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Criticism

Kaiji is a manga about a young man named Itou Kaiji driven into a series of increasingly desperate and outlandish gambles to escape debt and save his own life. The first two parts of have received animated adaptations, but currently the manga itself is partway through its fifth series. I would highly recommend at least the first season of the anime, which is a fairly well self-contained arc that captures most of the themes of the series. The tension falls off somewhat in the second season, and though it remains interesting, the tone is less desperate and the implications are less dire.

Kaiji is a one-two punch, where the gambles themselves are intriguing and compelling games of deduction, logic, and chance, but the significance extends beyond the momentary intrigues and into the larger implications of being willing to gamble your life, and what could drive someone into that situation. Come for the head games, stay for the heartache – because, while at first gambling may seem to be a relatively frivolous and lightweight topic compared to the grand and bloody conflicts that are often grist for our fiction, for those stuck in poverty, money is often equivalent to life, and the battles over it are seldom bloodless.

While Kaiji’s possesses extraordinary luck, cleverness, and will to survive, perhaps his strongest trait is his ability to see the best in people, which is often interestingly played off against his opponent’s uncanny ability to see the worst in people. He sees strengths and plays to counter or use them, while his opponents see weaknesses and seek to attack or shore them up. Because he wants to see the best in people, though, he is often exploited and betrayed – the debt that originally ensnares him wasn’t even his own, just a contract he naively cosigned on for a friend, and he only gradually learns not to blindly trust those who seem friendly. His opponent’s, perhaps correctly, see this as a huge weakness – but are ignorant when they consider it solely a weakness. His ability to believe in people is also the strength that allows him to succeed, both to trust allies and, perhaps more crucially, to respect his opponents’ abilities to be clever and insightful and to play against the best version of them, rather than choosing his moves based on some simpleminded strawman of his imagination.

Some might consider the way that Kaiji wins games to be cheating: In many cases he twists the rules of the game, changes the situation in ways that shape the odds in his favor. However, since the games he plays in are inevitably rigged in the first place, set up to be almost impossible to win, his opponents seldom feel that he has broken any rules. Can you accuse someone of cheating when the primary thing that their gambit achieves is exposing and undermining the unfair advantage you’ve already given yourself? Certainly, if the game were otherwise fair, taking the advantages he takes would be cheating, but they aren’t and never were. Fairness and honor are fine ideals, but their most common usage in practice is to prevent people who are weak and isolated from usurping power from those who are strong and backed by institutional power. Who created the idea of honor, and who benefits from it?

Money is important to everyone, but the significance it takes on in Kaiji is monstrous, outsized and harrowing. Those who participate in the games do so because they have little choice, because their debts have become so extreme that passing up any opportunity, however dangerous, to make a large amount of money at once would be unthinkable. And, by being forced to participate in these gambles, more of them lose out than gain: After all, the house always wins. The house, in this case, is The Teiai Group, holder of all these debts and runner of all these gambling events. Even those who win these brutal gambles are usually left still deep in debt, still needing gamble again for any hope of escape – and, in the meanwhile, those running the show can enjoy the bloody spectacle while they profit off of it. Because, once you accept that a human life can be measured by money, the rest – death, mutilation, slavery – is just haggling over numbers. Perhaps few people would agree that human life is worth money, stated in those words – however, as societies, we assume it to be so, assume it to be good and just that food and medicine and other necessities for survival should cost, blithely and easily believe, deep down, that what gives money its value is that it can feed us and shield us, but that its power as a magic talisman is lost if no one is out there goes starving and unsheltered for its lack.

It’s sometimes difficult, when making a story about struggling and surviving in the face of societal evil not to, in so doing, accidentally justify that evil – that is to say, most stories we tell are told of heroic characters succeeding despite tremendous odds, and unfortunately this tends to dovetail into the many myths of meritocracy that are used to prop up systems that exploit and abuse. Many of the ongoing themes of Kaiji are about never giving up hope and always figuring out a plan of action instead of praying for luck to carry you through. From one perspective, this could easily be seen as a story about rugged individualism, about being exceptional and rising above your circumstances and winning freedom by any means possible, about survival of the fittest – certainly, this is how The Teiai Group views their games, as opportunities for the strong to prey on the weak. However, the fact that injustice can be struggled against should never blind us to it being unjust: We can plan all we want, be as clever and strong and smart and lucky as possible, but when the deck is stacked against us the best we can ever manage is to somehow even the odds. When your opponent controls the every mechanism of the game, it’s impossible for most people to win – though it can still happen, sometimes, very rarely, and these rare examples of victory serve to justify the game, demonstrate its fairness and equitability, even as it chews up and spits out human lives by the hundreds and thousands.

