Monday, July 20, 2015

Six Totally Unexpected Reasons Reviewing Games is Harder Than You Think

I gotta stretch this out into more of a personal blog entry to cohere this into something that isn’t just a real facile aphorism. So, I’m reading Nathan Rabin’s latest year of flops on av club, since I guess the spinoff website thing didn’t work out and Nathan is back at the site that loves/hates him. Anyway it’s a review of So You Wanna Marry Harry, a singularly puerile (and those who know me know I don’t use that term lightly [nah I’m just fucking with ya]) reality show where a handful of ladies are apparently coerced into believing they’re competing for the affections of Prince Harry, who is I guess british royalty of some sort. It’s a reality show, so it has reality show morals, so of course the standpoint of the show is the winner should be someone who “deserves” it, which means someone who is honest and genuine and unassuming and whatever other traits society has deemed love-worthy. This is the biggest thing Nathan wrote about in his review, that the typical moral construction of the reality show narrative comes across as particularly flat and tasteless when built on a construct of deceit above and beyond most reality shows; “Harry” was to be interested in the most “genuine” of possible suitors while pretending to be British royalty.
This makes for an interesting angle to talk about, and invites the reader to find value in a theme not necessarily explicit in the text. In short, it co-operates with a good review.
Naturally this got me thinking about video games. One of the more pervasive concepts in critical readings of games is ludonarrative dissonance, the mismatch of the themes presented by the narrative of a video game and the mechanics present within a video game. A good general example is when games present you with an objective that is implied to be time-limited (e.g. we must find the bomb before it blows up the city!) but in reality the game will simply wait for you to eventually complete that objective before moving on. Another common example is presenting characters within the narrative who are supposedly morally correct and relatively pacifistic (usually as opposed to morally bankrupt and deadly antagonists) who violently murder hundreds or thousands of faceless humans over the course of the game. In practical terms this is no big deal, the gameplay mechanics allowing for time for players to explore or practice without the pressure of a time limit or offering a series of combat challenges that break up the platforming sections and pad out the time spent with the game. In terms of video game thematics, though, this dissonance can create ravines of meaning that make it difficult to extrapolate coherent themes out of a game. Ultimately it fosters a certain kind of cynicism in both the reviewer and the player: the story doesn’t really matter because the mechanics are just going to undermine it anyway.
I could be wrong, but I think this is one of the reasons why the notion that game reviews should be “objective” clings to life in a way that criticism in other media doesn’t have to deal with. It is already widely accepted that game stories are bad, and ludonarrative dissonance is but one part of that puzzle (the other parts being how incredibly stereotypical most of these narratives are under guise of adherence to genre tradition and the relative disinterest most publishers have in foregrounding narrative as an essential part of the product they’re selling rather than simply a tool of market positioning) but the problem with bad game stories ripples outward and affects how we think about and talk about games.
One of my favorite game reviewers is a weird dweeb named Tim Rogers, who writes reviews not as straightforward gamepro-style 300 word affairs but as 14-20k word anecdotes about his life that usually border on shaggy dog stories. When he does write about the games in question, he mostly writes about how the game /feels/ and what the mechanics do to create that feeling. Narrative is rejected wholly as an interesting aspect of games.
Roger Ebert talked about games once and caught a really silly reputation among the gaming crowd, up there with shibboleths about Uwe Boll and Jack Thompson in those days. He suggested that games weren’t Art as he understood it, that the nature of games, the structure, the objective, the win condition, the series of rules themselves precluded games from being Art. It’s not a very unreasonable position, but it struck a nerve with a segment of folks hoping for a cultural legitimacy beyond Hollywood stereotypes of nerdy losers. Ebert only elaborated once before his death, mostly just reinforcing his position and pointing out that a lot of the counterarguments were fundamentally misunderstanding his position.
I don’t wholly agree with him, but I think it’s a worthwhile position that can be explained pretty well through the analogy of playing an instrument. While the music produced through instruments is widely regarded as Art and has been for some time, I think you’d be harder pressed to find someone who would describe chords and scales and hertz values as art, but rather as a necessary study in the process of creating art, much as learning proportions is a necessary study in doing painting. The paintings are the art, and the process is sometimes art. The rules governing both are not themselves art. This holds true for games as well. What resonates with players is the experience of playing the game, the emergent narratives they’re experiencing. The experience can be and is often shared through youtube or meandering anecdotes and these representations can too be art, but the actual process of crunching variables or detecting player input or wrapping a virtual skeleton in a bitmap? Not art.
The reason I bring up this particularly navel-gazey and moot critical argument is because it’s directly related to how narrative is often confused as the artistic part of games. Shadow of the Colossus, for instance, is often described as a sort of “Rosebud of games” owing largely to its relatively somber narrative, rare for its time. The gameplay of Shadow of the Colossus, however, is fairly typical of a 3rd person action title. You have a horse, you ride it to a boss fight, which is more accurately a platforming segment followed by tapping a button, and… that’s about it. Sometimes you perform platform action to get to the boss to platform on it.
This is definitely a reductive description, but think about the elements being reduced here. What happens to a game if you strip away the music, the background textures, the user interface, the narrative? You’re left with a series of systems, appreciable mostly as elegant objects designed to produce an outcome, which in game terms is usually just creating a functional input/output feedback loop from the player. It’s all that other stuff that’s designed to make players believe they’re an assassin in 1500s Damascus. So you can see how the two collide. On the one hand you have a series of systems designed to produce, more or less, a Skinner box response from players, and on the other you have another set of artistic systems designed to make you believe that the skinner box you’re participating in is actually driving forth a narrative about invading an alien planet in the past to save the present from being destroyed.
This duality plus the fact that both sides of the system are constantly improving makes critically discussing games kinda weird and endlessly debatable and it’s unique from other forms of entertainment in that by the very interactive nature of video games it’s difficult to achieve the kind of suspension of disbelief that foregrounds the narrative over the tools used to convey it. It’s much harder to believe that you’re a pirate when you’re conveying all of your piratical things by using tiny buttons and some sticks than it is to believe that you’re simply watching pirates do their day to day business through an omniscient window that works kind of like our dreams do.
Not terribly long ago, games were pretty incapable of presenting a convincing narrative at all and were instead more interested in simply providing compelling things to look at (this paradigm lasted about midway through the original playstation era, plus lots of later games doing it for retro reasons) and to a certain degree the present backlash against critical analysis is a nostalgic yearning for the times of yesteryear (as is most of rightism, really) when gaming magazines would simply check a few boxes and rate games based almost entirely on technical competence + audiovisual appeal. It’s this particular style of critical analysis that lead to the current Metacritic paradigm and it’s this style that quite a lot of smaller outlets are explicitly writing against.

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