Archive for the ‘ Criticism ’ Category

On Villains

"Round up the usual suspects!"

What makes for a good villain?

Storytelling 101: stories almost exclusively follow the three-act structure of beginning, middle, and end, and feature both a protagonist and an antagonist. The antagonist is generally either man, nature, or self. These three situations, “man against man,” “man against nature,” and “man against himself” establishes what we call conflict, which is a necessary element of drama. For example, Casablanca is “man against man,” Old Yeller is “man versus nature,” and Citizen Kane is “man against himself.” In Casablanca, the protagonists are allied against the Nazis and the Vichy Regime. In Old Yeller, the story comes to a head when the eponymous dog contracts rabies. In Citizen Kane, the central theme of the story is the character’s internal struggle. Above all else, a good villain must provide some form of conflict.

Before we look deeper at what makes a good villain, let’s look at what makes a great character… by looking at what makes a bad one. We accept that Mary Sues are bad characters. Why? They’re unrealistic and unbelievable. What makes them so? Generally, Mary Sues are written as flawless characters, or characters with flaws that aren’t excessively negative. A Mary Sue flaw would be clumsiness–a good character’s flaw is more likely to be, say, perfectionism or sexism (halloo, Reed Richards!). This personality flawlessness has a tendency to make Mary Sues very bland, lacking in any sort of complexity or contradiction. Good characters are almost always defined by how human they are, and humans tend to be quite complex and often contradictory. That complexity brings us to motive. In the case of nature, which has no motive, this does not apply, but in the case of self and others, it most definitely does. What motivated Captain Renault to do what he did in Casablanca? Why did he join the Vichy Regime? Why did he choose to betray them at the movie’s end? A good character is one who makes choices not because the plot demands it, but because those are the choices that they, as a character, would make.

A plot hole is an element of the story that makes no sense in context. This can be extended to characters–poorly written characters often make their choices because the story needs to do certain things. In some cases, this is called the idiot ball. In others, it’s just because they’re a poorly written character. A bad guy who does nothing but, say, shoot his own men, hurt innocent people, and seek power is not a particularly good antagonist because he’s only doing what he’s doing because the plot dictates that he’s bad.

He's Nimoy with a Robot Moustache! OF COURSE HE'S A VILLAIN

One of the chief complaints about the Transformers movies is that the audience don’t actually care about the characters. The movie never provides us with a reason to care about what Shia LeBoeuf wants. Why should we care what happens to Megan Fox? Because she’s hot? Why should we care about saving the world? It’s not ours. Simply saying that the Earth is in danger doesn’t mean that the audience has any reason to want Shia to win, because, after all, he’s annoying and ungrateful for all the cool things that have happened to him. He’s just saving the world because he has to.

When plots dictate characters, we definitionally get bad stories.

Before I continue, I want to make a point that I’ll come back to later: in a game, you are the protagonist, not some other guy. I could get into a discussion about how this means that a game where the character has fundamentally different motivations than the player is a bad game (because no good game should be anti-player), but that could take a while. Instead, I’d just like to point out that simply being the protagonist does not somehow magically make the story better. Just because The Fallen has personally stolen your MacGuffin does not somehow mean that Revenge of The Fallen is any better than it was when The Fallen stole Shia’s MacGuffin.

This is all, as I’ve said, Storytelling 101. If (as in a discussion I had on Friday) you feel inclined to disagree, then you’ve got to prove wrong thousands of years of accumulated storytelling knowledge to do so, or, perhaps more easily, prove that my understanding of storytelling is flawed. There would be no point in me writing about villains if I didn’t believe I knew what I was talking about, however, so, for the rest of the article, we’ll assume the following:

A good villain is like any good character, having the same complexities that any character should have, making decisions (and thus guiding the plot) based on who they are, not what the writer feels they should be doing. It’s particularly prodigious when what the villain does lines up nicely with where the plot is going.

You can tell he's evil because he's bald and ugly.

This brings me to some of the best and worst villains that video gaming has offered us in the past half decade or so: SHODAN, Zoran Lazarevic, Sofia Lamb, The Combine, The Prophet of Truth, and The Reapers.

I shouldn’t need to tell you that SHODAN is, of course, from the former group. In case you don’t believe me, though, feel free to read Kieron Gillen’s take on the character, which remains, to this day, one of the best breakdowns of a video game character I’ve ever read. She is, in a way, an evolution of Durandal, the antagonist/best friend/antagonist/best friend from Marathon, or, more likely, they were both influenced by the same sources. Either way, singing SHODAN’s praises would take too long and Gillen’s already done it better, so there’s no real point in me saying anything more.

