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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Mind-reader, lover and crazed zealot – why the enigmatic power of Rasputin endures

As Douglas Smith wisely surmises in his new book, trying to separate the mythology of Rasputin from the man himself is nearly impossible.

The first would-be murderer to land a blow on Grigory Rasputin was a peasant woman named Khioniya Guseva, whose nose had been eaten away by a disease (not syphilis, she told her interrogators emphatically) and who had been a devotee of Rasputin’s rival Iliodor, the self-styled “Mad Monk”. In June 1914 Guseva pursued Rasputin through Pokrovskoye, the Siberian village that was his home, and stabbed him with a 15-inch dagger.

Rasputin recovered. From thenceforward, though, death dogged him. As confidant and adviser to the tsar and tsarina of Russia, he was detested by monarchists and revolutionaries alike. By the time he was killed, two and a half years later, myriad plots had been hatched against his life. The minister of the interior had tried sending him on a pilgrimage accompanied by a priest: the priest had instructions to throw Rasputin from a moving train. A colonel in the secret services planned to lure him into a car with promises to introduce him to a woman, then drive to an isolated spot and strangle him. His madeira (Raputin’s fav­ourite drink) was to be poisoned. Peasants were bribed to lead him into ambushes. A strange lady turned up at his flat (as strange ladies often did) and showed him a revolver: she had brought it to kill him with, she told him, but had changed her mind after gazing into his eyes. No wonder that by the time Prince Felix Yusupov invited him to come by night to the cellar beneath the Yusupov Palace Rasputin was suspicious and fearful, and had all but given up the noisy, night-long parties he used to enjoy.

His legend has been recounted many times. The peasant who became an all-­powerful figure at the Romanov court. His priapic sexuality and his rumoured affair with Tsarina Alexandra. His “burning” eyes. His ability to hypnotise and beguile. His gift for healing, which miraculously preserved the life of the haemophiliac heir, Tsarevich Alexei. His devilish influence over the imperial couple that led them into repeated mistakes, eventually precipitating the 1917 revolution. His debauchery. His supernatural power, which obliged his murderers to kill him not once, but thrice – with poisoned pink cakes, with gunshots at point-blank range and eventually by drowning him. All of this, everybody who knows anything about Russian history, and many who do not, have heard. Douglas Smith retells the story, pruning it of absurdities, greatly expanding it, and demonstrating how very much more complicated it is than the legend would have us believe.

Rasputin’s public career began in his thirties, when he arrived in St Petersburg in 1905. Smith’s account of his life before his debut in the city is the most fascinating part of this book. It describes a world of isolated peasant communities with few books (in 1900 only about 4 per cent of Siberia’s inhabitants could read) but many holy men. This is the world of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: violent, physically harsh, but spiritually ecstatic.

At the age of 28, Rasputin – married with children, still living with his father and helping to farm the family’s smallholding – left home to become a pilgrim. This was not an egregious decision. According to Smith, there were “about a million” pilgrims criss-crossing Russia at the time, walking barefoot, begging for food and lodging, trudging towards the holiest monasteries or seeking out revered starets, or church “elders”.

Rasputin would be away from home for years at a time. He would walk 30 miles a day. For three years he wore fetters, as many pilgrims did. After he laid them aside he went for six months without changing his clothes. He was often hungry, either because he could get no food, or because he was fasting. He was repeatedly robbed by bandits. But, for all his tribulations, on his return he would tell his children that he had seen marvels – cathedrals with golden cupolas and wild forests. He became part of a network of priests and visionaries which spanned the vast empire. He talked with everyone he met on the road, acquiring a knowledge of the narod, the Russian people, that its rulers never had. Smith’s account of his wandering years conjures up a richness of experience that makes the way the nobility later sneered at the “illiterate peasant”, the “nobody” who had got hold of their tsarina, seem indicative not of Rasputin’s shortcomings, but of their own.

In 1905 Rasputin was in the Tatar city of Kazan, drinking tea with a famed healer called Father Gavril. He told Gavril that he intended to walk on to St Petersburg, still hundreds of miles to the west. Gavril said nothing, but thought: “You’ll lose your way in Petersburg.” Rasputin, who already had a reputation as a mind-reader, responded as though he had heard, saying that God would protect him.

He was not the first holy man to be feted in the capital. Four years before he arrived in St Petersburg a French “sage” called Monsieur Philippe was holding séances in the city, and had soon “enraptured” the royal family. Nicholas and Alexandra prayed with Philippe and sat up until the small hours listening to him talk. They called him by the sobriquet they would soon give Rasputin, “Our Friend”, and they counted on him to guide the tsar in crucial talks with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Eventually Nicholas was prevailed upon to send him away, but other starets or “holy fools” succeeded Philippe at court (including Mitya “the Nasal Voice”, whose speech impediment made his words incomprehensible but who was nonetheless credited as a prophet). Rasputin may have been exceptionally charismatic – someone who met him soon after his arrival in the city described him as “a burning torch” – but, as one of his sponsors in high society said, “our Holy Russia abounds in saints” and the ruling class was just as enthralled by them as were the peasantry.

