Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Review

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MGSV: The Phantom Pain is the best Playstation 2 game ever made. True, it came out barely two months ago and only for modern machines, but it has controls that are sufficiently complicated, trying to command too many actions onto too few buttons, so as to resemble in feel games of previous decade. This is not an insult. The Metal Gear games have always had odd, complex control schemes, and V is the best of the bunch. It puts more actions onto fewer buttons with more success than any PS2, I mean, err, Metal Gear, game has been able to accomplish.

But what am I doing, jumping right into a game by talking about the controls? No, I should start in a hospital, where, conveniently, the game starts as well. It throws you right into the hazy, first-person perspective of someone slowly waking up from a coma, tended to by a kindly, nearly photorealistic eastern European doctor. Of course it only remains peaceful for so long, before heavily armored soldiers bust in and start shooting, a hulking fiery Frankenstein starts to fling flame indiscriminately, and a mysterious man called Ishmael shows up to help you through it all (Ishmael really needs to tighten up his scrubs in the back). You learn the ropes piece-by-piece, as your body slowly awakens from the nine-year sleep it has been succumbed to. It is an ingenious hiding place for a contextual tutorial that not only acclimates the player to the odd feel of the controls, but introduces those unfamiliar with Metal Gear to the overall climate, the conspiracies, the bad guys (hint: they’re the ones shooting at you), and the strange supernatural twists. It is, hands down, the best introduction a videogame has ever had.

No game can possibly live up to such a strong start, and Phantom Pain is no exception. After its explosive inception it resorts to fairly standard Metal Gear gameplay. Both stealth and Rambo are valid approaches to almost every mission, but unlike most games that give you such a choice, MGSV gives you legitimate incentive to go the sneaky route. See, Mother Base, the home fort of your non-national military organization Diamond Dogs, was destroyed nine years ago. You have to rebuild it, and take revenge on the pale-skinned cowboy who caused the disaster. How to rebuild it? By attaching soldiers to…balloons.

The “fulton recovery device” mechanic is tonally inconsistent with the rest of this serious tale, but it’s an inspired design move. It allows you to capture soldiers (and later, equipment) that you come across during missions, and add them to your Diamond Dogs army to deploy, help you with research, etc. While it is silly to watch dazed soldiers whisked into the air via small black party decoration, and while it’s never explained just how they become convinced to loyally join your side, it encourages the player to play aggressively yet non-lethally. That elite soldier might be dangerous, but you don’t want him dead. You want him for yourself.

Undoubtedly, this objectifies the soldiers on the battlefield, turning them into stats and skills. This isn’t by itself a problem, because Phantom Pain already goes 90% farther into humanizing its enemies simply by giving each soldier a name, but it does diminish the impact of an otherwise harrowing late-game plot twist.

But over the course of about 40 or so core story mission, Phantom Pain packs in enough shocking turns to make up for this slight diminution in impact. True, a few “big” reveals will be lost on those who haven’t played (or simply don’t remember; it is from 2004) Metal Gear Solid 3, but in general Phantom Pain’s story accomplished something that no other game in the series has yet achieved: you can actually understand it.

Indeed, it is finally true. A Metal Gear game…that can actually be understood. Don’t get me wrong; the plot is still the complex mix of various conspiratorial organizations and sci-fi mumbo-jumbo that has always been present, but it doles it out in such manageable portions that it never overwhelms. In fact, I didn’t start banging my head against the wall in confusion until what were literally the last few minutes of the game, something that I spent the entirety of MGS4 doing.

Where Phantom Pain’s story soares is in its characters. It never lives up to, say, The Witcher 3, but the incredible writing, voice acting, and facial capture lend humanity to both the black-horse scheming villain and the macho-man main character. This is especially true for Quiet, the controversial sniper who wears less clothing than a Victoria’s Secret model. Body language is, obviously, an essential part of her character (no, not because of her nakedness, but because she doesn’t talk), and underneath all that…nothing, there is a surprisingly deep character buried within her. It’s a pity she’s so shamelessly sexualized (there’s a story reason why she wears few clothes, but it’s a pathetic excuse), because had she actually been clothed, I would go as far to call her a “strong female character.”