At the same time, though, as it highlights the vicious abuses enabled by money, this series laments the inaction and poor decision-making that brought the debtors captured by Teiai’s machinations, and places much of the responsibility for their predicaments upon themselves. They were reckless and driftless, treating everything that came their way as though it were a game, never grasping at an opportunity or truly dedicating themselves, and their lives would never go anywhere without taking a risk – a deadly risk – a desperate gamble. But, in the end, everyone ends up worse off for having taken the gamble, for taking the risk, the proffered opportunity, and Teiai profits. It is an irresistible bait: Advancement, safety, recovery, redemption. Placing this bait is an ingenious method of creating competition, division, and violence among those who would otherwise recognize Teiai, and the profiteering in human suffering they represent, for what they are, and strive against them with all their might.

This method of dividing people with petty rewards is extremely common in the real world as well, in ways only barely more subtle than Teiai’s blood sports.

Kaiji recognizes this evil and rails against it, but in many ways he is powerless to resist. As the series progresses, he comes to crave the sense of meaning and purpose he finds in these do-or-die games of wits. Whenever he’s not on the verge of disaster, on the verge of losing everything and dying ignominiously, he feels purposeless, aimless. Though the series has not yet concluded, at this rate it seems that whatever he wins he will never be able to keep, and ultimately it will end up sieving between his fingers and back into Teiai’s coffers, because he doesn’t know when to stop. Is it addiction? Is it post-traumatic stress? In this situation, is there a difference between not knowing what to do with your life when it isn’t in danger and being let go of the grudge and sorrow of past gambles?

Maybe the house really does always win. If so, we need to change the game.

Most games are power fantasies. It would be nice, perhaps, if games focused on providing more diverse and interesting experiences, but, still, there’s nothing wrong with a good power fantasy… right? However, sometimes creating that fantasy of capability involves undermining the actual ability for the player to express their personal competence. Sometimes we create a fantasy that no longer has a place for the player.

Let’s look at level-up systems for a moment. Originally, in the Pen and Paper role playing games where they originated, they were a way to create a sensation of character growth and progress, increasing their agency within the world created by the dungeon master (sometimes to the DM’s dismay). Later, in video game RPGs, they maintained the sensation of growth but without really adding to the player’s agency, since they were still constrained to the sandboxes the developers had devised for the player. Later still, in MMORPGs, levels became a way to restrict the player, hiding game content behind challenges that were beyond them and drip-feeding that content to the player as they slowly grinded up.

All of the above may seem similar in concept and in practice, but the slight differences – from having challenges constructed for your un-mighty character, to having challenges constructed to funnel your un-mighty character into becoming mighty, to challenges constructed to keep you busy until might was, inevitably, in the due course of things achieved, end up creating a vastly different experience. The difference is in the goal that is presented. In the classic pen and paper RPG, the goal is to complete the adventure: Experience and treasure are things you accumulate along the way to ensure that you are prepared for a bigger better adventure next time, but the current adventure is always your primary concern. In the classic video game RPG, the goal is completing the grand adventure, ensuring that you tackle the game’s challenges in the proper order to complete the quest that is the game. In most MMORPGs, the goal is to get to the maximum level, which is where the real game starts since you’re finally at a high enough level to hang out with the big kids. Now, once you actually reach that level there are other goals that are dangled for you – PvP arenas, high-level dungeons, mini-games, and so forth, but these are mostly gated behind reaching that maximum level.

We’ve created a collision between min-maxing mentality of creating the best adventurer that can do the best adventures against the role-playing mentality of trying to create the most interesting adventurer that can have the most interesting adventures – and, sadly, and the former has decisively won. Higher level characters are more powerful than low-level characters – therefore you should always prefer having a high level character – therefore any low-level game content is, by definition, there to be rushed through as fast as possible so you can get to the biggest, therefore most impressive, and therefore best, part of the game.

It’s an experience that’s difficult for me to get excited about. To me, becoming strong is far more interesting than being strong, doing important things is more worthwhile than being an important person. Thus, what should be the most interesting part of the game, the story of how your hero became heroic, becomes a rote exercise, becomes an extended tutorial. But what is the appeal of ultimate power, when it comes to playing a game? It’s much harder to make a good Superman game than it is to make a good Batman game, but MMORPGs presume that we’d rather play Superman than Batman.

