Are we gamers or critics?

Two weeks ago I had dinner with Mitch Krpata, the games reviewer for The Boston Phoenix, who also contributed to the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die, and who blogs at Insult Swordfighting.

While most of the evening involved my picking his brain for advice on getting started in this industry (for which I would again like to express my gratitude should he be reading this) there were a couple of subjects which we didn’t have time to delve into too deeply and which I hope we can take up at a later date, such as the value of the terms “hardcore” and “casual” in defining different kinds of video game players, the nature of game reviews vs. critiques and whether they need to remain separate or coexist within a single piece, and the existence of the “larger conversation” I want to be a part of.

That “larger conversation,” in my mind, revolves around substantive discussion of video games. Historically my conversations with friends about games have revolved around whether I liked a game or not, and were based in personal feelings and opinion. I never spoke about design decisions and game mechanics in a general sense, or how developers and publishers related to one another, or how the industry worked in general. None of that was relevant to me as a pure consumer.

Clearly things are different now, and it feels like peeking behind the curtain, an evolving process of dissolving mystique. It’s very similar to my experience as a film student at Boston University, and that worries me a little. Tony DaSilva expressed a similar concern over on BitMob recently, which is what inspired me to finally finish this piece I began after dinner with Mitch two weeks ago.

When I first went into film school, my favorite movie was Aliens. I thought it was brilliant. I couldn’t tell you why, but I loved it. Terminator, Predator, RoboCop, these were the best films I could think of.

Part of earning my degree was taking a bunch of film theory courses. I watched the kind of stuff I would have thought only elitist intellectuals watched. Bergman, Fellini, Eistenstein, Truffaut, Godard, Tarkovsky. I absolutely fell in love with Vittorio de Sica after I saw Bicycle Thief, and started watching his movies on my own time. Ultimately, the experience ruined me for Hollywood. I’d never be able to go back to viewing movies the way I used to, and in some ways that’s a downer. I see movies nowadays that I might otherwise have enjoyed before film school as “entertaining,” but now I can’t look past how awful they are compared to the truly excellent films I’ve seen.

There was a benefit to my film school education – without it, I never would have seen all of those fantastic films. There’s a benefit to this larger conversation about video games, as well. The Last Guardian is a game from the makers of Shadow of the Colossus that will be featured at E3. From paying attention to these conversations about “video games as art,” now I want to check out and play The Last Guardian. Four months ago something like this would have slid right past me as I was locked into specific genres of interest, mostly FPS games, and I probably would have missed out on a title which could prove to be transformative and amazing.

I feel a good deal of regret for passing up on titles I know to be seminal, and whose importance I have learned to recognize. I didn’t play Half-Life 2 when it came out just because it sounded like a Doom clone to me. Humans open portal into hell, demons come through, shoot demons, game over. Humans open porthole into alien realm, aliens come through, shoot aliens, game over. Same thing, right?

Now I know better. I’ll never be able to pick up Half-Life and get the same experience I would have had back then, experiencing how revolutionary the storytelling was in the game, because now it would be very difficult to see past the outdated graphics. It would be a history lesson, not the experience the real game experts most likely had. It is because of omissions like this in my “education” that I want to go back and play Shadow of the Colossus before it’s too late to revisit the game and still take it entirely seriously.

The danger of this new way of thinking dawned on me when I thought about playing Dante’s Inferno. I found myself donning the critical lenses and looking for problems. It’s precisely the sort of thing that film critics do and which I cannot stand. It used to infuriate me when film students would poo-poo action movies simply on account of their being action movies, as though it was impossible for them to possibly have any validity. I used to talk about Luc Besson films with gusto because I think he made quality cinema which just happened to have guns in them.

When I wrote the post “What Halo Multiplayer Is,” I looked back on it and wondered if it was self-indulgent. I felt as if I had to justify the piece to myself as if I ought to be writing something that sounded like it fit more into this “larger conversation” I wish to be a part of…but I don’t think all games writing has remove “the gamer” from the conversation, and replace him with “the critic,” like Tony is worrying about in his BitMob piece. There’s an art to designing an FPS game, and that’s what the piece on Halo was all about, when technique falls behind and gets dated. There’s a middle ground between writing about games like a gamer, and writing about games like a games writer. N’Gai Croal does a good job of this, I think, which is probably why he’s held in such high esteem in the world of games journalism.

I never want to become as isolated from that part of me which just loves to play games as I’ve been separated from the part of me which “just likes to watch movies.” Maybe it’s because I clearly love video games so much more than I love film – I could have reacted to my film degree by seeking out the movie theaters that showed foreign or indie films and frequenting those instead of going to the Showcase Cinema 16 for Hollywood fare, but I didn’t. Clearly all I was seeking from film was entertainment, and as soon as that was denied me, I didn’t bother going. To wit: the only movies I see anymore are big-budget sci/fi or comic book flicks, because those are some of the only movies that fit into what Hollywood generally wants to produce.

I think it’s important that video game writers and journalists never cease to be video gamers first, and writers second, even if we ultimately need to love writing about video games more than we love playing them because we have to sacrifice our gaming time to produce content. I never want to forget why I thought becoming a video game journalist was a valid career path for me, but I think that if I remain mindful of this I can walk the tightrope between the game player, and the game critic. After a fashion, it might be the responsibility of all games writers to do so.

1 Comment

  1. Tony DaSilva says:

    Good stuff!

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