In Defence of Criticism: The Close Reading

It's as close as I could get!

By Lana Polansky

In what has become the standard model of “games criticism,” a game’s value is broken into a rubric, where each of its component parts examined and measured. Graphics, sound, gameplay, story—each one isolated and evaluated according to a very strict set of requirements. A rating is then applied at the end, representing an average total of all the individual components. It’s all very scientific and objective. This is how you know where to put your money.

But let’s imagine, for a brief moment, a magical world in which a work of art is thought of holistically—all its parts working together to convey an overall message, theme or sensation; to produce some kind of resonance; to have an effect on the reader, watcher or player. Suddenly, the sturdy, impenetrable rubric cracks and turns brittle. I have an idea of what a reviewer thinks of the visuals or quality of the combat system or skill tree, but no clue as to what sensations the game produces or what messages it conveys—or how it goes about conveying them. This gives me no insight into the theory or design applied to the game, or how it’s all magically working its voodoo to produce feelings—yes, feelings!—in me as a player.

Videogames are not cars or toasters. They have more than a functionalist quality to them, and as such, deserve more than a functionalist analysis. This is where the close reading becomes indispensable. Yet, bemusingly, this type of analysis—to anyone who isn’t a theorist, student or designer themselves—is treated as “unconventional” and “alternative.” I make the perilous claim that this should not be the case. Accessible, digestible close readings of games should be the norm. This should be what determines our critical mindset and evaluation of games—not ratings and rubrics. This is not part of some magical, alternate universe. This should not be controversial.

Let’s back up for a second. Firstly, like anyone setting up a proper critical framework, we need to define some terms. The terms are basic—maybe even a little condescending—but fundamentally important and confounded with depressing consistency. These are journalism, marketing and criticism.

Journalism essentially describes the practice of recording history as it happens. This includes the accurate and complete recording of facts and events without the inclusion of bias (what we call “editorializing”), the investigation of socially and/or culturally relevant issues, and the balancing and analysis of stories. But this analysis does not intend to personally interpret –rather, it’s to put disparate and often complicated facts on a topic into context. When Leigh Alexander reports on GDC or the corporate goings-on of a developer or publisher are written up as news pieces, those are examples of journalism in games.

Marketing is intent on selling a product to the widest share of customers, gaining their brand loyalty, and thus producing the greatest profit. Ads, trailers, posters, viral campaigns—these are all examples of marketing. The big picture of games marketing, however, is a slippery beast, and this is because of the intense, pervasive commodification of the medium. There are fine examples of journalism and criticism out there, but fairly insidious tactics can work to undermine these and have created an atmosphere of cynicism. The game review system, too, often acts as a cog in this marketing machinery, and this is due primarily to the conventional attitude that reviews ought to serve as consumer reports, treating games in terms of whether or not they are worth your money. This is the whole point of the rubric or the aggregated score: to convey the most immediate overall opinion of a game’s functional quality without the messy business of deeper examination.

Such a mechanical form of analysis overlooks that games are an expressive medium. Criticism—the kind that tries to get at what games are as a form, how they’re able to express things, and how they affect us as players—wants primarily one thing: to improve the medium as much as possible, and in all respects. As part of this, criticism also aims to deconstruct the medium, to understand how it ticks formalistically and how it is thus distinguished from all other forms. Criticism seeks to understand what makes games special and unique, but also how they relate to other forms of art and the canon of all art in general. Criticism seeks to understand how games convey ideas, systems, structures and themes, how they represent characters, tell stories, and evoke emotions.

The best way to achieve this, I believe, is through the close reading. This involves taking an individual game and carving into it, right down to its bones, getting past this fixation we have on formalism and often genre convention—that is to say, the basic axioms that define a game at all—and asking how games use the elements of their form to produce specific experiences. What if a game presents an incoherent world full of presumptuous hegemonies? What does that say about the people who created it? What if a game presents compelling, for better or worse, racial or gender representations (or stereotypes, as may be the case), or relationship dynamics, or personal strife or conflict? How does the game translate the themes or sensations it’s trying to convey through gameplay dynamics?

