Critically Critical

Hello! We’re back on schedule this time! Who saw that coming? Apparently, you did, because here you are, all polished and shiny. Or maybe that’s just my new keyboard. Sorry, I spend so much time with this thing that it’s kind of a big deal to me. It also means that I won’t have to use my mechanical keyboard for everything (as much as I love it to bits and bytes), so I’ll be able to stream and letsplay previously unplayable games. Anyone that’s watched any of my old series will know what I’m talking about. Before I went full gamepad, it was pretty clacky on the “Trivial Punk Fun-time Roughly 30 Minutes.” Now, you’ll get to see what you’ve always wanted: me playing Half-Life. No, I don’t know, but I’m excited to get started.

In the meantime, here’s part 2 of the Silent Hill: Homecoming letsplay that’s up and running on my channel. I hope that it engenders a little love towards me, because we’re going to approach another topic that I want to get out of the way before I get back to game reviews. I know, I should just do both. Maybe I will! I’m not the boss of me! Oh… er… anyways, this came up because I had a pretty obnoxious conversation over dinner last night with an associate of a friend of mine. Vague association, I know, but let’s continue on to the actual topic: Criticism.

I know that a substantial portion of the people who come here to feast on the mind-worms that droop from my slackened, pit-marked skull once a week are game critics. Or movie critics. Or book critics. A lot of the reason for that is that criticism is one of the things I enjoy, so I spend time reading about other people’s perspectives quite a bit. It’s good for me to see something through someone else’s eyes. Sometimes, it can completely change my view of something. Thus, it only makes sense, based on the laws of collision that I just made up, that critics are who I would meet on-line. Love the work, keep it up! This isn’t directed at anyone in particular, but I felt that in the age of Internet Criticism, we should discuss why and how we critique things.

Now, this is going to be a pretty big discussion. Obviously, a lot of the meat of critique is personal and subjective, so I can’t make sweeping generalizations and expect to do any good. Even though I probably will end up doing so, human weakness and all, I want to try to be as fair as I can. In the spirit of that commitment, I’m going to be honest: this is going to be 100% subjective. There are the things I’m personally tired of reading, like “B sucked because it didn’t A,”  but that doesn’t mean they should be abandoned. It’s complicated, because the road to that example conclusion is a legitimate way to interrogate a work. From my point of view, the crucial element is when the technique is employed. Let’s dive in and I’ll show you what I mean.

Let’s get this out of the way first: no one will ever be truly objective. (Not “can”: “will.”) It’s simply impossible. Which is too bad, because it would make criticism that much easier. Every experience a person has is influenced by all their previous experiences, how they’re approaching the present, whether they’re hungry or not, how many times they’ve experienced something… Let me give you a for instance. I loved most of The Lord of the Rings the first time I saw it. It was truly awe-inspiring. However, I felt that same way when I watched Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace. Did you hear that? It was the sound of a hundred collectively gasped breaths, followed by a slow, deliberate move to the unsubscribe button, but hear me out.

When I first watched SWE1, I was eleven years old and, while I was a huge fan of the original trilogy, I wasn’t committed to the integrity of the Star Wars universe. I watched it with my Dad, which was kind of a special treat, because it was something we could both enjoy. I saw it in the theatres, and I wasn’t immersed in the internet culture that so derides the trilogy we whinge about today. And, let’s be honest, the first movie wasn’t as bad as we think it is today. It was fun, exciting and had Jedi, so I really enjoyed it. If I had put together my review then, it would have been a glowing recommendation written about as well as a Engrish translation.

What about The Lord of the Rings? Well, by the time I watched those movies, I was a little bit older and pretty committed to being a pop-culture junky. I had almost the same reaction to it, because the circumstances were pretty similar for what I was expecting from a movie at that point. Hell, JRR’s The Hobbit was one of the first books I ever read. Even so, I still spent a good deal of the movie comparing it to the book. It’s a pretty common practice now, and, having grown up doing it, it’s one of my least favourite past-times. Don’t get me wrong, I love the movie, but it didn’t have Tom Bombadil in it, and that’s what I wanted to see the most. Kind of soured the thing for me a bit. Eventually, I got over that and saw it for the good movie it was.

