by Jed Pressgrove
Game critics are drawn to “AAA” and hyped indie games like insects to light bulbs. The urge to discuss what everyone else is discussing is an understandable urge, but we should explore the message that these limited discussions send: money/popularity = greater relevance.
The focus on well-marketed games implicitly comments on what we find valuable in gaming. People often treat “AAA” as a term about budgets, franchises, and marketing, but the capital “A” is clearly associated with “better” (the education system has made sure of that). We expect “AAA” games to be better, and when they are very good, we often proclaim them the best. These expectations, along with the fact that “AAA” games generally cost $60, translate into critical relevance.
Hyped indie games like Braid and Gone Home have somewhat challenged this truism. These games may not be “AAA,” but a lot of people have bought them, so they are relevant and ripe for discussion — some might even nominate or call them Game of the Year. One could see this as an improvement as far as broadening the critical discussion is concerned, but the fact remains that neither “AAA” nor hyped indie games are consistently outstanding enough to warrant critical obsession, unless we believe a lot of discussion automatically makes something relevant or good.
Game criticism should be about fitting ideas and design into an insightful historical, cultural, or political context. When video games were relatively new and a smaller hobby, criticism could focus on fewer games. But now that video games are ubiquitous (developing games is the new playing the guitar), you can only gather so much insight from focusing on “AAA” and hyped indie games. For example, critics have written obsessively about how Bioshock, The Walking Dead, and The Stanley Parable handle the concept of choice, but it’s not because these games have made significant strides addressing or presenting choice (unless you pretend Deus Ex, Fallout, and their predecessors never existed) — it’s because those games are hyped and people are already talking about them. The discussion on hyped games is a cycle of obviousness that ignores video game history and actual innovation.
Meanwhile, a free game like Chris Johnson’s Moirai receives little attention despite its original handling of choice and consequence (first with prepared dialogue options, then with dialogue created by the player, and finally by the decision of another player). Devi Ever’s A Game of Cat and Mouse, another free title involving choice, has inspired some interesting feedback that the developer had to seek out, but the game criticism community is largely unaware of the game’s emotional sophistication. (I would love to see how the smug Stanley Parable would criticize Moirai or A Game of Cat and Mouse. Galactic Cafe should thank God it had Bioshock to pick on — easy target, easy publicity … kind of like Ayn Rand and the United States.)
As video games multiply, critics must do more than comb through games people already know about. They should take pride in reminding people of game history and pointing readers toward exciting and provocative titles outside of the hype. I have criticized writers for citing critic Mattie Brice to forward an agenda, but her advice to broaden one’s video game diet is not a personal agenda — it’s a principle of criticism.