Many moons ago, Jason Schreier penned an article in defence of videogame stories everywhere, admonishing the general criticism of their being of a typically low quality. Supposing the possibility that any given story might suit the palate of some hypothetical player, he argued that any quality perceived confers quality onto the game, presumably by virtue of this perception unveiling some innate characteristic within or interpretation of the story.
The debate that sparked soon died down and the topic of what constitutes a good story – or what constitutes a good anything in the context of human perception – evaporated back into our collective subconscious.
Since then, we have experienced the satire of Far Cry 3, themes of racism in BioShock Infinite, sexualized dismembered torsos mimicking Ancient Greek sculpture, the Mass Effect 3 debacle, declamations against Dragon Crown’s art style, morality in Dishonoured, and controversy ad nauseam. Although time and time again we have challenged each other’s interpretations of media, each time subjectivism has been utilized to defend anything in question and attempt the silencing of discussion – “I like it, so it’s ok.”
While epistemology is not the most popular subject in the field of games criticism, it is an inescapable component of how we examine every text around us. Through epistemology, discussions on videogames are introspections on our values, our very consciousness, on both an individual and social level.
Personally speaking, I love talking about videogames. I love to explore and express why a game made me feel a certain way, whether I was enrapt or disgusted or simply bored by the experience. As well as being vehicles for introspection, these critiques help us to filter out what makes a game wonderful or what makes it work. To determine if a critique is valid, what we seek are reasons for why we felt a certain way and whether our reasons are justified after extensive analysis. Naturally, this is the way all opinions are tested and validated.
Unfortunately, this runs counter to the broader subjectivist mindset that the quality of a story is more readily determined by someone who enjoyed it or through the knowledge that such a person exists. Videogame stories can neither be bad nor good – they are “just stories.” Something I disliked might be high cuisine for you. To condemn would be a belittlement of your experience, even if my reasons for doing so are arguably justified (e.g. hammy dialogue, racist connotations, etc).
It’s not so much that slotting a story into one of two categories – ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – ought to be avoided for fear of oversimplification, although that is a legitimate factor, but also that criticism of a story is dismissive of those who enjoyed it. Even aside from the subjectivity pickle, this is a contentious point. Slamming a game in a review and awarding it a low score can be belittling to the developers, so should we discourage honest reviews?
More to the point, not only is criticism damaging to other people, it is also made moot by one straightforward assertion: all that a story needs to be good is to be liked, reason be damned. All the trappings and trimmings – all the characteristics of a story – are of little importance in light of this metric.
This essentially forms the basis of the subjectivity defence of videogame stories. Quality is in the eye of the beholder; it is elusive and constantly undermined by the conflicting values and nay-saying of others. Sandwiched between his/her own limited experience and the disparate tastes of people everywhere, a critic could not possibly stake a claim against a story for fear of his/her opinion failing to be unanimous. At the very least, it would have to be prefaced by a disclaimer stating that the author’s opinion is no more insight than anybody else’s.
Cries of subjectivity are often brought up as refuge for a doddering opinion, validating the existence of an art style or claims of an opinion piece without needing to rely on such novelties as merit. “It’s just my opinion, I can’t be wrong” is considered a magic spell to ward away the dissent of an infinite also-can’t-be-wrong contradictions.
While it is true that statements of taste are subjective, these defensive appeals do little to question the nature of the values underlying any given opinion. Rather than opting to identify the underlying reasons and values, adhering to a broad and unknowing subjectivity merely serves to validate or dismiss these causal factors without due consideration. Stripped of the values that make judgements valuable, all opinions are indeed on equal standing, but only after having been reduced to flavourless assertions of taste.
But can personal values be compared, validated and debated according to their intrinsic worth? Consider it this way: there are many game mechanics of yesteryear that the vast majority of gamers are glad to leave behind, and many attributes we would love to see become further standardized (e.g. host migration, customizable button configs, save features that don’t glitch and corrupt your files). In every opinion we advance, our values are implicit – in arguing why a given mechanic is preferable, we argue in favour of the underlying values of accessibility, narrative connotation, and so forth.
These insights would never be shared if we were to refrain from exploring our values and pitting them against those of others. In examining what we feel recommends a game, we can come to recognize what constitutes our own personal appetites and what constitutes a generally accepted rule of thumb for the medium.
Through sharing our criticisms and debating their merits, we set about describing a consensus on what makes for a quality game. This becomes the recipe developers seek when creating sequels and new IPs. To declare that we ought not to condemn any particular story is tantamount to choking away the discussion of values. Appealing to subjectivity to automatically discredit or justify an opinion flies in the face of this introspection.
Veering more into the nitty-gritty of the epistemology, the assertion that opinions are subjective and thus cannot be incorrect – that is, that all opinions are inherently equal – stirs up an even meatier problem.
By adhering to the ethos of extreme subjectivity, one denies that opinions can have any basis in objective reality. Through its very nature, this is untenable. Opinions are not internally-derived constructs born in a vacuum. Rather, they are interpretations of objectively existing phenomena (in this case, videogames culture and industry) through the filter of objectively identifiable personal preferences – my feminism, your love for family, his politically-inspired racism, etc. In other words, they need objectively-existing ingredients which contribute towards their character.
We are all familiar with the idea of having an informed opinion. The analytics of a well-spoken critic of incisive reasoning is of greater worth than the ravings of a manic fanboy. Inflating and appealing to the variance of personal tastes as an absolution is a rejection of this.
Worse still is to shift what criticism is supposed to signify. By refocusing the characteristics of a critique back solely on the author, it becomes about him/her as opposed to what he/she is critiquing. Although opinions are telling of an author regardless, this method pushes that notion to deny that they are telling of their subject matter in any significant way. Along these lines, a review would be foremost autobiographical; any judgements are indicative of personal tastes, rather than the game itself. As per the old saying “you are what you eat,” a critique concocted from a lack of conviction will itself be unconvincing.
No matter how pleasant and comforting the idea seems, it is ultimately an unsustainable philosophy. The principle that a game’s quality can only be conferred by those who liked it mixes with sharp criticism as oil does with water.
That is not to say that subjectivity has no place in games criticism. On the contrary, subjectivity is a wonderful force that flows throughout our perceptions and opinions naturally. Just as inflating its importance is poisonous, it is self-defeating to repress our expressive spirits. Ultimately it is important to recognise in what ways our opinions are formed through intimate and incommunicable conditions and in what ways through game and narrative design.
Under no circumstance does this mean that anything a critic says ought to take precedence over somebody else’s personal experience – no matter how powerful the reasoning, nobody can contradict the fact of your love for a game. The existential infallibility of subjectivity, however, does not extend into games analysis – not without employing a rotten methodology, at least. And if there’s one thing I love more than a good meal, it’s good epistemology.