Half-Life 2, one of the most loved games in the world that I have a remarkable capacity for hating, stars the Earth-invading psychic worms known as the Combine. They’re pretty much generic, dystopic alien overlords. We don’t actually know much about them or what they want, and their influence is fairly cliché, unique aesthetics aside. Their human emissary, Doctor Breen, may be the single most boring enemy I have ever faced. Don’t get me wrong, he’s actually performed brilliantly, displaying a fantastic mix of arrogance and sympathy, but… meh? Half-Life 2 never really gives you a reason for doing anything you do beyond “go save Eli.” Exploring the “why” of Half-Life 2’s world or its characters doesn’t seem to be a priority for the game. The game seems to think you should just take it as a given that the overlords are bad and that the resistance is good, without ever doing much more than that. Funny that Rage got ticked for this and Half-Life 2 didn’t.

You can tell they're evil on account of them... um... being... I don't know.

The Reapers are basically the same. In fact, upon meeting them for the first time, they basically say “OUR METHODS ARE TOO AWESOME FOR YOU TO UNDERSTAND,” which is, of course, code for “using plainer speech would have made us sound about as threatening as Dominic Greene.” To its credit, Mass Effect as a whole does a fairly nice job of portraying its universe, with characters like Admiral Kahoku or the Petrovsky’s providing us with reasons to want to save the universe. You’ve got people who are awesome and people who aren’t, which is really cool.

…then Mass Effect 2 comes along and ruins it. For one thing, there are no personal sidequests besides breaking up a fight between two assholes in the Citadel. Most everything is just a case of “go to small, remote location, do a task, shoot some dudes, get an email about it.” It becomes instantly less personal. That, right there, is less of a reason to want to fight. It’s not just that, though. Have you ever messed with the contrast on your monitor to the point where nothing is visible because it’s all one tone of grey? Well, Mass Effect 2 is the same way; turns everything into one shade of grey.

In the first game, you could come across a woman who just wants the best for her dead husband’s son, a politician who gets you to murder her pirate sister… it’s all over the place. Mass Effect 2 makes everyone grimdark. Cerberus is no longer a group of Space Gestapo. Instead, they’re just a bunch of dudes who sometimes do bad things to ensure humanity doesn’t get screwed over. The Geth are no longer crazy space robots who worship more crazy space robots–they’re a form of sentient life with feelings. AI isn’t exclusively bad any more (which kinda ruins the point of the entire first game, which is that yes, AI is exclusively bad all the time). Mass Effect 2 is a game that forgets the importance of contrast and never makes anything purely good or purely bad. It confuses moral ambiguity for storytelling maturity.

He's called the Prophet of Truth because he lies.

Speaking of contrast, Halo has some amazing villains. While you might not understand The Flood, they never attempt to obfuscate their motives in order to seem scarier. They are space zombies that get smarter as they spread, becoming more effective at zombifying things. In contrast, the Covenant are a conglomeration of various alien races, united by an unwavering belief in The Forerunners and the desire to meet them by undertaking “The Great Journey,” which is effectively a galactic mass suicide. You’ve got some great stuff going on there–The Prophet of Truth is forced to become a liar or admit that everything he believes is a lie, for instance. In choosing to give in to his pride, he sets in motion the events that lead to the Human/Covenant war. With Halo, Bungie contrasted a villain motivated by hubris, pride, and emotion with one motivated purely by instinct. It’s id versus ego, if you will.

One element that made The Covenant so frightening was their belief that, through genocide, they were making things better. There are few things scarier than those motivated by the belief that they’re doing the right thing, because those things have the absolute conviction that they are doing the right thing. They care. They are driven.

That’s why Sofia Lamb is one of the greatest video game villains I have ever had the pleasure of defeating, while Zoran Lazarevic is pretty bad.

See, Uncharted 2’s Lazarevic is just a dude who is evil and wants power. He has even less motivation than The Fallen or Sentinel Prime, both of whom are trying to save their respective races. He just wants, uh… power, I think? That’s really it. Compare this to Sofia Lamb, who, over the years, subtly turned the people against Andrew Ryan and his ideals. She relied on human laziness–the belief that we deserve things–to obtain her goals. She’s a brilliant counterpoint to Andrew Ryan, who was all about how we must stand on our own efforts. Taken together, both Bioshock and Bioshock 2 complement each other in a way few games can. Both of them present, effectively, an argument against rigid ideology, and it’s a point that’s well-made, but I’m getting sidetracked here.

