A Reader’s Manifesto and why it could be A Gamer’s Manifesto

I finished a book a little while ago entitled A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose and I loved it. I loved it so much that I’ve started calling it my little black book. It’s a long form literary critique using examples from numerous books, both – what the author calls – good and bad. It’s not a dry academic stuffy read. It is a fast, concise to the point essay about a specific topic that is not a high-minded far away abstract topic, but about book reviews, reviews people readers rely on to tell them what is good. If you love books, like books, or are thinking about reading more, I highly recommend this.

If you are thinking about writing about video games, I highly recommend this. In fact I’d call it damn near required reading, despite it being about another medium. Like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, you need to read this. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that even though it’s about books, the critical writing he takes to task and the subject matter of such writing is equally analogous to the mainstream review writing and culture that revolves around video games. The second is the correct usage of the word “pretentiousness” with regards to it’s meaning in relation to critical analysis of the arts.

The second point can be made faster so I’ll deal with it first, before moving on to the bulk of the argument in favor of this book. ‘Pretentiousness’ is a word that gets thrown around a lot with regards to anyone who should dare to think above “duuuhh duhhh, explosions are fun.” Of course for most the word pretentious is far to big, so the meaning is implied or long explanations utilizing short words that could be summed up with ‘pretentious’ are used instead. You’ve seen them used. Recently it has become a hallmark phrase of people who want to avoid thinking about something negative or difficult.

It’s just a game.

What they are saying in effect it, ‘stop being a pretentious douchebag.’ The last word is added to connote the spirit in which the comment is given. That is what they are saying, what they really mean is, ‘stop bringing this shit up, I don’t want to hear/think about it.’

Pretentious – adj- 1. making usually unjustified or excessive claims (as of value of standing) 2. expressive of affected, unwarranted or exaggerated importance, worth or stature (Merriam-Webster)

That is what the word actually means. I want to establish that for most of the words usage or implied usage it doesn’t fit. I direct you to Moff’s Law for a full explanation.

So, if the word’s usage is not proper with regards to thinking critically about video games or any creative endeavor, then why would I apply it to the writing about video games after I just discounted its use? Because it is wrong to use it as a pejorative or first response against a thoughtful argument because it happens to be about video games, or again any creative endeavor. Even if you don’t agree with the argument or the argument is really outlandish and seemingly far fetched the term still isn’t applicable based solely on those grounds. No, pretentious is an adjective describing a very particular instance of critical assessment. It comes in two forms and this is where I segue neatly into the first point above.

A pretentious analysis is one that is unsupported or pulled from one’s ass. The first is self-explanatory. If you make a declaration or assessment and then do not back it up or explain yourself you are being pretentious. Saying the sky is blue and then not explaining that’s the color our eyes are interpreting based off of light refraction is not pretentious, it’s a shortcut. We know the sky is blue; it is a basic, natural, observable fact. I am specifically talking about statements of assessment or declaration of quality.

Over and over, B.R. Myers will excerpt passages, or rather sentences from books that were first excerpted by praising book reviewers. He only uses excerpts that were praised for their quality by high profile book reviewers first. In nearly every case the reviewer will describe the passage as great or insightful or maybe compare it to a literary great of the past and then give the quote. And then would move on. They would not defend their thesis that this excerpt warrants merit or mention. Meyers would often counter with a quality quote from a much better book. To show you what I mean I’ll pull one of the “so-called great literary passages” at random.

There’s something about German names…I don’t know what it is exactly. It’s just there. (White Noise).

Thank you for wasting my time then with those two sentences. I wont bother to give Myers appraisal of it, because I had to read this book and have been waiting 3 years to eviscerate it somewhere. I hate White Noise and in my Contemporary Fiction class I couldn’t help but feel, deep down, that it was bullshit. You can usually tell something about a book by its first sentence.

The station wagons arrived at noon, a long shining line that coursed through the west campus. (White Noise)

Yeah that’s memorable. I had to look that fucker up. Here are some other first lines:

“Call me Ishmael.”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
“It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
“Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth.”
“In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.”
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

I shouldn’t have to label any of those quotes for you to recognize them or at least know where they came from. Every single one of them immediately holds your interest to read the next sentence. They are evocative and can be pulled apart word by word to discover the care and craft that went into them. The first line is probably the most important single line of any book.

