Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Vision Quest


I'm not a big fan of Kill Screen. I think I've made that pretty clear here. They've done several pieces which I enjoyed quite a deal, but they mostly came early in their run, and often from non-regular contributors or interviews carried on the strength of their subjects. As a bit of a confession, my big 2012 In Review joke was, in great majority, pull-quotes from Kill Screen; I'm talking well over half with a couple of repeat appearances. And to think I once bought a T-shirt off them as a starry-eyed dreamer.

So I'm bored and spinning my wheels, so why not fling a little more mud in their eyes? Everyone loves a scrappy underdog, right? Better than adding another voice to the din surrounding that torso fiasco, anyway. Thankfully I had the Kill Screen vision statement re-tweeted into my timeline today, so I got a good chuckle from the short form. But I felt that wasn't just being snide, but unfairly cheap. So why not really take a fine toothed comb to where their mission falls apart at the seams? I can even give it a score on a 10-point decimal scale like their estranged mother, Pitchfork! So, have I wrongly misaligned our critical community's Kid A or been overly charitable to our Travistan? Let's find out... together.

1. Play does not mean a waste of time. One of the most unpleasant by-products of our Puritan ancestry is the negative association between fun and work. We are told: if you are having fun, you are not working. Fun is simple-minded; work is struggle; time is money. Time spent in play must be a waste, right? We think play is a fundamental human endeavor. Play motivates us and speaks to our most natural human inclinations. Play greases the wheels of social interaction. A life immersed in play is a life well-spent.
Yes and no. Play exists as a frame separate from reality; this is its gift and its curse. All play is inherently tied to some internal fiction and an agreement by between the creator/operator of the game, the arbiter(s) of its rules, and the players engaging in it. Generally they have existed as pastimes and tests of skill removed from the dire consequences of reality. Chess models the strategies of the battlefield, athletics replace bloodsport. To play, or to watch a singularly capable player excel, is entertainment at its purest. That said, a life immersed in play goes against moderation, and a shirking of the world beyond its borders. Reality will never wholly fit within the space of games, because the purpose of play is to explore our capabilities in an environment with as little lasting consequence as possible. Noble in spirit, but overreaching by a wide margin. Half credit.
2. Videogames are maturing as a medium. Out of the sprites of Spacewar!, games have burgeoned into a diverse and sometimes magical field. Games at their best reflect all of the wonder, beauty, and intelligence found in music, film, theatre, literature, and the rest of the arts. We believe that our conversation should not dwell on whether games deserve their place in the pantheon of the arts, but *which* games deserve it.
Not really. Technologically and functionally, sure, the advent of computing has brought about games far more intricate and complex and cerebral than the classics of the past. Data is more easily stored, actions can be more easily simulated and graded, leaving more room in player's minds for the nuances of actually acting within the system. However, the games both large and small that are often the greatest critical success tend to eschew the player's input for the telling of a more rigidly defined story. Rather than allow the player's actions to form the crux of the story, other mediums are subsumed and subjugated to yield the desired ends. Games can certainly reflect music and film and literature when they utilize or even plunder from them wholesale. The "games as art" question was never a matter of whether making a game involves creative effort, but rather a whinging plea for cultural capital for a form rarely afforded any. And, quite frankly, the reliable floods of disgust that issue from PR campaigns and major trade shows prove that, if anything, video games provided with a greater palette of sights and sounds to draw upon have very often chosen juvenile thrill-seeking and reinforcement of existing audiences. +3
3. Everyone games, but not everyone is a "gamer". We are moving out of a world where people ask "Do you play games?," and moving into one where we ask "What games do you play?" Everyone plays. The term "gamer," however, connotes one highly specific culture. There is nothing wrong with the popular expression "gamer", nor with that culture, but we are more interested in the question of what type? as opposed to whether at all.

Wrong. The concept of the "gamer" is inherently depraved; it goes beyond the sense of being an aficionado of a given medium, like "bookworm" or "movie buff" accords, and this is because of the parasitic "culture" which exists around it. As a label, it is the subsuming of one's life to a backwards and degenerate world of backwards social politics, crass consumerism, corporate fealty, and petulant demand for recognition. To be a "gamer" is to demand recognition solely for one's pastimes, and is the crux of the misplaced and venomous hate spewed at outsiders. For there to be a "gamer" there must be "non-gamers" who must be scorned as "casuals" for lack of commitment or "fake" nerds for trying to somehow exploit the true believers, themselves defined by a "No True Scotsman"-like fallacy. The "gamer" is a manifestation of every pathology that plagues us, and there should be no sympathy for anyone who would willingly take up that mantle. No points.
4. Games need an advocate.  No medium matures on its own. Rock n' roll had Rolling Stone, the Internet had Wired, fashion had Vogue. We believe that Kill Screen can be this advocate for the true, the beautiful, and the good in games.

Nice try. Rolling Stone's musical coverage is barely worth the magazine stock, the Internet more or less engulfed Wired, and fashion (like both other subjects) are already inundated with coverage. Attempting to understand our relation with what we consume is one thing, but trying to claim command over the arcs of creativity of thousands if not millions of people is the ultimate in pretension. There are enough places that have attempted to advocate "the true, the beautiful, and the good" and we can clearly see how successful they've all been. At that was before you devolved into a glorified newswire aggregator. Your arc from "pulse of the vanguard" to "digital glad rag" was hyper-accelerated by your own choice of subject and the fact that even the "fringe" you sought to cover was already well-exposed. +0
5. Games are connected to every other creative field... It is a common misconception that games are something apart from the rest of creative production. Nothing could be further from the truth. Game-making is a fundamentally creative act and those that pursue it face the same dilemmas as painters, musicians, dancers, and poets. To make games is simply to make.

Good! If anything, it's arguable that attempting to account for all possible methods of interaction from a player or user involves greater attention to detail than other mediums whose final product is consumed passively. Clearly there have been mistakes in worshipping at the Cult of the Auteur, but those are acceptable growing pains. I don't know if you'll be there for when that next step is made, but either way: full marks!
6. But games have a lot to learn from other creative fields. The moat around games is partly of game makers own design. Game creators have not received the necessary exposure for the public to respect games as art. At times, gamemakers have hidden themselves from the public. At their worst, games can be insular, narrow-minded, and pandering. We want Kill Screen to help bring culture to games and games to culture.

Sort of OK. In your zeal to rush games into the pantheon of Big Boy Art, you've chanted your hosannahs at the feet of offal from Spec Ops and Mass Effect down to Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf and Horse in the Paint. There's certainly a lot of credit due to designers and artists and musicians often bundled namelessly behind company names, it's true. But that's generally not the subject matter you've covered, now, is it? Big talk, little on results... but I'll grant you the benefit of the doubt that your hearts are at least in the right place. 5/10
7. All games are social. In the history of games, only a handful have been single player. Yet games possess the reputation as private and anti-social. We believe that all games are social. They are either played with others or played against the designer herself. We believe that all games should be played, and more importantly, discussed, with one another.

Not so OK. Again, it's a nice line to trot out, but then if play is in some way "against" the designer when no other players are present, where does that leave highly experiential and didactic experiences like Dear Esther or Analog: A Hate Story that you so readily leaped to canonize? Sure, dialog is important, but all I've ever seen from Kill Screen is the forwarding of an agenda. Your comments section, like most on "high-brow" gaming publications, seems like an afterthought. You know perfectly well the choir you're preaching to. Your points here are again for ambition, with none for execution. ½.
8. Games are serious business. Games generate billions of dollars of revenue for global economies, yet they are barely covered by the financial press. Games make a lot of money but do not yet command much attention.

