On Innovation and Criticism

It’s tough to critique criticism as a developer – you just have too many emotions caught up in the process even when it isn’t your particular labor of love that is being skewered/judged. Somehow I missed this piece from the Guardian Online regarding the response to Mirror’s Edge but caught up on it thanks to Robin Hunicke’s blog in response.

I suggest reading both before coming back to this, but I will attempt a short summary. Keith Stuart at the Guardian thinks that video game “critics” are undervaluing innovation and deferring their critical responsibility by nitpicking and hoping that the sequel will address those nits. He thinks that they should look to film critics for inspiration to drive the future of games and game criticism. Robin thinks that the comparison shouldn’t be to film critics but to food critics:

When the mechanics are broken there – no matter what great ingredients or designs you had – the dish disappoints. Execution is very much part of the analysis there – as is service, mis-en-scene. Food is never evluated[sic] (in the Guide Micheline sense) out of context… but the mechanics are fundamental to everything else.

I take a different approach.

Keith Stuart is mistaken in that he is approaching an IGN review as if it were criticism for people interested in games as a form of expression. This isn’t meant to be a slag on IGN, but their service is not to provide criticism – it is to provide a product guide. Their audience isn’t us – although we may visit the site and although we make up a growing portion of the gamer market. Their audience is 13 year old boys. And thirteen year old boys have no basis for comparison to gauge innovation. They want to know what to buy and that what they bought is better than what someone else bought.

The end that IGN’s audience is looking for is simple, visceral fun. To them, a game succeeds if it provides that. It is a necessary and sufficient condition. Gears of War succeeds, Mirror’s Edge does not. Sure, you have rogue reviewers that will praise an innovative title insofar as it is fun. These reviewers want to be critics. But real criticism doesn’t drive ad revenue.

Imagine if film criticism was directed at the same market. Iron Man would win the Oscars. There Will Be Blood would be taken apart. The former provides visceral fun. The latter is difficult. It has odd pacing/editing. It’s far too long for most mainstream audiences. But it is a rewarding, innovative film. And thus, while it was divisive among critics, it earned its recognition on those pages.

The problem with innovation in games is that it is packaged up and snuck in with things the 13-year old boys like. If you look at Mirror’s Edge, it has all the bullets on the back of the box that the market wants: visceral combat, beautiful environments, adrenaline-spiking action, bad dudes with guns. But critics wouldn’t care about those points because those are expected. They would focus on what separates the game, even if some of those bullet points weren’t as keen as those of the market leader. The food critic wouldn’t note that the hamburger came on a bun.

Food critics do compare well, though. The top level of awareness for a food critic is: is the meal good? If it is, they talk about the nuances of why the meal was good. If not, why it wasn’t. But the food critic’s market is just a tiny subset of the restaurant market. I don’t care about gastronomy – I just want a good meal. I want a reviewer, not a critic. I want the service like the one IGN provides.

But food has very little value to anyone if its mechanics are flawed. There’s very little room for “challenging” food. But there is not only room for “challenging” games, we need them if the industry is to grow creatively. And that means games that have broken elements are important and deserve to be played and discussed. I’ve always said that I’ve learned more from playing unfun games than I have from fun games. I can take bits and pieces from unfun games that were innovative and mold them into something useful in my own creations. I can’t do that with rote fun games. What is there to take besides the whole?

But can a cook take a terrible meal and learn from it beyond the what-not-to-do lesson? I’m not a cook, I don’t know. But I do know that a filmmaker can pick-and-choose from the innovative and experimental much like a game designer can. And the market for “challenging” films overlaps with the market for “challenging” games much more than the market for “challenging” food would.

The problem we have in games criticism is that there is no identifiable authority. We look to the contributors to Metacritic as if they were critics, but they are reviewers. We give awards like the Spike TV VGAs based on these out-of-100 reviews. You’ll see flawed films nominated for Oscars, but never flawed games nominated for our awards. Once we realize that games need to be measured by more criteria by how playable it is (much like how films are not assigned worth based on how watchable they are or food by how accessible it is), then we will be able to slough off the yoke of the 13-year old boys and come into our own as an industry that produces works of cutural relevence.

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