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FidgetyAcolyte 10-28-2010 12:01 PM

Games: A New Critical Approach
 
I'm not sure where to put this, but I wrote something up and I was interested in any thoughts/feedback.

Games: A New Critical Approach


Poetry, as one of the oldest and most respected artforms, has often been a tricky subject. It can and has been debated as to exactly what qualities make a poem “good.” The nebulous and intangible feeling of a good poem, when read right, is undeniable. Its as if somehow the words trick your tongue, heart, ears, and even your eyes themselves, briefly suspending your consciousness with a burst of clarity that is prosaically inexpressible. The ability to envoke such feelings is one of the crucial beauties of art. Whether it's a movie making us laugh or cry, or a painting placing us in a trance, good artwork needs to have some effect on us. Therefore, if video games are ever going to be included in the artistic bunch, it would be good to analyze what makes a game “good.” However, as I mentioned, knowing what is “good” about art isn't always easy to identify.

Luckily, all of the critical discussion about artwork has led some to establish guidelines. One of the most notable movements to catch on is that of the New Criticism, a system devised in the 20s to objectively view poetry. The New Critics established four important criteria when determining the quality of a work: Ambiguity, Tension, Paradox, and Irony. Although these criteria might not directly relate to games in general, there are parallels which can be drawn.

The most important distinction we must make before using poetical analysis to evaluate games is to identify the difference between the two artforms. Poetry is an artform of meaning and words. When used properly together, wordplay can convey a greater sense of meaning to a poem, and meaning can give greater significance to each word. Likewise, video games are an art of task and gameplay. Gameplay serves as a means to accomplishing a task, while the task can give greater significance to the gameplay. Let us examine how these four criteria, when applied to the task of a game, can make a game “good,” or better yet, make a game “art.”



First, let's examine the Ambiguity and Tension. These sister elements serve as the union of the gameplay and the task. These elements work together to help create value in the experience of the game. In essence, proper application can result in a game that is consistent and satisfying without becoming boring, and difficult without being frustrating.

Ambiguity

When a poem's meaning has a sense of ambiguity, the poem begins to eschew literal interpretations, elevating its artistic validity. So if games, like poems, are art, it makes sense that the ambiguity should serve to elevate a game's artistic status. However, unlike poems, games are not arts of word and meaning. The ambiguity must lie elsewhere: the task.

Looking at one of the strongest examples of the medium's artistic front, Mizuguchi's Rez is a game with a playstyle nearly identical to Panzer Dragoon. The gameplay consists mostly of highlighting and releasing. Why then would gamers look to Rez before Panzer Dragoon when identifying artistic games, especially when Panzer Dragoon was released well before Rez. The difference is the task being accomplished.

In Panzer Dragoon the player shoots down enemy ships and dragons toward some goal, freeing yourself, saving the world, etc. While the visuals were beautifully top-notch at the time, and the musical score was more than sufficient, the game offered nothing more than polished gameplay in terms of artistic entertainment. However, in Rez, the player accomplishes more than story progression. The player is tasked, almost subliminaly, with creating and experiencing a techno-rave atmosphere, replete with flashing lights and trippy music directly affected by user input and timing. So while the primary task at hand for both games is essentially highlighting, the secondary, and in this case more important, task in Rez is to create a unique audiovisual experience.



Tension

In poetry, the "tension" is the manner in which all of the effective components work together to enhance the general atmosphere or mood of the poem. As a result of its components, tension can be rather directly related to games. As perhaps the most successfully relied upon of the four criteria, tension is what most games have been all about. It is essentially how all of the core mechanics work together. Obvious successes include games like Silent Hill 2 and Dead Space, in which properly paced gameplay, effectively darkened graphics, and careful audio cues create a real life "tension" in the sense that fear is induced in the player. However, tension goes beyond the survival horror tactic of fear. Tension has been an important element since the beginning of games. Simple games, such as Galaga, Pong, and Geometry Wars, utilize the tight controls and simple gameplay concepts while also constantly challenging and engaging the player.

