Learning to Play What I Love
Sometimes, it feels like gaming is an exercise in futility. The backlogs we acquire never seem to dwindle in their stock, the new releases are constantly accompanied by addictive hype, and some of the games we most look forward to playing may receive less than stellar reviews on our favorite sites, prompting us to sit down and think if we really want to invest time into playing them.
I looked forward to Kingdom Hearts III for some years, and to hear friends and the internet at large proclaim it somewhat of a failing rendered me unable to give it a straight shot to the finish. It wasn’t that I based my decision entirely off of reviews — which are, really, still just opinions — it was that people I trusted in their opinions were lamenting its story direction. I began to take my aversion more seriously. I had enjoyed the game play, the worlds, the familiar banter when I had first sat down to it. But I haven’t finished it yet. And I wonder sometimes if I had gone into it like I had Kingdom Hearts II, knowing nothing and fervently a fan, I would have had the same straggling experience.
I’m not in the industry of reviewing games or reporting gaming news, but I have hopes to be at least tangentially related to it. The pressure to keep up on new systems and work flow for industry leaders, on production updates, new technology, game releases, and competitions isn’t there for me in a work sense, but it feels pressing all the same. The sites that I often frequent — Kotaku, Polygon, IGN, Gamespot, and of course Twitter — are great enough for what they do, but the rapidity of the industry’s evolution and shifting focuses can feel like reading about a new game and its glories or failings each day instead of sitting down and giving it an actual shot to see how we feel. I never do this with books, and I’ve long ago learned to ignore most of the movie industry’s opinions after ardently loving panned movies for years, so why do I do it so often with gaming?
I like to think it’s because I want to be a part of that industry eventually, so the current landscape and those who occupy it are important to understand. But I also know it goes deeper than that, into something far more personal: that I take people’s opinions of the things that I love far too seriously.
As a child this was neither here nor there, because all the games I played I threw myself into with new, wide eyes, and being of a generation where the internet was just getting started made me hold fast to the things I already had. There weren’t limitless options at my fingertips, waiting for me to select one. I had to stand in the store aisle, appraise their stock, and pick a game knowing next to nothing about it. Sometimes games were even picked for me, and I usually played them just as well. This isn’t to say that a scarcity-bred-love model is better, just different, but it did make me more fiercely loyal to the games that I chose. Back then I didn’t have the same dedication to assiduously vetting games I would or wouldn’t enjoy based on articles I’d read, I just picked ones that sounded fascinating and played them based on what my parents could afford. I was less critical, then, because it was all I had. This involves too many hours spent on Shrek: Super Party (which received at 33 on Metacritic) and Inuyasha: Fuedal Combat (which received a 52). Neither of these games captured me the way that games like Final Fantasy XII or Kingdom Hearts eventually would, but I don’t recall hating them as vehemently as sometimes I feel I should.
My tastes as an adult reflect almost entirely how I felt as a child. I tend to take games and movies and songs at face value, enjoying them for what they give me, and largely ignoring the imperfections in lieu of those simple few hours spent swept away. It isn’t until something really captures me that I can begin to pour dedication into criticizing it. And even then I am hardly the best at breaking down the flaws of the things that I love. Because I love them. And those flaws are often why I do. Kingdom Hearts might be mix-and-match Disney and Final Fantasy, famously overzealous with belts, and ripe with lessons on unity and friendship that feel paltry compared to the deeper reflections of other games, but it didn’t matter to me then and it shouldn’t have mattered to me now.
It didn’t, actually, until people began to tell me that it should.
I am a rather milquetoast and unexciting reviewer for that very reason. I’m not good at actively calling something “bad” even if it objectively is. I was the kid in my High School lit class who stood up and proclaimed loudly to my teacher, after she’d rejected my proposal to do a book report on Maximum Ride on the grounds that it wasn’t literature, that literature didn’t really exist. She disagreed and assigned me Virginia Woolfe’s To the Lighthouse, I assume as punishment for my presumptive impetuousness, which I proceeded to ardently hate. I rebelled as a student against the norms of popular media because it often didn’t pertain to me. My attachment to books like Maximum Ride or Percy Jackson or any number of “lowbrow” manga I perused through at Barnes & Noble were indicative of my age. I was a child, and so I liked childish things. As an adult, I was supposed to put those things away. I did, in a way, because I don’t derive the same joy from those books that I might once have. I picked up a Percy Jackson book one day for the last time and never read another.
Tastes change, and I currently find myself newly immersed in and enjoying decidedly more academically acceptable works like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Wuthering Heights, as well as the dark historical non-fiction of The Ghost Map and Low Life. My teachers would be proud, but I am also of an age where those stories are more impactful to me.
Oddly, the same can’t be said for my taste in games. By all accounts I should be well enjoying the swelling emotional heights of The Last of Us, the scope and detail of Red Dead Redemption II, the lofty fantasy lore of The Witcher 3. I own the latter two and yet I have hardly ever played them. I might one day, and I might love them very much, but I didn’t buy them necessarily thinking I, specifically, would enjoy them. I bought them because everyone else seemed to love them. The consensus — and the insistence of it — seemed to be that these games were the epitome of a good gaming experience. Nearly universally acclaimed as “great.” I wondered on that as I brought out my copy of Kingdom Hearts III recently. At the risk of sounding like we shouldn’t criticize anything, I began to wonder why it felt, suddenly, like so many people cared about in which world I chose to spend my time.
