How much games criticism does anyone need?

Videogame writer Ed Stern argues that "video games as a medium are not going to gain cultural legitimacy or worth through the attention of critics or theorists - it's going to be because the games are good".

My piece about games criticism - and the paucity of it in mainstream media - generated a lot of response (not all of it angry! result!). In the next few days, I'll be bringing you a rebuttal to the piece from a journalist who is trying to broaden the practice. But, in the meantime, games writer Ed Stern - who works for Splash Damage - agreed that I could share his full response to my question: "How can we have a better cultural conversation about games?" 

Ed, and I'm going to be making him blush now, is one of the most thoughtful and well-read gentlemen I've encountered, and it cheers me enormously that he's chosen to write videogames. Even if he is, as you will discover, a touch pessimistic about making them "mean" anything.

- Helen 

"Cultural criticism about games? Much more pressing for me is the need for better popular consumer journalism: we need regular game review segments in mass readership papers and on primetime (if that’s still a thing) so parents who haven’t grown up playing games know what to let their children play. There’s a limit to the size and number of age rating labels we can put on the front of the box. And increasingly, with digital distribution, there’s no box to stick warning labels on.

As for the hoitier, toitier end of things, I think games get about as much respect as they deserve, possibly too much. Games are continually being enlisted under the banner of Art. It would be nice to see their craft more appreciated, but once you’ve built an academic/critical mill, I suppose you need to keep finding new texts to feed into it (or it’s just the same texts fed in at different angles).

We need more actual, factual journalism, more deep reporting. But the games industry is even more risky (and risk-averse) than movies, has increasing numbers of plates to spin and is consequently ever-less willing to let light in back where the laws and sausages and games get made, so good luck with that.

I think the indie experimental stuff is now much easier for the general gamership/readership to try because so much of it can be found and played in a browser window or on a mobile phone. Maybe this will lead to a greater interest in the craft of design, balance and implementation, but then I’m probably abnormally interested in the production/design process of things and don’t care about theory.

Games-as-texts don’t often read as book-clever. Most of them, particularly the “AAA” big release titles, aren’t about things, or ideas, or themes in a way that repays the sort of critical attention that’s brought to other media. Games aren’t as good at authored narrative or subtext as they are at providing players with virtual adventure playgrounds for developing and demonstrating mastery. What games really excel at is being as forges for anecdote. It’s that combination of sandbox, ruleset and toolkit that lets players make their own stories through trial-and-error interaction. The force of these stories usually comes from oddness or irony rather than significance; often they revolve around the player’s actions gloriously defeating, evading or supplanting the authored significance of the game’s Text-with-a-capital-T.

I suspect it’s currently easy for the book-literate to find everything fascinating about games other than the games themselves. Culturally, sociologically, technologically, in terms of gender and race and sexual and generational politics, they’re a fascinating prism through which to view issues of cultural politics of gender, race, class, generational change, narrative and play. They just tend not to mean very much in themselves because it’s just spectacularly, trudgingly hard to make games mean things, not least because the big ones are made by so many different pairs of hands that any potential significance gets dissipated or inadvertently contradicted by something else in the game.

Why critical significance should be so much harder for games than any other collaborative medium like movies or TV, I’m not sure. Perhaps we’re just not as good at designing organisations to make things. Brilliant work is being done on a smaller scale in the experimental art house circuit that is the indie sector, but in terms of “AAA” Hollywood games, just getting the damn things finished on-time and on-budget and fun and sufficiently functional to not fall over is hard enough. Making them significant as well is something few developers seem to even get to attempt. After all, it’s not just making a new film to show in the same cinema, it’s reinventing the camera, the film stock, the projector, the screen, the seats and, increasingly, the popcorn and hotdogs too. Perhaps it’s not surprising there’s so much noise along with whatever signal we’re trying to author in or analyse out.

So what would improve criticism? Well, for a subject so under the academic microscope, we’re light on terminology: we call a ridiculously, meaninglessly broad number of things “game”. Then again we don’t have that many genre terms to describe movies, but we seem to do OK with the ones we have. Maybe we should commit the same fiction as movies: pretend that one mind makes them, and lionise lead game designers as we do directors (while feeling smug when we know the names of the cinematographer, editor and screenwriter too).

I don’t think commercial interests are holding much back, they just make it harder for general non-identified-as-Gamer readers to distinguish between the different genres and markets of game writing. The more antic academic criticism effectively secludes itself, and the informed readers do a good job of finding their own preferred sources (and there’s some tremendous writing about games out there). It’s the non-hardcore civilian readers who have to find their own way through the churnalised marketing copy, the sober consumer reviews, the New Games Journalism-inflected meditations, the frantic fansite blurbs and the comments threads. Oh lord, the comments threads.

What would more, better games criticism look like? We’ve had millennia of books, and writing and thinking about books, which then got adapted to include film, and TV. We’ve only had about three decades of games, and writing about games, we’ve had fan writing that grew up, and critical theory that shifted its gaze over to what the kids were doing, and game-playing kids who got into books and books about books, and there still seem to be as many differences from what went before as similarities. Why would more or better games criticism look like the writing about other media?

Also, how much games criticism does anyone need? Or rather, how many people need any? Perhaps we already have enough. Most people who buy games aren’t particularly interested in critical thinking about games, any more than moviegoers are close readers of film, or downloaders are fascinated by music criticism. They like the sound it makes in their lives, but they don’t have to know how it works, or what it tells them about themselves. Most people like movies, but they want memories and making-of anecdotes and blooper reel gaffs to trade with their friends, they don’t want to spend a day on set, or a week in edit. Maybe we already have all the game criticism there's any actual demand for.

The video game as a medium is not going to gain cultural legitimacy or worth through the attention of critics or theorists, it's going to be because the games are good. Or, you know, by reducing the attention span of anyone who might otherwise read a book or see a play or look at a painting. Kidding. I hope. I look forward to being wrong about all of this."

Find Ed on Twitter: @edstern

Journey, for the PlayStation 3.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear