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The inherent problems with art criticism in video games.


Yeh so this is likely to be a bit of a stuffy pretentious C-blog from me but it's one I kind of think I need to get out of my system.

After doing my recent Critical Floor blog (thanks to those of you who enjoyed it) and watching Extra credits on about introducing academia to video games, especially the point about scene by scene analysis and art analysis of games. I felt I should write about some of the issues I have while writing Critical Floor C-blogs about video games and likely some of the issues that make "art criticism" of games actually something not done much. 

Now the first bit here is having to be clear that by art criticism I'm more talking art analysis. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said it's the job of the critic to pick up on themes and ideas of a piece not to say if they're agree said things are good or bad themes or ideas Nor deem the piece itself good or bad for including them. This is the first road hump between the video game industry and art criticism. What we've seen from a number of outlets as of late is the desire to dock score due to what are quite possibly personal hang ups with themes and tones in the game, rather than how well or poorly said theme and tones are put across. Just look at the outcry against the game "The Last Night" on Twitter even due to the potential theme some people thought it might have. The problem is while you can talk personal opinion more in art criticism, art criticism is a different thing to an actual review. A game can have high art concepts, complex deep themes and amazing symbolism but also be a complete and utter turd in terms of graphics and mechanics. The first hump is that art criticism isn't a review, people need to stop trying to conflate them. People especially need to stop trying to use reviews as a jumping off point to show how truly "woke" they believe they are about present politics or issues.

The second major issue to bringing art criticism to games I'd suggest is games themselves and present design. Games are long the fact I'm probably closing 30+ hours in Gravity Rush 2 as of writing this kind of tells you how long some of them can be. The problem being while there are games of different lengths, outside of pretty much only retro style indie games or digital tableau games (walking simulators) I think the shortest AAA games I can point to clocks in at 6 hours. Want to know the worst part of it? Like some movie franchises some things need you to look at and piece together things from the whole franchise. Which at about ~12 hours for all of Lord of the Rings extended versions still clocks in a lot short than one piece I'm working on, the piece in question being looking at an insane meta narrative running through the entire lot of Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid games.

While time itself is a problem the true problem is very few games make it easy to repeat stuff on demand. Gravity Rush 2 having a replay mission feature may be one of the few times I've seen a game take a step that really benefits art criticism, even if it was likely entirely accidental and in reality just designed to improve the player experience.

With films they're what 90 minutes to if you're pushing it and doing Lord of the Rings about 3 hours (the non extended versions because yeh 4 fucking hours really?). DVDs and Blue Ray then have chapters on the disk to get you closer to the scene you want, some having scene by scene skipping and on top of that there's fast forward. You can easily find and get to the bit you need and the scene you want to study. In video games for many titles still, best of fucking luck as you might have to re-do many hours of gameplay on a new save just to get that one thing.

Now people will say "But why not just record it?" The problem with that is while modern consoles do now have built in capture up to 15 minutes and while you could buy capture cards etc and record the whole thing you then still have a mass of footage including a lot of irrelevant stuff. Not to mention finding the space to store all that video or worse editing it down to put each part somewhere. With books you can turn to the page or find the chapter you want to look back over something. With Film you can skip to the bit you want to re-watch. With video games, well unless you can select a specific mission to replay, enjoy going through it all again or hoping you can find the scene you want on youtube and manage to get what you need for the analysis.

Now some-one in the comments is no doubt going to say "Well you can just tell modern systems to save the last 15 minutes as a video so why not just do what when you find stuff you want / need to use in analysis?" The problem with that is human nature.

Have you ever heard of On the Origin of Species? It's the book basically that began and kind of did a damn lot of the work showing the theory of evolution and the pretty damn conclusive evidence for it. One thing you may not know is the key thing you've heard about. You may have heard how Darwin saw the differences in the finches on different island in the Galapagos he visited during his time on the Beagle expedition. Well that's not quite true, you see the first edition of On the Origin of Species didn't include anything about finches, this only appeared as a small section added in the 2nd edition. Darwin actually was thought to have been looking at Mockingbirds and Songsbirds initially and his journal notes n Finches mostly focused on colouration initially.

