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Old 10-28-2010, 12:01 PM   #1
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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.


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.


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 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.


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.
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