Hahahaha. Yeah, okay. All the other consumer review sites and industry publications and imprints on popular culture and previews and reviews and analyses and blogs and vlogs and podcasts and forum posts that came before your glorious, fully-formed Aphroditic birth don't count. Drop the savior complex, it's so not flattering. Especially when you've proven so miserable at it.  Zilch.
9. Games (and gamers) are more diverse than you think. The range of creative products over the past decade demonstrates a real shift in the demographics of gamers and the interests of game makers. We believe that everyone has the perfect game waiting for them.
More promises. Games have been plenty diverse before the last decade. You, like so many others, insist on selling the past short to better glorify the present when the present isn't much different. These aren't new forms, this isn't unexplored territory; it's rediscovery at best and regression at worst. Your best bet would be to not try and ply your naivete into a narrative, but that's more or less your stock and trade. Because you don't have the knowledge necessary to form a complete picture, you get your writers to sacrifice themselves at the altar and try to cram their lives into the gaps. You can't put forward anything that approaches a thesis, so you cut corners and take shelter in unmitigated subjectivity. It doesn't pay its dividends. That shift you see is real, and its time as certainly come, but already you can't keep up with it. Pity point.

10. Games are at a crossroads right now. The Comics Code Authority led to book-burnings set back sequential art a half century in the United States. The Hays Code regulated the film industry's output and prevented the "ridicule of the clergy" and depiction of drug use. Rock n' roll was banned from dance halls around this country just fifty years ago. Games are young, just emerging from similar growing pains into their maturity as a medium. We want to document this growth. We want to be the vanguard that pushes games away from its misunderstood past and towards its bright future.
What? The past of video games has, for most part, gotten all the ignominy it deserves outside of some sporadic political fear-mongering. As time has progressed, the transgressions of "gamer culture" have only grown ever more exclusionary and depraved, or at the least those offenses have been better documented. Games are certainly young, but probably not in the way you mean to imply. The games (and occasionally the writers) you've chosen to highlight generally have the overwrought, insipid emoting and puerile libido of adolescence cross-bred with the entitlement and of a teething toddler. There are plenty of elder statesmen who know their craft and ply it with precision and skill, but you'd rather thumb through your friends' scrawled-in chapbooks and mewl collectively about how nobody understands you. The past shouldn't be vilified or forgotten, it should be built upon and improved; that's how mediums actually grow. If you push away from the past, how are you supposed to learn anything from its mistakes? The bright future is right around the corner, but you're not the ones who are going to usher us there. You're the awkward, gangly growth spurt we have to suffer through until it comes. Three out of ten.

Summary. Your ties to Pitchfork gave away the whole plot. You wanted to be the Pitchfork of video games, with all that encompassed. You wanted the adoration of being a safe haven for the "neglected" and "misunderstood" games, while secretly being the kingmaker that would come in however many years to silently dominate the discourse. You wanted to cross-breed games into something marketably hip and safe, and you wanted it so bad you interviewed a musician who hasn't played any games in about a decade under the pretense of finding common ground. You wanted all this, willfully ignorant that they were already a well-trafficked commodity in a demographic you rightfully disdained.

You marched in expecting a clean coup d'├ętat and got frozen out like Napoleon in the Russian winter.  You underestimated how deep these waters ran, and how murky and polluted they were, and so you drowned. You did not carve a niche for yourself; you were absorbed into another vestigial appendage of the beast you thought you could slay. You came at games from every angle in your sizable arsenal, and all your successes were one-and-done flukes. You tried to make something "traditionally" respectable out of video games, without paying due respect to the form itself or preparing against the people who you aimed to convert, and you failed as spectacularly as all who came before you.

Final Grade: (5 + 3 + 0 + 0 + 10 + 5 + 5 + 0 + 1 + 3) / 10.0 = 3.2

Congratulations, Kill Screen, you are the remix album to Bloc Party's Intimacy, and I hope that is the size of the footnote history will one day afford your existence.

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