Until… years later, I’m sprawled on the couch, half-and-half vodka-coke in one hand, hangover threatening to pound its way through the booze wall I’m hastily erecting, memories of my recently lost girlfriend drifting through my head… Naturally, I put on a movie to distract me. That movie was… you guessed it… The Fellowship of the Ring. And I HATED it. It was too long, over-written, stuffy, pretentious, needless, unrealistic, unfaithful to the source material and a bunch of other mean things. Legolas was a pretentious jerk; Gimli was an annoying bag of hair that should have died too many times to count. You get it. I believe none of those things, but if I had written a review right then, I would have said it was terrible. Ironically enough, one of the reasons I didn’t enjoy it was that I’d loved it enough to have watched it too many times.

See what I mean? I chose an extreme case because I wanted to illustrate it as clearly as I could, but this occurs to a greater or lesser extent all the time. And it’s quite alright. I’m not saying we shouldn’t hate on movies, games or books. That would be silly and unrealistic. It can be a lot of fun to make light of the things we enjoy or hate. After all, we spent money to experience them, and they have a pretty big impact on our society. If that’s what someone wants to do, then I’m totally behind them (unarmed, even). But, I would suggest that we always ask “why.” I’ll illustrate with the conversation I had last night.

The basics of it were that Starship Troopers, a campy poke at Fascism and the military melded with over-the-top drama and action, was not like the book. Also, my associate thought it was a bad movie. Okay, that’s a legitimate opinion, but why is it important that the movie be like the book? Could a movie ever be exactly like a book and still be a good movie? You can capture the essence of something, but why does that mean we need to follow along blindly behind it? (SST Irony) Ideas can be used as vehicles for other ideas, after all. And they really should be, because some things just aren’t as relevant to popular culture as they once were. Or maybe we want to deconstruct them with a goofy movie. Basically, why is A movie THIS movie, and why do we want it to be a different movie? I could go on…

There are a lot of “whys” there, and I’m not going to go through all of them or we’d be here all night, but I will address the most important question I would ask: why are we proffering this criticism? I’m not saying that rhetorically; I’m asking what the end-goal of the criticism is. That’s a pretty essential question to answer, because it informs everything you do with your critique. It’s not something you can answer once, either. You have to know, going in, what you want to communicate for every critique. For instance, last night’s conversation would probably be akin to arguing personal movie preferences, because neither of us managed to have our opinions altered. We weren’t calmly discussing the merits of the movie; we were arguing over whether or not it was good based on our personal preferences. All well and good, but does that help anyone else? Only if you can explain yourself and provide a recommendation.

You see, to me, a personal preference review is one that’s helpful to people who are familiar with your preferences or, and this is optimal, someone who shares your preferences. That way you can provide helpful advice for anyone interested in that piece of cultural ephemera. But it probably wouldn’t be helpful to anyone actually making the film. On the creation side of things, you’re familiar with the fact that not everyone will like your film. You don’t make your films for everyone, and you’re aware of the diversity of opinion. I mean, you could try making movies for everyone, but then people just complain that they’re bland, which kind of defeats the purpose if there’s a large group that doesn’t like them. (Still, it might make a lot of money)

Thus, a lot of the time, the why you’re reviewing something comes down to who you’re reviewing it for. On this site, I try to peer into gameplay mechanics, poke at playability, flirt with experience and languor in story. All so you can decide if you want to buy it or not. Also, a part of me wants to influence how you look at games and movies. When I wrote my review for The Hobbit: TDoS, I did it because I loved the movie, yes, but also because I knew some people might get taken aback by some things if they went in expecting the book. Essentially, I wanted to help craft the mind-set you went into the movie with. Mind-set is a big part of getting everything you can out of a movie. You don’t want to watch an arty foreign-language film at a kegger (or maybe, hmm…) and you don’t want to watch LotR sprawled on the couch with a life hangover. (Still…) I vehemently believe that personal context matters.

