NPC – Non Play Criticism: Elegance

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.

This topic may be a bit more on the ball than usual: Writing.

This is a post that has stuck with me for a long time, since I first read it. Lodged there in the back of my brain it would occasionally bubble up to remind me that this was a thing that existed. It was written over 10 years ago in October of 2004. I was in high school and very big into Magic: The Gathering. So much so that I would read lots and lots of stuff about the game, including the daily columns on the official Wizards of the Coast site.

Normally, Mark Rosewater, at the time head of design for Magic1, would focus on the design of the game, both in specifics regarding cards and sets, to the general of marco issues concerning the game and the general philosophy of design itself. In fact, before I reread the article I thought it was about this general idea of design. That category up there was going to be Design. However, the piece is instead about the craft of writing.

So, Elegance by Mark Rosewater. All of it is good general advice for improving your writing in both style and clarity. These aren’t hard and fast rules, but things one would think about when going through a draft. These are things to consider to make one’s writing stronger, clearer and in a word more elegant.

Regarding the content, all of that is true. But let’s be honest, the advice is not what you noticed. No, the first thing and probably the only thing you took from that piece is that having a 50 word article with each word being a link to a new page with a short passage about elegance is an all around bad idea. It is distracting from the point, a needless style choice and in the words of Corvus Elrod, “the least elegant thing I have ever read.”

There is some irony in that.

Since I first decided to do this feature, I’ve wanted to do this piece. I never could find an angle on it. On the one hand it is god writing advice, but the format makes it too difficult to digest. On the other hand, hypertext work has come a long way since 2004 and in some cases is criticism itself like the review people have made in Twine. Yet, hypertext has come so far that this cave painting like version of doesn’t seem to elucidate much on the subject. What I had was an example in search of a topic of which to be an example of.

Then, while writing that description of the piece, it came to me just like I hoped it would. See, Mark Rosewater is an decent writer and an interesting guy. He has his quirks, but all around ire and fury are not generally descriptions you’d think of to describe the reactions to his column. He’s not the type of person who offends people.2

The rage this column induced was astounding. I don’t trawl through comments section or the forums where they put them back then. Social media wasn’t a thing yet. Instant reactions weren’t something one was aware of unless you went out of your way in search of them. Yet, I knew of how much this column was hated. Going through the actual content of the piece reveals really nothing worth getting angry over, yet the form of piece was rage inducing.

It is true in all things, both in art and criticism. It isn’t just what you say, but how you say it. Of course that saying is usually in reference to tone, generally when the speaker is giving good advice with condescending or otherwise dickish tone. This is a more literal illustration of the concept.

But back to the concept of anger inducing. This is a more common thing among art that dares to break with convention via form. When conventions and standards are broken with content it’s usually followed by purse clutching and woe for the children wailing. However, when one deigns to affect how something is presented, that’s when teeth gnashing comes out. The Rite of Spring in 1913 and Venom and Eternity in 1952 both garnered riots from their audiences. Both because of their formal break with convention rather than anything they may have said within their work. Such changes can garner a bigger reaction out of an audience than anything else. It says something about us, but I’m not sure what.

Harnessing how you say something to end of driving the content of what you say deep into your audiences mind is a hallmark of great art. One could think that it is the greater affect taking hold on the audience that creates the reaction. Or maybe, given that humans are so greatly afraid of change, even change that benefits them, they the fight against it. To see a difference against our expectations is enough to hate it. We can accept anything that is said so long as the person saying it wears a suit. Changing up how we convey out message may get people shaken out of their stupor. Although, at the same time, it may get people to ignore the message itself in their rage.

  1. I think he’s VP of the entire division now, but don’t quote me on that. []
  2. You know other than being in charge of a huge game property played by hundreds of thousands if not millions the world over and the reaction anyone can expect even for breathing when in a position like that. []

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