There is nothing technically wrong with the first line in White Noise, but then there is nothing technically wrong with a lot of published books, but I wouldn’t call them literary genius. There is nothing technically wrong with the first line of The DaVinci Code:

Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

Again, nothing wrong with the line itself, it even tantalizes with a few intriguing questions of “who is Jacques Sauniere?” “Why is he ‘renowned?'” “Why is he staggering?” and “Where is the Grand Gallery that it must be capitalized?” The thing is, now that I look at it, this is a better first sentence than White Noise has. It is well crafted, it may not be superiorly crafted like the above list, but it gets the job done and throws in a few mysteries. But the real bug I have with White Noise is the third and fourth sentences. After two short ones, we get a sentence that is half a page long. That by itself is not the problem. I love Proust and he holds several of the top places for longest grammatically correct English sentences in publication. (These go on for several hundred words. I believe the longest is in excess of 950.) I’ll reproduce Don DeLillo’s third and fourth sentences here; you can skim it instead of reading it.

The roofs of the station wagons were loaded down with carefully secured suitcases full of light and heavy clothing; with pillows, quilts; with rolled-up rugs and sleeping backs, with bicycles, skies, rucksacks, English and Western saddles, inflated rafts. As cars slowed to a crawl and stopped, students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to begin removing the objects inside; the stereo sets, radios, personal computers; small refrigerators and hairdryers and styling irons, the tennis rackets, soccer balls, hockey ad lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows; the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping bags-onion -and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn, the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints. (White Noise)

Yes, it is an enormous list and is important enough to take up one fourth of the book’s first chapter. The first chapter is two pages long. My teacher spent so much time explaining the meaning behind this list and the emotions its post-modern affectations and styling are instilling in the reader about consumerism. I did what Myers explains all people do, skimmed it. Unless it’s a shopping list for what we are shopping for and have to locate each individual item, we don’t take in a list. We skim it and confirm that yes it is a list. This quote was found in nearly every favorable review of White Noise a book I called later, because I would have failed the class had I spoken up at the time, a hulking waste of my time and why I couldn’t be bothered to read much of the material for that class. Part of A Reader’s Manifesto‘s well, manifesto is that much of contemporary literary fiction is meant to be skimmed and thought profound, but if one puts an inkling of thought or actually reads the words slowly, it all falls apart. The above is a perfect example. The effect only comes over the reader when skimmed. Should you actually read it, like we did in class and go down the list you can’t help but think it a waste of time. And then to be told it is a sublime commentary on consumerism, that’s pretentious bullshit. See, it wasn’t the writing itself, although when you add in the author’s aspirations and inflated opinion of himself, then it becomes pretentious, but it was my teacher’s assessment of it. For this is the second type of pretentious analysis, pulling it out of one’s own ass, or to be less colloquial – making an assertion and then supporting it with something that isn’t there. Also known as lying.

Back to that original quote that started this train of examples, what was it again?

There’s something about German names…I don’t know what it is exactly. It’s just there. (White Noise).

Ah, thank you. Again, what was the point of this line? You say there is something about German names, but don’t know what. In other words you could have not written it. No, it’s not “just there” you have to explain it. Don’t expect me to do the work. I didn’t bring it up.

All of these lines aren’t the problem. By themselves they are just stupid, inane and general wastes of time. The pretentious ones are the ones that try to inadequately defend them. They think there is a profundity to saying ‘I don’t know, it’s just there.’ Or as Myers puts it “I knew this without knowing why.” That is saying there aren’t the words to explain why something is, is some great insight. No it’s laziness. DeLillo has gone on the record saying: Writing is the concentrated form of thinking. This is like one of those Jon Stewart comparison moments where something great is compared to something stupid and contradictory that the exact person suggested for humorous appeal.

So, what does all that literary analysis have to do with video games? Quite a lot. The afflictions that infect the literary reviewers are analogous to the reviewers of video games. In condensed form, Myers suggests there are only three possible responses when a critic is asked to review a work of literature:

1. “Praise the novel and novelist.”
2. “Lament that novel is unworthy of novelist’s huge talent,” (But still praise it).
3. “Review someone else’s novel instead.”

To paraphrase:
1.Praise the video game with a high score
2.Lament it wasn’t as good as you hoped, but decent (And still give it an inflated high score)
3.Review another game instead

Number 3 isn’t as used, though given how much shovelware gets put out and not reviewed you can be sure that the mean, median and average review remains high.

