An evasion of critique, or, writing about “difficult” games is difficult 1

Writing can some­times be an act of con­tri­tion, an admis­sion of fail­ure. In an effort at the­o­ry build­ing — that is, at writ­ing beyond the func­tion­al and/or instruc­tive —, we pret­ty much always encounter a wall, but don’t often say so. This is me say­ing so. Games writ­ing is now nec­es­sar­i­ly diverse, because games have become both more numer­ous and more com­plex, across a vari­ety of planes, and so have the peo­ple writ­ing about them. And yet, what we’re “doing” has no ready-made lan­guage, no coher­ent ana­lyt­i­cal frame­works, no map. We’re some­where between acad­e­mia and a diary.

Eventually, every genre, every media, has its Ulysses. I don’t know if Kentucky Route Zero is Ulysses. It’s cer­tain­ly allu­sive: a struc­tural­ly com­plex, con­fus­ing, the bril­liant and beau­ti­ful episod­ic point and click game by Cardboard Computer in which a host of char­ac­ters embark on a seem­ing­ly mean­ing­less and myth­i­cal jour­ney through the finance and pover­ty rav­aged land­scapes of rural Kentucky. Regardless, writ­ing about KRZ is not “easy”. Partly because of its episod­ic nature, and part­ly — I think — because of its dense and almost Beckettian allu­sive­ness, its seman­tic den­si­ty, KRZ seems to escape ready com­pre­hen­sion and under­stand­ing. Its mechan­ics (the word we often descend on to describe a tech­ni­cal process) are both sim­ple (lit­er­al­ly, “point and click”) and alarm­ing­ly dif­fuse (nav­i­gat­ing, by sym­bols, the Zero itself). Meanwhile, its ‘story’ – the fab­u­la itself – is slip­pery, and the for­mal frame­work around which it is arranged is com­plex. It’s per­haps the hard­est ‘text’ – not sim­ply ‘game’, but text, prod­uct, arte­fact (see? Even find­ing the right cat­e­go­ry word is tough) – that I’ve ever tried to write about. I need a break.

These are tem­po­rary notes; spi­rals of thought that have emerged from months of writ­ing on and about KRZ. I have gen­er­at­ed almost one hun­dred pages of notes, screen grabs, titles for poten­tial pieces, aban­doned drafts. Out of all of this labour – an incom­plete labour – has stemmed a sin­gle and prob­a­bly inco­her­ent arti­cle that’s cur­rent­ly in the process of edit­ing (my apolo­gies to those edi­tors, by the way). During this time I have revis­it­ed Beckett, trawled through 18th cen­tu­ry Italian engrav­ings, stud­ied David Lynch, learnt about 19th cen­tu­ry clas­si­cal music, and exam­ined the­atri­cal stag­ing, the design of the­atri­cal pro­duc­tion. I’ve also gone back to early rad­i­cal union and labour pol­i­tics in the States, the com­pa­ny store, Pinkertons, and the eco­nom­ics of debt and fore­clo­sure. It’s one thing to have con­nec­tions, ref­er­ences, link­ages, and anoth­er to attempt to snow-ball those into a coher­ent and iden­ti­fi­able, crit­i­cal frame­work. After all, what we’re doing at Ontological Geek and a host of other, com­pa­ra­ble sites, is not “review” writ­ing, but nor is it “aca­d­e­m­ic crit­i­cism”. They’re “thoughts” — struc­tured, hope­ful­ly artic­u­late. So what we’re doing is nec­es­sar­i­ly par­tial, an eva­sion of cri­tique in favour of – what? — some­thing like cri­tique, some­thing like an attempt at cre­at­ing a con­ver­sa­tion around a form of cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion (games) which can­not be reduced to a par­tic­u­lar form or read­ing. For the­o­rists Deleuze & Guattari, there’s a good con­cept for this; the rhi­zome.

The rhi­zome could be sum­marised as that which “con­nects any point to any other point, and its traits are not nec­es­sar­i­ly linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very dif­fer­ent regimes of signs, and even non­sign states. The rhi­zome is reducible to nei­ther the One or the mul­ti­ple […] It is com­prised not of units but of dimen­sions, or rather direc­tions in motion”, and “the rhi­zome per­tains to a map that must be pro­duced, con­struct­ed, a map that is always detach­able, con­nectable, reversible, mod­i­fi­able, and has mul­ti­ple entrance­ways and exits and its own lines of flight”.1 A “recom­bi­nant poet­ics”, as some­one else put it. So you have a form of the­o­ry build­ing that actu­al­ly is at home with the idea of an object that is dif­fuse and dynam­ic, which requires a map, albeit a map which might fail, or will get us lost.

Maybe we’re not prop­er­ly equipped to write long-form about video games — espe­cial­ly those games which excel in their own obscu­ri­ty and strange­ness — and are not used to it, or are stand­ing in the pri­mor­dial sludge of it. But that’s not to say that the ground isn’t being pre­pared, and in fact we’ve become much more used to the close and sus­tained tex­tu­al analy­sis of games (beyond the acad­e­my, even). It’s just that the “text” is strange, and we can actu­al­ly change it. We can change its state. And, per­haps unlike a book, it can glitch. Burn a book and it’s unread­able. Damage a com­put­er game, cor­rupt its base files, and you get a new prod­uct entire­ly, one that is unex­pect­ed. But even when uncor­rupt­ed KRZ remains a con­scious­ly “dif­fi­cult” game —intel­lec­tu­al­ly, visu­al­ly, poet­i­cal­ly — that’s also its beau­ty. Its form, play, and con­tent throw up sur­pris­ing events and imag­i­na­tions. To write about it, as if it were sim­ply a “game”, is fan­tas­ti­cal­ly hard. But it also still is a game. For KRZ, and games like it, it might be best to think with the rhi­zome in mind. You build your the­o­ry as you go. I promise that those arti­cles on KRZ are com­ing.

  1.  Deleuze, C. & Guattari, F. 2004. Thousand Plateaus: cap­i­tal­ism and schiz­o­phre­nia. A&C Black. p. 23 []

One thought on “An evasion of critique, or, writing about “difficult” games is difficult

  • Pieter H

    You’re so right–we are not equipped. I’ve been crawl­ing through Pillars of Eternity (which I sus­pect is much less dense a text than KRZ), and Undertale, and try­ing to fig­ure out how the hell to talk about a text that not only tells me dif­fer­ent things through dif­fer­ent lens­es, but lit­er­al­ly gives me a dif­fer­ent text depend­ing on how I inter­act with it. How am I sup­posed to know what it’s say­ing when I don’t always know how I’ve shaped what it’s say­ing? An inter­est­ing par­al­lel to the issue of my own per­son­al bias­es seems to be my dis­crete, map­pable choic­es. Am I sup­posed to assume the text has enough coherence/integrity that what­ev­er it says in one “instance” is said in all? (Does any text have that kind of coher­ence or integri­ty? Is it ever real­ly rea­son­able to expect this?) All that’s to say…I sym­pa­thize! And I real­ly look for­ward to your work on KRZ.

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