Most of the games I play tend to be rather well-regarded, and I’m not trying to be dismissive of reviews that might reinvigorate the ennui of gaming production so that we have access to more stellar titles. It’s great to be critical of things, but I also think it needs to be tempered with an understanding by viewers, and reviewers who value a delicate touch, that people will enjoy things because they simply enjoy them. The rarity of certain games as a child might have Stockholm-syndromed me into liking the ones that I did, but I also have a proclivity for the heady, heart-on-their-sleeve sentimentality that is rampant in most of the games I love. Other people don’t always like these kinds of games and that’s fine.
As I’ve witnessed with FFXV and the newly teased FFXVI, people go into things with vastly different expectations. I know I do. And when these games don’t always meet our expectations, we can get accustomed to citing it as a failure or a lackluster performance and move onto the next best thing. We can be guilty of holding things to radically high standards. I want desperately to go back to loving things for what they are, warts and all, and nothing more. Because it’s exhausting to go into something, especially if it’s part of a series you already love, primed to be critical of it. I can’t do that anymore. I like to enjoy things, even if they’re bad. Like Sharknado. Or the Underworld series. Or, my god, the Twilight movie (yes, that’s right, the movie).
It isn’t to say I don’t find fault in these things, or that we should completely ignore some of the glaring issues in them. I’ve discussed openly with friends Twilight’s nauseating depictions of obsession and “love”, as has most of the internet, I’m sure there are essays on Underworld’s evident depiction of class strata and predilection to violent wars or what have you. I am an academic at heart, so I tend to view things through a critical eye naturally. But it isn’t because I wish to see flaws. Often, it’s how I can better inform my own artistic decisions and analyses. The glaring plot inconsistencies, the gaping graphical disparities, the horrid acting — I get it. I also don’t always care. I care more about the deeper implications of the things that I love, and thinking critically of them through a very literary and personal lens. Of pulling meaning from the framing of scenes, of understanding color palettes, of story beats and character evolution, and how all of it makes me feel. Sometimes, it’s also just because it’s cool. Mad Max: Fury Road is one of my favorite films for myriad reasons, but my gods if Doof Warrior isn’t one of them.
Other’s opinions of something aren’t the end all of it’s importance, as Ratatouille has shown us. You can love something that sucks, and should ignore the people who constantly tell you you shouldn’t. And besides all that, the people constantly telling you you shouldn’t shouldn’t be constantly telling you anything you didn’t explicitly ask for advice with. On the other end of it they’re just as entitled to their opinions too, so bargaining for acceptance of a beloved title it’s always the best retort.
Critical engagement is very important, it’s just a…difficult line for me to personally walk. I am very aware of my biases in my tastes, and just because I find particular characters or treatments of characters insufferable doesn’t mean I should shut up people who disagree. I abhorred the The Rise of Skywalker, and I was pretty vocal about that to friends who saw it, but if someone honestly enjoyed it for what it was I don’t feel I have the right to barge into their space and demand they see how dirty that movie did Finn, regardless of what underlying factors I think might have insidiously played into that decision, because that person might be coming at it from a completely different angle. Discussion is one thing, but I’m also not in the business of dismissing personal feelings on an art piece for the sake of an argument that carries outside of the boundaries of the movie itself. If we’re talking about production, sure, if we’re talking about the movie as a presentation…not quite so much.
It’s why it’s so strange to get into small arguments with friends who think the ending of a particular game failed it when I think it was the most brilliant thing about it. As adults we agree to disagree, but it’s hard to jump that line of which is the right answer. There shouldn’t have to be one, but so often it feels like there is.
This isn’t just an insular issue withing the confines of gaming — judgement can come from all angles, most of it exterior to the entire gaming community itself. I was lucky enough to grow up with parents and friends that didn’t mind my quirkier tastes — that often actually encouraged them — so I was never really afraid for the things that I liked. I still liked them. It wasn’t until I got older and the bar for spending time well got higher. Without those endless summer days of middle and elementary school, people began to wonder why I’d make a conscious decision to spend a bright afternoon playing Tales of Vesperia when I could be doing something more…acceptably adult. I wonder if that same judgement would hold had I been watching a show like Game of Thrones, or Sopranos, or playing a game that looked like Last of Us. It might be the same sentiment, or it might not. I’m not sure, but I speculate wildly enough when I hear people exclaim they “can’t imagine having time to play games!” when they themselves binge season long shows. It’s like we all want to compare how we spend out time. To what end? I don’t really know.
It’s not necessarily a lesson in empathy, but I sometimes find the dismissal of people’s interest, especially when it’s from friends or peers, pretty galling. We oftentimes look to people we love as sources of — if not approval, certainly care. And part of that is understanding the fact that your friend might have a weirdly visible obsession with the Office. I’m much an enabler, and often completely back my friend’s interests regardless of if they are for me (barring that they’re not unhealthy), and I think going on the internet to seek that same validation from people we admire can skew our own opinions too. Even my favorite video essayists on Youtube I find I can disagree with, and as most of them present points well and gently, I don’t often feel dismissive of them when I do!
I’ve made a pact recently to stop reading gaming reviews. I stopped reading book and movie reviews, so my new compulsion is to get off the damn internet sometimes and experience these things for what they may or may not be is not all that new. Watching the trailer, exploring the characters and story, seeing if it clicks. I don’t often have $60 to drop on games, so waiting until they go down in price makes the purchase seem more…level-headed and thoughtful (not ashamed to say I miss Blockbuster so I could try them all out before buying). I might get horribly mad or frustrated and never pick up the game again. Or I might love it, and might not have had I thought someone else’s view of it likely encapsulated how I would feel. Boundaries are good here, as is understanding balance is, as always, key. But so is the fact that remembering the lines we draw between the “highbrow” and “lowbrow” of fictional worlds is paltry. We like what we like! And that’s all right.
I’ll finish Kingdom Hearts III one day soon. And love it or hate it I think I’ll still have a grand old time.