The art of reviewing Pathologic

Continuing on the theme of my Flower post, and the video games-as-art question, I recently had a chat with one of my more game savvy friends about the state of gaming journalism. In my mind, I said to him, a truly artistic medium should inspire equally artistic criticism, and there doesn’t appear to be much evidence that the “gamer” subculture is producing any of that.

While there are untold millions of people who view the crafting of an eloquent work of literary, music, film, or other conventional media criticism as an artistic end in itself, gaming criticism seems to be mainly written by people who just want to rant to the world about the latest thing they played. Has anyone, anywhere, ever produced a truly infamous game review? One so well-crafted, opinionated, and insightful that it becomes irreversibly conjoined with the larger cultural-historic impact of the game itself, in the way that, say, you can’t read about Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band without also reading about Richard Goldstein’s cynical reproof of it in the 1969 Arts section of the New York Times.

My friend countered by telling me to read this lengthy, three-part review, on a site called Rock, Paper, Shotgun about an obscure Russian video game called Pathologic. He described it as one of the finest pieces of gaming journalism he had ever read.

I do recommend you read it. It’s a very powerful and thoughtful analysis of a very dark and intriguing-sounding game.

Pathologic is essentially a Half Life-esque PC title where you control one of several human characters as they spend seven days navigating the terrors plaguing a small, disease-infested rural village. The plot and atmosphere are incredibly morose, and the gameplay very undirected and frustrating. Yet the game remains perversely engaging precisely because of these factors, which capture the imagination of the author in a way that is fascinating to follow.

The piece is not a great literary work by any stretch — the author, Quintin Smith, writes in the same sort of unpolished, juvenile, overly-conversational, swear-filled, stream of consciousness style most gamer journalists employ  — but he still manages to engage with his subject in a deeper way than we’ve grown to expect from the IGNs of the world.

What I particularly liked was some of his analysis near the end, where he reflects on what an awful, depressing game Pathologic is, thematically speaking, and segues into a broader discussion of games as a uniquely manipulative medium of human emotion:

… games have incredible untapped potential in the field of negative emotions. Just as the lowest common denominator of any art form appeals to ‘positive’ emotions, whether it’s humour, arousal or excitement, so it is that our young games industry is obsessed with the idea of ‘fun’.

I think this is one of the core reasons that the games industry hasn’t had its Casablanca or Citizen Kane- we’re still in the era of musicals and slapstick comedy. No games developer’s going to try and make its audience feel sad, or lonely, or pathetic, at least not for long stretches. You might get games that dip their toes into that water from time to time, but by and large developers are keen to keep you smiling.

Smith describes Pathologic as art, and though it certainly sounds like a better contender than the vapid Flower, I’m still not convinced. I stand by the premise that the more artistic a game gets the more it will be required to sacrifice its core game-ness. And just as Flower did not sacrifice nearly enough, Pathologic, with its very cinematic, linear presentation sounds like it sacrifices too much.

But I am much more convinced that game criticism, at least, can aspire to a fairly high level of cultural worth. I’d like to see more.