Quiet is part of the buddy system, a new addition to the series that lets you take one of a four sidekicks (one of which is technically a vehicle) alongside you on missions. It’s a fantastic idea that adds an extra layer of depth and strategy to gameplay, but ultimately it’s terribly balanced. As soon as you get the ability to drop in vehicles, the horse loses all function. The walker is great for all-out attacks, but if you desire stealth, it serves no purpose. The dog (wolf, really) is useful for distractions and scouting, but almost anything the dog can do Quiet can do far better.

Quiet is incredibly overpowered. She can scout outposts and give you a near-complete map of enemy activity before ever nearing the base. She can wipe out entire battalions, both lethally and non-lethally, with almost no help from you. If you order her to start firing, enemies will immediately target her, conveniently turning all of their backs in the same direction and leaving themselves wide open for stealth-takedowns. She’s a good failsafe for if you get spotted, but she takes almost as much skill out of the game as does the “chicken hat”, Phantom Pain’s toggle-able version of an easy mode.

But these are minor gripes. The Phantom Pain only falls flat on its face in one area. Though I can hardly say the game is shallow; numerous essays have already been written concerning its symbolic and philosophical implications, Metal Gear Solid V handles the theme of child soldiers in a tangential way, lacking in depth or any real feeling of sensitivity. There are the occasional scenes where adult characters will offer some sweet, heroic, or sentimental gesture towards the abused children you encounter over the course of the game, but MGSV finds it sufficient to ultimately turn the children into just another type of enemy. Their storyline isn’t tragic; it’s cold and undeveloped. The only real “character” among the children hardly seems like a child at all, but is written and acted just like a shorter version of another soldier. Some may argue that that’s the point, to depict how war changes a child. But MGSV provides no solvency for this dilemma besides dramatized spankings (that sometimes involve limb dislocation) and suppressed revolutions.

This problem is ultimately derived from overextension. It’s been known for a while now that director Hideo Kojima didn’t actually get to finish the game anywhere near what he had wanted. Nevertheless, his style and direction remains as sharp and stylish as ever; he’s cut the half-hour cutscenes and replaced them with concise, expressive segments and numerous audio logs that flesh out the story more than his previous mini-movies ever could. Here you’ll find some of the best camerawork, framing, and lighting ever seen in a game; Kojima’s experiences working on Silent Hills clearly show through.

Whatever you think of Hideo Kojima’s personality (I personally think he’s a narcissistic creep), you cannot deny that he makes great videogames. This is his best yet; it represents the perfect combination of beautiful filmmaking and storytelling and fantastic situation-based gameplay that he’s always aimed for but never quite gotten ahold of. It stretches itself a bit too thin, but what remains is still an incredible whole experience full of unforgettable moments. With the time and money Kojima was expecting we may have easily gotten one of the best games of all time. Right now? We’ll simply have to settle with “incredible,” and dream about what might have been: the loss of Kojima’s final chapters will forever remain a phantom pain within gamers’ minds.

DMC: Devil May Cry Review

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DMC: Devil May Cry is devilishly stylish, angelically designed, and ridiculous in every sense of the word. It traps you in a warped world where gravity has no meaning and where soft drinks are manufactured by giant, ancient, pupae. Where security cameras become disembodied eyes, and where architecture bends and twists as if folded by an origami artist. And it is populated with every manner of broken-doll-faced, slashing, gnashing modernised demons within and outside of the realm of imagination. It feels like angst incarnate, and it is glorious.

