I want to start this with a statement, which is that a games criticism, a games writing that is incapable or unwilling to incorporate critique of capitalism, a skepticism of industry, and a disinterest in commercialism into its structure and form isn’t very useful.
In fact, it’s harmful. As writers we risk justifying and solidifying the status-quo of the industry, the processes that exploit our labour, that hegemonize the form, and that disinfrancise us, many people, way too many people.
There’s a reason why certain kinds of games are visible while others are obscured, and why certain games are deemed legitimate while others aren’t. It’s because visiblity and legitimacy is structured through the desires of capital, and if we can’t critique capital, if we can’t take this basic step, then we risk preventing games from reaching their potential, from flourishing artistically in the ways that it should.
This doesn’t mean that every piece we write has to have a paragraph about the effects of neoliberalism (although my pieces sometimes do that). What it means, is that the games we pay attention to, the things we pay attention to in games, the traits we prioritize when assessing games and writing about them, and the people we talk to in games, reveal certain dispositions. And the current dominant modes of assessing games in all contexts under consumer press is a capitalist one. [1m 30s]
We usually find these aspects in mainstream review culture, where the question of “do we talk about games like artistic works made by artists or consumer tech products?” tends to move toward the latter of the scale (it is a scale! There’s nuance here). This means that there are certain methods that are prioritized: the focus on evaluation and the VERDICT-whether something is good or not vs what it’s actually doing; the expectation of the product to fill its function (Vance), and the very problematic priveleging of production value, which can be its own essay but as Robert Yang describes it’s basic mode is the unconsciously evaluate games based on how expensive they look and feel. This hegemonizes the form, now games have to fit a very specific consumer model (along with carrying capital), one that justifies the processes of industry, to be recognized and legitimized, and those that don’t are obscured (Ryerson). This is just an example of what I mean but it’s an important one to note, because this is the mentality that spreads throughout the culture.
I want to move onto indie games now. The lack of capitalist critique spreads to consumer press in who we talk to and the narratives we form. I don’t think we have a good understanding of the scope of indie games or the realities of the indie scene, because we keep listening to the same people who’ve been successful off the current models. So, of course those people will tell you that there’s an “indie revolution” or fan the fear of overinflation, which is absurd. One thing that you won’t hear, is the reality of the “indie scene” (or one of them) is that people struggle. A lot of people struggle in the indie scene, financially among other things. Very few people are able to make a proper living in the way that’s always seen, and the market systems we take for granted, like Steam and Greenlight, can actually hurt devs (thomas).
So there’s an important term that was used by Lana Polansky regarding indie games, which is “indie with capital.” These are games like The Novelist, like Gone Home, Paper’s Please, or The Stanley Parable. These are games with larger budgets, games that can get lots of press and PR, that can get reviews on Polygon, games that can get on Steam, which is a *huge* privelege. Many indie devs can barely make it through Greenlight, let alone steam, and that’s if you can even afford the $100. So this term, bringing a critique of capitalist processess, reveals something to us, that what we understand as “indie games” is really a very small class of games and people who have access to certain market pipelines. So the “indie revolution” is a fallacy. There is no revolution, there’s just the emerging of new markets when the old ones are breaking down, and they’re still dominated by white males. They’re nice games, I like Paper’s Please, but they’re the tip of an iceberg, and below is a huge, huge diverse body of indepedent works that lie under indie with capital.
And I’m interested in those games. I’m interested in smaller games, weirder, experimental games that tend to lie outside of dense commercial spheres. Freeware games, games sold on itch.io, game jam games, festival games, and obscure works that just lie in the depths of the internet. I like weirder, smaller games because they tend to just be really interesting in general, but games that are somewhat disconnected from the priorities of dense market cultures, allow themselves to do weird and uncommon things, take risks, try stuff out! And as a critic who is interested in what games are capable of, and the ways that games are able to communicate ideas, whether or not they’re successful, this should be exactly what I’m looking for. I play a lot of terrible stuff, a lot of hard failures, but I feel like I gain more from that than I do drooling over the cannon.