And what if it fails—miserably—at any one of those things? Do we not question these things? Do we take our games for granted if the superficial elements look good or seem fun? There is a problem with letting economy-based appraisals win the day and ignoring critical concerns, and that is the risk of stagnation. Think about why the highest selling games generally also happen to be the most reiterative ones: because they offer continuity. They always sell, because they always promise the same things to the same loyal base. These are commodified games, often not of the kind pushing the medium into new domains of expressive potential (although there could be exceptions). This may be great to that particular subset of games, but it’s poison to the development of all games if we take them for granted by relegating ourselves to such a limited set of expectations. This is why we need close, invested, intimate, highly critical readings of our games.

Having clarified these terms, and argued for their significance, I’d like to address three of the most common dismissals of the close reading that I’ve experienced.

But how will I know if a game is worth buying full price or not?

Pardon me for sounding brash and exasperated, but I could not give a royal damn how anyone spends their money. It is always uplifting to see a lovingly made, compellingly designed game do well, and I am always happy to help bring to the light of day interesting new projects, but how well a game fares financially is not my primary concern. I’m not saying criticism doesn’t have a role in the reader’s purchasing decisions, or that it does not have the power to highlight some impressive games and inadvertently provide them with some much needed exposure and financial success, but criticism needs no other motivation than to study the game. We must challenge the mindset that these are merely baubles we’re spending money on: these are also cultural artefacts, things that shape our worldviews and help enculturate us. These are things which have the power to convey and reinforce ideologies, attitudes and patterns of thought. How a game affects your mind is as or more important than how it affects your wallet.

Games are supposed to be fun. Talking about them in this way is academic, pretentious, boring, and will make them less fun.

I believe Extra Credits put it best in this video exploring the value of closer examinations of games when they said, “When has study ever made an entire medium universally less accessible or enjoyable? When has it made it worse? Ever?” No medium has ever actually suffered or worsened because of intimate critical engagement. Extra Credits were clever to point to films, which, because of the work of highly critical mid-20th century cineastes, improved overall as time went on. Not only could there never have been a Godfather without art cinema folk, but also the Michael Bays of the world couldn’t exist without the Eisensteins and the Godards. Today we live in a world where “artsier” films and blockbuster films coexist in the same ecosystem, all artistically and expressively better for it. So why should games be left unexamined?

Already we see larger titles like Catherine learning from so-called “pretentious” indie titles, absorbing the things about them that produce resonant and nuanced experiences for the player, as well as game designers generally learning from other forms of art, study, and philosophy. We are seeing more and more games that demand intellectual and emotional engagement, rather than simply the “drone” of task-completion punctuated by moments of adrenaline (although I do acknowledge past triumphs like the Katamari series, Okami, and EarthBound, I count them among a relative minority). Okay—there have been a couple of misfires (ahem, Heavy Rain), but the effort is being made in producing richly evocative and smarter games which are compelling both because of the ideas they present and how they are presented. This, I promise you, will not make games less entertaining. It will however, make them more interesting and meaningful, more compelling and arresting and might compel you to play for other reasons than amusement alone. All other media have accomplished this without question. And if the present boon of interesting and innovative games like To the Moon, The Stanley Parable, Journey—and why not, let’s throw Portal 2 in the mix for its stellar storytelling and characterization—prove to be an upward trend, I have no doubt games can achieve this too. But they need constant critical and artistic tending to do this, and a profound sympathy for how games use their disparate parts to create these greater experiences.

“But wait,” you might say, “you’re not really talking about critics. You’re talking about designers. They’re the ones making the games.” The important first thing to note is that critics are often developers or designers themselves, or later become designers or developers after having accrued years of expertise and established critical philosophy. Gaming’s beloved Anthony Burch is an example of one of those people. The second thing is that creation and deep criticism are part of a system of feedback that ultimately affects how games mature over time. The more critical frameworks and lenses we can add to the voices—be they from philosophy, science, or other forms of art—the richer, smarter, funnier, and more efficient games will become.

