I hate art. Well, to be more correct, I hate the concept of art. I am (as many of you reading this are) a man who likes concrete answers. Numbers. Black and white. Objectivity. Things that escape exactness vex me. With much art (especially of the abstract variety) not only do I not understand it, but I do not understand why I do not understand it. Why can it not be like math: “It is right (or wrong), and this is the reason why it is right (or wrong)”. At least give me a scale of one to ten to deal with, please!
Many of you can sympathize with my pain. Some of you are probably shaking your head, thinking, “You poor, lost soul.” Indeed, today I will tell you the tale of how this poor soul became lost, and how it found its way home. And I promise you that I will tie it back into video games in the end.
This story opens, as many others do, with a small child, happy in his home. He loves video games, movies, and sharing these experiences with his friends and family. This child… was me. I’ve watched comedies from the ‘30’s, the latest Disney releases, and all sorts in between. Of course, some movies I liked better than others and had my favorites, but I always recognized that a film was built to entertain me.
And entertain me they did; I hardly ever remember being bored while watching a movie as a kid. Other children would play, goof off, or run into the other room when a movie was playing. I do not know whether it was some etiquette I learned or a part of my nature, but once the screen flickered on, my eyes were glued. I was mystified at the thought that someone would get up to go to the bathroom or to get snacks in the theater. I still am, actually.
When you are a child things are bigger, magical, and you cannot see the little imperfections. This age of blissful ignorance lasted for some time: years, in fact. I still remember that fateful day when it all changed.
My oldest brother brought home a VHS tape from the video rental store (obligatory age joke here) and showed me the box. A phrase akin to “Winner of the Golden Turkey Award!” was displayed across the back. It was a film called Plan 9 from Outer Space, a 1959 b-movie about aliens and zombies. As I held it in my hands he told me, “This is the worst movie ever made.”
My eyes grew wide as he popped it in the VCR and pressed play. I was met by acting so bad I could hardly believe and pie tins held up by fishing line to be passed off as UFO’s. I strained to follow the plot as well as keep my eyes from closing or from looking at the clock. I never did finish the movie, but it had left its forever impression on me.
Of course, we laughed at how horrible it was. Eventually, though, the laughter subsided, and I was left with the question echoing in my head: “How could something be ‘the worst’?” Quite a simple question on its face, but it carries a lot of weight with it. By calling something “the worst”, you admit that a movie can be “bad”. From here all that needs to be decided is the metric which one uses to determine what is good and what is bad, and to what extent either is displayed. If you have watched “Dead Poets Society”, you may have already caught my fallacy. Unfortunately for me, my propensity to measure in finite terms took me for a longer drive than would be pleasant.
For some years I tried in vain to measure the virtue of each art piece I consumed: movies, books, and especially video games. Not only did I point out why things I liked were great, but I could tell you as a fact why your choice was inferior. It did not help me that often my choice of company had similarly staunch opinions. If my knowledge ever fell short, they would be sure to educate me on what was the “best”.
It was during this period that Two Button Crew was in its primordial stages. It may or may not have had the same name, but Scott and I had started game journalism and reviews. We did not really have any “in” with Nintendo (or any following to speak of, for that matter), but that never kept us from producing content. We made blogs, podcasts, and even let’s-plays of Nintendo’s most recent. Scott’s frequent trips to Game Stop also got us a sweet deal: one of the managers let Scott take home a review copy of some recent games for a time. We would scrutinize them, looking for each imperfection in any jewel we were handed. Every new game became a performer, and we sat as the audience with a handful of tomatoes should it have any slip-ups. I even went so far so as to draw up a formula to determine a game’s definitive score in search, not of the best game, but of the perfect game. My philosophy told me that a perfect game could only come from one of two genres. Does all of this seem a little pretentious?
Needless to say, the search for a perfect game was a futile exercise. Video games became homework instead of leisure. Critics are supposed to expose errors, I thought. I had mistaken a critic for a cynic.
Surrendering the Yardstick:
Eventually, Scott noticed that playing video games no longer made us happy. It had become a chore. I remember him asking me, “Why aren’t video games fun anymore?” We both breathed a sigh and admitted our error. We were so focused on the negative. Video game reviews are meant to help others have fun, not to make a statement of truth to be etched into the obelisk of morality. We made a pact to each other to have fun playing games again.
And it worked! Over the next years I began not only enjoying games more, but my movies, too (I stopped reading books for fun. School can do that to you, kids). Every time I watch a movie I try to identify the things I like as well as things I dislike. It drives my wife nuts when I tell her that I like a movie, and then spend a half hour explaining the problems I had with it. Critical thinking, not cynicism, enhances my enjoyment of media. I see criticism, discerning consumption, like eating a meal: sure I could scarf down my steak, but I will enjoy it much more if I chew each bite, taking in the texture and smell as I appreciate the unique situation around me. Whether you find me in a fancy restaurant or a dive, I hope you see a smile on my face as I take in that one-of-a-kind moment. The same goes for media. Even from the two movies I hate most I picked out a few things I liked.
Does this mean that I think that video game reviews are pointless? No. Do I think we should throw out rating scales? No, I don’t. My hope is that this journey has made me a better reviewer with a better rating scale. What I do think, however, is that each game is an experience. That experience will leave you with a memory. Don’t let anyone take that memory from you.