The crucial conversation of this generation of games is not whether games are art, but rather whether we, the games journalist, should be reviewer or critic. The most recent catalyst of this crucial discussion is this review of Metroid: Other M, which criticizes the game not so much for its technical aspects, but rather for its story and its portrayal of characters.
This raised an internet shitstorm, much like Jim Sterling of Destructoid’s various reviews do (like the 4 he gave to Final Fantasy XIII): instead of objective, the graphics are shit, but the game is well paced criticism, a games journalist dared to offer an opinion on the quality of the game. They offered a subjective experience of the game, how they saw the story’s themes working, and got a thousand plus hateful comments from people for it.
What was in these comments? Tucked away inside folds of misogyny and personal insults, there was one running theme: it’s just a game, so how can themes matter? Why should we interpret characters when the developer does it for us? That the only purpose of games, the only criteria they can be judged on, is fun.
This is immediately ironic, because fun is subjective in and of itself. I hate roller coasters. I’d rather read about sports than go on a roller coaster. In fact, I find reading about sports quite fun. One cannot define â€˜fun’ in a way that is not subjective. Commentary on things besides technical aspects and fun factor bring accusations of unprofessionalism and attempts at rationalization from the game’s fans who can’t stand anyone in the world not loving their precious video game.
There’s also the interesting case of Mafia II, which has gotten wildly varying reviews. Some people claim it to be the true evolution of the interactive medium, while others vilify it for not being interactive enough, not being fun enough. There’s that dangerous qualifier again.
Video games, I have long said, will not truly be art until we treat them like art. Sure, it’s great to talk about a game like Ico being art. That’s not the hard part. You can make art out of anything; if modern theories of art has taught us well, it’s that if you try hard enough, any object or concept can be art. Making a video game into art is no different than making a box fan into art: if you try hard enough, both can be emotionally effecting.
The challenge is the middle ground. There will always be works created in a medium that are not artistic: I cannot begin to name movies that aren’t art because there are so many released every summer. Do you think Iron Man was art? Possibly, but was The Expendables art? Definitely not. It was an enjoyable romp where a guy had a gun that could destroy buildings in a couple shots.
The difference between film and video games in this respect is the middle ground. How many people would say The Godfather was art? It’s a movie that doesn’t set out, at the beginning, to be a high class establishment. It’s not trying to be a Fellini or Bergman or even Hitchcock film. It’s trying to tell a relatively narrative driven, story-like story, and it succeeds, and most of us would call it art. More than just a film.
And yet the cries are that something like Metroid: Other M is just a game, shut up. It’s a game, gamers say, it has to be mindless. Eventually this becomes confirmation bias. Other people see gamers saying something about the middle ground of art and entertainment (Metroid, as a beloved franchise and a game with surprisingly strong use of the medium in the past, certainly qualifies) in their medium, throwing it aside as something unable to be discussed as art, and therefore games can’t be art.
If filmmakers and film critics and film watchers said movies were not art, would we think they were?
There’s an interesting post (http://www.brainygamer.com/the_brainy_gamer/2010/06/curious-onlookers.html) (also on The Brainy Gamer) about playing Uncharted 2 in front of people uninitiated to video games. It’s the challenge to gamers: we try to sell our art games to the uninitiated as proof positive video games can be more than what they are, but people don’t understand them. It’s like with film: the first film you show someone uninitiated to film entirely isn’t Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, despite it being a masterful triumph of art. You don’t show them the Decalogue, one of Roger Ebert’s gold standards of the medium. No, you show them Indiana Jones or Star Wars or The Godfather or The Shawshank Redemption. You show them the middle ground. You show them movies that have a certain creative panache, something that tells a good, easy story that can bring a reader in, and you say, look, isn’t this fascinating? Wouldn’t you like to see other things like this, and one day see something that does really out-there things with these constraints.
And that’s the reaction to Uncharted 2. Fascination. Wonder. People impressed that video games can do that, and that they aren’t just Pac Man clones. These are people impressed at how far gaming has come. It’s the kind of reaction we need: people looking at the games in the middle ground and saying, yeah, this is pretty exciting. I want to see where they’re going with this.