Unfortunately, it’s set up on the back of a mediocre story that attempts, and fails, to deliver a strong message about the degree of control over our modern lives. A suave businessman demon named Mundus has conquered the world’s leaders through debt. He spies on humans through CCTV networks, controls their thoughts through the media, and keeps them docile on a diet of heavily-advertised sodas. When not farming human souls for the consumption of demonkind, he reclines with girlfriend/wife Lilith, a monstrous woman more artificially tucked and stretched than the mother from Brazil (the obvious metaphor for society’s emphasis on looks does not go unnoticed). The attempt at a morale is valiant, and relatively rare in gaming, but the story eventually falls back on good ol’ demon killing and an uninteresting terrorist group as its main crutch plot points. It’s not as if cautionary tales of establishment power are new or original; DMC just seems to be lazy in its attempts to highlight an already saturated theme.

The task of freeing humanity falls upon the half-angel half-demon Dante, a booze-infused and rock-skulled punk who spends his days “killing demons and getting laid”, as he puts it. He’s found by his brother, a computer genius named Virgil, and a young witch named Kat, who has the ability to see and create portals to the demonic realm of Limbo. The story remains fairly straightforward, with simple objectives about how to weaken and ultimately destroy Mundus providing context to an entirely linear story. The writing is excellent, sprinkled with witty and sarcastic one-liners from Dante. Yet the voice acting, which is rushed at best and dry at worst, turns an otherwise simple-but-engaging script into something hard to take seriously (or hard to take humorously, for that matter). It’s not terrible, but when such excellent lines are delivered to barely half of their potential, it can be hard not to wince.

That being said, Dante’s obnoxious yet likable nature helps to contribute to DMC’s overall sense of style. Every move is flashy, most of them literally so, and environments are some of the most dementedly beautiful seen in gaming. The world itself wants to kill you, and it makes this known. Huge neon letters flashing “Kill Dante” or “Destroy” will appear around arenas as a sort of cheerleader encouragement to the demons surrounding you. Floating bits and pieces emanate from buildings sometimes more twisted than those of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Everything is highlighted by a grinding soundtrack that alternates between intense techno and heavy (and I mean heavy) metal. One of the best levels puts this music at the forefront, surrounding the player with walls of digitized airwaves and silhouettes of nightclub goers and strippers. The gothic style of previous Devil May Cry titles has been trashed to make way for a bold, modern, rebellious aesthetic that overloads the senses and makes demon slaying feel genuinely “cool.”

The slaying itself occupies 90% of DMC’s core gameplay (outside of some simple yet satisfying platforming). Each of the five main weapons (plus the three different types of firearm) feels so distinct that skills learned with one cannot easily be translated to another. Two weapons are “angel,” fast, wide, and perfect for crowd control. Two others are “demon”, centralized, sluggish, and used to deliver high damage to small areas or individual enemies. The all-around default sword, aptly named “Rebellion,” serves as a simple compliment to its brighter, more specialized counterparts. Stringing together attacks into combinations is fluid and satisfying, especially because the game keeps track of points and letter-grades you in real-time. Beautiful combos are simple to pull off with responsive controls (even combos that involve quickly switching between weapons), and the constant blue-red-black-yellow hues of every battle make them a sight to behold. It’s too bad the upgrade tree becomes almost complete after just one playthrough. Seeking out new moves and improvements would’ve made for the perfect motivation to explore DMC’s wealth of modes, difficulty levels, and replayable content.

Everything tends to fall apart in the last few missions, as DMC’s sense of flippant action starts to diminish and we’re met with a final boss fight that feels more like a QTE than the cinematic, epic, and visually creative bosses that come before. But by that time, you’ll be on such a DMC-high that you won’t care if the last hour or so flounders. You’ve chopped, sliced, and clubbed your way through a beautiful world that knows exactly when to introduce a new enemy, and exactly when to introduce a new weapon. Maybe you didn’t get laid, but you sure as hell killed demons.

Battle Royale Review

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There’s a moment near the end of Battle Royale when the main character, Shuya, overlooks a cliff to rest his eyes upon the crumpled body of a dead classmate, and shouts, “What is the point of all this? Why?” Ok, that’s not an exact quote; I’ve inevitably mixed it with my own words because the same question was running through my head for the entirety of Battle Royale. Shuya does not know the answer. I do not know the answer. And I’m wholly convinced that no-one, not the director, not the screenwriter, probably not even the writers of the original novel or of the following manga, knows the answer.

