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My opinions, jaded completely by my feelings, experiences, beliefs, and how I'm feeling at the time.

*SPOILERS* I will usually include a section at the end that may contain spoilers. If you don't want to know, don't read that part.

My opinion is not yours, nor should yours be mine. If you want to know for yourself, do for yourself. If you disagree, that's fine - you can make one of these for yourself for free.

Monday, May 8, 2017

To Play or Not To Play - A Discussion on How to Approach Game Criticism & Analysis

As some of you may have noticed, I've been posting several game streams over the past few weeks; I'm not 100% certain where that will go yet, but the short version is I am trying to find a way to finally get rolling with turning my love of games into something more substantial. I was having a conversation with my friend Bryant (who has many blog exploits) about streaming, and he asked me what my potentially increased time gaming meant for my writing efforts. Below is the conversation which followed, in which he tried to help me get a handle on how one might approach examining games as a unique storytelling medium.

*Spoiler Alert: Mild spoilers for the opening of the new Prey reboot.*

Bryant: I have to ask, by the way: what does this mean for your writing?

Xann: Well, the hope is to marry the two here shortly. I can't get away from games; I'm fascinated by the potential they offer for storytelling.

Bryant: Storytelling or experience? They are not necessarily the same thing. Not necessarily NOT the same thing, either, of course.

Xann: For instance: Prey starts with you waking up, going through a morning routine, then going and doing some tests for your brother's company.

Things go wrong, you get hit with knockout gas, and then wake up to the same alarm, in your bedroom again, only things are... off. In a scene like that in a book or a movie, while that might still surprise the reader / viewer, their reaction is going to be at least partially informed by how the character is reacting.

In a game with a silent protagonist, that level of separation is removed; your feelings as the player are the only ones in play. Shortly thereafter in Prey, you smash what you think is the glass door to your balcony, only to find a science lab behind the glass. That moment literally gave me vertigo as I tried, in my agency as the player, to come to grips with what I was seeing.

Bryant: Fair enough. But is this due to the story working or the experience working? It doesn't matter, and neither is superior to the other. But for me, those are not the same thing. And this MIGHT be something that needs new terminology.

Xann: Very possible! In my opinion, agency completely changes the game. Some - like Dr. Burke when I wrote a paper about this - will argue that games are by nature less enduring because of this fact. In his words: "Achilles defeats Hector the same way anytime anyone reads the Iliad, and has for thousands of years. Even if everyone defeats Bowser in the end, they all do it their own way."

Which actually comes back around to something we've discussed, which is that games have an accessibility barrier not found in any other form of media: Can you actually play them?
By all reports, the Dark Souls games have intricate stories told in a very unique, atypical style. I won't ever know first-hand, because despite owning all of them, I suck at them.

Even in watching someone else play a game, though, for me there's this itch, this feeling of "I want to do that." Hell, there are things in other forms of media which I have, since a young age, wished someone would put into a game so I could play it out.

Bryant: I do not believe a story can include the audience as a co-author without turning into something else, some other medium. The critical mistake is to assume this makes the medium lesser than existing ones.

Xann: Very true! This also ties into what you've talked about concerning memory / your surroundings in reading certain works.

Bryant: It does, doesn't it?

Xann: The biggest hang-up right now is that gaming hasn't been around long enough to have an established canon of "great" works. I don't mean "Top 100 Games" lists or whatever, obviously, but rather that unassailable library of works which have stood the test of time.

The literature professor in me goes "There is no gaming equivalent of Hamlet, or Huck Finn, or even At The Mountains of Madness." And in that regard, I don't know that I have an answer.

Bryant: The answer is plain as day: someone has to construct that canon, and the ground rules for it.

Xann: Games add these wonderful new wrinkles though, such as playability, or graphics.

I'm not disagreeing, by-the-by, simply stating one of the biggest obstacles in attempting such an undertaking.

Bryant: Regarding playability, what is the difference between a great '80s arcade game and some VR-enhanced game of today? I am willing to be there is zero fundamental difference. The difference lies in the physical approach to playing and the degree of difficulty. But fundamentally, would you not use the same metric to assess their playability?

Xann: Potentially not! Part of the problem is that older games are becoming more and more difficult to approach and appraise, precisely because gameplay has changed so much in the past thirty years. Controller design and control schemes adapt and are refined, becoming more intuitive and inviting. 

I've tried to go back and play a variety of games on different systems, only to find I simply can't get the hang of them anymore. So while you could build a canon on the basis of the impact those games had when they were released, that differs fundamentally from other mediums.

Assuming you have the skills to read and comprehend such a work. anyone can go and appreciate Macbeth, but the same can't necessarily be said of the first WarCraft game. You can potentially mitigate the graphics debate by comparisons to writing style in literature, or special effects in film, but there is no corollary for the issue of "How do I play this?"