It is this "tension" that most game reviews analyze when discussing whether or not a game is "good." This tension, more commonly referred to as "immersion" that has the ability to separate the player from immediate surroundings as the hours trickle away. As a medium that relies on effectively engaging a player, it makes sense that this nail's head has been thoroughly struck.




Paradox and Irony are the more difficult of the two elements presented here. These are less directly affected by the mechanics of a game, and more by the intent of the designer. However, these elements are important in ensuring a meaningful and fresh experience with a game.

Paradox

Paradox can be difficult to translate into games. Beyond the superficial level, how could a game present scenarios or experiences that are complementary in their contradictions? But art isn't always easy. However, one game that comes to mind is thatgamecompany's beautiful Flower. There is something to be said about how the game's exhuberant celebration of the beauty of nature is running and depending upon on of the most technologically advance gaming machines. While beckoning you to "remember...," it's as if the game is telling you to drop the controller before you even start playing, and go outside instead. But the game is certainly meant to be played. The forced introspection of "Why am I playing a game about nature when I could be experiencing nature?" is the exact type of response many works of art hope to achieve.

Other, less effective examples of paradox can be found in games such as Bioshock, in which the "would you kindly?" moments call into question how much control the protagonist has over his life, how much control the player has over the game, and how much of the experience is directly the result of developer manipulation. It makes sense that everything in a game occurs because of the developer's intent, but isn't it also true that the experience of a game is directly tied to the manner in which the player approaches each task? So while the player bounced along shocking Splicers and drilling Big Daddies, he or she did it not only because that's what they wanted to do, but also because that's what the developer wanted, too.


Irony

Everyone's favorite literary element also has a strong place in gaming. In western cultures, irony is one of the more apparent properties that successful works of art utilize, and gaming has a recent front-runner for evidence of games-as-art: Limbo. Limbo is a game that applies many of these aforementioned artistic qualities. The boy's task is ambiguous from the start (unless you read the press release version of the "story"). You are certainly solving puzzles, but you are also searching for your sister, escaping death and world you are simultaneously destroying and possibly intruding. The tension of the experience is developed by the black and white shadowed art style along with the solid mechanics that at once make you feel weakened by your environment and empowered by your control over your environment. And the paradox of the situation lies in the boy struggling to stay alive in a world in which he, for all appearances, already is dead.

The irony of it all lies in the juxtaposition and clever choice of the innocent protagonist and horribly dangerous limbo in which he's placed. The boy explores this world while avoiding gruesome dismemberment and delivering even more gruesome punishment, leading one to think that maybe the boy belongs in Limbo, like all of the other mischievous youngsters littering the first half. *Which brings to point the significance of *this irony to the game. *The game's first half is its best half, by far. The cause for the drop-off in quality was thankfully brought to my attention by the GameCritics.com Podcast concerning Limbo. Gradually the gross creatures, crazy children, and gruesome solutions fade away into a rote physics based puzzle game, which while mechanically sound, does not entertain and captivate as it did before. While the tension is maintained by the mechanics, the ambiguity, paradox, and irony lose steam as the game's atmospheric and artistic focus fades away.



The four criteria of New Criticism served to help critics approach poetry objectively, certainly a difficult and risky task for any art. However, the ability to identify what makes one work "art" and one work pure entertainment is important to the success of any medium trying to legitimize itself artistically. Many games exist that can tell a fun story, or entertain you for its duration, games like Enslaved or Uncharted. But few games capture you, confuse you, ask questions of you, and ultimately affect you, like Rez and Limbo. So if we are going to judge games like all the other arts, then perhaps we should identify the similarity between our games and those arts, and what our games do better. Not all games are going have all of these qualities, and not all games need them, but then again, not all games are good, and not all good games are art.

KittenMitton 12-14-2010 02:36 PM

Re: Games: A New Critical Approach
 
I really like the idea this article takes on and I think it's well written. Just not sure, like you, as to where it belongs.

FidgetyAcolyte 12-14-2010 06:05 PM

Re: Games: A New Critical Approach
 
I really appreciate the feedback. I'm glad someone has read it! I just had an idea and had to jog with it.

