same critical accesibility as a discussion about, say, Orson Welles’ directorial choices, or the making of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” technique? Personally, I think it doesn’t, save for a small, technically adept tribe.
Also, the context of video game making is inherently less interesting than the context of the creation of other media, and that has an impact on criticism as well. No offense to video game makers, but their lives (so far) generally lack the drama of the lives of filmmakers, musicians and authors, primarily because whereas the backstory to film and music is the stars, the location shoots, the long nights in the studio, the drug-filled creative sessions and what have you, the backstory to game making is lots and lots and lots of coding, with the occasional status meeting and feedback from beta testers. The closest video game creators have gotten to a dramatic life narrative fueling a creative ambition in the field is the John Romero/Daikatana story. I don’t doubt that the creative and production backstory to video games is significant in the creation of games; the question is whether it is transparent enough to write about and compelling enough to hang criticism upon — and if any critic can follow the entire process well enough to write about it knowlegably.
One way this could change is if a standardized set of tools appeared that allowed game makers to focus on creating interactive narratives more than on the tool building itself. This is already happening to some extent — many video games are built on relatively few game engines, which are then licensed, and platforms like Second Life allow people to build worlds and situations with pre-created forms. There’s also machinima (movies created inside of game engines), the creative and critical narrative of which is rather more like the one we already have for film (although machinima is not typically interactive in the same way a video game is). As creating games becomes easier, there is a chance for a wider range of human stories coming into the world of video game production, which will make for more fertile ground for criticism.
More likely, however, is that the Kael or Bangs of the video game world is going to have to find a way to make really obscure and obstruse technical concepts not only interesting but illuminating, and also find a way to tease out the human drama of game production and tie it in with what the player interacts with on screen. This is a tough gig, and again, it may require some more time for the world to catch up.
One final thing, which is the inevitable conclusion of everything above:
6. Criticism is a reaction as well as an explanation. Cahiers du cinéma was a reaction to the status quo of film criticism up to that time; Rolling Stone was among other things an attempt to legitimize a genre of music that was still seen mostly as artistically inconsequential noise. We like to think we live in a world on “Internet time,” but we’re still the humans we’ve been for millennia as well. I’ve no doubt people are reacting to the video game industry and striving to become the Kaels and Bangs of the media, and bless them for it. But the question is whether there is genuinely enough there to respond to in an enduring way. If it took half a century of film before the editors and writers of Cahiers du cinéma could promote the auteur theory of film — and in doing so, change not only the volcabulary of film criticism but also directly affect how films were made — how long might it take to formulate a similar, workable, durable theory of video games? This theory won’t be like the auteur theory, to be sure. But maybe it’ll be something to wrench around the way we interact with video games, and as a result have an impact on how games will be made.
Is it that time yet? Are we there yet? I’m not sure it is, or that we are. Moreover, I’m not sure we will be there any time soon. When it does happen, video games’ versions of Kael and Bangs will be there and ready to tell us how to think about it, and we’ll be able to react, appreciate, argue or ignore them, just as people did with Kael and Bangs. I’m not certain when it will happen, I’m just certain it will.
(Incidentally: of all the current video game writers and critics, who do I think is the closest equivalent to Kael or Bangs? These guys. You may feel free to speculate why I think this might be so.)