I bought Watch_Dogs this week. I played it. It’s a game. I have to admit that while I was playing Watch_Dogs this week, I was thinking about a different Ubisoft game. I wanted to finish my new game+ on Child of Light.
Writing criticism about Child of Light is tough. I like it. If this were a review of it, I’d tell you something about how it’s an excellent piece of fantasy genre fiction for children; that it has rhyming dialogue, gorgeous water color and pen art, and a new battle mechanic; that its rhyme scheme and meter are forced at times and its genre fiction is sometimes stuck in a children’s fable rut; and, that these things don’t detract from what is a refreshing take on tired material that shows games can be what I’ve always expected—better.
Instead, I want to talk about Child of Light as an example that challenges our typical critical methods in reviews. Specifically, it shows how we struggle to understand authorship and audience in game reviews.
Auteur theory is a way of talking about authorship in film criticism—and we slip into it easily in video game reviews. Briefly, auteur theory is the idea that a film reflects the director’s creative style and intention. For games, we tend to write about a studio, creative director, or lead writer as the sole author of a game.
This doesn’t work for games. To be clear, some games are created by a small team or single person where the style and intention that the game represents is publicly available. But, auteur theory doesn’t work for major studios. For example, Brendan Keogh has written about how design decisions in Spec Ops: The Line didn’t come from the top; in fact, Keogh’s already said everything I hope to say about auteur theory in games in that post. But, reviewers aren’t taking that piece to heart as a challenge to the methodology of doing reviews.
For a working example, I’m going to pick on Kirk Hamilton’s Kotaku review of Child of Light. Other reviews slipped into similar moves while some did not. Hamilton’s review, the best example, included a paragraph that only works from an auteur theory perspective:
Child of Light, out this week for home consoles and PC, comes to us from director Patrick Plourde and writer Jeffrey Yohalem, the duo behind Ubisoft’s blockbuster 2012 action game Far Cry 3. Child of Light is about as far from Far Cry 3 as one could reasonably get, and in fact often feels like a self-conscious overcorrection. “Wait,” its creators seem to have said. “We don’t just want to tell stories about college bros blowing up jungles with bazookas. We want to tell coming-of-age fairy tales about little girls, too!” As stylistic pendulum-swings go, it’s a neck-straining one.
Hamilton’s talking about style (“stylistic pendulum”) as something that comes from a “duo” of creative director (Plourde) and lead writer (Yohalem). This is an auteur theory argument.
And it doesn’t work. It’s not easy to track even the creative decisions of a duo: According to Alexa Ray Corriea, Plourde and Yohalem disagreed over the gender of two of the characters, making Yohalem alone responsible for those characters’ genders. But, there’s more. The relationship between Far Cry 3 and Child of Light is only valuable if Plourde and Yohalem are the only “duo” making design decisions in the development of both products (they weren’t). Both games are produced by teams of people, and think “teams” like English Premier League numbers of people in the case of Far Cry 3 (smaller for Child of Light). And again, Keogh’s conversation, linked above, about how decisions are made below the top in game development is accurate for all major studios as far as I’ve heard. Finally, according to Samit Sarkar, one notable author of Plourde and Yohalem’s previous products was absent: Ubisoft.
That the game’s style is “neck-straining” or “feels like a self-conscious overcorrection” is premised, for Hamilton, on its being authored by the same team who created Far Cry 3. But, it’s not the same team. And even if it were, products are not a one-to-one creation of authors’ intentions.
Authorship is always a tricky issue for critics of all medias. Auteur theory does not work for content from major studios, and it works only occasionally for content from indie+ studios.
I’m not saying that auteur theory is never viable in video games. Or that Hamilton’s review is poor because of a misguided auteur theory paragraph. Hamilton’s paragraph actually does one thing really well: It established that the same studio that owned Far Cry 3’s design documentation owns Child of Light’s design documentation and employs several of the same people it did a year or two ago. There are other ways provide that information (see the beginning of this post).
When it comes to audience, game reviews typically do a better job than the games themselves, especially recently. I bring this up with Child of Light because it does something with the audience it constructs that I think a lot of reviewers missed.
Children aren’t dumb. They aren’t naïve, stupid, incomplete, or incapable humans. Children are capable of multiple, complex emotions and communicative prowess. If you don’t believe me, ask @nwfisk; childhood studies is his jam.
Child of Light represents children as complex and capable subjects while simultaneously providing a game that expects children as an audience to engage with it as intelligent and capable players. This is laudable by itself.
In some ways, this makes Child of Light a constitutive rhetoric—a text where the subject of representation and the subject position of the audience are the same—especially since many major studio games-for-children are “games-for-children,” those maligned, gimmicky, over-simplifications of games for children.
Children seem to be an important audience for this game even if they are not for major game review sites. And, that discrepancy between the game’s audience and the audiences of major game review sites is one that game critics have fought before on multiple fronts. So, I won’t belabor the point anymore, and props to Arthur Gies for remembering parents and children in the Polygon review.
A simple exercise that was helpful for me when learning critical audience analysis was to ask: Who could encounter a text and who does the text think it is encountering? When I learned it, we were talking about Cicero’s Catiline orations, but I think it works for games as well. The audiences of the Catiline orations were the people who could either encounter the orations or be spoken to by the orations. To apply this exercise to Child of Light. Can children encounter Child of Light? Yes: ESRB rating E, fairy tale genre fiction. Does the text think it is encountering children? Yes: Mixed media art backgrounds, fairy tale genre fiction, childhood cast of characters, women aren’t sexualized, relationships are innocent, etc. With a positive answer to both questions, it’s worth mentioning if Child of Light reviews differently as a children’s game.
Children and developers are complex people capable doing many unexpected things, and we should remember this as a methodological statement.