Ruthless Individuality: Criticism’s Past, and Hopefully Its Future

Writing in The New Yorker in June of 1981 about the upcoming film Raiders of the Lost Ark, film critic Pauline Kael made it clear that she was not a huge fan. The action sequences left her exhausted and unmoved. “Kinesthetically, the film gets to you,” she wrote. “It gets your heart thumping. But there’s no exhilaration in this dumb, motor excitement.” And later in the same review: “Seeing Raiders is like being put through a Cuisinart — something has been done to us, but not to our benefit.”

I quote Kael here not because I agree with her about Raiders, but because I don’t. I certainly have my issues with Raiders today — the way it makes a hero of a white American who plunders from other cultures, the racist stereotypes it reinforces in its depiction of indigenous people, things like that — but as a cinematic experience, I think it’s pure magic. When it’s over, I can practically feel my spirit vibrating with adoration for movies. And yet, I would never argue that what Kael is doing here is not criticism. On the contrary, I think it’s outstanding criticism. She lays out her own viewpoint with such clarity and conviction that, reading her, whether I agree or disagree, I can’t help but be stimulated. I can’t help but feel my own feelings about a film coming into sharper focus, or stretching to accommodate new viewpoints I hadn’t considered. Good criticism, whether it’s negative or positive, deepens my appreciation for a medium.

Kael doesn’t approach a movie and ask, “What is the ‘average’ audience member likely to think about this film, and should I recommend it or not recommend it to that person?” (Who is the “average” moviegoer, anyway?) She tells us what she thinks from her own distinctive point of view. She stakes a claim.

I bring all this up because in the wake of Death Stranding’s release, I saw opinions expressed and shared about what criticism is that I fundamentally disagree with, and damn it all to hell, I feel the compulsion to state that I disagree with them, and why.

One reaction I saw right after the Death Stranding embargo was lifted was a tweet from someone responding to the fact that one of the old guard game sites had given the game a 6.8 while another gave it a 9. “What went wrong?” this person asked. The question suggested that, in their view, critics should have a clear sense of what the average player (or perhaps gamer is a better word here) likes, and therefore, there shouldn’t be such deviation in scores and conclusions. There are clear metrics by which games should be evaluated, and everyone whose job it is to review games should therefore know the difference, objectively, between great games and lackluster ones. But there is no “average” player. There are no objective metrics. And we shouldn’t let players maintain the comforting, self-aggrandizing notion that they represent a group with objective attitudes, to whom games should naturally cater.

Still, I understand why many readers feel this way. I think that game review sites spent too many years treating game criticism as an exercise in raw consumer advocacy. I count myself among those responsible. Reviewing Diablo 3 for such a site, I gave it a positive review because it struck me as a game that “the audience” would like. In actuality, it’s a game I find gross and off-putting in its constant, blatant efforts to make you feel powerful and to stroke your ego. But I was inside that professional world, where the kind of approach I took to that review and many others was expected of me, was, in fact, the only acceptable approach, and at the time, I didn’t question this. I believed in it myself to some degree. Writing this now, I think of the Mandalorian, unquestioningly asserting “This is the way,” or perhaps Joe Pesci’s crime boss Russell Bufalino in The Irishman, saying with some measure of regret about an unchangeable truth, “It’s what it is.”

If I had tried at the time, in that professional environment, to criticize the game for all the things it does that I find so hollow, I suspect I may have been met with resistance and confusion by my peers, because I would have, in effect, been criticizing the game for succeeding at doing the things it sets out to do. The game criticism establishment had decided that showering players with loot and telling them they’re amazing as they hack and slash their way through endless monsters is a good and valid thing for a game to do. You don’t fundamentally question that, you just evaluate how well a game does it. So the argument that I felt somewhere deep in my bones that everything Diablo 3 was doing was deeply misguided and unfortunate was an argument I didn’t even allow myself to formulate in my mind, much less write in my review. Such a review would have been anathema.

