The Game is Talking Back: A Review of “Killing is Harmless”

Fun Fact: this drawing resembles the feeling of staying up way too late to play Journey. Intertextuality!

As I write, Brendan Keogh’s new book has been out for less than a week, and has already been declared a landmark of games criticism. The book’s primary qualification for this opinion seems to be its length, around 50,000 words, unprecedented among writings on any one game, let alone those written less than six months after the game’s publication. But this should go without saying: quality over quantity, every single time. There is nothing especially laudable about writing a lot on a narrowly defined topic—there are a lot of dumb overlong books in the world. What matters is whether the writing insightful or approaches its subject from a productive angle. Killing is Harmless achieves all of those things, but not because of its length.

To be sure, Keogh’s desire to be thorough in his examination of Spec Ops: The Line probably contributed to his word count, and his writing definitely shines in his longer pieces (Keogh is a prolific writer, but this is his first book aside from an undergraduate honors thesis.) However, I’m suspicious of the specificity of a number like “around 50,000.” It’s one of those large numbers that defies counting, so it sounds impressive and it’s more dramatic than saying simply that the book is “book-length.” But merely citing the book’s word count does very little to explain why Keogh succeeds.

In attempting to quantify precisely how much this book improves games criticism, counting words betrays insecurity about the discipline. Ben Kuchera’s profile of the project, one of many recent articles that praise the book for its length and method, barely attempts to explain why a long form would contribute. He writes, “you can play the game like a book club, going through each section, and the reading [sic] a deep look into what the game is trying to do, and how well it succeeds.” For all the discussion Killing is Harmless might provoke, Kuchera offers no sense that dialogue with the book’s ideas yields anything but knowledge of its content. Longer is better because, somehow, through some accident of evaluation, we came to believe that games writing can never amount to more than the sum of its parts.

I’m also uncomfortable with attempts to garner prestige for games through association with better-established media. We need not play games except as games, and we undermine our grasp of the medium in mistaking it for another (such as books). Furthermore, just as games don’t need a Citizen Kane, games criticism won’t mature by burdening any one work with “proof-of-concept.” Only the shallowest binary distinctions endure that test, such as whether or not “books have been written about games!” That might be true, but we gain very little from the attempt.

The men you see here are not soldiers, but teenagers in the postapocalyptic dawn. Pranks. Pranks never change.

The danger lies in judging Keogh’s work for its critical aspirations and not its actual accomplishments. It is Keogh’s self-analysis, not his observations on The Line, that recommend this book. It is a “reading,” which Keogh explains as “simply trying to understand my own experience with this game.” The writing is refreshingly absorbing, chiefly because of its personal, earnest voice. Keogh relates the plot of the game from his perspective in the present tense, and his discussions of the elements that called forth to him feel natural, such that an agreeable reader can really empathize with his reactions. Even though a player might have a dramatically different experience with The Line, Keogh takes his reader on an engaging journey. If you just want to know whether you should purchase Killing is Harmless, I think the pleasure of that adventure alone justifies the low asking price.

But his analysis of The Line leaves something to desired, namely answers amid all the questions he raises. This is fine, and Keogh has stated on multiple occasions that the project was never intended to prescribe The Line’s ultimate meaning, or to be “crowned as some kind of be-all-and-end-all authoritative reading of the game.” And I would tend to agree with Michael Abbott’s blogpost from last month, that “a good critic can “read” a work of art without prescribing a definitive point of view or ignoring “what it is.” Sure enough, there are many points in the book where he might have dug a little deeper, or gone elsewhere, or entirely forgone discussion of certain details. But Keogh checks arguments by smartly acknowledging that his subjective approach is not without compromise, and that “it is necessarily a selective reading.” I also tend to prefer games analysis that privileges the elements of games unique to the medium, such as their mechanical systems, over their visual or literary components as Keogh has done in several places.

We are probably the better for having this diversity of thought between us, but one result of his highly subjective approach is that it becomes difficult to engage directly with the arguments he does make. A less diplomatic writer would have an easy time deflecting dissenting opinions with a tart, “Well, that’s your interpretation.” In a way, he has not thrown himself into the fray with this book as he has in the comment sections of the articles cited in his extremely egalitarian critical compilation. His interpretation is valuable, but exclusively his, and in this capacity Killing is Harmless functions better as extended new games journalism, or a meditation, than it does as games criticism.

What’s more, his most definitive critical points are colored by the personal—Keogh is talking to the game, so he has concluded that, in an abstracted sense, the game is talking back. He ascribes the game with an intent to engage the player in dialogue by asking questions or sending messages. However, this assumes a relationship between how the player experiences the game and how the game experiences the player that could bear some interrogation. For example, when he argues that The Line accuses the player of complicity in violence, his affirmative response to the indictment appears couched in an emotional response to the violence, instead of an examination of the premises of the question, such as whether the player is culpable for the actions of their onscreen avatar. These are important issues in games criticism, but the book isn’t really concerned with hashing them out.

Here’s the truth: Killing is Harmless represents the efforts of a very good writer making astute use of the tools afforded to him by the journalistic tradition in which he writes. However, even taking a very broad view of what shapes games criticism may take, he hasn’t supplemented our critical ability to think about games. Claiming that Killing is Harmless is anything but a “look,” one finely tuned perspective, severely depreciates the value of the book and its accomplishments. With this book, Brendan Keogh remains one of the keenest games writers we have. We owe it to ourselves and our medium to assess his work honestly, on its own terms. We might do well to emulate his strengths, so long as we still acknowledge the limitations of his approach.

Killing is Harmless is available now, for $2.99.

Further Reading: Toys in the Attic: A Thoroughly Modern Reading of Revolution X (Medium Difficulty)

Chasing Images: Turning Videogame Criticism Away From The Future (Medium Difficulty)

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  • Mitch North

    How many pages is this? I’m interested but I find reading vast amounts of text from my monitor far more troublesome than physical paper. I could print it off but again I would like to know how many pages before I milk my pet octopus for some ink.

    • Lou Lessing

      Like three pages?
      Unless you mean Killing is Harmless, which is ~170.

      • Mitch North

        Thanks. I think it only accepts North American payment so I can’t purchase it anyway.