Pedro 12-28-2010 02:37 PM

Re: Games: A New Critical Approach
 
I like this article actually. The four principles of criticism you mention are obviously suited specifically to poetry (and I'm sure there has been a lot of debate about them as valid criteria in that field), but I like the way you tied them in to video games (with the exception of the first one, Ambiguity. Having not played those games, I don't think you explained their premise clearly, and this paragraph didn't make any sense to me). I liked the other parts though.

But rather than use those four principles, why not come up with four of your own? What would be your four criteria for judging the artistic merit of video games, as opposed to poetry?

Off the top of my head I'd go for Engagement, Tension, Progression and Expectation\Resolution. How those four are actually defined would be important, of course ;-)

Enagagement - the 'drawing in' of the player. Technical, presentational & psychological methods of doing this.

Tension - as you describe it. Immersion, mood and atmosphere. The exploration of 'theme'. Emotional response engendered by...

Progression - your progress through the in-game world, whether it be as a fully fledged character, or as the paddle in Pong. 'Gameplay'.

Resolution - how all the disparate elements are resolved. Payoff. Emotional impact or otherwise. Overall effectiveness of the game within it's genre.

Anybody got any others? :-)

Golem 12-29-2010 03:01 AM

Re: Games: A New Critical Approach
 
...well imagine that. I saw this thread a few days ago and thought, "When I register, I'm gonna post in that." Didn't expect someone to beat me to the punch. :b

Anyway, I'd say on the whole, the article is good. Anyone who finds a use for literary theory in game criticism is awesome in my book.

On the other hand, even though the New Critics were cool dudes, I don't care for the four criteria they established. That's a personal bias I have, and a problem I have with them, not you. However, you should keep in mind that a lot of people consider New Criticism an old way of thinking.

That's just the premise of the article. As for the article itself--

Your discussions of tension, paradox, and irony are good introductions to each issue. I get a clear sense of how these cool aspects of literature are also what I like in video games. You also don't dwell on each point for too long--with this piece, we only want to get the general gist of the thing. You don't want to get too deep, or else we'd be here all day. The examples you have are well chosen and do a good deal of the arguing for you.

I'm also not sure what you mean in the ambiguity part. I'm guessing your point is that the task is ambiguous to the gameplay. For instance: I know I'm supposed to move a reticule around and hit a fire button, but the task could be "blow up dragons" or "create cool music." In that case, your argument seems to be that gameplay and atmosphere are two distinct entities, and that distinction creates ambiguity. (To be specific, "move a reticule" would be gameplay while "blow up dragons" would be atmosphere.)

However, if gameplay and atmosphere are two naturally distinct entities, how can we say one game is more ambiguous than another? All games have tasks which are ambiguous to their gameplay. With a sprite change, I could make Super Mario Bros a game about a cow that jumps on ants and rescues a calf every fourth stage. This isn't a guideline for valuing one video game over another--this is a guideline for appreciating all video games equally.

That's assuming I understood your argument, though.

Also, I think Pedro's suggestions are well put. Progression in particular strikes a chord with me. Video games are constantly teaching you things so that you can perform more difficult things later. Tutorials and difficulty curves are local to video games, and they're both crucial to a game's progression.

karn1 12-30-2010 07:40 AM

Re: Games: A New Critical Approach
 
I like the article very much aswell. A more theorized look at gaming is very interesting to me. I like the way you dissect games to discover certain mechanics which are present in other art forms.

However, I don't agree with all your points. I am not a big fan of the four criteria to judge the value of a poem. It reminds me very much of the scene from "Dead Poets Society" in which the class is taught the value of a poem can be defined by two axes. I don't believe that any work of art can be valued objectively, but I do believe that we can make compelling arguments for its worth and that we can agree or disagree with these arguments. And it is in this discussion that the value lies, because it opens up new ways of viewing the world and viewing ourselves.

