"Gaming needs to grow up" is a common byline of many an agenda-driven ideologue in the industry, but they're not wrong; it needs to. We aren't going to do that in an age of developers or critics held above others, however, and we seem to have fallen into a rut by doing so. We need to empower the disruptive, the scandalous, and push the boundaries, not simply hold up those whom validate us.
There is something of a problem with society right now. See, I want to say that this is unique to gaming, or even to entertainment, but it isn't. There is a human need to have heroes, causes, ideals, and the like. Gaming expresses this in the elevation of certain successful - and some unsuccessful - developers to an almost godly status, and likewise we have certain critics and reporters seen as above reproach.
And to be frank, and put my cards down on the table from the onset, I frankly think it needs to stop, but I also think that to some degree, trying to make it stop is like trying to turn back the tide with a beach spade.
I find myself reflecting on this as I browse the page for The Witness, latest magnum opus from storied and often-idolized developer of Braid, Jonathan Blow. The very premise of the game espouses the vaguely-condescending tone that many of the game industry's so-called indie developers fall into these days: the feeling that they are better than you, that they are some sort of creative genuis, and if you're very, very good, perhaps you'll recognize their genius. This isn't something I have just conjured out of thin air, or some sort of gut feeling about a person based on their speech, it is, in fact, the very sales pitch of The Witness. Observe:
This game respects you as an intelligent player and it treats your time as precious.
Granted, this is the implicit, rather than explicit thing. Rather than call you stupid for not getting it, the game would rather call you intelligent for doing so, presuming you do, and turns it into the quiet implication. That implication remains there, however, and it's endemic of something pervasive in "indie" game design: that you just don't get it. And the ones that support them do.
This is what's put me off indie gaming in general of late, quite frankly. I used to love getting a code for an indie game because it felt that my opinions were much more impactful and relevant there; very few people are going to be swayed by my opinions for or against the plethora of reviews out there for any big name AAA release. The reviews that others don't have are my most valuable, because they are most valuable to my readers. And indeed upon penning this I am reminded I need to look over The Last Dogma again, because taking that kind of critical eye that takes the time to actually unpack things is the most valuable thing to a developer, and Sasha Darko recently overhauled it after our review.
Look, I'm waffling here, so let's get to the main thrust, the thesis if you will: if your game is passing over your audience, if you are pointedly seperating your audience from your work - any creative work - I think you're doing both your audience and yourself a disfavour. There is never any "right" answer in a subjective analysis or critique, there is no pure objectivity, and by inherently casting out a certain brand of critique, you are intentionally blinding yourself to constructive criticism.
It takes a courageous writer to acknowledge the flaws we all know are in our work. I repeat myself a lot. Gaelic grammar still seeps into my English even after 20+ years of English being my primary language. I tend to be the editor that needs her own editor. I can be very waffley and stream-of-consciousness a writer versus the to-the-point kind of thing that I, myself, value. Being receptive to the criticisms that I receive is what helps me grow.
I'm put in mind of an old issue somewhere in the mid-90s, if memory serves, from PC Gamer that highlighted interviews with the "Gaming Gods" - the big name developers of the time. Richard Garriott, Roberta Williams, and many others. One thing stands out as quite the contrast: the focus on a lot of their commentary is on finding what the audience wanted, on making the best games they could for their respective audience. Somewheres along the line, in the gaming industry's travels from then, to now, this got somewhat warped - that audience is now the one that matters. How can we exploit them? Make them pay more? Get them more involved in the game? And those who don't like the game are pushed from mind, when they aren't painted with some sort of negative brush for not liking the gaming.
Indie gaming isn't growing. Not the "mainstream" indie gaming, anyways, and what a state that we have to make that distinction. And that is why. It's a failure of audience-centered discourse in a way: by focussing so exclusively on your chosen audience, you insulate yourself to the thoughts and criticisms of others, and in doing so, you stunt your growth. Those familiar with the social psychology that communications theory borrows the idea of audience-centered discourse would know - you always have to look at that audience as a whole. Everyone who buys your work, be they "of the cloth" or not, is your audience, and you can resent them all you like, it won't really change that.
