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The Video Game Is You: An Approach to Video Game Criticism

When two systems cross paths, a choice must be made. This is universally true. The conduit of this choice is, of course, you. When you wake up in the morning and the digestive system of your body crosses its path with the food ecology of your kitchen, you choose. You choose what to eat, you choose how to eat it. Or maybe you choose not to eat at all. The point is, you choose. Now consider that this whole scenario is not your life, but a simulation, and a simulation designed to turn you into something different than what you are, to force you to make choices that you otherwise wouldn’t have to make. That’s a video game.

A video game is a new you, caught in a web of choice which is a deliberate design meant to create something more than a feeling, or a story, or even a set of goals. The aesthetic design of a video game is, above all else, the becoming of the new you, a constant state of flux made by a game and its designers.

Like computer programs, then, video games are ciphers for choice and user input, but there lies a fundamental difference that makes one artistic and one not – video games are designed to change you, to project you into a different state of being. Were they just a computer program, you would stay you. Your choices would be simple because they would be yours. In a game, your choices belong to the thing you are meant to become. Decision design, or the web of systems meant to force choice, is the vehicle of your becoming. This aesthetic of becoming, then, is what we judge when we decide if a video game “works.” We judge this process. We state how we feel about what we’ve become. We decide if we like it. We decide why we like it, or why we don’t. We decide why it’s interesting.

Take the battle royale genre as an example. Like a typical shooter game, you are firstly tasked with combining aiming and running systems together to accomplish some minor competence on the battlefield. But unlike typical shooters, the overarching ruleset is changed and, as a result, forces you to change too. Instead of comparing your success against a scoreboard every time you die and respawn, the driving goal to retain your single life against 100 or so competitors fundamentally alters how you act and who you’re trying to become. The ideal competitor in this scenario is different than before. The aesthetic statement, in this case, is not how these games look, or even how they behave as programs, but how you behave within those programs. Every single element of the game layered onto that base ruleset is a deliberate alteration to this elaborate pinball machine that ultimately bounces you around until you’re forced into a particular way of acting, of even thinking. You are the game’s most important creation. Now, on top of being a killer and a competitor, you’re a survivor, a scavenger, a planner, basically a walking existential crisis with a gun. That’s one hell of a statement for something we’d call a game.

Within this new overarching genre, we can evaluate how alterations to its construction, minor and major alike, necessarily set players down separate paths of becoming. In “Fortnite,” you aren’t just a survivor, a scavenger, and a shooter, but a builder and fashionista too, driven by the game’s unique implementation of its systems. You are forever anticipating the unique structure of a game as you try to survive it, or win it, or end it, or whatever the game tells you to do. But within these rules, the choices you get to make to navigate constantly moving, interlocking systems are exactly what make your growth into its design possible. You aren’t just embodying a role, but learning to embody it as best you can, as games delay your full embodiment through difficulty, grinding, competition, a prolonged story, or what have you. No matter how many options a game may seem to have, the collaboration of its systems creates a finitely possible space for personalized interpretation. This space is the game’s thesis statement.

But this type of judgment can be lost in the minutia of its parts, because, simply put, it’s easier to judge the parts over the whole, especially when those parts seem more important than they really are.

A dangerous assumption, when thinking of games as systems of systems, is that certain components of the machine remain sacred to the vortex of player input. Game narrative is one such privileged component, which is assumed to perform heavy lifting in the aspect of a game’s art. But if our aesthetic is that of becoming, rather than simple observation and judgment, as we do with film, books, and so on, then narrative plays a different, subservient role. It, too, is one of many systems in the meaning-making web of a game, performing thematic layering and contextualization of one’s actions. This is in direct contrast to how we read, for instance, Naughty Dog games like “Uncharted” or “The Last of Us,” which present themselves as interactive funnels to some fantastic cinematic storytelling, begging the tools of film criticism with which to be judged. When taken as a whole, though, these games do little to alter a decade’s long tradition of AAA structuring that provide no more or less a reason for one’s actions than to continue a tale – that’s how we depict heroism and adventure in games, going from one cinematic act to another.

Contrast that with “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” which deigned to re-center Link and the player in a new web of meaning-making over an open-world, masterfully guiding the player through a new web of systems, and you can see how innovation occurs across games. Link transformed from a typical hero to something of a wanderer beyond just his usual side-questing. Coming into this role over the course of the game felt ponderous and even lonely at times, but compelling nonetheless. It’s not in the stories we tell, and not even in how we tell them. Rather, it’s in where the story fits into the rest of the puzzle, if it’s even there at all, and how the puzzle is changed by that fitting. “Breath of the Wild” was accused of delivering a barely-there story, and yet the game resonates nonetheless. An evaluation of how that happened can only be systemic, and might even lead you to conclude that the relative vacancy of “Breath of the Wild’s” story was necessary to its overarching systemic effect.

This isn’t to say that the art or music or story of a game is inconsequential. They’re equally consequential to everything else, and changing how a game looks or sounds can change how you interpret your role in it. The upcoming “Yoshi’s Crafted World” is clearly an attempt to reinvigorate an old structure with a new look. A critic’s job would be to evaluate if your actions really feel any different as a result.

Looking at games this way certainly tells us why the most recent battle royale entry, “Apex Legends,” succeeds where others failed. Having surpassed the standard-bearer for functionality in the battle royale genre, just as “Fortnite” and “Call of Duty: Black Ops 4” did to put “Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds” on notice, “Apex Legends” needed to do more than exist well-enough to get people’s attention. So while we can point to the feel of the guns or the satisfaction of the movement system as compelling enough, those refinements do nothing to change the role that you become as you ingratiate yourself with the game. What we really need to do is dig into the wider, yet subtler, systems players find themselves crossing into over their familiar winner-take-all processions, and evaluate how the player changes as a result.

Chief among “Apex Legends’” innovations is an automated communication system that, despite the presence of human teammates, allows the game to function closer to a single-player experience. A context-sensitive “ping” button, which in other games would just mark a location on the map, has your player character actually call out to other players the object that you ping, be it ammunition, a weapon, an enemy, a chest, and so on. Often your human teammates will then act like a bot in a game, responding to your command predictably. Now you’re not just one teammate in a group, but a commander of sorts, or at least a more functional member of your squad. While most battle royale games necessitate team-play, “Apex Legends” is the only one so far that has implemented a way of communication that actually promotes that team-play. On top of that is the fact that your team drops together in this game, promoting even further the idea that you’re one unit. So in addition to being a competitor, scavenger, and shooter as in past battle royale games, you’re now a member of a functional unit. It might not look that way in a screenshot, or on paper, but in-action it makes a world of difference.

Something aesthetic is something to judge, so in calling a game’s effect an aesthetic of becoming, it’s a process that should be made visible through critique and judged for its effectiveness. To get there, you have to recognize a fundamental difference between games and most other aesthetic objects. The process for consuming a film or a book or a painting is automated. Even if you read a book one way one time, then a different way another time, say backward, in each case you aren’t mixing those two systems of consumption. And by being static, the aesthetic of such an object is in our observation of what that static process delivers – a story, an image, a song, and so on. They remain observable because they don’t change.

By necessarily involving multiple systems in their creation and function, games require something non-automatic to cross them, to project into them. That’s you. As you flow through its systems, you turn the gears in a game’s design and become its most essential function, and in-so-doing become the thing to judge, the always-changing aesthetic of the game.

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