(Some) Writing is Hard (But I'll Keep Trying)
Last month I read this exchange on Twitter between Merritt Kopas, John Brindle, and Porpentine:
storified @john_brindle's tweets about conversations because i don't get a lot of extended reviews & i like his words http://t.co/66KcCiz6qy— sailor merritt (@m_kopas) May 13, 2013
@m_kopas @john_brindle so much more interesting when people look at games like this instead of "lol better weigh in on bioshock now"— ITS ME PORPENTINE (@aliendovecote) May 13, 2013
@m_kopas @john_brindle like no one who makes AAA games gives a shit about criticism because theyre just selling crack— ITS ME PORPENTINE (@aliendovecote) May 13, 2013
@m_kopas @john_brindle but a non-AAA creator is starved for feedback and analysis— ITS ME PORPENTINE (@aliendovecote) May 13, 2013
I'm under no illusion that they're talking about me - most likely they are not aware of my existence - but writing about the sort of games they make, both to help surface them on my parts of the Internet and to process my experience playing them, was a major impetus for me starting this blog. Many times in my life I've written privately about games that have affected me and I wanted to make some of that public; to improve my own skills and to give what little publicity I could to important yet mostly-invisible games.
So far I've failed. I wrote a lot about Monster Hunter, exactly the kind of game that doesn't need more writing. And I've got a dozen "I played" posts about small games half-written but they're not coming together.
BioShock, and all AAA games, have a glut of symbols outstripping their actual meaning. They are thematically and semantically shallow and that leaves their unanchored signs floundering near the surface for any dumbass critic to come along and write a 10k word middlebrow essay. It's the same problem that plagues their mechanical design - the games are decorated with "content" and "systems," little of which is worth intaking or interacting with; they glitter with references and designators but few point to any objects or events worth noting.
In contrast games like Kopas's A Synchronous Ritual and
Porpentine's How to Speak Atlantean are critically difficult.
There's precious little visible surface and things are buried deep,
but everything you do find is affecting and challenging. Even when the
games are lavish - a word I would use to describe about half of
Porpentine's games including Atlantean - the lavishness acts like a
"here there be dragons" treasure map -
Dig at the X, way
down. There's gold, I promise, but it's going to take you a while. Oh,
and in the same place I've also buried your most erotic fear.
Again I think there's an analogy with the traditional meaning of "difficult games" (e.g. Dark Souls). In a difficult game the player and game negotiate détente. The game promises itself but only once the player offers up part of themselves as well - a piece of procedural memory, a bruised thumb. In a critically difficult game the game reveals itself but the player-critic can't emerge uncritiqued themselves - an acknowledgment of limited personal experience, limited imagination, internalized bigotry, complicity in dangerous systems. (In a, let's call it critically casual game, the player-critic still emerges changed, but in a way that reinforces whatever views they had going in.)
The first essay I wrote intending to publish here (which I still have not done) is about Micha Cárdenas's A Survivor is #Reborn. I have essentially rewritten it three times now and each time one section of it grows: This game is (correctly) calling me out on my blindness to sexism - how can I critique something that has already so effectively criticized me?
So writing about these games is super-hard! At every step you're critiquing yourself and your critique as much as the work in question. That's not a reason to not do it, though. Rather the opposite - it's why we must do it, because this is change we need. We are all starving, and we need to learn to prepare food other than AAA capitalism candy.