Monday, 7 July 2008

The Search for Citizen Kane

We're half way through 2008, and Grand Theft Auto IV and Metal Gear Solid 4 have achieved huge commercial success. But despite the initial critical acclaim these games have received, more recent analysis of both franchises has started to sound a little... hollow. Insult Sword Fighting's Mitch Krpata reviews MGS4 with 'Old soldiers never die, they just talk a whole lot'. Junot Díaz writes for the Wall Street Journal that Grand Theft Auto IV is 'no Scarface', just more of the same. And Joystick Division's Gary Hodges sums the problem up best when he says of Metal Gear:

Playing through MGS4 in all its extravagant glory, I can't help but think of it as something like a Tyrannosaurus rex: the biggest, most extreme, most fully realized example of something that's ultimately an evolutionary dead end.

Part of the problem, of course, is that these games are part of established franchises which come laden with the baggage of having to meet the expectations of an pre-existing player base without straying to far from the fold. Part of the problem, as the Brainy Gamer points out, is that Hideo Kojima needs an editor.

On the gripping hand, it looks like that the modern game criticism process is fundamentally flawed. At the moment, the pattern for a blockbuster release seems to be overwhelming positive reviews prior to release, then a slowly building groundswell of disatisfaction followed by a wave of outright backlash, following the patterns laid down by Bioshock, Metroid Prime: Corruption, Super Smash Bros and others in the so-called golden year of gaming of 2007. But dare a game critic ride ahead of this swell: they'll either raise the ire of the fanboy masses or, as in Gerstmanngate, a publisher's wrath.

As Mitch Wahlberg of the Game Anthropologist highlights, many game critics are aware that something is rotten in the state of game criticism. Game criticism is tied up too much with commercial reality because too many game critics, particular those in the 'enthuisiastic press' as N'Gai Croal labels the gaming media, have a vested interest in creating buzz around a new property and are dependent on high review scores in order to get pre-release access to a publishers upcoming line up.

Equally, reviewers and writers in a position to not to have to depend on the outflow of this commercial sewerline are acutely aware of the infancy of the medium. Game criticism doesn't yet have the academic credentials of film and literary criticism, and the still-warm corpse of the comic book industry is a vivid lesson to what happens when a new medium fails to bridge the divide between niche and popular success. This leads to what the title of the article suggests, an endless search for the Citizen Kane of gaming, to validate and justify the medium as critically, as well as commercially significant. Games critics periodically engage the Roger Eberts of this world to justify whether games are art, challenge themselves to stand the greatest games of the medium alongside the literary or filmic greats and explore the personal and political significance of gaming to try to validate the time that they see 'wasted' playing games.

It may be enough to plot a path from the current state of affairs to one where game criticism matures as an industry, or perhaps fractures, into high and low criticism, academic review and popular opinion, just as criticism has survived in the worlds of film, music, art and literature. But that would be a failure of vision. Because games are unique amongst all those mediums. No critic would dare suggest that Monet should have used different brush strokes, Orwell different film stock, Mozart a different key or Shakespeare different lines - although they may discuss the choices made and how those choices impact the final work. But every game critic will at some point consider the rules of a game and how different rules could change the game play experience. The 'what-if' approach is fundamental to the play and by extension to game criticism. And the game critic therefore is as much a peer of the game designer, in fact, is the game designer in a way that they can never be a film maker, musician, artist or writer.

(In fact, not quite true. A critic is as much a writer as a novelist, and the theatre director has to have the eye of a critic, but they are not film makers, musicians or artists unless their critical response is equally a film, music or work of art).

What do I mean by this what-if approach making the game critic a peer of the game designer? Fundamentally, the process of being a game critic is the same as being a game designer (is the same as being a game player). That is, it involves the exploration of a possible game space, and trying to validate whether that game space is interesting. The difference is the output: the critic is after the fact, and their output is criticism of the game, whereas the game designer is in a position to prune and reshape the game space to their satisfaction.

But the game critic is doing the same pruning process: because they are searching the space of all possible game released at a point in time, and trying to select which games their audience should play. The critic also influences the audience's reception of these games. I played Half Life 2: Episode 2 with the full knowledge that the in-game gnome caused one player-reviewer endless grief in trying to get it through the episode to launch it into space. This not only changed part of the game for me, so that I spent five minutes looking for the gnome at the start of the game, but I could have chosen to completely change my game experience by turning it into a game of 'get the gnome to the rocket' instead of the narrative that Valve intended for me.

This is not just a case of spoiling the Unusual Suspects by guessing a third of the way through the movie what the outcome is. What it is, is more fundamental to defining what a game is. Game Intestine gets close to the answer, with its charts of time vs fun that help you figure out when is the optimal point to quit Final Fantasy XII (or in Stephen Totilo's case, asking Chris Zukowski directly). Game Criticism should be asking 'is there fun to be had here, what sort of fun is it, and how can I maximise fun in the experience?'. It is as much practical as it is theoretical.

For a game with a fixed narrative, Game Criticism will resemble traditional criticism of film and literature. But for a game with an endless possibility space, such as we will see in Spore and Little Big Planet, my games of 2008, and arguably those that will be proclaimed as gaming's Citizen Kanes come the end of the year, Game Criticism will come to resemble an ongoing dialog. It is as much about suggesting ways to play and places to travel to. This is why the blog is a much better medium than traditional magazine reviews, and suggests that the travelogue, like Jim Rossignol's This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities, will be as valid a form for game criticism as academic papers. It is as much why game designers and would-be game designers, and even game players are as much Game Critics as traditional big media writers.

For those game critics who wish to continue writing in the magazine review style, if not in print media, there is still hope. The fact that the so-called evolutionary dead ends of modern gaming have made so much money will assure us of blockbuster summer release style gaming for a few years to come. And the publishing pipeline will ensure that the magazine format and enthusiastic press will survive for some time yet. But, like the dinosaurs, the magazine review is already dead, and the hind-brain between its legs is the only thing still keeping it standing. And the agile, mammalian blogs scurrying around its feet will have their day in the sun.

1 comment:

Nick said...

I think it will be a while before people have a good handle on what games are. It's only fairly recently that we worked out that films aren't just books for the illiterate.