The story goes that back in England having had the handful of Finches he brought back examined by Ornithologist John Gould he was told they were 13 different species of the same bird, Darwin having been working on his book On the Origin of Species also at one point heard some of the sailors he had travelled with arguing with each claiming that they'd seen birds of similar size eating different things. With further examination of the beaks of the finches he'd brought back he rushed round all the sailors and others who'd been on the voyage asking if they had any if he could have any skeletons or remains of finches it was only later when he's managed to get much more samples he theorised the finches had evolved their beaks each to take advantage of the foodstuff in the environment. Initially Darwin missed what is considered one of the most important visible shows of evolution of a species to adapt to its environment.

So if Charles Darwin can miss something that major you sure as hell bet a schmuck like me or hell even some trained art critic could miss some major symbolism. only later having something cause us to notice and relate whatever caused us to notice said theme of symbolism to previous such examples we remember back to or suddenly remember about. Video games need to make it easier for people to get to parts of the game and to replay them without having to replay the whole game.

Oh but there are still more issues with trying to bridge the gap between art criticism and video games. A giant one is people aren't trained in this stuff. My knowlegde of how to do art analysis / art interpretation and the elements relating to it comes from a B grade GCSE in English Literature and a C grade AS level in Theatre Studies. Sure I'm able to pull in lots of vague general knowledge from Science and some aspects from my admittedly fairly vague knowledge of history, mythology and little bits of mysticism I know of. However those areas prop up my admittedly woeful knowledge of what are considered pillars of art criticism: I know very little about the 3 act structure beyond basics and I've literally never read the supposed mandatory reading and reference material that is The Hero with A thousand Faces.  The problem is those that have studied this, those that do have the knowledge and learning about art criticism for the most part aren't looking at video games because well it's probably one of the harder mediums to focus on. Unlike: literature, films, plays or hell even TV shows academia doesn't really have an area for people whose whole purpose is to examine and to get paid to write books or long thesis pieces about the symbolism, relevance and significance of certain video games. Video Games in academia while doing stuff about symbolism in part often focus more on the mechanics of making them and the business of selling them. Yes in the real world there are and have been studios that have got art funding for their projects but in academia well it's not establish. Because of all this we so rarely have any of the language and tool of such fields even reach video gaming, about the only major time was when suddenly every-one was on about ludonarrative dissonance around the time Bioshock Infinite came out.

This problem isn't helped by the fact the kind of people who do have this knowledge, who are also nerds, very much seem to not care about the modern era of video games and tend to have a greater love for older retro games. The problem with older retro game you might ask? A lot less complex narratives and a lot less capacity to put in themes and symbolism. Retro games in many case were movie / TV tie ins, basic adventure games and arcade style games, very few can I point to as having massive symbolism or exploration of deep themes without some level of stretching. For me the kind of fairly obvious and seemingly constantly increasing relation of Legend of Zelda franchise to elements of the Legend of King Arthur is cool but the earlier ones really did have less to it.

That's not saying retro games don't have themes and symbolism or retro styles games can't have symbolism or don't have it. Limbo is one with plenty of symbolism and so is Braid. For some retro games though like some movies and some books even now unless the creators are going to talk about their intentions we likely won't know if there is stuff there.

To put it another way while a kids painting or some painting of a beautiful landscape is art. It's just not say secretly drawing the structure of the human brain into a painting on the roof of the Sistine chapel in an age where the church and the law of the land banned dissections and people found to have watched such things could have faced the wrath of the law.

Another problem is the lack of people doing art analysis of video games. The closest popular thing I can point to that's doing something close to it would be Matt Patt and Game Theory. Other than that there's me and I know of one more person who was doing such stuff and they kind of shut up shop a while ago seemingly.

With so few people doing this kind of thing there's no idea what to do. Matt Patt focuses mostly on one theory or piecing together the narrative in other games. When it was up and running Words that Won't sell (don't google it, it's URL got taken over by a BDSM site) tended to focus on more specific topic such as the look and mechanics of the Silent Hill 2's nurses. For me I tend to take the approach of digging out as much potential thematic meaning and symbolism as I can and while I do cover let's say often used themes, I tend to try to cover them quickly to move onto other stuff I find more interesting and unique.

With so few people doing it there's this big industry wide perception that no-one is interested in it. That's literally the reason as far as I can tell, it's just been decided that people don't or won't care about such stuff, because no-one really is trying this stuff the industry just doesn't want to try more of it as it's not already been proved successful or proved to have an audience.