I find the reaction to Mafia 2 even more interesting in this respect, because it bears all the marks of an artistic thing. For one thing, it has an aggregate of 74 on Metacritic. The 70s are generally reserved on Metacritic for extremely niche games. Right now occupying those numbers include Monday Night Combat (a DLC title competing with the big boys), Spider Man: Shattered Dimensions (brought up because of its comics tie in, and probably the Activision marketing budget), PC strategy game RUSE, and brawlers Scott Pilgrim and Shank. These are niche titles or franchise titles that didn’t hit on a sweet spot. Additionally, these games, combined, have one negative (below 50) review. Mafia 2 has five. Mafia 2 also has the highest review scores, in terms of raw positive, besides Spider Man (which got a couple really, really positive ones, perhaps because super hero games are usually so godawful and Shattered Dimension is supposedly playable). Most games fall into the 80s/90s or the 60s/50s, depending on whether they are good or bad, and feature only slight deviations from the norm.
Mafia 2 generates none of these reactions. It has a score of 74, with a wide variation of ratings from different outlets. Its scores, in fact, resemble more those of a film than a video game. Every comment refers to something artistic about the game: its narrative, its storytelling panache, and not its shooting. Five years ago, I imagine Mafia 2′s reviews would look much different: the shooting is good, the driving is fun, there isn’t enough to do on the streets, C+. And sure, there are some reviews like that. But the vast majority focus on the strength of the narrative, and the beauty of the world, things that are inherently subjective.
I’ve long been one to call for subjective reviews in most cases. Objective reviews are useful when talking about games you never would have heard of; with something like Metroid: Other M or Mafia 2, the reader of the review knows what they’re getting. They’ve read previews. They’ve seen gameplay footage. These are objective summaries of the game. You can find out if the game, objectively, is your thing. The problem is, there is a large subjective bit to game enjoyment: I’ve hated a lot of games rated 90+ for their technical prowess, but that do not click with me (most recent example: Naughty Dog’s Game of the Year everywhere but here, where I thought it was like a dry, unbuttered piece of toast: edible, but leaving a horrible chalky film in your mouth). Video games are a subjective medium, and reviewers should be free to say what they like, so that you, the reader, can have an idea of how much you’d enjoy them. For instance, while most of the internet thinks he’s a horrible, hateful bigot who detests their favorite games, I’ve agreed with Jim Sterling’s viewpoints about 85% of his reviews. He’s my go-to source for big budget titles, because I know if he hates it, I will too. It’s similar with films: generally, I agree with Roger Ebert, so I read his opinions. If other people say a film is tripe but he enjoys it, it usually means I’d enjoy it, too. And that’s how reviews should work! Subjective reviews give you real value. I’d rather know what someone else thinks about a game, someone who’s played and written a lot about games, than know that, hey, the gunplay that the previews said worked and the videos showed being smooth as butter works. Who cares if the mechanics work if the game isn’t fun?
And this brings us back to Metroid. Invariably.
Metroid: Other M is a middle ground game: a game that has aspirations towards being perhaps more than just a game. It’s not trying to be a throwaway action extravaganza like a lot of Team Ninja’s previous games. It’s trying to have a story, and a point, and it fails. It fails hard at that, and much of the internet is in agreement: Samus burning to death inside a volcano because some guy doesn’t let her use her suit is a ludicrous display. The game’s storyline doesn’t work. Everything else works*, but the pacing, the atmosphere, the narrative, things seen as inherently objective, do not work**.
Of course, fans don’t want to hear that. That’s the weird part: naturally, no one wants to hear someone else doesn’t like something they like (well, I do, but I have weird, unsustainable hobbies), but gamers take things awfully personally. Too many gamers see their games not as things with merit that is fluid and can be discussed, but rather as toys that are better than others. G.I. Joe rocks and Matchbox cars suck and if you don’t agree you’re a fucking idiot is the level of discourse on video games in the more popular places.
So I’m saying it’s our jobs, too. Sure, journalists can treat games seriously, but until gamers treat their games with any degree of seriousness, no one will respect the medium as the real, interesting art form that it is. We have to stand up and say, Opinions are cool, regardless of whether we agree with them or not. We have to understand that things can be seen by someone else to have more or less merit than we see. We have to care enough to have articulate discussions about games.
We have to stop being just gamers.
*Everything else might not work, but this is the danger of writing about games I’ve never played: I could be wrong. It could work beautifully. This is why I assume it works: because it might. The things we know are objectively stupid, however, we know do not work.
**This digression didn’t merit inclusion, so it gets footnoted. Anyway, short version is that pacing, narrative, and atmosphere are not entirely subjective. A narrative might resonate with someone more or less than someone else, but it can still be seen as well executed. Pacing, on the other hand, is entirely objective: the choices are It’s well paced or It’s paced poorly but I got over it or It’s paced poorly. No more options.