As editor of the second edition of “Critical Discourse” for Critical Distance (please hold your applause to the end) on Danger featuring Gita Jackson, Aevee Bee and Nick Dinicola, I was a part of another exciting letter series.1 I’ve never had any direct contact with Dinicola even though he is a colleague of mine at PopMatters but his work continues to inspire me with its consistent thoughtfulness; Bee remains one of the smartest and most creative writers, editors and developers in the whole games crit racket; and although I’ve only started reading Jackson’s writing in the two years or so, every thing she writes exudes a brilliance and honesty that I deeply admire. I encourage you to read, promote and financially support their work however you’re able. One of the nice things about “Critical Discourse” (including the first episode, “Subjectivity” with Stephanie Jennings, Iris Bull and Heather Alexandra) is that’s it’s a not-so-subtle way for me to write love letters to my professional internet crushes. Practically, I want to bring people closer together, to facilitate a network of thinkers who can become more aware of one another’s work and build a more nuanced, interlocking piece of criticism. As a result, these conversations have been personal, which I think helps the kind of criticism that emerges through conversation.
Their criticism becomes personal in a way that single-authored article or blog post can’t be. Obviously that doesn’t mean that single-authored pieces should be taken off the menu, but I think having this kind of series complements them well. It exposes how our own lived experiences colour how we approach and understand the cultural artifacts we engage with. Anyway, in “02: Danger” the three had a particular exchange I want to highlight:
I can delve into that disturbing horror game [Resident Evil Revelations 2] that makes me genuinely afraid of the dark, the kind that makes me too scared to get a midnight snack because I don’t know what waits in my kitchen, because I know in the back of my mind that this fear is still part of the game. I’m letting fiction bleed into reality. If I really want that snack I’ll go get it because my kitchen is empty and I know that.
Nick, you said that you think learning the language of vulnerability is valuable, and I do agree with you. I already speak that language. It isn’t a choice for me not to be vulnerable. My existence is fragile, it’s delicate, I put myself at risk by being black and female in a public space. What do I gain by experiencing that in a virtual space? What is there other than “and now you feel bad”? When I play games that deal with vulnerability as a feeling, I feel like they’re not for me — they’re for people who aren’t always having to navigate the spaces where they are safe or not, the spaces where they can be allowed to let their guard down.
Horror games do limit your power for the sake of establishing vulnerability, but rarely in interesting ways, and rarely in ways that say anything at all about the systems of power in play. In survival horror it’s mostly what — tank controls? It’s not a very interesting statement, it’s just hard to control.
I think all three of them raise valuable points. For Dinicola, a game like Resident Evil Revelations 2 is able to abstract the experiences of fear through gendered mechanics, this helps him experience a kind of vulnerability that he’s not used to; Jackson responds by saying that the kind of vulnerability (fear, really) is not something she would benefit from because that kind of fear is a part of her everyday lived experience; Bee concludes that the way that a really well crafted horror film like Possession prompts horror is to incite a particular aesthetic argument, not just spooking the player because a game can.
I don’t think there’s anybody here who is wrong, but I enjoy the demand for greater nuance. Once upon a time I, like Dinicola, wrote about a game that made me feel something I do not feel in my every day lived experience. The micro-aggressions characters in Dragon Age: Origins levied against my female warrior grey warden really frustrated me; in spite of my character’s visible competence and myriad of accomplishments, nameless nobodies would flit harmless little comments, jokes or questions that would make light of her evident power or otherwise attempt to diminish her.2 Receiving that sort of treatment and kowtowing to the bruised egos of casual strangers (or worse, those who counted on me) was, in short, annoying as balls.
That said, as Jackson rightfully counters, what value do videogame micro-aggressions serve to those who experience micro-aggressions in their every day lives? Most women already know what micro-aggressions are even if they don’t have it coded in a theoretical lexicon because it’s a part of their professional, social and romantic lives. And then there are the micro-aggressions particular to women of colour, poor women and transwomen and those who experience other individual or intersecting axes of oppression. Those people don’t need a videogame to tell them that micro-aggressions exist and that they’re annoying. They know that! What is the practical function of these micro-aggressions as wheels spinning in the narrative’s machinery other than to teach me a very special lesson about women’s experiences? So Bee’s call to push the discourse beyond whether or not an aesthetic effect is present, but what purpose it serves, resonates with me.
