To be perfectly candid, I have not had the opportunity to read much of John Updike’s literary criticism. I was informed of him by my brother, the author of the Caffeinated Symposium blog, when he and I were discussing our approach to analyzing games and film. While my methods weren’t in sync with Updike’s, I did find that I had been on my way to at least a few of his rules.
Not all of his rules are compatible with video games, or at least as Updike himself wrote and described them. The interactive nature of video games means the sense of engagement and immersion must stretch beyond what the author finds to be important. A clever game designer is able to construct a level and UI that will help guide the player towards certain paths or objects, and the best will be able to do so without the player realizing they are on a leash. Yet you can never underestimate a player’s desire to place the designer’s goal as secondary or tertiary, instead becoming so fascinating with a particular piece of level geometry that they seek to use it as a platform to climb and explore, be it in the hopes of finding secrets or to see what the man is up to behind the curtain. Simultaneously, while literature often has the intent of telling a story, not all games are interested in providing the same experience.
With these differences in mind, I have chosen to do my best to take John Updike’s five rules of Literary Criticism and recreate them to serve the purpose of video games. Note that this is merely going to be the guideline that I strive to follow, as I certainly shall fail it at times myself. While I’d love for it to become a new movement amongst game critics, I’m not so foolhardy as to believe it’ll actually have that level of impact.
Updike’s Rule #1: Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
Revised Rule #1: Try to understand what the designer(s) wished to do, and do not blame them for not achieving what they did not attempt.
For the purpose of simplicity, I will be replacing the term “author” with “designer(s)”, which includes those in charge of crafting the story. This is partially because the roles of designers and writers in regards to the narrative aspect of games development are still inconsistent. In some cases, you may see someone credited as “Scenario Designer”, meaning they craft the outline of the story. They could also be in charge of dialogue, or that could go to another writer entirely. In other cases, the game designers outline the story themselves and hire a writer to simply fill out the script. In cases such as Bioshock, the designer also serves as writer, and thus the story transforms alongside the game’s design.
As such, the first shift from John Updike’s original rules are to simplify it down to “designer(s)” rather than a singular author. Simultaneously, this rule covers not only a game’s narrative (which may be absent or shallow as a puddle), but also the gameplay itself.
Brutal Legend is an example of a game that was criticized for being a different genre of game than many players were expecting. While little of the marketing material really suggested what genre the game would be, many assumed it would be a hack-and-slash action game of some sort. Instead, Brutal Legend was a fusion of hack-and-slash, open-world and real-time-strategy. It received a lot of criticism from reviewers and fans alike for not meeting assumptions, ones that are the fault of the marketing rather than the game itself.
Simultaneously, a judgment on Brutal Legend for not being enough like StarCraft would be improper criticism, as it is not within Brutal Legend’s objective to be the type of real-time-strategy as StarCraft is.
Updike’s Rule #2: Give him enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
Revised Rule #2: If crafting a video analysis, use a wide assortment of clips showcasing gameplay as it is intended, not just out-of-context clips of the game’s glitches, faulty programming, or poor design choices.
This is a rather difficult rule to translate, and one which may not quite work so well in a written critique. Being able to describe the feel of gameplay leans towards prose, a very different skillset than writing analytically. It also does not serve the purpose of the original rule, which is to give a sampling to the reader so that they might get a first hand taste of what the critic is discussing while allowing the work to speak for itself. It could be that the flaws the critic notices seem insignificant to the reader, or are not present at all.
The only way to deliver this experience in the spirit Updike intended would be to hand the reader the controller and allow them to play the game themselves. Unless you can figure out a way to deliver a playable demo of the game to the player alongside each review, something that would require every game made to have a playable demo, then you cannot suitably fulfill Updike’s original requirement.
However, video reviews are becoming more popular. For our purposes here, Let’s Plays are not considered criticism, as their purpose is often to do more than provide an actual critique on the game. Commentary and demonstration are not the same thing as critique, after all. Instead, we’ll specifically be discussing videos where the gameplay footage is cut and edited to match the critique.
The benefit of video editing is that you can use carefully selected footage to match and emphasize the points of your analysis. This also poses a danger as this means the video editor has the freedom to select footage of only a certain type of experience. Use nothing but footage of glitches, deaths, and even the player backing themselves into a corner, and the author can describe the experience as broken. The visual footage would help sell this concept, even if it were not true of the average experience with the game on the whole.
Of course, it goes without saying that such a dishonest analysis would go against Updike’s rules altogether, but it highlights the responsibility of collecting, sorting, and selecting video footage to supplement a critique. Gameplay presented should showcase a variety of situations and scenarios, representative of the average experience of the author while playing. No footage, be it positive or negative, should be left out in order to more easily persuade the viewer of the author’s ultimate verdict.
Updike’s Rule #3: Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.
Revised Rule #3: When summarizing a game’s mechanics and/or narrative, withhold any judgment and describe as the designers clearly intend.
When Updike mentions fuzzy precis, he means a summary. In other words, when describing a specific section of the book, include quotations so that the reader can understand what you are discussing. In regards to video games, it is very similar to Rule #2.
For our purpose, it will serve as a reinforcement of principle as well as applying Rule #2’s purpose towards writing rather than video. When describing a section of a game’s mechanics, explain how they fail rather than stating they are a failure. One of these is an observation, the other a mere opinion. Opinions need to be backed up by a thorough argument, which is the purpose of a criticism. We don’t need to know whether you think parts of the story or bad or aspects of gameplay are wonderful. We need you to describe what happens and how that informs your opinion.
Most of all, it needs to be in sync with the goal of the designers. Expressing frustration that a horror game doesn’t give you enough ammunition to kill every monster is likely missing the point, as most horror games intend for the player to be out of their league and pressured to run. Again, this would be a criticism based on preference rather than the game’s actual failing.
