Justin Keever | Mar 22, 2016
Let me explain that title, because it’s not a title I deploy without consideration. I loathe the performance of anger in videogame criticism: it is the domain of disingenuous provocateurs and brainless YouTubers. So please trust me when I say that I’m not exaggerating my disliking of Depression Quest. I am expressing a genuine personal hurt that is derived from the ways in which Depression Quest has failed me as a player with depression.
Coincidentally, its failure begins with its title. Depression Quest is a terrible title. Imagine a scenario where Bicycle Thieves was titled Poverty Adventure, and ask yourself if you’d have a harder time taking that film seriously. Now, the title Depression Quest does make some sense given what the game is trying to accomplish. It is evocative of the naming conventions of the early text adventures from Crowther and Adams: a tradition of straightforward titles that promise a nondescript adventure with a vague theme (Colossal Cave Adventure, Pirate Adventure, Adventureland, etc.). Depression Quest’s acknowledgement of the garbage which would ultimately prove formative to the narrative videogame isn’t, as one might expect, a rhetorical move to place Depression Quest within a lineage of text adventures. Quite the opposite: the words “Depression Quest” are deployed in a manner that is as sarcastic as it is arrogant. Depression Quest positions itself as a break from the tradition of low-grade fantasy text adventures, pretending that its relatively serious subject matter is somehow a revelation. Oft-cited games like Elude, The Cat Lady, and Actual Sunlight dealt with depression with more nuance and poeticism than Depression Quest ever manages, and all were available before DQ’s initial release in early 2013.
Justin Keever | Feb 9 2016
Firewatch is a game about escaping from loss. Its central claim is that media gives us a way to remove ourselves from the problems in our real lives, and that using media in that way is unhealthy. It calls attention to the ephemeral nature of our relationships to fictional characters, insisting that we must return to the real, for our own sakes. It does this all in its final 5 minutes. I’d be impressed, if the rest of this game weren’t a paranoia thriller.
Firewatch pulls a trick that lots of first-person walkers seem to pull: it dons the guise of genre fiction, only to pull away in the last minute in a calculated anti-climax, only to claim that something far simpler and more tragic is going on. This is a trick that Gone Home pulled off fairly well, because it never actually pretended to be a horror game: it simply gestured to the genre while fulfilling its intended purpose as a teen melodrama. What Firewatch does is make the same mistake as Ether One: it buries itself within a genre only to emerge from it in its waning minutes, undoing its own narrative momentum and just kind of stopping. What gives Firewatch a leg up over Ether One is that Ether One’s anti-twist pulls the game out of science fiction and into a doctor’s office: the leap to reality feels absurd and unearned. Firewatch’s anti-twist feels slightly less ludicrous by comparison, and is clearly in service of the game’s central metaphor. Escaping consequences is destructive, it says. And yet the twist still doesn’t quite work, and the metaphor doesn’t quite land. The game’s transition from relationship melodrama to paranoia thriller is slow and deliberate; its quick conversion back again seems rushed and wholly inadequate. There is a better version of Firewatch that either commits to being a thriller or dispenses with that plot altogether, where Henry’s relationship with Julia and Delilah remains the game’s focus until the credits roll. What we have feels like a weird hybrid of the two.
Justin Keever | July 10, 2015
The most important piece of criticism about Justin Smith’s Desert Golfing wasn’t actually about Desert Golfing. Nope, the best article I’ve ever read about Smith’s critical darling was written almost three years before the game’s release by Michael Thomsen, who mistakenly believed he was writing an indictment of From Software’s magnum opus Dark Souls. Thomsen’s basic argument is that there is too much Dark Souls in Dark Souls: that the game makes its point, that “that life is more suffering than pleasure, more failure than success, and that even the momentary relief of achievement is wiped away by new levels of difficulty” (a fair, albeit simplistic assessment) in its first 5 hours, and the remaining 95 hours it apparently takes to complete the game offer nothing but light, meaningless variation on this basic idea. Again, I must admit that at first glance, there is something to this assessment of Dark Souls, especially when one need look no further than the game’s most devoted fans, the PvP community, to see a host of people whose appreciation for the game extends only as far as the “useless junk” that Thomsen believes Dark Souls is mostly about: the particulars of its combat. These are people who have spent hundreds of hours experiencing light variations on the theme “the path to success is paved with rolling and backstabbing.” But I digress. Thomsen’s basic argument doesn’t hold up, as his basic understanding of what Dark Souls means appears to derive solely from the act of its play: that is, its difficulty remains more or less a constant, and so the ludically expressed theme of “life is hell” in turn remains constant. But this basic procedural theme doesn’t exist independently: it is an undercurrent of a story that explores how people respond to their own hellish existence, a story of grief, greed, and how desperately people will fight to maintain the status quo. The game’s setting, Lordran, is grotesque and sublime in equal measure: settings like Ash Lake and the Kiln of the First Flame are worth suffering to see. Thomsen’s assessment of Dark Souls as a repetitive exercise in relentless nihilism is accurate only if you remove its narrative aspirations and visual splendor, a notion which allows us to segue conveniently to Desert Golfing.
