sontag
Type
Article
Category
Culture

On video game criticism

Dear Susan

When I first read your essays in 2012, I became so excited. There, in pieces written half a world away, half a century ago, were the same challenges that a new wave of critics are facing today. Like you, these critics are carving out new discourses and vocabularies around an oft-sidelined cultural form.

I am talking about the new video game critics, those predominately young writers who are analysing video games as cultural and creative works. Across your essays are many of the same ideas and concerns with which these new video game critics are dealing.

How distraught I was, then, when I discovered you had died in 2004, only nine months after game critic Kieron Gillen had penned ‘The New Games Journalism’, that important touchstone for the new video game critics. As you died, a new wave of criticism – one that I am sure you would find very exciting – was being born.

‘But I don’t play video games,’ you would probably respond. Indeed, that is typically the first caveat put forward by the unfortunate relative or friend-of-a-friend who makes the mistake of asking what I do. Video games seem inaccessible to those who don’t play them, like the literary canon of a foreign language. Many see them as nothing more than militarist wet dreams or playthings of young and old boys: racing cars and shooting aliens and not a whole lot else. Games like that exist, of course, and they certainly dominate the output of the video game ‘industry’, but they are no more representative of the cultural form than Michael Bay’s Transformers is representative of cinema.

In addition to the highly visible blockbuster action experiences, there is a diverse range of games rich in storytelling and mediative exploration made by individuals and small groups – to say nothing of the vast libraries of casual and social games available on smartphones and social networks. Yet video games remain critically othered, even as they are commercially dominant and culturally pervasive. Few people who didn’t grow up with them understand them, nor do they intend to. Video games do not receive the rigorous cultural criticism encouraged by the critics of other media. They are instead seen as ‘entertainment products’ – either worth consumers’ money and time, or not.

To be sure, video games have existed in one form or another since the 1960s. But it is only in the past thirty-odd years, with the rise of Nintendo and Sega through the 1990s, that it has become normal to have some kind of video game console sitting beside the television, wedged in beside the DVD player. It is a younger generation of cultural critics – mostly in their twenties and thirties – who see video games as normal, as just another cultural text. These writers are writing about video games in ways that no-one else has ever done. Across lines that are quite clearly generational, we are seeing the maturation of a young medium and the birth of new forms of criticism – and I want people to be excited about this.

I am writing to you in particular, Susan, because I think there are parallels between the writing of these young video game critics and the theories of your groundbreaking essays. You were one of the first to give the same critical attention to ‘low’ popular art forms as those of the cultural elite. Your 1960s essays like ‘Notes on “Camp”’, ‘Against Interpretation’ and ‘The Pornographic Imagination’ justified engagement with texts that are not necessarily ‘meaningful’ in a reductive, intellectual sense. You foregrounded ways of talking about cinema and rock music alongside theatre, poetry and literature.

In recent decades, the younger medium of video games has developed in that periphery once occupied by films and pop music. Now, much like those forms, it is spreading its tendrils – via this new criticism – towards the cultural centre.

What we are seeing today is a new version of exactly what you charted through your early essays. Many of your ideas map wonderfully to the project of video game criticism. I’ll restrain myself and limit this letter to the two notions that I see as most significant to this burgeoning field of criticism.

The first is, perhaps unsurprisingly, your argument in both ‘Against Interpretation’ and ‘On Style’ for the flattening of ‘form’ and ‘content’ into one concern of the artwork as it appears before the audience, as first and foremost a sensorial engagement with a material artefact. The second is, perhaps surprisingly, your essay ‘The Pornographic Imagination’, which discusses how the exclusion of pornographic writing from the canons of art and literature due to its bodily (rather than intellectual) pleasures speaks foremost to conservative limitations of how art and literature are defined. When it comes to cultural legitimacy, pornography and video games are close bedfellows.

Both notions address a pair of symbiotic but paradoxical challenges that make video games elusive to traditional criticism: an invisibility of form stemming from the focus on escapist ‘virtual’ worlds and, at the same time, pleasures and meanings that are very much of the body first and the mind second.

Essentially, video game critics today are fighting the same discursive battles other ‘low’ art forms fought half a century ago. We are plotting out our own vocabularies and ways of thinking that are incredibly exciting to be a part of – and to watch.

I want to discuss these challenges in more detail, and within the context of particular video games, to demonstrate to you the writing I am talking about – a kind of primer for video game criticism. Like you, I believe the best criticism is descriptive not prescriptive, so I will describe the phenomena I am discussing rather than prescribe a singular textual reading.

