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.)

51 Comments on “Why There Are No Great Video Game Critics (Yet)”

  1. Guys don’t play videogames for artistic content anymore than they rent porn for artistic content. If I want a story, I have an apartment crammed with books.


  2. This is not to say, however, that they don’t appreciate it when it is there. I like to “re-read” the Half-Life video games from time to time, personally.

  3. John, your entry is the most intelligent insight I’ve seen on the question, “are video games art?” It seems that video games will some day attain the status of art in the eyes of the public. However, the medium is too young for that to happen. For people whinging on the question of video games and art, just lay off and give it some time (like 20 years). If the medium endures (which seems likely), artistic criticism will develop.


  4. Hehe. I read the whole article looking for a mention of Penny Arcade. Of all of the writers focusing on games, I think Tycho and Gabe tend to have the most interesting and thoughtful approach to games, as well as obviously commanding a huge amount of technical and social knowledge. The archives of Penny Arcade are the Gilgamesh epic of the gamer culture.

    Scott, if you havent played a game for its story, I pity you. The already mentioned Half Life still represents some fo the most engrossing story telling in the genre. Homeworld, in the scene where the planet is burning below you, will literaly make you short of breath. Hell, Starcraft is fun to play just for its storyline.


  5. If I sit and watch a movie for two hours, it’s easy for me to come out of it knowing how the movie made me feel, from both the story itself and how it was presented. If I play a video game for three months I don’t know how objective I could be in critiquing it. I would have an easier time commenting on some of the technical aspects, or specific moments in the game that I liked or disliked. But I don’t know how well I could detach myself from it to judge its social value after immersing myself for so long.

  6. My favorite video games are basicaly interactive movies. That doesn’t meen that they have to have swaths of non-participation cinematica in the game, but there has to be a story that is played out by the player within the game. Thats why the FF series is so popular.

    As for “creating a narrative” I would have to say that as far as console games goes, the first one was probably Legend of Zelda for the original NES, or maybe even (if you read the whole manual) you can go back to Atari and Coleco’s Adventure(hrm, maybe pitfall, but as far as I know, there is no winning in pitfall) As far as a self contained story theres wasteland, and bardstale on the commodore and apple, The FF games of course, though I would have to agree that the first full experience game has to be myst, or did Wing Commander III (I think it was Heart of the kilrathi?) come out before myst, with Mark Hamill and Ginger Lynn in the cinematica?

    Really, this was just an excuse for me to remember my favorite games.

  7. I’m pimping for a friend here, but Clive Thompson has been doing excellent columns for Wired on video games. I would call them more cultural criticism taking off from the video games than a Kael-style (or Sarris, or Kehr, or Hoberman) film review. But Clive is both well-versed in game play, as well as a stinkin’ Canadian/New York intellectual, so he brings a good, broad perspective to the topic.

    That said, he writes only twice a month, I think.

    (His “Boss Battle” column was a good one: http://wired.com/news/columns/0,70832-0.html)

    Kael, and to a lesser extent Bangs, made a living writing only about that topic. Clive would starve in a hovel if all he wrote about was video games. Until you can have a “game critic for the New Yorker”, along with the book and movie and theater reviews that every reader expects to see, then that writing market won’t be mature enough to develop distinct and outstanding voices.

  8. My current gaming obsession, _Guitar Hero_, has no story, no map, crappy graphics, a strictly linear skill ramp, and no narrative beyond the merest dusting of irony. None of that matters, as _Guitar Hero_ is otherwise beautifully designed to simply flood your brain with “accomplishment” and “mastery” neurotransmitters, resulting in an experience that is basically distilled fun.

    I have no idea what a critic could possibly have to say about a film that did that. Criticizing fun strikes me as seriously “dancing about architecture”.

  9. Wing Commander was released in 1990, and WCII came out in 1991. Myst wasn’t released until 1993, and I think that the WC series beats the living crap out of Myst in terms of story-telling, gameplay experience and cinematic scope. They’re also a hell of a lot more fun; Myst is just a bunch of puzzles and video with a Kitaro-esque soundtrack.

