PAX 2015 Games Criticism Talk: More Than a Score

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Last weekend I was lucky enough to give a talk at PAX Prime alongside fellow game critics Zach Alexander, Austin Walker, and Aevee Bee. A couple of people have asked whether the talk will be online anywhere, and while there’s no footage out there (to my knowledge), I figured I’d do the next best thing and upload this lightly edited script of my part of the presentation. Think of it as Games Crit 101: what criticism actually is, why it’s important, and why you, YES YOU, should get into it.

Zach has also made his hilarious slideshow publicly available for your perusal.

Side note: it was super good to discuss games critically again, something I realise I haven’t done much of lately due to a focus on more mainstream work. So yeah, that’s something I hope to get back into. I’m currently tinkering with a couple of project ideas, so watch this space. :)

Anyway, onto the talk: More Than a Score.

A big misconception people have is that ‘game criticism’ is just another term that can be used to mean ‘games journalism’, or that criticism is a sort of sub-genre of games journalism. Neither is true.

I have been a freelance game journalist for 5-ish years now. Most of my recent work has been as a news writer for IGN, and as gaming and tech columnist at Aussie outlet Kill Your Darlings. I’ve also freelanced for a bunch of other places like GameSpy, PC Gamer, Kotaku, The Escapist, Hyper magazine, PC PowerPlay, WarCry, Atomic, Games.on.net, Unwinnable…

So it’s fair to say that this is my primary method of feeding myself. What actually got me started on this ridiculous journey of writing about video games for a living, however, was game criticism – wanting to share the experiences I’d had in games with other gamers.

When we talk about “people talking about video games” (or writing about video games, or producing videos about video games…) there are certain big-name sites that probably instantly come to mind for you. They’re the sites that do dry news articles on the release dates of game DLC, or previews that diligently describe a game’s every dull mechanic. Or, most notably, reviews, with neat little scores out of 10 or 100 written in big type at the bottom.

Some of these websites try to be a little less formulaic, a little more interesting: they’ll try to exhibit some semblance of humour in their headlines, or they’ll employ Big Personalities (read: noisy people) to do video pieces for them… but it’s very likely they still rely on the all-important Score Out Of 10 at the end of each review.

And that’s because games journalism, despite being a form of entertainment journalism (trust me, us game journalist types are fully aware that we’re not covering wars here) is still somewhat repressed by the outdated idea that journalism must be objective and serious. Evaluating games objectively apparently means scoring incredibly complex, interactive works by ticking off score boxes for unimaginative factors such as story, gameplay, or replayability.

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Here’s a famous lady. Let’s try scoring her with the tried and tested games journalism formula! All we have to do is pick some neat categories to evaluate her by, like… hairdo! Background environment! Anatomy! How would you score her lack of eyebrows?

This is ridiculous way to approach her, of course. The Mona Lisa isn’t important for any of those things. She’s important culturally. She’s important for giving birth to things like this:

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What is it about her that resonates with us? What is it about her face that makes us want to photoshop a dog or Miss Piggy onto it? Personally, I don’t like the Mona Lisa much; I wouldn’t hang her on my living room wall. But I can admit that she is certainly very interesting and important in a wider cultural context.

This is what criticism is.

So, let’s bring this back to video games and talk about one of my favourite games: Dear Esther. I call it a “favourite” not because it was soooo much fun, and not because I could see myself playing it over again and again… because I can’t. Many reviews would say it “lacks replayability” because it’s two hours long, max. But my reason for not being able to play it again is that it is one of the most difficult, emotionally trying games I ever played; I’m not sure I can ever reinstall it. The game is painful. In a piece I wrote a few years ago for Unwinnable, I detailed how Dear Esther perfectly echoed a relationship I was in at the time, and how its changing landscapes and storyline reflected the way in which my partner and I were growing apart, no longer seeing things in the same way. This game reminds me of the resentment I felt, not just towards him, but also towards myself, for allowing myself to have been in this stagnating relationship so long.

In short, this game gives me ALL OF THE FEELS.

Meanwhile, at the same time I was going through this, one of the outlets I wrote for was going through its own strife. Namely, it was struggling with its inability to review Dear Esther because, as my editor put it, “It’s not a game. You don’t do anything but walk around.”

How disappointing is that? There is so much you could say about Dear Esther (as is evident from my wall of text). For this big outlet to choose to say nothing, simply because it did not fit into a neat little box – that’s sad. What are we missing out on if we keep an account of this game, penned with emotion or opinions, from helping us decide what we’d get out of it individually?

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Another one of my favourite games is World of Warcraft. As a journalist, I’ve previewed and reviewed a couple of its expansion packs, which always felt incongruous with my own experiences as a WoW player. When I’m exploring new content that comes to WoW, I’m not thinking to myself, “gee, I’m having so much fun with this retooled talent tree, or this meticulously balanced PVP,” or the other kind of things that reviews tend to cover. What I find most memorable is the experiences that WoW has offered to me. I remember stalking and murdering poor Horde players with my brother as lowbies (pictured above: my very first kill). I remember hilariously bad dungeon runs with people’s weapons breaking, healers running out of mana at inopportune times, bosses one-shotting everybody.

I can’t say I’ve felt the same thrill from, say, the rogue class getting buffed in a new expansion.

I’m not rejecting coverage of mechanics entirely; mechanics, obviously, are the bones of a game. But instead of recounting what a game’s mechanics are, criticism can look at how those mechanics are used to shape our experience.

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For instance, I once wrote about Boone, a heartbreaking character from Fallout: New Vegas. He’s a companion character. He follows you around and helps you kill stuff. He is essentially a game mechanic.

But in my playthrough of New Vegas, he came to feel like something like a friend to me. He protected me in battle. He confided on me. New Vegas would not have been such an impactful experience for me had the developers not implemented the ability to befriend companions such as Boone.

This is why I’m so into game criticism. It’s unconcerned with scores, with so-called “objective” ways of evaluating a game. Game criticism embraces subjectivity. It offers a voice to absolutely every gamer out there, encouraging us to tell stories of how our unique stories and backgrounds might colour the way that we see and approach a game.

And that’s the best thing about criticism! It doesn’t have to come from people that journalism outlets have deemed “qualified” to rank games on a scale of 1 to 10. The most interesting thoughts on video games don’t come from Big Personalities on gaming websites plastered with ads for the new Hitman movie. It comes from people like you and me – we all have our own stories to tell, and the way we each individually see the world is what makes our interaction with games so interesting.

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