Often in criticism we talk about what a game tells us about the people who made it, but more valuable still is what a game can tell us about ourselves.

I have always maintained that art is a Rorschach test; there is no meaning inherent in it, but we apply meaning to it ourselves. This is why criticism of art is subjective, and often a point of contention. Video games are no exception. It’s the kind of cliché that makes my skin crawl, but it rings true: we all view games through our own lens. Each of us sees different things that speak to us, and we all have some games that just don’t speak to us at all…but that doesn’t mean they won’t speak to someone else.

But as much as that sentiment has been reiterated in so many forms over the years, many of us still have a habit of talking about games as if what we’ve seen in them is a proven truth. That includes professional critics…and, unfortunately, me.

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The dialogue of criticism is based on an understanding – more accurately an assumption – that both the speaker and the audience know that the speaker’s words aren’t to be taken as absolute truth, and that the job of presenting the possibility of alternative viewpoints falls to other people who actually have them. As my highschool history teacher said: “as long as you can justify your own answer, it counts”. Sometimes however, with some arguments over games criticism getting heated to an almost comical degree, I wonder if maybe this unwritten contract between speaker and audience should be an actual document we all have to sign before we can engage in critical discussion.

The truth is that none of us can know for certain without asking what the creative intention was behind design decisions or narrative themes – even if we’re told the reasons, we can’t always tell whether it’s the creator’s fault or ours when something doesn’t come across to us, or if any improvements we’d suggest would work for other people. We only know what we see, in the way that we see it. Understanding this is fundamental to understanding the nature of critical discussion, and I feel like a bit more awareness of it would stop 50% of the fights games criticism is an unwilling home to.

Maybe then we need to make it a bit more obvious, and perhaps to do this we need to look at games in a way closer to how we looked at The Beginner’s Guide – by talking about the lens through which it was being viewed. Ask not merely what the developer’s intention was; ask why it is that you saw it as their intention.

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Coverage of video games has been moving in this direction for a while now – a natural result of games media becoming more personality-driven – and we’ve seen many examples of critical works that go into some pretty personal detail about the critics behind them, from Jim Sterling reviewing The Beginner’s Guide by talking about his childhood and the nature of his career, to Matt Lees of the website Cool Ghosts having to change a video on Stellaris after the developer’s hand-waving response to a controversy breached his trust and changed the entire context of the game for him, to Simon Rankin writing right here on indieHaven about his intensely personal connection to the game Proteus.

In my first contribution to indieHaven, I provided what amounts to my own origin story as context for my impression of the themes of Enter the Gungeon. I recounted how it reaffirmed to me the realisation I had made years prior that my life was on a path I didn’t want and I lost nothing by trying to change that. Part of me was concerned that it might have been a bit heavy for an opening gambit, but I felt it was more meaningful than anything else I could have said about the game. Hopefully I was right.

I’ve had many experiences with games that have defined a part of me in their own way. When I finished The Beginner’s Guide and felt nothing, I extrapolated that I didn’t feel the same uncertainty as those whom I had heard talk about it before, and was thus doing pretty well for myself psychologically in spite of my depression. When I played Silent Hill 2 and found myself more fascinated than afraid, I realised that I was somehow identifying with the town itself as if admiring the work of a fellow craftsman. My predilection for predatory stealth – most notably picking off victims one by one in a corn field in Hitman Absolution – further cemented the notion that I was some crazed nightmare demon straight out of a horror movie. When the Great Old Ones appeared in Bloodborne, and I felt the first genuine pang of fear a game had instilled in me in over a decade, I came to realise that what scared me the most about them was that they had been imperceptible – that my greatest fear was being unable to trust the information of my own mind.

Ok, maybe I’m not doing that great psychologically…

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The ability to encourage self-reflection is, in my opinion, what qualifies something as ‘art’. It stands to reason then that the best coverage of art is always some manner of self-portrait, telling us something (but, it should be noted, not everything) about the mind of the person discussing it. People still need to know about tech specs the game’s mechanical construction of course, but the best kind of discussion is not something quite so clinical. The best kind of discussion is of the effect the game has on the player.

Sadly this kind of discussion won’t always be possible. As I said many paragraphs ago, sometimes a game just won’t speak to you. There are a lot of games where the desired effect is for the player not to really think about anything, and sometimes a game will simply leave you with not a lot to say. Useful information in and of itself, but not terribly exciting. Sadly encountering a game such as this is as inevitable as it is unfortunate, so I’m not going to beat people over the head with everything I’ve written here if they don’t want to divulge their life story off the back of Senran Kagura.

There’s another issue: focusing on individual experience rather than creative intent is liable to see pushback from a certain type of developer – the Jonathan Blows of the world with a specific set of ideas they want to convey, building worlds around symbolic details so personal that only they themselves would have any reason to read meaning into them, and then questioning the qualifications of critics when they don’t ‘get’ it.

I’ve not got a lot of patience for that, if you couldn’t tell. Of course creators are allowed to talk about what they wanted to convey with their creations – they put a lot of bloody work into them – but when it gets to the point of attacking critics for not seeing what you wanted them to, I completely lose all patience for it. In my mind it’s no different than the subset of gamers that pitch screaming fits whenever a reviewer gives a game the “wrong score”. Frustrated as you might be, saying you don’t think critics are equipped to talk about your games doesn’t make you clever; it makes you an Uncharted fan with a thesaurus.

