Here are some things straight off the bat: I am a thirty-something, English-speaking millennial. I am male and cis and growing up the only thing I really wanted to do with my spare time was play computer games. They are—for a lot of people in my generation, and those on either side of it—as important to us in how we have crafted our artistic and aesthetic sensibilities as novels and movies. Although I often look to the first time I read Mrs Dalloway or the first time I saw Mulholland Drive as key moments for when and how I developed my sense of taste, the reality is that my most formative memories of narrative and character stem from playing Final Fantasy IX over and over again.
In Keith S. Wilson’s essay “Mule Milk”—the third essay in the 2023 anthology, Critical Hits: Writers Playing Video Games, edited by J. Robert Lennon and Carmen Maria Machado and published by Graywolf Press—the writer discusses how the first character they related to growing up was a computer game character, specifically Terra from Final Fantasy VI. The character is an ex-soldier who struggles with her identity as someone who is half-human and half-esper (a magical creature in the game often seen as monsters). As a child with mixed raced parents, this became something Wilson identified with—even before they realized that was why they identified with the character. It is also the first time as an adolescent the writer was introduced to difficult concepts such as, “What if there is no thing as Justice?”, “What is Human Spirit?” and “What is Human Nature?”
I think for a lot of unsuspecting parents (including my own), computer games were simply an extension of cartoons. Crash Bandicoot as Micky Mouse; silly things full of colorful characters that aren’t really all that deep. But computer games were, for a lot of people, their first introduction to a lot of complicated ideas that they otherwise might not have thought about until they were older. Sometimes these ideas are hidden beneath broader genre conventions—as you may be able to tell, the Final Fantasy series is wholly about supernatural abilities and fantasy tropes—and as such were ostensibly seen as childish. To parents or anyone who didn’t grow up with computer games, they can seem to the outside as nothing much more than sophisticated toys. But more often than not, they are our first contact with adult themes.
In Octavia Bright’s essay, “Staying with the Trouble,” the writer describes their first contact with the PC game Leisure Suit Larry. The game itself is a strange relic, a point and click adventure about a cartoonish middle-aged man trying to get laid, but Bright describes it as “an escape from the tedium of childhood that I was starting to leave behind, enticed instead by the adult world of lust and drama and action.” This is not to say that Leisure Suit Larry is high art or that we should be putting it on a mantle with Anna Karenina, only that it became, for Bright, formative, if only for the manner in which they encountered it. “My pleasure was found not in the transgressions inferred by the game but those found in the context in which I played it.”
It is this context which makes video games different to any other medium. If you were to go out and buy a video game—any video game—your experience with that game will be unlike anyone else’s. Not just in the thoughts, ideas or prejudices you bring to it as a person; but the actual content of that game will be different depending on who is playing. With the exception of mathematically impossible coincidences or strictly following the guideline of a walkthrough, it is unlikely that any two people playing the same game will make exactly the same choices as they play it. It makes the game unique to you, and makes its content feel personal in a way that few other art forms can offer.
You put a lot of time into these games—it is not unusual now for a blockbuster game to take over eighty hours to complete—and as such, you end up pouring a lot of yourself into them. This works in reverse, too. In Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s essay, “This Kind of Animal,” in which the writer explores their experiences with the game Disco Elysium and its effect as a literary text, they conclude, “Literary is a slippery and sometimes problematic word, but in this context, I mean: via the precise use of language, it changes the reader.”
It is this personalization that is a central theme throughout Critical Hits. Each of the essays explore a writer’s experience with finding themselves either reflected through video games, excluded by video games, or simply changed by them. nat steele’s “I Was a Teenage Transgender Supersoldier” explores how the writer came to see the Halo series as a safe and familiar haven—a place where she could exist inside a faceless person, trapped in near impenetrable armor. “For me, Halo was an action to be taken and repeated, not a story with a destination.” On the flip side, we can see the alienating effect of having to play as someone who is explicitly not you. In “Cathartic Warfare” by Jamil Jan Kochai, the writer talks about the experience of playing Call of Duty. Of what it is like being an American immigrant controlling an American soldier fighting in the Middle East. “While playing the campaign mode of one of the most popular games in the country, I was tasked with participating in the cathartic fantasies of white men destroying/mutilating Afghan men.”