As I said before, I like the dissection, but I feel like Pedro that these terms are more suitable for poetry than for gaming. Perhaps some of the terms can be applied to gaming, but their meaning needs to be adjusted, which makes the term unclear. For instance, with Ambiguity I can understand the criterium for poetry in the sense that words and sentences have double meanings or the reader needs to make meaning actively by filling in blanks or associate. For gaming however, the term Ambiguity is less clear from the get-go and even after your explanation it's still vague.
Tension is a very clear term for both poetry and gaming, but they have a different meaning, I believe. Whereas in poetry the tension is caused by elements of the poem which oppose eachoter, in gaming tension is achieved by combining elements into an intense experience for the gamer, which has more to do with immersion.

I like the suggestion with Pedro to come up with new categories, especially since a traditional category like "gameplay" envelops so many things.

FidgetyAcolyte 01-14-2011 06:23 AM

Re: Games: A New Critical Approach
 
Thanks for all the feedback guys. I'll try to respond as best I can to it all. So here goes:

With regards to New Criticism, I understand that most people are going to stop right at the beginning and say "nope, uh uh, can't objectively view art," and that's fine. However, I will say that if we at least attempt to set up some form of criteria that can turn something as nebulous as art into something a bit more concrete, without pigeonholing it, then we've made a step in the right direction towards understanding it.

Looking at poetry, most people find it impenetrable and impossible to enjoy. However, if you were to go up to a person who doesn't study poetry and isn't necessarily interested in it, and explain to them that a good poem (as a work of art), usually has these four components, I believe it would be easier for them to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Likewise in video games, while we can't always apply the four criteria perfectly (which I believe I mentioned), this idea that something other than Gameplay/Graphics/Multiplayer/Length should be analyzed is, to me, a step forward in games criticism, the acceptance of games as art, and really, it's what I seem to find this site to be all about.

I believe I mentioned that the four criteria would not carry over directly, but I think they're a good starting point. And with a little bit of twisting and squeezing, they fit nicely, I believe. Keep in mind, many of you are saying that we shouldn't judge art objectively, and that is why I think we should be careful about our criteria.

For example, the four criteria posed by Pedro:
Quote:

Enagagement - the 'drawing in' of the player. Technical, presentational & psychological methods of doing this.

Tension - as you describe it. Immersion, mood and atmosphere. The exploration of 'theme'. Emotional response engendered by...

Progression - your progress through the in-game world, whether it be as a fully fledged character, or as the paddle in Pong. 'Gameplay'.

Resolution - how all the disparate elements are resolved. Payoff. Emotional impact or otherwise. Overall effectiveness of the game within it's genre.
These are good ways to look at games, but I would argue that progression and engagement should both fall in line with Tension. Tension is the manner in which the components, not just graphical and audio, but difficulty, length, and the like, work together to ensure a solid, enjoyable work. This is typically how the most concrete, and traditional criteria of games come together, and a game with good "Tension" would likely get praise from the typical review outlets. The Tension I invoke here is more than just "how you feel as you progress through the game." But rather, to put it ambiguously, its how the game rests on itself.

The idea of looking at a games "Resolution" sounded good, but then I thought that, really, wouldn't that just be the end result of a critical approach. I mean, when reviewing things, aren't we trying to collect our experiences and evaluate the impression the game has left. To me, the idea of evaluating "resolution" and "payoff" sounds redundant, like reviewing a game, using its final score as criteria in its final assessment.


In response to Golem:
Quote:

However, you should keep in mind that a lot of people consider New Criticism an old way of thinking.
I'll readily admit it is an old way of thinking, but I do think that, although not entirely accurate, it is a good starting place to analyze art that is not easily understood as art. I believe, among the majority of people, poetry is one of the arts that people are most ready to dismiss, because they have trouble understanding, beyond clever rhymes, how one poem is good, and one poem isn't necessarily good. This is why in almost every high school literature class you get the response "anyone could have written that! that's not art!" The New Critics might not have intended it, but I think they found a way to establish a foundation in the critical assessment of a pieces artistic value, and such a foundation would be useful towards developing the understanding of games as an artform.

Quote:

I'm also not sure what you mean in the ambiguity part. I'm guessing your point is that the task is ambiguous to the gameplay. For instance: I know I'm supposed to move a reticule around and hit a fire button, but the task could be "blow up dragons" or "create cool music." In that case, your argument seems to be that gameplay and atmosphere are two distinct entities, and that distinction creates ambiguity. (To be specific, "move a reticule" would be gameplay while "blow up dragons" would be atmosphere.)