Bioshock’s characters were human–motivated by a myriad of various desires. In Stanley Poole’s case, his greed had brought about the downfall of Lamb’s haven, resulting in a desperate desire to hide the evidence. Grace Hollaway desperately wanted a daughter, and Sofia provided that by making her Eleanor’s caretaker, investing Grace in the ideals of The Family. What is perhaps the most frightening thing about Sofia, however, is that she truly believes what she is saying. She is not manipulating lesser people because she enjoys manipulation–she manipulates them because she wholly believes she is doing what’s best for them. She believes, completely, in destroying everything it means to be human.

That’s why ultimately, beating her is so great.

Yeah, you don’t get to kill her. I get that. It saddens me, sure, that after everything she put me through, I didn’t get to put a bullet in her skull. Above all else, she deserved it.

But you know what? I think I my victory was greater than that. If I’d ventilated her brains, she would have become a martyr. She would have died with no remorse. Instead, I destroyed her ideology. I did not merely shake her faith–I annihilated it. When all was said and done, Sofia, stripped of her hubris and arrogance, had to admit that I was right. Ideas might be bulletproof, but it doesn’t mean that they cannot be defeated. As Bioshock 2 ended and Delta died, I watched as the choices I had made brought about a change in Eleanor. I watched her, the living embodiment of all that Rapture possessed, make the right decision. I gave her that. I showed her just how powerful choice could be.

Actually, the fact that she would kill you in front of a small child is evil in and of itself, but nobody ever said a great villain couldn't still kick the dog.

As I type this, I find myself wondering if a video game’s ever been written better.

I’m starting to think that maybe, just maybe, Bioshock 2 is the best video game I’ve ever played. Bioshock, for all the joy it seemed to take in telling us that our decisions didn’t matter, might have been a metacritical critique of the idea that games could ever offer us freedom, but Bioshock 2 was the perfect reply to that. I never was put into some silly, scripted event where I got to shoot some stupidly splicer-enhanced Sofia Lamb. Instead, the game demonstrated to me that yeah, we don’t make every choice, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make choices. I wasn’t confronted at every turn with a button prompt or funneled down some rigidly designed fight tube–sometimes, I just had to make the choice to walk away.

Villains, the good ones, they choose.

If a writer chooses everything for the villain, saying that they ought to be bad just because they’re the antagonist, with no thought put into the choices and motivations of that character, then they’ve created a bad character. This isn’t just true of villains, actually–it’s true of anybody who’s ever been written. A good character is a truly human character, one makes decisions not based on some preordained plot, but on who they are. Asimov once said something about science fiction basically being a reflection of ourselves, but I think that’s true for all fiction. Bioshock 2, unlike most games, has that in spades. Its core moral is ultimately about the power of choice–the very thing that makes video games unique from every other story medium.

It deserves a lot more love than it gets.

Of course, we could just forget about villains and strong narratives and just go for living, breathing game worlds in which our only cares are how to survive the night. That sounds awesome, right? Yeah. It does. STALKER’s awesome. Let’s all go play that now.

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Issues: Eskil Steenberg’s Open Letter to John Carmack

I rather like Rock Paper Shotgun; after all, they were the ones who got me into writing about games in the first place. On Sundays, they post something called The Sunday Papers, which is basically a collection of links to neat articles about gaming. Often, I find them engaging and enlightening… but not today. No, today I find myself frustrated by two specific links, and I’ve decided to write a response to both, because, hey, I’ve got three hours to spare.

The first post comes from Eskil Steenberg, who, unless I’m mistaken, is the developer of indie MMO LOVE. It’s about Rage, and how Steenberg feels that iD needs to get back to the drawing board and rethink the way they’ve done things.

It’s an interesting read, and I think it’s got some valid points, but I take issue with this statement: “Many games designers think its their job to tell stories, but games isn’t a story medium, they should go write books or make films. Many artists think that games are about attention to graphical details and in extension to proving how ambitious they are. They should go make art. No, games are about mechanics, they are about feedback, and that is something that programmers provide.

