That last post was actually extremely difficult to write. I had the ideas for it quite a long time ago, and I think I did a pretty good job of explaining how the various aspects of the presentation and gameplay produced a gestalt related to the Prince’s maturation process. But when I wrote a draft of that post yesterday morning, it sucked. It may have been the worst thing I ever wrote. For one thing, it had a completely awful structure. Also, it was about three times as long as what I eventually published. I ended up excising a lot of points that I really liked because they didn’t add to the critique. I’m not going to print any of those here, but I want to make a few points about game critiques in general, and about games themselves. Your responses are of course welcome; indeed I eagerly request them.
1. “Critique” versus “Review” posts
This was really the hardest thing to nail down. I had all sorts of points about the crispness of controls, character and enemy design, navigability, sound balance, and so on, and I ultimately excised almost all of them. Essentially technical items like these would have been really great to discuss in a review, but they didn’t belong in the piece I was writing, which I wanted to be something different. A review is just a piece of writing that tells you what it’s like to play the game, and that’s important. But what I was after was not technical aspects but rather an exploration of theme and meaning, and an analysis of how the various features of the game—from writing to presentation to mechanics—served that meaning. I felt this tension when writing the Final Fantasy XII post too, and because I didn’t resolve it, that one didn’t turn out as well as I would have liked. It would be nifty to do both at the same time, but especially when handling a trilogy like the Prince of Persia games that produces a piece that’s simply too long, and it interferes with structure.
So I probably will never write anything that’s both a review and an artistic critique. My Persona 3, Phantom Hourglass, Revenant Wings, and Professor Layton posts fall in the former category, while the posts on Silent Hill 2, Final Fantasy XII, and Prince of Persia better fit the latter. And, I think, since there are a ton of game sites writing reviews, I’m probably not going to put any more straight reviews up here, though I will probably write a few on accessible games for Love Camel. What I put up here, though, I want to be focused on artistic criticism. So expect more posts like that last one and less that are like the Revenant Wings one.
2. “Stuff” versus “People” stories
One thought that occurred to me as I was writing the Prince of Persia post was that there are two main ways to think about stories, both of which showed up in that trilogy. The most common way to encounter a story in a video game is as a recounting of stuff that happens (this is the approach of Warrior Within). There are characters in the story, but very little about them matters to it, and seemingly little about it matters to them. The characters are just part of the stuff that’s happening. Alternately, the story can be viewed as people that happen. Stuff happens as well, but what the story is really about is not the stuff, but the way the characters interpret and respond to the stuff. Moreover, the people “happen” not just in that they are, but in that they become. The strength of Sands of Time and The Two Thrones is not just that the characters are fully realized and interact charmingly, but that the Prince changes and grows. I think that this sort of transition is a critical part of successful stories, especially in games where the player can be brought along for the change.
3. Expressive versus Narrative games
Thinking about games strictly as narratives is obviously too constricting. The approach I used in the critiques I’ve already written clearly relies on this mode of understanding, which may be an intrinsic limitation. One thing I think I need to try is to do one of these critiques for a purely (or nearly so) expressive game, that is, one that tries to induce an emotion rather than convey a story. I’m leaning towards trying a critique of Katamari Damacy, just to see if I can do it.
4. Art versus Entertainment
I made this point in my previous rant, too. There are games that really aren’t intended to mean anything, that exist purely to be entertainment. They are the potato chips of gaming: tasty, filling, and fun to consume, but without lasting nutrition for body or mind. And there are also games that have nutritional value, but aren’t expressive or narrative (i.e. Brain Age). I don’t think this is a problem for games as art: nobody denies that Citizen Kane is art on the basis that Predator and classroom film reels aren’t. I am, however, not certain of the value of trying, as film critics do, to interpret the pure entertainments in the same way as I do the meatier fare. I’m just one guy, after all, and the internet has plenty of sites that can tell you that dual-wielding is awesome.