Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Technical Mechanisms, Video Games and Art: A Reflection on Reviews

The industry of reviews has an ongoing debate, perpetuated by the nature of the medium, about how much a good video game review talks about the technical mechanisms of the game it reviews. Shawn Elliot (ex-GFW and current Irrational Games) contests (in the GFW show of October 25th 2007) that in any other medium of art criticism, a good reviewer seldom talks about the medium itself when discussing the merits of the piece of art. He goes on and says that most video game reviewers become unnecessarily fixated at the technical aspects of the game and forget to add if they liked the game or not. I liked what he had to say and I began to think about what he had said. In the kind of review he is referring to, they describe the game itself and then they decide that the piece is good enough of a "review" fit for publication. It isn't.

A good review, whether it be music, movie or an event, will describe the thing firstly with objective facts. The aspect that separates an average review from a good review is whether or not the reviewer will then turn around and describe their own subjective reaction to those facts. There is nothing wrong with being subjective. As humans, everything will be biased in one way or another. It is impossible to avoid this reality. What we can do then is recognize that we will all be biased and write subjectively. It is then the duty of the reader to know that the review is subjective and take that into account when reading it. However, I think that Elliott makes a couple missteps in his statement. Firstly, I believe a good reviewer considers the form of the art medium in a good review and comments upon it. Secondly, I also believe that video games are an unique art form, as their existence predicates itself on the existence of technology, therefore rely on it working correctly, and because of this, the form of video games can have a significant influence on the content of it.

To start off, it is important to define what I mean by the term "technical mechanisms". In the broadest sense, they are they systematic pieces that frame the game, and allow it to be engaged. They can be easily observable parts like controls, video resolution, frame rates, and graphics quality, as well as more intangible aspects like, delivery methods, menu layout or how the multi-player system is setup. These can be considered "form". The other side, we have "content". These are things like, story, game mechanics or level design. These two aspects, form and content, constitute all art in the world, across all mediums. They are in books, movies, music, dancing, architecture, painting, sculpture and any other art form you can imagine. However, some of the difference lies in how much you can separate the two from each other. It's a largely fruitless exercise (since form cannot exist without content, and vice versa), but it may help it understand what can be considered form, and what can be content. For a book, the form is the page layout, the font type, the sentence layout on the page, and the placement of words upon the page, among other things. The content is the story. Now, the tricky part comes when you try to separate the two. Is there story without chapters? Does the story change when you change the page layout? The more important question would then be, "Does your experience change?". If you look to an art like dancing, it is impossible to see the dance without the form. You cannot separate the form of the dancer from the content of the dance. But that doesn't mean both form and content don't exist in this medium. It just means that the two appear differently in each different medium and affects the experience of each medium in different ways. Now, how does art use that form to create meaning?

A lot of good artists utilize the medium itself in order to convey meaning and to not discuss this is to miss some of the message they are trying to convey. Jonathan Safran Foer is a writer in particular that uses the medium of the printed book to create a subtle, multi-layered message. James Joyce uses this as well in Ulysses (the last chapter is five sentences long, spanning 50 pages, mirroring the stream of consciousness style of thought). Arguably, sentence count and length could be considered a "technical" aspect of the book. If you read, "this chapter has 5 sentences and they are 30 words in length", that is pretty similar to hearing "there are 10 levels in the game" and hearing, "the graphics are using Unreal Engine" is close to hearing, "the book has a 12 point font". These are both instances where the form of the medium can be used to shape the content of it. If the font of a book uses Times New Roman versus Sandscript, there is probably a reason behind it. The printer had to decided which one to chose, so it's not an accident. Additionally, while books are regionalized and can be printed on a variety of page sizes and font sizes, consider for a moment if that wasn't true. What if there was only edition of the book, and the font was small and hard to read. This would greatly impact the experience one has with the book. If the "great review" looks to explain your experience with the art object, mentioning that it was physically hard to read would make that experience different. Video games only have one graphics engine, one controls scheme and one frame rate. It is impossible to distinguish form from content in the medium of video games for this reason. If the story and mechanics was transplanted into another "shell" of a video game, maybe it would be different and better, but most of us would consider that a different game. The form of video games is important for the experience.

This is similarly experimented with in other art modes. Great filmmakers tinker with the format of film, changing color filters, film speeds, sound qualities and other aspects that can greatly influence how we experience the film. Music does this as well. When Elliott says that great reviewers don't talk about the technical aspects of the medium, I think he is mistaken. I believe they do. I just think it's in a tone that is different from the tone we usually get when reading about scholarly things like music and movies. Those are art forms that are widely recognized and accepted, so consequently, there are statistically going to be more mature writers who write on the subject. Video games journalism and critique is still in its infancy and still has a long way to go. Video games have traditionally been a field dominated by male, immature nerds. Not until recently has it been cool to play video games. And even now, most of the people who are devoted enough to video games are not usually the ones who write about them. This may be an unfair characterization, but I feel like most of the people who play video games go into Math and Science fields, though that demographic is changing. Because of this, I think that the pieces that we traditionally get written about video games reflect that trend. They tend to be more technical and structured and tend to talk more about objective facts more than subjective interpretations.

While I think this is not the way to get the video games industry taken seriously, I think we should recognize that the form (re: technical aspects) of the video game influences the medium of video games more than most other forms of art. If a movie was hard to play for your DVD player, or the CD also skipped at a certain moment, you would mark it down. Consequently, if a video games' graphics make it hard on the eyes, or if the frame rates are not good enough to beat a level because it lags too much, its going to make the game less enjoyable. There is a level of nit pickiness that goes in video games journalism that is unacceptable, but I think that it is fair to mark down a video game if the graphics are truly abominable and they influence the game experience. Half Life 1's graphics now are not the best, but they do not hinder the game play in any way. You can still play that game and enjoy it, even after playing games in the modern era. But if you got a game on Xbox 360 (a system you cannot upgrade) and it cannot play the game smoothly, the game should not be forgiven because the mechanics behind those graphics might be clever. Like I said, in many instances, the form of the medium influences the content dramatically.

Don't get me wrong though. I think Shawn Elliott is a very intelligent guy and his views on video games are sorely missed, as he now works in the industry and cannot comment on them much anymore. I do agree with him in that a lot of reviewers in industry pass off paltry attempts for reviews, dwelling on petty technicalities and pretend to be objective. Those reviews will never move past 10th grade high school level. The guise of "objectivity" will severely limit the writers ability to express the experience of the game itself. The review is suppose to tell you if a game is good or bad, not a rap sheet of technical bullet points, so by its very definition, it will be subjective. However, I think that a good review will mention these technical aspects, but will comment upon how the developers use those technical mechanics to create atmospherical aesthetic and captivating gameplay. I think that a careful line must be walked between these two, as failing to mention the interaction of form and content will miss some of the message that the artist is trying to convey, and therefore will not accurately reflect the experience one has with the art object, be it music, movies or video games.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very nice piece