A Conversation About Games in 2015 With Cara Ellison and Phil Owen

"The language of blowing shit up is alive and well."

It is the end of yet another turbulent year in the world of video games. To cover some of the highs and lows, Brock Wilbur from Inverse sits down with two game critics that published new books of personal, critical reactions to the medium. The first is Scotland’s Cara Ellison, who spent a year traveling the world, as captured in her book Embed With Games: A Year on the Couch with Game Developers and the other is gaming curmudgeon Phil Owen whose manifesto WTF Is Wrong With Video Games: How A Multi-Billion Dollar Creative Industry Refuses To Grow Up was released a few months ago.

Photo of Cara Ellison

First off, congrats to both of you on two top notch books on video games. Cara, yours is up for an award?

Cara: Well first thank you - and second I think I have been shortlisted for the New York Games Critic award, but I am up against some real tough competition including Jon Bois and Chris Donlan (who used to be my editor at Eurogamer).

Nice. Now, Phil, you are not up for any awards because you hate video games and that makes everyone — by extension — hate you. Why must you be like that?

Phil: My deep dark secret — don’t tell anyone — is that I actually love games so fucking much. But what I hate is the pretense. I hate the idea that games are just as good, in terms of being a form of expression, as movie or books or what have you. That’s not a status that’s been earned. Metal Gear Solid 5, for example, is held up as a great game but the movie equivalent would be like Pompeii. And that’s nothing against Pompeii, a movie I own on blu-ray, but that movie knows what it is.

Why is it that games criticism is so often met with “You hate this” in whereas criticism in other forms is so commonly accepted at this point?

Cara: I think it’s because the criticism that we’ve had of games until now has actually been very product-based, not arts-based. The people who now do the most important criticism, I would argue, are entirely couched in literary criticism rather than what is more traditionally thought of as product review. How many hours of content? Ian Bogost would say that’s more like a review of a toaster, i.e. HOW LONG DOES THE TOAST TAKE and so on. American-style product review was more popular in the beginning of games crit, whereas over here in the UK we started to break off from that a bit and be more like music critics with games.

Phil: I agree completely, and most of the time I feel like I exist as a reaction to that idea; that games are software rather than art. The reason I felt the need to write a book of complaints was just to help frame that conversation differently. A big reason why games are reviewed as products is because they’re made that way, and there is an obligation on the creators to treat games as art rather than just software products, just as much as there is on us as critics.

Photo of Phil Owen

Both of you took to writing about games (at least in your books) by selecting very thin slices of the form… Cara with personal experiences and interviews, Phil with a personal dive into those inconsistencies of the division between art and commerce. Do you think that personal game writing is the best way to communicate at this point?

Phil: People relate to that shit I find irritating in games culture. I got a lot of messages from people who were like “I’m not enjoying games anymore and I didn’t know how to articulate that until you explained it here.”

Cara: What makes games different from other forms of media is that the way you play them also contributes to what you see in them, which makes them an ideal kind of pub story — like you went to another land and saw a particular thing, picked up a particular thing, spoke to someone, and now you can converse with another person who also went there and had a different experience.

I think my favorite games crit is like a pub story that everyone can get in on. And it shows that games are about plurality of experience, which is very exciting.

Is that what led you to wanting to do this year long adventure of Embed With Games?

Cara: I had an innate dissatisfaction with the way that we end up telling the pub story — the word limit, the economy of games writing, the structure of ‘traditional’ games criticism, the lack of risk, the lack of time spent. All of these problems largely stem from the tiny amount of money editors can give for games criticism, which is not actually editors’ fault. Not even Rolling Stone pays writers to tour with the band any more.

Could money fix game journalism?

Cara: It’s like the education system: what if becoming a teacher was like becoming a doctor in the U.S.? What if you had to go to do a degree, then go to teacher school, then you were guaranteed that you’d be paid a shitload at the end with great quality of life. We’d have some of the smartest kids from that kind of education system because teachers would be on top of their game. But somewhere along the way the people with the money understand that stupid people buy more stuff. Education isn’t necessary for commerce, so there’s no real investment in it.

And who the fuck needs games in their life? Why do you need to be smart about games to consume them? You don’t. The weird thing is: in this economy I would much rather make asinine jokes about games and that be my major output than anything that is taken seriously, because not that many people care much about games ‘as art’ or whatever. I just wanna make dick jokes and do a routine and then leave the stage. Like you, Brock.

That’s a painfully accurate summary of my entire life. Thanks.

Cara: But Embed was sort of an experiment in what boundaries I could fuck up.