The "of the cloth" comment seems apt to me, because reading through the reviews for the Witness in looking for a game to review to fill the gap between now-time and X-COM 2-release-time, the many positive reviews speak to me like the empty chorus of a cult's faithful, repeating the chosen lines, the "good words" over and over, until the repetition settles into a sort of written equivalent of white noise and perhaps on some subliminal level you start believing it yourself. This is the mechanism of a cult, after all, and people hinge their validation on their chosen auteur.
Frankly, in some ways I'm a little jealous of people who can so blithely simply accept the allucution from on high that these people often offer. I am one that always wants to take apart something to understand it. It's how I taught myself to care for firearms. It's how I taught myself to build a computer. And it's how I taught myself to criticize games. I'm always the questioning one, and I can't just accept that something "is as it is" - I strive to understand. That's the grand hypocrisy of The Witness' marketing scheme I think - it ascribes some deep meaning and pretentious degree of understanding to puzzles that, if YouTube is an indication, are quite simple, and rely merely on thinking and observing in certain ways.
And this is hardly the only example. A common example one of my readers whom I fell out of correspondence with lately would always bring up is that of Bioshock Infinite - and I personally find it a pretty apt one. It's a game that poses that it is something bigger and grander than it truly is - mostly to hide that the game underneath is quite simple, and in my opinion, quite lacking. Gunplay is floating and lacks impact. Most of the gameplay is just clone-stamped from it's predecessors. It looks pretty - but it's vapid and uninteresting once you get past the surface.
These pundits, critics, and developers who seem to form the face of this "progressive" segment of games development so often synonymous with this vapidity have one thing in common in my observation - this sort of prevailing idea that "games need to grow up". And I'd agree - they do need to do so. They do so by finding diversity. Inclusion. Finding those criticisms that are valid where-ever they may be and improving the craft. These people however, would prefer to create cults of personality around their group, and merely rally the faithful around an outgroup.
And frankly, it needs to stop.
If you do, well and truly want to see games improve, you do not by exclusion, by dividing people into the "haves" and the "have-nots". You do that by improving your craft, taking on board that criticism, and refining your art. No one is perfect. The pursuit of excellence has no end save the grave, and there is no one in this industry who is above criticism. I, for one person, if only one person, would like to be able to discuss games, and their flaws and merits, without having to draw battle lines and worry about being buried under a landslide of negativity because I dare questioned what amounts to one person's sacred cow. And I know I'm not the only one.
I can no more stop the human nature to idolize those we look up to than I can get gravity to spontaneously reverse or flip a button to suddenly stop the disease that has eaten me inside since I was 11, but if we want to grow as an industry we need to be able to have uncomfortable conversations and disruptive works without it becoming trench warfare. We have a very safe, and frankly I'd say, cowardly lot as our paragons right now, producing increasingly more homogenized tat for the masses. This industry needs to empower the scandalous, those whom push the boundaries, those whom offend with provocative questions, or otherwise what happens isn't growth - it's those boundaries closing in, until all we're left in is the "safe" and "comfortable" hugbox.
I'm struggling to find a natural end-point for this, having probably gotten my point across a few paragraphs ago, so let me end on this piece of advice I gave a friend of mine looking to break into games criticism recently:
It's easy to hold up the works of people you like, or works that you like personally. It's easy to grind into the ground the works you don't like, or you don't like the developers of. That's the mainstream press for you already. If you want to be different, and moreover, if you want to be a good critic, you have to have the fortitude and courage to find the good in the works that you don't like, and the stuff you don't like in the games you love.
Because that is how we grow. And it takes a humility and courage that I think the industry collectively lacks right now. I can only hope I'm wrong.