You wanna know a really good way to piss people off? You could try telling them that 100-hour video games are a waste of time. If you do that, expect what you might call an editorial beat-down from one Jason Killingsworth.
The Edge Magazine features editor has ripped into journalist Michael Thomsen for the latter's Slate article questioning whether 100-hour games, and Dark Souls in particular, could ever be "worthwhile."
"Thomsen may aspire to do nothing more than give Dark Souls a few reciprocal lashes as payback for its cruel gauntlet," Killingsworth writes, "but his article pulses with disdain for the videogame past-time in a far broader sense."
With that, he proceeds to go to town on Thomsen's essay, dismantling it in a manner both thorough and well-articulated. Thomsen's core folly, Killingsworth writes, is his overarching desire to compare a game like Dark Souls to more "worthy" pursuits like reading War and Peace, learning a foreign language, or traveling across the country.
Let's talk about Tolstoy. Thomsen repeatedly invokes the venerated Russian novelist's War And Peace to describe a work of art that proves the shallowness and triviality of Dark Souls. This hits below the belt for a multitude of reasons. False equivalence is always a nasty, misleading business. How many times have you heard somebody claim that a particular movie was good but the book from which it was adapted is far better? After my eyes return to their uncrossed position, I'm always tempted to ask, what aspect of the book's cinematography did you find superior? Was there something more lyrical about the book's orchestral score? Did the characters in the book offer more believable performances? What about the book's costume design? Makeup? Lighting?
Though it's possible to debate whether or not games are art, there's no room to argue that games are books.
And as Thomsen cites cross-country travel and language-learning as better alternatives to 100 hours in Dark Souls, Killingsworth points out that in many tangible ways, to play Dark Souls to completion is to learn a language, it is to traverse a country.
Killingsworth's essay is a rousing critique (and, I'd say, demolishment) of another writers' work, sure, but it's also an earnest celebration of what makes Dark Souls so good. Reading it, I was reminded of Chris Dahlen's terrific, lengthy essay about the design language of Dark Souls' Sen's Fortress level.
If one small section of a game can have this many layers, this many ingenious touches, beautiful bits of cruelty, and dark flourishes of humor, is it not at least worthy of consideration alongside fine works from other disciplines?
I should say here that I know all three of these guys—Chris is a friend, and served as my editor at Kill Screen many times. I succeeded Jason as games editor at Paste Magazine before I came to Kotaku and have subsequently done work for him at Edge. Michael is a smart and often-spiky curmudgeon with whom I've worked several times. We often disagree, but I've always enjoyed those disagreements.
The conflict here isn't some clashing of egos or any sort of critical grudge-match—these are thoughtful critics striving to write meaningful things about games. With that said, I think Killingsworth has the right of this one.
There are pitfalls in comparing games to things that are not games.
There is a lot to be said for cross-medium analysis of video games. I certainly love to do it. On numerous occasions I've argued that video games are like music, and for me, anyway, that kind of contextualization has helped me think about games more clearly.
Plenty of other critics have effectively used cinematic and literary language to talk about and understand games. The language of theater, too, is particularly useful for understanding some aspects of the player/game relationship. Putting these new-feeling creations into the context of other, better-understood media is a useful way to find a critical foothold.
It's also enjoyable to go the other way and contextualize non-game media in terms of games, e.g the video-gamey nature of Groundhog Day or Sherlock. And heck, some easy laughs can be found by imagining if, say, Haruki Murakami's new book 1Q84 were sold like a video game.
But there are pitfalls in comparing games to things that are not games. One of the most common is to declare that games must find meaning in the same ways other art forms do.
Thomsen makes a similar joke about War and Peace to the one I made about 1Q84, but he angles it as a serious critique of games rather than as satire of how games are marketed. From his Slate article:
Imagine if War and Peace were 5,000 pages instead of 1,400, and imagine if, whenever you came to a word you didn't understand, a gust of wind appeared and pushed you back five pages, forcing you to reread everything you'd made it through up until that point. How long would you last? And what would be the point in trying?
In doing so, he completely misses the point of such a comparison. Sure, it's funny to imagine a book working like a video game, but it's certainly not fair. In fact, the joke works because the two things are fundamentally different.
Back to Killingsworth:
When Thomsen bemoans the stern trial-and-error loop at the heart of Dark Souls, he is quite literally expressing distaste for the gaming artform on its most fundamental level. He asks his reader to imagine the absurdity of reading War And Peace, only to have a recurring gust of wind blow your progress back five pages. "What would be the point in trying?" he asks. To answer his question, you need only reshuffle some of his own words. The trying is Dark Souls' point.
That, I believe, sums up the problem at the root of dismissing a lengthy and challenging game in the way that Thomsen has. By taking the mechanism through which a game finds meaning and naming it the reason the game is a waste of time, Thomsen seems to be arguing that games, in general, are a waste of time. That they cannot have meaning and worth on their own terms.
I look at the countless hours I've devoted to these strange digital contraptions over the years and I feel I can say with certainty that games have meaning. Length has nothing to do with it. Yes, 100-hour video games are worthwhile. Video games are worthwhile, period.
Opinion: Long live the long RPG [Edge Online]