Where to find good videogames criticism

Brendan Keogh cuts through the dross to uncover the best writing about games anywhere on the internet.

In the latest of a continuing series I like to call "people disagree with me at length", the excellent Brendan Keogh, a games critic and academic, has replied to my article "Why are we so bad at talking about videogames?" You can also see games creator Ed Stern's thoughts here

Over to Brendan . . .

In an article last week, Helen Lewis asked why we are still so bad at talking about videogames. Lewis rightly noted that as the current era’s most prolific new art form, the videogame demands a critical language with which players can discuss their experiences - and, just as importantly, a language that allows people who don’t play videogames to gain an appreciation for the form. The sheer pervasiveness of videogames throughout modern culture means that they can’t be ignored. If there isn’t a videogame on the same device you are reading this article on, chances are there is a videogame in your pocket. Just as we have always needed literary critics, music critics, and film critics, people are starting to realise just how important it is that we have videogame critics.

It was really exciting to see a mainstream outlet with as much clout as The New Statesman to acknowledge this. However, the implication in Lewis’s article that such videogame criticism simply doesn’t exist yet ruffled a few feathers with those writers (including myself) who would like to consider ourselves as already being videogame critics. We felt slighted, ignored. Here was an outlet rightly calling for critical attention to be paid to videogames while, simultaneously, ignoring those of us already doing as such.

But, really, Lewis made an incredibly important point: no one knows we exist. As a community of writers, it is easy to feel slighted, but the truth is harder to face: we are insular. We are doing all this work we think is so important, but the reality is that we are really just talking to our own little circle of fellow writers and readers. Beyond ourselves, few people know who we are.

So it is no fault of Lewis’s that she didn’t know we exist. Many don’t! But her article was a golden opportunity to tell people that, yes, this kind of writing is important, and more importantly the first steps are already being taken. Right now is, I think, an incredibly exciting time to be writing and reading videogame criticism. There is so much experimentation with form and style happening right now as we try to build this critical language that videogames so desperately need. Ideas are being thrown at the wall hard and fast, just to see what will stick. This is a new frontier of writing that we are venturing into.

So allow me to offer not so much a rebuttal to Lewis’s article - because I agree with her in full that this kind of writing is important - but a response from the other side. You want writers who are good at writing about videogames? Well allow me to point you in the right directions. I would greatly love for you to read their work.

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The first and foremost stop for anyone interested in following the critical conversation around videogames is Critical Distance. Since its founding in 2009, Critical Distance has situated itself as a crucial curator for the countless, disparate writers of the videogame blogosphere. Every Sunday, its volunteers post a round-up of the best articles written that week around the web on both amateur blogs and professional websites. It also regularly posts compilations of works written around a single game or franchise. It also makes a vital effort in highlighting the work of new writers—something especially crucial for a writing form as young as this. More than any other site I recommend below, following Critical Distance’s weekly updates will allow anyone to stay on top of the conversation without having to hunt out a hundred different websites.

In more recent years, a spate of sites dedicated to videogame criticism in its many guises have risen up. I won’t name them all here but three that are well worth your time are Bit Creature, Nightmare Mode, and Unwinnable. Each posts regular and strong essays from a diverse arrange of writers looking at a diverse range of games. From consumerism and depression through the lens of Borderlands 2, to mastery-cum-boredom-cum-massacre in Dark Souls, to heartfelt musings on motherhood and sea monkeys in Creatures.

While these sites allow a platform for a broad range of writers, there are also a range of more specific outlets with specific agendas. One of the most important of these is The Border House blog, which provides a vital place for a variety of feminist and queer perspectives on gaming to be heard. Most recently, Mattie Brice’s look at the surreal iPhone game Boyfriend Maker and how it has allowed an audience of players to experiment with different sexualities is well worth a read. Similar is GayGamer, a queer gaming site “for boys who like boys who like joysticks, and girls who like girls who like rumble packs!”

Similarly niche and fascinating in equal measure is Game Church, offering insightful articles from a uniquely Christian perspective, such as this superb article on Sony’s The Unfinished Swan and perfection.

But it’s not only the niche, small sites that are advancing strong critical writing around videogames. Plenty is happening on the traditional videogame journalism outlets, too. At Eurogamer, Christian Donlan wrote one of the most beautiful videogame-related articles of recent time, when he sat down to play Rockstar’s period piece L.A. Noire with his father who was a Los Angeles cop back in the 40s. What unfolds is a touching bond between father and son made possible through this new creative form. At Kotaku, meanwhile, Katie Williams wrote a revealing and infuriating expose into the videogame industry’s systemic sexism through her experiences at this year’s E3 expo. At Ars Technica, I tried my hand at long-form gonzo-style journalism to cover a 48 hour game jam, where teams of developers made a game from scratch in two days. And, in a particularly experimental piece at Boing Boing, Jake Adelstein sat down with several real-life members of the Yakuza to have them play the Japanese game Yakuza 3 and give their opinions on it.

