Month: October 2018

Game Criticism Is Not Labor Rights Advocacy

by Jed Pressgrove

The role of a critic is to examine, interpret, and evaluate works of art after experiencing them. This purpose might lead a critic to champion an album for its exquisite instrumentation; reject a film for its shallow moral message; compare a painting and a sculpture that depict the same subject; or point out that a video game is politically irresponsible, for whatever reason, in addition to being a clunky, trite experience. The possibilities are innumerable, and the critic’s passion for art can sometimes lead to challenging ideas that stick in your memory like a pest. Criticism might even enlighten or elate us. Whatever the case may be, a critic talks about finished works of art and, in the process, should attempt to not sound like a commercial, a marketer, or any other horrible thing that attempts to exploit our impulses to buy or complacently enjoy what is peddled to us.

In contrast, a labor rights advocate looks for cases of exploitation in the workplace and puts a spotlight on terrible practices with the hope that workers’ situations will change for the better.

As someone with a functioning brain and a sense of decency, I don’t have a problem with criticism or labor rights advocacy. I do have a problem with statements that suggest that these things are somehow the same.

Recent stories about the production, not the finished artistry, of Red Dead Redemption 2 have led some to raise questions about whether poor labor conditions should factor into critics’ assessments of the game itself. Jessica Condit posits that labor conditions are directly tied to quality of the art: “However, talking about crunch can change how games like this are made. In fact, they can help make these games even better.” But where is the evidence for this well-meaning statement? How can one imply that better working conditions would produce better art when the examination, interpretation, and evaluation of art is in the eye of the beholder?

Earlier this year in reviews of Detroit: Become Human, some critics mentioned the sexism and homophobia that allegedly went on during the production of the game. It’s almost as if some critics would sometimes rather review labor environments than the games themselves. What’s particularly puzzling about this trend is that only certain games receive this level of scrutiny. It’s not like these same critics are performing active investigations of the production environments of every game they analyze. Indeed, that would be too much work for those looking to be conveniently self-righteous and progressive.

Criticism is a challenging activity because it requires one to ignore, look well beyond, or be wary of factors — whether advertisements, artist interviews, production stories (good or bad), and so on — that threaten to undermine one’s pure reaction to a given work of art. I reject the philosophy of critics who say otherwise and who rarely, if ever, seem to care about the labor conditions involved in all works of art, as opposed to a few that make the news here and there.

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The Red Strings Club Review — Left-Wing Puppetry

by Jed Pressgrove

Don’t listen to the cries of narrow-minded fans: it’s fine for politics to be in games. But political expression should not be divorced from intelligence and context. With The Red Strings Club, developer Deconstructeam often presents a leftist viewpoint that is critical of corporations and patriarchal power, yet the game is content to fall back on wise-ass, pandering dialogue to share its perspective, as opposed to building a convincing narrative that compels the player to consider the validity of its biases.

The Red Strings Club takes place in a future where citizens can receive cybernetic implants that can do everything from increase their charisma to reduce their stress. Most of the story is set in the game’s titular bar, where you play as Donovan, a bartender who can mix drinks so as to manipulate people’s emotions and gain whatever information he wants. Along the way, you’ll also assume the role of Brandeis, Donovan’s hacker boyfriend, and Akara-184, an android that manufactures implants for a corporation called Supercontinent. The overall goal of the game is to stop Supercontinent’s plan to take control of people’s minds through a new program called Social Psyche Welfare.

Curiously, Jordi de Paco’s script reveals very little about the culture that is being threatened with Supercontinent’s scheme. With the exception of suggesting that people can better realize their dreams through technological modifications to their bodies, the story doesn’t highlight how the game’s fictional society is different than ours. Even stranger, despite The Red String Club’s preaching about the dubious intentions of corporations, the concept of class — the linchpin that connects leftists, and people generally, of all backgrounds — isn’t specifically addressed in the plot.

This oversight about class is particularly puzzling given that the principal characters seem to champion revolutionary behavior. In one scene, Donovan says, “Revolutionaries don’t live long,” and Brandeis replies, “But we do live intense.” But what have these people been fighting for? The impoverished? Oppressed groups? The script never says, even though the answer could obviously be tied to the malevolent actions of a corporate enemy.

At a pivotal juncture in the story, Akara-184 lays out several things that could be eliminated through Social Psyche Welfare: rape, suicide, xenophobia, homophobia. But when Akara-184 insists women are oppressed in the game’s fictional setting, something doesn’t line up, given that women don’t appear to be in bad shape within the game (Supercontinent’s CEO is even a 15-year-old girl!). If you, as Donovan, disagree with Akara’s assertion based on the game’s lack of attention to women’s plight, she will call you stupid, never offering any explanation of her righteous position. With this idiotic scene, Deconstructeam unintentionally parodies left-wing commentators who refuse to make a clear argument despite having a wealth of information at their fingertips. In resembling such insufferable, arrogant leftists, The Red Strings Club puts the “punk” in cyberpunk.

Loaded Questions Vol. 12

Loaded Questions is a regular feature at Game Bias. If you have a question you would like to submit, please email it to pressgrove84@yahoo.com or tweet it to @jedpressfate. Questions can cover anything closely or tangentially related to video games or art, including but not limited to criticism, culture, and politics. Questions may be edited for clarity.

