I love Saturday Review - and I love being on Saturday Review - so I hope its excellent presenter Tom and producer Oliver aren’t too miffed by what I’m about to say. I just listened to the show’s panel tackling Destiny, and it comprehensively proved to me that the decades-old experiment of asking cultural critics who don’t play games to review games should now be brought to an end.
My disgruntlement with the discussion is nobody’s fault. It wasn’t the production team’s - a show like SR is a delicate juggling act of perspectives, voices and content, and the eventual result is always a skilful compromise. It wasn’t the guests’ fault, either - we live in a world where it’s not unusual for senior journalists, novelists, actors and playwrights to have had videogames completely pass them by, even though we’d probably look at them askance if they said they’d never read a book. (“I found it difficult to get to grips with the control scheme; I kept turning two pages at once!”)
The three guests all gamely admitted to being gaming “virgins” (one of them later confessed to having played Resident Evil two decades ago). Their observations on Destiny were therefore necessarily quite limited: it looks good, if soulless, one noted; there doesn’t seem to be much plot, said another. There was, inevitably, a mention of the perennial “are games art?” question.
But what struck me most was the underlying assumption that games would be better if they just became a bit more like films. The broadcaster Kevin Jackson yearned for a videogame directed by David Lynch (never mind the fact that later in the programme, the panel criticised the TV series The Leftovers for being sub-David Lynch; in my opinion, a little David Lynch goes a long way).
"Press X to understand what the bloody hell is going on!"
Jackson’s comment put my back up because I felt it was innately disrespectful to games as a medium, and all the writers and developers already doing innovative things there. I spent a moment fondly imagining reviewing a play, and concluding: “Hmm, yeah … to be honest, I found it a little wordy and static. A few explosions wouldn’t have gone amiss. What the theatre really needs is its own Michael Bay!"
But of course, Jackson presumably hasn’t heard of Fez, or Papers, Please, or Limbo or Thomas Was Alone or Journey blah blah blah. And that’s not his fault. It’s just the way that things have shaken out in our culture.
But his viewpoint is a widely shared one, and it bothers me. To graft the expectations of another medium on to games does them a profound disservice: not least because the more spangly Triple A titles I play, the less likely it seems to me that the future of videogames, their highest ambition and the pinnacle of their achievement, is to be more like films.
The reason is very simple: games aren’t very good at being films.
Cut scenes are boring (SHUT UP METAL GEAR SOLID FANS YOU KNOW I AM RIGHT IN YOUR HEARTS).
It’s fatal to a narrative when what happens in the story can be undermined in free play (Oh, Nico, I feel your pain as an immigrant to Amer—- whoah, stop shooting innocent bystanders!).
A film’s protagonist is its linchpin; the most interesting character in it, at least in theory. The protagonist of a first person shooter is a glorified camera. I’ve spent more than 100 hours with Master Chief and the extent of everything I know about him is that his real name is John and that he is far more tolerant of 343 Guilty Spark’s irritating instructions than I would have been.
In Destiny, I have not yet - in 20 hours of playing - met ANYONE with any discernible personality whatsoever beyond “wears a hat”. But I’m still playing it, which suggests to me that I don’t really need to hear more blather about my epic quest to save humanity in order to enjoy the sweet sing of my sniper rifle picking off an unsuspecting Dreg from half a mile away.
But that expectation - that if you can just get Kevin Spacey in a mo-cap suit to tell you stuff, everything will be better - is so pervasive. But think about, say, Portal and its sequel: I’d rate that as one of the best-written games I have ever played. But there’s very little “plot” to speak of: escape the facility. The joy of it comes from the pointless but zinging dialogue, the way the puzzles build upon each other, the story literally written in the game world architecture (the baking soda volcano! “The cake is a lie”!). I’d take that over any amount of ponderous exposition.
In December last year, Simon Parkin wrote a brilliant article (full disclosure/humblebrag: I commissioned it) which we headlined: “If you love games, you should refuse to be called a gamer”. It attracted quite a bit of comment, although nothing like the level that Leigh Alexander’s recent take on the subject did, because the online conversation around games had not yet descended into a nightmarish re-enactment of The Wicker Man.
In the piece, Simon wrote about how the stereotype of the nerdy gamer had created a vicious circle:
The stereotype is powerful and, while it presents non-gamers with an image of the typical player, also informs gamers. Many gain instruction as to how the world views them and the expectation, as is so often the case, becomes self-fulfilling: they play to type.
But the ‘gaming community’ is not a homogenous group. The BBC estimates that 100% of British teenagers play video games in some form or other. Within the next century ‘gamers’ will be a term that encompasses every gay and transgender person, every girl and woman, every politician in the cabinet, everyone with a title in the House of Lords, every teacher, nurse, banker, social worker, dustman and paedophile.
Video games and their players will be acknowledged as ubiquitous, and the medium’s commentators will be free to move from advocacy (the endless articles and television programmes that, beneath the angle, exist primarily to plead the case that games matter) to more rounded criticism.
I thought this was a great piece at the time, and I think even more of it given what has happened since. Because the crux of Gamer Gate (don’t mention the hashtag!*) seems to me to be an expression of anger that games journalism is no longer “on the side” of gamers.
That’s a legacy of the great divide between the mainstream coverage of games and the specialist press. The mainstream press, the narrative goes, looks down on games as either a) taking time away from reading improving books; or b) turning you into a spree killer. In this line of reasoning, it falls to the specialist press to defend games, to make the case for them as a valid way to spend your free time.
That weird division has suited nobody well. We’re in a situation where, when I write for a print newspaper about a game, I am often expected to explain it in terms a three-year-old could understand. “What’s a first-person shooter?” comes the apologetic cry from the commissioning desk. “Well, it’s a game where you shoot someone … in the first person,” I reply, trying not to sound sarcastic.
At the same time, online coverage of games often makes little attempt to speak to a truly mainstream audience; I can’t imagine that many Saturday Review listeners having the faintest idea what’s going on if they stumbled into a straight rundown of Destiny on a specialist website. They’re for people who are already in the clubhouse. Yes, sites like Polygon and the New Yorker (and the NS's own Phil Hartup) attempt to “zoom out” a little, but I'm not sure how many converts we are gaining.
But if games are going to continue to grow - and just as importantly, the cultural conversation around them is going to get deeper and richer - we have to bridge that divide. Games have spent too long as the unloved younger sibling of films - and like all younger siblings, the way to spur them on is not to compare them, endlessly and unfavourably, with their older sister. But neither is it to indulge them and forgive their foibles because they’re the baby of the family.
As I’ve said before this week, games are growing up. How - and where - should people who love them have the conversations that will help them grow?
* I mentioned it once. Think I got away with it.
Helen Lewis is deputy editor at the New Statesman, a British left-leaning political magazine.
As well as commissioning and editing, she writes for the NS magazine and blogs for its website, with favoured topics including comedy, feminism, politics and computer games. She has also written for Edge magazine, British Elle, the New York Times, the Stylist, the Financial Times, Stella, the Sunday Times, Saga, the Observer, the Times and the Guardian; and has appeared on the Today programme, Pienaar’s Politics, Woman’s Hour, Boulton & Co, Channel 4 News, Westminster Hour, BBC Breakfast and The Daily Politics. She is a regular panellist on BBC One’s Sunday Politics and has presented Radio 4’s The Week in Westminster.
She has a first class degree in English Language and Literature from Oxford University and an MA (Distinction) in English Literature from the Open University. In her spare time, she is deputy chair of Women in Journalism, and chair of trustees at the Hackney-based rape and domestic violence charity, Nia.