Battle Royale is a shameless film, one of the few examples of “torture porn” to be seen outside of the B-horror genre. Known mostly for being a predecessor of the wildly popular Hunger Games franchise, it’s no wonder that this unrated film comes with a viewer discretion warning.

See, the Hunger Games and Battle Royale are both films about kids forced to kill each other. But Hunger Games has a point. Among other things, it is cleverly self-reflective and savagely critical of its audience, condemning brutal child-gladiator-fights as entertainment for a world of excess, while drawing real-life audience members and readers attracted to little more than the premise of said battles. The Hunger Games hates you for enjoying it, even as it entertains you with a completely realized sci-fi world and complex characters that endure realistic pain and realistic arcs.

Battle Royale has…none of that. It is a film almost as soulless as some of its characters, students from the same class forced to fight to the death because of, um, unemployment? If memory serves, the US during the Great Depression had an unemployment rate considerably higher than near-future Japan’s 15%, yet dystopian mass kidnap/forced murder seemed to have been kept to a minimum.

Battle Royale tells us nothing of its world apart from a short exposition. Within minutes the class is set loose on an abandoned island and within hours they start deliberately killing each other. Shuya and his crush hobble helplessly around the battlefield, equipped only with binoculars and a pot lid for protection. The more barbaric and well-armed of the students stay conveniently away from our heroes, that is, until they stumble across a benevolent protector that seems perfectly willing to do all the fighting for them.

Battle Royale switches between characters and plot lines frequently and sporadically, yet it somehow fails to provide any of its characters with meaningful change or development. The fact that the fight can only last three days is a poor excuse for why so many normal middle-schoolers have worked up the guts to become mass-killers so quickly, somehow digging so deep into their melodramatic angst that they were able to pull out a bit of Freddy Kruger.

Of course, many try to resist the violence, to make peace with fellow classmates, to act with honor. But the honor usually reduces itself to a series of valiant knights in shining armor; boys ready to take a chest full of bullets to save a girl they think is “cute.” And that peace? That resistance to violence? Even the most pacifistic of teenagers seem to become unusually blood-thirsty on a moment’s notice, attacking classmates with guns or switchblades or hatchets only moments after talking about how they’re not killers.

The violence in Battle Royale earns its parental advisory. Blood spurts in an exaggerated fashion, but not exaggerated enough to summon up a feeling of style, as in the Kill Bill movies. Teenagers die with over-the-top reactions, but not over-the-top enough so that their sobbing and begging in their final moments fails to disturb. Combat is too savage to be fun and too brutal to be morbidly entertaining. It is utterly pointless, and, frankly, quite boring. Battle Royale is two-hour film that amounts to little more than a countdown from forty-something to zero. Every time a kid dies (which is basically every scene), the film almost literally checks off a box. One more down, and this many to go. Meanwhile, the audience checks off one more minute until the credits roll.

Throughout all of Battle Royale I was hoping for an eventual First-Blood, a sudden revelation at the end that sheds light on “what it was all about.” But there was none. The “villain” characters remain absent of any motivation, and with the exception of a single character the “good guys” that the movie follows (until it spontaneously decides to jump somewhere else) are all basically one-dimensional. Battle Royale sort of just ends when the fight ends, giving little explanation on how the characters’ lives were affected by being thrust into a war zone for three days. When the blood stops flowing, the camera starts rolling. Let’s hope that the audience has already left.

The Babadook Review

The Babadook is the rare horror film that is both limitlessly creepy and supremely insightful. With a $2 million budget, director Jennifer Kent had to creatively allocate resources to create a movie where decisions obviously made to accommodate cost appear as natural and deliberate as a far more expensive movie. Paradoxically, The Babadook is a perfect example of how lack of money seems to spur more originality than unlimited funds.