It’s saddening that, in a genre full of so many possibilities, this is what has become the industry standard. Why have leveling at all? Why have a journey to reach mastery if all that happens on that journey is trivial and unimportant? If the real story of the game is about the struggles of demi-gods, why even bother making the player chew through a 50 hour preamble about the birth of those demi-gods? In the end, we have a genre of games which are all uncomfortable compromises between the many things they are assumed to be, paying tribute to all and committing to none.

I don’t like making recommendations.

Other people seem to be very comfortable with it. For many, the calculation seems quite straightforward: “I enjoyed it, so I recommend it. I didn’t enjoy it, so I don’t recommend it”. I envy the simplicity of this approach; merely contemplating it fills me with anxiety.

Here is a partial sampling of the things I worry about when I am considering recommending something:

  1. Did I enjoy it?

  2. Does the fact that I enjoyed it imply a likelihood that this person I’d recommend it to would enjoy it?

  3. Do I think my enjoyment reflects well on me?

  4. If they don’t enjoy it as much as I did, will I resent them for it?

  5. If they don’t enjoy it as much as I did, will they lose respect for me for recommending something bad?

  6. If they do enjoy it as much as I did, will they never shut up to me about it?

  7. Will they enjoy it for the wrong reasons and I’ll have to pretend to agree with them?

  8. If I recommend it to them, will they resent the implicit pressure to engage with that recommendation and never actually check it out when otherwise they might have done so independently?

  9. If I recommend it to them, will I make them feel so pressured that, when they eventually do check it out, it becomes a joyless exercise?

And so on.

Maybe the issue is that I don’t really believe in mass communication. All communication ultimately boils down to a connection between two people: One, encoding a thought process into words and gesture, the other interpreting that through their understanding of verbal and body language. It is so personal: How can a general statement like “You should check out this awesome game” make any sense if it isn’t tailored for one specific person? How can we declare that something is good or worthwhile without taking into account specific tastes?

Most often we just don’t. Critics talk about their personal experience, what worked for them or didn’t work for them, trusting the reader to measure that described experience against their own preferences to decide whether this seems like a worthwhile experience. However, the audience for video games criticism is notoriously hostile towards these sorts of personal experiential statements, which puts game critics in quite a pickle since it’s really the only way to actually evaluate anything in a way that makes sense.

All of this might seem like splitting hairs. It might seem like I’m willing to take every step that one would associate with a recommendation or endorsement – the enthusiastic and specific praise, the testimonial, the frequent mention of interesting and unique features – but detest taking the final step of saying “you should go play/read/see/eat that game/book/movie/pasta.”

God help me if I ever get popular enough to acquire some kind of sponsored monetary backing – my anxious honesty will be my undoing. Actually, my anxious honesty may already be largely responsible for my lack of being done in the first place.

Anyway Hollow Knight is a good game, Colossal is a good movie, 1Q84 is a good book and basically all pasta is good.

PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS is a very silly name for a very strange game. The oddness of this game isn’t apparent at first: It looks and sounds like the most generic first person shooter ever made, where a hundred players are dropped into an island arena scattered with weapons and whoever manages to be the last person (or group) standing wins. PUBG is only the latest of what seems to be a burgeoning genre of battle royale games, and improves upon its predecessors by consolidating and simplifying boring mechanics while adding a lot of interesting and (sometimes) useful items to find, along with a few choice subtle nods to realism that mostly add new ways for things to go hilariously wrong.

None of this sounds strange, of course. No, what makes this game strange is that it’s incredibly popular while being blatantly, overtly unfair. This is so interesting to me because the idea of a game like this being successful even a few years ago is unimaginable to me: A game with the trappings of a hard core competitive tactical shooter, where skill can frequently be overcome by dumb luck – who would possibly want such a game? But now people do want it, and I wonder about what has shifted to make this something that we crave.

What’s changed, I suspect, is that people no longer expect fairness. PUBG feels right: It combines skill and luck in a way that feels real in a way that most shooters with more realistic graphics don’t – since most of those games are compelled to hold true to certain game design ideals of skill-based meritocracy. In the battlegrounds, finding good loot early on rolls into ‘finding’ better loot later, as you can easily kill less well-equipped opponents and take theirs. However, clever play can easily make up for an equipment disadvantage, and a well-timed ambush will easily leave an opposing team dead and their resources at your disposal. And yet, as the playable space is closed off, even if you have all these advantages, if you just so happen to be in a bad location you’re still at a huge disadvantage. Resources, skill, and luck: You usually need all three to survive.

