Music criticism/game criticism

So this was a really quite interesting essay (which I’ve come to quite late) by James Parker and Nicholas Croggon about music criticism, and I think it has interesting stuff to say to games criticism too. I’m thinking here about that piece by Anthony Burch recently that was very much a case of him retroactively rejecting much of his previous work as a game critic in light of his newly gleaned experiences as a game developer.

After reading this essay, what I feel like the really interesting point Burch could have approached was something like what Parker and Croggon get at – the fact that a lot of what passes for criticism at the moment really is just “human reactions” and this kind of adjective salad that results from this approach:

rather than confront the possible meaning or significance of the artist’s choice of sample (whether or not they know exactly what is being sampled) and address how that might impact our understanding of and relationship with the work, we get a flurry of adjectives. The music is “romantic,” “mesmerizing,” “intense,” and the unknown orchestral sample is an opening onto something “personal and momentous.”

It’s the “feelpinion” version of criticism – and though it sounds a bit pejorative, like the authors of the piece I’m uninterested in shutting this type of work down. It’s great and important and even awesome – it should not go away – it’s also not quite sufficient for a really well developed critical perspective. The conclusion that Parker and Corggon reach is that it takes real work to develop that insight and expertise, and I think the error that Burch made was thinking that it took literal work – making games. He was really quite horrified at how dismissive he had been as a games journalist and how much he underestimated the work that went into even seemingly small issues.

But how the sausage is made is not always important, or even relevant. Just like how we wouldn’t really care about whether the musician inserted the sample with Logic or Ableton – that’s not the important detail to focus on, and it’s actually fairly telling that the games industry (as embodied, partially, by Burch) still cares a great deal more about how the “sample” is inserted than what that sample says or its history and place within a larger history and trajectory of games/music/etc.

But I also don’t know what forms of knowledge and experience, exactly, about games (or about players? game culture? developer culture? all of these things?) is important for a critic. I’ve read some really fucking great pieces that do design analyses and intensely detailed breakdowns of certain game mechanics that go nowhere near the development process, but which do really, really illuminating work to get closer to the heart of the game-object without obsessing over the utterly boring (yet downright impressive) technology. I’ve also attempted my own Latourian thick description style analysis with limited success. Frankly, I mostly couldn’t care less about how a game is made, unless it’s under conditions of exploitation.

The necessary caveat, of course, is that design thinking goes into the development process (or should) and that might be worth knowing about, but again that’s not the same as letting your knowledge of the very human, and very sympathisable, difficulty of just making games dull your critical faculties. Yes, making games is hard, but if you don’t like the conditions, change them, or do something else.

Digraaaaaaah

So DiGRAA – the Australian chapter of the intl. Game Studies research organisation held its first conference on Tuesday. I presented a paper based on some stuff I’ve been working on on the side of thesis, and which everyone had good things to say about. I’ll try and work that stuff into a proper paper soon as my thesis is done in July (fingers crossed) and maybe I’ll try turning the paper version into a video essay too. I think it’ll work well in that format.

But I was also on a panel to talk about the stuff I did with Critical Distance, which seemed pretty popular too. I met Scott Knight from Bond University who mentioned that a ton of his students read Critical Distance when doing games writing/research/work, so that was a nice surprise. The panel was recorded thanks to Maize Wallin of Glitchmark. Thank to Dan Golding for organising and inviting me to speak.

gdc aftermath

if someone asked me right now and forced me to answer honestly, “will you miss gdc?” i would have to answer “not especially.” this is not because it wasnt good or great or amazing – it certainly was all those things at times for me. and its not because i wont miss the people, because i will. instead its because i cannot really have normal human responses right now. as ive mentioned to a couple of people, i am just so completely overwhelmed and overshadowed by the entire thesis object, which looms over and above me, blocking out all the light and any ability to see and live normally. i have been living with it, in this final interstitial “finishing” phase, for over a year now and it has restricted my ability to anticipate and enjoy anything fully. its a terrifying gradual process and i had no idea what i was getting into when i started… i had no idea this was going to be the result. I cant even imagine how long or what it will take to get me back to being me again. such is its force that it prevents me from envisioning credibly anything post-phd… maybe it will only take a day, or a week, from handing it in. whatever, dont go having any strong feelings about my situation either, its no ones fault but mine and its not the end of the world… its just a numbing, a deadening of the sensory responses by the always present knowledge that it’s not yet done. it literally sucks all my ability for anticipation because i literally want nothing else more than for it to be done. but that want is not a fiery want, its more like a smouldering coal fire, deep underground that changes the geological makeup of the local environment. there might not be much felt heat or smoke, but its there… underground… waiting… working…

also theres something a bit disenchanting about being at GDC without having done anything really vital in the scene for so long. i didnt really have anything to tell people about or discuss excitedly. im not making a game, not reviewing games, not even critiquing games, barely even publishing about games… its fine, im pivoting, but its weird. its always been weird. who the hell am i in games anyway? who was i and who will i be? are these questions even worth asking? …

shoutouts to some amazing people this week who managed to penetrate even my soporific stupor: richard lemarchand who literally brings tears to my eyes when i think about him sometimes. harry lee who provokes similar feelings and admiration. my friend brendan keogh who is basically a rock of a human being, does anything upset that man? who can say. michael abbott who is a fucking rock star. laura parker who is completely and utterly fearless and charming. kris ligman who deserves a better world than this one.

shout outs to everyone i hung out with and shout-outs to all the other really cool people who i didnt get to spend as much time as i would have liked to, too many to name, too many to note.