    Plus, I never beat the damn thing. Grr.

    I think another reason video games haven’t reached the critique stage has to do with the maturity of the people who make them. I spent seven years toiling away in the industry, and it’s stocked with idiot man children intent on blood and boobies. Until the people cutting the checks are willing to take a risk on releasing games that are intellectually and emotionally challenging, you’re not going to get anything worth criticism stronger than, “Christ, I can’t believe I spent forty dollars on this piece of crap!”

    Yes, I’m still working out my issues regarding video games.

  10. Adam Rakunas:

    “I think another reason video games haven’t reached the critique stage has to do with the maturity of the people who make them.”

    I think this is true, although it’s not the only creative field which could have that comment applied to it.

  11. Videogames may be or become “art,” but it may never be amenable to criticism. John pointed out that there hasn’t been a sufficient time for a body of work to develop.

    I’d go further: there may never be. Videogames are fleeting. People usually don’t dip into fifteen-year-old video games, and when they do, they find them clunky and primitive in a way that old movies (with great stories, acting, direction) aren’t. For practical purposes, the available body of videogame creations is always different compared to a few years before. I don’t think criticism makes sense in that context – it would be as if a film critic had no real access to movies that were more than a few years old.

    Maybe this will change if the advance of computer technology slows, and games don’t get obsolete so quickly.

  12. CJ-in-Weld

    “People usually don’t dip into fifteen-year-old video games, and when they do, they find them clunky and primitive in a way that old movies (with great stories, acting, direction) aren’t.”

    I’m not entirely sure I agree with this, if for no other reason that I can go online and find the ROM of just about any game I want from 1991, and an emulator to run it through, and those $20 joysticks with Atari games built into them have been pretty popular. Moreover, I do believe Nintendo is planning to work it so that people can buy old school games to play on the Wii if they like, while Sony is making sure the PS3 is backward compatible with the PS2 (which was in itself backward compatible with the PS). So I think it’s possible people will play at least some old school games after they are no longer technologically current. Not all of them, of course. But some.

  13. “Videogames are fleeting. People usually don’t dip into fifteen-year-old video games, and when they do, they find them clunky and primitive in a way that old movies (with great stories, acting, direction) aren’t.”

    Well, yes and no. For video games, it’s often hard to get ahold of fifteen-year-old games, and even if you can, you may not be able to play them on any modern equipment. (I’ll let you insert a rant about abandonware here as you see fit.)

    As for the meat of your comment, old movies may have great stories, acting, and direction, but they have a different aesthetic that newer movie-watchers often have trouble with. One of my favorite movies of all time is the film adaptation of A Man For All Seasons, but its pacing is such that I have trouble convincing friends to watch it. People do find old movies clunky and primitive, and if you want to say that they should look past the trappings to the heart of the artistry, I’ll argue the same about a game like M.U.L.E..

  14. I’m not really a video game aficionado — but I do think you are right in pointing at Sim City. My youngest kid (who is now 21) and his friends were very big on playing Sim City and I watched as he and his friends on our block (a collection of first grade boys) would visit each other with saved Sim City games on floppy disks and their chatter would include comments on the importance of power plants and water systems and concerns about tax rates and issuing bonds. I thought then that this whole video game thing was going to really amount to something more significant than just Mario hopping and spinning.

  15. and if you want to say that they should look past the trappings to the heart of the artistry, I’ll argue the same about a game like M.U.L.E..

    I was trying to remember the name of that game for the last couple years, looking for an emulator version, but I could never remember the name. I LOVED that game. It was Civ before there was a Civ. I think I played it on my Vic20.

    Thanks for that reminder!

  16. Have you seen The Escapist Magazine?

    They have themed weekly issues that are about video games, video gaming, and the video game industry without being reviews. Some articles are about specific games, but in a much more general sense. They have web critics such as Jerry Holkins from PA or Greg Costikyan contribute.

    I don’t know that it rises to the level of “criticism” in the sense that you describe, but it’s clearly a start.

