It looks like another games publication has gone under and pulled thousands of hours of work by many, many critics under the waves with it. This time there was no warning, except maybe, if one payed close attention, a wave of layoffs, some “server issues,” but not acting on these blink-and-you-might-miss it events in your Twitter backscroll has now made years of games writing, maybe even your own, probably inaccessible. Definitely not easy to access.
This is not a new story. Big sites and small publications, all publishing informative or at the very least provocative and hotly discussed pieces of criticism go under all the time. And every time it happens I feel like a clock somewhere is resetting, that any sort of rhetorical progress made by a lumbering beast of a general news site or the more agile avant-garde magazines has been set back to zero. The effects won’t be felt immediately, of course, but eventually you start to get the creeping feeling… Didn’t I read an article that basically said the same thing once? Didn’t we already talk about this?
If there’s a feeling I’ve gotten from games crit over the past year it’s that it’s not really going anywhere. Exceptional pieces get published sometimes, but for the most part there’s a lot of wheel spinning, of going over the same thing again and again and digging us deeper into those pits. There’s a lot of reasons for this, I think. The quick turnovers and low/no pay on most sites don’t give already-pressed writers time for mature and thorough thought, time needed to produce really good work. And, just like how it’s easier for the games industry itself to continuously divert attention to the next big thing, the improvements of the next, slightly tweaked iteration of existing IP, and why a throwaway line in a Disney or Power Rangers movie is more of a feel good pop culture moment than, for example, the entirety of Moonlight, it’s easy for these sites to crank out the same tired discussions on which Overwatches are kissing now, repeating what [game developer] promises about [upcoming game], are these boobs good or not. Every time there’s an article or “hot take” in this vein, there’s a collective groan across my timeline, a “do we really have to talk about this again?” We’re all wondering when we’ll break out of the endless loop.
I want to reiterate, it’s not any writers’ fault that we keep having these discussions without going anywhere. It’s a work culture that inhibits elongated engagement, thoughtfulness, complexity. One that rewards being first out of the gate with your take rather than looking back and informing your criticism. When this profit model is combined with the fact that failed publications go offline… not out of print, possibly hard to find, but utterly obliterated, writing about games ends up having no memory, and then no history.
Any history is made by looking back and building on what came before. This is how you trace narratives through the History of Art and also the history of aesthetics and criticism that goes alongside it. And the important thing is that what happened is actually accessible. What manages to remain is what ends up becoming history. It’s the only way progress can be traced and charted, that we can make sense of what it is we’re doing. Right now, because of the pace and low pay of work, because of publications going under and, rather than only existing in library collections, ceasing to exist at all, because we’re falling into the industry’s own trap of running ahead rather than pausing to catch our breath and look back, videogames, and further, games criticism has a very poor sense of its history. A timeline of commercial consoles is often what slides into its place, but complacency with this will kill some of the most vibrant and innovative tendencies in the medium, and only accelerate how games writing matches the pace set for it by mainstream publishers.
The good thing about videogames is that their age is still pretty much within what you can expect of an average human lifespan. This means that most of the people who saw it, did it, wrote about it, are still around. This is a privilege I realize I have that, for example, a Renaissance art historian absolutely wouldn’t have. But what they have is the historical record, and I can’t say I’m certain we’ll have that, 50, 30, 10, even 5 years down the line.