Phil: I think of mine in similar terms. I wanted to do something the way I wanted to do it, and nobody was paying for that, so I just did it.

Phil, in your book you have an excellent chapter about San Andreas (the Rock movie not the GTA game) and how it compares to the current games problem of checking things off a list. Can you explain the similarities you see between the two?

Phil: So San Andreas (the movie) is basically about The Rock and his daughter character being separated during the Worst Earthquake Ever and being subjected to a series of insane obstacles that they have to overcome. The sequence of events becomes so ridiculous that it starts to feel like these characters are actually seeking these obstacles out rather than trying to avoid them. Games usually work in a similar fashion, because they’re made up of a haphazard series of physical obstacles that you have to deal with over the course of 15 hours or more. It’s a parade of “go here, deal with this problem, go there, deal with that problem” mostly with violence.

Cara: Nobody talk shit about the Stabbings Through History series. I love to stab a person in a historical setting.

Phil: This is an old as dirt thing in games, basically being at the heart of the entire media. I once joked that Bioshock Infinite was Galaga with the pretense of a plot, and that’s far from the only game I could apply that label.

So it’s about the disconnect between the set pieces we traditionally consider entertainment and mismatching those against trying to tell meaningful stories?

Cara: I think meaningful stories can be told through game systems without having any ‘words’ happen in them, like I said, you don’t need to be literate to understand a game and how it works very often, and the coolest thing about games is that it can tell a story without that. We just don’t really invest much in that because we are so enchanted by words and by Hollywood. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons for example: I think there’s a made up language in that, from memory? So you understand that people are communicating but all the meaning you get is from visuals, gestures, play with systems. You don’t have to be very educated to get that subtext, which is cool.

Phil: At issue is intent, I think. Game stories are usually treated as one feature of many in a game, both by the people who made them and by the players.

Cara: That’s why GTA is often the most popular game worldwide: the blowing shit up translates super well. The story is totally unnecessary to have a good time. The language of blowing shit up is alive and well. On Embed I remember Katharine Neil said that she used to play arcade games in a chip shop as a kid and she always thought games were a working class medium because of that. There was no barrier there to understanding or to ‘getting’ space invaders, it was obvious what you did from the act of play.

You’re steering the conversation towards a boom of elitism in games?

Cara: Art Games can still be accessible but I think critics can operate at a level that means that we think the very high level ‘meaning’ is the only meaning we want. I don’t want the crit that says a game is a toaster, but I also hate the crit where you are essentially saying ‘I want a game that is like a book’ because I think that discounts that play itself is very important in narrative terms. I get a lot of flak for being the woman who makes dick jokes and crude observations in my work but largely I kind of do want to be the person who is read at a base level and as a very serious critic?

Phil mentioned how story is just one bullet-point feature of games’ selling points/marketing and I’ve been very obsessed with this in the last couple weeks. I’ve written a couple things about Destiny and in the comments I keep encountering dudes saying “Well, the story of Halo was just so great.” What nostalgia/collective gaslighting did we undergo where we look back and think the original Halo had a story beyond “Shooty Man Go Here Now?”

Cara: What people admired about Halo was the feeling of narrative cohesiveness. That the world was consistent. There’s a purity there when every developer is totally on board with the idea of the world, and it’s been clearly communicated. With Destiny it is obvious that they were not entirely sure what the heck they were doing with the words and the designers were very sure what they were doing with it. So it comes out the other side as a mess. I am of the personal belief that Bastion, for example, sucked. All the elements of that game were disparate: you have a JRPG style system, with green upbeat chibi-cute isometric visuals, and a cowboy style voiceover that indicated that this was a horrible broken dark world with lots of threat — none of the audio or visuals conveyed that and so to me it was very disjointed. They did a much better job with their later games.

Phil: In the big picture what bothers me is a general lack of commitment to a singular concept in games. Halo did that better than most but it’s still an experience that fits very well with the San Andreas comparison because it’s 95% “go here, shoot stuff” for hours and hours and so the result is so sprawling as to be unfocused. How you feel about that I think largely depends on your ability to compartmentalize that storytelling aspect of the game in your mind, and also your tolerance for the amount of time and effort required to get through it, which most people really don’t have.

One of the things I miss most about Cara not being in game journalism right now is your column S.EXE. where you looked at the sexual side of video games, I especially loved the bit with the author of Tokyo Vice about “grudgefucking” a Yakuza boss’ wife and how that relates to the Thief series. How do you both feel about how sex was handled in video games this year and where it can/should go from here?

Cara: Well, we still have Robert Yang. So everything is fine as long as we still have Robert Yang. Unfortunately I stopped my column without getting to Robert’s stuff, which is bad of me. Largely I stopped writing S.EXE because when I began it I had high hopes of channelling all my powers into it, but because then I accidentally launched Embed With Games, and all power was diverted to lasers for that. So a year of writing that column alongside Embed I realised I was just not doing my best work. I interviewed James Deen at the end of the run, and he just didn’t want to think about the sort of work he was doing in porn, and so it was quite a difficult interview where in the end I had to draw my own conclusions about how porn could influence games. I guess it has recently become obvious why he was so evasive and reluctant to think about his role.

Phil: I was struggling to remember any games I played this year with sex things. But then I remembered The Witcher 3. Standard B-movie boning that isn’t really creepy or weird, and really the sort of scenes that are best suited to AAA titles.

Cara: Yes! I do love The Witcher and I believe the sex scenes, which is unusual for a game.

Phil: Everybody just likes doing it in that world.

Cara: Well, I’d do it with Geralt 100%. Sterile also. No danger of babies.

Those intense eyes like woah and how he’d just JUMP right in the middle of the act because the controls are so poorly mapped? Oh baby.

Phil, tell me a bit about what it’s like to inspire such vitriol with his work that it inspired angry Ken Levine tweets and even a Penny Arcade comic.

Phil: That vitriol came from exactly the sort of people I would have wanted to get mad at me, thankfully. Levine in particular I pick on a lot in the book because he runs his mouth so much, more than most folks in his position do anyway. So like it was honestly pretty fun. They also represent a strange sort of reversal that I think has occurred recently where we’ve gone from that “are games art” debate to taking a “who gives a shit this is just for fun stance stop taking this so seriously” stance.

Penny Arcade comic from the week of Phil's book release.

Cara: It’s funny: I played System Shock 2 recently and everything in Bioshock started to make more sense. I do respect Levine because he made that game and I love it. I think what’s interesting though is that you can really only do the unreliable narrator just like that once and get away with it. And SHODAN is a much stronger character than any of his later ones.

Phil: This is a big problem with games. Everybody has one thing that they repeat forever.

I was very big into that “Games Are Art” push in 2011 and even made a movie to that effect, and I wonder today how many of the people that supported me then would hate that I’m trying to talk about games as something that should ever change or evolve.

Cara: I think games are stuck in a big commercial scary place which means that sequels are making it difficult to change. But, what is cool is that even in a sequel you can make big changes about how things are done. And of course, smaller games and devs are making radical things still, which sometimes proves that their new way of doing things can be profitable. Which then AAA designers can use as an argument to cannibalize those systems. There’s this argument that AAA and indie and AA games are somehow all at odds, but I don’t think that’s true. Tale of Tales, for example, has influenced some of the best parts of Uncharted 2.

Phil: That AAA rut is really more harmful to the business because it limits the market. There really aren’t the many people in the whole world that are going to even be able to play the sort of games that use all the buttons on a gamepad. The AAA market focuses so hard on the same group of people it always has, at the expense of growth. Those indies that branch out and find unexpected success often feel like the only ones who understand this. The market you want may not be (and probably isn’t) the one Assassin’s Creed goes after

Cara: But at the same time, I love the polish and drama of a huge AAA game and the only way to get the budget to do that is to say “This has been done before and is a safe bet.” I sound like an apologist but I don’t think anyone wants these games to go away. I think we love the event games.

Phil: I do, yes

Cara: But I do believe in them, still. I believe because I have seen the inside of some very big games, like GTA IV for example. And the people who work on these games are very informed about the interesting, weird stuff in games that is being done. They just don’t necessarily get room or time to take the risks they want. But change happens slower in AAA and that’s just the way it is. Maybe I’m just more of an optimist than Phil is.

Phil: Most people are.

Photo of Cara Ellison

Is this what you would change about games in 2016? The risks of the AAA?

Cara: I’d love to live in a time where there was more originality in AAA! But also I am still hopeful.

Phil: Bethesda, above all, should be the one leading the charge on trying new things. Shit like Fallout 4 is enormously profitable and they should be funding shit that isn’t Doom or Elder Scrolls and they’re private so they don’t have shareholder haranguing to deal with. On another note, I’d like to see commitment to cohesion. I like art shit but what really bothers me is every game being everything at once. I want some indication that everything is intended to serve a coherent vision— so that’s my letter to Santa.

In 2016, look for Phil Owen to have some follow-ups to his book alongside some writing for Playboy. Cara Ellison worked on Dishonored 2, which releases in the spring.