NPC – Non Play Criticism: Defining “Arthouse”

It is a truism in video game circles of serious thinkers that video games are a young medium and that we are forging new territory with our criticism. That is of course bullshit in both respects.

Video game critics are often cut off from other mediums. May perhaps that our medium is so new that more energy is required to get anything done as each new step is not just walking along a singular path among the fold, but having to stir and pour the concrete before a step may be taken. So much time gets spent toiling away on our own medium that we rarely look up and see the critical spheres of other mediums happening around us and the realization that so much that is considered with art is true for however an artist wishes to express themselves because it is all still human expression.

Non Play Criticism is my attempt to occasionally highlight some piece of criticism relating to another medium, educate whatever readership I may have by pointed it out and try and bring back into the fold whatever lesson it may have to offer.

If nothing else, I share an interesting piece of criticism from another medium.

Here’s the first of what is sure to become a common medium in this series: film.

I’ve shared this video quite a few times on twitter since it’s release. Despite its title, the video discuss important points regarding the dichotomy of the commercial vs. the art as well as the human need to define and categorize. What, in fact, do we mean when we call something “Arthouse?”

At one point I considered taking the script and adjusting it to a video game context, because other than proper nouns and a bit of history I don’t think much would have to change. All the points still stand, simply substitute ‘arthouse’ for ‘art game’ or ‘indie’ or ‘not-game’ or whatever the term de jour is for work of less standard construction and whose primary purpose is aimed at higher goals. I especially would have loved the challenge of trying to codify equivalents of art movements and artistic influences starting about the 1:15 and 1:40 marks respectively.

Incidentally it’s not the terms in the abstract that makes this piece of criticism interesting, it’s how the human element gets involved regarding these terms. Essentially it regards the various reactions of actual people to those terms not just theory.

“You are only artistically valuable if you are monetarily worthless.” – This quote about the doublethink at play in arthouse defined against success in particular strikes a cord with certain sectors of the video game intelligentsia. I’ve seen a rather large segment of the push regarding small games and art games with this as an undercurrent.

But that’s only a subset of the important points. Mainly why do people try to categorize and thus separate a subset of a medium more primarily interested in the art of the work that surface enjoyment of the work —a rather BS division in the first place. Yet, there is a very demonstrable division between these two efforts. We feel it or otherwise we would feel the need to identify it with a label, however broad or inaccurate.

Or at Kyle puts it, “Unlike the exploitation or Grindhouse labels put on unwatchable films of poor quality, Arthouse, as a label, is given to films unwatchable for other reasons.”

Which segues into another behavior: slapping the arthouse label onto new releases as an attempt of canonization without the pressure cooker of time and consideration of criticism to reach a general consensus of what constitutes the art of a medium.1 Specifically, it’s the comment about arthouse being used as a pedestal. Mostly it becomes a term used to circumvent thought and consideration about a work. Whether that term ultimately drives an audience towards the work or drive someone away is immaterial. The truth of the matter is that pretty much every movie shuffled under the “arthouse” label or in our case the “art game” label2 can be understood under more understood and mainstream accepted terms.3 And doing so would actually be, however slight, more accurate to understanding that work through a pop culture lens. Perception drives understanding of the term as it also inhibits the artform. Yet, whichever one we may eventually land on, is useful, if just for the broad amalgamated blob of a concept that it inhabits.

Though at the end when Kyle says, “I want you to know these films aren’t scary. (Ok some of them aren’t scary.) But they won’t bite you. You can get them. You can try and understand them on their own terms,” we should take that to heart. I think of the people who pick up a game in the so called “art game” label, even as one as straight forward and simple as Gone Home only to be lost on them because their understanding of the medium is so narrow.

Criticism in video games has grown leaps and bounds over the last—holy fuck—7 years, but it so often falls prey to a simple foible that loses both the audience of a game and the audience of criticism. It assumes far too much. We as critics have been immersed in the depths of theory and the practical study of craft for years. We have dove deeply into the darkness for the buried treasure that lies at the bottom, in the most central core of our artform, but to speak from such depths will go unheard. At some point we have to come back up for air or we drown and never leave the inky depths. We have to bring back what we have found and explain it for those who have not traveled that way.

We don’t do this. We try to explain these games on their own terms without telling anyone what those terms are. We leave out the history, the movements, the reasoning, the place where these games are coming from in our exfoliation of our own feelings and superlatives of how it moved us. I keep saying we, because I am guilty of this too. I can barely see it anymore, because I understand the unconscious short hand so many critic adopt in the more mindful areas of our field. That’s nothing to say of the wider accepted short hand of game enthusiast circles.

We keep saying that as the medium grows that we need better criticism. I think that’s overselling it. We need more basic criticism. To tackle any game on its own terms an audience need to understand what those terms are. Jump into the deep end and one needs someone who swam that deep to stand by with the scuba tank explaining what those terms are, making sure they don’t drown. We don’t do that. We are scared of doing that. We are outright hostile to doing that. And then we wonder why other people just don’t ‘get it.’

I’m not going to say Kyle Kallgren is a master of such context, but most of us could stand to learn a lesson or two from his show.((Brows Held High for the longer art movie focused reviews/critiques and Between The Lines for shorter pop culture related lesson dumps.)) I highly recommend watching some of his videos. Frankly, he’s better at contextualizing and educating to an audience, which he has to assume literally knows nothing about the subject, than most game critics. That is what we need more of.

Incidentally, does anyone know what movie the Western shown at 6:18 is suppose to be?

  1. We are humans. We are going to makes lists. Get used to it and get over it.
  2. I say “art game” instead of “indie” because frankly there are big budget games that fall under this categorization that get maligned on both sides of the question due to the weight of marketing and labeling from such that also short circuits thought and consideration.
  3. See 6:12. Another instance of me wanting to go wild trying to codify equivalents.

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