The trouble with criticizing games is that they get so darn personal.
Recently, we’ve been hearing that we need to step up our game in terms of game criticism if we want to be taken seriously by the masses. Not only do we need more mainstream outlets for games journalism, but we also need to break away from the sometimes PR-driven, sometimes fanboyish, often shallow coverage of our own medium if we want people to treat it the same way. These pages here and here describe in detail what can be summarized as “We need better critics.”
NOTE: You should probably read those first before continuing. Context is important here, and it's difficult for me to compress two articles' worth of information into a single opening paragraph. I guess this qualifies as bad writing.
Probably the hardest part of being a good critic is putting aside things like nostalgia and subjective interest. So you have a favorite game, that one you keep showing to all your friends, the one you always bring out as parties, that game you think is one of the greatest games ever made. Well is it? Because if it isn’t you should stop and think about it for a moment before you post a 15-page essay on why you think that *insert favorite game here* is not only a magnum opus of all video games forever, but also a commentary on the human condition and the duality of human nature.
This is tough. A lot of us are enthusiasts, and that makes sense. Of all the millions of children that grow up playing video games, many of them drift away from them once they grow up and find that their pastime doesn’t seem to have grown with them. It would seem that the reason so many of us are diehard fans is that those are presently the only kind of people that can stay with games that long.
(Disclaimer: That’s not even an inherently bad thing. Of course, those other people don’t know what they’re missing.)
And what more, many of us dedicated players have some even deeper personal connection to video games that made us so dedicated in the first place. Maybe they helped out of a rough spot in your life. Maybe you used to get picked on in grade school, and games were the only place where you felt like you could really fit in. So at this point, video games are a part of your blood. And this can come into conflict with the ability to be a good critic.
For example, I’d have a pretty hard time writing a post on Shining Force. I cut my teeth on this game when I was seven years old, and it was one of the first really complex games I’d ever played. To put this in perspective, where most kids had RPGs, I had Shining Force. That was where I learned about party members, hidden treasures, save-the-world plots, white-haired pretty boys and all of the other things more readily associated with games like Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger. So yeah, it was pretty new and exciting for me, and those now very familiar tropes became a part of the game’s identity for me. But I haven’t really come back to it since I beat it as a child, and if I did, I don’t know what I’d have to say about it. I’m sure it wouldn’t be the same things I’d say if I were 12, though, even if is still a good game, and I’m going to have to get used to that.
I hate to admit it, but I don’t feel like a critical enough person myself. Among other problems, It bothers me that a lot of the games I remember as being my favorites have gotten that way because the just happened to show up at the right time in my life, or because of some other details not necessarily pertaining to the game itself. Was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time great? Well, yes, but then I also have to factor in that I played it around the same time that I was beginning to come of age, and that a lot of the things that were happening to the character (Like returning to his childhood home to find that it had changed completely) were happening to me to, in a weird, metaphorical (but nonetheless accurate) way. Also, I had a broken cartridge that wouldn’t save, so I had to play the game more or less non-stop in order to finish it, which really helped with the pacing, and made the challenges, which I could no longer just come back to later, more frustrating but ultimately more rewarding to overcome.
It goes for other games, too. Mega Man 2? That was a blast, but it also marked the beginning of my obsession with self-improvement, and I often projected my unwanted flaws onto the bosses. Super Metroid was wonderful. It also coincided with my exposure to feminist ideas (Disclaimer: I'm not going to be presumptuous, though. I seriously don’t think I’m good enough to qualify as any kind of feminist. I'll shut up now.) Kirby’s Super Star? Bonding time with my little brother. Don’t get me wrong, all of these games are top-notch even without the sentimental value, but whenever I played these games it felt larger than life, and chances are they became something bigger than the developers intended. And as much as I value that transcendent feeling (I’ve been chasing it in virtually every game I’ve played since then,) in the interest of being as objective as possible when discussing art, I just can’t talk about these things. It’s okay. I’m not good at touchy-feely writing anyway.
But once we put these feelings and personal values aside we can see clearly which games hold up and which don’t. And the best part is that some of these games still do hold up. And even the ones that don’t still have a lot worth talking about.
These feelings aren’t even illegitimate. Opinions are powerful. But a lot of what we write, and a lot of what non-players see, is so opinionated, and so sentimental, that it becomes hard to relate to any of it if you don’t share the writer’s experiences. It’s one thing to tell someone why a game matters to you, but another entirely to tell someone why a game should matter to them. And that doesn’t even have to be a matter of opinion. A game can be great just because it was definitely well designed, or definitely had a good story, or was definitely beautiful.
It goes without saying that everyone can and should have their own opinion. It also goes without saying that we have to think a little bit more critically when we’re doing, well, criticism. And there’s no reason to be nervous either; you can be critical of something you like. That won’t mean you don’t like it. The quality of a particular product does very little to invalidate the value of an entire medium.
Video games are important. And that’s a fact.
NOTE: This is also on my blog.