*This IndieCade talk was originally given at the Museum of the Moving Image on Feb. 14th, 2014.
I want to speak to you today as a player.
I do not make indie games. I play games, all kinds of games, and I write about them, often critically. I know many of you make videogames, or hope to someday. But being players is what we all have in common here. So I’m speaking to you now as one player to another.
We’re all players, but we do not like the same games. Not even the same indie games. This is natural and good, but it causes strife. We’re here at IndieCade to celebrate and share and learn, so we try to forget these differences. Or at least downplay them and keep them private, among friends.
But I’m afraid I have to drag these differences – this strife – out in public. This is, after all, a talk about ‘indie criticism’. I think being a critic is deeply connected to being a player. I want to discuss how it is in fact the very foundation of criticism. Thoughtful criticism comes from thoughtful players.
This may seem obvious, and yet we seem to have trouble staying focused on players. We’re more comfortable looking up to the game makers for guidance, or to the game itself in theoretical isolation. We defer to the experts and constantly seek an authority outside ourselves. If we mention ‘the player’, we tend to keep him safely abstracted and generic and male. Actual players are too diverse, their experiences too…local.
And yet videogames absolutely demand that we pay attention to players. It’s not optional for the medium. Players are always there, interacting in specific and meaningful ways, and this cannot be ignored in criticism.
In talking about players, I also want to talk about our rhetoric, the way we talk about our experiences with games. Last year, I criticized BioShock Infinite. I criticized it loudly and forcefully. And before that, Zelda. And many others along the way, some you may have loved.
My criticism of BioShock Infinite wasn’t the first or the last, but it seemed to irritate many people. I criticized according to my experience – my truth as a player. But my truth offended. My sincerity was taken for hyperbole. So to discuss ‘indie criticism’, I must also talk about the discourse around games. Not just the content of our criticism, but the way we express it.
First, a bit about what I mean by these words: criticism and indie.
By criticism, I do not mean the academic kind. Not that distanced criticism that relies on expertise or theory or multiple references to other works. Academic criticism does not find sufficient the individual readings and reactions that I will be discussing. Academia likes to theorize subjectivity all right, but it does not actually embrace it.
Nor by criticism do I mean only something like the standard game review, which as it currently stands is a pretty debased form.
No, by criticism I am talking about the expression of one player’s experience with a game and a judgment of that experience.
By indie…well, despite being the word that has gathered us here, it always seems to be on the verge of losing its meaning. But my sense of the word today is rather simple. I mean a few specific adjectives we often associate with indie games: independent, experimental, and personal.
With both words together – indie criticism – I’m talking about two things primarily. The first is fairly straightforward: criticism OF indie games. It is important that this come from within the indie community as well as from without. Otherwise, IndieCade and similar events serve as merely fan gatherings of circled wagons, insular and self-protective, and that indie spirit we like to talk about threatens to become merely an affectation or style.
But criticizing indie games from within the community is easy to say and hard to do. Many find it safer to…tread lightly.
Why is this? Partly because of our love and hope for indie games. Partly because at events like this, no one wants to be the grump, the buzzkill, the ruiner. And partly because indie developers and would-be critics often know each other, and it’s very difficult to criticize people you know.
Myself, I try to be kind in person and merciless in writing, but that would be very difficult for me to do if I knew more people. In that respect, coming to IndieCade is rather dangerous for me as a critic.
The second sense of ‘indie criticism’ is a bit easier to talk about and provides, perhaps, a more specific way to perform the first. That is: as a kind of criticism that has those qualities we generally associate with indie games, that arises from that same indie spirit. A criticism that is independent, experimental, and personal, and meant to apply to all games, indie and non-indie alike.
We already know some of the things that keep critics from being independent in their judgments. We know that indies are too connected to each other, and we know that game journalists are too connected to the industry they cover.
But something that affects every critic, even those with no indie or industry affiliations, is the perceived opinion of gamers at large. Sometimes this is referred to as our ambient awareness. We develop a sense for the norms and opinions of others through the ceaseless chatter of social media and other forms of online discourse. This is how, for instance, the 7-10 game review scale becomes internalized and makes a kind of sense to us over time.
And yet we are often wrong about what people actually think. It’s difficult to see the diversity of actual game experiences because the loudest or most established voices dominate. It only takes a few before our brains begin to collate opinion and fill in the gaps, imagining the assent of the less vocal.
All these voices in our head, all these ghosts, can lead a critic unwittingly towards self-censorship, or at the very least a kind of mealy-mouthed rhetoric. We get a steady stream of IMHOs and the nervous qualification of any declarative sentence. We see writers so self-conscious about perceived elitism or giving offense that they hesitate to judge anything at all.
But there is nothing arrogant about evaluating your own experiences and putting those judgments out there for others. Even if you do so forcefully (because feelings are forceful). I find far more arrogant those who withhold judgment and feign impartiality, always wanting to remain above the fray. As if their pronouncements, once finally given, would just rock our little world.
Before I played BioShock Infinite, my least favorite game of the past few years was the widely-loved Limbo. By criticizing it, I also wanted to question our assumptions about what makes a good indie title to begin with. Is it all about mood and style? Are a bunch of simple single-solution puzzles really worth celebrating? Does it matter that the game’s basic movements feel so bad from moment to moment? Is Limbo actually about anything?
To answer such questions, an independent critic cannot look to some outside authority. She must assert the authority of herself, of her own experience playing the game. And to do this she has to listen to herself, to the reality of her own experience, and listen hard. Especially when all that ambient noise threatens to overwhelm.
This requires courage, even imprudence at times, and a certain amount of self-imposed isolation. You can’t eliminate your ambient awareness altogether, nor would you want to. But a critic needs regular relief from it to inhabit and preserve her own experiences as a player.
And she needs the wherewithal to push back against the tide when her experiences diverge from the apparent consensus. By offering a perspective that is surprising yet compelling, she can slightly alter the ambient awareness of others. And this discord, in turn, can encourage independence in others.
Indie critics also have to be willing to experiment both within the games they play as well as formally in their own writing.
In games, this can mean deliberately playing wrong. The Skyrim pacifist who levels without directly killing anything, the Minecraft player walking to the end of the world, even the speed runner – these are the acts of would-be indie critics, pushing against the rules of gameworlds and testing the limits of their agency within them.
Last year, I was near the end of Fire Emblem: Awakening when a single mistake led to the death of my main character’s wife and child. When the game didn’t acknowledge this loss at all, I decided to have my grieving father and husband lead his comrades to slaughter on the front lines. Every single character was annihilated. I did not restart.
And so, this was my game of Fire Emblem. I followed my experience and found an ending that felt fitting. And this is what I wrote about.
Playing against the grain, against what the designers intended, does not disqualify a critic. No, it defines him as a player and serves as the basis for his criticism.
There is of course no formula for good criticism, and so critics must be willing to take risks in their writing as well. Most videogame discourse follows the same insular logic as games themselves. It strives to keep the rhetorical environment safe and stable, and everything in it known and controlled.
But criticism should be dangerous. It should be destabilizing. It should upend.
There are so many forms game criticism has yet to explore, or invent, far beyond the consumer review. And trying out new forms, new tones, even new rhetorical positions is crucial to the indie critic. Even if these experiments sometimes fail.
I think even the most articulate critics still struggle to describe their basic encounters with games. Playing a game creates such strange, fugitive experiences, and an indie critic must become rather strange herself to capture and evaluate those experiences for her audience.
Videogames are always personal. It’s in the nature of the medium. The way our interactivity draws us in, affects us, provokes us, makes us responsible for what happens onscreen. It’s one of the reasons games can be hard to criticize – we know that what is personal for us must be personal for others too.
And yet critics are often still expected to set aside their own feelings and approach games with something like objectivity. We hear: just talk about the game! I don’t want to hear about your personal experiences!
The call for objectivity has a thousand different faces, but the root is always the same: a desire to eliminate the personal from gaming. To erase the human.
The personal is so readily dismissed as the source of taste, of bias, something on the fringe, when it is in reality the essential, unstable core of the game experience. It gives the indie critic his insights into the game and reveals both the player’s and the game’s values.
Game insights come from our interface – it’s how the medium works. This doesn’t mean critics should just talk about themselves and ignore the game. It means that criticism arises at the intersection of game and player. Instead of wasting time speculating about some mythical average player, a critic should be foregrounding and interrogating the actual player she is.
Sometimes a critic’s honest opinion, her sincere judgment, will sound crazy to others. When I said I thought BioShock Infinite was not just the worst game of the year but the worst game of this generation, I meant it. It is quite literally the worst I’ve played, according to my values. Of course, I made rhetorical choices in how I expressed this, but it’s important to me that my provocations are always true, that I really believe them.
Confronting the reality of another’s experience should be disarming, threatening, perhaps maddening. One person’s truth may sound insane to someone else, but it can also challenge the hidden norms, the received wisdom, the values at play.
This confrontation is very much the point of criticism – we must confront the reality of others. And so, a critic must be committed to his personal, very personal, experiences with videogames. A critic is always a particular player at a particular place at a particular time. He cannot avoid his own reality. He is always a particular subjectivity, and he must own it.
Don’t Be So Negative
The past few years I’ve received a lot of challenges to the kind of criticism that values independence, experimentation, and the personal. I want to discuss a few of the more common ones.
I am sometimes told that the internet has enough negativity, so why contribute more? Life’s too short and all.
I confess I do not understand this. There is a kind of relentless positivity among some people, a tyrannical form of enthusiasm. It’s present in many fandoms and everywhere online in the culture of recommendations and likes, in the endless marketing of our lives. And of course, you can find this overbearing positivity in the indie community as well, where no one wants to be a downer.
But who does this positivity really benefit?
I don’t see how it is possible to stay consistently positive without being dishonest. And encouraging dishonesty in others. My positive and negative evaluations are both the result of my engagement with a game. This is what a game or any creation wants – engagement. Our time and focus and attention. Being ignored is far worse than any honest negative review.
Is life too short for negativity? No, life is too short for dishonesty. It’s too short to disrespect our own experiences. And relentless positivity is fundamentally disrespectful.