He goes on to say defend his position, saying: “The story most of you are talking about is story telling being told in text, cut scenes, voiceover, and machinima. None of that is a game, its other media squeezed in between what is a game. Games have emergent stories, or what I prefer to call drama. That’s the thing that happens when you are the last counter terrorist trying to defuse the bomb in counterstrike. Quake, and Doom had drama, modern AAA games have Story telling.

Games are about a lot of things. Sure, you can make games without art assets–Zork’s a great example of that. If you want, you can make games without stories, such as Pac-Man. Admittedly, all you need to have to make a game is gameplay, but to suggest that programmers are important, and no one else is required is downright silly. If applied to film, Steenberg’s argument would read something like this: “Movies are simply a series of pictures in sequence that simulate motion! That is something that cameramen or directors provide! Actors, scriptwriters, and prop artists are unnecessary!”

While films such as Baraka prove that movies don’t require storytelling, it would be foolish–perhaps even stupid–to claim that films are not a storytelling medium. Likewise, just because “gameplay” (as far as I can tell, nobody’s really bothered to define this, so here goes: it’s a specific level of interactivity that all games must have in order to be considered games) might be the base from which all games must derive, to argue that games are not a storytelling medium is still wrong in every conceivable way.

While it is indeed possible to develop a game without telling a story, it’s equally possible to make a film or write a book without doing so.

Surely no one could argue that Fallout is not a game, much less argue that it’s a game despite its story and art. The story and art is what makes Fallout the game it is. It is inextricable from Fallout’s identity. The Fallout series is defined not by its gameplay mechanics, which don’t matter (the fact that the game could not only survive a genre shift, but receive even greater acclaim post-shift is proof of this), but by its aesthetics. Fallout, at its very core, is not an isometric RPG, nor is it an open-world immersive sim. It is, instead, a darkly humorous evisceration of American pop culture in the 1950s. It’s all about the things that were popular at the time: westerns, science fiction, and thoughts of nuclear war, seen through the lens of Hollywood’s pleasant denial of reality. Those aesthetics, strictly the result of the game’s storytelling sensibilities, are what make Fallout unique. If we look merely at the gameplay (which, by the way, is defined as much by game designers who define stat tables as it is defined by programmers), then Fallout is no different from, say, Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, or any other isometric cRPG.

Fallout would be nothing without its writing and art. That identity is what makes Fallout the game it is. To argue that games are not a storytelling medium (both writing and art are aspects of storytelling) is ignorant, if not wholly dishonest. As with film, games are a storytelling medium, but… that’s a part of what they can be. To say that they are a storytelling medium is not to say that they can’t be something else as well.

There’s a part of me that wants to call Steenberg arrogant, since he appears to believe that his role as a programmer is the most important role in game creation. However, I don’t feel that this is the case, because on the most literal terms, he’s right: you can create a game with nothing but programmers. Really, that’s what I think it boils down to: Steenberg’s an incredibly literal individual, perhaps to the point of a close-mindedness that’s unwilling to accept that games can be a bit more than their most basic parts.

I believe that Steenberg is an extremely left-brained individual. I have no proof of this beyond his own words, which seem extremely rigid and analytical, as well as the fact that he’s responsible for the creation of LOVE (and all the programming and left-brainedness that LOVE’s creation would entail), so there’s no way I can be certain, but it does seem to be the most obvious conclusion. Having a left-dominant brain isn’t a fault in any way–the world needs left-brained people–but it can have its drawbacks. In this case, there’s a rigidity and literalness to Steenberg’s thinking that fosters a great and terrible ignorance.

Steenberg also tries to define emergent story as drama, which strikes me as odd, seeing as a great way to define emergent story would be to use the term… emergent story (and/or emergent narrative). Drama is basically defined as “fiction created with the intent to be seriously considered.” It would make no sense to use “drama” to mean something there is a perfectly good phrase for; if you just don’t want to type out “emergent story” all the time, then why not write “emergent story (ES, for short)” and say “ES” for the rest of the paper?

I rather like Emergent Stories, by the way. STALKER is a game that’s partiularly conducive to their creation. One time, in Call of Pripyat, I was overburdened, having just murdered a rather large mercenary camp to get myself some working capital. I was heading home when the call came: a blowout was coming! I started to run, hoping against hope that I would reach shelter in time. Unfortunately, due to the weight of my precious loot, I found myself pausing to catch my breath every few seconds, chugging energy drinks to give myself superhuman stamina, and repeating the cycle ad nauseam (well, as ad nauseam as one can get within the course of a minute or so).

Suddenly, I fell in a very deep hole.

