Take That Thumbs-Down & Stick It Up Your Ass: Lamenting The Loss Of The Critic

Rant mode: engaged.

Powering up.

Yesterday, Mighty Game Dude David Hill pointed to an article on boingboing (“Games Not Art After All, Say Angry Gamers“) that describes how, blah blah blah, some reviewer over at G4 took Metroid M to task for issues beyond its graphics or gameplay — in particular, that Samus becomes a regressive female figure, and that the game is somewhat sexist for portraying her as a girl “submissive and obedient” to male figures.

Now, to be clear, I have no feelings either way about Metroid. I do have feelings on how male authors write women (in all forms of pop media), but for now I’ll let Josh Loomis handle that topic at his blog.

What does give me pause is the fact that we no longer have critics. By which I mean critics in what I feel to be the old-school sense of the word — what we have now are, strictly speaking, “reviewers.” We have become obsessed with the good / bad polarity of pop culture. We are driven only by recommendations. We no longer have in great bounty the task that critics used to perform: analysis of the subject at hand. Not a review. Not a “did I like this? tee-hee-giggle-snort!” but an honest-to-jeebus look at some aspect of a pop culture piece — a look that holds it up against culture, against history, against society, against other work, against anything other than the reviewer’s own personal thumbs-up or thumbs-down grade-school bullshit.

(Do you like me? Check the box that says YES or NO!)

*pees pants in anger*

I don’t know that gamers are necessarily the most regressive of the lot, though it wouldn’t surprise me — being a gamer, I’m still sometimes astounded at the things I hear and see on, say, Xbox Live or on Internet forums about games. I find it’s a little dialed back when reading about books, film, TV or comics (though even there the Internet de-evolution is hard at work).

The audience may certainly be driving the content, but it’s still a shame that you don’t see many actual critics stepping into the fold, trying to talk about pop culture in a way that goes beyond the dichotomy of good and bad — we’re so obsessed with that Rotten Tomatoes style of measurement, that simplified notion that pop culture and art is subject to something that is essentially numerical — “Oh! 78% of people liked that thing that I already like! Woo!” or “Pshh, 78% of people liked that thing that I think sucks the sweat off of a dying man’s balls. Boo!”

This bleeds over to our fascination with money, too — in the box office tally, in how many units a video game sells, in what books are on the bestseller list (note that the bestseller has nothing to do with the best reading — it’s purely a measurement of units moved). It’s as if the money other people spent — other people you don’t know! — makes one lick of difference whether you’ll like something or not.

This is why I don’t read many reviews anymore. What I need in terms of recommendations, I can get from my circle of online peeps (i.e. you folks), something I discussed in my Escapist article, “In Twitter We Trust,” an article talking about the shift in what we once considered “word-of-mouth.”

What I want to see more of are thoughtful looks at film, video games, books, whatever — critics that talk about what that piece of art and pop culture means to her and then attempt to connect it to something beyond the critic herself, something that draws from larger sources and makes a bigger (or even smaller and more personal) statement than just “Me like! You buy now! Shill shill shill!”

I lament the loss of the critic.

I damn the rise of the entrenched reviewer class.

*spits on ground, then the spit turns acidic and eats through the sidewalk, then catches fire, and somewhere, a unicorn croons a mournful howl and leaps off a cliff to the churn-froth ocean below*

Anyway: a call to action, then, since it’s considered rude to bring up a problem and then to just drop the mic and walk off stage — the equivalent of vomiting, then failing to clean it up.

Seek out criticism. You can find game “critique” at The Escapist, and since I am nothing if not a needy whore, I’ll start you off by pointing to two more articles of my own — “A Paean To Floyd,” which talks up sidekicks, and “The 12-Year-Old Who Carried Us To Victory,” which talks about leadership qualities born in the unexpected arena of Modern Warfare multiplayer. While you’re there, you might as well look at my take on white-washing in video games, “The Pasty White Person Is King.”

I don’t know that what I do constitutes quality criticism, but dangit, I’m trying.

And other people are, too. Someone recommended Kill Screen Magazine, for instance.

