Inside the Box

This is an essay a long time in the coming. It gestated somewhere in the 2nd Century AD, was spurred on by the arrival of the printing press, and was kicked back into the foreground on November 14th, 2008. And finally, I got around to actually sodding well writing it.

First, that November 14th thing: back in 2008, first-person platformer Mirror’s Edge was released. It reviewed… not brilliantly. The general critical reception varied, but mainly between whether it was a good idea, poorly executed, or an idea that was doomed to failure from the outset. Not to say that nobody received it well – there were some wildly enthusiastic reviews – but these were in the minority. There were a few people left surprised by this response to the game, and one of those individuals was Keith Stuart, of the Guardian, who wrote a think-piece entitled “Do game reviewers really understand innovation?“, musing out loud that the critical response to Mirror’s Edge, an ambitious and innovative title, was symptomatic of a critical establishment enamoured with polish over originality – technical achievement over art.

"no fun to play at all."

"no fun to play at all"†

Before I continue, I should point out that I was exactly the audience Stuart was gunning for: I too felt that Mirror’s Edge was vastly unappreciated, and for much the same reasons as he – I could see that frequently, games critics mark down titles which innovate away from core genre rules. However, I felt that his target of ire – games journalists in general – was inaccurate. In his article, he describes film critics as better equipped to deal with originality:

“Can you imagine, for a second, critics emerging from the press screening of Apocalypse Now, or The Magnificent Ambersons, or Bladerunner [sic] and proclaiming, ‘yeah, it had some good ideas, but it wasn’t perfect – I’ll look forward to the sequel’.”

He takes this argument as a counter to the closing comments of Nate Ahearn’s review for IGN, that:

“The ideas are there [in Mirror’s Edge] for a very cool experience, and I truly hope that a sequel is spawned, but this first attempt falls just a bit short.”

This is a terrible closing comment, and it’s easy to sympathise with Stuart wanting to decry it: however, in making his sweeping statement about film critics, he seems to suggest that all game journalists think like Nate Ahearn, and that all film journalists do not. This is not a fair picture to paint: clearly, not all game journalists are alike. More importantly, neither are all – or even most – film critics better at dealing with original ideas than their counterparts in the gaming world. As a quick observation, it’s interesting to note that off his three given examples, Blade Runner reviewed fairly poorly at release, with it becoming recognised as a classic only with the benefit of hindsight.

"science fiction pornography"

"science fiction pornography"††

My argument is, by and large, that all schools of criticism – be it of games, of film, of music, of literature – are and always have been highly conservative and slow to accept innovation, as as a direct result of the fact that societies are highly conservative and slow to accept innovation. Before going into arguments into the hows and whys of this, we need a brief history lesson. Criticism is not a modern invention – it has existed for far longer than history allows us to see; the ability to transmit assessments of quality is one of the many benefits of communication: explaining to people that this green meat with the wriggling things on it is bad whereas this meat with the red dripping stuff is good is a useful survival ability. As methods of communication expand we find ourselves able to describe things in more detail – so maybe now we can talk to Thog about his painting of the hunt yesterday, commend him for the lifelike representation of Ug throwing the spear at the stag.

However it developed, the criticism we are interested in begins to appear in the Classical period, with discussions of literary works – particularly those of Homer* – commonplace. Soon we come across the Athenian stage, and its yearly festival, the Dionysia, for which plays were written and performed, competing against one another the honour of being judged the best play in their genre of the festival. As time goes on, we see more and more written criticism coming from Greece, and soon Rome, discussing the qualities of various writers, plays and poems; gradually the tone of the criticism changes as Christian morals begin to prevail, and with the fall of the Roman empire criticism by and large disappears, but for some members of the clergy’s comments regarding the (im)proper content of the works they encounter. It is not until Gutenberg’s printing press that literary criticism begins to flourish again, with early criticism spurred on by the Renaissance, and based on the superiority of classical works. It is from these roots that modern criticism grows.**

"Last place"

"Last place"***

 

Given this background information, we can begin to look the nature of criticism, and how it developed. We have to be fairly broad in our definition, at least to begin with: many of the discussions of Homer, for example, were philosophical (whether Homer’s works were teaching the young noblemen good life lessons), and many were questioning the interpretation of the works (major, recurring topics: Could the parts played by the gods be explained away as natural forces? What exactly was the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus? Were Achilles’ tears a sign of weakness?), but this is still literary criticism of a sort. Just as with modern criticism, it is concerned with analysing the values and qualities of the text, and like modern criticism is heavily directed by the culture within which the critic works.