It sounds awfully familiar.

It makes sense that it’s a game we crave now. It makes sense to model the gaps and myths of meritocracy, to reify this growing suspicion that the world isn’t fair and all we can do is our best and hope that it’s enough. It feels like we’re playing paintball themed around the collapse of capitalistic ideology – made all the more poignant by the game environments themselves being themed around soviet ruins. And, in the end, whether we win or lose, we’re given a few virtual coins – which we can use on a new coat or pair of shoes, to take away the sting of losing, over and over and over.

Which, too, seems familiar.

To play PUBG is to resign oneself to dying over and over and over again. Even very skilled and experienced players seldom can manage better than a 10% victory rate. We try to do the best we can, and give ourselves to fate.

And, if we can spend time with friends while we do so, so much the better.

Most games only give us weapons. Yes, some also give us a button for talking, and a handful allow us to guide a conversation but, more often than not, all we can do is shoot or cut. Our only windows into the worlds of these games, then – worlds of love and loss, myth and legend, tragedy and comedy – are the holes we carve into them for ourselves. Our perspectives of violence shape these worlds, and our experiences within them, but a world far vaster and more meaningful than our small, mean, and violent place within them can still be implied. Even if a vast cathedral becomes just set dressing for a gunfight, even if it has nothing to do with us at all, it still implies a religion, still implies builders, still implies history.

It’s impossible not to feel a little out of place, even if this church is made explicitly to have a gunfight happen in it. We are still intruders against the spirit of what this place might once have been.

Game designers have started acknowledging the strangeness and off-puttingness of this innate violence more explicitly in their designs. Yet, despite knowing that these constructs will always seem weird and artificial, we are still loath to pass beyond the types of games we once loved. We still want to fight nazis and zombies, dragons and aliens – but now, perhaps, we’re more interested in having a good reason to do so. It becomes difficult to ignore the suggestion that every enemy must once have been a person like us – and, if so, what does it mean about them, and about us, if we kill them? Even when it’s all make-believe, it still has to make a certain amount of sense – and what’s implied when you think about it too much, or think about it at all, was all to often very ugly.

So now we play ghosts, terrifying beyond comprehension, imbued only with the power to deal death. Revenants, returned from the grave to right wrongs. The last few games I’ve played, Dark Souls and Axiom Verge and Hollow Knight, feature a protagonist who stands at the boundary of life and death. These characters return from beyond the clutch of the grave to fix the world that wouldn’t allow them rest. We, as players, occupy these border characters, avatars of the boundary separating life from death, and fight to bring peace – even if it’s the peace of a shared grave. We are recontextualized from a murderous opponent into a kind of shaman, helping long-restless spirits find peace at last.

As I develop my game, write out its story and characters, I find myself walking this same path, creating this same archetype. The framing is different but, still, my protagonist stands at the boundary of life and death with the others, poised to guide misplaced souls from one side to another.

This might not seem new. After all, heroes have brushes with death all the time: “No one could have survived that” is a cliché for a reason. What’s changed is there’s an explicit acknowledgment that even if we fight for the right reasons, even if there really was no other way, we are still beyond the pale. We have no place in the world we are fighting for. We are remnants of the trauma that made us. At the end of the ghost story, the ghost is laid to rest, the haunting past uncovered and resolved.

Perhaps, as time moves forward, we will create games more comfortable with non-violence. Perhaps, as well, we’ll find new and interesting ways to contextualize our violence into a world and story in ways that don’t seem crass and tone-deaf. If so this may be a discrete generation of games we can look back to: The twilit years of Dark Souls, where we all stood on the boundary of the afterlife and judged who might live and who must die.

 

Evaluating art is difficult. Or, to be more precise, while the evaluation happens quite easily and naturally as we look back on our experiences with the work and judge the impressions they left upon us, what’s actually difficult is trying to share those evaluations with others – in other words, to be a critic, to find some way of describing the work in a way that will let other people guess at what their personal experience may be like, to encode something essential about the art into words.

It’s not really possible to make a definitive statement on the quality of a piece of art. In order to argue that a work of art is good, we are actually forwarding two separate arguments for each point we make. The first argument we make is that this work of art has some particular noteworthy aspect. Observations in this vein might include; element A is harmonious (or disharmonious) with element B in a particular way; this aspect of the work expresses (or fails to express) something important about the world we live in in; this work is similar to (or dissimilar to) this other particular work in some particular respect. However, none of these map to ‘good’ (or bad). We can say we like them, we can make claims about the benefits of the insight they offer, but that doesn’t make them ‘good’ per se.

