Money and Popularity Have Game Criticism in Check

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.


A Pointless Review: The Plan

by Jed Pressgrove

The Plan is a very short free game from Krillbite Studio, but you don’t even have to play it. Just read the first sentence on its Steam page: “A fly ascends to the skies, pondering the pointlessness of its brief existence.”

Rarely do you see such truth in marketing. The Plan is a giant set-up from the first time you lay eyes on its description and the praise from Giant Bomb, Eurogamer, and others. “Oh, it’s free,” someone will say. Yeah, have you ever played a good free game like Will You Ever Return? 2 or Hydorah? Pretty graphics, rousing classical music, and the lack of a price don’t make a good game — good ideas and good design do.

The Plan has two ideas, and neither idea is as profound as the marketing says. The first idea is something the game mistakes for existentialism: a fly flying higher and higher to certain death. The first thing you might consider is that a fly’s life doesn’t have to be as boring as it is portrayed in The Plan. A fight with a spider web is the only stirring moment in the entire game; how about a fly swatter or newspaper coming at you as you continuously try to meddle on human skin? Instead, it seems the fly’s pointless flight should inspire you to examine your own, presumably pointless, existence. (Hell, reading the “Fly” wikipedia page is more enlightening than this game’s sorry ascent.) Moreover, moving up and up begs comparisons to last year’s Castles in the Sky, a flawed game but far more fascinating than the nonsense of The Plan.

The game’s other idea seems novel at first, but it’s even more pointless than the ascent: at the end of the game, you’re prompted to type something. Anything. So I typed “What’s the point?” The game then showed me a screen of stars. As I hovered over the stars with my mouse, I got to read the messages other players had typed upon finishing The Plan. The majority of the responses amounted to quotes like the following:

“the plan”


“[insert player’s first name]”




Why would anyone want to read this? And why limit me to only a few dozen stars? (And yes, I did look for the words that I typed — I suppose that points to the “Read our own garbage” routine that social media have helped foster.)

I don’t care what a well-meaning nihilist might claim: existence can have meaning, often through interaction with others. As such, I recommend playing Chris Johnson’s Moirai over The Plan. Like The Plan, Moirai prompts the player to type at the end, but Moirai’s usage of this idea reveals the consequences of language and violence. That is far more profound than anything you’ll experience or read in The Plan.