In fact,  The Babadook probably never would’ve been made in the US. This isn’t a very “‘Murica!” oriented horror flick. There is barely any gore, there are no jump scares,  no shocking makeup (at least, not in the traditional sense), an abundance of incredibly deep symbolism and very little violence. In fact, whether or not the monster exists at all is purely up to interpretation.

The Babadook, an 8 foot tall cloaked figure sporting a top hat that serves as a representation of grief, steps into the lives of a young boy named Sammy (Noah Wiseman) and his mother Amelia (Essie Davis) through the pages of a demented pop-up book. Of course, the grief itself started far before then. A car crash on the way to the hospital to deliver Sammy costs Amelia’s husband, Sammy’s father, his life. The shadow of his departure hangs gloomily over the two and their household. Amelia is weak-willed, dwelling on the past and clueless about how to express love towards, or how to control, her misbehaving son. Sammy is a difficult child, incessantly obsessed with weapons, who regularly hurts other children and who blames his troubles on imaginary (or are they?) monsters.

The Babadook’s disturbing image within the creepy popup book is drawn with a speech bubble saying “let me in!”, and the film’s first two acts gradually and masterfully shift in tone as the two, and Amelia especially, unwittingly start to do exactly that. The threat of the Babadook hangs heavy in the air of Amelia and Sammy’s house, as Amelia and Sammy’s sleep deprivation and constant fear cause the literal decay of everything around them.

The third act is the least impeccable, resorting to a more classic survival-horror structure. That’s not to say that the third act isn’t terrifying, just that the inevitable physical presence of the Babadook can’t match the feeling of ominous, building anticipation that graces the first two acts. Resorting to a format more traditional than acts one and two is disappointing in comparison. Though the film’s final half hour is still one of the most creatively constructed in horror history, its return to relative normalcy seems hypocritical, considering how frequently The Babadook seems to enjoy mocking normal horror tropes (in one scene, an enraged Amelia pulls a kitchen knife on Sammy, only to then use it for a relatively nonviolent purpose).

It’s all tied together with flawless editing and a perfect sense of timing that goes farther than multi-million dollar effects in lending The Babadook a feeling of grim introspective into its characters. What doesn’t always contribute to this same feeling is the lighting, which is at times so dark that everything on screen seems to become one large, amorphous blob. As much as The Babadook seems entirely created with deliberacy, the lighting can sometimes make important scenes difficult to make out.

But a traditional third act and under-lighting are tiny scars upon an otherwise perfect black rose of a film. The Babadook uses horror as it was meant to be used: not to shock or thrill, but to provide introspection into ourselves through the lens of a monstrous darkness. Watching The Babadook can remind you of what this oversaturated genre is capable of, and what it is currently failing to do in the States. It is undeserving of the cult-classic status that started to surround it even before it came out. It should be recognized as a full classic, all on its own.

Mad Max: Fury Road Review

 

Mad Max: Fury Road will pound your eardrums until they pop. It will pull on your eyeballs until they bleed. It will pump your adrenal gland until it explodes. Max’s 35-year coming resurrection is an assault on the senses, an utterly relentless film that stops for breath only for an instant in the second act, only to rush back even stronger than before. In short, it is glorious.

Max is a movie that builds itself a plot with just enough bone to flesh out with explosion-filled muscle. In Mad Max’s harsh post-apocalyptic desert, water and gasoline are the only substances that matter. An evil, masked warlord (the type of which frequent the Max series) named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) controls a village of a few hundred people by pumping out water from the ground and carefully rationing it. A warrior driver named Furiosa (Charlize Theron) steals the warlord’s concubines (to whom his minions refer to as “breeders”) in a weaponized big rig and attempts to bring them to a sort of green Eden a few hundred miles away.

Of course, Joe gives furious chase, along with an entire army of pale, bald crazies called “war boys.” Max entered the story strapped to the front of a war boy’s car, serving the pleasant purpose of a living blood bank. His inevitable escape drives him to join Furiosa, dragging one of the younger war boys by the name of Nux (Nicholas Hoult), along for the ride.

