It’s often said that video game criticism needs to develop its own language, separate from film or literary critique. This is certainly a noble goal, as interactivity adds complications that forms of media that are passively absorbed simply don’t have. But wholly separating the field of video game criticism from that of film or literature wouldn’t be a good idea; much of our understanding of visual communication comes from movies, and there’s no denying that how we analyze stories in video games has a lot to do with how we analyze stories in books.
But developing a more robust language that integrates lessons learned from other fields of critique isn’t a panacea to “fix” imbalances in video game criticism. Commercial reality dictates that game criticism follow primarily what’s new and hot on the market. This has led to some worrying trends in video game criticism which I think need to be rectified. With that in mind, I’m going to discuss three kinds of video game criticism I’d like to see more of.
A couple of disclaimers: First of all, I’m not well-versed in critical theory, so it’s entirely possible that I’m talking out of my ass. Secondly, just because I want to see more of one kind of criticism doesn’t mean I want to see less of another. I will almost always rule in favour of more critique. The kind of criticism I want more of is styles of criticism that I feel have been overlooked.
Because video game criticism mainly takes the form of game reviews of current games, it usually examines several different elements of a single game at a time. A typical game review discusses graphics, story, mechanics, and sometimes sound and themes as well. I call this vertical criticism. The end result is that we don’t see a lot of examination of single elements across multiple games, i.e. horizontal criticism. It’s hard to find cross-game comparisons of various brawlers’ combat systems or analyses of fantasy RPGs’ aesthetic styles, for example. Horizontal criticism would also allow critics to reach back in time to compare old games with newer ones, thereby ensuring that older ones aren’t forgotten and helping us document the evolution of the medium.
Again, because most video game criticism is game reviews, it tends to be evaluative rather than analytical; criticism is less focused on how video games work than on how well they work. A typical review might describe the shooting in Spec Ops: The Line as “clunky,” but won’t describe why it feels clunky or the kinds of feelings that clunkiness engenders in the player. The typical response to this point is “do away with review scores!” but I think that’s missing the point. I don’t want to get rid of evaluative criticism; consumer reports are a valuable tool for many gamers in making purchasing decisions. Furthermore, criticism can be both analytical and evaluative. I simply want to see more people digging into what makes a game tick rather than trying to come up with a list of pros and cons for it.
Remember how I said I wasn’t well-versed in critical theory? I’m probably overstepping my bounds by comparing video games to religious texts, but stay with me for a second. Exegesis attempts to analyze and contextualize a text as-is, whereas eisegesis inserts one’s own presuppositions and experiences into the process of interpretation. Now, I want to make something clear: I’m not asking for objective reviews. The entire point of a review is to provide an opinion, which is inherently subjective. What I’m asking is that critics engage with a work is actually trying to do or say. That means not ignoring authorial intent, especially when it’s staring you right in the face. For example, when the writer of Far Cry 3, Jeffrey Yohalem, insisted that the game’s story was satirical, the response from critics should have been to slam the game for being bad satire, not to slam Yohalem for what they perceived to be ex post facto rationalization of the game’s more problematic elements. (Disclaimer: I haven’t actually played Far Cry 3 yet, but it’s the starkest example I could think of.)
Again, I don’t want to see fewer game reviews or put an end to review scores. But I would like to see more examination of video games that isn’t just confined to game reviews or the occasional retrospective. A body of criticism that incorporates horizontal, analytical, and exegetic critiques is likely to be more robust and stand the test of time.