Thus, once we present the argument that this work has this noteworthy aspect, if we want to argue that the work itself is good or bad we have to then argue that the aforementioned noteworthy aspect is good or bad. Most critical works omit the second step. Consumer reviews skip this step by way of having implicit assumptions about what comprises a good work; more artistic criticisms bypass this step via a common understanding that the reader may decide whether they value a given aspect or not.

For instance, most game reviews tend to omit any argument as to whether a noted aspect is actually desirable or not: they tend to assume that an aspect is good if it adheres to the mark set by a previous game that was generally considered to be good. Or, often, they don’t even draw a connection to a real game, just invoke a sort of unspoken platonic ideal of gamehood – the ideal gaming experience, like living within a story, where everything seems completely real and everything you might imagine happening happens just as you’d imagine it would. To the extent which games approach this ideal, they largely manage to do so, not by expanding the possibilities of game creation, but by constraining the imagination that shapes these expectations.

For those of us who chose long ago to reject the idea of a single ideal game, it can be difficult to formulate criticisms that still feel weighty and meaningful without using the implicit assumptions most game reviews are built off of. Nevertheless, if we want to push people towards interesting experiences – and why are we here, if not for interesting experiences? – then we have to formulate these arguments.

And, when I say ‘we’, I don’t mean professional critics, or even more generally those who write about art. I mean anyone who ever wants to get their friend to play a game they loved, anyone who wants to lead horses to water in the manner most likely to get them to drink. Learning how to express what we love about something is a skill that is tested for all of us eventually, one way or another – so it can be helpful to think about how these arguments are made, and just how much usually goes unsaid, assumed and uninterrogated, in the process of describing what we love about the things we love.

It’s hard to be critical without becoming a curmudgeon. There’s a natural process that occurs: I have an opinion about a game or other work. Someone disagrees with that opinion. To defend my opinion, I restate it in new terms, I build on it, I elucidate it and iterate upon it. Two results arise from this: One, my opinion slowly develops into a well-practiced rant; two, when I uncan this rant, over and over, to make my case, I steadily build up a negative association with the thing I was ranting about.

Opinions, restated, grow bigger and broader. “I liked it but it had flaws” becomes “It had serious problems” becomes “I hate that stupid bullshit game”, by a process that’s hard to fight once it begins. This is not solely the domain of negative opinions: If you like a game enough to defend it when other people are attacking it, that, too, makes it take on an outsized significance as something good and precious, far beyond the work’s original impact. The effort spent arguing and justifying a viewpoint melts into time spent attacking or defending a work – and, after all, why would you spend all your time defending it if it wasn’t wonderful? Why would you spend all of your time attacking it if it wasn’t terrible?

All of which circles the drain of the big idea, which is this: You can’t criticize an experience you have had without changing that experience. The same way casting enough light on an experiment to see its outcome might change that outcome, examining an experience closely, dissecting what works for you and what doesn’t, putting that into words, these all leave a mark. The very act of remembering, of interpreting your past, reshapes that memory like fingerprints on a wax cylinder.

This is not a bullet you can dodge. This is not a problem you can solve. This is what it means to have a memory and to form an opinion; this is what it means to discuss art with others. And it is, more often than not, beneficial: Making and hearing critical arguments can bring parts of the work that seemed extraneous and limp suddenly to life, to awaken with meaning. Even the harshest criticism cannot be made without implying the existence of a better way, and this too can help us appreciate art in new ways.

Still, there’s a part that always wants to go back. We might wish for a purer experience, one that belongs to us wholly alone. We may miss, sometimes, being the person we used to be, being carefree or naive or even foolish, and the way that that allowed us to experience life. But the you who misses that now is the same you who sees things differently now; were you to go back, you wouldn’t be able to enjoy the fulfillment of the longing you now feel, it would merely be just the way things are for you, and probably the way you would then always expect them to be.

Critical insight becomes part of us. Once you learn how to play piano, you can’t listen to a sonata the same way again. Once you learn how games are made, you won’t be able to play a game the same way again. Every time you learn something new, you become a new person, angled by degrees away from the trajectory you once occupied.

It hurts. Growth tends to.

It’s helpful, though, to be aware of your critical process. To witness your opinion forming, to construct your arguments with intent, to be aware of your justifications calcifying. To forge ahead without this insight is to allow your beliefs to be shaped not by what you find good or beautiful or just, but merely by how strenuously those beliefs are opposed by others.