 

The video game form

In ‘On Style’, you make the claim that ‘“content” is, as it were, the pretext, the goal, the lure which engages consciousness in essentially formal processes of transformation’. With video games, the desire to feel a sense of intimacy with content is found in the notion of ‘immersion’. Video games have long been marketed and lauded for their ability to ‘immerse’ the player in a virtual world, to have them forget about the material world around them. It’s a project that has a long history through virtual reality, 3D films, panoramas and baroque paintings, but that is particularly core to the video game. Because of this, most writing about video games has approached them less as an art form than as virtual worlds.

But to feel this immersion we entangle our bodies with messes of cables and hardware: controllers covered in buttons and keyboards and joysticks and screens and speakers. We take part in these very actual activities with very actual objects; our physical bodies are crucial to the illusion that one has left the ‘real’ world. This is the video game form: human bodies and perception caught up with nonhuman circuitry and computers – and all viewed on a screen. It is a form often ignored.

Metal Gear Solid is exemplary of how content still dominates form in video games. Released by the Japanese developer Konami in 1998 for Sony’s PlayStation console, it is the first in a long-running series produced and directed by Hideo Kojima. It is, ostensibly, a military-themed stealth game with a very standard 1990s narrative of post-Cold War terrorists and stolen nuclear missiles. The player takes on the role of Solid Snake, an elite operative who must sneak into a terrorist-held base to gather intel and to ultimately save the world.

Like many video games, Metal Gear Solid has occasional ‘boss’ battles, where the player – that is, Solid Snake – must fight one on one with larger-than-life antagonists. While the rest of the game is quite gritty and concerned with hyper-real depictions of military operations, the boss battles are all extravagance and camp, including eccentric characters with often magical abilities. The most memorable of the battles is waged against Psycho Mantis: a leather-strapped psychic who levitates in the middle of an office and flings furniture at Solid Snake.

What is fascinating about Psycho Mantis is how, during the fight, he regularly breaks the fourth wall to address the player directly. Before the battle starts, he ‘reads’ the player’s mind; he does this by reading the memory card plugged into the PlayStation console, telling the player what games she has recently played. ‘Ah, you like Castlevania, don’t you?’ he will taunt if the player has recently played that game. He shows off his telekinesis ability by asking the player to place the game controller on the floor; he then thrusts his low-polygon hand forward and the rumble motors inside the controller vibrate wildly, dancing it across the floor. During battle, shooting him achieves nothing – he is able to read Snake’s intentions and easily dodge the bullets. Unless, that is, the player unplugs the controller and plugs it into the ‘Player 2’ slot. Psycho Mantis does not read Snake’s intentions; he reads the player’s intentions. As the player moves to the Player 2 location, Psycho Mantis’ abilities are rendered useless.

‘I can’t read you!’ he laments as the player and Snake defeat him.

He does this not just by breaking the fourth wall and addressing the player directly, but by toying with the form of Metal Gear Solid – that is, with the controllers and memory cards and television settings. He messes with the player’s mind by drawing attention to the material elements that most video games render invisible. What Metal Gear Solid brings into focus (as Kojima does across his games) are those formal elements video game players are often distracted from – television screens, memory cards, controllers – and our hands that are wrapped around them.

You say in your concluding remarks of ‘Against Interpretation’ that the critic’s ‘task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all’. To be sure, the virtual content of video games and our desire for immersion have long obscured the video game form to us. The works of Kojima and a few others challenge this by not hiding from their own video gameness. Their characters know there is no sealed-off fourth wall demarcating the virtual from the actual. Video games are far more porous than other media: we reach into them, changing what happens ‘inside’ them, and they reach out to change what happens to us. Virtual worlds are the content of video games, and learning how to write about them in the context of form is one of the biggest struggles facing critics.

In ‘The New Games Journalism’, that important manifesto I mentioned earlier, Gillen says it is the video game journalist’s job to be a travel writer for a place that doesn’t exist. A game’s virtual world does not exist without the video game’s material form, and as critics we can’t fully appreciate the significance of an action the player performs in the virtual world without understanding what they are simultaneously doing in the actual world to create such an illusion.

 

Embodied pleasures

Before any intellectual engagement with content, video games are a base and bodily pleasure grounded in the manipulation of material forms: fingers tapping buttons and hands clenching controllers. They are at their most powerful when they communicate through this formal engagement, when the player engages with a system and comes out the other side with a better appreciation of that system. The creator’s mantra of ‘show, don’t tell’ becomes ‘do, don’t show’.

In ‘On Style’ you note that a work of art is not a ‘statement’ or an ‘answer’ to a question, but rather an experience. This is doubly true for the participatory medium of video games.

Mainichi is a 2012 game by Mattie Brice. Unlike Metal Gear Solid, a game produced with a massive budget and dozens of developers, Mainichi is made by a single person. It’s also free: you can download it from Brice’s website right now.