This graphic may be in jest, but is underlies a sad reality about video game reviews, the populous criticism. In some cases it may be about not having raised your standards enough, as it seems if it runs technically well then it guarantees a 6 already. But then this falls apart for the biggest of big releases, full of game stopping, save deleting, console crashing bugs getting 9s. Read that again, because they are not exaggerations. “Game stopping.” “Save deleting.” “Console crashing.” Of course I’m talking about Fallout: New Vegas. That the game got so many high scores despite not being able to run most of the time is unconscionable. As of writing this, the game has an 82 Metacritic average for the PS3 version, with the lowest score being a 60. The 360 version has an even higher rating with an 84. Yes, the developers fixed most, note only most, of the bugs through patches. A minority of consoles are connected to the internet meaning that most will never see those patches. These are the same people who buy only a few games a year. One of their $60 purchases is unplayable and it has an 84 average. I’m guessing this game falls under the second category of praise. It’s bad, but you still praise it because of its lineage/who it comes from.

If you want batshit writing and under supported or unsupported main stream video game writing, well you can go here to find an archive of it.

It’s all about honesty. I’m not talking about reviewers supposedly being paid off to like or hate a game. Whether that happens or not has no bearing on what I’m talking about. I’m also not talking about badly written reviews in the form of poor structure or being unclear or convoluted at times.

This is not a well-written review. Back in January is caused a small furor on Reddit and later on the rest of the internet over people complaining how bad it is. The craftsmanship and tone have been criticized elsewhere; instead I want to look at what it says and not how it says it. It is not pretentious in the way I’ve described above. Greg Miller supports his claim about Dead Space 2. He says it’s a 9 out of 10, which on their scale means it is Amazing. He thinks it’s amazing and everything he says works to that effect and he supports it with evidence from the game. When talking about the game’s combat flow he gives the example:

Slowing down a Necromorph, blowing off its arm, and using the severed limb to impale the foe on a wall is a thing of beauty that doesn’t get old.

It’s a descriptive, specific moment. The line implies that it happens over and over, but the presentation of this example is so good the repetition doesn’t lose its horrific charm and is emblematic of the other moves you can pull off. It’s better than simply saying the combat doesn’t get old.

I know that “linear” is a bad word in the video game industry, but the package is so well done here that I can’t knock Dead Space 2 for taking me on a very specific ride that’s marked by awesome moments, environments that range from a cheery schoolhouse to pitch black rooms, and sound that’s so well done I’d find myself trying to figure out if it was a monster making its move or my dog rummaging in the living room.

This line goes on and would have been better as two or three sentences, but the point it makes is solid. He says the game is linear and though many do not like linear, the reviewer doesn’t care with regards to this particular title, because of the environments (which he gives examples to show their range and variety), picks out the sounds as integral part of the experience and of course the “awesome moments.” I’m not going to go too far in defending the review for reasons I linked above. It’s slapdash writing that for a site as major as IGN reeks of unprofessionalism. Poor grammar and tense changes plague the thing, but like the Dan Brown line it’s workman like. The review is not exemplar, but it does its job.

And then there is the other type of review, the kind of review that seems just to list a game’s qualities and assign a score. Author Jen from TheGameFanatics wrote such a review on Dragon Age 2. Forget even the writing quality, which is no more than banal, but that by the end of it I couldn’t tell if she like it or not or rather if she would recommend it or not.

The first half of the review is plot summary, but doesn’t say anything about it. She mentions she got a Final Fantasy XII vibe from the story, but what specifically gave her that vibe and if that’s a good or bad thing in her eyes. I don’t know. It says that making friends and gift giving is easier than before, but again is that good or bad. Then it goes on to talk about the features of the game like interface and combat, but it makes no pronouncements about them. It might as well be a features list, because that is what it is, a gussied up features list. When she does give her opinion it’s nearly always negative: confusing and laborious code inputs and installs, annoying popups, poor sound mixing, dated graphics, bunch of glitches and bugs (including a screenshot of one) and she notes two weeks later there still isn’t a patch. That’s quite a lot of complaints. She finally lists a few points she liked, for example the fact the game is never the same twice or that the game offers choice, but what does that mean? How does it make sure it’s the never the same game twice? Ok, it offers choice, but to what degree and how good are they?

Again, there is so little there I couldn’t tell if she would recommend it or not. If she did I figured it would be one of those decent above average, but not exceptional recommendations then I see it got 9 stars. What the hell? There is nothing in the text that warrants the final-word praise like it does.

It’s not the only one either. IGN’s Homefront review makes a lot of declarations like it’s not an elite shooter, or the shooting, voice acting and sound is serviceable, but nothing special. The thing about it, it never says why. I only have Colin Moriarty’s word for it that all of this is the case. He never backs up any of his claims with evidence from the game. At least Greg Miller did in a few spots.

Then we have Susie Lye’s Homefront review at GameNTrain that does what I thought we moved passed, splitting the review into looking at the individual sections (gameplay, story, graphics, sound) in turn. That doesn’t help me if I’m buying the whole product. How much does each of these matter when looked at as a whole? Is sound important like in Dead Space or Silent Hill? Do the graphics detracts from the shooting or can I make out what I’m doing? And what exactly is “Gameplay Overall?”

Or Ken Laffrenier of XboxAddict who doesn’t get to the game in his review until it’s a fourth of the way done. Then he waxes lyrical in such a convincing way, that you know he likes the game, but it doesn’t tell you why you’d like the game. It describes little about the actual game and even less why any of that is good. It comes to a head in a really perplexing paragraph where he explains the story is amazing if you had read the companion novel, which expands on the invasion through the eyes of “an intricate character” that narrates in the game, but I don’t see how between level voice over narration is a good video game story. Also, why is it good if I have to read a supplemental novel to get everything? This isn’t even a right to his opinion thing, it’s just wrong. The game’s story is good, because I read the book? It talks about influences and mentions some stuff that’s in the game, but never seems to say anything about the mechanics; you know the actual things you press buttons to do in the game and never gives qualifying statements. This isn’t just bad it’s baffling.

It comes down to being an honest reviewer. Not just honest with the audience, but honest with yourself. It means not calling a game average and then giving it a 7 or up. 7 out of 10 is not average, not even close. The mathematical average on a 10-point scale is 5. On a scale of 100 it’s 50. You have to be willing to use the full range of scores. The most common numbers you should be giving out if you are a review site is from 4-6. Most games should be in that range. Kill Screen says the range should be between 3-7, but the main point holds. If you are being honest you should recognize most games aren’t amazing or incredible or phenomenal or life altering or “the most important video game of our generation” or bad or terrible or dog piss. Most games are ho-hum, run of the mill, bland, forgettable, in other words: average.

Now with this shocking revelation washing over you, here’s another: reviews are opinions. Reviews are subjective. Subjective does not mean objective. The number attached to the review is not scientific, it is not an objective result derived from critical observation. It is a subjective opinion derived from critical observation. If a reviewer gives a substantially different score from another reviewer it does not mean one is wrong and the other isn’t (if they both supported their arguments). It means they disagree. They have the right to their own opinion, what I’m championing is the assertion that they do not have the right to their own facts. Regardless of anything else, how good the animation is, how deep the story is, how nuance the characters are, how tight the controls are, New Vegas is not a good video game because of the game breaking bugs and coding errors that will not allow it to run. I don’t care how good your game mechanics are if the game freezes up on me consistently and constantly. Your game is broken and is not good.

I will end this with a few reviews sites or in some cases sites that do reviews that are honest. I may not agree with some of them, hell some of the reviewers on the same site do not agree with one another, but they are honest for the reasons I have outlined above.

Game Critics is the most mainstream game review site here. They hit all the major releases and much of the minor ones and unheard of one as well. They use the full scale and are not afraid to exercise that against major release titles like Brad Galloway’s 2.5 for Dragon Age 2. If a reviewer disagrees strongly enough they will do another full review as a second opinion, with a new score. I’ve seen third opinions too. Each review was given a different score and each one was a supported argument.

PopMatters is a site that concerns itself with all forms of popular culture. There is the Moving Pixels blog, which is higher minded and analytical criticism, but they also do reviews. Again these use the full spectrum of the 10-point scale and are backed up arguments. Even if they flounder like their recent Dragon Age 2 review. With regards to support of her score, Kris Ligman defends it in the text. She liked the game despite the flaws it presented even if she is not entirely sure why, but says so. She admits she may not be exactly sure why, but she says so and gives her best estimation. You may not agree with it, but that is the act of an honest reviewer on an honest site.

Yahtzee – love him or hate him – is an honest reviewer. In his very hasty, no pause video review he delivers his opinion in around 5 minutes every week. What is more interesting to note is how his reviews are often received. He is the only reviewer I mention in this post not to use a score and often his watchers are confused as to whether or not he likes a game. This is the viewers’ fault and not his. He is very clear whether or not he like a game, it’s just the gamer audience is so used to the extremes they cannot recognize gradients anymore. Some games he likes a little, some a lot and some not at all. He may not follow the mainstream, but he is always true to his own opinions and always backs them up.