The chase scene in the first act, and the chase in the third act, take up the vast majority of Fury Road‘s two hour runtime. The second act isn’t more than 15 minutes long, only existing to provide a brief breather from the action and to set up, of course, an even bigger and more explosive third-act chase. Fury Road‘s action is pure, simplifying itself to the bare bones and introducing new gimmicks as it sees fit. Despite the title, there is no road. There is only open desert and a menagerie of cars speeding through it, all pursuing a single precious big-rig.

The high definition and overly retouched sky pull away from the Mad Max series’ trademark grittiness, but director George Miller wins it back tenfold. Most effects and stunts are done in-camera, and the fact that these effects and stunts look far better and more grounded than anything in a monstrous Marvel movie is a testament to the eternal superiority of real life over digital. The number of cars destroyed is ridiculous, and the stunt work, done mostly by olympic competitors and Cirque-de-Soleil performers, is just as soaring as you would expect from distinguished athletes.

War boys leap from car to car to truck with monkey-like grace and flexibility, and Max and Furiosa knock them off like flailing bowling pins. The action is loud, but it’s hardly dumb. War boys fight like actual people; they don’t go down easy. And, shocker!, main characters actually get shot and injured with some frequency.

George Miller exhausts every possible action idea for the simple car-chasing-truck central theme. A particular favorite comes near the end of the film, where black-clothed soldiers atop enormous sticks protruding from moving vehicles try to swing back and forth to mount the war rig.

Fury Road deviates substantially from the norm by being easily one of the most feminist films aimed toward men ever made. Charlize Theron is an attractive woman, but in Fury Road she’s made into a fighter, dirty, armored, bald, scarred and missing an arm. The concubines are shown partially clothed and overly sexualized, but they quickly prove to the viewer why they escaped in the first place: they will not be treated as objects. In one scene, a nude woman is seen screaming for help from a tower. However, rather than the damsel-in-distress that she would be reduced to in other action flicks, she is, as Furiosa describes her, voluntary “bait”, reeling in victims for a badass biker gang of kindly old ladies.

But where Fury Road excels the most, and where it will almost definitely win an Oscar, is in its production design. Fury Road is an artistic spectacle, not just because of its creative, threatening, and rustic car design (including one mounted with drums and a maniac playing a flamethrower electric guitar) but because of complex costumes and makeup that go far beyond Mad Max 2‘s menagerie of BDSM gear. Fury Road‘s cinematography is flawless, smoothly transitioning from capturing impossibly large chases to surreal, dull landscapes. Mad Max: Fury Road certainly has its share of gorgeous, poster-worthy shots.

Never in recent memory has a film been made that is so pure in every form, that stays big while still paying minute attention to detail, that makes the heart race with smart action, and that is so feminist that, as one Kotaku writer described it “my scrotum killed itself.” Mad Max: Fury Road is a spectacular colosseum of violence, and as one war boy remarks, “a lovely, lovely day.”

The Problem with Videogame Critiscism

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The Roger Ebert documentary, Life Itself, was made available on Netflix earlier this month. I’d been reading so much of Ebert recently that I jumped for joy, and quickly sat down to watch it from beginning to end (although not all at once). Watching a film in sections usually diminishes its power, but by the end I was on the verge of tears. Not because the film’s conclusion is particularly sad (spoiler alert: Ebert dies), or because I felt sorry for him and his family, but because I knew that a great mind that had dedicated itself to improving entertainment had left this earth.

Then I looked around, not literally, but digitally, at the gaming websites and blogs that saturate my bookmarks bar, accompanied only by my email and Amazon.com. Considering the hours and hours of my life I spend reading and writing about games, I thought “will any game critic be remembered like Roger?” My favorite game critics jumped to mind. Danny O’Dwyer, Kevin VanOrd, Elle Gibson, to name a few. Their deep, entertaining, and insightful criticism rattles around in my head every time I read one of their reviews, and it seemed unjust that such talented writers would likely go forgotten by the media at large.

