Deep dives don’t always generate an audience.
Hylke Langhout is the former curator of Good Games Writing, our parent, and includes himself in the discussion below.
Games criticism needs to move past its formalistic approach of simply looking at a game as a collection of systems.
Art isn’t a checklist.
Looking at the bigger picture and the implications of how those systems are designed is the first step towards seeing games as an art form instead of just a consumer product. We need to take responsibility for the good and bad parts of the medium if we want it to be taken seriously at all.
That means discussing the often uncomfortable implications and, yes, politics of a game.
It means talking about how videogames make gun manufacturers a lot of money, or how loot boxes prey on people with gambling addictions. And it especially means not being hostile to critics who try to raise constructive and valuable analyses of the themes in games.
I want to make something very clear here: I am absolutely including myself in this criticism. I need to do better as well.
Throughout high school I learned a technique called “close reading”.in which you take every element of a text–things like word choice, dramatic irony, metaphor, sentence structure, etc.– and try to derive meaning from the text while ignoring all other circumstances of its creation, be it historical context or the author’s personal life. This is a useful starting point for analysis but fairly limiting for certain texts. Not being able to use Joseph Conrad’s own experiences in the Belgian Congo to discuss Heart of Darkness always frustrated me.
READ MORE: There’s no shortage of approaches to close reading but an initial primer from Harvard’s Writing Center is a solid starting point.
Later, in university studying English Language and Culture, with a focus on literary analysis and some study in critical theory, I learned that close reading is just one of many analysis techniques. I feel like a lot of games are analyzed through close reading as well. Much of the criticism I’ve seen, both in written and video form, dives deeply on the game play, graphics, and story and how they function alongside each other to make the complete package of a video game. It’s a perfectly functional approach to reviewing games that gives potential customers the information they need to make their own decisions on whether to buy the game.
There are many reasons why people don’t always analyze this deeply. Part of it is simply due to not having the context or background necessary to go this deep on a piece of media.
Others unfortunately choose not to. I understand the necessity of picking your battles, especially in the hell year that is 2020, but this does still concern me.
I’ve been able to apply the skills from my education to my own writing, but I just really feel like they’re missing in a lot of games criticism I see. I wish more games criticism was more academic in its approach and could really dive into implications of what games are actually saying with their stories and mechanics instead of just looking at the surface level of whether they’re fun or functional.
For example, when Ghost of Tsushima recently released, I saw a lot of people outright say they didn’t care about the implications of the game because it was cool and fun, and the initial reviews I read didn’t really cover these implications in any significant depth.
Kazuma Hashimoto wrote an excellent article for Polygon that goes really deep on Ghost of Tsushima that I highly recommend everyone check out because it’s exactly the kind of in-depth criticism that I desperately want to see more of in gaming. Again, nobody has the energy to go this hard on literally everything they consume, but I do pray that I’ve shown how important it is to do so more often. Please listen to critics, especially those from minority backgrounds, about issues they have with games and try to examine your own position on them from that perspective as well.
While I’ve never done it professionally, I’ve been in and around games media for nearly a decade, starting by writing about games for my high school magazine in 2012 and subsequently writing for Screwattack’s Community Blogs section, GoodGamesWriting, my own WordPress blog, and here on Liftoff!
FOR MORE FROM HYLKE: Check out his recent post criticizing Monster Hunter: World here at Liftoff! or find more of his thoughts on his personal blog.
Throughout that time I’ve grown tired of what I like to call “The Critical Cycle” for AAA games. It works like this: a major game comes out to rave reviews praising its graphics, game play, and storytelling as exemplary for the medium. Later, the critics who didn’t get to play it before launch (these are frequently critics from marginalized communities or who’ve been outspoken about problematic content/themes in the past) finally get their hands on it, and start producing their own criticism for the game that analyzes the game in far more depth than the launch day reviews. People then inevitably start complaining that everyone is taking the game too seriously which causes backlash towards the critics and people on Twitter whining about capital-D Discourse.
The main reason this complaining happens is because the vast majority of gaming criticism just doesn’t have enough time to really dig deep. Reviews are on a tight deadline, occasionally with additional embargoes from publishers, limiting what the reviewer can discuss.
I harbor no ill will towards those reviewers.
Their job is hard enough with the perpetual deadlines, near-constant harassment, and ever-changing media landscape making it hard to know which content will live up to expectations. No, I harbor ill will towards the entire system. The relationship that press outlets have to maintain with game publishers for fear of losing access to the all-important review copies bothers me.
Publishers see games press as another avenue for promotion, and that is what needs to change. We need to support not just major sites but independent sites and marginalized writers. And for the love of God, we need to stop accepting harassment of people trying to promote positive change as “the cost of doing business”.
Hylke Langhout has been writing about games since 2012 and believes in their artistic value and the social power of play. He plays both board games and vgames regularly and wants you to do so as well. You can find him on Twitter at @Gear12_Turbo and his WordPress blog.