Do you have critics you like to read? Roger Ebert has become less driven by his thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach and at his blog has become a critic across an array of subjects.

Where else can and should one look? You tell me. Where do you go?

Also, it’s not just about seeking out the right critics. It’s about avoiding reviewers. Don’t give in to that easy Rotten Tomatoes mindset. Stop caring quite so deeply about the money, too.

And finally, write up some thoughtful analysis of your own. Doesn’t have to be dry or boring. Got a blog? Do it there. Forget the “good or bad” mentality. Tell us why we should care. Tell us what this thing you just watched /read / played / experienced means. Get your hands dirty, your boots muddy.

Tell the reviewer to stick it up his ass.

Let us once again exalt the critic.

Rant mode, off.

Powering down.

PYOOOooooooo… — *

25 comments

  • I’m actually curious to hear your take on writing female characters as a man. You know, in a future post. It’s always a head scratcher to me that people seem to find it so hard or walk on eggshells to keep from being sexist or misogynistic. I’m genuinely interested in seeing more people expand on that.

    I’m not much of a critic most of the time. When I am, I tend to froth at the mouth. It’s not very attractive. But for you Wendig, I shall try. Once I find a topic or a work that doesn’t make me twitch with rage. Actually, I might have one.

    • @Kate:

      I might actually take a crack at the female character thing tomorrow. (I don’t think it’s too hard to write strong female characters, but that’s only when you’re doing it in a vacuum.)

      On being a critic: I don’t mean to suggest that criticism is, as we’ve taken the name to mean, criticizing. Criticism elevates and analyzes a subject — it doesn’t bring it low with mere review. It’s like, if that Metroid M article was *all* about how that game and other games handle female characters as opposed to being a “I did not like this game, oh, and here’s why,” then it’d be more a critique, an analysis. It’s almost academic, though that doesn’t mean it needs to be written in a way that *feels* academic, y’know?

      — c.

  • You can agree or disagree with their views on the issues, but I think a (fairly new) site that is setting out to do exactly what you’re looking for (as evidenced in their “reviews” of Grand Theft Auto IV and Bioshock II) is Left Gamer Review. I just hope the new writers they’re bringing on board (they’re looking for submissions) uphold their standards (the latest review on the site does not). You can find it here: http://leftgamerreview.org/

  • Oh yeah, I get you entirely. I just that things I care enough about to critic often descend into vitriol. :-p Don’t know why it always comes out that way. But like I said, I think I have an idea or two that will work without me putting on my angry pants.

  • Glad that you addressed that topic. Myself, when I want at least a little critique in reviews, I go for the old Edge magazine. They’re a little too pretentious sometimes, but at least you get some real examination of the material.

    On the other hand, I think by their very interactive and entertainment-geared nature, games do benefit from reviews that mostly cover purely functional aspects. Note that doesn’t mean the review should be a yes-or-no, like-it-or-not affair; it’s about reporting. I mean, I also want to know what modes the game features, how long it is, what customization options are there (if any), if there is any glitches and so on.

    In a real, classic critique, there’s little space for all this. That’s why I still check Gamespot.com, which does a great job at keeping reviews purely functional and all-encompassing in terms of features – even if a little bland. I’ve found that even if something about the game bothers me, all they say about its features are spot-on, most of the time. Also, sometimes one just needs to detox from too much opinion, which is also breeding ground for biases, proselytism and other nasty stuff.

  • There’s an interesting, to me, side point to your excellent one which is that as well as there being an absence of critics there’s also a definite surfeit of cheap point scoring and bad signal to noise ratios in reviews.

    There’s an example of it, and I’m aware I’m picking a fight here which I maybe shouldn’t, in the first review of The Social Network Aint It Cool News put up recently. There’s a comment made about how you can tell from this particular performance how great Andrew Garfield will be as Spiderman because he can do convincing nice guy and he can do convincing drama.

    Which is nice. But I don’t want to here about what a reviewer thinks the new Spiderman might be like in the role in two years. I want to know whether the damn movie works, and if it does, why.

