One of the challenges in writing about games is translating your experience into something relatable to those who haven’t played, or even those who haven’t played the same way. In fact, I’m convinced that this particular barrier to entry is one of the main reasons that game writing strikes novices as so obtuse. Writing about games often takes the tenor of “You had to be there.” As it happens, however, this problem is not unique to games. Both food and music criticism share similar trials. What better way to explore their similarities to games than through the lens of critics! Adam Platt is the food critic for New York Magazine and Scott Plagenhoef was previously the editor-in-chief of Pitchfork. Here’s what ensued from our dialogue:
Some feel that game critics are for directing purchase decisions, while others think writing about games should aim for some higher aesthetic standard. This starts with considering how the medium is best approached. Here are the food and music responses to what it means to be a critic.
Adam Platt: The idea of what an old-style restaurant critic is, you go to the restaurant two or three times and you go with enough people to order the entire menu.
But more and more, with magazines and papers not having the budgets, and websites not having a budget at all, they don’t have the wherewithal to do this, especially for the fancy places. Then they will have a meal and judge something. Whether that’s the optimal way to do it is open to debate. Being a dinosaur, probably not. The other thing, when you’re dealing with restaurants, it’s different than books or movies. In all those cases, you’re dealing with the one static uniform experience. Chefs get sick, and you’re sitting next to a bunch of idiots. It’s an amalgam of subjective impressions. As a critic you need to roll out into one fairly coherent review.
Scott Plagenhoef: The way you experience a record is important, which is kind of ironic in this day and age. You never just sit down and just listen to music. You plug into your ears and soundtrack your life. Gaming is a foreground activity by comparison.
We take our time and try not to get roped into the vogue for saying something as quick as possible. The need to value speed over any other quality, over context, over how well you communicate your thoughts, over what you’re saying—it’s become detaching yourself to a song or an artist, and then being able to say quickly that you like something, and recognize some quality, and then move on. Especially with Twitter and MP3 blogs, you just put something up—there’s often an anti-intellectual streak. You’re not communicating thoughts, because you can pass on a three- or four-minute song. Providing the song then becomes a substitution for criticism. Being the vessel through which someone else becomes the vessel. That becomes the critic’s role. If that’s your value, speed will be a huge weapon in your arsenal.
Game publishers put constraints on time and access. They have control over when a title is released, and often enact strict embargoes so that all opinions “hit” at the same time. As with the advent of digital distribution, which can vary when and how games hit the market, speed is the hot-button issue.
Platt: The restaurant should be open for a month, so you go two or three times. You eat the whole menu and then run through the whole process of the experience of the restaurant. You go multiple times, because things are changing. Then you write an old-fashioned reasoned review with an introduction and flowery quips and conclusion. This is true of all criticism: The internet changes everything. It’s sped up and fragmented, since it’s a medium through which they’re processing the information. Even the idea of a critic being paid money to give you an opinion is obviously under attack.
As in records and in foods, the internet has made everything faster. People are now going to restaurants. Underground restaurants, Mexican restaurants, the burger craze. They’re running out for a place that’s open for a day. That stands in for criticism, but the question is, does it make a difference?
Games allow us to “author experiences,” as writer Tom Bissell put it, but that also makes them deeply subjective. In an open-world game like Grand Theft Auto IV, we can’t guarantee that anyone will even see the same thing that we did. Like music and food—where the composition of a given dish is literally different every time you experience it—games are a medium in constant flux.
Plagenhoef: In a lot of rock criticism and indie-rock criticism, it’s been common that a sort of the central sensibility causes them to gravitate towards what is “rock” and “indie.” People are comfortable agreeing that music is cerebral or contemplative. There are institutional biases [that have lasted] for many years. But if we engage with something, ideally we engage with it from the point of view as someone who wants to like it. A dubstep or jazz or reggae record review can’t be from someone who has a problem engaging with it.
That’s been the biggest ideological concern with the music critic world. Something that’s often called “rockism,” bringing a specific set of biases and then applying them to other types of music that aren’t relevant. That’s something we’ve strongly tried to avoid.
Platt: Food is different. The music world is so vast, these days, and fragmented. Food is different and much more local. There aren’t national restaurant critics anymore. Most operate in their own little world. People have all sorts of biases and peeves and preferences. Mainly what I think you try to be [as a critic], and what you’re looking for in a critic, is a sense of knowledge and a background to know what they’re taking about.
I don’t like certain things. That’s the way it is. But really you’re looking for some sense of background.
The idea of “completion” is simple for narrative-driven games. But how long should you play a puzzle game like Bejeweled before deciding you can write about it? How many times should one listen to a record, and how many days should a food critic give to a menu before coming to a conclusion?
Platt: When you’re writing about food, it’s more subjective than food or music or videogames. It’s a matter of taste or preference. I wrote review of [chef] David Cho’s new place. I only went to Ko one time. It’s an omakase, Japanese-style, chef’s choice place, so here’s only one menu and everyone gets the same thing. It’s only 10 to 15 seats. The menu changes every month or so. I went there once because they only serve the same food for months. I wrote my review and the irony was that people who went the most went nuts. “Oh, he hasn’t gone four times so he hasn’t enjoyed it.” The reason I didn’t do that was because there was this big appetite. People wanted to know about the restaurantnow. You can’t win.
The other thing is that you can read what I wrote and you can read another critic, so often it’s completely different even if it’s the same restaurant. In my experience of 10 years, it happens quite a lot. There’s a fair amount of variance.
Plagenhoef: In most cases, you’ll get those kind of reactions when people are looking for a reason why you don’t agree with them. They’re going to want to think there’s some flaw in your process if you have a difference of opinion. But really with the speed thing, we get the total opposite. Recently Radiohead announced they were releasing a new record. They’re the one band that can give away the record at the same time—just like the old days. They’re the only ones who control the leaking. They released the record on Friday. The next day, the Guardian had the first review. They all felt the need to put an instant reaction. We had people emailing us about how slow we were. We put the review up six days later. That was as quickly as we’d ever turn something around. That’s extraordinarily rare. We said, here’s our measured response. Here’s what we want to be in our archives for the next 10 years. It’s extraordinary how quickly people demand you react. We don’t get complaints about speed—just that we’re too slow.
What do you think? Are games more like music or food? Is one playthrough enough, or is it too much? Should we keep our idiosyncratic tastes in check, or indulge in them? And does timeliness matter?
Photograph of omakase by Sifu Renka