At the same time, I occasionally focus on portions of a game that I felt affected the overall quality. Maybe there’s a setting I think would improve an experience or a level that I think could be better. At that point, I’m trying to get other designers, players and producers to think about if it could be improved, my recommendations be damned. Or, maybe I’ll do a review strictly to make a point, like I did with Super Hexagon and learning curves.

One thing I will never do is seriously denigrate the things I purport to love. I’ll always poke fun at EA, but I’m glad they’re around to draw capital and attention to gaming, and I genuinely enjoyed Dead Space. I didn’t like the second Star Wars prequel, so I didn’t watch the third one. I didn’t need to show up to hate it. And that’s what made last night’s conversation so needlessly obnoxious: “Okay, we’ve said our pieces about the film. Now what?” I’ve seen people work for hours to prove that something was bad, but what does that accomplish if that’s the end of it? Last-night-dude seemed hell-bent on convincing me that SST was a bad film, but all he did was convince me that he didn’t like it. It’s not just him, either. I’ve done it. I see it all the time on-line. We’re stating our opinions, and that’s great, but I think we should draw the line at trying to suck the fun out of it for other people. That’s not a critique, after all. Oh dear, did I not mention? I don’t believe that A critique = A review, but they’ve got a lot of things in common, so I figured I’d leave this segue here.

A critique is like a nuanced review. It takes into account past cultural incarnations (Read: prequels), current trends, multiple preferences, multiples perspectives, historical relevance, contemporary relevance… It basically situates the cultural artefact (Ex. movie) within its context and approaches it on its terms. Then, it discusses what all of that implies to us. It’s done to help the producers of the work to improve, the consumers of it to appreciate it and the critic of it to develop their abilities further. Again, that’s just my opinion, and we’re into semantics here, but that’s what I believe to be the purpose of a comprehensive critique. But, it’s not like every critic has all that background knowledge, especially starting out, or all that much room. I’ve seen some pretty poignant review Tweets, after all. And you don’t have to know or do all this to be a critic. The only reason I bring it up is because I believe it’s what we should shoot for when really diving into a piece of pop-culture.

To me, you should always approach something on its own terms; it really improves the experience. Because I have to approach many different types of popular culture, I’m not familiar with all of them, and I don’t always appreciate them off the bat. However, at some point along the way, I realized that I would never learn to enjoy new things if I always judged them by the standards I already had. I would always data-feed myself things I liked, narrowing my preferences further, until I couldn’t see anyone else’s opinions through my own miasma. I would believe something for so long that I’d begin to think it was true. If I didn’t try, if I didn’t work to cultivate different perspectives, I wouldn’t be much use to you today.

That’s kind of the heart of it. The standards by which we judge things are our own, and if we truly want to criticize something on its own merits, then we need to be aware of how those standards are formed and what they communicate. Just whinging about something doesn’t really forward the cause of improving its overall quality, unless we’re talking about affecting viewing figures and preferences. In which case, complaining about Michael Bay films hasn’t done much to affect their revenue. If someone hates those films, then maybe they’re not for them. I hated Transformers the first time, because it was a fandom movie made for someone other than the fandom. They knew the fandom would already come, so they made the film to appeal to everyone else, so they could get their business, as well. When I approach it with that in mind and a pint of beer, then it’s really not so bad. It’s the same way I watch Elementary on television and just pretend it’s a detective show about a guy who just happens to be named Sherlock Holmes. (If anyone’s a poster-child for the changes wrought by contemporary relevance, it’s Sherlock Holmes… or vampires)

More and more of us are flocking to the internet to give our opinions on movies, games and books, and I think that’s wonderful (That’s why I’m here, after all). A culture of criticism can really do some good, especially if we can add something to the reader’s experience. However, I think we should be extra aware of why we’re personally critiquing something and what we hope to communicate about it. After all, we’re going to be leaving these Tubes to the next wave of critical thinkers someday, and they’ll be looking to us to figure out how to approach criticism. For my piece, I want to leave them a tradition that’s positive and thoughtful. Cheers!

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