Criticism during Interesting Times
It’s been a while. I’ve had to deal with stuff. I’ve changed apartments, but also had a heavy workload and the usual obligations with family and close friend. It’s not like this season encouraged me to write all that much. Every time I told myself “come on, write!,” something new that catch my attetion stood in the way. 2021 is not slowing on this trend, it seems.
Some gringos are calling this feeling of constant changes and upheaval “The Cool Zone,” which is a slightly more posh form of the old English curse “I hope you live Interesting Times.” It’s an expression that belies some ignorance about the facts of the world, especially now that you can inform ourselves of any topic at any time, but today feels as if we have reach a point where sealing ourselves from the bad news has become impossible. Beyond the cynical and corporativized appropriation of that need of peace (the famous self-care that makes me cringe today), there is this recent trend about feeling nostalgic for the moment where we could find some semblance of positivity. In my day-to-day, I try to achieve this by keeping distance with events that aren’t as important as people say they are (the MAGA revolt this week, for example), but that makes it harder for me to get in the mood that allows me to look into games and write about them. It seems that I’m not the only one feeling introspective these days, because Mathewmatosis has released one of his Microvideos that are always the best thing of his channel. In his typical matter-of-fact tone, Mathew considers his base assumptions in such a way that is making me consider my own. It helps that the general tone of his channel (always so flat and so didactic) lacks the intensity and emotion that similar texts (like that of beetbeatbit) convey, and perhaps that’s why it manages to catch me off-guard better than most. All in all, it felt like a good moment to get into some introspection, so I that’s what I’m doing with this text now.
Put simply, my main factor when preparing my biweekly selections is discoverability. My original motivation when doing this was that I wanted to talk alternative development scenes that no one seemed to be talking about. Over time, I began to see it as project of personal growth, a diary about my journey through different spaces of creativity that I had missed in their day or had been stopped to talk about. A quick glance to my last two years show this philosophy, seeing how I went from games made in Brazil to Yume Nikki fangames, to Kongregate games to games with a Cyberpunk aesthetic. This attitude was not always dominant however, especially during the first months where I was trying to justify myself doing the selections in the first place. Many times I tried to tie them to recent events, albeit tangentially, and on many occasions I consciously narrowed myslef to choose among the games that were easier to associate with specific news. Looking back, I feel that those efforts show the fear I was having about the irrelevance of this project. Over time, I have learned to distrust any effort (by myself and other people) to justify the time I spend with videogames by attaching them to a specific discipline or social function. Is the same reluctance that makes me suspicious of anyone that tries to use games as educational tools, or directly repulsed by anything related to “gamification.” The truth is that many discussions that try to present games as culturally significant tend to fall in this trap of seeking relevance outside of them, and more often than they only serve to fuel some useless culture war that is happening somewhere.
Perhaps my recent exhaustion has less to do with culture wars in general and more to do with the increasingly sad attempt to find meaning in the monstrous maelstrom of mediocrity that is the triple-A industry. I have it really hard to find the same value that other people seem to do, but I find it especially hard when they try to justify that value in a way that makes these games feel revolutionary. It doesn’t matter how hard you look into a game to find Hidden Meaning, if that game is still living off the clickbait of a complicit press, you are deluding yourself if you think your critique is staying off the loop. Much like Pauline Kael’s writing was indebted to the snobby audience of the New Yorker, or Siskel and Ebert’s were to the normie expectations of syndicated TV, or any Youtuber’s is to their subscribers, writing for a medium puts you at the mercy of the conditions on which your writing is made available. I don’t really have a problem with that (at the end of the day, we all become compromised to some extent) so much as with those that try to hide that dependency under a language of fake progressivism.
My critique is pretty similar to the one that Lana Polansky and Zolani Stewart already made years ago on their excellent podcast. In what would later become the short and, for the most part, not very serious theorypunk initiative, they pointed out the weaknesses that videogame criticism faced and were making it complicit with the narrative and ideology of the videogame industry. Elements like constant awe to graphical advancements, the attempts to justify buying the Big Titles when they come out (and the panics that occur when they don’t sell enough), and the overwhelming to maintaining oneself in the know about every useless piece of trivia that surrounds the big corporations of the medium. These things have an effect on people and their writing. Obviously we all care about highlighting the positive when we cover games, but sometimes we go overboard when attempting to find anything meaningful amongst the dribble. My experience with the first Last of Us was exemplary of this trend, in the sense that it promised a lot to chew on and made me ecstatic about the possibilities. In the end, I spent too many hours playing it, and by the time I had to write about it, I had to make something up about design principles to make it feel as if those hours had been worth it somehow.
If with triple A games I try harder than ever to find meaning in them, with independent titles like the ones I cover in the selection I feel like I’m closer to home. I just try to not get blinded by my desperate need to justify my time looking for them. Unless the game hits some nerve and makes me wonder out loud, I don’t try to anchor any meaning that I might have felt to the game itself. I think that’s an effort that has helped me adopt a broader perspective on the expressive qualities of video games over the years. Above all it is helping me to get rid of that nagging feeling of irrelevance.
If the introspection of some colleagues and my own has been of any use, it has been to stop worrying about writing about the Interesting Times if Interesting Times are happening. In the same way that fortuitous events on Twitter aren’t translatable to our political reality, my experience with any game, series or book is not translatable into the experience of others. Of what I write, at the end of everything, and the only thing I can write about, is my experience. And as long as I cling to my values and my camaraderie to my equals, I might be able to healthily contribute to those Interesting Times. Writing about something while obeying these guidelines can be an antidote to harmful tendencies, which in the case of video games is our constant need to make them seen “special.” But if I’m saying this now, a few months from Levin’s text on non-professional criticism and years ahead of Polansky’s on Theorypunk, it may be due to two things: either we haven’t reached that goal yet, or something is preventing us. In my case, I think I have been able to pinpoint some of my most obvious weaknesses, but with video game criticism as a whole I find myself in a much more comfortable place now.
I believe that we must be more cruel to those who live off our hope, our effort and our work. I believe that we must stop playing their games and challenge their neoliberal palace. We have to stop excusing them when they screw it up, stop asking them to be better, and acknowledge, once and for all, that no matter how much we talk about bad apples, the problem is with the whole damm orchard. No matter how much praise we raise for Ubisoft’s latest development, its open world games will continue to be Ubisoft: The Game until the day Ubisoft: The Game is no longer profitable.
Michael Abbot asked Microsoft, in his last entry, to stop caring about the graphics and dive headlong into experimentation, that they were in an ideal position to do so and that they could make the medium a better place if they dared to. Six years later, we keep asking them to do that. I say that we stop insisting and go somewhere else. Too many of our voices have gotten cold in the process.