Does Video Game Criticism Need a Pauline Kael?

Pauline_kael_splash In Pop Matters, L. B. Jeffries wonders:

Greg Costikyan, who co-founded Manifesto Games and writes for the indie games blog Play This Thing! wrote an impassioned piece in February of 2008 calling for real criticism in video games. He argues that video games, caught up in consumer culture, only produce buyer’s guides. Proper criticism, he argues, does not depend upon whether or not you should buy something, but rather answers the “why, and how, and to what end.” One of the people he distinguishes from consumer guide writing is Pauline Kael. She was a critic who would better inform the audience, hold filmmakers to task, and explain the cultural impact of films to a broader audience. How would a person go about doing that in video games?

Kael is an interesting person to hope video game criticics will aspire to given the intense relationship she had with her artistic medium. Being mostly unfamiliar with her work, I was told I Lost It at the Movies was her best book and picked up a copy. I’ve seen about a third of the movies she references, but many of her larger observations about some films are outside my personal experience. As with the Lester Bangs piece, the goal here is to study her methods and see what someone dealing with a superficially unrelated medium could borrow.

Kael, much like video game critics today, was faced with a massive philosophical shift in her chosen artistic medium that large quantities of critics were against. This occurred during the ‘60s and ‘70s when sex, anti-heroes, and films that didn’t mindlessly make everyone happy were being released. David Cook, in A History of Narrative Film, marks this era of film with the release of Bonnie and Clyde. Its advertising slogan sums the film up decently: “They’re young! They’re in love! And they kill people!” Many critics panned the film, but it went on to become a box office smash. The problem with the movie is that if you walk in expecting a traditional gangster film, it’s not very good. If you walk in expecting a sharp political satire that blends comedy, violence, and sex, then it’s brilliant. Kael, at the time of Bonnie and Clyde’s release, was one of the few who stood up for it.