That is, until I looked up on Wikipedia a list of critics who’d won the Pulitzer prize. Looking down the list, I saw only one familiar name: Ebert himself. The rest were critics who write about, going down the list in order, architecture, music (then music again), television, art, film, dance, and literature. These aforementioned genres, the cornerstones of our culture, alternate wins for the criticism Pulitzer as if deliberately taking turns. The amazing critics who work in these amazing mediums absolutely deserve their awards, but it did bother me, ever so slightly, that videogame criticism, that is, criticism of a genre that makes far more money than all of those other genres combined, isn’t represented. By now, surely gaming can be considered a cornerstone of our culture as well? That thought immediately ceased as soon as I started reading the work of some of these winners, particularly of two recent winners, the art critics Philip Kennicott (winner in 2013) and Sebastian Smee (winner in 2011). The two are polar opposites, Kennicott using more eloquent language than a thesaurus entry, and Smee writing in short, simple words without complicated structure.

Nevertheless, both critics were insightful beyond comparison of anything present in videogames. Smee pointed out and analyzed the softness in the tones and the eyes of Bartolomé Estebán Murillo’s “Rosa of Viterbo”, and related it back to the influential painter’s childhood. Kennicott wrote a recent editorial about how the civil war still isn’t over, and used his knowledge of art as a tool to add increased depth to his analysis by relating it back to fine art culture. Demonstrating his versatility, Kennicott’s following article is a review of Icelandic pop star Bjork’s new MoMA exhibit. He calls it pretentious, but also explains why pretentiousness is not necessarily a bad thing, and how it may be necessary in today’s popular music scene.

As much as I respect O’Dwyer, VanOrd, and Gibson, these art critics are writing circles around them almost as much as O’Dwyer, VanOrd, and Gibson write circles around me. This cannot be because the game critics are inherently worse writers. When all three mentioned game critics are filled with passion, as VanOrd is whenever he reviews a From Software title, or as O’Dwyer is in almost every episode of his bi-weekly show “The Point”, they can communicate complex messages thoughtfully and simply (and Gibson is arguably better than Ebert when it comes to humor). It’s not for want of skill. It’s for want of a legitimate medium to apply it to.

Let’s face it. Videogames are not good. They have never been good. The number of games that could stand up as art when compared to the masters of every other genre is so small they can be counted on one hand. The games that we hold aloft as our saving graces, the titles we consider high art, only appear so when compared to the dirt that makes up the rest of our favorite way to spend our time. However, this is a reality we can’t afford to face. We can’t just go around saying “this game is terrible, that game is terrible” because, in their hearts, every critic loves whatever medium they choose to write about. It would destroy us to destroy our own genre so brutally, as we would have to do if we were to hold games to the same standards as other critics hold their genres. I cringed just recently when I saw VanOrd call Bloodborne a “religious parable” in an attempt to artistically heighten a well-designed game that primarily uses its religious symbolism to justify hitting things with swords. I, myself, am a complete victim of this trend, and I graciously accept the title of “hypocrite” for writing this opinion piece. Just a few days ago I wrote a raving review for Infamous: Second Son, a game that I know, deep down, is juvenile, pointless, clumsy, and downright bad art. But, as I said in my review, I had fun, so I heaped on the praise.

That was it. My entire review hinged on the fact that, although Second Son is bad, it was fun, and was therefore good. The same can be said of the game I’m playing now, the universally acclaimed Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag. It’s macho, disgustingly and needlessly violent, reliant on filler, but so much goddamn fun.

That’s where games have hit a terrible rut, one that we cannot seem to dig ourselves out of as an industry. We do not prioritize beauty or sincerity, as other art forms do. We prioritize fun, and our medium suffers for it (in 2014, the beautiful and tragic This War of Mine universally lost “Game of the Year” to titles about littering fantasy worlds with dead bodies). Other genres have been vessels for human expression almost since their inception. They originated as art, and they’ve stayed art. Similarly, videogames, as a whole, are the same as what they originated as: toys. And now that they have a few entries that look pretty and go deeper than just killing, they suddenly want to play artist with the big boys.

