Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Criticism of Game Criticism (IGES Part 1)

Recently, I read an article titled The Rise of the Indie Developer. The article is a very interesting read about indie game development with quotes from popular indie artists akin Jonathon Blow. This article inspired the following post, as well as a few more all related to Gaming Culture and Indie Gaming, or what I call "Video Game Theory." Here is the first installment.

IGES = Indie Gaming Essay Series


In the midst of the aforementioned article, the author mentions a game called Flower developed by Thatgamingcompany. The game apparently did well on the PSN and got great reviews, yet I had never heard of it. I hop over to Wikipedia to check out what the game is about and I see this under reception:
Eurogamer's Tom Bramwell had similar praise, describing it as "pleasantly innocent and uplifting", though he awarded it a lower score than other reviewers as he felt the US$9.99 price was too high for the game's length.
I've heard this same negative criticism countless times -- that the price of the game is too high considering the length of the product. This resonates with some games that I love (I.E. Braid and Machinarium). The only criticism that Braid ever receives is that it is too short considering the $15.00 price point.

Braid - Too Short?

I think that time length is a completely irrelevant matter of criticism. Holding any kind of medium under the spotlight of length or replay-ability is a completely abhorrent measure of that mediums wholeness. Time criticisms, unless relevant to what the authors intention is, are missing the point.

Think about that. If an author only needs three lines of poetry to express himself, do we criticism him for his succinctness? If a musician only needs thirty seconds to elicit an emotional response from the listener, do we criticize him for his compactness? How about a  fifteen second film that fills you with as much emotion as the entirety of, say, the Titanic? Do we then criticize these creators for lacking length even though they have a complete product?

Why then, does a short game invite us to criticize it? The answer to this questions lies in two realms -- that of consumer expectation and value.

Consumer expectations are what we, as an individual, have come to expect to see in a specific medium. In movies, we expect a $10.00 movie to last one to three hours. We expect there to be a plot twist in thrillers and we expect the guy to always get the girl in romantic comedies. In music, we expect a song to last three to four minutes and a concert two to three hours. We expect a chorus, a verse, and a bridge. In video games we expect replay-ability. We expect a role-playing game to have a leveling system with experience points. We expect a platforming game to allow jumping. We expect Mario to eat mushrooms and go down pipes. These are all culturally enforced prototypes that have become standard.

When our expectations aren't met we become unsatisfied. Let's play pretend for a bit...

Suppose all your friends are seeing this new hit movie titled Love?. They come back and exclaim to you that you "just have to see it for yourself, it's amazing!" So, you not wanting to miss out, decide to go visit the theater yourself. You're smart, and you go outside of peak hours, earning yourself a ticket for only $8.50. Inside you sit down, the lights dim and you are met with trailers for a few upcoming movies. Then the lights dim further and the movie begins. You see soundless clips of a couple going through their relationship, totaling about fifteen seconds. They start happy; They move in together; They get married; They have kids; They start to become cold to each other; They start eating dinners alone; They die separately; They are buried in different locations. Then, the title "Love?" is displayed prominently on the screen. The lights come on...

You just saw a fifteen second film. It cost you $8.50. How do you feel about that?

If you're a normal person, you probably felt ripped off -- that you didn't get your moneys worth. Why do we feel this way?

The answer to that question lies in the way we value certain aspects of a medium. Obviously, money has a set value to us. Intrinsically it has absolutely no value (it does not provide food/shelter) but it can be a means to such ends. In this regard, we are upset when we trade our money for a movie or video game that ends up coming short on our expectations.

When it comes to video games, we have learned to value certain aspects like replay-ability and length alongside productive elements of game design, like smooth controls and polished (not necessarily realistic) graphics. Let's take a further look at an review sheet of Braid. IGN is a huge internet gaming site, so this is a solid representation of what we value in games.

IGN Review Sheet for Braid

To criticize "Presentation" or "Graphics" means that we value these aspects. Out of the five most important categories to judge a game, here we have the devil of them all -- "Lasting Appeal." The judges at IGN give Braid a pathetic of 6.0 for lasting appeal. 

But wait a second. Jonathon Blow has stated that Braid "said all it had to say." Is it really necessary for a game to have a spark of replay-ability? I think inherently, a great game lends itself to replays because of how amazing the game is. Braid is a game I personally have played through more than once merely because I am infatuated with the game itself. It's similar to listening to a song multiple times or looking at your favorite pieces of artwork again and again.

A good example of a game that invites replay-ability is Limbo. In the vaguest terms (as to avoid spoilers), the player is left with minimal closure. Another play-through becomes a necessary urge to figure out the underlying message. 

Ultimately, the reason we lend negative criticism to a piece when it defies our expectations is because we have been taught to expect these things. It is a completely cultural phenomenon. Once you're consciously aware of this, you can choose to ignore it.

Game's will never be taken seriously if we judge them with astonishingly dumb criteria. Let's replace "lasting appeal" with "emotional appeal" or "logical appeal." If that were the criterion for Braid's rating it'd be sitting on a much higher throne. 

Look back at the movie example I came up with. In fifteen seconds, the creator of Love? manages to convey all the information and emotion that he deemed necessary to elicit an emotional response from the viewer. The same movie, made by a big-budget film company would take two hours to watch. The point is that both films, regardless of time, are complete products that aim to elicit the same exact consumer response. I'd even go as far as to say the shorter movie succeeded in a stronger fashion than the longer one by taking less time to speak its mind. 

As long as a video game gets its message across, it doesn't matter how long it takes.

Length becomes meaningless. 

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