Indie Devs vs New Games Journalism [Feedback Loop]

The last year has seen the rise of the independent developer as hero. Does this growing consideration of the developer challenge an eight-year-running trend in game journalism?

The explosion of commercially accessible independent games on platforms like Steam or XBLA have introduced us to a new successful and far more accessible generation of game developers. These new indie game dev stars have induced a change in the approach of some game reviewers. A change brought to the forefront in Walter Garrett Mitchell’s piece on The Escapist, “Alfred Hitchcock Would Make Good Games.”

Photograph of game developer Jonathan Blow at ...

Photograph of game developer Jonathan Blow at the GDC 2007 conference (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mitchell presents an auteur theory for video game criticism, focused on the overall technique of a game’s direction and how it presents the lead developers’ singular vision. Though this isn’t the first time someone has suggested an auteur approach for video game reviews, Mitchell’s presentation comes in the midst of some very popular developer-focused criticism, most prominently Indie Game: The Movie and The Atlantic’s profile of Jonathan Blow.

The auteur approach’s focus on the developer is very different from the current popular methods of game criticism. Though auteur criticism shares an interest in the objective with the analytical style popularized by gaming magazines, the technical aspects of a game are a far more prominent focus in evaluative type reviews.

Mitchell’s focus on the developer is entirely unlike the experience-focused New Games Journalism style proposed in 2004 by Kieron Gillen. That experiential style has more recently been popularized by Zero Punctuation, the rest of The Escapist, @Play, and a variety of other reviews that approached games based on how they played, instead of how people created them.

Though both types of critical thought have their problems, the auteur theory brings an entirely new set of issues. With auteur-focused criticism, understanding a game requires understanding the developer’s vision. It means understanding the developer themselves, their process, and their previous work. It means accepting that what the developer has to say matters just as much, if not more, than the method they use to say it.

Why embrace this more complicated method? As Mitchell notes, it is a way to bypass the raging games as art discussion and focus on game-makers as artists. This is especially attractive to a player audience that is currently on the defense about videogames. We don’t just hope for our medium’s Citizen Kane, we want it to happen soon. Because the AAA folks are mostly pushing out entertaining schlock, the audience, especially its professionally critical members, pin their hopes on indie’s artistic developer personas.

That’s a problem.

At Medium Difficulty, Kyle Carpenter points out that the community’s enthusiasm around indie games and their developers promotes folks like Phil Fish or Jonathan Blow to larger than life artistic developers out of “a desire from them to be great, in some way, to break new ground, to ‘redeem’ the market as a whole.” Whether or not it is fair to heap this mantle on indies, the result is that auteur-style reviews of these developers’ works can become much more forgiving.

Because critics believe that indie developers bring a significant artistic vision to the creation process, reviewers are sometimes more generous in their review, as Jim Sterling points out in his latest rant on GameFront.

The result? A dangerous disconnect between reviewers and players. I’m not one to look towards Metacritic as the ultimate authority, but it is useful here just to get a sense of what’s going on. Fez has a critic score of 89 against a user score of 6.5; Minecraft is 93 to 6.8; Anno 2070: 83 to 6.8; LIMBO: 88 to 7.8. For your average player, their experience is what matters, the author’s intent is irrelevant. For this reason alone, trying to review based on developer intent is a bad idea.

That said, a good game should have some level of dialogue between a developer’s vision and the player, as Leigh Alexander notes in her April 2012 Gamasutra article. But the result of auteur criticism making one side of that dialogue a focus is that it pits the authors (in practice mostly indie developers, but some mainstream folks, especially Peter Molyneux, sneak in there) and their vision against the critics who write about their personal experience.

If a game’s core is about what its lead developer believes then what matters is its ability to transmit a certain message, not how the player experiences that transmission. Auteur theory’s focus on authorial conceit devalues the way we experience a work, a flaw that is especially egregious with game criticism, which is all about experience.