Bryant: If that's true, then it indicates games exist on the same level as sport: as something that, if one is going to write about it, one must choose to write from the vantage point of an observer or of a participant. I have to ask: what, then, is the role of the critic? I can see the role of the journalist, and even the author, but maybe not the critic. Not as it is currently considered.

Xann: The role of the critic would be to judge at least these two things: The story being told, and the efficacy with which the developers have made that story accessible.

On top of that, you would also have to judge their presumed benchmark for accessibility, and the extent to which they hit their mark. Some developers seek to have their games be more difficult to complete than others.

Bryant: Wouldn't the playability be so affected by the story (and vice versa) that deficiency in one could seriously compromise the other?

Xann: Oh, to a greater degree than in almost any other medium!

Bryant: So essentially the criticism is of the success at melding somewhat disparate disciplines?

Xann: That's a good way to look at it. A writer has to both have a good story and be able to tell it via language; same goes for a filmmaker. Game designers and developers need a story worth a damn, have to be able to tell it through an audio-visual medium similar to film (in most cases), and have the added task of generating gameplay which is both engaging and fits (or intentionally doesn't fit) the thematic elements of the story.

Bryant: So take that, apply it to the question of what role gaming plays to the artistic furthering/reflection of culture, and there's your approach, right?

Xann: ...that's not a bad start, no.

Also, before I forget, your mention of sports in interesting, since their is an entire branch of gaming (eSports) which has developed over time where the sole purpose is to compete and prove yourself the better of other contenders.

Some friends actually got me into watching the League of Legends championships a few years back, and it felt 100% like watching a sporting event.

Bryant: Makes sense. See, a framework -- or set of frameworks -- for this stuff is already in place. Just needs linking and a perspective/focus. At one point, I wanted to do that with theme parks.

Xann: Really?! That sounds fascinating.

The last thing I'll say about games in regard to their potential impermanence as an art form is that the industry may already be shooting itself in the foot.

I've talked about this before, but there was a time when a few titles were enough to last gamers the entire year. The end result was that new games were almost always played to completion, while old favorites got played repeatedly.

Some of this was accomplished by simply playing the old games and consoles, but a fair amount of it was done via unlicensed emulators. Then the industry started officially feeding this habit by giving us older titles on the newer systems, either remade / remastered or just updated to use new control schemes.

Bryant: So kind of like officially-sanctioned fan edits of movies? If such sanctioning existed?

Xann: In one sense, yes. There are the now-infamous fan-made Metroid and Pokemon titles which Nintendo shut down. 

Largely, though, emulators are simply a means for players to access those titles without owning the game and console, usually via a computer program. See, that's one of the approachability issues: Once a studio puts an old movie on a DVD or blu-ray, it's fairly easy to watch it. With old games, though, there was a time when you actually had to track down a copy - usually at exorbitant prices - and find a working console to play it on.

The publishers and developers wanted in on this - they did create these titles, after all, and not as volunteers - so now we have a surplus of older titles being re-released into the market.
On top of that - and this is where I was going in chastising the industry - there are now dozens of new, "must-play" titles released each year, in both existing franchises and new IPs.

For a while my gaming friends and I wondered if perhaps we were just getting older - and therefore had both more disposable income and less free time, creating a catch-22 of owning more games than we could play - but it's become a pretty much accepted fact that the market is oversaturated.

Bryant: The intersection of Art and Commerce is always littered with wrecks. Always folks who don't heed the stoplight.

Xann: Precisely. Two of my favorite games from the last generation are the Metro games, based on the Russian post-apoc novels by Dmitry Glukhovsky.

They're the kind of games which, in an earlier era, might have risen above their current cult-hit status and really made an impact on the industry.

Of course, movies and literature are also oversaturated, so maybe that particular train of thought needs to be reconsidered.

Bryant: If not reconsidered then taken into consideration. But then you are critiquing an industry, which is a different story.

Xann: Very true.

All of this has been excellent food for thought, and I thank you for getting those wheels turning.

I'm about to fall over, though, and fear my contributions will slowly slip into the realms of first-year undergraduates waxing on into the wee hours.

Bryant: I was playing Pac-Man on my phone for some of this, FYI.

Xann: Dude, the ubiquity of gaming throughout our current culture - both in literal and referential forms - is an entirely different subject.


That was the end of the current conversation, although such discussions are actually fairly common between the two of us, as well as several other friends. My hope as time goes by is to avoid having such investigations remain exclusively in the above-mentioned realm of youthful navel-gazing. It's all fine and dandy to talk about games being an artform, or a potentially unrivaled method of conveying a story to an audience; it's another thing entirely to undertake the task of breaking those ideas down into their core components and examining them in a useful fashion. Bryant is thankfully quite skilled at pushing fellow media enthusiasts into the realm of sincere analysis, while advocating for not losing your own style and voice along the way. Fingers crossed this is the first step down the road to accomplishing that, and becoming a founding faculty professor of a newly-designed field of study down the line.

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