“Shelter!” I thought.

Then that portion of my brain that controls threat detection turned back on. I could hear a snork making snorky noises somewhere in the darkness. Lights flickered on and off, accompanied by the soft thundercrack that indicated the presence of several electrical anomalies. I’m fairly certain there was at least one gas anomaly, as well as a few fire and gravitational anomalies as well. Thank goodness I had my semi-automatic shotgun ready, because there wasn’t just one snork, but half a dozen. I must have killed one or two before panicking, switching to my pistol and anomaly detector, and bolting. I might have screamed as I ran; I’m not really sure. I was in panic mode, either preferring the certain death offered by the blowout to death-by-snork or forgetting it entirely, but just before I finally found my way out of the labyrinthine caves, I got a message that the blowout was over.

When all was said and done, I believe I had killed eight snorks outside the cave, in addition to whatever I’d managed to kill inside. I dropped several kilos of supplies and bolted home, where I sold my wares and swore to myself never to overburden myself again. After that, I learned to create an effective, light loadout that would help me survive any mission I undertook. I might have put a hundred hours into STALKER and a further hundred into Clear Sky, but it was Call of Pripyat that taught me what it meant to be a true STALKER. I’ll never forget it.

If that doesn’t prove games can be a wonderful storytelling medium, I don’t know what can.

Subjectivity is Absurd: Why Being an Expert is a Real Thing

(I’ll add pictures later.)

What follows is the first of two blog posts about how I think about games and games criticism. I have run into a few instances of people telling me that I can or can’t criticize certain things due to their popular reception or because these things are subjective. I feel it would be instructive to express my history and my mental approach to games and criticism in order to help people more fully understand my thought process, in order to help them understand that it’s not an issue of fanboyism or a case of the contrarian blues or a resistance to popularity or nostalgia or any of those things; I simply try to take an intellectual approach to games criticism. Hope this helps.

I am a critic.

Generally, you hear that word given a negative connotation (“everybody’s a critic!” when someone criticizes another), and in part, it’s because of the word I just used, criticize. What you may not realize, however, is that that’s the second definition in the dictionary (which, for our purposes today, is Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary). The first definition is “to consider the merits and demerits of, and judge accordingly.” A merit is, of course, whatever the object of criticism does well, and a demerit is whatever it does poorly. As a critic, it is my responsibility to judge a work and determine its quality based on its individual merits.

A core tenet of criticism–not just in games criticism, but in criticism in general, is the understanding that things can be criticized. The field of criticism cannot exist without this. When people argue that “oh, well, what I think is good is subjective…” well, no, not really. They don’t hire me to judge skating competitions because I am not an expert. Likewise, a skating judge isn’t generally hired to criticize literature. If culture was entirely subjective, and the quality of a worked was judged solely by the individual, then honestly, academic discourse on the arts would not exist. There would be no one to study the merits of art, only psychologists to study why people like certain things.

As you can see, this is not the case. Serious, knowledgeable, and intelligent people, don’t believe in subjectivity, not when it comes to defining the quality of a work.

What many people fail to understand is that one’s enjoyment of a thing does not affect the quality of that thing. There is no Observer Effect in art. How you perceive something does not affect that thing. It’s merely your perception. A critic’s responsibility is to look at that thing and judge it by the qualities that human culture has deemed to be good or bad. That’s what “good” or “bad” is. Those words exist to express how culture perceives something. Those words are not used to determine how you perceive a thing. The very dictionary definition of the word good is that it is “of a high quality or standard, either on an absolute scale or in relation to another or others.” Of perception affected good or bad, then cultural ideas determining good would have no purpose. There would be nothing inherently bad about the mass-murder of innocents, because the person committing the act perceived it to be a good thing. Instead, we would determine that their perception was wrong, that they were insane or evil, and that they deserved punishment.

Good and bad, then, can never be tied to perception. Instead, as we see by that dictionary definition, good is all about comparison, and where do we get things to compare from? Culture. Generally, a thing that is good is a thing that bears qualities that, in other, comparative works, have stood the test of time.

“But,” you may protest, “what do we use to express how we perceive a work? How do we convey our opinions?” Don’t fret. The English language has you covered. If you enjoy something, you “like” it. If you don’t enjoy something, you “dislike” it. I realize I might sound condescending there, but, in my experience, many of the people who confuse “like” and “dislike” with “good” and “bad” tend to be  very insistent people who just don’t like it when you say bad things about things that they enjoy.