In Mainichi (Japanese for ‘every day’), the player plays Brice herself, a transgender woman of colour. The game starts in the morning as you get out of bed. You have to visit your friend at the coffee shop down the road, but first you have a range of choices to make. Do you put on makeup? Do you have a bath? Do you do some writing work or play some video games?

You do or don’t do these things, tapping arrow keys to move around the house and choosing menu commands, and then you leave the house. Walking down the street, you get stopped by various strangers. You overhear one girl whisper to her friend, ‘Is that a boy or a girl?’ A man stands in your road; he flirts with you but then becomes abusive when he realises you aren’t ‘really’ a girl.

Finally, at the coffee store, more choices present themselves. You can pay by cash or by credit card (the latter will have the till operator read your ‘real’ name and misgender you as ‘sir’). You can either talk casually with the cute barista, who is friendly, or flirt with him, which makes him standoffish. After this barrage of personal interactions that challenge your character’s very being, you sit down with a friend and sigh. Your friend tells you to cheer up. Then, like Groundhog Day, it starts all over again.

You see, Mainichi doesn’t end: you play it over and over until you voluntarily resign. Before you do, though, you might try different choices. Maybe, if you put on more makeup, those girls won’t whisper about you. Maybe, if you pay by cash, the interaction with the till operator will be less awkward.

It was on the fourth day that I realised I could detour all the street harassment by simply crossing the road and walking on the side with no people. I did this, but then it hit me: I had to change my actions just to live my life. I became aware of not only the blatant harassment I received for being transgender or non-white but also the ubiquitous systemic build-up of everyday interactions that policed and ultimately altered my actions.

Through this game – in a small, imperfect way – I got to experience the marginalisation Brice feels every day. It wasn’t stated that ‘transgender people are marginalised and made to change their behaviour’, but rather communicated through my bodily engagements with a system. It is a process that game critic and scholar Ian Bogost calls ‘procedural rhetoric’: the process of learning something on a level less than verbal; of engaging with a system and thinking, right, I get it now.

So even when a video game is ‘about’ something, that something is first experienced through the body, through a physical engagement with form. The constant harassment of Mainichi is powerful because it is a response to me pushing the arrow keys on my keyboard: I have to fight through it by closing every speech bubble; I policed and changed my actions to avoid abuse.

‘The Pornographic Imagination’ details how it is due to its apparent focus on action and embodied pleasures rather than ‘human’ consciousness that pornographic literature is excluded from the canon. I think that video games are similarly sidelined as ‘low’ culture because they are art works that bring to the fore an experience of and through our body – a feeling, a base pleasure or discomfort. The same goes for most popular forms: rock music, with its ‘satanic’ beat, was sidelined for exactly the same reason.

You note that ‘pornography is one of the branches of literature – science fiction is another – aiming at disorientation, at psychic dislocation’. I don’t think it would be a wild claim to add video games to that list.

The challenge for the video game critic, then, is not only to convince people that such bodily pleasures are legitimate, but also to find vocabularies that describe the sub-verbal experiences of games like Mainichi. In other words, to take experiences that either defy or transcend intellectualising and somehow describe them to a readership that wants to better understand this form. What we need, as you say in ‘Against Interpretation’, is a criticism of forms. And that is exactly what we are slowly building.

 

Critics of the moment

The single mention I can find of video games in your work appears in your powerful 2004 essay ‘Regarding the Torture of Others’. The reference is flippant and dismissive, but also powerful and prophetic: ‘It is hard to measure the increasing acceptance of brutality in American life, but its evidence is everywhere, starting with the video games of killing that are a principal entertainment of boys – can the video game “Interrogating the Terrorists” really be far behind?’

Indeed, in the years since then, ‘torture scenes’ and jingoism and American apologism have become all too present in blockbuster military-themed video games, and are a main point of critique among analysts of the medium.

It saddens me that you are not here to talk to about this. If you were still alive, I would urge you to read Liz Ryerson’s ‘The Talk of Magicians’, Dan Golding’s ‘Listening to Proteus’ and Tim Rogers’ ‘The Literature of the Moment: A Critique of Mother 2’. I would tell you to search online for Jenn Frank, Cara Ellison, Aevee Bee, Zoya Street and Cameron Kunzelman. I would link you to Critical Distance, a website curating critical writing on video games. I would stress, lastly, that I am excited about video game criticism not as a player but as a critic. There is so much experimentation and energy and hope and disruption – and it is all very exciting. We are seeing nothing less than a maturing art form taking its place in cultural discourse. Video game criticism is a frontier and we are making up the rules as we go.

If you were still alive, Susan, that is what I would tell you about video game criticism.

Yours sincerely
Brendan

 

Brendan Keogh is a Melbourne-based videogame critic, and a PhD candidate and game design lecturer at RMIT.

More by