I’m not a game designer or professor. Why should I read this stuff?

This leads me to my next point of contention: you should read this stuff exactly because you are a consumer of what it’s criticizing. The best way to understand what games are doing to affect you and why, or perhaps to help articulate an inchoate idea that you couldn’t otherwise discuss, is to dedicate time to deep, penetrative, close readings of games. Not only is this helping make games better by intensively deconstructing what about a game works or doesn’t work, it is also making you smarter and better acquainted with how the games operate to make you feel, say, scared, contemplative, sad, frustrated, relieved, or exuberant. Or any other of the countless emotions a human being is capable of having. What’s more, it can help you to examine and question the things in games you don’t like or perhaps bother you, or it can get you started on your own path to critical theory that might inspire interesting and potentially contrary ideas. It will bring nuance to how you perceive your experiences the same way it helps games develop more nuanced experiences to offer. The more you know about the representation of content in individual games, the deeper will be your understanding of all games as a holistic, expressive form which uses a multiplicity of elements to affect you.

The games we love are improving all the time, and a lot of this is due to the fact that there is significant and extensive discourse taking place within design and development communities. And it gives me infinite joy to observe that the close reading seems to be gaining prominence too, particularly amongst game criticism blogs like The Border House, but even on larger sites like Kotaku. This is good news, because it means that some of the same highly complex, dense, subtle conversation taking place on more esoteric sites like Electronic Book Review, Deep Fun and Game Studies can finally be made palatable and accessible for a wider audience, as well as enhancing the level of inquiry by relatively untoward critical frameworks (for instance, literary ones like post-colonial or Marxist theory). It means we can take control of our media consumption by asking deeper, better questions about games, challenging game-makers to improve. We can start having honest, intelligent discussions about how games affect us, how we interpret specific games, and how we wish they were better. It may seem overwhelming, but to me, it’s empowering. Keep your rubrics and metrics if you want to, but remember that videogames are more than just the sum of their parts.

This is why we need close readings.

Further Reading: “Close Playing: Unmanned” (Medium Difficulty)

“Chasing Mirages: Turning Video Game Criticism Away From The Future” (Medium Difficulty)

 

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  • http://twitter.com/joeyheflich Joey Heflich

    I agree with your theme, which is that criticism improves art, but this argument is poorly made. You’re insulting my intelligence, and moreover, you’re calling for more palatable games criticism without being more palatable in your own writing.

    I understand that you’re upset about this, but it’s leading you to be reactionary and reductive. For example, if games are art and criticism engages art, that demarcates how you, as a critic, approach the medium. Why even risk sounding brash? Where are these common arguments coming from? Why do you personally need to respond to them?

    I’m with you. I support you in your quest to make criticism more approachable. But this isn’t how it’s done. (But I would like to live in your world, where “inchoate” is an acceptable word to use when presenting an argument to the average reader.)

    • kellymears

      I think a huge step forward would be to stop belittling the reader by thinking of them as merely “average”. Give people a chance to rise to the occasion and they’ll be better for it.

      • http://twitter.com/joeyheflich Joey Heflich

        But is that what this article needs? Does the word “inchoate” do enough for that sentence? Is this topic being presented to a wide audience in a clear fashion?

        Writers have been battling with your charge for some time, and it’s a fair point. Maybe people should learn more words. But when an argument is being made, the writer has a duty to the reader to present the topic in cogent fashion.

        If the idea is to make video game criticism more palatable, why are we drawing the line at people who are educated enough to be considered average? Who are we to even decide whether or not average is acceptable? If this is about inspiring everyone to think critically about media, shouldn’t it be done in such a way that it can inspire everyone?

        The piece includes, “This is good news, because it means that some of the same highly complex, dense, subtle conversation taking place on more esoteric sites like Electronic Book Review, Deep Fun and Game Studies can finally be made palatable and accessible for a wider audience…”

        If you want to define your wider audience by the words you use, feel free. I’m saying that what was said worked against the argument.