    I see some of the video game criticisim as an extension of “Pen and Paper” or “board” game criticisim, such as it is. If you consider the roots of many of todays games, including MUDs and Pend and Paper games, we’re not exactly starting from nothing.

    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.

    A good example of this is in text adventure games. There exists a community of people who make and play traditional text adventures, based on some powerful creation engines.

    Similarly, the “mod scene” is begining to spawn some truely artistic takes or spin offs from existing games.

  17. Rex:

    I’ll have to check The Escapist out.

    Board game criticism: I’m not really aware of that, so I can’t comment directly on it. I do think rather a lot of video games have roots in real world RPGs but I would wonder in a general sense how much of the criticism of the one mediumcould be useful in the other; many films are adapted from books but literary criticism and film criticism are two different beasts.

  18. “A good example of this is in text adventure games. There exists a community of people who make and play traditional text adventures, based on some powerful creation engines.”

    Hi, that’s us. Having freely-available tools that make writing text adventures, if not easy, then certainly easier, has allowed for a lot of experimentation that just wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Even the tools themselves are getting experimental: now there’s a tool called Inform 7 that bases its programming language on English. Coding with sentences like “The wood-slatted crate is in the Gazebo. The crate is a container.” is an unusual experience.

    As an aside, what I’ve found interesting is the rise of academic criticism and dissection of interactive fiction (nee text adventures) in recent years.

  19. I would imagine it is far easier for a layman to criticize a pen and paper or board game for the simple reason that you can see the guts of the game in the rule book. It is far easier to see what was weighted where to create the texture of the game when you have the actual tables to look at than it is when all you have is the game without the code behind it. Personally, I think video games move outside of internet time. While graphics and game play have all gotten better the games don’t seem to be getting “better” in the sense that they suck me in as much as they used to. Maybe that is what is lacking from VG required for legitimate critiquing; a target audience in it’s extremely late 30’s instead of college age and below.

  20. I’m agreed with the other posters about interactive fiction, if there is one genre of videogames that may have had a good body of criticism, this is it. Unfortunately it didn’t stick around long enough in the popular imagination to become well known.

    The reasons for it’s failure are manifold: seemingly clunky command interface, failure of adventure games in general, the fact that reading a computer screen for extended periods of time can be tiring. But, (as others have said) the medium persists among a small core of enthusiasts. Play Shrapnel or Photopia, for a taste of the vibrance you could expect if IF (no pun intended) had stayed successful. The former is a commentary on the nature of time, a mindbending time travel story, and a commentary on the medium of interactive fiction itself. Ok, so there are plenty of games where they break the narrative to tell you to press the square button while rotating the analog stick 180 degrees to… well, you get the idea. This is different. The other one, Photopia is about the craft of storytelling itself, while also being a very good story. Like much great fiction, these are stories which are difficult to convey in any other format.

    But maybe they’re not video games at all. Maybe they straddle the line between books and video games, in the same way that Psychology does between the Natural and Social Sciences.

  21. Is there a criticism industry for roleplaying games? (the pen and paper kind) How’s the maturity doing for that?


    Videogames are fleeting. People usually don’t dip into fifteen-year-old video games, and when they do, they find them clunky and primitive in a way that old movies (with great stories, acting, direction) aren’t.

    I think there’s plenty of interest in the older games from both a historical and nostalgic perspective. For example, I know someone who spends an insane amount of time coding (from scratch) an emulator that resembles a Mac SE interface, for 20-year-old Mac games. He even has a nifty logo for the whole project. You can also hear people waxing nostalgic all the time about old games they’d played (including in this very thread).

    Also, older movies/TV have obviously inferior special effects to whatever is currently out Today. To me that makes a better comparison than the storylines or their executions for the “clunky and primitive” aspects of video games.

    For practical purposes, the available body of videogame creations is always different compared to a few years before. I don’t think criticism makes sense in that context – it would be as if a film critic had no real access to movies that were more than a few years old.

    I disagree. There are many people who are still playing older games (e.g. you’d be hard pressed to pry Starcraft out of the grasps of some people on battlenet and get them to play anything more recent from Blizzard). There are also many people who are casual movie-goers that don’t care about movies that are more than a few years old; they just want to watch whatever is out Right Now.