While we are speaking about videogame journalism, it is worth noting that there is plenty of phenomenal investigative journalism happening in recent time. In the past twelve months, both the Penny Arcade Report and Polygon have set themselves up as outlets committed to long-form, high quality journalism about videogames. In particularly, Rob Zacny’s extended exploration of the tragic downfall of THQ’s Kaos Studios (responsible for the first-person shooter, Homefront) and Tracey Lien’s investigation into the trials faced by Middle Eastern game developers are both must-reads.

To spread the net even further, it isn’t just in the videogame-exclusive press where good quality writing in a myriad of forms is emerging. At The Wall Street Journal, Yannick LeJacq writes about the various layers of irony in Borderlands 2. At Boston’s The Phoenix, Maddy Myers regularly explores a range of videogame culture-related issues, such as this long form article exploring the ‘anxious masculinity’ of the fighting-games scene. Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo, among other authors, regularly writes for The New York Times. In the UK, one of the most effortlessly masterful voices in videogame writing, Simon Parkin, writes regularly for The Guardian. Meanwhile, in Australia, videogame critic and academic Dan Golding has a column for independent outlet Crikey. (I personally recommend Golding’s updated version of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” that takes into account the bizarre retelling of events in Ubisoft’s recent Assassin’s Creed III).

Yet, for all these examples, there are still precious few places that videogame criticism can stand on its own legs, and it is often forced to survive parasitically on the back of websites with other primary concerns. What I personally find most fascinating in recent times are those authors and editors trying to push for videogame criticism to be its own independent form. Independent zines like JumpButton Mag and Ctrl+Alt+Defeat have had some critical success—though certainly not commercial.

In the last week, two different projects have experimented with this independence to see if videogame criticism can be more financially viable for writers. Five out of Ten is a new project founded by New Statesman contributor Alan Williamson, where five writers (full disclosure: one of them is me) write two articles each, and then the compilation is sold for £5, and the profits are split evenly between the writers. Meanwhile, my own attempt at long-form criticism on a single videogame was published last week in a somewhat experimental move, and has been met with surprisingly positive feedback, proving that there truly is an enthusiastic readership hungry for more considered writing about videogames.

And last but far from least, I think it is worth noting this plethora of experimental writing around videogames isn’t as new as it might seem. Writers have been experimenting with form to find ways to explore this medium for a decade now. In 2005, Tim Rogers wrote a phenomenal 12,000 word essay about the Japanese role-playing game, Mother 2, which was already eleven years old at Rogers’s time of writing. Rogers effortlessly pulls together interviews and close description to thread together not just an account of one game, but to situate it within a broader culture of Japanese game development. I haven’t even played this game, but this remains one of my all time favourite pieces of writing about a videogame, regardless. (It’s worth noting, though, that Tim Rogers’s style is highly divisive among readers of videogame journalism and criticism. Personally, I am just excited that we are diverse enough to even have divisive writers!).

Going back further, to 2002, Jane Pinckard wrote a fabulous and risqué post on the psychedelic Playstation 2 game Rez and its particularly bizarre ‘trance controller’. While the rest of the geeky internet subculture made snorting jokes about the trance controller’s similarity to a certain sex toy, Pinckard cut across all the immaturity and awkwardness and straight out tested the trance controller in such a fashion (probably unnecessary NSFW flag for that link). It was a brilliant example of sex-positive feminist writing around games—ten years ago!

And, to really drive it home, in a 1972 issue of Rolling Stone, Stewart Brand delved into the culture of pro-Spacewar! players—arguably the first videogame ever made.

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So what’s the point of hitting you with this barrage of links?  Simply, to spread the word that there is incredible writing happening around the art form that is the videogame. Not just incredible writing: exciting writing. Videogames generate experiences; experiences generate stories, and stories want to be told. With so many people having so many experiences, those people writing around videogames are perhaps some of the most interesting, enthusiastic, and experimental voices happening in criticism right now, and they are well worth your time.

A final caveat: I present the above list as a starting point, not as a canon. I haven’t even mentioned yet Leigh Alexander, Tom Bissell, RockPaperShotgun, Anna Anthropy (who wrote the single most important game design book of recent time) or the countless other phenomenal writers out there progressing this young — but in no way non-existent — form. But I think the point has been made: we haven’t been bad at writing about videogames for a very, very long time.

Videogames matter. That is beyond debate. As such, they demand critics equipped with a strong critical vocabulary in order to help players and non-players alike to understand the infinite experiences they are capable of delivering. I don’t offer this post as a defence of the state of videogame criticism. To be sure, we are still learning, and we are still experimenting.  We have a long way to go, but the point remains that we are well on our way. And, most important of all, as a reader or a writer, we would love to have you come along with us.

Brendan Keogh is a videogame critic and academic from Melbourne, Australia. He has written for a variety of publications such as Edge, Hyper, Ars Technica, and Kotaku. He is also a PhD candidate at RMIT University.

The Japanese videogame Catherine.

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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser