Pretentious Game Analysis in a Nutshell

Is Extra Credits any good? They seem pretentious and intellectually dishonest and very anti consumer to me :/
I don’t think Extra Credits knows what they’re talking about even remotely. All their videos come off as them giving a cursory glance to the topic, then rattling off about the first thing to come to mind rather than actually researching, investigating or thinking about legitimate solutions or improvements on anything they talk about.

A fairly recent example was the Randomness in Esports video. This just struck me as all kinds of ignorant and basic. Essentially they say that the solution to random numbers is to play more rounds (like happens in a round robin tournament) so that the random factors get averaged out via the law of large numbers. This is like, the most obvious solution to random numbers in a game ever, but it means you have to play a fuckton more rounds, and you still have these uncontrollable numbers interfering with everything. It means that each individual round is much less valuable in determining a player’s skill level. Daigo once remarked on working in a mahjong parlor that it was difficult to tell how good a player was from a single game, but if you play someone a single round in street fighter, you’ll instantly have an idea how good they are.

Not to mention that their bias towards story as a design element is massive. They generally get story things right, but if they ever try to talk about interactive elements they’re bound to be massively off the mark unless they’re working directly from someone else. They’re not viewing games as interactive systems of statistically varied outcomes that players think they are in control of and attempt to manipulate to more consistently produce favorable results. They think of games as an interactive means of modeling a log of narrative events, either pre-hoc or post-hoc. They’re not interested in the process of improvement in a game as an enjoyable exercise, they’re interested in it as an “experience”, “memory”, or “story”. Conflict as it exists in games is a mirror to conflict as it exists in narrative for them, and they care more about the conflict fitting the “theme” than whether the conflict has an intrinsic interest.

I like to cite how David Sirlin had to call them out on their “perfect imbalance” episode because of how ridiculously dumb it was. Not to mention that they called Chess balanced, which is just lol. Did they not google, “chess balance” at all? It tells you about the first move advantage as the first result from Wikipedia.

Extra Credits either treats their viewerbase like morons by giving them dumb coverage of topics or they themselves are morons. I literally don’t know what they’d do if they came up to a game like Puzzle Strike by David Sirlin that poorly fits the theme it’s trying to evoke or ever dealt with anything related to speedrunning, which frequently makes a total mockery of narrative by playing events out of order, and treating the world as an abstract system.

Even though gameplay should be the number 1 focus when developing a game, why do some developers and game critics like Extra Credits and Errant Signal believe that story should be the most important element?

I only have guesses. I don’t think that they explicitly think that story should be the most important element. I think that they inevitably end up focusing on story because of the lens they view games through and the history of other artistic media. We have really well developed theories for film and literature from hundreds of years of criticism and attempts to refine what we have. Games escaped that type of criticism and seem to be more or less products of circumstance, copying what successes prior games had, and loosely attempting to transcribe a theme into game mechanics.

So a natural angle for many people to come at games is to see them as a developing burgeoning medium that after 8 generations of consoles has come from simple inexpressive games to complex masterpieces. The view is that games have gotten better over time, rather than us having more or less the same amount of knowledge about how to design a game now as we did back then. With the development of games came the increasing opinion that games should be taken seriously as an art form.

Typical pop culture conceptions of artistic critique in other mediums revolve around the meaning of the work. They’re not very formalistic, regarding the work more as the author’s message and the meaning that can be interpreted through the work, as well as its historical significance, or how it might represent the environment it was created in. The critical theory of film and literature tend to be among the more formalistic conceptions of art criticism that we currently have in popular culture. Even laypeople have a base level of understanding of how film or literary criticism goes, the way narratives use elements to represent themes and influence people as well as create a rich and understandable world.

So shows like Errant Signal and Extra Credits rip from traditional literary understandings of works, which are well documented and easily understood by culture in general. It’s kind of just the natural road to go. People who are more into literary things tend to be better writers and write more, and you don’t tend to get many of the Seth Killian, Mike Z, or Sirlin types on the other end who can clearly express what’s going on in a game well enough to extrapolate it into a theory for how the game is constructed and how others could be constructed to reproduce favorable results. We get a lot of good game designs by accident, circumstance, or trial by fire, the last being primarily in the case of multiplayer games where the game designers need to make the whole thing work, and care beyond a casual level. Some more limited examples are arcade games like shoot em ups, run & guns, and a lot of what ended up on the NES, as well as Fighting games. It’s very interesting and improbable that first person shooters came out of the environment they did, so that’s a bit of an anomaly. I can say that Id software definitely knew what they were doing, their design documents reflect it

Why are their people that are over analyzing games like Tetris and Mario? And what I mean by this is that these “gamers” see every game as a political, social and/or philosophical commentary on the human condition

The way I see it, it’s a cry for legitimacy in the way that people are societally conditioned to perceive something as legitimate. Literary and art criticism as practiced in most schools and colleges isn’t taught as a means of actually criticizing the methods of production for a work. Most literary criticism that I was exposed to in my time in school was about trying to interpret what the author meant by something. The concept of Death of the Author has the side effect of inviting this type of criticism even if the author didn’t originally mean anything, because the idea is to find a personal meaning that you can take with you because that has an inherent value. With my Metal Gear Rising video, I honestly was doing that a bit, which I was open about when I published it. Some of it was a meaning that I found to have an inherent value, not necessarily something mirrored by the game’s creators.

Art criticism to someone outside the actual arts has a certain stereotypical appearance. I’m sure you can picture the stereotype of an art critic, babbling nonsensical jargon and applying weird words to describe the “artness” of a particular piece. The film, Art School Confidential, is more or less built on the conflict between someone who wants to draw well versus a lot of the stereotypical type of bullshit that people looking from the outside in on the art world tend to imagine. The thing is, a lot of people do actually conform to that stereotype and think that the vaguely pretentious means of analyzing a text they were taught in high school is more or less the correct lens for looking at artwork and I’ll admit that there are some merits in their perspective, I have more a problem that art criticism based on analysis of the piece’s contents and with the aim of improving the craft rather than the meaning of the piece is kind of overlooked by most. I hold to the idea that a painting might have a horrible clumsy hamfisted message, or none at all, but may look absolutely beautiful.

I think that within the games sphere, that most people are coming at the criticism and craft angle from that perspective rather than a perspective of the working methods of the artists working on these games. When’s the last time you heard someone commentate on the use of GI in a scene, much like the various game art tricks detailed on this page ? Where is the commentary on game design in a similar fashion to this?

What do you think causes people who don’t actually care about games as an art form to become all “games are art”-y?

The ability of computer programs to tell a story through the same type of visual language as film with realtime graphical rendering has increased over time. We have cutscenes now, we have way more storage space for music, writing, and voice acting. The apparent trend is that we’ve seen a medium blossom into something that can support art. My stance is, we’re looking at the wrong medium.

These same people wouldn’t say that chess is art, or american football is art. Such a classification would probably seem absurd to them. It doesn’t occur to anyone to call these things art.

The thing is, these aren’t seen as the same medium as video games. Video games are seen as a new media art form, not an expansion of the existing art form of games. We have a weird overlapping ontology of games, as facilitated by digital rather than analog devices, and digital spatial simulations. Almost any form of media, any system that can produce inconsistent results, or media that can provide feedback about the system, can be integrated into games, where digital spatial simulations are a very specific thing that doesn’t necessarily include games. We never invented a word for digital spatial simulations, or digital entertainment in general, so the word games is typically taken to mean the same thing.

I had a funny run-in with a community totally outside games not accepting this more broad definition of game recently on Radiolab, a podcast I listen to. They did an episode on That Dragon, Cancer. The comments of the episode had a bunch of people asking if this was really a game, or putting “game” in scare quotes.

Simply put, those people care about digital spatial simulations developing artistically to match the depth of narrative found in cinema and literature. Those people have already seen the evolution of digital rendering, and taken that very real development to mean development of the media of digital spatial simulations, but they think the artistic potential of digital spatial simulations is held back by their relation to games, which require sacrifices in the form of abstraction (which to be fair, the interactive portion of digital spatial simulations also do).

They don’t see games as art, so they have no problem trampling on it in the name of furthering digital spacial sims. This is understandable, because the difference in media here is really subtle, and people aren’t recognizing that there are two mediums going through a renaissance here, not one.

4 thoughts on “Pretentious Game Analysis in a Nutshell

  1. asadlinguist June 8, 2017 / 4:47 am

    Wow, there’s comment here. That was enlightening, and I mean all the articles within and this article as well. Thanks.


    • Chris Wagar June 8, 2017 / 5:13 am

      Surprising considering it’s one of the most popular posts on the entire blog. You’re welcome.


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