    Maybe this will change if the advance of computer technology slows, and games don’t get obsolete so quickly.

    They only go obsolete if you insist on having the absolute latest and greatest. It isn’t a requirement to upgrade constantly. Many games are replayable for years even if overall computer technology has advanced past them.

  22. There are many ‘videogames’ which are all about story, and the interactive fiction community is rife with them. I think if you gave some of them a try, you would find them to be wonderful works of art.

    A good starting point is Photopia (http://adamcadre.ac/photopia.html)

  23. Hey John, what do you think about Tim Rogers? I’d tell you what I think about him, but I wouldn’t be able to use seemly language while doing so.


  24. A couple of months ago I wrote an essay for my film course, concerned with the narrative and filmic merits of certain videogames. Maybe I should dig it up…?

    I think you’d be hard pressed to find this caliber of criticism browsing with google.

  25. Gabe and Tycho were the first ones I thought of for that role.

    BTW, if you haven’t heard their podcasts yet, I recommend them. I also second the Escapist recommendation.

  26. There is a wide variety of academic work being done to study games from all kinds of perspectives. Conferences, curriculum (ex. http://game.itu.dk/itu_about.html). The field is generally referred to as ludology and could perhaps be contributed to starting from the following article: http://www.ludology.org/articles/ludology.htm.

    For more extensive reading, I recommend checking out http://terranova.blogs.com/. The various links in there will further lead into the world of game research.

  27. I think that one of the biggers barriers for game crticism is the extensive use of previews to sell magazines and ads on game sites. Nowadays, it seems that the reviews are secondary to the previews as previews can be “exclusive” while anyone with 50 bucks and a Blogger account can be a reviewer.

    Granted, mags like Entertainment Weekly do previews however they tend to focus more on the actual making of the commodity, rather than gushing over how great Superman Returns will be because Brandon Routh has been mip-mapped or such garbage.

    Time and time again, we see previews for games gush all over the games and proclaim them as the second coming, just to then see the game get a crappy review several months later. When this happens, it’s hard to take the outlet seriously as a valid place for game reviewing/criticism.

  28. scalzi, didn’t have time to read the comments so sorry if someone else asked this:

    are there any great tv critics out there? any books of good tv criticism? seems like tv dramas and comedies have matured since my childhood, and become art forms peculiar to themselves. tv definitely is old enough, according to your formulation, for good critics. where are they?

  29. Three points:

    1. I have no idea what sort of narrative quality you’re looking for that Myst satisfies but Zork (from the late ’70s) doesn’t.

    Also, of course, you’re sort of assuming the narrativist point of view, when you start talking about the narrative properties of games being the ones that are relevant to criticism. I have strong sympathies with the ludologists, not because narrative is worthless, but because it’s worth emphasizing that the important qualities of games are those that make them GAMES, not just those that make them ersatz movies and books.

    2. There are and have been plenty of critics (as opposed to reviewers) in the gaming arena. The Escapist is what comes to mind most immediately now, but that kind of critical and analytical writing isn’t new — Orson Scott Card used to write some excellent columns for COMPUTE! magazine back in the days of the Amiga, for instance.

    Yes, the majority of game writing is just news and reviews, but if you’re looking for more, you’ll find it.

    3. The big thing that keeps game critics from being Pauline Kael is that there’s not a mass audience ready to take a serious game critic as a guru. Why there’s not such an audience is maybe a useful question, but maybe not. After all, who’s the Pauline Kael of film today? Who’s the Pauline Kael of books? Of music?

    Nobody. I suspect the era of the mass culture critic-god is over.

  30. Mike Kozlowski:

    “I have no idea what sort of narrative quality you’re looking for that Myst satisfies but Zork (from the late ’70s) doesn’t.”

    Go back and play them both, then. To my mind, Zork is little more than a choose-your-own-adventure story or RPG, adapted for a computer; it’s minimally dependent on the medium. Myst is a holistic experience that could only be accomplished via the video game medium.

    “you’re sort of assuming the narrativist point of view, when you start talking about the narrative properties of games being the ones that are relevant to criticism.”

