Tag Archives: review

Games As Art – Part 1

20 Jan

Why games should be critiqued

This is part one of what will be a multi-part examination of games in terms of art. As far as I’m concerned, games can, are, have been and will be art, but this is far from an accepted view, just ask Roger Ebert. In saying this, I can sympathise with those who see games as mere entertainment, if not violent pornography. The industry at times seems to be regressing, in terms of creativity, originality and most importantly, content.

The reasons for this are manifold, from publishers and developers simply wanting to cater to their perceived audience, to the obvious profit to be made from games which sell well despite their derivative nature – yearly iterations of FIFA being a prime example. We, as consumers, have failed to reward the developers who make something more than a ‘product’ and transcend the medium. Sales figures for Ico or Okami, for example, reveal that these niche titles fail to garner the support they deserve from what is considered a niche community already. But that in itself is a problematic viewpoint, movies, books and any other medium are dominated by the same throwaway entertainment that games are. Mainstream media is entertainment without substance for the most part, and sub communities have emerged which support independent music and arthouse cinema. No one really sees the latest ‘Transformers’ movie as art, and film critics reflect this in their analyses of media such as this. The same goes for the latest albums by pop acts. Games have quite clearly become part of mainstream media culture, the tremendous success of the latest Call of Duty games, amongst others, have shown this. Yet, there is no real defined sub culture of gamers who value their medium on artistic merit. No one should consider Call of Duty games art, and I sincerely hope no one does, because they are simply mass-market entertainment, like most Hollywood blockbusters or X-Factor winner’s albums, but there are games that deserve to be considered pieces of art, certainly.

How do we, as appreciators of the medium, find the diamonds in the rough? Personally, word of mouth has been the only way I can distinguish a genuinely incredible game from a functionally good and enjoyable piece of fluff. It’s not quite the same as reading a film critic’s view when approaching a movie. The gaming press gives similar merit, if not more, to the latest big-budget, all action explosion-fest. There is no real attempt to separate the art from the games, and the video game press has a lot to answer for in terms of what we consume and why. Opening the latest copy of ‘Edge’ magazine, Rock Band 3 is the highest scoring game reviewed, earning a 10 out of 10, which surely means it is an incredible, amazing piece of entertainment. And to some I’m sure it is, but to me it’s another sequel to a series which has limited appeal. It’s just music with added button presses, no substance. Fun of course, I won’t deny that, but I could play Rock Band 1 or 2 couldn’t I? Call of Duty: Black Ops has a press average, according to metacritic, of 88%. But why? If it were a movie it would be panned by critics. It’s the seventh sequel in a franchise that has basically had the same gameplay for its entire lifespan, and made one major change in setting for the fourth in the series. Hardly an achievement, especially when the game is now repeated every year. Even the most derivative of books or movies doesn’t repeat on a yearly basis. (Except maybe Cecilia Ahern’s ‘novels’)

There is an obvious answer to why the gaming press see fit to award high praise upon these games however, and it’s not that they’re pressured or bought by the publishers (though this does occur). It’s that gamers value gameplay. If the game plays well, it’s good, simple as. This held true in the past, when games were simpler, and the yearly sequel, and incredible volume of copycat development had yet to emerge. Now though, developers have the power to create realistic virtual worlds, offer characters who can portray realistic emotion and really touch the player in ways that the technology never allowed before. But aside from a handful of cases, we get to shoot Nazis or zombies in the face, over and over. If we’re really lucky we get to play thinly veiled American propaganda and shoot terrorists. Why we can’t see a ‘Hurt Locker’ or similarly intelligent depiction of war, is down to two things. Firstly, developers know that gaming magazines and websites will praise a game, even if it’s the twentieth game of the year to offer first person gunning down of non-descript Middle Eastern people, if the shooting is well implemented and lots of things go boom. Secondly, the gamers themselves are the problem. Not only is there the mass-market, who hungrily lap up the opportunity to blow someone, anyone, into oblivion, but also the ‘informed’ gamer, who reads the reviews and buys accordingly.

The lack of separation between trash and triumph is a real shame. Every other medium has a community who will look past the mass marketed dross and find those hidden gems that have something different to say, a social comment or a different take on the human condition. Gamers don’t have this community and it may be down to the lack of a press which supports it. They do give games which tell a different story, or even the same one in a different way, praise, but all too often it’s overshadowed by the more polished gameplay and graphics of the latest blockbuster. Bioshock is a fine example, it earned great reviews and was heralded as gaming coming of age. Despite having a vastly overrated plot it managed to tap into the reasons we play and the things we do in games – a fine achievement. But the same press told us to go buy FIFA and Call of Duty as well, giving them similarly high reviews. Why review at all then? What separates a remarkable game like that from a by-the-numbers war-em-up, or a sports game only different to last year’s because it has the latest rosters? Why not just assume the games which get the highest marketing budgets will be the best. What does it take for a reviewer to point to Black Ops and say “It’s Modern Warfare with a slightly different setting.” and to actually award it a low review score because of this fact?

The gaming press fails to recognise the gulf between a game that has something to say, and one with something to kill. Reviewing games isn’t working, it just leads to derivative sequels being praised over genuine innovation and intelligence. The gaming press caters to an extent for the smaller niche market of supposedly intelligent gamers, yet gives as much, if not more, praise to the blockbuster games, the ones that have no substance and nothing new to offer. Where is the critique? Reviews can only give so much. Sometimes a film is poorly shot or even has some lacklustre acting, but is incredibly good for other reasons. Can’t the gameplay be a little less polished, but the game still amazing because of what it says to the player? If games were critiqued, and not simply reviewed, if they were seen as art from the offset, then we might see a more intelligent and rewarding game being, not the norm, but a larger part of the industry, a niche market in the vein of arthouse cinema.
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