    Now, it’s something everyone does, God knows I’ve done it but when it comes down to it, a good critic, hell, a good reviewer? Is invisible. You’re the person with the scalpel cutting the text open to see how it works and, with the best will in the world, I don’t care what you had for breakfast, I don’t care what you thought of the director’s previous work and I certainly don’t care whether anyone in the film, or book, or game, reminded you of someone from your past.

    But whilst the critic is invisible their viewpoint shouldn’t be. Everyone sees something different in every piece of pop culture ever produced and the really great thing is? Every single one of those views is valid. You think Blade Runner’s worthless and you can explain why? Tell me, I’d love to know. Likewise, you think Armageddon’s a hymn to the Apollo 13 spirit at least as much as it is a big dumb blockbuster? Well, chances are you’re ME and I should stop talking to myself.

    Far too often, I see the sort of mindless trivia you rail against coupled with the need to score cheap points in a desperate attempt to be one of the, maybe, four, journalists in the western hemisphere who can do that and still not come across as an elitist ass and it doesn’t have to be like that. There are blisteringly smart writers, fun, writers out there and an infinite number of new perspectives (Friend of mine explained her problems with Inception to me last week? BLEW MY MIND) and instead we get an endless parade of Box office numbers, ‘Good if you’re an idiot’ style faux comedy and sub-Gonzo bullshit. Which is a real shame.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be yelling at some children to get off my lawn:)

  • I’ve found that the best way to become more of a critic and less of a reviewer is practice.

    My more recent ‘reviews’ have been more critical, taking a look at a work from more than one angle and trying to be balanced, beyond “I liked it” or “it sucked.” Unless you’re working under certain constraints or being told what to review and how by a committee (*cough*G4*cough*), your powers of analysis are going to evolve the more you write work intended to be critical, even if it’s just a review.

    That’s my $0.02 anyway.

  • I like my reviewers to be critics and my critics to be reviewers at the same time. Let me explain.

    I like it when a person compares a work to other works, puts it in a historical and cultural context and provides insight into the the works themes, tropes, etc. At the same time, I want that person to man the fuck up and judge the work. I want them to tell me whether they feel it’s an artistic accomplishment or a failure and based on what. I do not necessarily want a score, I just want to know if they liked it and whether they feel other people would like it.

    If we just have the analysis, we’re just stepping into this post-modern “everything is subjective” bullshit territory.

    It’s what I am trying to do with projectMAPLE, my Twilight analysis/review/recap. It’s why I love Spoony’s FF8 analysis (though that one combines a comedy show with a very valid analysis of why the game’s narrative stretches the suspension of disbelief and makes the character’s unrelatable). That’s why I watch TGWTG.com – because they try to analyse why are the games and movies they review so very, very wrong.

    Oh, and the latest Metroid game basically throws the Samus we know and love out the window and replaces her with the craptastic manga version. Now there’s an issue somebody better than me should tackle: why is anime and manga so fucking sexist sometimes?

    And before you go “it can’t be that bad”, I’ll tell you to look up Kaikan Phrase and the scene where the main female character goes “I’m going to be raped… but if it’s by him, that’s okay”.

    • @Marek:

      Well, to be clear, reviewers — i.e. judging a work — *is* suggesting that everything is subjective. I think critique is less about subjective judgment and more about meaning and depth. It assumes no +/- percentile value of art, but instead tries to find out what it means, why it matters, why it was made, etc.

      — c.

  • @Chuck:

    I am not saying things aren’t subjective, but I think each of us should have a certain standard of when to say “well, I’m sure it’s just me and many people will like this and probably see some inherent value in this thing” and when to say “this is crap and should be burned”.

    The value of art is determined by it’s meaning, it’s impact, it’s depth, all of what you are talking about. But it’s still some sort of value. Maybe not numerical, maybe not really comparable, but still concrete and evaluable.

    I do not like the sort of critique you are positing, because it reminds of the academical meandering I had to suffer in Cultural Analysis classes. I lately picked up my mom’s old literature textbooks (she has a degree in Polish Language and Literature) – they contain analyses of books by both famous and unknown historical writers and I love them, because while they tell you things about the book, they also tell you which of these books are worth reading and which should best be forgotten unless you have some sort of interest in them.

