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Old 01-14-2011, 06:23 AM   #7
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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:
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:
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.

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.

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.
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