Updike’s Rule #4: Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.
Revised Rule #4: Do not tell the player of every world, weapon, mechanic, or other such feature within the game, and do not give away the story. Allow the player to be surprised.
This rule is often discussed in regards to “spoiler” territory. For some players, only the plot can be spoiled. For others, they do not wish to know all the equipment or gameplay abilities they may unlock. For example, there were powers in inFamous: Second Son that were not advertised, and open discussion of them in reviews came off as spoilers for many players.
In some ways, this rule is there to ensure the intended surprise the designer or writer desires within their audience. Cecil’s class change from Dark Knight to Paladin in Final Fantasy IV acted as a pivotal plot point, but it also revealed a sudden shift in gameplay for the character. Playing as the Arbiter in Halo 2 provided a whole new perspective on the war between humans and Covenant. GLaDOS in Portal 2 is replaced by Wheatley, and the player is trapped in the old Aperture Science for a good portion of the game. These are key moments that are, based on the path the narrative and structure of the games leading up to these points, are supposed to be exciting reveals for the player. Sometimes, marketing will ruin these surprises. If possible, however, the critic should preserve as much of the surprise as possible.
No doubt there are questions of just how one is supposed to inform a buyer of the game’s content if they cannot describe the gameplay. Portal 2 would be most difficult, as its gameplay is completely reliant on the tools provided to solve the puzzles.
This is the trick to more in-depth criticism, or at least, understanding it at a greater depth. A review should not be a list of features, nor should it be an instruction manual. Does a player need to know that there are different types of paint that allow the player to bounce or move at an increased speed? No, because these aren’t actually describing what it feels like to play the game, or how effectively such tools are used. Portal 2’s puzzles can be described in how the environment is filled with contextual clues to call the player’s attention to key objects. How there will always be an obvious indicator to the cost of failure before the player even has an opportunity to fail themselves.
The only reason to list out the number of abilities or even mechanics is to sate the craving of players that are obsessed with numbers on the back of the box. Portal 2 may be able to have a larger assortment of puzzles based on the number of tools available, but all the tools in the world wouldn’t matter if the puzzles were obtuse and opaque. What matters is the ability for the player to solve the puzzles without being made to feel as if their hand is being held. The idea that the bigger the numbers on the back of the box, the better the game, needs to go extinct.
While this rule should be lesser, in the world of video games criticism it is actually one of the most important, as it requires better knowledge of design and how to write about it from the critic. Skills that are currently severely lacking.
Updike’s Rule #5: If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?
Revised Rule #5: If the game is judged poor or deficient, reference games not only within the same genre, but the same intentions, preferably from the developer’s own catalog. Make sure it is the failure of the game and not the deficiency of the critic as a player of that particular genre or gameplay style.
This rule was violated in a pretty hefty way by Polygon recently, and not even for an actual review. It was for a preview, and written by a “journalist” experiencing a mid-life crisis. What is most important is that a critic familiar with the game’s genre be the one to analyze it. The critic is, after all, analyzing the game for players that would be interested in that particular genre. Even if it is just a minor interest, the opinion of someone steeped in the game style is more likely to provide a thorough and knowledgeable verdict than one who is not. This should go without saying.
The only risk would be if the critic prefers certain styles of game within that genre, such as RTS versus Grand Strategy. Not only were such concerns discussed in previous rules, but the second portion of the rule covers this basis. A proper critic will not allow their preference to interfere with their verdict on the game, as that would prevent them from analyzing the game based on its own goals. Comparing Crusader Kings II to StarCraft II, for example, would be foolish, as each game is seeking to deliver different play experiences.
Hence the comparison to similar titles with similar intentions. While Halo and Half-Life are both first-person shooters, they are both seeking to deliver different experiences. There is little more to Halo than its combat. That is the sole focus of the game’s design, and each level is designed with tactical possibilities in mind. Half-Life, on the other hand, seeks to use its environment to tell a story as well as providing a series of puzzles to solve. Combat is secondary compared to navigating the world, and by forcing the player through puzzles they also force the player to focus on the environment, familiarizing them with Black Mesa and the story of the facility’s destruction. Comparing the two games would be a matter of preferences, rather than noting one’s deficiency over the other.
Finally, if possible, compare the game to one made by the same developer. However, this is much easier done with books than it is with video games. It’s possible a studio only has two or three other games under their belt, and each game may be a completely different genre. Just look at Double Fine’s library. Psychonauts, Br¨tal Legend, Costume Quest and The Cave are all by the same studio, but not one of them plays like the other. As such, comparing one to the next would result in comparing different styles of game with different intentions. It would do better to compare each game to a similar title in that genre by another studio.
A critic should be careful if comparing a game to another within the franchise. This can often lead to preferential treatment rather than determining where one game failed and another succeeded. Is Dead Space 3 inferior to its predecessors due to including co-op, for example? Does that make the game worse, or does it simply make it different? Does it achieve the consistent goals of the franchise through different means?
Before I close, I want to finish with what is occasionally cited as John Updike’s sixth rule.
To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never ... try to put the author ‘in his place,’ making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.
Video games are not the only victim of violating this rule. The advent of the Internet has made it easier for anyone to get their thoughts out there, and few are as introspective or educated enough as to sincerely care enough about art or criticism to approach the task with intentions akin to Updike.
Right now, we have a lot of writers putting value judgments on games based on ideologies and philosophies. This is not criticism. At the same time, there are those that would judge games such as Depression Quest harshly due to their dislike of writer Zoe Quinn, or due to their claim that it is “not a real game”. These writers are equally guilty.
If games are truly going to “grow up”, if they’re going to be a respectable art form, then we need to approach them as art. Not as propaganda pieces, not as toys, and not with favor based on personal bias.