Mitch Krpata pointed me to an article on GameSetWatch about the state of games criticism. The game writers who Michael Walbridge interviewed for this article, who include writers for mainstream print magazines, the enthusiast press, and bloggers, are collectively responsible for the much of really exciting current writing about games. (Many of their blogs are located on the sidebar) All of them share a dedication to developing a critical language for games that is of the same rank as our critical language for other forms of media, advancing our understanding of a medium whose dynamics are unlike those of other art forms. Krpata justifiably questions whether there is an audience for this kind of thing, and concludes there are grounds for hope on this score.
He points out that the differing needs of the current audiences for games criticism pose fundamentally different tasks for the someone who wants to explain what games are about. Hardcore gamers and the readers of the mainstream press ask very different questions of game criticism. When he approaches a discussion of a game, a gamer usually asks: “Should I buy this game?” This is typically a question about the quality of the gameplay in the game, how fun it is. The reader of non-enthusiast press, being generally older, is unlikely to have played enough games and developed the skills necessary to understand the details of a game's gameplay relevant to answering this question. Even if they could understand a breakdown of how the game's mechanics work and why they are good and bad, I can't think why a non-gamer would be interested. When they read about other media, laymen usually also ask whether or not the work considered is worth their time and investment. But they also ask: “What is this work trying to say?” In the past year you can find articles in major mainstream outlets who respond to this latter question, and it's cheering that games are beginning to receive the same sort of coverage garnered by other cultural objects like books and cinema and TV shows on a regular basis. But there are a few problems that come along with sticking to the latter question as well.
The first is that the virtues of many excellent games begin and end with their gameplay. What makes video games fun to play is for the most part not susceptible to chin-scratching analysis. It just is immensely enjoyable to shoot a zombie in the head with a shotgun. Explaining its magic is like explaining the Tristan chord. When you look at a game like Resident Evil 4, widely considered one of the best games of the last five years, you realize that this experience of throwing buckshot into the living dead at close range is that game's gift to the world. Beyond that it doesn't have much to say, exactly.
The second is that in some cases it's hard to explain what a game is trying to say without looking to the way the game's narrative and themes are mediated and reinforced by the gameplay. Games don't stand up to other media when it comes to the sophistication of their stories, but some have wed story to gameplay in such a way that they mutually reinforce each other and in so doing have produced experiences unavailable in other forms of art. In some cases, like the acclaimed game ICO, the central relationship at the heart of the story is almost entirely conveyed through play mechanics. It's hard to communicate how a game does this to someone who doesn't play games, but on the other hand you miss out on one of the basic ways that games can be artful if you don't try.
Tycho (not his real name) at the site Penny Arcade described his own approach, and his suggestive description seems like a good course to me: “It is my goal to play a game until I discover its thesis... Essentially, I want to know a game's intention.” This is different from asking what it tries to say; a game's intention might just be providing a determinate and new type of fun. But if games writers can develop the vocabulary necessary to convey a game's intentions to a wider audience they will have accomplished a great deal.