And really, that’s why the idea of subjectivity is so attractive. It allows people who like bad things to defend themselves. The people who know that Twilight is bad can defend their like of it by saying “everything’s subjective!” After all, most people don’t want to admit that they like bad things (but for things like this, the English language once again comes to the rescue! They’re our guilty pleasures. I love listening to Speedycake’s Caramelldansen remix. It’s awful.)

There is absolutely nothing I, or anyone else, can do to make you like or dislike something. If I can prove, using cultural standards, that something is good or bad, this should in no way affect whether or not you enjoy something! What you enjoy is a massive complex ultimately defined by you. Your life experience, such as pleasant memories accompanying a specific song, will determine how you feel about a song. Likewise, everything from brain defects (such as the wonderful gift that is synesthesia) to belief systems to simply whatever art you have consumed will affect your perception. Despite a pretty good relationship with my mother, Pink Floyd’s “Mother,” from “The Wall” (which I believe is the greatest album ever recorded) speaks to me, and, as such, speaks to me on  a very deep level. Watching my grandmother slip into mental decline means that “Wish You Were Here,” again by Pink Floyd, also has an extreme meaning. On the flip side, I think Mozart’s music is absolutely soulless.

Each person is a unique, incredible individual. It might sound corny to say that, but, hey, it’s true. The sum of each person’s quiddity (that whatness of a person) is different for each and every person. What we like and what we dislike is a part of that. What’s good or bad… well, that’s culture. It might be argued that, indeed, everything is subjective, but that’s a debate best left to the philosophers. Critics exist and the English language has accounted for standards of good or bad and like and dislike. One is cultural, the other is personal.

Have I hammered this point home enough? I hope so.

I would be remiss if I did not mention two absolutely vital exceptions. First, there is always room for new art and cultural shift. People didn’t like Victor Hugo’s mixed-race heritage and extravagant lifestyle, so they downplayed the importance of the Count of Monte Cristo, which is one of the greatest works of fiction ever produced. The Treachery of Images, by the Belgian René Magritte, is not something that had been done before. It was a new kind of art, and as such, could not readily be compared with already existing works. One could say “oh, well, you know, that’s not a very good looking pipe; Van Gogh did it better,” but that would be missing the point. Also, Van Gogh’s pipe totally sucks.

An equally important exception is that sometimes, the rules can be broken. The rule of thirds is a good rule to follow when taking pictures. In fact, there’s a neat little blog post here that I just ran across (it uses the same blog skin I just switched to!) that explains the rule of thirds quite nicely. Check it out. However, that rule can be broken; totally centering an image has some profound effects on the viewer’s mind. It’s actually quite unpleasing to see, and when coupled with great sound design, editing, and lighting, you’ll end up with something like this scene from The Shining. By breaking this rule, Stanley Kubrick made an incredibly unpleasant image that conveyed the horror of that scene far more effectively than if he had followed rules of good film. It’s important to realize that the rules are super important, but at the same time, they aren’t hard and fast. Deep characterization and growth is absolutely important to a good story… except when it isn’t. As an example, the story (if it can be called that) of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land simply would not work with well-defined characters. Breaking the rules is okay, but unless you’re approaching something with the calculated genius of Eliot or Kubrick, then you’re more likely to benefit from following the rules.

As an aside, you may wonder why I’m not really going in-depth with what rules are good and what rules are bad. Well, there are rather a lot of them. Some of them are better described as techniques than rules. Also, a lot of these rules aren’t universal, even in terms of storytelling. There are lines that convey an idea in a book that simply won’t work in a movie, while the rules for television editing are totally different from film editing, while narrative structure in music, like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, just wouldn’t work in, say, comics. Each art medium has its own rules and techniques to follow.

I have experience as a critic. I’m not just some green kid who has a little WordPress blog; I’ve actually worked as a film and comics reviewer on a now-dead (the site imploded when its editor decided to control everything so the entire staff up and left) reviews website. I’ve also got an extensive background in literature, test extremely well in English/Literary exams (top 1% of the US scores, for what it’s worth), study film and game design, and I read like a maniac. I’ve also won a handful of writing awards. I don’t say this to toot my own horn, but to emphasize my own experience. I’m no Doctor of Literature or anything, nor am I a famous published author, but I do have more of a background than the average joe. In other words, I have more of a grasp on things like good storytelling than the average game reviewer does, even if they are paid to write about games and I’m not. When I criticize games, I’m not just saying “hey, I didn’t have fun with the game,” I’m giving you the reasons, from a lifetime of experience that most people don’t have, as to why gaming is bad. Gaming, particularly from a narrative perspective, isn’t seen as art because, hey, it’s not particularly artistic. Game writing is often quite bad. In class today, we watched part of The Room, which is generally considered The Worst Film Ever. I’ve seen worse game cutscenes.

