“Games are a journey, and should be covered like travel journalism.”
One of the finest descriptions of games writing I have ever read was that line from Heather Anne Campbell.
She may have been paraphrasing Kieron Gillen when she wrote that games writing should be like travel journalism, but I figure she could very well have come up with this similar sentiment on her own. If her other writing is any indication, she is at least as clever as Kieron Gillen. Perhaps more clever, since she left games writing for comedy writing, and he moved on to comics writing. That’s not a comparative judgement on the difficulty of the two. It’s an observation on the levels of acidity of each audience.
Comedy writing, where dissenters, historically, throw rotten produce at you.
Comics writing, where the wounded spit through bared teeth that you have ruined their childhood.
Games criticism, where the displeased threaten to murder your family.
I know I’ve said this before, but reviews are not criticism. It bears repeating. It bears being drilled with some slight degree of violence, into every person. The review is a subset of criticism. Where criticism encompases comment of any type or tone, on any topic, related to any media, considering any bias, reviews are small corner of that. Reviews are trivial and ephemeral.
Criticism is more than that. Criticism is the creation of a piece of culture. Criticism is important, and when done well, elevates as often as it disassembles. Criticism of art, is art. Criticism of games, is art.
We tend to view criticism as a finding of flaws. There is a caricature of the critic in public perception as failed creators, or angry zealots that exist only to tear at the good works of industrious people. This perception could not be more wrong, and is as damaging to the media being commented on as it is to those that would comment on it. Criticism is not a thing of lesser value. Thoughtful criticism is not less than the culture it comments on. It is an entirely separate piece of art, with it’s own purpose, and it’s own worth.
I’ve heard too many times, in too many ways, by people too smart to be so stupid, that if some critic or other doesn’t like a thing, they should “roll up their sleeves and create something themselves”. They did. They did create something. They wrote or commented about something they saw. Almost certainly, they wrote about a piece of art in a medium that they love.
You see, it’s very easy to tell when a person writing about games, loves games. It’s so subtle that you could miss it. They choose to write about games.
Games writers choose to create new pieces of art that reference the medium that they love. They choose to create criticism in a medium where the displeased threaten, whether credibly or not, to murder your family. In the face of an infinite variety of tasks that a person could set themselves to, they chose games.
Like any art, criticism has examples of gilded works of towering significance, protruding from vast unending fields of turds. Some criticism is terrible. Some criticism is mean and nasty and vicious for reasons only known to the creator. Some critics are barely tolerable in their condescension and willingness to ignore obvious triumphs to satisfy an audience of what I can only assume are joyless sadists.
All of these critics, the thoughtful and the profane, the ones that you might think are destructive and adversarial, have one thing in common. They honestly love the medium they write about and comment on. Even though some of them revel in being unsatisfied, they all truly, at their core, want it to be better. More than want, they attempt to point the way to better.
Critics are the cartographers of culture. They describe where we have been. They survey where we are, and they plot a course for where we might go. They may not always have the correct heading, they may chart a path that few agree with, but they deeply, passionately want us to become better than we are, and they are drawing a map to better in the only way that people know how. They create criticism, and that has value.