Paste Magazine has a more limited video game section and does less frequent reviews, mostly on high profile releases. They have some of the best-written reviews out there and go beyond simply what the game is, how well it works and how much they like it. They try to explain the game’s appeal and the effect it has on a player. Kirk Hamilton’s Limbo review should be proof enough. It says little on the game itself, but after you read it you know whether or not you want to play it yourself to experience what it has to offer. To keep consistency Kirk Hamilton gave Dragon Age 2 a 4.5, to him a “forgettable.”

Kill Screen has the best spiel on game review scores I might have ever read. I referenced it above, but please read the whole thing here. Now they don’t do the volume that the major mainstream sites do, nor have they focused much on the AAA titles. Their editor-in-chief has said they are not adverse to them; they just haven’t received those submissions yet. They’re focus is mostly on indies and the iOS/Android platforms. I’ve seen their scores go as low as the 20s and the highest I’ve seen to date is a 79 out of 100, which was later changed to a 93 and that was a nothing but praise review, also the only 80+ they’ve published. They have high standards and do not sacrifice them. They want to elevate video games and video game writing so they must hold themselves to a higher standard.

These are the honest sites with well-written reviews. There are plenty of examples of well-done reviews within each of them. Most reviews are subject to the hype. They are influenced by it and tainted by it for one reason or another. The thing is to remember, when the game is no longer new, when the game is years old and the hype has died down, the commercials are no longer on TV and the news/preview/news cycle has stopped, all that’s left are the words. All that’s left are what the critics had to say. I’ve gone back to some of the major sites to see what they had to say on modern classics like Shadow of the Colossus and have been sorely felt wanting by what I found.

You may have found it egregious that a lot of what I had to say focused on the scores a game was given. I did it because that is what the industry, all three sides of it are, are focused on. The developers/publishers makes many of their decisions based on what the critics score it, the average consumer makes his decision or validates it with the scores, and the journalists, as much as they rail against them put a lot of effort into defending them. The score is the thesis in a way and the text is the support for that thesis. If you think a game is a 9.0 then your writing has to support that, just as if you called a game a 1.0, the writing must support that. But most of all raise your expectations to reality. Set the record straight. A 6 or a 7 is still above average and could be that fun game. Save the high scores for something that truly deserves it. And when I mean high I don’t mean 9.0 and above. The inflated review scores are a major part of the problem; so major you could say they are the problem for they cause all the others. 7,8,9 and 10 are all high scores they are just different degrees of high. Arguing the score is pointless, it is his opinion and so long as he supports his opinion it is his. But as it goes, there is opinion and then there is just plain wrong. If the reviewer calls a game mediocre and grants it a 7 or an 8 then yes he is wrong.

You can argue that the 10 point method is not the best way to go and sing the praises of letter scoring or 5 stars, but it all comes down to the same thing: you must be honest and use the full range of what ever scoring method you use or your opinion has no value. Everything is not wonderful, just like everything is not crap. You have to explain yourself, because the explanation is the important part. Not the score and not the ‘your opinion.’ It’s why you have that opinion that matters, because if you tear the game apart the person reading may feel they want to try out the game, because what you didn’t like may appeal to them and vice-a-versa.

You really should pick up A Reader’s Manifesto, it’s a brilliant piece of literary criticism, but more than that it’s criticism about an embedded review culture staked in keeping itself afloat. Myers notes that in the period before he wrote and published it there were strong rise in sales of classic novels, because the reader of quality literature had been burned and knew they could no longer trust any sterling review, because they were all sterling. The writers gained an inflated image of themselves, where in Cormac McCarthy’s case he had produced some great craftsmanship, later seemed to be phoning it in because no one told him otherwise. You tell someone what they are doing is great and wonderful when it’s not, it will not drive them to do better things, constructive criticism will.

The title A Reader’s Manifesto is there to assert its literary origins about the review culture around books and more specifically post-modernism literature that is presently in vogue. But it is more than that. It can speak to any review culture, either as a warning or as a mirror. A Reader’s Manifesto is for review readers as a whole. The problems and arguments may be about books, but the defensiveness, ad hominem attacks and step-by-step analysis of the response to any challenge to embedded elite reflects on all of us.

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