So, what was it about Rasputin? The eyes certainly – there are numerous references in contemporary descriptions to his “compelling”, “mesmeric”, “brilliant” eyes, their “strange phosphorescent light” and the way they stared, as though penetrating another’s mind. There were also his skills as a performer. He would talk eloquently and for hours. Smith quotes some striking accounts of Rasputin at prayer. For him, prayer was not a matter of closed eyes and folded hands and silent communion with God. It was a performance. He vibrated like a taut bow-string. He turned his face towards heaven and then, “with great speed, he would begin to cross himself and bow”.

He was all dynamic energy. He was unpredictable and frightening. His conversation could be bantering and light but then he would turn on someone standing on the fringe of a party and, as though he had read her mind, begin to scold her for having sinful thoughts. Then there was the erotic charge. In this compendious and exhaustively researched book, Smith debunks dozens of untrue stories about his subject, yet there is no denying Rasputin’s propensity for stroking and kissing women he barely knew and (once he was sufficiently celebrated for this to become easy for him) leading them into his bedroom and making love to them while people in the next room continued to drink their tea, pretending not to hear the thumps and moans. He was “so full of love”, he said, that he could not help caressing all those around him. Alternatively, he claimed (and many of his devotees accepted) that his sexual activity was designed to help his female followers overcome their carnal passions: he used sex to free them from sex. Smith treats this belief as being probably sincerely held – if almost comically self-justifying.

By the end of his life pretty well everyone in Russia believed that Rasputin was having an affair with the empress Alexandra. Everyone, that is, except for Alexandra and her husband. She wrote to Rasputin that it was only when she was leaning on his shoulder that she felt at peace; still, she could see nothing improper in their relationship. Tsar Nicholas, coming home late at night, as he frequently did, to find his wife closeted alone with Rasputin, reacted only with delight that “Our Friend” had blessed them with a visit. Rasputin was accused of “magnetism” – of using a form of hypnotism to dominate others. Whether or not he deliberately did so, he certainly had a magnetic personality.

Yet all these attributes are those of an individual. One of the important themes of Smith’s book is that, remarkable though Rasputin may have been, he could not on his own have brought down the tsarist autocracy, as his murderers thought he had, or saved it, as the tsarina believed he could. He was seen as the heretic who was shaking the foundations of the Orthodox Church, as the corrupter who had rendered the monarchy untenable, as the Satanic sower of discord who broke the ancient and sacred ties that bound the narod to the tsar. He was seen as a peace lover who, as one of his many biographers wrote in 1964, was the “only man in Russia capable of averting” the First World War. Rasputin himself said that it was only his continued existence that kept the tsar on the throne.

When Rasputin’s assassins dumped his body in the Neva, his mourning devotees took pailfuls of water from the icy river, as though his corpse had made it holy, while all over Russia his enemies rejoiced. His murderers – Prince Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitry and the rest – were hailed as the heroes who had saved the Romanov regime and redeemed Holy Russia. But nothing changed. Two months after Rasputin’s mauled and frozen body was dragged from beneath the ice, the revolution began. The tsar abdicated, and the joke went around that now the royal flag was no longer flying over the imperial palace, but only a pair of Rasputin’s trousers.

Early on in the process of planning his book, Smith writes, he wisely decided that to confine himself to the facts would be absurdly self-limiting. “To separate Rasputin from his mythology, I came to realise, was to completely misunderstand him.” In 1916 an astute observer of Russian politics noted in his diary that: “What really matters is not what sort of influence Grishka [Rasputin] has on the emperor, but what sort of influence the people think he has” (my italics). It’s true, and Smith agrees. “The most important truth about Rasputin,” he writes, “was the one Russians carried around in their heads.”

Smith, accordingly, gives us a plethora of rumours and canards. Over and over again in this book he tells a sensational story, full of salacious or politically complex detail and drawn from an authoritative-sounding contemporary source, only to show in the next paragraph that the story cannot possibly be true. As a result, we get an admirably encyclopaedic account of the fantasy life of early-20th-century Russians, as well as a multifaceted image of the Rasputin of their imagination. We do sometimes, though, get bogged down in the mass of material – factual or fictional – being offered us. This book will be invaluable to all subsequent writers on the subject, but general readers may wish, as I did, that Smith had at times allowed himself a clarifying generalisation rather than piling case history upon unreliable memoir upon clutch of mutually contradictory reports. This is a richly illuminating book, but it is not a lucid one.

At its centre is Rasputin, and for all the multiplicity of contemporary descriptions, and for all Smith’s laudable scholarship, he remains an area of darkness. By the time he came to fame he was no longer illiterate, but his own writings are opaque and incoherent. It is hard to read the man between the lines. Photographs (there are some haunting examples in here) seem to tell us more, but they are enigmatic.

Just occasionally, in this great, rambling edifice of a book, we glimpse him, as though far off down an endless corridor: a young seeker, vibrating with energy and self-mortifying religious fervour; a charismatic celebrity, already talking as he strides into a salon in the shirt an empress has embroidered for him; a hunted man walking home, tailed by a posse of secret agents, and drinking himself into a stupor as he awaits the attack he knew was bound to come.

And yet, for the most part, despite Douglas Smith’s herculean efforts, the man remains inscrutable. “What is Rasputin?” asked the Russian journal the Astrakhan Leaflet in 1914. “Rasputin is a nothing. Rasputin is an empty place. A hole!”

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War” (Fourth Estate)

Rasputin by Douglas Smith is published by Macmillan (817pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage