A game isn’t really a game, I’ve come to learn.
Its cutscenes are considered “ cinematics,” its dialogue dubbed a “narrative,” its world composed of “graphics,” its music merely a “soundtrack,” and its methods of interactivity simply “mechanics” (not to be confused with “customization” or “exploration”, by the way). Each game an ocean for critics to reel elements from, and in their outstretched arm grasp what they believe is an argument.
It’s convenient this way, fun even, to break down complex forms of human expression into comparable components. It makes discussion accessible, ordered, quantifiable and professional. I can rank things now. These graphics are better than those, this script is better than others, and which has the better character, you ask? Let’s simply pull each from their game’s respective universe and cross examine our findings.
Pay no mind to how they flounder and suffocate, games and their various facets are, after all, just organized sets of code. Software with unbendable rules, it only makes sense that their analysis be so mathematical. A Final Fantasy game is so cleanly sectioned into battle screens, cutscenes, and scrollable menus, how can anyone avoid the temptation of isolating them? Of sorting them into pieces, stringing each up to dry to more closely examine and compare?
That’s what I’ve been doing, anyways. Snatching individual elements from games and pretending they can be measured independently. And as they lie there, dead on the deck, I debate them. Here is a paragraph about the story, and now the combat, and next a slew of belittling adjectives regarding the visuals and sound. Finally, the conclusion comes as a neat aggregate, a counting of points and some cliche dismissal along the lines of, “overall, the battle system makes up for the visual shortcomings.”
But are games really played like this? Piece by piece? At what moment during actual play, truly, do players itemize their experiences so perfectly? When exactly does someone split the act of gutting the jugular of a city patrol in Assassin’s Creed into both graphics and gameplay? How does anyone’s mind make that distinction? Not only that, but who then has the gall to proclaim which element plays the bigger role?
This is lunacy. Grossly reductionist and uninteresting, and yet the structure remains unchanging. It’s become so scientific, so rudimentary that I could pump out its format in my sleep, and readers are beginning to notice. The routine, the patterns, the trends, the absolute tunnel vision. Game discussion is so formulaic that its ceased to be relatable. It is so detailed that it has somehow become vague.
Even as games become more complex and continue to blur their designs into less classifiable aspects, the process remains stubbornly vapid. How do critics compensate for games like Half Life 2, Shadow of the Colossus, or a more recent example, thatgamecompany’s Journey? Well, these games simply have something called “atmosphere,” they say, and so another item is tacked to the rubric.
I’m frustrated by this approach, bored by it, unable to identify with the opinions it presents, even my own. When I’m actually gaming I’m swimming through an interconnected ecosystem of ideas and layered design. I’m interacting with a universe, being conditioned to its rules and how they affect one another. But when I surface to write I’m there with everyone else, jotting down notes while looking at dead fish. Sorting my memories into a detailed taxonomy of topical paragraphs and neat arguments.
This kind of cherry picking is what modern games journalism excels at, but it lacks perspective. An understanding that a game’s devices — its code, algorithms, triggers, and pixels — are only truly alive when our imagination sets them to motion. Is that so embarrassing to admit? That a game doesn’t stop when it meets a cutscene, but mingles? That the graphics aren’t just a coat of paint, but a very medium of the experience?
Taking these objects out of context allows for more precise inspection, but how each actually functions is lost to readers. Here are its gills, yes, but why are they important? Well, throw it back in the water and see. Let the damn thing swim. It may be harder to observe and analyze, but isn’t that what makes it worth reading about in the first place?