“Why do you hate games?”
That’s the question I’ve received the most as a video game critic. Of course, no video game critic hates games. If not for a love of games, a bottomless, nagging, nonnegotiable sort of love, no one would become a professional video game critic — or any critic, for that matter. Plenty of other jobs pay better, consume less time and don’t include in the job description, “Must be comfortable eating shit from strangers on Twitter.”
I do play more games than the average person, a lot more. Inevitably the law of averages kicks in. The more games I play, the more likely I’ll come across something that doesn’t click, be it a character, a story, a gameplay concept or maybe a method with which the game’s publisher tries to milk each player for cash through tasteless microtransactions.
I like characters and stories that challenge the assumptions of the previous generation of games, that don’t default to the agony and ecstasy of being a 30-something dude with a knack for headshots. I expect violence to have a purpose. I appreciate games that value my money and my time. Those are a few components of my tastes.
Where the average person chooses games based on taste, and perhaps a passing consideration of reviews, I pick games — “pick” isn’t the right word; let’s say “I’m assigned games” — because they appear on a Google Calendar crowded with upcoming releases. A few games every year are truly excellent. Many are good. Most are fine. Some are bad. Others, forgettable. I try to approach every game without prejudice.
As I play a game, my obligation is to be honest with myself, and then to communicate to the reader what personal truth I uncover. My opinion doesn’t matter on its own. What matters is my capacity to share that opinion in a fashion that provides a value to the reader. Which is to say that when I play, I have myself in mind; when I write, I have the reader in mind.
Criticizing games, at its best, is akin to working as a field researcher. Sometimes the artistry is living and vibrant, waiting right on the surface, eager to be studied. Other times, it’s dead and buried, but if one’s patient and willing to dig, they can find tiny clues of a righteous thing that, due to whatever cataclysmic event of video game development, had the life squashed from it.
No developer spends years developing a game because they want to create broken, incomplete, joyless, creatively bankrupt things, just like critics don’t want to spend a week playing a middling adventure just so they can write 800 words on something that didn’t move them. Both creators and critics hunger for distinction.
When people ask why I hate one game or another, I want to hold up the handful of fossils I worked diligently to loose from the game. “I pushed through 20 hours of another forgettable shooter,” I wish to say, “because I knew I’d find something, somewhere that spoke to its creators’ dreams, ambitions and beliefs. And I hope that knowing it exists, knowing how to look for it and where to find it, will make your time richer should you choose to play too.”
Sometimes it’s tough to uncover these little veins of gold. Sometimes I fail. And sometimes a game is made from a place of such corporate cynicism that hours of searching uncovers a cold, joyless core. But in my experience, the average game is an imperfect vessel for a nugget of greatness.
A love for these imperfect games has stuck with me over the years. I respect games like Zelda and Fallout that come from teams that have time, talent and money, but they don’t sit on the top of my shelf.
Instead, I have Bushido Blade and Bushido Blade 2, the awkward-to-control fighting game pairing that did away with health meters and combos. There’s Earth Defense Force 2017, a decade-old bug-riddled open-world game with a sense of scale that still hasn’t been bested. Gravity Rush 2 is a modern AAA game starring a young superheroine who fights income inequality without using a gun. WWE All Stars is one of the few pro wrestling games to recognize the joy and playfulness of the sport, trading hyper-realistic simulation for a satirical cartoon. And Catherine is my Number One problematic fave, but it’s sexy and mischievous and, most unexpectedly, one of the best puzzle games of the past decade, while also doubling as a shrewd but sincere exploration of male insecurity and selfishness.
These games are precious to me, but they are all flawed, a few deeply so. Video games are a young and awkward medium, a volatile mix of the humanities (game designers, musicians, filmmakers, actors, writers) with big business (publicity, marketing, social engineering experts, economists, publicly traded publishers). In development, there is endless room for error, if not outright interference. Each time I learn more about the notoriously secret nature of video game development, particularly on big budget blockbusters, I’m impressed so many games achieve technical competence, let alone any higher function of art.
If half of a critic's job is akin to a miner in search of gold, the other half is like a tour guide navigating unstable terrain. A critic shows you not merely what to avoid, but frames the problem. Most bad decisions have a well-intending (or at the least fascinating) origin. Why does a new shooter feel so strange? Perhaps because it was assigned by a publisher to a developer that had previously only made racing games. Maybe popping zombie heads feels good in other games, but this shooter is lacking that oomph — a good critic is also looking for the absence of a thing.
I appreciate when a critic elevates my experience with a piece of art: when they can guide me through what would otherwise turn me away, and then frame greatness in a way I can understand. That’s what I aspire to do whenever I write or speak about a game.
I love video games, but what I might love more is the opportunity I’ve had over the last decade to share the imperfect games with other people, people who might have otherwise passed them on their occasional visit to GameStop in search of Madden or Destiny, Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty. I like finding greatness in the world’s biggest games, too, but I recognize they set an expectation of polish and scope that so many games can’t match. When I criticize a game, I do so to set expectations, to provide context, to interrogate what doesn’t work and to shine a light on what does.
I’ve been away from video game criticism for a couple of years, so it may take me a while to relearn some skills and find my muscle memory. But I promise, even when I appear grumpy and downtrodden, that I’m always searching for beauty and truth. I can’t wait to share it with you.