I’m not going to make so bold a statement that no videogames are art. Most definitely are, but none are art for the ages. None will be remembered as masterpieces 60 years down the road, much less stand the test of centuries. This is partly because videogames are so young. It’s also partly because, in their 40 years of existence, they’ve progressed far slower than they should have.

By this time, film had Gone with the Wind. By this time, television had The Twilight Zone and Star Trek. Neither of those genres had technical advances nearly as dramatic as videogames over their lifespans. Our versions of art, our explorations of beauty, the human condition, and the human psyche are there, but are only skimming the surface of what interactive entertainment can accomplish. They are, as a rule, weak in the overall scheme of art. Videogames right now are both shallow and callow.

And so game critics are stuck with the abysmal task of putting on a happy face and presenting to the world and to the games industry a veil of “all is well”, dishing out glowing reviews and “8/10’s!” like fun size chocolate bars on Halloween. If we were to truly become harsh, to hold our own medium to a higher standard, we would at the same time destroy it. We would demolish the slowly growing acceptance that the general art world has had toward games over the past decade. We would destroy the image of games in our own eyes. And, most importantly, faced with a horde of “6/10” and “4/10” games that are still ultimately fun experiences, we would obliterate the trust gamers have in critics, effectively eliminating any critical power to drive further change. Every once in a while, an article such as this arises, recognizing some enormous underlying problem in games that simply must change. But every time, the author goes straight back to the old standards, as I will likely do following this article, and as is necessary to keep game criticism afloat.

We’ve seen the disastrous effects harsh standards can have. Every time a score is significantly lower than the average, the de facto explanation is not “different opinion” but “bias and corruption.” Just recently, this led to the Gamergate scandal, where a Twitter feed dedicated to uprooting corruption in games journalism (based off of approximately, hang on, let me count, zero evidence) steadily devolved into a voice for a violent sexist minority of our gaming community.

There’s a man named Nick Capozzoli who writes reviews for Gamespot.com. His scores usually hover around the metacritic average, but his vocabulary would feel at home on a page in the New York Review of Books. One of his especially memorable reviews, for the game Ace Combat: Infinity, seemed to do everything right. Though big words were thrown about, it was hardly glib (a word I actually learned from Capozzoli). Capozzoli not only analyzed a rather shallow game on as deep a level as justly possible, he successfully related it back to history, videogames as a genre, and culture in general. All of his reviews do this, and yet in all of his reviews, and for Ace Combat: Infinity especially, a war is waged in the comments between those who admire his writing and those who accuse him of being a pretentious bigot.

Indeed, Capozzoli was making a mistake, one of the worst you can make in critiquing. He was not writing for his audience. Though his words are as fluent as any fine art critic, and his potential for analysis clearly as deep as any Pulitzer winner’s, his review failed to recognize that gamers, as a rule, have as shallow and callow an outlook towards their medium as the medium has towards itself. They can’t worry about, as Capozzoli describes it, gaming’s “dispassionate remove from warfare.” They’re too busy deciding what to buy so that they can spend an afternoon shooting stuff.

That is the harmful reality of videogames. Our genre lacks depth because the most passionate fans don’t ask for it. Games centered around fun should always have a place, but when they dominate gaming almost exclusively, critics must endorse the culture “fun” in order to maintain readership, maintain artistic influence, and convince themselves that they made the right choice for a genre to dedicate their talents to.

It is not corruption, nor is it dishonesty. It is gaming in the status quo, and, if it continues to move in the direction it’s going, it will change. But by the time it does, we may well be living in retirement homes. This is reality, and this is why a game critic will not even be considered for a Pulitzer for at least the next thirty years. In order to critique art, the subject of the criticism must already be a part of a larger artistic medium. Videogames can be just that, an overwhelmingly artistic medium, but until they evolve, critics are left playing with toys.