However, if gameplay and atmosphere are two naturally distinct entities, how can we say one game is more ambiguous than another? All games have tasks which are ambiguous to their gameplay. With a sprite change, I could make Super Mario Bros a game about a cow that jumps on ants and rescues a calf every fourth stage. This isn't a guideline for valuing one video game over another--this is a guideline for appreciating all video games equally.
Your point almost proves my point here. Although I don't think ambiguity is necessarily exclusive from gameplay, instead it makes more sense to the that the former flows from the latter. As we've agreed, the difference in Panzer Dragoon and Rez is the end result, however, there's no ambiguity in Panzer Dragoon. I've described the game to many as "you're a on a dragon and you fly around and shoot other dragons/ships" and I think it's a perfectly fitting description. However, when describing Rez, if I said "you fly around and shoot down ships and enemies," which is what you do, I'd be doing the game a disservice. On the fundamental level, you are flying around and shooting down enemies. But apart from that, you're also creating music, accidentally, and sometimes not necessarily accidentally. And while the method of progression in the game isn't tied to the manner in which you make the music (i believe you can beat the game with 0% analyzation, which leaves the audio track completely unevolved), I believe it would be inaccurate to say that the evolution and creation of music isn't part of "point" of the game.

I'm afraid I'm obfuscating my point. Does this make sense? The ambiguity lies in area between what a game has "tasked" you to do, and what a game is really making you do. But, as in the case of Rez, what you are really doing (making music) is a result of what you are tasked to do (shoot down ships), so the ambiguousness of the task is drawn from the gameplay itself.

Your comment about sprite-swapping is actually, I think, what I'm getting at. To me, Panzer Dragoon and Rez are the exact same game when you break the mechanics. But we can all agree that Rez is likely a more artistic game, and this is because it presents you with this ambiguousness of task. Swapping Mario out with Jumping Cows would give you a different game with the same mechanics, but there's no ambiguity here. The method of progression and the "real" (artistic) task are not enhanced by the swap, and really only the story is changed. Rez introduces a new, traditionally non-essential gameplay element, that is entirely essential to the enjoyment of the game. You can play and beat Rez with the sound turned off. The game's fine with it. But we all know, that is not what Rez is about, and you'd "be doing it wrong."

The Ambiguity criteria is difficult to pin down, but I also think it is one of the more important criteria in assessing the artistic value presented by a game, as it calls into question what a game is making us do. And that is something different from all other artforms. They don't ever really ask of us any real contribution.

In response to karn1, I agree that these criteria are not entirely ready to carry over identically from poetry to gaming, but I think by carrying them over identically, in name at least, is helpful, as it gives us a foundation, and its nice to have a point of comparison. It might sound odd, but poetry and gaming, to me, have a lot in common when it comes to being viewed as art.

For example, there's much of poetry that is completely valid, but not necessarily artistic. It can even be put together exceptionally well. It is defined as "doggerel." This is very true with games as well. There are many, well polished and put together games, that really hold very little artistic validity. Without putting too much thought into it, (and I probably could argue either way if I needed to) I would claim that the Uncharted series falls into the category of gaming "doggerel." That's not to say its bad. Its just not necessarily art.

Quote:

For gaming however, the term Ambiguity is less clear from the get-go and even after your explanation it's still vague.
Tension is a very clear term for both poetry and gaming, but they have a different meaning, I believe. Whereas in poetry the tension is caused by elements of the poem which oppose eachoter, in gaming tension is achieved by combining elements into an intense experience for the gamer, which has more to do with immersion.
I think you almost have what I'm trying to say. I'll readily admit that Ambiguity isn't clearly defined as a criterion, but, as I expressed above in this post, it's a very important part of our games' artistic quality. In a way, I find it fitting that we're having such a hard time defining it.