      • Joseph Hilgard

        I’m inclined to agree with Joey – the use of “inchoate” here is some pretty serious thesaurus abuse.

  • Christoffer Hägglund

    I’m going to object to the idea of videogames now being more meaningful than they used to. They’re about more things, sure, but I often find modern games cluttered, confused and pretentious, foregoing simplicitly and clarity in favour of Major Statements in a way I find kind of misguided.

    Dismissing the genius videogames of yesteryear as mere “task-completion” and saying that the medium demands more emotional and intellectual engagement today than before is really unfair. Journey, good as it is, is never gonna be able to touch something like Super Mario Bros or the early Dragon Quest games, and it certainly isn’t “better” just because it’s more ambitious.

    Also I’m gonna object to Okami, aka Busywork:Fetchquests Galore, as a game outside of the task-completion punctuated by adrenaline mold. Actually that pretty much sums up my exact opinion on that game.

    • Joseph Hilgard

      Thank you, Chris! While I agree, Lana, that the quality of a game is not the average of its sounds, graphics, gameplay, and “fun factor” (think Gamepro reviews), I’ve had it up to here with artsy-fartsy criticism. Talking about aesthetics is personal and subjective – it’s about as useful and informative as having somebody describe a dream to you.

      Critics need to place more emphasis on the gameplay mechanics and dynamics which lead to aesthetic experience. By and large, I feel like everyone is so hung up on “games as art” that they’ve forgotten the importance of games as games.

      I feel like I’m also having some difficulty understanding what it is, exactly, that you’re advocating as a replacement for the old rubric. You drop some names and websites, and indicate that you want something with greater attention to the gestalt of a game, but whatever it is that you really want is hazily outlined by words like “critical lenses” “deep” and “subtle.”

  • http://twitter.com/rich_lem Richard Lemarchand

    This is a really great piece. Thank you, Lana! Clear and insightful, as ever.

    I often think about the role that criticism played in the development of the French New Wave of film. Truffaut, Godard and Chabrol all started as critics for the magazine ‘Cahiers du cinéma’, of course, and their writing evinced exactly the kind of close reading you recommend here.

    I suppose this gave them the conceptual equipment that they went on to use in their filmmaking work and which, in turn, ultimately reinvigorated the American cinema that they were reacting to.

    Talking in appropriately sophisticated language about the way that games land with us as individuals is essential to the development of videogames as a form. Game makers are increasingly looking to writers like you, Tom Bissell, and others, to help us narrate new design goals into being.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/HGJ3BDTVK6VVN33SMFO7VDFTRU Jose Pablo

    I think the more we talk about games, at all levels and in all forms, the better. And, as much as some may hate “the rubric” (and the “score”), it turns out that game reviews do a lot more for our understanding of games than it might look like on the surface. Check out:
    http://facsrv.cs.depaul.edu/~jzagal/Papers/Zagal_et_al_GameReviews.pdf

    :-)

    So yay for deep readings (I also recommend the Well Played series published by ETC press and available under a CC license) and everything else!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/BPZDYQH64FCQA7TI2DZY3MS6DA AustinW

    I enjoyed this piece quite a lot and heartily agree with most every point made. It definitely seems that game writing has intermingled Consumer Reports-style purchase guides with serious criticism / reflection, in a way that doesn’t really benefit everyone nearly to the degree that separation would.

    As a composer, having my music evaluated as part of the ‘sound’ category of the rubric is oftentimes very frustrating. I do not aspire to make music that just so happens to be in a game. I am working towards the game as a complete product, and so evaluating the music on its own is often a disservice to the music (because it eliminates context) but, much more importantly, a disservice to the game.

    Not all reviewers are guilty of this by any means, and in that way find the comments here largely unfair in their criticism of Lana. BUT it’s pretty widespread and I’d love to see more writing along these lines for sure.