The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Critics

Seth, Chris, and Stephen,

This post may create a time paradox. I’m about to reference some of the things that we discussed in the podcast that we just recorded for Slate, but our readers will see this post before they’re able to listen to our taped conversation. So be it.

One of the things we talked about is whether it’s possible for a critic or reviewer to even play, let alone complete, enough games to truly render a definitive Game of the Year, the way that movie critics can. We agreed that it was difficult because of the amount of time that it takes to play a game as compared with watching a movie, not to mention the fact that games also require a certain amount of skill to progress. That’s why the DS and the PSP have been a godsend for us New Yorkers. I would probably never have made it through all but the last level of Rockstar’s disappointing Manhunt 2—sheepishly tilting the screen away from underage subway seatmates, of course—if there hadn’t been a PSP version. And as much as Stephen rightly raves about Geometry Wars: Galaxies on the Wii, the DS is where it has won me over.

The amount of time and skill required to complete certain games makes me wonder: If I’m to be a responsible video-game critic, what approach should I take to sampling, playing, and completing more games? Should I play 30 minutes of every single preview build that comes into my office? Should I download every demo from Xbox Live and PlayStation Network? Should I drop from normal/medium difficulty to easy whenever I encounter the first sign of struggle? How much of a game does a critic need to have completed before he or she can speak, ah, critically about it? We would be skeptical of someone who wrote about There Will Be Blood without seeing the entire movie or M.I.A.’s Kala without listening to the entire album. Yet I frequently weigh in on games that I haven’t completed. Stephen’s busy applauding the Wii for allowing faster development times—I already can’t keep up with things the way they are now.

Even if I commit to exploring more games next year, I’m still going to need some kind of filter. And one place to turn to for that is the Internet. As writers, all of you know that procrastination (I mean, research) is an important part of the journalistic process. So, as I was preparing to write this post, I stumbled across an intriguing game about time and aging called Passage by Jason Rohrer. A small group of Montreal-based game developers called the Kokoromi Collective recently held a game design competition. Among the rules: a maximum resolution of 256 pixels by 256 pixels; run on Windows XP and use an Xbox 360 controller; a single game session of five minutes or less. Unfortunately, our PCs here at Newsweek don’t run XP. So, I clicked over to YouTube, searched for a video clip of the game, and watched it there. There’s no substitute for actually playing the game, of course, but I was able to tell from the video that despite its crude visuals—and in the end, possibly because of them—playing Passages would be worth my while. And where did I find out about this game? On that wretched hive of scum and villainy known as NeoGAF, under the forum heading “Passage: So they say games can’t be art?” In that thread, the best (thoughtful consideration) and worst (cheap shots) of Web culture is on display for a glorious 116 posts.

I mention all of this to illustrate how the Internet has fundamentally changed the nature of criticism. TV critics used to review a pilot or the first few episodes of a season, then return at season’s end, if at all. Now professionals and amateurs alike recap and critique each episode on a weekly basis, then dive into their comments sections to mix it up with their regulars. A critic’s opinions were always fodder for debate among his or her readership, but those debates were scattered and isolated. Now those debates can take place right alongside that critic’s opinion and, in some cases, help inform those opinions by forcing the critic to engage with the readers, or just inform the critic period, as shown in the anecdote above. This is also a good thing.

For my outro, let’s turn the clock back to Chuck Klostermann’s 2006 Esquire essay, in which he wrote:

I realize that many people write video-game reviews and that there are entire magazines and myriad Web sites devoted to this subject. But what these people are writing is not really criticism. Almost without exception, it’s consumer advice. … As far as I can tell, there is no major critic who specializes in explaining what playing a given game feels like, nor is anyone analyzing what specific games mean in any context outside the game itself. There is no Pauline Kael of video-game writing. There is no Lester Bangs of video-game writing. And I’m starting to suspect there will never be that kind of authoritative critical voice within the world of video games.

To which I responded, in an interview with

[W]hen Chuck Klostermann asked, “Where is the Lester Bangs of videogames?” I thought to myself, hell, Lester Bangs couldn’t even be the Lester Bangs of music today, let alone videogames. The critic is going the way of the dinosaur and the dodo bird; he or she is an anachronism in an age where anyone can publish an opinion.The democratizing of opinion is a good thing in that it can give voice to a variety of people who would not have been heard otherwise. The drawback is that it’s much harder to develop a shared critical vocabulary amidst this cacophony, and that’s unfortunate, because I believe that motivated journalists, readers and developers would benefit from a common language.

Is it game over for the game critic, gentlemen?