I assure you, dear reader, that this will indeed be a post about criticism in the abstract, a post that treads upon that discourse-ground I always seem to revert to: the nature of games as a distinct artistic medium. But, I will begin this post with something more rambling and anecdotal, so if you want to avert your already-rolling eyes from my banal and gauche personal life then the pseudo-intellectual meat of this post begins after the line of asterisks.
Moving on, I am proud to announce that I HAVE ABSOLUTELY GONE AND DONE IT, LADDY, that I have VERITABLY PULLED A MAD ONE in that York University have offered me a place on their Interactive Media course next year! I don’t want to jinx my chances before the requisite grades are achieved but, as I’m sure some of you will know, I have been besotted with the course since September and it’s a good feeling to have overcome the interview, the most anxiety-inspiring step along the path.
I don’t know what it is- I’m an A Level Drama student, by Jove!- but nerves just grab a hold of me sometimes. In the forum of the Drama classroom I am transformed: I am de-cocooned and my theatrical wings do soar far above trepidation and reservation, those emotions are known only to my twaterpillar self outside of the actor’s arena. My actor-duty asserts itself within my very marrow, it rumbles deeply. I shed all trace of self as I step upon that stage, and a blood-pact is drawn, I am its servant and it is mine. I can roar, twitter, screech, wiggle and writhe, all sorts of excitements that would never be drawn out of my usual faterpillar self outside of the heaven-quarantine that is the stage. All these things the stage kindles: the hot coals of anger, the heart-balm and potassium-flame of romance, these things that manifest themselves physically in the otherwise absurd, all are permitted in that soul-stadium of the stage. There, I am flesh malleable. I am actor-sand. I am thesp-putty.
Okay, I’m writing pratty (it’s a hobby of mine), but what I’m honestly trying to get at is that being or having been a drama student really has taught me what I believe to be an invaluable skill: forgetting yourself entirely. On the stage it is an absolute necessity to be able to forget yourself, not on a temporal or spatial basis, but of pure self-instruction. Otherwise I would not, say, be a character experiencing an apotheosis of purest anger, I would be a Drama student slapping one of my good friends in the face on a Thursday afternoon. I would not be a 20-something jaded writer indulging in romantic misconduct with my highschool sweetheart, I would be me, kissing the lips of another when I know full well I have a most gracious and aesthetically pleasing lady of my own (for privacy reasons I will not post a photo but she makes me look like a blobfish with acute acne)! People who don’t study theatre, or people who have never exhibited the otherwise insensitive on stage I would imagine don’t understand that there is a duty there. And that duty comes along with having to train your personality to suspend itself, lest you suffer the inner repercussions of otherwise morally irreconcilable and reprehensible acts. If you can’t learn to do that, to shed yourself and your reservations, then you’re just a cheating arsehole who happy-slaps his friends on a regular basis.
You’d be forgiven to think that this teachable skill would promote duplicity in real life more than anything else, and I can see why you’d think that, but in my experience the complete solipsistic inversion that is known through Drama has taught me how to summon up confidence in my own life more than anything else. Nerves have affected me less now that Drama has affected me more.
Alas! After I ascended those fateful steps to my interview at York University (project to present during interview: in backpack, sweater: tight, show them you’re an athletic nerd, face: not too many spots, body language: how do you shake hands again?, perspiration: soaking, phone: three good luck texts from Mum, self: 2 hours late (both trains cancelled!)), and after I opened the destiny-door that for months I had anticipated, I did a quick self-assessment and found that I had the constitution of a ziplock bag of cat urine.
Where had all that disciplined confidence gone? I must have shook my interviewer’s hand like it was a raw fillet steak. Had I eaten one of my preliminary Polos? That’s it, if my breath smells anything close to the Burger King (courtesy of York Old Railway Station) I had for lunch, then the gap year is upon me. I was very nervous. He was far too handsome for me not to be very nervous. A dashing man with perfect teeth teaching University modules on videogames like Dear Esther? What could possibly make me more nervous? The Gods- nay- the devils were conspiring against me. My voice quavered. I sounded like a rusty accordion.
Well, despite the initial nervousness that I felt betrayed the Drama student in me, my interviewer and I gradually developed a better rapport and we, at one point, touched upon the subject of games critique. I remember saying that the nature of games means that games critique is distinct from, particularly, critique of literature. There we go, 900 words and we’ve finally got to the point.
Those who read my posts often (I really don’t understand you lot) will know that I’ve done posts on books before. I’ve looked at novels dear to me such as Birdsong, gob-smackingly intelligent but bewildering works such as Lolita, and even books I came to love through games, like Fables. I’ve always reflexively regarded literature and games as innately separate and so therefore incomparable, but recently I’ve been thinking about the differences between book and game reviews and how the book review is innately successful as an assessment where the game review cannot have the same kind of innate understanding of the work it is reviewing.
What is unique about the book review, as opposed to the film, music, or game review, is that the medium of expression in both the subject and object of the review is the same: words. To review a piece of literature the critic must demonstrably understand and manipulate the very same methods of expression as the author he is critiquing. You are using words to criticise the use of words. Granted, the reviewer is likely not using narrative devices to criticise narrative devices, but already by using words to tackle words, language to assess language, there is no such epistemic or critical gulf when it comes to the issue of the game review.
The main purpose of this post is to express how strange it is, as an active participant in games criticism, to mull over the fact that I use written language to assess media that deviates from using written language as expression. Games criticism, an important sector of the industry and social sphere of videogames as a whole, and a rapidly expanding one, is largely found within the written medium. Reviews of videogames express, through written language, the reviewer’s response to his experience, an experience translated to him through interaction. Much the same can be said of the book review, in which the reviewer uses written language to express his emotions gathered from the experience of reading the book. But what is different about the book review is that the reviewer, simply by virtue of writing the review, shows an understanding of the book as a creation as well as a piece of media. The game reviewer cannot show such an understanding of the game as a creation by writing.
There is so much more to a game as a creation than simply what is felt by the reviewer during his experience. There are complex systems of coding, aesthetic design and interface systems that the reviewer simply does not have to understand in order to express what he felt and took away from the product. What game review have you read recently that criticised intimately the net code or Unity code for the product?
I’m not writing this post to posit a serious problem with game reviews. I don’t know much code and I feel that this doesn’t inhibit my game reviews, but it’s to ask what degree of knowledge do we have to, as reviewers, have of the creative process for criticisms of products to be valid or at least valued? With criticism of books the understanding is innate, but with games it feels as though we sometimes barely scratch the surface.