  • How about some hyperbolic sarcasm to start the day-

    Yeah! Men totally have no idea how to write women! Like that chauvinist pig James Tiptree, couldn’t realistically portray a woman if he was forced to live as one for fifty years!

    But seriously folks, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about review/critique/feminism, so perhaps this is just the right time to draw some unnecessary attention to myself, specifically to what I’ve written reviewing/critiquing movies with regard to their feminist/gender theory content. here-

    http://ornythopter.livejournal.com/tag/feminism
    Feel free to read, uh, skim, okay, glance at these. Like Ebert, there’s a long (sometimes too long) analysis, followed by my own version of the Ebertian Thumb.

    Sure, judging things is always subjective, and we can try to put things in historical context, but then we’re already looking at them through a subjective historical context. Sorry, I’m not the Derrida expert here, but I explain how I can. There can be “righter” and “wronger” ways of reading/interpreting things, but not necessarily one perfect right way. Your own interpretation may be “more valid,” but it’ll probably just come down to who argues their side better.
    (See the link above for some wronger ways of looking at movies)

    And yes, I’d be very interested in your opinion of how men write women. Remember that time Orpah interviewed Cormac McCarthy? He openly admits he doesn’t understand women, so he doesn’t put them in his books. Dan Brown, however, clearly doesn’t understand humans, but that doesn’t stop him from writing them as characters. So, back to the best writing advice I’ve heard, whatever it is you’re writing, “make it real.”

    “A priest AND a physicist!? How on EARTH can that BE!?”

  • Oh, and just in case someone reads that G4 review: don’t take it at face value.

    While it may seem admirable for a reviewer to address something as important as misogyny in videogames, that doesn’t mean the reviewer is necessarily being fair. For what I’ve played of the game, I can’t help but feel that the whole issue is with Team Ninja’s previous games (which is totally fair considering the Dead or Alive series) and not with Other M, which is just being used to push an agenda.

    Consider this: Samus Aran, the Metroid series heroine, never did anything but run and shoot in most of those games. That’s why many people were surprised to see that the protagonist under the space armor was a woman when they finished the first Metroid game. But that effectively made her Space Rambo with tits, in terms or character development, until way later (Metroid Prime series). Other M is out to rectify that – and note that it’s the expressed will of the series director, who’s been involved with Metroid since the very first game.

    The whole of the “submissive to men” in Other M is about her accepting her older mentor’s orders in a mission. That’s it. Note that she’s an orphan raised by a strange bird-man alien race who later joined a Galatic Federation – and this mentor is her superior in rank. In none of the cutscenes she’s treated differently from any of the men in the same squad, all subject to similar orders as hers (basically, ‘hold off using this and that equipment until I say so, using them may be dangerous in this ship’).

    The funny thing is that no one would complain about any of this if the protagonist of a game with the very same story was a man. Apparently, orphan men can project a father figure on an older mentor, but women can’t or they’re ‘submissive’.

    The sad part is that what this reviewer is doing is actually promoting a version of Samus, the pre-Other M one, that’s as believable as a cyborg – and, as a result, undermining the very development of one of the few successful female protagonists in gaming! All that to take a jab at Team Ninja, apparently, and bring back to the fore the misogyny issue – but in a way that pretty much backfires.

  • Although I’m certainly no competent writer, I’ve got some subjects I’m passionate about. I’m currently trying to launch a blog for discussion and reviews and such. You’re saying some good stuff here and I think folks like me would do well to keep these points in mind. I know some proper film critics and I think people really underestimate what they bring to the table.

  • Oh Fabio…

    Metroid is a story about a woman that’s destroying another creator. Woman vs Woman story is distinctly different than Man vs Woman, in that regards. 8-bit Nintendo games barely had any story, but there was a lot of symbolism and metaphor packed into those early titles.

    Metroid 2: The Return of Samus, while not having a lot of dialogue, was a woman’s story. It was about the regrettable choice of saving a child, despite it endangering the galaxy.

    Super Metroid rewards Samus for that previous choice, in a time of crisis.

    Metroid Fusion is a story where Samus’s only friend sacrifices himself for her mission, because while he was a renowned military mind, he had more confidence in her.

    They’re very empowering, womens’ stories. They are told in such a way that they don’t need a ton of text.

  • Long gone are the days of Pauline Kael, who actually wrote whole books on movies instead of just applying stars and thumbs. I blame it on the high-speed interwebs that have made us all instant gratification junkies. We’d rather download an opinion and co-opt it as our own instead of actually comprehending whatever data is being presented.

    @Matt- for not being a Derrida expert you seem to have succinctly expressed the Postmodern malaise that he and Frederic Jameson are always either cheering or lamenting. The pastiche of nostalgia that is the filter for the very comprehension of our individual existence is just another name for “subjective historical context.”

  • @David

    Fair enough, but honestly, how many people actually catch those? Also, the original reviewer never made these points to begin with.

    My point is that if the reviewer can reduce the whole of Other M to a single order Samus chooses to accept, than the older games can be reduced to a run-and-gun affair, too. It’s easy to reduce things to push an agenda.

    “They’re very empowering, womens’ stories. They are told in such a way that they don’t need a ton of text.”

    The funny thing is that Other M also doesn’t. The cutscenes I’ve seen in 7+ hours of play don’t amount to more than 10 minutes of so – and some of them don’t have dialogue.
    That’s one of the million reasons why I’m very suspicious of the reviewer’s intentions.

  • @Heboprotagonist
    Sounds like you might enjoy leafing through Slavoj Zizek’s “Enjoy Your Symptom,” the book that got me started writing about movies.

    My own copy was a gift from a close friend who is a Derrida expert, and so years of asking, “Derrida who?” has apparently paid off.

  • There’s something in the American psyche that loves polemics. Black and white baby. Thumbs up or thumbs down. Blue State or Red State. Coke or Pepsi. We want our eithers or our ors, and we damn sure don’t want one mixed with the other. Why, that’s intellectual miscegenation. Can’t have that.

    The type of criticism you’re looking for embraces concepts of nuance and relativity and subjective analysis. Fuck that shit. We want it objective, dude. How am I supposed to know what I like if somebody don’t tell me? I might waste ten bucks on some chick-flicky crap where don’t nothin’ blow up and people talk in big words about ideas and shit. So just watch the numbers. Ain’t nobody gonna go see that type of shit, so I just wait for the opening weekend box office to roll in and then I pile on. Gotta love me a winner, baby. Losers are, well, for fuckin’ losers.

    I don’t know, Chucky Boy, you’re startin’ to sound like some kinda pointy-headed liberal academic type or sumpin’. Next thing you know, you’llbe dropping the Bard on us.

    Judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts and men have lost their reason.

    Dan

    P.S. Some of you may be thinking to yourselves, “Selves, why is it that Dan is always writing shit on Chuck’s blog when he so rarely posts anything on his own? What strange sway does El Chuckbo have to keep him so in thrall?” But you guys don’t know about the scoped .223 varmit rifle Chuck keeps on the bipod on his desk, or the tasty sweat-meat squirrel puree that comes in the mail each week . . .

  • Like Heoprotagonist, I miss the days of critics like Pauline Kael. Love her or hate her, you learned a thing or two from her critiques. Gone are the days of critics that actually knew something about the milieu they critiqued.

    I keep thinking back to all of the people who dismissed 300 as “neoconservative propaganda” and “Orientalist fearmongering about Iran.” Of course it made the Persians look bad and of course cheap shots were taken at the Athenians. There was a framework around the narrative of both the film and the source graphic novel wherein the whole of the story was being told by a survivor to pump up the members of the Greek army to defeat the Persian invasion. I cannot get over the number of people that completely missed that point, even among people who loved the movie.

    I don’t know. I think what you’re talking about Chuck is another symptom of how the lowest common denominator is becoming the target demographic across the board. The fact that the word “intellectual” is most often used as a pejorative term in the mass media says an awful lot.

    [/just finished reading “Feed” and is still creeped out by the narrative]

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