Friday, September 23, 2011

per aspera ad astra: The Birth of the New Philosophers


I never intended this blog to be anything more than a repository for game reviews. Clearly, it’s spiraled out of control and landed in a no-man’s land of lead-hounding news-chasery that often leaves me feeling physically and emotionally drained and burdens my blog with an unbearable lightness. But what little integrity I have left after all this divestitude still begs me to come back time and time again to my own thoughts and my own ideas as opposed to letting my inhibitions limply tumble aside in the face of the cancerous metastasization of my muckraking pseudojournalism.

The question I want to answer here isn’t why I started this in the first place, but rather what I intended it to be from the very start. Critique is a subjective endeavour at its core, but the act of evaluation and review implies the use or existence of an objective standard of quality. However, the objectivity here is really intersubjectivity; an amalgamation of mostly written and some unwritten sentiments about what criteria should be used to formulate a credible, reliable opinion. Video Game Reviewing, however, seems to be an especially crude form of critique, as it appears to lack any kind of coherent intersubjectivity when compared to any number of other forms of critique. I see this as a major problem.

This is partly due to the fact that video games are currently considered “populist” or “low” art. It’s associated with youth, fantasy, immaturity, irresponsibility, and capriciousness, and its primary goal is often to waste time effectively and enjoyably, but not necessarily productively. As a result, Video Games Reviewing bases much of its evaluation about the quality of a game on these associations.  This perpetuates the crudity of the medium, and in turn the journalism itself. Fortunately, a number of organizations have done a commendable job of furthering a different assumption: the illegitimacy of video games as a worthwhile endeavor is no longer a thing to be taken for granted. Unfortunately, this particular mindset is still a ways off from widespread acceptance.

The other part of the problem is the resultant print industry surrounding video games. It’s not often said (or perhaps not said often enough) that quality itself is not assumed to be innate; it is in fact inferred. What I mean is that qualitative review is inherently subjective, and this is only ever the type of review that’s done of games. Conjecture leads me to conclude that magazines do this because it sells copies and because nobody wants to read a review that reads like a research paper. The problem is that what ends up being published is extremely entertaining but completely devoid of useful information. Well, “completely devoid” is unfair; it’s more like a “juicy ribeye, easy on the ribeye” experience. And since “extremely entertaining” is what sells, it’s increasingly what gets published, leaving the “useful information” to languish in literary limbo. I feel the need to venture into even harsher territory to say that the review industry doesn’t seem to believe that games have print-worthy “useful information”. Sad.

These two things make me sad. More than just sad, they make me mad. And when I get mad, I start writing (I also start rambling and stomping my feet, but the operative behavior in this case is the first). I wanted more information from reviews, but I increasingly got more supposed entertainment. I wanted my hobbies to be worth investing in, but I was told repeatedly that it was only worth any time I intended to waste. The incongruities were maddening; had I chosen the wrong hobby or something? Was a hobby something really chosen? Was it my fault that I felt games were interesting beyond a few hours to burn or something nice to look at? Was something wrong with ME? (Impossible! Well, improbable) It was unsettling, but not necessarily in a personal sense. I felt that Video Games were in fact being treated far too lightly by those who should conceivably be the most serious about them: the people who played them.

So in a sense I intended this blog and my reviews to give games their just due. I wasn’t out to popularize my particular opinions on games; there’s plenty of that going on already and it’s what’s selling all those magazines. What I wanted to do, what I am trying to do right now, is take games seriously. What I want to do is make people see and realize that video games are worth their time. Not just that “I think” that they’re worth their time, but that they are, in fact, in reality, no opinion added, worth their time. It’s to this end that I decided to write reviews, as opposed to just news or opinion pieces.

Reviews, I believed, would give me the chance to talk about what a particular game is, what it tries to do, what it wants to do, whether it does it, and whether that is “good” or “not so good” in a more objective sense. It is my firm belief and my undying supposition that video games have and will continue to have relevance to the world outside of video games itself, and it is this relevance that I aim to tap into in my attempts for objectivity and substance in reviewing games. As I started writing them though, I found myself traipsing across the same, unsavory well-tread ground as those publications that had so incensed me so to begin with.

My first published review was on Terraria, which was the first of many to be submitted for public consideration. It was decidedly abstract, with little to no information on how it looked or played, or how many items it contained or objectives it provided. It even had a lengthy explanation of the mechanics of a completely separate game because I personally thought that it warranted comparison. What I realized (or rather, what public criticism and ridicule revealed to me) was that, while entertaining, my review was uninformative. It gave readers no “useful information” about what the game actually was like. I had only said it was in fact an entirely different game which it admittedly was rather unlike. I had become what I most hated, and I was only one review in. Doubly sad.

