[In this spirited opinion piece, Jenn Frank, currently guest editor at sister site GameSetWatch, takes a look at the latest web snafu in the discussion of independent and alternative video games, concentrating -- interestingly enough -- on the response as much as the statement.]
I really like Jim Sterling's recent Destructoid column
-- not necessarily because of any of the points it makes, mind, but more because of the ensuing, often aggressive responses from other gamers, developers, and reviewers.
There's a writers' resource called the 39 steps
that I also like. Actually, it's just a list of helpful hints for good fiction writing, but it's a really, really good list. And a lot of its little kernels of advice, I think, can be applied to game design philosophies, too.
For instance, I've always really liked #23:
"Obscurity is not subtlety; intentional obscurity is pinheaded and unkind."
I do feel that way about games sometimes. I think you can be subtle without being deliberately mean to your player, or willfully alienating him. I think assigning ponderous meanings to mundane in-game actions is kind of a lazy way to work Big Existential Truths into your story. I think some games are disingenuous facsimiles of other, better games. I like 'indie gaming' on the whole, because I like creative underdogs, and because the games themselves tend to be shorter and easier to pencil into my calendar. Still, I've played some pretty terrible ones. Similarly, I don't think all puzzle games are great, even though I really like puzzle games.
So I'm pretty noncommittal. I think these opinions -- which are by no means the opinions of GameSetWatch, thank you -- are pretty low-key and moderate and not especially meaningful or groundbreaking or much of anything.
Now that I've fully shown my hand, let's gossip. I sure love gossip.
Currently, my Twitter feed is full of games journalists and artists whose dietary habits and foursquare updates I like to track. And today a lot of them were very apparently furious about something. Since bluster and ire tend to make me giggle (as long as those things are not actually directed at me), I did some backtracking and eavesdropping.
That is how I found all these little 140-character feuds and sparring matches with Destructoid writer Jim Sterling. I had trouble making real sense of those conversations, so I scouted out Sterling's February 7 Destructoid column, "Indie games don't have to act like indie games
," which, OK, the title actually kind of made me grin in spite of myself, maybe because it made me think of this gem
. (Also, when I first wrote this paragraph, I had not yet seen this
But now that I've read his piece, I'm a little confused about the commotion.
Jim Sterling's arguments themselves are inoffensive and moderate, but they're presented in a deliberately bombastic, even confusingly inflammatory way. But with all the brimstone stripped away, he basically says games can be artful and still fun to play, if they'd only try to be more fun and, sometimes, more playable. He says some games are hipster indie imitations, filching elements from genuinely good games, passing superficial, intentional obscurity off as real depth. And finally, he seems to think that some games get away with being bad because no reviewer will just come out and say they're bad, or why.
In fact, the brunt of Sterling's put-on umbrage seems to be with last year's game The Path
. And probably his umbrage is fair, because not every player adored it, exactly.
In his review of that game
, indie game critic Michael Rose takes great pains to explain that The Path
is absolutely not
a game, even as he goes on to repeatedly refer to it as a game (and "as a game," he says, "it's pretty boring"). Still later, Rose decrees that the 2009 un-game is "this year's weirdest game."
So even for the skilled reviewer, the critique itself involves some problematic conflation, and by review's end, Rose ultimately sighs that he isn't sure whether to recommend The Path
Rose also writes,
"Unlike other recent attempts at arty gaming (see Flower), [developers] Tale of Tales have not drawn that line between and art and gaming well enough."
Apparently, though, neither can players: do we want to game, or do we want to be art patrons? Are we distressed when we're asked to do and be both at once? How fun should a game be? How fun should art be? Should art be painful to play? How, exactly, should we criticize painfully unfun non-game art?
But I am getting away from my real point, which isn't actually Jim Sterling's column at all, or my defense of it, or what I think about game design, or whether The Path
is good or bad or fun or artful or even a real game.
The main point of interest, here, is all the responses Sterling's editorial has elicited. In Destructoid's own comments sections, there's quite a lot of "Finally! Tell off those pretentious indies!" There are also some better conceived comments that try to negotiate the 'game' and 'art' thing without conflation (though you'll find more meticulously careful conversation in here
instead). There's some mudslinging, too, at mainstream games -- which, to hear it told by some, are apparently now bereft of artistic merit -- and at Jim himself, for being a blowhard.
I'd go so far to say that Sterling isn't really saying anything in particular, albeit in his trademark brassy way. So, as is always the way with the Internet, people hear what they would like to hear. And how people respond to the column says more about their own philosophies than it says about the column's.
So now, fascinatingly, you have all these mainstream game reviewers talking suddenly about how maybe mainstream games are creatively bankrupt, and they're championing the indie game scene and shaking their fists. And I like the noble, vocal intent there, but it's a little awkward to witness. Because Jim Sterling's final point -- that some games get away with being bad because no reviewer can bring himself to speak an ill word against them -- is basically proven all over again by the responses.
That's... kind of uncomfortable. Jim Sterling's epic troll ("indie games get away with being bad") has hoodwinked perfectly reasonable people into saying, essentially, that every indie game is great
, which is just something of a literal impossibility. Oops.
Then, in the other corner, you have Jim Sterling's seemingly lone defender -- reputable, big-time game developer David Jaffe! -- who has taken the column's most salient points and run screaming in the opposite direction with them
Jaffe even goes so far as to take "pretentious, full of shit 'journalists'" to task (and I do like the scare quotes around 'journalists'!) for "lauding and hyping these types of games."
Reading that, I reflexively wondered if this weren't some veiled insecurity, some sort of fearfulness about how the video game landscape -- how games are made, how they are bought and sold, or how we choose to talk about gaming -- is changing. But I think that would require Jaffe to take independently-made games seriously enough to be frightened of them, and I'm not entirely sure that he does.
Of these pretentious 'journalists,' Jaffe writes,
"Often times I think these writers go on and on about a lot of this arty farty stuff so it makes them feel like their own work is important (i.e. they are letting their readers in on something special and important versus simply writing about how many new weapons exist in modern shooter/alien invasion/football sim game #42)."
There might be some truth to that -- although, probably, my need to feel special and important is not all
that keeps me from gushing about framerates and football sims -- but the real truth might be even more damning.
While good indie games are well worth championing, particularly for the benefit of those people who otherwise might not find them, perhaps game reviewers are reluctant to criticize badly made indie games because it feels too much like, say, crushing a house made of popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners.
The fact of the matter might be -- and this is very uncomfortable for me to type out -- a lot of reviewers don't take the indie 'genre' seriously enough to challenge or even criticize the bad games. It feels too cruel, too mean, in the same way it is cruel to kick a puppy or steal candy from a baby.
Maybe a lot of game reviewers really don't
give indie games the professional and helpful criticism they really deserve, then, because they or we secretly deny indie games the status, the credibility, that we reserve for big-budget titles. Maybe, too, reviewers are prone to gush because those games consistently exceed their secretly low expectations.