But given that each video game is different to each person who plays them, any critical evaluation of them as an art form is—by this measure—flawed. Even the title of the anthology, Critical Hits, feels like a misnomer. In Vanessa Villarreal’s essay “In the Shadow of the Wolf,” she chronicles the changing face of the fantasy genre, particularly in gaming, framing it through the story of Loki, Ragnarök and Fenrir. It is in this essay that she accurately pinpoints the source of this dilemma. “As the white dominant monoculture of the twentieth century fades and diversifies around smaller, more niche audiences, historical fantasy remains one of the last universal genres…”
It is precisely these niches that makes the critical evaluation common to other mediums more difficult to apply here. A protagonist in a video game will rarely be the same person for whoever is playing it. While we might bring different interpretations to Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby, what he says and does on the page doesn’t change. Characters in video games, however, will have different stats, different attributes. They will do different things, say different things, and may not even be the same sex or gender depending on who is playing it. This isn’t just true for role playing games (games where the main character is explicitly put together by the player before the story begins); a player will make different choices on whether to attack or run, to jump or duck, and whether or not to go left or right.
There is often a larger meta fiction that must be considered when playing a video game character. Fan fiction and fan canon (or head canon) often change the presumed backstory of characters in video games. In the essay, “Thinking like the Knight,” Max Delsohn writes about the extensive lore that surrounds the game Undertale—and how the restrained relationship between the characters Alphys and Undyne exploded online into a full-fledged relationship. He also explores how one of the appeals of great games—in his example, Hollow Knight—is that players “are meant to feel that [the] world of the game continues to exist without them, whether they’re traveling through it or not.” These games are being shaped (as they are played) into something that best represents or appeals to the individual player. Even if the character in the game can’t be literally customized, it is a medium where the protagonist is inherently malleable. You are controlling them. They are yours.
This is why a lot of critical evaluation of games now focuses primarily on user experience, or player interface. How it plays, how it integrates your choices into the larger narrative—how easy is it to transfer a part of yourself into the game. The appeal of Critical Hits is that it leans into this as a focal point for analyzing games and their meaning. The writer cannot be an abstract Other; who they are is inherent to how they encountered the game. There is no concrete interpretation of Master Chief or Harry Du Bois or even Pac-Man, because they are unique creations to each playthrough of a game and each decision the person playing it has made. As such, a writer or a critic cannot talk about their interaction with the game without also giving a context for who they are. I am not saying that this is Critical Hit’s explicit aim, only that the collection reads like the most common-sense approach to discussing video games as an art form.
The collection, as such, will not be for everyone. But for someone like me, who has grown up with games and struggled sometimes with figuring out the appropriate way to talk about them, I found it illustrative of the contradiction inherit in the medium. How do you talk about a product that is all things to all people? Not all the essays are hits, and while the premise of the collection is ‘Writers Playing Video Games’, there are a few essays that don’t focus on video games themselves or else stray a little too far from the conceit. Again, I expect a reader’s reaction to each of these will come down to how much they relate to the individual writer’s experience. One of the essays that jumped out to me as being one which may well split opinion is “The Great Indoorsman” by Eleanor Henderson, which chronicles a mother trying to get a hold of the newest PlayStation for her gamer son. I can imagine eighteen-year-old me reading this story and thinking: What does have to do with the meaning of video games? Or else presuppose that it’s another rendition of Kids have too many screens (I wasn’t massively popular at school). But reading it as an adult, I found it an incredibly sweet tale of a parent trying to connect with their son. And if Critical Hits is successful, it is as a collection that not only puts forward the voices of underrepresented people but does so in a way that skews the perception of video games as an insular pastime, or as something that only has value for young, straight, white cis boys.
The collection embraces video games as a medium that can inform and promote self-expression. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t without their flaws or that the artform hasn’t got room to grow—again, the collection is firm about calling out the regressive history of the video games we grew up with—only that is an artform of the 21st Century it is unlike any other, and as it has shaped us, we can shape it.
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: November 21, 2023
Reviewed by Mark Daniel Taylor
Mark Daniel Taylor is a writer from London. He is a former member of the Collier Street Fiction Group and is an alumnus of the New Orleans Writers’ Residency. You can find his other published works at www.markdanieltaylor.com.