While I’m talking about Critical Distance projects I’m a part of, August’s subject for the monthly “Blogs of the Round Table” feature was “Nostalgia” and perhaps no one was as ruthless toward nostalgia as Amsel von Spreckelsen.3 While I think it’s possible to supply deep and useful analysis of any videogame, even old ones, that one’s personal nostalgia need not interfere with that end and that nostalgia may even aid one’s criticism, I agree with the general thrust of von Spreckelsen’s article that nostalgia urges us to look at something favourably. I sense a lot of this in games culture, where there is a sort of yearning for acceptance and so the ability for a game to have any effect whatsoever is worth celebrating irrespective of what that effect is or how it’s supposed to mean something to us. That mechanics communicate a feeling is not aesthetically useful to us if that feeling isn’t motivated toward a purpose. I worry that the fear Dinicola comments on in Resident Evil Revelations 2 or the micro-aggressions I talk about in my Dragon Age: Origins piece are meaningful to us because just they’re noticeable, not necessarily because of how they might interact with someone (especially someone with different lived experiences than Dinicaola or I). I have to ask “so what?” What is someone supposed to gain from that kind of fear other than seeing that it’s there? Again, doing the critical work of analysing what these experiences can mean is worth doing, but that has the side effect of praising a medium for being “symbolic” while excusing how alienating and shallow its aesthetics generally are.
This past spring I was diagnosed with OCD and social anxiety. In playing HyperSloth’s Dream for review at PopMatters, one of the most immediate feelings that struck me was that the main character, Howard, suffers from (what looks to me like) OCD and doesn’t know what to do about it.4 I connected with that because that was me for 27 years: I just assumed I gave bad first impressions and that I couldn’t trust or be trusted outside all but a very small number of people. And not to spoil anybody’s day but if you’re reading this and thinking that you were in that group, you’re probably wrong. The writing was on the wall when I played Depression Quest, but even then I just couldn’t make the step of dealing with it. What if I wasn’t depressed and I was just really messed up and there was nothing anyone could do about it?
As Dream opens Howard awakens on the couch in front of some trashy sitcom. From there the player is tasked with going to bed. But in the darkened, upper middle class suburban palace, Howard and the player feel out of place. It’s vaguely creepy being alone in such a big, barren house. There are subtle cues the developers have left to signal Howard’s mental health problems—a crooked picture which must be straightened, a telltale orange bottle by his bed, an uncharacteristically comfortable bedroom with retro videogame consoles and nerdy posters sticky tacked to white wallpaper—that communicate something about Howard through the space he inhabits. He’s a not-quite-grown-up all alone in a house for proud, professional-class grown-ups, the kind of house that, increasingly, doesn’t exist. Howard doesn’t belong in his own home, and in that way you might think he doesn’t feel at home in his own body or in the life he’s found himself living. I really felt for him because even dealing with mental health issues doesn’t mean ever really figuring them out, even if there are steps people can take to live well with them.
Yeah, Howard is a spoiled, self-loathing millennial. Aren’t we all? But most striking is that we never see Howard’s every day life at work. Through his dreams, the player can surmise that he’s a cubicle monkey, that he lives in his parent’s house and that his parents are gone for some reason too obvious and painful to say out loud. The player doesn’t see Howard in his day around other people because, for him, that time might as well not exist. Howard’s scope of experience is limited to a big, dark, modern but creepy house he doesn’t feel like he belongs in.
That’s sad and scary.
But as Howard sleeps, the player experiences his dreams. Without repeating my review, his pleasant dreams are mundane and his nightmares are filled with jumpscares and horror tropes (words written in blood, children laughing off screen, dolls that turn their heads on their own, etc). To me, this was such a shallow abstraction of anxiety. A skunk shuffling out of a garbage bin will scare me the way that a doll will. “Holy shit! A thing I thought was not there is there! It’s acting in a way I did not expect!” The neuro-electric response is to start. But if you really want to activate my anxiety, send me an email. Loud noises and sudden movements will scare anyone without carrying the code of mental illness.
