Rethinking Games Criticism – Preface (Book Excerpt)

December 1st, 2012

Below is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Rethinking Games Criticism: An Analysis of Wario Land 4. When it comes to matters of politics, I hold strong views. I wrote Rethinking Games Criticism as a radical assertion of my thoughts regarding video games and games criticism. Everything in the book—from the choice of game, direct writing style, minimal subjectivity, radical extent of the analysis, and lack of excess—is a reflection of my world view, although it’s only in the preface that I state my intents outright. The rest of the book is pure game design analysis. I’ve spent two years trying to get it right, and reading over some of the final copy, I feel like I’ve finally achieved what I originally set out to do. With such a strong ideological basis for the book, I decided that it’d be best if I shared the preface first.

As for the release of the book, I’m currently in talks with several publishers, but haven’t confirmed anything concrete at this stage. I still need to finish double checking the final copy for punctuation errors, but aside from that everything’s done. Stay tuned for future updates and let me know what you think of the preface in the comments.

All writers are liars. You know that though, don’t you? That’s what you learnt at high school when your teacher forced you to write those essays on some book you didn’t care about and some theme seemingly unrelated to it. We write books about one thing, only to talk about something else. I too must confess to such two-faceness. And as is the tradition with prefaces, I shall now self-indulgently reveal the lie before you’ve had a chance to read the book and realise it for yourself.

This book is not, as the title suggests, an analysis of Wario Land 4. Rather, it is a critique of contemporary games writing, in particular the broadly-defined games criticism. I evaluate games criticism through the proposition of games analysis, a new type of games writing which seeks to improve the art and science of video games through clear language, authoritative evidence, and a focus on interactivity. Rethinking Games Criticism is an example of games analysis brought to its logical conclusion: a piece of writing which thoroughly explains the workings of an entire game. Everything from mechanics to engagement to level design is covered. Without trying to sound arrogant, I would contest that there has never been a deeper, more comprehensive piece of writing ever written about a video game.

This is not to condemn games criticism nor discourage those engaged in thoughtful games discussion (it is, after all, for you guys that I wrote this book), however, while there are some genuinely excellent pieces of writing out there, games criticism certainly has a few issues in its current form*. Thus, it is my intent to use games analysis as a means to improve the state of games criticism. I don’t see games analysis as a replacement for games criticism, but rather as an important subset of the broader discussion. What sets game analysis apart from other forms of games writing is that it acknowledges the following three points.

*Game designer, Dan Cook, succinctly covered many of these problems in his essay, A blunt critique of games criticism. I would recommend reading his article to further understand some of the issues this book attempts to address.

#1 Games are Complicated

Video games are sophisticated systems of rules which employ the expertise of art, maths, science, architecture, literature, psychology, and cinematography, just to name a few. The book, over 450 pages of critical analysis on what many would consider a relatively simple game, more than validates this point. The complicated, interdisciplinary nature of video games makes talking about them with any authority quite difficult.

#2 Thus, A Clear Language is Needed to Critically Discuss Them

Some games writers speak of this magical day when the language needed to critically discuss video games will appear out of thin air and they’ll finally be able to talk about the medium with real depth. While these people are off daydreaming, others have been hard at work making such language a reality. Tadhg Kelly’s What Games Are is one such example. For this book, I’ve used the work of Richard Terrell. Richard runs the Critical Gaming blog and for the past 5 years has been developing a critical vocabulary in which to understand games. His Critical Glossary contains more than 450 terms and is backed up with thousands of pages dedicated to theory and examples from popular games. If you’re interested enough in games to buy this book, then Richard’s blog should immediately strike you as profound. I urge you to take a look before digging into the main analysis.

#3 No Evidence, No Authority

The most confounding and inexcusable aspect of games criticism, and games writing in general, is the lack of evidence to support a writer’s claims. Without evidence there is only opinion, and if there’s anything we’ve learnt from the internet, it’s that anyone can, and does, have an opinion. Evidence grants authority. It proves that the writer isn’t just spouting out ideas, but has a considered and balanced argument. In the very least, it shows the reader how the writer came to form their opinion. In fairness, many writers do provide some form of evidence in their writing, but it’s often vague, insufficient, or never properly scrutinised. Saying that game X is boring because levels Y and Z are poorly designed doesn’t tell the reader how levels Y and Z are poorly designed or how two poorly designed levels can make an entire game boring, never mind what “boring” means. The more extensive the evidence and thorough the explanation of the connection between the evidence and the argument, the more credible the article.

(This is why FAQ writers and Let’s Players have a leg up over game critics. FAQ writers because they’ve already written extensively about the game system, and therefore have it all mapped out in their head. Let’s Players because they have the evidence right in front of them, which makes it easy to shoot off a quick observation in context).

When evidence is utterly void, the only way to grab reader interest is to inflate opinion. Thus, we see posts with titles like “Is Zelda Skyward Sword the worst game in the series?”, backed up with a few paragraphs of fashionable ignorance. Forget about looking at the dungeons, inventory, story, or game structure.

In Rethinking Games Criticism all assertions are backed up with evidence and detailed explanations. My opinions are downplayed to the point that I don’t even reveal if I like Wario Land 4 or not. The goal is to interpret the game for what it is; not to talk about my feelings. I’ve chosen this super objective approach so that the book acts as a polarising alternative to the over-abundance of opinion out there. I want the nuances of the game design to set the agenda, because it’s these details that define the game.

Of all the games one could write a book about, don’t you find it a little odd that I chose Wario Land 4? I could have written about a Bioshock or an Uncharted. Instead, I chose a simple game with a child-friendly veneer released more than 11 years ago on a portable platform—talk about irrelevant! This decision was intentional. Along with making a case for games analysis, I also want to challenge three aspects of the game enthusiast community:

So there you have it: my ulterior motive is revealed and you’re free to press on to the first chapter. One final word though. I’ve spent the past 2 years cramming every bit of observation and insight into this book. This will make it a challenging read at times, but I encourage you to stick with it. By the end, I’m sure that you’ll have grown your understanding of game design and be able to further appreciate the level of craftsmanship that goes into these wonderful, interactive works of art.

Daniel Johnson

  • Spoiler: He loves Wario Land 4.

    Awesome stuff Dan. Really keen to read your book. This excerpt is evidence that your book should be an interesting read.

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  • ArkhamJester

    I’m particularly interested in what you have to say about portables and games that emphasise ideas over interactivity. Also I have to say looking over some of your articles i’m really happy to find someone else that has some darn enthusiaism for portables. Also I’m probably missing this but where can we read that first chapter?

  • Yeah, portable consoles seem to get an unfair wrap, even though in recent years the DS has easily had the best software line up of all the systems. There are enough great games on that machine to keep one busy for a lifetime.

    As for games that stress ideas over gameplay. I think you’ll enjoy this series of posts by my friend Richard Terrell:

    Regarding the first chapter, you’ll have to wait until the book is published later in the year. Stay tuned to the blog for updates.

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  • Joe Rothenberg

    I’ve been replaying my old Wario games recently, and when I got to Wario Land 4 I revisited your articles on this site to enrich my game experience as I played. Anyone can tell WL4 is fun, but it’s much more enjoyable when you know WHY it’s fun. I am an indie game developer and these ideas are helping me design better games. Very much looking forward to the book.

  • Glad to hear it. You should be hearing more about the book’s release in the next week or so.