As an example, the issue of Achilles’ tears was tackled differently as society changed: in some periods and places it was considered unseemly, effeminate – in others, it was seen as perfectly suitable, a sign of the depth of his character. Another issue was that of fiction – while we recognise Homer’s works and the Athenian plays as fiction, things were not so clear-cut in the Classical period. There was no long-standing culture of ‘fictional’ tales – rather, these stories were recognised as true, as accounts of events that had happened countless years in the past, in the time of heroes and gods. Though the stories might be altered in flavour – there were numerous plays written about the same myths, for example – they were still the same, ‘true’ story at heart. As scepticism evolved, and people begand questioning the factuality of the ancient myths and the literature built up around it, the immediate response was not to accept their fictional nature, and encourage the development of openly fictional tales, but rather to try and rationalise the supernatural events. It took many centuries before works that were openly fictional – openly lying, something that was known to be bad – was deemed acceptable.

It is unsurprising, then, that ancient criticism was mostly concerned with the core forms: poetry (epic, lyric, elegiac) and theatre; specifically, it was interested in how titles lived up to their predecessors – this was a period in which ‘plagiarism’ was not an issue: in fact, the closer you came to emulating the classics, the more you directly referenced them or managed to incorporate their language into your work, the more praise you received. When new forms were attempted, they were largely ignored: our biggest example of this comes in the ancient novel, a form which mostly survives by the skin of its teeth.

 

"A Most Sweet, and Pleasant Pastorall Romance for Young Ladies"

"A Most Sweet, and Pleasant Pastorall Romance for Young Ladies"†††

 

We have five extant Greek romances, two Roman titles (the vulgar, but ultimately Christian parable adaptation of the Golden Ass by Apuleius and the fragmentary, subversive, picaresque Satyricon by Petronius), and a side of pseudo-historic and comic novels (most notably, Lucian’s A True Story), all from somewhere between the first and fifth centuries AD. These texts are ignored by all surviving contemporary texts, except for a few snide comments; most survive by luck alone (a few were transmitted in Bowdlerised form by the clergy), and though they were picked up on again in the renaissance (providing, for instance, Shakespeare with a good deal of his material) they were derided by critics and academics until the end of the 20th century. Why? Because they did not fit in with the classical genres: they were more ‘vulgar’, more ‘shallow’. It was hypothesised that these were works written by and/or for the working classes, or, worst of all, women****. And yet, here we had the very first examples of the novel form – and despite knowledge of them, they were completely ignored, so much so that to this day most students of literature will happily assume that the form originated in Spain in the thirteenth century.

And literature is far from the only form to suffer this sort of conservatism amongst its critical community. Consider the reactions in the mainstream press to the appearance of punk rock, to rap: now accepted genres, they were initially shunned for their ‘vulgar’, ‘crass’ deviation from recognised genres. Forms tend to evolve, rather than spontaneously change, and evolution – as we know – is simply mutation. Unfortunately, the first mutant will always tend to be misunderstood, compared negatively to what has come before. Why would you want to take the poetry out of adventure stories? Or the technical ability from rock music? Or the shooting from an FPS?

The other issue simply comes from the job that critics have. They have two things to do: one is to simply give their opinion on a subject, but the other – the aspect that most obviously distinguishes professional critics from simply ‘people with opinions’ – is their ability to put something into a context and consider it within that context. Hence most critics becoming ‘specialists’ in the genres they are most familiar with, as they become best-equipped to contextualise titles operating within that genre. Not to say that reviewing titles in other contexts – or describing a game entirely in terms of personal opinion – are not possible, or sometimes desirable. It’s just that mutation affects the viability of standard contextual reviewing, making life difficult for critics who would prefer to operate within that setting, and so confused responses to new ideas are to be expected.

 

"As it is, once the power of Doom's graphics has worn off (they're amazing, so give it a week or two), you'll be longing for something new in this game. If only you could talk to these creatures..."

"As it is, once the power of Doom's graphics has worn off (they're amazing, so give it a week or two), you'll be longing for something new in this game"††††

 

So, this reaction to new genres is hardly new, or unusual. Is it regrettable? Perhaps. The fact is that the mainstream press reflects mainstream attitudes, and mainstream attitudes have always been, and will always be, deeply conservative. Perhaps the big issue is that, until fifteen years ago or so, there was no ‘mainstream’ game press. While games magazines had been sprouting up since the 80’s, they were themselves the voice of an ‘alternative’ viewpoint, and so more keen to embrace new ideas. As computer games became more accepted as a ‘mature’ medium, and games journalism began to take on the airs of the mainstream, so it became more conservative.

However, the mainstream is not the only source of critical appraisal around: there are always dissenting voices, alternative viewpoints, which coalesce into movements in the critical community. Until recently their main voice came from self-published ‘zines, familiar to anybody who was a teenager in the 90’s or before and deeply into, well, any ‘alternative’ music. These days, the internet provides an even more efficient breeding ground for underground criticism: blogs, fansites, forums. Many of the passionate, ‘alternative’ tastes represented by these communities will gradually merge their way into the mainstream consciousness, and lo! A newly accepted form appears. Perhaps the most obvious example of that in recent times, though not really a genre, is the wider discussion of indie games within the mainstream media.

Not that subtle integration is the only way into the mainstream press. Looking at the two musical examples given above, both rap and punk rock broke into the mainstream mainly through loud confrontation. Get them riled up enough, and a vocal minority can make a lot of noise; a lot of noise garners a lot of attention, making sure that the mainstream media will begin to talk about the source of all the fuss. In turn, this increases the profile of the genre, and eventually simple market forces ensure that the genre becomes mainstream by right of its popularity.

 

"explores perennial questions about the naturalness of conventional gender relations... and ultimately about the relationship between Art and Nature, Fiction and Truth"

"explores perennial questions about the naturalness of conventional gender relations... and ultimately about the relationship between Art and Nature, Fiction and Truth"

 

 
Of course, as games still have far higher entry-level requirements than music, they aren’t likely to appeal to the disenfranchised in quite the same way. The closest to the above movements is, again, the indie game community: as with punk rock and rap, these are grassroots games, made on shoestring budgets (but for a few big names). Also like punk rock and rap, they are the most political movement in gaming, far more engaged with confrontational issues than their non-indie counterparts. Not that indie games have always been this way: independent developers have been around for a long time, and indeed used to make up a larger portion of the gaming market – hell, id are one of the most obvious examples of the old school of independent developers, along with Epic, both veterans of the old shareware scene. However, as game development matured, as the successful developers such as id and Epic became more ‘professional’, magazines began to ignore the lower-budget titles that had once been their bread and butter.

So indie games went underground; for a time, they were almost completely ignored by the mainstream press. They needed a voice, and this was a challenge: when it comes to gaming there is no single genre which screams ‘underground’: indie games cover exactly the same genres as their high-budget brethren. The closest thing there is to an underground genre is Interactive Fiction, about as rock and roll as Debussy. As such, the voice of alternative gaming is voiced more through aesthetic choices than genre: trappings like chip-music and 8-bit graphical stylings, the usage of elaborate and absurd titles – all help identify games as a part of the same ‘movement’. Websites dedicated to indie games have sprouted and grown, gradually entering mainstream consciousness. Ten years ago it would have been difficult to imagine the appearance of major indie gaming portals such as Steam, or the mainstream press (now containing old members of the indie community) regularly covering indie games. Though there were certainly a few journalists pushing for this sort of coverage from the very beginning, most of the change came from the outside: from indie developers pushing their product into the mainstream, and fans raising awareness through their own websites, and getting into the business of journalism.

 

"the Citizen Kane of sci-fi movies"

"the Citizen Kane of sci-fi movies"

 

In summation: mainstream criticism is always conservative, and poorly equipped to deal with new ideas. Thinking inside the box is endemic, understandably, as it is a system whose job it is to compare new works to those that have preceded them. However, this is not as crippling as it sounds: rather than accepting new ideas, new ideas tend to change mainstream criticism itself. And, fortunately, criticism is not set in stone. So it is that, years on, people are able to reappraise titles that were misunderstood at the time of their release. So the ancient novel is finally becoming recognised as a significant development. So punk rock and rap music both receive highly developed, mainstream critical appraisal. So Blade Runner is widely considered a classic, influential work of future-noir. And so, perhaps, in the future Mirror’s Edge will be recognised as an important development in game design. Or perhaps not. Only time will tell, but the reason for its recognition or lack thereof will not be due to its initial critical appraisal, but rather the people it influences – or fails to influence – be they critics, developers, or voices in the crowd.

So sure, be upset when a new idea fails to get recognition. But don’t just complain about critics ‘not being good enough’; they’re only human. Simply raise your own points in different circles, find other like-minded people, and push for recognition. If it deserves it, chances are it’ll get it.

Good luck!

 

 

*technically oral poetry, yes, but his work even then was transmitted in writing and studied as literature.

**this is, of course, a highly simplified summary of the history of criticism, but it will have to suffice: this is a topic which has spawned many books. Those interested in the subject might want to bother their local (university) library for the Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. It’s bloody long, but it’ll tell you everything you ever wanted to know about literary criticism, and a whole lot more.

***Aristophanes’ Clouds was awarded third place – the lowest position – when it was performed. It is now widely regarded one of Aristophanes’ greatest extant plays.

****not indicative of my having prejudices against any of said groups, I hasten to add – these were views held up through the beginning of the 20th century and espoused as a manner of brushing off the ancient novels.

 

14/11/2008 – Blake Morse, Game Revolution.

††25/06/1984 – Ed Blank, The Pittsburgh Press; quoted in Judith Kerman (1997), Retrofitting Blade Runner.

†††1657 – George Thornley, Daphnis and Chloe: A Most Sweet, and Pleasant Pastorall Romance for Young Ladies.

††††April 1994 – Edge Magazine; ‘Doom’.

†††††2004 – J. R. Morgan, LONGUS: Daphnis and Chloe.

††††††19/12/2007 – John J. Puccio, Review of Blade Runner (Five-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition) on HD DVD.

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