I think most of us know on some level that newsrooms at major publications and TV networks self-select for writers and reporters whose attitudes exist within a fairly narrow ideological window, which is why, for instance, Bernie Sanders doesn’t get as much attention as he should. Many of those in a position to make decisions about whether and how to cover him just don’t think he’s reasonable, or don’t take him seriously as a candidate, no matter how much support he might have. I often think of Noam Chomsky’s famous 1995 interaction with a journalist who misunderstood a point Chomsky was trying to make about how the media works. The journalist (Andrew Marr) thought Chomsky was implying that he and other journalists self-censor to maintain the narratives desired by their corporate overlords. Chomsky replied, “I’m not saying you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”

And while it’s hardly equally important that a good deal of gaming journalism has historically worked this way as well, it’s not exactly unimportant, either, that major sites have self-selected writers who show an eagerness to operate within the lines and maintain the established ways of thinking about what constitutes a good video game. Put simply, someone who loves games as a medium but who proclaims that, say, Super Metroid is a bad game, or that Half-Life is a bad game, and who has the arguments to back it up, would have a harder time getting their foot in the door at an established site than someone who enthusiastically agrees with the established critical canon, or at least they would have when I inhabited that world professionally. Maybe things have changed.

But they clearly haven’t changed enough, since many people’s expectations around game criticism remain rooted in notions of objectivity and critical conformity. The most alarming commentary I saw on this topic in the wake of Death Stranding’s release was this Twitter thread, which argued:

Death Stranding, more than any other game, will illustrate the difference between a hobbyist (I liked it / didn’t like it) and a critic (here’s what it is and why you might like it).

Most gaming media folks are hobbyists. They don’t really have the language to break down a game and talk about it in service of an audience. They can only speak from their perspective.

Which is fine, but not necessarily useful to an audience.

I was absolutely floored by this, both because I feel so strongly that good criticism is emphatically not writing of the “Here’s what it is and why you might like it” variety, and also because I feel like this kind of writing, which the Twitter thread argues is lacking from the gaming criticism landscape, is exactly what we have too much of, exactly what so many people who write about games strive to do. From what I can see, such people drastically outnumber those who write unapologetically from their own perspective and stake a claim to a game’s greatness or lack thereof that completely disregards notions of “average” audience tastes and the pursuit of consensus. Such singular writers absolutely exist, don’t get me wrong, but they aren’t yet numerous and prominent enough to disrupt the feelings of those who take comfort in the idea that games criticism is a fairly objective pursuit, one which reaffirms their own objective tastes and desires, and who feel destabilized when a game like Death Stranding gets two scores that are 2.2 points apart from two established sites.

When we write reviews that try to evaluate whether or not the “audience” will like a game, what assumptions are we making about the audience? It seems to me that the dominant notion of the average audience member is a person who has a near-insatiable appetite for standard, well-functioning shooters and other games in genres conventionally explored by games in the AAA space, but who doesn’t want to play games that aren’t concerned first and foremost with being conventionally “entertaining,” who can’t see the potential value in a game that sets out to inconvenience and frustrate. If film critics took this approach, I think films like this year’s Pain and Glory, a slow, subtitled drama from Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, would get reviews that commented that it’s “not for everyone” and that gave it middling ratings because it lacks big mainstream appeal, rather than reviews that made an argument about the film, for or against, from the critic’s particular point of view.

I mean, as just one example, it’s weird to me that the lowest scored review on Metacritic for The Outer Worlds is a 60, that not a single person in a position to write such a review actively disliked the game, found it overly familiar and comforting in a distasteful way, wants games right now that punch us in the face and wake us up from our collective stupor rather than immersing us in a tepid bath. Believe me, it’s not that people with opinions so different from those of the mainstream critical consensus don’t exist. They do. It’s that because of what they believe, they’re not sitting where the people who write our most prominent video game reviews are sitting. Or perhaps they are, but they feel the need to pull their punches so as not to upset the audience.

Today, social media dynamics make it so that when a games media personality tweets out their enjoyment or appreciation of a game like The Outer Worlds, they’re probably being sincere, but they’re also (unintentionally as the case may be) shoring up their authority as someone who gets it, someone like you, the average player for whom reviews (and maybe games) are calibrated. To tweet “I think The Outer Worlds is tired, overly familiar, and gross in its efforts to comfort and reassure,” while a perfectly valid perspective, is to risk losing public favor, being seen as an outsider who just doesn’t understand the widely agreed upon, borderline “objective” reality that The Outer Worlds is a good game, as all the cool people know it is.

But good criticism does not pull its punches. Good criticism does not actively try to walk some kind of middle road, or to hit the bullseye of collective critical consensus. Good criticism stakes a claim. Even if that claim is that a work is middling, it doesn’t arrive there out of a fear of full-throated recommendation for something that the “average” player may not like, or out of an attempt to predict what others will think. Good criticism knows that it’s the act of clearly offering up one’s own perspective, in all its distinctiveness, that makes criticism valuable.

If Pauline Kael were writing today, people would probably be posting screenshots from her reviews on Twitter and saying “This ain’t it chief.” And sure, if critics are allowed to express their opinions, then people are allowed to express their opinions about those opinions. But there remains the problem that collectively, at this moment in time, we fundamentally don’t understand what criticism is for, and how we, as film lovers, as TV watchers, as game players, as readers, can benefit from it most. Today, critics need to be willing to endure the slings and arrows of the masses who come after them for their “hot takes.” Audiences have been trained for too long to think of criticism as a process in which a person should sand away their own personal ethic, rather than a place in which a person should articulate and argue in favor of that ethic. I mean, if you’re not writing about games because you have your own perspective to share, because you have something that’s uniquely yours, a desire to champion certain ideas or ideals, something more than just years of internalized video game consensus, then why are you doing it?

The critic John Simon died last month. Once a towering figure in the field, Simon was a racist, a misogynist, and a homophobe, and criticism of any medium needs none of that. These unfortunate character traits are impediments to experiencing art fully, and surely one thing art should do is help us to see the humanity in each other. To be a racist and a critic is to want art that reinforces your racist attitudes. To be a homophobe and a critic is to want art that does not challenge your own homophobia or the homophobia of the society in which we live. These are tremendous, even disqualifying limitations for the critic.

But as Owen Gleiberman noted in a piece for Variety, while Simon’s views as a critic may have been severely limited and even poisonous, he also represented an era in which criticism was thought of quite differently than it is today. Gleiberman wrote:

Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Stanley Kauffmann, Richard Corliss, Richard Schickel, and now Simon: They’re all gone. And with them, perhaps, a way of looking at the world is gone. What these feisty, prickly, stubborn, and passionate critical behemoths had in common was that they were all voices of ruthless individuality. The phrase “hive mind” hadn’t been invented yet, but with every sentence they wrote they stood against it. That’s why you could value their voices even when you disagreed with them.

This gets at the heart of what I’ve been thinking about ever since I saw those attitudes expressed upon Death Stranding’s release, attitudes that struck me as fundamentally anti-criticism. In my view, critics should be ruthlessly individual. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature of good criticism. I yearn for a cadre of professional critics who come at movies and games and other art from a wonderful range of perspectives, critics who smash the proscenium arch through which we view art (and view criticism itself) and remind us that there are so many more ways to think about games than those we routinely see on offer at the major sites. The process of getting people to remake their understanding of what criticism is and what it’s for will not be quick, or easy, or painless. But it will be worthwhile. I want so much diversity in critical viewpoints that all those people who still feel like there’s something “wrong” when two major sites give the same game mildly divergent scores experience such divergence so routinely that they can no longer maintain the attitude that their own tastes are objective and that reviews should evaluate against those.

Gleiberman concluded his piece by saying “I have no nostalgia for toxic criticism, but I do have nostalgia for an age when critics had the gumption to stand apart, when they weren’t expected to be part of the hive.” Such critics still exist today, and always have. But we have cast them as the outsiders of the critical establishment, allowing those who write reviews calibrated to the expectations of an imagined average audience to accrue an air of authority, as if they do it right, while those who write with conviction from their own distinctive viewpoints are just being self-indulgent, not doing work that’s “useful to an audience.” Well, this audience member says that in the field of criticism, there’s nothing more useful than ruthlessly individual perspectives, strongly argued. I say smash the canon, and let the light shine in.

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