As for Tension, I think we should like past sheer "immersion." The tension in poetry isn't necessarily the "opposition" of elements, but also the cooperation and juxtaposition of elements. Its what you get when you let all the concrete pieces work their magic. I believe this is fairly accurate for games. And I do not think that a game necessarily has to be immersive in order to be artistic. To me, Rez wasn't very immersive. Although I was in-tune with the game, I never felt really "drawn in." Immersion is important in some games, like, as mentioned in the original post, Silent Hill and Dead Space, but that's Tension working on only one level, for only one type of game. Geometry Wars has a tension to it that is totally independent of immersion.

I think you might be right in pointing a games Tension to the Intensity of Experience, but I am wary of the word "intense," as I feel like it gives off the wrong feeling. Flower is not "intense," but it definitely uses its components effectively to establish effective Tension in a game that is almost bereft of difficulty (at least in the demo) while still maintaining a sense of accomplishment and pleasure. Perhaps Intensity and Tension aren't good words. I use Tension as a direct carry over from poetry, and I like the way it was used in poetry, and for the sake of foundation, chose not to change it.



Thank you so much for all your comments. This is great. I hate that I can ramble on so much about this. But I love that people are willing to read it.

Golem 01-17-2011 09:08 PM

Re: Games: A New Critical Approach
 
Those responses helped a lot, I think.

So by ambiguity, you mean that getting through the game is a maguffin, and your real task is doing something else? In a game like NiGHTS or Devil May Cry, if you just clear the stages, you're missing the point--you're supposed to be going for a high score. In a game like NiGHTS, when you get an A score for a stage, you pull off some really cool moves that you might never do if you just settle for a C. On the other hand, in a game like Super Mario Bros, points are relatively meaningless, since the game really is just about saving that princess.

I think you could take some key sentences from this latest post and use them to make the original article better, clearing up what you mean by ambiguity and tension (especially the bit about "the cooperation and juxtaposition of elements"). And maybe it's kinda tangential to the topic at large, but if you can, I think it'd help to work in the concept of doggerel games.

Pedro 01-28-2011 01:34 PM

Re: Games: A New Critical Approach
 
Nice response, Fidgety. I think your criteria hold up much better than mine. Mine were written off the top of my head, and maybe serve better as criteria for review (if even that) than criticism.

Quote:

Looking at poetry, most people find it impenetrable and impossible to enjoy.
I would say that although this is true-ish, people can certainly be taught to enjoy poetry (though it really needs to be done one-on-one) by pointing out ambiguities in the text and showing how it can have several meanings etc. However, and I think this applies to any criticism including games, even when people have the tools to enable a deeper reading, they just can't be bothered. The reward possibly isn't worth the effort. For example, I used to read poetry, but don't any more. It doesn't interest me. The will has to be there to seek something more, and it just isn't there for most of us. I think this idea has been addressed on this site before where Chi has said, people just aren't interested in criticism, by and large. It's a case of won't rather than can't.

None of which is relevant to the argument at hand. I like your points. I guess that the main issue I would have is that everyone can define Ambiguity or Tension in different terms where games are concerned, with the huge differences between genres, and the subjective tastes of gamers (eg preferring Platformers over RPGs, or Shooters over Strategy games) muddy the waters still further.

I'm currently only able to perceive Ambiguity as part of the narrative in games - for example the difference between what a character says, and what a character does. I think this may be the starting point for a lot of people who, once they notice this, then start questioning why the character behaves like that, and thus uses that as an entry point for further analysis\criticism. But I accept that this may be a simple version of your point about the difference between intention and action.

But yeah, good points and well made.

ubergoat 05-04-2011 05:44 PM

Re: Games: A New Critical Approach
 
I love your post, just the one comment/criticism I have (and sorry if this already has been said I haven't read all of the replies to this) is about the ambiguity. I think there's much more to it than what you said...the first thing that came to mind when I saw the word before reading the paragraph was that you were going to tie it into the real world. As a bit of a poet myself, to me that is what the ambiguity comment means when applying to my poetry. As an example, my poem about a stream isn't really about a stream, it's about how it doesn't matter if something is artificial or not because either way it is beautiful and nothing can invalidate that. In the same manner a game can be ambiguous in talking about the fictional characters and story but tie it into the real world in one way or another.


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