Question 1

Mingying Wang: As a big fan of film (you are as well, I assume?), I had a thought about video games that fall into the romance or romantic-comedy categories. Both genres have been popular in film, but why haven’t there been any in video games? I searched for examples through Google and found disastrous non-answers. Do you think romance or romantic comedy could work in video games? Or are there examples out there already?

Jed Pressgrove: First, I love film and the many genres within it. To answer your questions, romance or romantic comedy can work in games if the writing, presentation, and design are strong. As you’ve found, though, the mainstream often doesn’t have much to offer outside of relationships or moments between certain characters. One example that comes to mind is the great cutscene in Final Fantasy X where Yuna dances on water and Tidus is spellbound by her image and movement. You can see how romance blossoms on sight in that segment. For a more recent game, check out Florence. Unlike most pop games, Florence revolves around a romantic relationship in terms of both storytelling and mechanics. You might also be interested in Cibele, which has a lot to say about how online relationships can create unique challenges for people.

Of course, there are a number of well-known games that feature dating systems. There’s Stardew Valley (or, as I call it, Harvest Moon Wannabe). There’s Persona 5. And so on. But to be frank, I find that, more often than not, these games are superficial and contrived in how they explore romance dynamics. Boiling down potential romance to whether you give someone the right gift or whether you choose a particular dialogue option is asinine.

If you look outside of the mainstream, you might have more luck finding romance and romantic comedy in games. Visual novels seem to be a breeding ground for this sort of thing, but unfortunately I’m not as familiar with that sphere.

Question 2

Andrew Smith: I was wondering what role a game should play in explaining its mechanics. The example I’m thinking about is Kingdom Hearts II. I beat it on its normal difficulty setting and thought it was a fun game, but it also had a lot of button mashing and seemed to lack depth. I then watched some videos of higher-level players and realized that I either missed or didn’t use half of the game’s mechanics. I immediately played the game again on a higher difficulty, learned more mechanics, and had much more fun and appreciation for the game the second time around. For the first time ever, I’m playing a game for the third time right after my first and second playthroughs and having even more fun.

The thing is, while I greatly appreciate all the hidden mechanics and depth, I realize a lot of them are poorly explained, and I feel most people would never know about some of them without learning about them online. Then again, most people wouldn’t need to know these mechanics unless they played on higher difficulty settings.

Do you have any thoughts on this? You frequently say most people don’t need to be great at video games but just need a level of understanding. Thoughts on this situation?

Jed Pressgrove: I don’t think a game must always explain its mechanics (in fact, I often criticize overtutorialization), but the experience will usually be more interesting if the developer gives players the opportunity to explore mechanics in an intuitive or experimental fashion. Take Octahedron. It doesn’t spend much time telling the player what to do, but it consistently puts you in situations where you must play around with new things in order to advance through each stage. I typically prefer it when games tell you less or just enough to play.

On the other hand, Guacamelee! 2 always points out what you can do in it, and I have found it to be a blast so far. You can make so many different choices during combat in Guacamelee! 2, so even though the game spells everything out, the player still has a great degree of kinetic freedom.

I haven’t played Kingdom Hearts II, but it’s typically annoying to me when a game is boring or doesn’t show its true colors, so to speak, during its first playthrough or on its normal difficulty setting. I can’t say too much about your situation, as I can’t judge the game without playing it, but my gut reaction to your account is that Kingdom Hearts II missed a lot of opportunities to be interesting within a shorter timeframe.

Questions 3-5

Carlo: Has reading a piece of game criticism ever drastically changed your evaluation of a game?

Jed Pressgrove: I can’t remember a case where a piece transformed my opinion in such a way, but sometimes an article will challenge my view of a game and force me to think again about my stance. Jess Joho’s review of Octopath Traveler made me reconsider how I viewed some of the female characters in that game. Another interesting piece was Ed Smith’s take on Nier: Automata. Smith’s essay didn’t call into question my interpretation of the game, but it did make me muse about Toko Taro’s overall maturity. Reviews should get us to think more, not necessarily change our minds.

Carlo: You named your website Game Bias. Is this a declaration that you embrace your biases, a joke (on commenters who type “You’re biased!” if they don’t like a review), or something else altogether? What does bias mean to you?

Jed Pressgrove: I can see how the blog name can make people think it was a response to a certain type of commenter, but it wasn’t. A few years ago I said something on Twitter about needing a name for a new blog, and Farida Yusuf, who has a sharp and provocative critical mind, half-jokingly (I think) suggested “Game Bias.” The term immediately struck me, so I went with it and never looked back.

I get a kick out of the phrase. I like that you can take it either as a serious statement or as humor. I embrace my biases in any case. To deny them would be to deny my heart, mind, and soul. In general, I believe everyone should let their feelings flow.

Having said that, I don’t think we should be biased against games before we play them. There are too many critics nowadays who dismiss work before they even honestly try it.

Biases, in their most honest form, are not merely angles or slants. They stem from convictions, personal experiences, and moral codes. Criticism, as a form of expression, can’t ignore such things.

Carlo: I really liked your podcasts with Tevis Thompson and Keith Andrew Hathaway. Do you have any plans to do more?

Jed Pressgrove: Glad you liked those. I have no plans now for a podcast with anyone, but you never know when another project will pop up. It’s a format that I remain interested in, and I always enjoy talking to people.