The problem of writing about games when the audience hasn't played them

Video game critics have long argued about the legitimacy of games as a medium, but is the problem a deeper one?

Video game journalism has come a long way since being regularly creepy about Lara Croft, and it still has a long way to go. If this was Pokémon, Professor Oak has told it to go on its journey, and it's currently out in some long grass.

Anyone who regularly reads about games on the internet knows that it is rife with articles commenting on the struggle between gameplay and narrative; articles earnestly critiquing the portrayal of women inside and outside games (oh games industry - y u no like women?); and articles questioning whether games can be truly considered art. At the heart of all these discussions is the nagging need to be taken seriously. To be welcomed by the established genre moguls of books, film, art, and music, and to be declared as one of them. It is the quest to be respected and legitimised as a medium. 

Yet, the more I think about it, the less certain I feel that games will ever be taken seriously. 

The stem of the problem is semantic. “Game” is an ugly word. No other medium has appropriated its name from a pre-existing structure. Or rather, no other medium is a homonym. Books are books. Films are films. Music is music. Games, however, can be a multitude of things. It can be what children do outside. It can be sport. It can be evil schemes. And it can be life in Baltimore, like in the Wire -  “it’s all in the game, yo”. Even “gameplay” sounds childish. Separated from “game”, a “play” can be theatre but stick “game” in front of it and it sounds frivolous. It is difficult to take games seriously and see them as “grown-up” when they’re codified in a language that treats them as trivial.

Perhaps we need a new name to describe games. Interactive stories? No. Visual kinetic art? No. Adult toys? Definitely not. Push-button-magic-happen-thing? Maybe. I’m working on it. 

But even if new audiences get over the hurdle of playing a silly “game”, they’re stuck in the increasingly hermetic language of games. The one-on-one street fight waging between gameplay and narrative, in the press and in the industry, is because of this search for legitimacy. Stories are human, stories are universal. Great gameplay will make the best games but a great narrative will translate over to the most people. A move towards more narrative and less orthodox gameplay should entice more people to play. Yet those really exceptional games that have a narrative - not that every game needs to have one - meld bold gameplay and narrative together. The gameplay informs the world, and vice versa.

The actions are afforded metaphor. For example, a crazy hallucinogenic on the run would have an equally crazy and erratic control system. Or the menial job of sifting through documentation would have controls that emulate getting through the documents as quickly as possible, feeling menial (but not uninteresting). 

Games which get this metaphor right through gameplay mechanics are often self-referential and play with the orthodox makeup of a game through subversion. Spec Ops: The Line uses archaic gameplay (by 2013 standards at least) to make you constantly feel at unease and ask whether modern shooters make you “feel like something you’re not: a hero”. But without an established knowledge of first-person shooters, would the clunky controls and easy signposting of enemies really have the desired effect? The guys at Extra Credits do a wonderful job of talking about this:

Wheatley in Portal 2 asks you to speak, but the game only gives you the instructions to jump: hilarity ensues. But it’s only hilarious because you know you couldn’t possibly speak within the confines of the game, particularly as a silent protagonist. Bioshock is a game set in a world where control is at the heart of everything: control over enterprise, control over one’s destiny but (SPOILER ALERT) the player’s control is appropriated and is not wholly their own.

Is this discussion on player agency lost on someone who doesn't play games? Ultimately, the games “getting it right” are doing so because they allude to what has existed before. So, if you don’t already play games, the metaphor may be lost. Not that you’d want to play games anyway, because they’re only games.

Mario: The grown-up who can never grow up. (Photograph: YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/Getty Images)
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit