Games are a whole bunch of things, which makes it hard to narrow down precisely how to set about giving a structure to the various ways games should be criticized. Further, I think there are a lot of ways games could be criticized but never have been, and those are perspectives that I struggle to create even as I try. As much as videogames are a simple and often silly entertainment, they’re also bigger than most of the critics who take them on. So, any recommended reading list, such as it were, is going to naturally fall a little short.
So, as with any list of this sort, take this is simply one possible starting point. There are others—which inevitably will be better—but these are some of the games that have inspired me. These are some games that have inherently changed the way I think about games. These are some games that challenged me in the way good art sometimes does. These are some games that wormed their way into my heart regardless of how empty they are of meaningful criticism. These are some games I think critics may find something to learn from.
This one feels like a token. A million critics have said a million things on this game, and a million more will be said over my lifetime, much less beyond. Earthbound is a game about children going off on an adventure that feels as fictional as those concocted by friends in backyards, or nearby wooded areas, or campsites. It’s energetic, unapologetic, silly, messy, meandering, vital, frivolous, and incessantly cringe-adverse. So much of the game dwells in exhausted tropes, uncomplicated mechanics, and uses cartoony aesthetics and Saturday morning charm to replace empty narrative beats. In a way, Earthbound is probably one of the worst games on the list. What it does manage, though, is a tone that’s hard to fault. It remains always a little bit child-inflected. Ness is a child, young and vibrant and unjaded. The game as a whole doesn’t feel the need to apologize for its narrator, however unreliable, and it really shouldn’t. Earthbound is about saving the world, thwarting an alien, and having a good time with good friends doing it. If nothing else, Earthbound speaks well to how sometimes a well-penned tone and good set dressing can make a game far better than what a brief plot and mechanics description on the back of a box can convey.
This is not your world. Shenmue is a game about martial arts and revenge, it’s a story ripped from the tagline of a made-for-TV action flick starring two martial artists most viewers haven’t heard of. Ryo Hazuki had to watch his father die, and he’s vowed to get revenge on the man who killed him. Yokosuka is not a place for this story to take place, and it shows. The townspeople show little regard for Ryo’s quest, they all urge him to—very reasonably—put away the idea of hunting down a murderer and go back to school or take more time to rest and mourn his father. Children play in the streets. Bars are full of rowdy drunks. Men on bicycles deliver Chinese takeout. Capsule machines offer little figurines. Vending machines spill specially marked cans which can be traded for videogames and toys. Old visitors get lost, unable to read name plates. A young girl takes care of a kitten. A loud American man sell hotdogs. This is not a place for street fights, this is not a place for stalking the streets at night in order to hunt down and fight a murderer, this is a small Japanese town. Unlike most game worlds, Yokosuka works exactly because it is not the place a player-character should be. It is a small, sleepy town full of neighbors and children. It is indifferent to the player’s lofty goals. And it feels like a lived in world far better than so many others. Game worlds do not need to be crafted explicitly for the player’s consumption.
It’s probably behind you. Out there, lurking in the background. Who is it? What is it? You’ve never seen it. It stalks through the reeds as you find your way though the uncannily familiar walls, rooms, and halls of this town. Whatever is back there, behind you, has a long shadow. It feels massive, practically a gravity well, whose mere suggestion feels like a lead weight in the pit of your stomach. You walk, your light chases away the darkness, but you know it’s still behind you. The clues are here if you’re looking for them, and you find more of them as you tromp through. You’re running from something, but you’ll slowly realize, also toward something. The monster that lurks continues to follow.
It’s probably behind you. Your motivations aren’t just yours. It owns some of them, and a part of you with it.
Sometimes games aren’t art—at least in the way many of art’s biggest consumers define it as. Art should critically challenge its consumer, but it doesn’t have to. Art can fill its consumer with joy, or perhaps challenge their perspective by giving them an immediate, better alternative, or it can simply remind its onlooker of something from years ago. Peggle isn’t a game that most would sit down to pen long features over, but it’s a vital kind of game too. In the same way there are Dr. Seuss poems scattered among recommended reading lists, so too should the cotton candy equivalent of games be featured. Sometimes it’s okay to enjoy games for fun’s sake, and relish in the sheer gamey-ness of a game. This holds true for Candy Crush, or Farmville, or Flight Rising, or any other game someone might haughtily try to discard. But there is no “real gamer” in the world who would exclude a game like Tetris or Pong from significant games, so why would its younger siblings be any different?
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but one of unquestionably countless ways to start thinking critically about games as a whole medium. There is a lot to videogames, and many ways to step into the well of how and why games work for different people. If you want to jump into game criticism, please do.
And while it’s never a bad idea to learn from the classics and modern blockbusters, don’t feel like there’s a hard baseline which an experience must reach to be worth examining. Games aren’t that limiting, so neither should you be.