Deep Critique Without Play
I’d like to offer you my opinion on a game I’ve never played. My opinions are based purely on the collective conscience and on my interpretation of the game’s play by viewing screenshots and photographs of it in development and in play. I heard its designer talk about it, and I suppose that should be enough. If not him (or her, in my case), certainly the many other people I’ve heard talk about it should suffice. I don’t know whether they played the game either.
Now, there are already a number of you wondering why I’d ever do such a thing. Perhaps you’re wondering why anyone would ever do such a thing. Yet, it happens all the time. In researching a game that it seems most haven’t played, I’ve now counted 100 negative comments in a row, not a one of which resulted from actual play. The conversation usually goes like this:
Me: Yeah, I am studying a bunch of games for my thesis, including Daikatana.
Critic: Oh my goodness. That game sucked.
Me: What did you think when you played it?
Critic: Oh, I didn’t play it.
Literally one hundred times without interruption. I counted.
This is curious to me. I suspect that a lot of the opinions on the game have more to do with surrounding drama (the advertisement, the articles, the personalities involved) than the actual gameplay. It was the game people were waiting to hate. On its release, it needed to provide only a few morsels upon which to feed, and a bad game meme was born. Play be damned. In pressing my 100 critics further, when I asked what was wrong with the game, only a very few people (10 perhaps?) were able to respond with concrete gameplay examples. Yet, in the rare instances where play was actually cited in their critique, the citations simply weren’t enough to warrant the wrath that the game received (and putting aside for a moment that all these play observations were second-hand). Bugs, AI issues, criticisms of design choices. These are universal design issues. Fail to die, keep making games, and you will have your own. The amount of wrath leveled at the game makes it sound as if it spurted acid directly into your nostrils upon installation. Truth be told, it was the marketing that shot acid. The game was not that bad.
For me, the game that inspires deep critique without play is Train. It is fascinating to watch. Without having experienced Train, I see reviews and comments on its interactive experience. People suggest that my inclusion of one element or another was for some specific reason. They discuss “spoilers”, and there are none. Play patterns are assumed from photographs. Single endings are declared. Lack of replayability is stated as an absolute. Reasons for my design decisions are given as fact. In one recent piece, it was noted that I won’t provide the game’s rules due to an artistic drama which I was, apparently, trying to deliberately engineer. Of course, that isn’t true.
So, this whole process of deep critique without play is fascinating to me. By deep, I don’t necessarily mean that the critic discussed it at length, though that could also be true. I also mean that the critic pushed the blade with conviction into a wound he was not personally sure was there. It is telling that we don’t often profess our opinions similarly for things we loved:
Me: Yeah, I just saw Avatar.
Critic: Oh my goodness. That movie was awesome!
Me: What did you think when you saw it?
Critic: Oh, I didn’t see it.
You see what I mean?
I think of the dozens of comments I’ve heard about an artist whose work I love, Jackson Pollock. He throws paint at a canvas, no? Anyone could do it. Rothko paints imperfect rectangles over imperfect rectangles while Mondrian at least got the perfect right. Is this all these artists were trying to do? Could there be something more? (There is.)
It is something – something good, perhaps – that these works inspire critique without play. It is, after all, a contract we enter into when we choose to offer our works for consumption in a public space. It tells us of the impact they are making for better or for worse. It tells of the potential people believed they had for good or for evil (whether or not they lived up to them is immaterial). It tells us the passion of the audience. It also tells us about ourselves as a culture of game players immersed in a collective internet conscience. It tells us something interesting that we would offer opinions on the interactive creative work of others without actually having experienced that work at all.
To be among the critiqued is to find yourself a place with good company.