Gaming’s low bar for critical discourse

The wide ranging discourse around The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2) has been a welcome change of pace from usual gaming criticism. Instead of the expected debate over gameplay, fidelity, and genre expectations, there’s been far more focus on TLOU2’s depiction of violence, ludonarrative dissonance, non-linear narrative structure, treatment of LGBTQ characters, and other thematic elements. Vice ran a six hour podcast dissecting the game’s narrative, and I’ve seen similar extensive “spoilercast” treatment across other gaming sites. The breadth of TLOU2’s discussion beyond social media and enthusiast sites like IGN and Gamespot is also notable. I’ve read dissections of the game in indie film blogs (Indiewire), lifestyle magazines (GQ), and popular newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post).

But I’m unhappy this same level and breadth of discourse doesn’t occur across more games and more often. Nor has chatter about TLOU2 been universally deep or mature; there’s a tremendous amount of vile, toxic “debate” from bigots upset with the game’s plotting and LGBTQ representation.

Admittedly some of gaming’s “shallow” state of discourse derives from the games themselves. The element that makes gaming a unique form of media — interactivity — can push gameplay mechanics to front and center attention over the story. Also, the runaway best selling games year after year that naturally attracts the most visibility — multiplayer first-person shooters, sports franchises, Nintendo first party hits like Mario — don’t lend themselves to more in-depth discourse.

Momentum suggests uniformity across top sellers will continue. As graphics and general computing resources skyrocket, AAA gaming budgets bloat in parallel, which in turn pushes companies into increasingly safe, known genres to avoid making a costly bomb. Add to that the lack of diversity within game studios, especially those in positions of power. Most industry decision-makers are white men who grew up during gaming’s infancy over the 80s and 90s, influenced by marketing that cast gaming as a testosterone-driven frivolity. That, in turn, impacts the diversity of voices depicted in games and the breadth of thought and creativity within the games themselves. Finally, there’s the increasing influence of e-sports and streamers on services like Twitch and YouTube. Games that work best in a streaming format tend to be easy to grasp genres with little depth to make the action straightforward to follow.

For big budget games with the broadest reach, marketing budgets carry outside influence on what everyone from game journalists to mainstream publications even decides to cover. Money influences the angle game studios want to sell. Cynically the “serious” discourse around the TLOU2’s thematic elements are aided by the millions Sony has spent telling the world the game deserves it.

Even in the face of all these problems, I see a lot of potential for more in-depth criticism. You have to know where to look, and a lot of it is in the corners of smaller budget games that aren’t system sellers. The Outer Worlds is a sci-fi RPG indebted to the lineage of the blockbuster Fallout series, but has space to write a character that’s a champion for a marginalized community. Return of the Obra Dinn is both a fresh little mystery with a unique art style and a critique of capitalism. The Outer Wilds uses its art style and sound design to convey how optimism and friendship can help cope with the inevitability of certain doom.

Even the biggest franchise sellers of the year leave pockets for deeper debate beyond mechanics and what’s different than last year’s iteration. Developers behind realistic looking AAA shooters claim to be “not political” when in reality, Modern Warfare takes a position on America’s military power. The Division 2’s guns fetishization, paper thin gang villainy, papered over a Washington D.C. backdrop parallels right wing power fantasies. FIFA 20 is the world’s best selling sports title and normalizes gambling to kids. Huge budget narrative titles can lean on “cinematic” qualities as a shorthand for greatness, but reveal themselves to be hollow with closer inspection.

That’s not to say surface level debate isn’t enjoyable or immensely rewarding. I love reading through Digital Foundry graphical deep dives, tier lists for the latest first person shooters, and how a new racing game gets “the feel” of driving a car right. But the industry has the reach and breadth to do so much more critically. The way we get more is by supporting sites and writers that go deeper to push past the question of “is it fun?” to “what is this game trying to say?”. I find more of that content by select writers on Vice Games, Polygon, and Kotaku, along with discussions on the Triple Click podcast. However, that’s just my perspective; we all have to find sources that ultimately connect with us. The more we engage with diverse, in depth criticism helps ensure we see and read more of it, and in turn, can also inform and influence future game development for the better.