    I think that narrative of video games is in the entire presentation, not simply story, so your assumption about what I’m sort of assuming is likely to be wrong.

    I do think there’s probably interesting criticism to be done on early, less complex games, just as there’s interesting criticism done on very early film. I also think there are things worth saying about games that don’t have a traditional narrative; I’d be thrilled to find if Asteroids means anything more than I think it does, and what it means for future gaming. I’m not entirely sure if I think this would be more than a side branch of video game criticism, however.

    “There are and have been plenty of critics (as opposed to reviewers) in the gaming arena.”

    I’m not aware of saying that there aren’t. I just don’t happen to think they have the impact in the field that the the top critics of more mature media have.

    “I suspect the era of the mass culture critic-god is over.”

    There never was one, so I’m not sure declaring it over is relevant.

    Kael was not significant because she was read by the mass market; hell, if that’s the metric Rex Reed was rather more influential than she. She was significant because she was read by a generation of filmmakers, would-be filmmakers, critics and would-be critics. She affected the people who made movies, and who wrote about them. Lester Bangs was the same way; he was influential not because millions of people read him but because the certain influential few did.

    This being the case, it’s not at all unlikely someone could be for video games what Kael and Bangs were for their media; they need just to be read by the right people. This one of the reasons I say that Penny Arcade is the closest thing to a Kael or Bangs today. It’s not just that they get a couple hundred thousand readers a day but within that set likely exists every English-reading game maker and wanna-be game maker out there (not to mention all the game writers).

  31. Zork is worse than that. zork requires EXACT SYNTAXUAL repetition, of words that are not expressed within the story line. Zork Sucks in that way. MUDS might be LIKE zork only cuz they are text, but most “Wizards” of Muds are much more imaginative, and powerful in their tools to allow for a greater degree of variation. I remember a cousin taking an “advanced programing” class in a proffessional transfer course, and he basicaly copied Trivial Pursuit questions into his “10 quick questions” program, but what made him pass his class, was he had numerous variable spellings, and grammar, also he had a (as a 13 year old in 1984? I think) a graduated question system. If you answer a “1” question, you get asked a “2” question, if you answer a 2 question, you get asked a “3” question, if you get a “3” question wrong, you get a 2 question) I don’t recall, but I guess that was relatively impressive at the time, I hate code, it bores me.) rather possitive attituded about computer code. Later he ended up in jail.

    where did I leave off?

    I will return where I want to begin. Wing Commander Rocks, and my favorite of all, is “Wings above Europe.”

    That said?


  32. To whomever said that people don’t got back and dip for 15 year old games, I want to reiterate that they do. I certainly do, and almost all my friends do. We’ve bought the Namco & Atari multi game packs to replay our favs. We’ve lovingly kept up our original Nintendos and made younger cousins/nieces/nephews play the games and they’ve loved them. We pirate ROMs & Emulators to play our favorite. Hell, just the other I got sucked into Master of Orion II for a solid week of replay value. Other friends of mine have repicked up playing Quake.

    My generation (aged ~25) grew up with Nintendo being introduced at the ‘right’ age for us and all the generations that follow have always had video games. A critic will come out of this, and I would say that Jerry (of PA) is already such. By the definition that what he says in influncing a whole bunch of current & hopeful game programmers.

  33. John writes: “To my mind, Zork is little more than a choose-your-own-adventure story or RPG, adapted for a computer; it’s minimally dependent on the medium. ”

    The major difference between Zork and a choose-your-own-adventure is, of course, that a c-y-o-a must at all times show you all your options, one of which is the correct one. Nobody ever needed a hint book to get through a choose-your-own-adventure book.

    Hell, I still can’t get anywhere in Deadline.

    It’s probably a mistake to focus on Zork, as if all the non-adventure games didn’t exist. Infocom had games in plenty of genres – mystery (Deadline, Witness), science fiction (Hitchiker’s Guide), etc.

    (None of which is an RPG-style fighting game.)

    Infocom’s original sales point is still valid – their graphics (provided by your own imagination) are still a lot better than you get from the best video games.