Split Screen Series is a critical dialogue of videogames by Justin Keever of Virtual Narrative and Miguel Penabella of Invalid Memory, investigating the stories, themes, aesthetic choices, gameplay, and formal properties of videogame art.
Justin Keever: People often forget the utter absurdity of the original Max Payne – the prolix monologues of the eponymous hero obscure a profoundly stupid noir-ish story of an undercover cop with an eternal smirk squaring off against corrupt city officials and Italian-American stereotypes over the distribution of a drug called Valkyr, whose effect is not unlike that of bath salts laced with Scarecrow’s fear gas. Max is forcibly injected with this drug at several points during the game, and in the final of the accompanying “trip” sequences he suddenly becomes conscious of the UI elements that surround him, finally coming to the grand realization that he is a character in a videogame – a realization that he doesn’t seem to carry with him when he returns to a state of lucidity. Neither Max nor the game he belongs to are invested in exploring the implications of this newfound self-awareness; it’s just an iota of absurdity buried in an abundance.
Justin Keever | Sep 25, 2014
Last Sunday, I was relieved to see that someone had responded to John “TotalBiscuit” Bain’s video on the importance of specifically defining what a videogame is. I rather enjoyed Joe Parlock’s article: it was well-mannered and effectively provided a brief counterargument to Bain’s video, saying that Bain’s definitions were rather arbitrary, and that “traditional” games and supposed notgames are really only differentiated by small changes in mechanics. And yet I felt that Parlock’s response was a little inadequate, in that it failed to both capture how utterly weak and ill-conceived Bain’s argument really was, and how this particular video was merely a small addition to the problematic work that Totalbiscuit makes a living on. Totalbiscuit has been a blight on the discussion surrounding games for years: he subsists on the cult of personality surrounding him, his regressive, reductive views on games, and his self-described cynicism (placing him within the popular “angry gamer” archetype, an infuriating genre of “criticism” that deserves its own article). His video on definitions isn’t a single flub form an otherwise innocuous commentator: we’re dealing with the kind of person who has (quite recently) leveraged his own white male privilege to sell himself as a voice of reason while still managing to subjugate and insult the woman (and really women in general) he’s ostensibly trying to not comment on. We’re dealing with someone who has publicly expressed his distaste for art and believes that despite that, he can safely call himself a critic of the videogame medium. Zoya, while talking about TB’s treatment of women (in the previously linked article), makes a salient point about Bain in general: he doesn’t know what criticism is. He has no critical lens by which to judge games, his interests lie in “value for money”. This is a problem that has been epitomized in Totalbiscuit’s video on “specific definitions,” that I think is worth observing closely: it isn’t just his argument that’s damaging, it’s his entire perspective on videogames.
Justin Keever | Aug 29, 2014
Videogames are all, by their very nature, multiform narratives. That is; all games, by nature of requiring player participation, allow for the exploration of possible outcomes of widely varying actions. The implications of these multiform narratives are often inconsequential: the outcome of taking two steps to the left is having taken two steps to the left. Thus emerges, in most people, the desire for consequence, for the exploration of a possibility space to have some easily tangible meaning in relation to some perceived goal. From these desires the prevailing structures of most mainstream videogames arises: movement is given a tactical gravitas, a means of avoiding obstacles or otherwise responding to challenges, and clear narrative choices are offered to the player, with the promise of some palpable effect on the broad strokes of the game’s plot, particularly the conclusion. While the supposed necessity of “challenge” in games is irksome to me, the latter manifestation of the multiform narrative in mainstream game design, or at least in what the mainstream player appears to want from their videogames, is the most frustrating trend in the modern videogame discourse. Somehow, possessing multitudes of varied end-states has become the be-all and end-all of videogame narrative: videogame discourse’s absurd war on the author manifests itself in this desire for there to be an impossible number of conclusions to game stories, as though a game doesn’t earn its gameness until 300 people can all have different plot outcomes. It’s an attitude that lends itself to a reductive, anti-analysis view of game narrative, where one can safely abandon any thematic/allegoric considerations of a game’s story in favor of tossing around meaningless terms like “illusion of choice” and pretending that you’re having a worthwhile conversation.
*Author’s Note: I’m far from an expert on critical theory. I’m not uninformed, mind, but if you’re in the know and see any glaring errors, don’t hesitate to inform me!
Justin Keever | Aug 18, 2014
Last week I found myself in Disney World riding through Spaceship Earth, which I’m a bit ashamed to admit is one of my favorite rides in the entire resort. (Is it embarrassing to admit that I have a favorite ride at Disney World at all? Eh.) The reasoning for why was never really clear to me, at least not until this most recent visit. I’ve never been much of a thrillseeker, I admit, and I suppose I’m a sucker for Judi Dench-flavored history lessons, but Disney’s slow journey through historic animatronic hell (if you hate animatronics) always leaves me genuinely emotionally moved: somehow, I totally buy into the ride’s goofy narrative about traveling through time, viewing significant moments in the development of communication technology. I realized, as I watched a crash-test dummy sit motionless in front of an mocked-up 80s computer screen, that I love Spaceship Earth for the same reason I love Civilization: the metanarrative.