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.
It took a long time to get to this one despite having a degree in it: Literature.
This time we have a neat essay about a trend in books: the near future novel. Bill Morris pins it on the result of The Road’s success and its influence finally coming home to roost in every sector of the publishing industry, now seeing fruit in literary fiction. That’s all well and good and one might even pull a book or two mentioned in the article that sounds interesting for later reading.
I have a question for you. While reading it, did you happen to notice what type of article it was? Go back and scan over it. I’ll wait.
It’s seemingly structured like any other think piece, but really that’s only an interestingly executed facade. If you pay attention, you’ll notice it is in fact a top 5. Yep. It’s a listicle. Count the number of featured books. Look at the structure of the piece. Each book has its own section of a few paragraphs, segments from each other with a discussion of what makes each book worthwhile. If it helps, mentally put a number before each section or change the title to “Top 5 Near Future Literary Novels”. You’ll see I’m right.
I’ve said for years now there isn’t anything inherently wrong with Top X lists. I’ve written a few myself in the past.1 Such articles serve a very important function. See I don’t just deal in video games. I have interests in other mediums as well, as if you couldn’t tell, but with some (read most) I don’t know a whole lot or they’re just too expansive. Sometimes I need a drive-by survey education. I don’t have a lot of time and I need to know what is worth my time. Top 10 graphic novels, sounds like a great place to start digging in. Top 10 Hong Kong action flicks, sure I’d like to broaden my horizons. Top 10 romance novels, ok I haven’t done this one, but you get my point. They’re a great starting point and for more esoteric lists a great continuation point.
Really the problem is that such lists try to be authoritative or rather dogmatic. The Top X Games of All Time. The Best Games on the SNES. They try to assert some sort of objective reality or pretend there is some mathematical system behind them. It dictates a an calcification of the status quo. Everyone reads it and nods their head in unison. When the same games are featured over and over critical awareness and appraisal stagnates. It’s why Ocarina of Time has the title “Greatest Game of All Time” without the winking smirk that gets attached to Stairway to Heaven when similar proclamations are made of it. “So say we all.”
Really all lists are authoritative. Anything declarative is to some degree authoritative. It shouldn’t become dogma. It should be open to revisitation and interpretation. The AFI 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time was a nice bit of fun, hosted by Morgan Freeman. But no serious critic gave it much weight. They saw it for what it was. A nice way to get the larger audience talking about the films and thinking of what their own choices would be. The authoritative list is the one conducted by Sight and Sound Magazine every decade. Also, not just limited to American films, but all films. Most notably it isn’t called a list, but a poll. It’s a survey of the present critical culture. Times change, opinion change and values change. The Sight and Sound poll marks those changes. It’s not dogma. After all, according to it, as of 2012, Citizen Kane is now only the 2nd best movie of all time.2
A further problem, and this stems from the authoritative one above, is that lists are supposed to be discussion starters, but they are rarely framed that way. I don’t mean at the end tacking on a “what do you think?” comment bait line. I mean real critical engagement with each item in the list attempting to explain the rational behind its inclusion and placement over something else.3 Sometimes a list can say something specific about a genre or feature in video games by virtue of what is placed on it, why and more importantly what was left off.
Such lists can be telling. I can read a list and like it without agreeing with it, so long as I learn something. Either about the works included on it, the author/collective that wrote it, the culture in which the list is cultivated from or the broader values held in a moment in time. Survey works are a barometer of taste and that can be challenged and debates on the merits of what is brought up in the piece.
Another problem is that lists are usually ill defined. In video games, publications let the title speak for itself. That isn’t really a great idea when they end up being broad like “Top X of Y of All Time.” It means the reader fill in all the blanks of what any of that means. A list isn’t just a list. It is a form of criticism. It’s critiques by valorizing the best or demonizing the worst of a particular topic. Criticism through curation. It’s placing one thing alongside another and trying to say something about them in the process. The most egregiously poor examples are those that try to be definitive and universal and end up saying nothing.4
I actually have some respect for the Top 100 Video Games of All Time lists IGN used to do annually. Partially because they were compiled from readers voting, but also because there were so many you could see a vision in the aggregate. Once one knew how the games were chosen, you could see the tastes of a community at that point in time within. But even better, because it was annual, you could see the shifting appraisals year by year as some games rose, other fell and some dropped off entirely. Compare that to this awful list by EMPIRE Magazine of all places.5 Reading through, it didn’t feel like something molded by consideration and curation of various works. Instead it reads more like a list of 100 games they remembered the titles of.
The literature one in question spends a good many paragraphs giving historical context to a present trend. Morris explains what he means by near future novel and then gives an example to highlight particulars of the trend. Furthermore, he interrupts his list to clarify by giving a greater breadth of historical context before diving back into his examples. At the end, he notes common threads between the various authors and novels, musing of the themes grasped onto and practices such work opens up in the literary field.
I was being disingenuous earlier. It isn’t “Top 5 Near Future Literary Novels,” it’s “Five Good Near Future Literary Novels.” It’s introducing material the reader may not be familiar with, two are first time authors, but might be interested in, In the process, he’s making a point about the present state of publishing and a point about the near future genre.
Lists are a useful form of criticism to illuminate culture, art and society through survey of works. The problem when they are done with video games is that they are too steeped in history carved in stone, unwilling to reevaluate. Even non-enthusist outlets, think there is some objective way of measuring them. An attitude that stems from most refusing to accept the medium as an art form and will not treat it with the dignity of subjective, reasoned discourse. List articles aren’t the problem. Ironically it’s that we don’t take them and the video games they are about seriously that is the problem. It’s not enough to gather some titles, describe them and then slap on some numbers.
This award season, I offer a few thoughts for all the Game of the Year lists to come. These lists are the curated face you will present to the world. These are what you thought were the best or more worthwhile games of 2014. Perhaps, if for no one else but yourself, define what that means. Before hand, after hand, whatever. Doesn’t matter. A personal list reflects on you personally. What does that list say about your tastes in this year of 2014? If it is a collaborative list, what does it say about your site, association or circle? Furthermore, what does what you think is the best say about the year we just had?((Yes, a year is an arbitrary segment of time, but its one we all agree upon.)) A list can be buyer’s guide, be upfront and admit it as such. It can be representative of artistic quality, say what those qualities are to you. It can eschew other considerations and be a statement unto itself, explain what you are saying to your audience. But really the greatest loss by year and years of sub-par list articles is they became call to arms. We forgot they’re suppose to be fun.
- And recently too. [↩]
- It’s voting stock had been shrinking decade on decade prior to being dethroned by Vertigo two years ago. Vertigo wasn’t even on the list prior to 2002. It was reappraised a little before then and esteem around that film grew as Hitchcock’s other masterpiece, Suspicion, fell out of the top 10. [↩]
- You can see my attempts to do that in my pieces. [↩]
- I was going to make a joke by adding “except for the author’s own self-inflated ego” but even that’s not really true. It would require an injection of the author’s self into it to accomplish that. And if they did it would probably be a list worth reading. [↩]
- Don’t bother reading through. There’s only a single item on each page. Just click to begin and scroll to the very bottom. They have the whole numbered list down there in a box. [↩]