So with no major prominence and no large numbers doing it developers don't talk about such stuff much. That means those developers who could well create the future video game equivalent of Shakespeare may not even realise about applying themes and symbolism to works and instead just be making stuff purely for entertainment (and let me be clear that stuff in my view is not somehow a lesser aim or lesser goal for them). Admittedly the reason a lot of devs these days likely don't want to speak out if fearing them upsetting some angry internet mob mad that their political position isn't being endorsed or dare I say actually opposed (and just to be clear I'm not defending marketing departments choosing to take cheap pops at one side or the other to drum up controversy).

Yet another issue this brings in ones  Extra Credits pointed out, there's no real vocabulary for this kind of stuff as scene by scene analysis kind of doesn't work in games outside of cutscenes or quick time sequences. Additionally there's no guide as such for how best for developers to do this as unlike basically every other medium you can't specifically set the scene and make sure people at least have the chance to see what you've put there. In video games people can entirely not see the elements you've put in place as part of the symbolism, no merely not get the symbolism but actively miss it. Many years ago in an English class I wrote pages upon the symbolic relations of the introduction of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet to old "spaghetti" westerns, that can show how deliberate films can be in this but games well they have to use other methods or find ways to draw players to look at such elements.

The lack of this kind of stuff in games could even be said to lead to a lack of "media literacy" in the medium itself. Oh and just to be clear when people talk about "Media literacy", interpretation or attempting to interpret themes and symbolism in a work is generally what's meant by it.  So when you hear talk about media literacy well that's it. The reason for media literacy......... well it allows a way to discuss complex topics via the medium and allow the discussion of more serious issues that are seen as taboo or not acceptable conversation normally but in the context of media or in relation to it then it gets talked about and people feel more able to talk about it.

So the big question becomes do I have some suggestions to change things? The answer is yes, but as I'm over 2,500 words already the poor unfortunate recapper whose day I happen to have dropped this on is already is already putting my name on some revenge list, I'll try and keep it short.

Firstly companies need to start being willing to publish art analysis stuff alongside news, review and previews. Just to start building interest in it and just so some-one can say they went first and importantly where possible getting devs to talk about this. Art analysis stuff takes time and effort but unlike reviews I'd suggest it would have a longer shelf life. It's kind of unfortunate the closest thing to any kind of art criticism in gaming media has been a some-one using an ideological lens to chastise video games for not fitting the world view she believes games and the rest of the world should all change to nicely conform to. Oh and when I say publish this stuff I don't mean me, find some-one who can word good and talk about this stuff, or let some of the existing writers try their hand at it more or suggest they could try it if they want.

Second people need to realise that this should be more of an inward facing exercise focused on analysing the art rather than an excuse to show off how "woke" you are about present politics by using the game as a jumping off point. You're not politics writers, that doesn't mean you can't bring in present politics where relevant but it does mean complaining the game doesn't meet you political sensibilities is out. It means doing that hardest of things of "checking your baggage" and by baggage I mean whatever personal hang ups you bring into things, something I may well have to do in an upcoming Critical Floor. This stuff isn't meant to be a personal soapbox to air your issues as such

Thirdly and likely the second thing will help with this. PEOPLE NEED TO STOP GETTING MAD ONLINE. No really, if the moment a creator says something online about potential themes of their work and we have another The Last Night situation because you don't like it then people will feel they can't or shouldn't talk about this stuff. Oh and this includes Garms Jurnalists the likes of which got mad recently because Far Cry 5 wasn't the Republican murder sim they wanted and then some of them got mad again because the cult in game was too diverse.......... yeh......

Fourth developers need to work on the tools in game to make the analysis easier to do and more practical: mission replay, cutscene galleries all that kind of stuff. Oh and when devs do put themes and symbolism in their games share techniques with other developers. I know out there are invite only developer forums and communities online that can't be seen by members of the public, talk on there and share things that worked, what didn't.

Fifth and finally. People need to realise and do all this because they enjoy it. They enjoy games. They enjoy the medium and in the case of developers they want to try and put these themes in or tell stories about these things. When you're in school going over this stuff it can seem like the least fun thing to try and do because often due to necessity you're presented set material and given hints about elements to pick out or look for. The moment you're out of school and free to do this stuff yourself being able to choose the media you look at this stuff in and look at things that interest you. Well it becomes a lot more fun.

Thank you to those of you who bothered to read this massive C-blog.

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About Dwarvenhobbleone of us since 8:33 AM on 06.19.2012

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