Criticism of games is not an exercise in objectivity, and varying interpretations are an inevitable result of that. I could make some trite statement about how we “just have to accept it”, but to do so would be to suggest it’s even regrettable. It’s not. It’s the most fascinating part of any artistic endeavour. Critical discussion should be a celebration of how games can mean so many different things to so many different people, not a sterile mechanical process of pinning down one definitive answer so we can move onto the next game.

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Perhaps then we need more reminders that it’s all subjective. Maybe going deeper into why things do and don’t resonate with us should be considered common practice. Maybe “agree to disagree” should be the arrangement going into the discussion rather than a dismissive way of dropping it. The community around video games could stand to deal with the inevitability of disagreement a little better, and if we’re going to drop this illusion of objectivity in criticism we all need to understand that when we provide critique, we are exposing a part of ourselves.

Games are a Rorschach test. It’s not what you see in them, but why you see it that is truly important. It’s pointless to try and make everyone see the same ‘what’ because we don’t all have the same ‘why’. Look for the ‘why’, and learn whatever you can from it. Sometimes the ‘why’ might go somewhere pretty deep and personal, and I’m not about to force anyone to go there in front of an audience – I understand all too well how intimidating that prospect can be, and it can end up going pretty badly if you’re not ready for it.

By no means does anybody have to act on a single word I’ve said here…but trust me: you’ll be missing out on the most valuable part of the discussion.

About The Author

Indie Haven's resident Good Video Boy™ and creator of Worth Mentioning. Fascinated both by games and the workings of the human mind, and ever seeking out the points where the two intersect. The subjectivity of games makes them a rorschac test of sorts that can often reveal something about the person playing them - and it's those introspective moments that make this medium so magical. Also a regular cast member on the Indie Haven Podcast, where he has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH CROWS, and his pattented Deep Thoughts take the listeners on a journey they'll never forget, no matter how frantically they scratch at their skulls trying to claw the memories out.

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  • Normally with artistic media, they are first judged/deconstructed on esthetic grounds. The question here is: is it good? Next you can talk about the scenario/experience. This is a secondary quality; already we recognize that the value of media is to entertain our own thoughts. This takes the form of variety of experiences. We seek out new experiences like some people seek out new foods (some don’t) or new sexual partners (some don’t) and new media (some don’t. Especially children are known for repeating the same media, over and over.)

    This secondary quality can sometimes be sentimental. Other times it is only intellectual. We generally frown on appeal to sentimentality. It’s seen as too easy, and scatter shot; as it effect depends on, as you say, the “Rorschach test.” Ultimately this is why this is secondary. The primary concern is still, is it good? Unfortunately for video games the refrain is too often: No, it’s emphatically NOT good.

    What I am trying to say is, that we don’t call songs, books or movies Rorschach tests–not in general–and so if games are “Rorschach tests,” then it must be because they are somehow second-rate media. Or that is to say, we cannot ask: “are they good?” Because they are not. So we instead feel a need to give undue weight to the second question.

    • Valentine

      I think the article has a point. After all when we critique art we talk about the aspects of it separately. For instance in movies we judge the screenplay, the camera work, the acting, the costume design etc. It’s the same with games – gameplay, plot, art, sound. However which of these will make or break a game for you is purely subjective. Being an animator I cannot play games with lazy animations, but do not care at all about frame rate, cause I grew up with a shitty pc. We all have our own memories and will react differently to the same things. Pixars “Ratatouille” did a very good job of illustrating that, now that I think about it, when the critic is blown away by the dish simply because it reminded him of his childhood 🙂

      • Josh Rivers

        You might be my favourite human being for making Anton Ego from Ratatouille work as a case study. You’ve single-handedly made this post worth writing 🙂

        Food criticism’s actually a really good example, as besides the obvious matters of personal preference there are even quite clearly defined biological factors like palate sensitivity and alergies that affect what you can pick up on or even eat at all. And liking food out of an association with certain memories does happen; there’s a certain coconut ice cream that I associate with the moment I finally spoke to my mother about how unhappy I was at univeristy, and as a result it’s developed a psychosomatic healing quality that undoubtedly affects my opinion of it. I think I remember from a neurology lecture that taste and smell are quite closely linked to memory, so that particular aspect might be true of food criticism more than most other forms of criticism.

        Food’s actually something of a passion of mine alongside video games, so I had to jump on that idea, if just briefly.

      • All of these things you describe can be (theoretically) objectively quantified. Critiquing is one thing, being moved because of sentimental life circumstances if very different. It’s truly subjective. No one person can embody all life experiences.

      • PS: (per “All of these things you describe”) what I mean to say is, art is supposed to be imparting new “life experiences” to us. Even if facsimile. To say that they are a “Rorschach Test” undercuts this primary function. To see something of yourself in a piece is not the point. The point is to see something that is not of yourself. (We don’t see animation or framerate, that’s the medium, not the message.)

        We should count video-games just like anything else. We shouldn’t grade them on a curve. That is discounting them.