On Change in Video Game Criticism

I’ve been on a bit of a board game bender this year. I touched on this implicitly back in March, when we were talking about Magic: The Gathering (Constructing the Player in MtG), but – for a few years now I’ve been playing MTG Arena, which is a digital version of Magic, and then I got into the physical cards maybe last year. Then that’s spiraled out into a whole thing about board games – anyway, now it’s June and I’m watching a digital panel with veteran board game reviewers Quintin Smith and Rodney Smith where they’re looking back on ten years of reviewing board games for their different sites. And there’s an interesting comment that Quintin makes about having worked previously in video game media – about 19 minutes in, he says this:

“After ten years of video game [reviews], I wanted out – because it just feels very samey. After ten years, the same arguments and debates about ludonarrative dissonance or difficulty, or – you had them ten years ago, and now another generation is having them again.”

And I guess I sort of laughed, because – you know, fair point – but also because ludonarrative dissonance is something I haven’t really thought about in years. If you’re not familiar, ludonarrative dissonance is the idea that there can be a gap between how a game plays and how the narrative frames your actions. A classic example might be putting shotguns in a horror game – arguably it’s hard to be scared if the mechanics have you hunting for various monsters. The narrative tone clashes with the gameplay. That’s really all it is. One of the catalysts for this conversation (or one instance of it, anyway) was Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a horror game where you have no weapons and no way of fighting the monsters, and you just have to run and hide. That game came out, and people suddenly realised that it’s actually kinda weird to have horror games with shotguns, and they all fixated on Dead Space as kinda the key quote-unquote bad horror game, because it has ludonarrative dissonance – because it’s a horror game with shotguns – and that was that whole conversation. For context, Amnesia was released in 2010. That’s sort of when that conversation happened – today it feels like pretty dated, like talking about Jack Thompson and whether video games cause violence.

Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of ludonarrative dissonance per se. Arguably I’ve drawn on it a few times myself – you could probably slap that label on my articles about Flotsam or Tomb Raider, or maybe even Viscera Cleanup Detail – you could work the term into those articles and it wouldn’t be wildly out of place. But it’s not something I regularly name-drop – because as a term, it is kinda emblematic of just the dorkiest parts of video game criticism. It sounds super technical and sophisticated, and it has the word ‘dissonance’ in it, which probably appeals purely by association to the type of person who talks really excitedly about cognitive dissonance in people they disagree with – it’s just a bit gawky. I think as well it’s very strongly associated (for me at least) with a really particular instinct in video game criticism – with the impulse to talk about how games ought to be, rather than considering what they are.

I’m not sure how best to explain this idea, but – you know, video games were a very heavily theorized medium, right from the outset. You had all the disciples of the computer age hyping up cyberspace and reactive holodeck-style storytelling, and – it’s just been a really consistent space where there’s a lot of people talking about how video games ought to function, what they ought to be. We can find examples with quite idle effort – for instance, it comes up in that 2017 Bogost piece in the Atlantic – ‘Video Games Are Better Without Stories‘ – where Bogost tells us the direction that video games ought to take: “If there is a future of games … it will be one in which games abandon the dream of becoming narrative media”. It comes up as well in hbomberguy’s recent Deus Ex video. He argues that the original Deus Ex was an “immersive sim,” and that the later Deus Ex: Human Revolution is bad because it moved away from the immersive sim genre to be more like what was popular at the time: “So when the Human Revolution team decided the Deus Ex formula was broken, all their fixes actually made it less like what makes these games [immersive sims] great.” The rest of the video then follows a steady format: an analysis of an aspect of Deus Ex, and then how that aspect was changed for the worse in Human Revolution. The whole thing is built on a series of ought statements. For example, in the first main section, ‘When Do I Get To Play?’, we have comments like these:

  • “Putting the player in the driver’s seat as quickly as possible creates a sense of agency, which is pivotal in games that prioritize making choices and playing a role.”
  • “For RPGs with a focus on player freedom and choice, this is the opposite of what you should do.”
  • “You want the player to have a sense of control as soon as possible.”
  • “I think this choice [to delay getting into the gameplay] reflects a pretty serious misunderstanding about what makes these games fun to play.”
  • On the original Deus Ex: “the player feels like a part of the story, which is, you know, the goal of role-playing games.”

I’m not saying that these arguments are necessarily wrong, but they do illustrate a very particular way of approaching video game analysis. They start with a concept of how successful games in a given genre ought to work, and analyse whether titles fit or don’t fit into that box. And – again, just to be very explicit – I’m not disagreeing with the specific points made above. It’s not how I’d frame the conversation, but they are relatively valid points about genre and RPGs and player choice. For me, the problem is more – like it’s fine to say that Human Revolution is a weird or inconsistent game, and it’s fine to trace how it deviated from its predecessor and how those deviations made it weird – but after doing that I still don’t feel like we’ve learned about the game in itself. It feels like we’ve learned primarily about one theory of genre, about one theory of how RPGs can work, and then incidentally about whether Human Revolution fits that theory. The framework feels like it comes before the game; or inversely the game feels like it disappears behind the weight of the theory. I feel the same way about people who bash on about ludonarrative dissonance – you can say that the narrative tone doesn’t fit the gameplay, and that’s fine, but I still want to know the resulting vibe of the game. What is the aesthetic effect of that dissonance? What does it say? How does it interact with the other parts of the game?

In other words, if video game discourse is samey, it could be partially because people are caught up in this circular process of definition, of trying to decide what games ought to be rather than looking at what they are. Studies of genre are obviously still part of the conversation, and so are studies of how gameplay relates to narrative. But through all of that we need to retain a sensitivity to games that subvert genre boundaries, or to games that deliberately work in tension between gameplay and narrative for specific aesthetic effect. It’s maybe natural that gamers want to reduce video game criticism to a series of reliable rules and processes. They are, after all, fans of video games. But that’s not how it works. Games criticism is never going to be objective or systematized, because it’s a personal response to the ways we find ourselves moved. It changes because we change. And if we’re finding it’s very similar over an extended period of time – maybe we should reflect on what we’re doing to make it that way.

5 comments

  1. […] On Change in Video Game Criticism – Death is a Whale James wonders if part of what keeps discourse in games moving in circles is when it gets caught up in the ever-moving target of what games might be or ought to be over the here-and-now matter of what they are. […]

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  2. This reminds me of (especially as you’re referencing Quintin Smith) Cool Ghosts original mission statement, of focusing on what the reviewer enjoys about a given game rather than focusing into the perceived problems. When discussing “problems”, I think it comes natural to many (myself included) to come up with possible “solutions”, which in your examples become the ought-statements.

    Discussing what the reviewer enjoyed about a piece of media might be more conducive to talking about what’s actually there, rather than “what could have been”.

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  3. An editorial on how reviews should be rather than how they actually are.
    I’m being a bit facetious, but if you look at why my comment is mostly untrue, you may see how those reviews of how games ought to be are often exploring how a game is by pitting their reality against their promise (aka the fantasy created by marketing).

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