Popular audiences sometimes frame their fiction as fantasy dream-realms where nothing has any consequence except as it plants them and the figure they identify with as the center of the universe. The “it’s just a game” and “it’s just escapism” responses. Fiction becomes an alternative to reality where nothing counts except the raw emotion it excites. Occasionally a critic will question how spinning loose threads into a preferred narrative is supposed to enrich the experience of a film5 or bemoan a fandom’s unsubstantial fantasizing6 but the strongest case videogame evangelists seem to be able to make is that videogames can elicit something, indifferent to why. Sure, there is an elitist tone to film critics dismissing fan theories as “mere fan fiction”, which ignores fan-fiction as a means of pushing discourse or for supporting the voices of those who mainstream, monied publishing platforms ignore, but at least the film critics in the articles above urge viewers to direct their criticism to illustrate a point.
Often that a game can be spooky is considered enough. Dream is legitimately scary. But so what? Pissing off a skunk while leaving the bar at 1:30 is scary. Writing an overdue email to someone who’s counting on you is scary. Way scarier than anything viewed through a screen, anyway. The benefit of the fictional stuff is that it we can mobilize the feelings it excites to understand ourselves and our world in an abstract way. Yes, Silent Hill is spooky. But so what?
There’s a moment in Toren when the protagonist, the Moonchild, rides a chandelier to the top of the tower. Her dress is battle torn, snow pierces the crumbling walls and threatens her only source of warmth, a few dying candles. She leans against the center of the rising chandelier, all her weight against her forearm. There’s such a range of despair in the repeating animation of her heavy breaths. She collapses and in a moment of meditation the Moonchild’s face is covered in arcane painting, she is upright, wrapped in white robes, sword on her back. The words of her mentor echo in her memory and she pulls herself back to her feet, immortal and heroic.
What I love about Toren is that every moment has so many things going on, all of them directed toward its central theme of growth through death. The Moonchild is weak and divine in the same scene; the player participates in an inevitable death and grows more powerful through it. There’s something more going on in Toren than shitty controls, jump scares or lovingly rendered feminine suffering.
Even though there are games thirty years old or more that mobilize raw excitement to a purpose and critics willing to do the work of connecting threads to make an argument, the standard of game discourse is noticing that something is happening. As Bee puts it in the “Critical Discourse” letter series, often we celebrate games on the level of “see spot jump, see spot run from zombies.”
Again, it isn’t that Dinicola’s criticism is weak or that his analysis of Resident Evil Revelations 2 is invalid—I think it’s useful and valuable that the game abstracts a kind of vulnerability that he doesn’t experience day-to-day—but if games are to push discourse beyond damning or celebrating them, there needs to be a personal and philosophical engagement with them as artifacts arguing toward a certain expectation of normalcy. We need Gita Jackson demanding more and Aevee Bee asserting her subjectivity through Ramlethal in Guilty Gear. Ultimately that’s what I want “Critical Discourse” to be a part of.
1 “Danger.” Aug 27 2015
2 Filipowich, Mark. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Cousland?” Unwinnable. Jul 23 2013.
3 von Spreckelsen, Amsel. ” 1 Hour Games Crit: Nostalgia.” Medium. Aug 22 2015.
4 Filipowich, Mark. “Dream Makes a Case for the Waking Life.” Sep 9 2015.
5 Shambu, Girish. “On Room 237, Criticism and Theory.” Girish Shambu. Oct 10 2012.
6 Spiegel, Josh. “Why Fan Theories are Destroying Film Discourse.” Movie Mezzanine. Sep 2 2015.
Further reading: Jensen, Marjorie. “The Videogame Criticism You Don’t See.” Unwinnable. Sep 13 2012.
Rhodes, L. “The Ludorenaissance.” interview series. Culture Ramp. Sep-Oct 2012.
Dixon, Drew. “Dissonant Reviews: Papo Y Yo.” Bit Creature. Sep 6 2012.