I won’t lie. New Games Journalism has inherent issues and its share of problems in implementation. Despite that, it brings a flavor of reality to games criticism. Experiential reviews, without requiring greater technical knowledge, open the door to writers with a variety of backgrounds that can inform their experiences and therefore their critiques.

Indie developers may have unique visions for games as art and that’s fine. However, be careful when relying on their visions to understand our experiences, because even indie developers can have a pretty narrow view. Good intentions do not make a good game. As a result, a critique from the reviewer’s experience will always be far stronger than an attempt at interpreting the developer’s ideas. Let the text stand alone.

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  1. WalterGarrettM

    Really great piece. Given that I am totally on board with your arguments, I’m starting to worry that my auteur Escapist piece might have given the wrong impression!The initial definition of auteur theory as I presented it was decidedly creator-centric: that’s the way gamers have used the theory in the past (and, as you say, in the present indie-dev furor), and that’s certainly how the New Wave critics approached it. They deified these directors, often bickering about their favorites and all but forgetting about the films themselves as standalone texts. I lumped Clark’s Atlantic article in with them, partly to distance myself from the traditional use of the theory — I don’t think hero-worship has any place in criticism.Instead, as I hoped the second half of my article would establish the value of auteur theory separate from our obsession with creative personalities — namely, that auteur theory was valuable in that it recognized film’s unique visual potential. While it did reward directors rather than films, an approach I don’t support, the theory was vital to our popular conception of cinema as “art,” or even just as a complex and worthwhile means of expression, because it taught people what was special about the movies. That’s what gaming could use: a technical appreciation, a new vocabulary to describe those elements that are uniquely gaming’s.
    In fact, the “experiential reviews” you mention might be the best avenue towards a similar goal: who better to define what make’s games great than those with natural, nuanced, affectionate and personal relationship with them?
    (thanks to @mkronline for sharing) 

    •  @WalterGarrettM  @mkronline Hey, thanks for the comment! 
      So my focus here was on the rise of auteur theory and the problems that brings, which is why I sort of picked on your article. While other people have been indirectly addressing the concept recently, you took it head on, which is why your work made such a great jumping off point. 
      You absolutely made some great points about the more valuable elements of auteur theory, some of which remain part of every film critic’s tool set, even if they dismiss the originating school of thought. You’re especially right about a need to take into account a game’s mise-en-scène. The discussion about how to do that and figure out all the weird issues (like the restrictiveness of game engines for example) that are intrinsic to criticizing video games would be a whole other article for me, but you’re right, we need to figure it out.
      The problem comes from separating that process out of auteur theory. In theory it is a good idea. In practice, it doesn’t tend to go well.
      As someone with a strong reader response bias, I don’t think that critics should consider the developer at all, but in reality, reviewers tend to go to those developers to ask them what the new language should be. (Honestly, this is partially stupidity that is intrinsic to general journalism’s ‘church of objectivity.’)
      The result is that the attempt to create better language gets stuck in the whole auteur theory hero-worship and it becomes ‘because we are the only ones with access to the artist we are the only ones who can write real reviews’ or ‘we have our own special language that is the only language for legitimate reviews.’ That’s pretty dangerous to the growth of a broad critical community and we have plenty of trouble with that already! 
      Instead of good results, we get a pretend objectivity that isn’t really objectivity but just elitism (once again, also a general journalism problem) and a sure-fire way to disconnect from the audience. 
      So, what I’m really trying to do here, is put up a warning sign. Yes, you’re right, we do need to find video games’ mise-en-scène, but just because auteur theory happened to be the path to it before, doesn’t mean it has to be again. Let’s understand the inherent dangers, right? It would be nice if we could learn the lessons of film critics while skipping their mistakes. 
      Thank you! I’m totally with you on that. Good experiential reviews are the way to go. Besides that, IMO they are way more interesting to read anyway. 
      PS: though I was critical of elements here, I really enjoyed your article. 

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