    One definite lack in the Infocom-era games was the primitive state of the non-player characters. Most games consisted of the player character exploring alone, through empty rooms.

    Modern parser technology may be better than this. Inform7 seems to have some pretty fancy support for rules and ‘relations’ where you can set up chains between characters, which I suppose could be used to implement some behaviors that would not have been seen in the Infocom games.

    For instance, here’s some example compilable Inform 7 code for relations in a Murder on the Orient Express scenario:

    Suspecting relates various people to one person.

    The verb to suspect (he suspects, they suspect, he suspected, it is suspected) implies the suspecting relation.

    Dalgliesh suspects Holmes. Holmes suspects Lord Peter. Lord Peter suspects Holmes. Miss Marple suspects the player.

    Exculpating relates one thing to various people.

    The verb to exculpate (it exculpates, they exculpate, it exculpated, he is exculpated) implies the exculpating relation.

    Instead of showing something to a person who suspects the player:
    say “‘You would say that,’ remarks [the second noun] darkly.”.

    Instead of showing something which exculpates the player to someone:
    say “‘How striking!’ says [the second noun]. ‘Almost I begin to distrust myself.'”.

  34. Hey John,

    Carl Sandburg reviewed movies from 1920-1928. There is a good book that collects them called _”The Movies Are”_ edited by Arnie Bernstein. Anyway, what I found interesting about the reviews is how much Sandburg was defending movies as a viable medium.

    “At regular intervals we meet the intelligent and cultivated person of refinement who feels that movies are not entitled to much observation or consideration from those who are looking forward toward a higher human uplift…
    The cold, real, upstanding fact holds–the movies are. They come so close to pre-empting some functions hitherto held exclusively by the school and university systems that the philosopher of civilization who doesn’t take them into consideration with broad, sympathetic measurement is in danger of being in the place of the drum major of the band who marched up a side street while the band went straight along on the main stem–without leadership.”

    –Carl Sandburg, December 18, 1926

  35. Leigh Anna Harken:

    Cool! I’ll have to chase that down. Thanks for bring that up!

  36. The Klosterman remark that there are no great video game critics is absolutely ridiculous. He’s obviously never heard of Gamespot. Greg Kasavin and Jeff Gerstmann are video game critics par excellence. There ain’t anyone better, dude.

  37. Oh boy. I wish I’d seen this post earlier this weekend.

    I too am from the text adventure community (hi Stephen et al) but I’ve
    also been thinking about graphical adventures since the Myst era. I
    have also been writing reviews since then; and although I call them
    “reviews”, I am aiming at matters of design, craft, and how technical
    issues inform and shape gameplay. So if that’s criticism, I’m doing

    (*Am* I doing criticism? My background is not academic, I don’t follow
    what the “ludology” people are saying, and I’m leery of claiming to be
    A Scholar Of The Field. When I write about games, I don’t care if I’m
    read by people who study games. I want to be read by people who
    *create* games (so they won’t keep making the same mistakes over and
    over dammit) and by people who *play* games (so they’ll have a
    vocabulary with which to not let designers get away with that dammit).
    So whatever that is, is me.)

    So, first, my resume:
    That has my past decade of accumulated stuff. None of it was written
    for a paying market, if that matters. (If you’re looking for the Myst
    review, as a baseline, scroll down to “RealMyst”; I played Myst when
    it first came out but I wasn’t reviewing that early.)

    Some background:

    Adventure games are a good field for discussion for a couple of
    reasons. One, they go back a ways. Myst was 1993; I claim that Myst
    *is* in the direct tradition of Zork (“I will return to this point
    later”) so that’s back to 1970.

    Two, adventure games are relatively free of the “needs shiny hardware
    to exist” problem. Myst 3 looks tremendously prettier than Myst, and
    Myst 5 uses the full power of your 3D hardware; but it’s not hard to
    separate that stuff from the *storytelling* technology. (We can, in
    fact, compare Myst to RealMyst — same story, same world, same game
    controls; but one has modern 3D graphics. I feel safe in calling
    RealMyst “the same game with updated graphics.”) So we have a
    long-term baseline for comparison.

    Three, there *is* a reason to care. We’re not drifting off into the
    ashes of a dead field (despite how often I refer to text adventures),
    because genre hybridization is the new black. CRPGs contain adventure
    elements; first-person shooters contain adventure elements. _Prince of
    Persia_ is deeply rooted in the adventure tradition, and I’m not just
    talking about the big formal puzzle-rooms. (I admit that _Guitar Hero_
    is a totally different category of fun. I don’t claim to have a
    universal theory of gaming here.)

    (Fourth, as a pragmatic point, adventures don’t require button-
    mashing. And if you need to see the ending, you can go find somebody’s
    walkthrough and finish the game. So your point 2 is bypassed.)

    (Fifth could be that graphical adventures are still (just) within the
    reach of the hobbyist game designer. (And text adventures are easily
    within reach, as other commentors have noted.) But I’m not sure how
    important that is to my point. Just throwing it in.)

    And now, the Zork issue, which I will stick into a separate comment.

  38. (Part two of long adventure-game post.)

    And now, the Zork issue. This may be tangential, but what the hell,
    it’s my theory; I hope I can cite it as support for the claim that
    there *is* videogame theory out there.

    You say:

    “To my mind, Zork is little more than a choose-your-own-adventure
    story or RPG, adapted for a computer; it’s minimally dependent on the
    medium. Myst is a holistic experience that could only be accomplished
    via the video game medium.”

    I claim that Zork is *deeply* dependent on its medium, and in a way
    that is structurally similar to Myst and its medium. To wit: it is
    necessary to approach the game world by imagining yourself *in* the
    game world. You cannot treat it as a state machine rendered in letters
    (for Zork) or pixels (for Myst). If you try, you’ll flail around
    forever without making progress.

    (That said, there *is* a narrative quality which Zork doesn’t satisfy
    very well: characters and a story. Okay, there’s the Thief, but he’s
    no Mercutio. Mostly it’s you, a blank outline of a treasure-hunter; at
    the end of the game you have (1) acquired treasure and (2) opened a
    door which leads to more treasure in the sequel. But of course Infocom
    began covering this territory almost immediately. Zork 3, Deadline,
    and Starcross were all full-fledged interactive narratives, in their
    various ways.)

    So how is this desirable state of engagement accomplished? By giving
    the player a set of commands — a range of interactive choice — which
    is neither completely arbitrary nor completely laid out for you. (CYOA
    games (and books) fall at the “fully-defined” end of the spectrum. The
    arbitrary end is inhabited by, well, by *bad* adventure games — the
    ones in which you have to guess words at random until the parser
    catches on. Or bad *graphical* games, in which you have to click at
    random until you find the magical hotspot. Despite Wickedpinto’s
    posted comment, that does not describe Zork any more than it describes
    Myst, and it doesn’t describe the state of the art in modern text IF.)

    In Zork, you are given a list of common commands: TAKE, EXAMINE, EAT,
    ATTACK… WITH…, and so on. And when you enter a room, you get a
    prose description, which highlights the most interesting features of
    the area. But *both* of these are incomplete menus, and attempting to
    try every verb on every object will almost certainly be unrewarding.
    It is necessary to consider what you’re looking at. Rug on the floor?
    Maybe LOOK UNDER is appropriate. Having trouble fighting the Thief?
    Rethink your weapon of choice, and try ATTACK again. Unable to turn
    that switch? Is it possible that if you had the appropriate tool, you
    could do TURN SWITCH WITH…?

    Note that, critically, this is not a matter of guessing a command.
    It’s a matter of realizing *what to do*; after that, the appropriate
    command is fairly obvious. And, again, your range of choice is neither
    a simple menu nor a wild space of “everything imaginable”. You have
    familiar tools, and you have ways to reimagine them.

    So what does this have to do with Myst? Graphical games don’t give you
    a palette of verbs. (Well, _Return to Zork_ did, but it wasn’t widely
    imitated.) You can click stuff. Nonetheless, you *are* surrounded by a
    rich world, *in which some but not all of the interesting features are
    immediately obvious.* You can’t click everything — or if you do, you
    get bored and stop. You have to visualize the world, imagine *being
    in* the world, and then think in terms of: if I were there, what would
    I *do*? Is that a pull-chain? How do these symbols relate to other
    parts of the world? Have I heard that chiming sound before? I saw a
    cable outside; wouldn’t it connect to that junction box on the left?

    (In fact, even the “simple” mouse-click UI becomes an explorable
    palette in Myst. I won’t get into that here. See review.)

    Now obviously the Zork text parser isn’t isomorphic to the Myst
    interface. (Or I’d be rich by now.) A text parser has some learning
    curve, even for the (necessary) familiar commands. Myst was far more
    approachable. But I stake my claim that they create the same kind of
    gaming experience, because they’re offering — for lack of a better
    term — ranges of choice which are similarly shaped.

    To get back to Prince of Persia, Tomb Raider, Ico, that whole genre:
    the range of choice is more structured, but you still do some
    exploration within it. “Running along walls”, “jumping” and “swinging
    on bars” are familiar “commands” in POP. Then you encounter rooms in
    which you have to combine them; and the combinations and variations
    have some element of adventure-like originality. You still have the
    basic experience of “Wait, I’ve thought of something that might work.
    I will try it. Yay!”

    (And this really does contrast with CRPGs and fighting games. Those
    *also* offer a creative player experience — otherwise they’d be
    boring — but the basic command set is generally laid out in its
    entirety. Your exploration is a matter of high-level strategy, not
    your immediate choices.)

    So there, if you like, is my Zork-Myst dialectic. This is a shortened
    version — okay, not that shortened — of an article I have posted at

  39. Ack! My part 2 appeared without my part 1!

    I am going to trust the forum software when it says that my part 1 is held up for our esteemed host’s approval, and will appear shortly. If it was lost in transit, let me know — I saved the text.

  40. CJ-in-Weld

    “People usually don’t dip into fifteen-year-old video games, and when they do, they find them clunky and primitive in a way that old movies (with great stories, acting, direction) aren’t.”

    Williams Defender and Stargate Defender. Enough said.

  41. In response to Klosterman’s complaint about how there aren’t any Kaels or Bangs for videogames, I would say that you could just as well ask why there aren’t any for television either. I honestly can’t think of any well known tv critic off the top of my head, but there is certainly a lot of stuff on tv that deserves probing criticism of the type that Klosterman is talking about.

    I just thought I would throw that out there for people to chew on.

  42. I ran across an article that had a comment reminding me of this discussion here:


    In it, among other things, the author pointed out that since games are generally not ported forward and publishing discontinues fairly rapidly, there is no sense of continuity and development. Classics are not systematically learned from in order to develop new games.

    The literary analogy would be as if writers today were not routinely exposed to any books older than fifteen years, let alone, say, Shakespeare.

  43. I’m rather late to this, but I might as well toss in my own two pennies.

    “People usually don’t dip into fifteen-year-old video games, and when they do, they find them clunky and primitive in a way that old movies (with great stories, acting, direction) aren’t.”

    I remember that Metal Gear (the original 1987 game) was selling at over 15,000 yen at a store near where I lived in Japan in 2005. In fact, it was rereleased for phones and for PS2. Clunky it is, but genre-defining nonetheless, and as worth playing as the Maltese Falcon (whether you can get your hands on originals, or just the latest DVD reissue) is worth watching.

    As for 15-20 year old movies… I can’t say I like watching them. Movies from the 80s aren’t significantly different from movies today.

  44. The novel Lucky Wander Boy actually does an amazing job of this–alternating chapters are entries in the Encyclopedia of Obsolete Past-times, and they are lit crit on the highest level with Atari and Intellivision games as text. I’m always surprised more gamers haven’t read that book.

    I did a pair of articles on the original Mario Bros:

    I wonder if criticism is starting up–by using the oldest games? For me they are rich territory for interpretation, far more so than recent games which are rather over-determined and somewhat passive experiences (FFX comes to mind).

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