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.”
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.