So this leads me to a question to ask, which is if we’re challenged by games? Do games challenge us? Do we feel challenged, as critics? Do we get surprised by games? And I don’t mean in the sense of me thinking a game was going to be bad but it was good or something, I mean conceptually. And this is a question that everyone has a different answer for, but I want to put it out there, because I don’t think it’s something we ask ourselves very often. There’s a lot of cynicism in games, which includes critical communities as well. Cynicism is often a sign of dissatisfaction, which is ok because there are a lot of things to be dissatisfied about, a lot of things to be upset and worried about in games. But it’s still a sign that something is wrong. So we notice that big releases always tend to move conversations in the critical community, for many reasons. But I think the energy we put into those places fuels a cynicism. We know a lot about the problems of games, but I rarely see an optimism about what games are able to do, and what they are doing. And that’s because we put so much energy into these pipelines that just aren’t interested in providing what we seem to be looking for, or at least not often enough.
We often engage with bigger games through culture crit, outer contextual writing, turning pop culture against itself, writing on the presumption that something is popular and therefore relevant to culture. We do this with games like Bioshock Infinite, right? The game is a form of liberal racism. And that’s important when we talk about games. But culture crit is somewhat cynical, it assumes a certian kind of intellectual superiority over the work. But I’m becoming interested in the opposite, in playing game that remind me of how little I actually know. Culture crit makes me feel clever, because it usually is, but I also like to play games that remind me that I’m small, that games as a form are so expansive in their ability that it’s completely beyond me as a critic. Weird games are constantly outdoing me, I always feel like I need to keep up. And that should be the norm. Weird games should compel us as critics, to complicate our understanding of how games work, and what makes games effective.
If we say that smaller games tend to move more towards poetics, so less explicit with narrative, somewhat more abstract imagery and more suggestive in their depictions of worlds, to the point where they come off kind of weird, then I’m interested in criticism that is embracing weirdness, than can make something out of that weirdness instead of casting it off dismissively, which tends to happen in consumer press and review spheres. There’s more and more criticism going in this direction and it excites me. One thing I need to note, is that a lot of thought and criticism on weirder, smaller games is being done by women. This is really important actually. I want to note a few
– Maddy Myers, who wrote a piece on Biocock. I like how she wasn’t just like “woah this is a weird ass porn game what’s up with that” and just shelved it like some other pubs did, but she honestly engaged with the game but also tied to this really interesting dad narrative of Ken Levine and Infinite.
– Pauli Kohberger wrote a fantastic piece on ZEAL about this weird buddy comedy PSX game Welcome House, and she notes that it’s not very good, but that’s not the point right? Becuase it allows her to go into this discussion on 20th Century Cartoons and cold war narratives, and it’s super cool.
– Cara Ellison who recently did an RPS Column on Sex and Romance games,
– Liz Ryerson, who’s written level design theory and whose work I quoted a bit earlier
– Lana Polansky, who has a long, extensive list of smaller games that she’s gone through. Just a whole package. And a reasonable chunk of my thought actually extends from her theorietical work.
There are some publications that are emerging that want to tackle smaller, weirder stuff. I’m really exciting for Warp Door, which is a website coming from Chris Priestman and Tim W. Of course, ZEAL, a project run by Aevee Bee has been around for a few months now. There’s IndieStakik which has always been better than most “indie game” sites at not just staying at indie with capital, but also going below it, Chloi has been doing a really good job there, and I guess there’s The Arcade Review, which is a small games mag that I run with Alex Pischel (Hi Alex), we also focus on experiemental works, we write cool stuff and we have a good time.
And the games are already there, man. I mean, beyond the strong curation sites like freeindiegam.es and Forest Ambassador, I rely on curators like Noyb and Tim W. I try to be as active a critic as I can but I’m not very good at the curating thing! So I appreciate the work that they do. Hosting sites like itch.io are crucial because they allow devs who would make smaller games the freedom to actually sell their work, to hell with Steam! And that doens’t include all the festival stuff, AMAZE festival, VectorFEST, Indiecade Show and Tell, and programs like Pixelles.
So I need to end this off because I’m going to long but I’ll conclude with this: If we keep putting our eye to the largest pipelines that are elevated through consumer markets, then we’re not going to understand much of what games are capable of. The thought in our content is going to slow and stagnate, in fact it already has, and there’s a reason for that.
And I’m going to say this, which is that the critical community has been through a really harsh 12 months. We’ve taken a lot of blows, and I think we’re constantly put in the position of being critical, being critical of culture, and being critical of controversy, we’re always the ones who have to burn things down but we never get the opportunity to build good things up. So I feel like it’s a good practice for critics to ask themselves what they’re honestly, genuinely excited about in videogames. I don’t think we often get the opportunity to be genuinely excited about games, and feel good about what we do.