A more specific version of this comes in people saying: well, if you have to be negative about a game, at least be constructive in your criticism.
This assumes, though, that we are addressing game creators with our criticisms. As if it’s our job to help them make better games.
But critics are not playtesters or focus groups of one. And who’s to say we all want to ‘construct’ the same thing anyway? As if we can even agree on what ‘better games’ means.
What an indie critic should aim for is not constructive, well-behaved criticism but expressive criticism, unruly criticism. This may sound like an invitation to unrestrained narcissism on the critic’s part, but his criticism will be judged just like everything else. Was it interesting? Insightful? Well-expressed?
Games culture puts undo emphasis on utility, on measurable gains, but criticism does not have to be immediately useful to be worthwhile. When a critic gets at something true about her experience with a game, this is an end unto itself. It’s enough to just say it, to put it out there.
And Watch Your Tone
Those who accept negativity and don’t demand that criticism always be constructive still sometimes have one small request: just watch your tone. This tone-policing often comes from people who might agree with the criticisms but have genuine concerns about how to reach people who disagree.
Don’t be too angry. Don’t be too aggressive or harsh. Be reasonable and rational and respectful.
But just as demanding ‘constructive’ criticism assumes an audience of game developers, demanding the right tone assumes an audience of those who might take offense. A perceived majority who need to be handled with kid gloves.
Changing hearts and minds is tricky business, and to those more diplomatic than myself, I wish them the best.
But I wonder how independent a critic can be if she is constantly worrying about the delicate sensibilities of her readers. I wonder how she stays honest and true to her own experiences with games, especially those she dislikes. What does she do with a game that enrages or disgusts her? Politeness, fairness, and seeming reasonableness can be very effective tools of oppression, especially when demanded by those in power.
Indie criticism is not about talking in dulcet tones to a privileged majority, keeping them safe and secure in their positions. If we want to change the terms of our discourse, we cannot constantly defer to the terms already in place.
If I want to say, for instance, that I find The Stanley Parable nothing but a self-satisfied in-joke, just another form of clever insularity that celebrates the prison of games culture as much as it mocks it…well, shouldn’t I just say that? Instead of worrying about how many, many people, including some of you, might have liked the game?
The Indie Player
We’re not here because we like the same games. Our gathering can’t be based on that. That’s just a clique, a clan. And similar opinions don’t make for a healthy community anyway.
It is painful to sit among supposedly like-minds and feel out of step, I know. To have everyone celebrate a game that, in your experience, stinks. You begin to doubt yourself as a player and wonder why your experience was so different from everyone else’s.
But that consensus is an illusion. It always was. In truth, there is a silent diversity of players out there, in here, everywhere, and indie gaming must seek this diversity out and embrace it, criticisms and all.
Some of you may not feel like much of a critic. Not everyone is bent this way, nor do they need to be. The indie critic, though, is really just a particular subset of a much larger group: the indie player.
The indie player is not to be confused with the indie gamer – someone who plays and prefers indie games. No, the indie player is someone who plays a game, any game, with an indie spirit. That is: independently, experimentally, personally.
The indie player is creative, unpredictable, insubordinate. Like Lucifer, the indie player is a rebellious creature. She will not quietly obey the intelligent designer of the gameworld. She proclaims: non serviam. I will not serve.
The indie player does not bend to the values of gaming culture either, not even those of indie gaming. He plays distinctively, unreasonably, singularly. The indie player may or may not be critical, but each plays in his own way.
This notion of the indie player revolves around a basic but vital idea: that your experience is important. Your individual experience as a player is important. We are all players, and our personal, idiosyncratic, unrepeatable game experiences are essential to gaming, to indie communities, to us.
I know that ‘indie’ and ‘community’ can sometimes seem at odds, just like ‘criticism’ and ‘community’. They seem to threaten each other. How do you connect independent people? How do you maintain a community of distinct, sometimes ornery individuals?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think indie communities and gatherings like IndieCade should strive to be places that people feel free to express their individual experiences of games, to openly share their differences, criticisms and all. Places to celebrate the indie player.
The Frozen Sea
Sometimes I am asked as a critic what I’m really looking for in videogames. What experiences keep me coming back as a player, given all my criticisms. So let me end with this.
My favorite game of last year was Liz Ryerson’s Problem Attic. She has described it as “a game about prisons, both real and imaginary”, and this was very much my experience. Problem Attic turns that beloved indie prison – the puzzle-platformer – against itself and takes players deep into the margins. It’s a difficult game, but not in the way most games are. It’s difficult in the way a person is difficult. And this difficulty is beautiful.
Problem Attic is frustrating and forgiving, hypnotic yet abrasive, vulnerable but never timid, and completely, completely sincere. It unfolds according to its own rules and tunnels deep inside the player. It’s not fucking around.
Playing Problem Attic reminds me of that famous Kafka quote:
“We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
I want this same thing from games. An axe like Problem Attic for the frozen sea within. And whether we call it indie or not, I want the same thing from criticism too.
~ Tevis Thompson
May 1, 2014
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.