Rather fortunately for myself (and for you too, I hope), I didn’t let it deter me. Instead I went back to my local Rejiggery and rejiggered. I knew that what I intended wasn’t simply to become another sample text in the machine, but rather something useful, something unique. Indeed, something I myself had yet to see on the vast virtual veb. And after a few more reviews (some of which were useful, some of which were simply entertaining) I began to see more clearly what I intended from the beginning. So here is where the ranting and rambling begins.

The inception of this particular idea (that is, the idea that games can and are to be taken seriously) spawns from the site and work of Tim Rogers, that is www.ActionButton.net. Now, any informed reader will easily see that this blog bears little if any resemblance to that site, but all the same I must give credit where it’s due. The work of Tim Rogers, cumbersome as it so often is, is incisive and insightful in its descriptions and explorations of what occurs in the playing of a game. He (often despite himself, I imagine) has a keen understanding of what games do to people, what they can do, and how to make games do it. I’m sure it comes mostly from experience, but more than that I believe it’s instinct: he is the forerunner of an entire generation of abstract high-thinkers that have been raised in a world of video games. A new generation of Video Game Philosophers, so to speak. His writing inspired me in a way that I can’t entirely put into words, except that it was so paradoxically non sequitir and yet entirely accurate that I could not help but feel that he was on to something, and it was something big.

What I eventually decided that that thing was this: a unified mode of video game design thought complete with its own set of parameters, objectives, possible outcomes, and specific vocabulary. A lay academia, so to speak, about how to think about games. It was…cool. It was what I realized was missing from my appreciation of video games. I wanted a way to talk about what games do and how they do it, and not in vague terms like “cool” or “fun” or “immersive” or “thrilling”. Of course, I couldn’t find myself there because I had no inkling of what that kind of language could be. Much of what Tim Rogers has written helped me start somewhere though.

Fast forward to today, after having written a few more reviews and after having read even more articles on game design, game culture, and video game history in particular, I feel I’ve finally established a sense of what it is I am trying to do when I write a review for a particular game.

My approach to video game review is a phenomenological one which focuses on the balance between the perceived experiences of the player and the intended experience from the designer’s point of view. In this sense, games are perceived in two ways: from behind the curtain, and from in front of the stage. Many players only ever see one side of things, while many developers begin in front of the stage and slowly migrate to the place behind. There’s so much lost in the translation of this experience, and I think that any proper review, any objective review of a game requires an exploration and understanding of what is happening on both ends. To this end my approach is twofold in the review of video games: Execution and Content.

Execution refers to the quality of the implementation of the proposed idea for the game. This is something almost always inferred, unless one has access to the designer for an explicit statement. Even then though, for many modern titles, no single person designs all aspects. However, I do believe that part of the quality of the execution of a video game (and any creative work, really), can be evaluated in part by how clearly its idea is perceived by the audience. The better the execution of an idea is, the more easily it is grasped by the audience. The other facets of execution include interface design, player control, level design, skill and mechanics implementation, and consistency. All of these things, when done “right”, add fidelity to the initial idea and in turn create a more enjoyable game.

Content refers to the material that the player will interact with and “work through” through the course of the game. I separate this from the idea of “Execution” because many ideas are complete in and of themselves, and can be fun even in an empty box or with a single level. However, the objective quality of a game that one intends to purchase can be jusitifiably concerned with the length and substance that that game contains apart from the mechanic or idea itself. Think of it this way: a book with an amazingly written introduction, with characters that have compelling backgrounds and interesting personalities can be considered “good”, but you probably wouldn’t buy it if that’s all there was. What makes such a book worth purchasing sometimes is the artful weaving of scenarios and stories in which these characters interact, conflict, and resolve in their various ways. This is the same for video games.

On top of all this, I try to write with the intent to inform as well as entertain, but never to spoil anything in the game. Years of reading reviews has taught me that specific information about a game draws readers, but it also gives them to wrong idea about what a game is. This is because information in a video game is always contextual, and extracting facts and presenting them as such in a review is not only useless in terms of evaluation, it’s completely misleading and bordering on malicious to both the developer and reader. Concepts are fine, as are some discussion of mechanics and sensations, but specific information about the game’s content are something you will see me try VERY HARD not to do. Every bit left unknown in the specifics makes for a more engaging and less expectatious experience for the player.

Of course, I continue to refine my thoughts on this as time wears on, as I play more games and read more reviews. But for the most part, this is my intention. This is the kind of gamer I am, and this is the kind of writing I prefer. In the end if it isn’t your particular fancy, that’s fine. I want readers, sure, but what I want most is for people to take games seriously, and then have a place and person to talk about them. I hope that I can be that person, and I hope that this blog can be that place.

Godspeed, New Philosophers.