While I realize that this sounds arrogant, I don’t really know how else to put it: most game writers are just journalists who grew up playing games. Some of them aren’t even journalists–just enthusiasts who, again, grew up playing games. You’ve got the odd few Actual Games Writers, like Kieron Gillen, and generally, the magazines hire better writers than blogs (there are exceptions: Leigh Alexander, who is a head honcho on Gamasutra and a great games writer with a lot of really thought-provoking articles, got into writing through, if I remember right, Destructoid’s community blogs), but overall, games writers just haven’t got the level of critical backing that a lot of other industries do. Partly, this is an academic failure. Next semester, I can sign up any one of a number of film, literature, music, or art courses. Video game criticism and narrative courses, on the other hand, don’t really exist.

I’m probably overselling myself here, and I certainly don’t mean to. It’s just… when you have someone who grew up with games like Final Fantasy VIII, they’re extremely likely to go “wow, this is one of the greatest love stories of all time,” even when the story was actually a case of the writers trying to force two completely unlikable (Squall seems entirely apathetic throughout the game and Rinoa is “an outspoken and passionate woman who follows her heart in all situations,” or, in other words, is a Mary Sue) characters together while going on at length about a bunch of random witches who murder people while crowds cheer and suddenly half way through “oh hey do you remember that we all grew up in an orphanage together?”

Did my sentence lose coherency there? Yeah, well, Final Fantasy VIII was worse. Within the niche that is video gaming, however, Final Fantasy VIII is extremely well liked. If you gave it to the average person, they’d call it like it is–strange, confusing drek.

It’s not just nostalgia, though. In games criticism, there are two major issues that people seem to forget about: first, game reviews are often based on initial impressions. If everyone did that, Transformers 3 would be considered one of the greatest films of all time. It’s easy to get swept up in the “HOLY COW THOSE ROBOTS JUST PUNCHED EACH OTHER!” of the moment and totally miss the fact that the writing and characters suck. In games writing, that initial “HOLY CRAP!” feeling gets carried right into the reviews, and there’s rarely pause for critical thought. The initial emotions become the review, and people just don’t bother to go “hey, wait a minute…” It’s exacerbated by the second major issue (which can be seen simply by reading various game reviews that are aggregated on Metacritic), which is that many games reviewers post a review before they’ve bothered to finish the game. This is partly due to extremely busy schedules and partly due to wanting to get new reviews out as early as possible around the time of a game’s release. What you have is a recipe for “wow, that was a really dramatic moment, so I’m going to praise this game!” and be done with it.

So! Where was I going with this?

Just this: there is such a thing as objective criticism of an art form, but not everything is absolutely concrete, and while my opinions may differ from the norm, I also have a background most professional games writers lack and am not in the kind of environment that would facilitate the initial impressions that make up most game reviews. After my first playthrough of Mass Effect 2, I was screaming about how it deserved Game of the Year. After my second, I started seeing cracks in the foundation of the game that I couldn’t ignore. I’ve got the time and expertise to talk about that… most people don’t have both, sadly. I’m not better than anyone… I just have a different scope of experience that results in me perceiving things a bit differently in a way that allows me to explore things in a way that I hope will be beneficial to others. Ultimately, I hope my criticism results in better games being made (most likely through consumers demanding better games; I have no pretentions of nabbing a game designer’s attention and causing a radical paradigm shift in her brain), and a broader acceptance of games as an art form. After all, criticism’s entire purpose is to point out what’s good and what’s bad in the hopes that the good will be seen more and the bad will be eliminated.

Don’t we want that?

That said, it doesn’t mean I won’t be subjective. I’m totally going to write about what I like and dislike here on alphatown. Looking at everything with a purely analytical eye can suck, and this blog would become dry and boring if it’s all I ever did.

One thing I didn’t touch on, by the way: I really didn’t start gaming until 2007, so I’m relatively untainted by game nostalgia. You may be going “wait… what?” right about now. Unfortunately, we’re out of time… so we’ll talk later, okay?