Decisive Book Reviews
The Study of Play
Some people might respond to that last sentence and say that good scholarship requires discomfort. You should have to prove yourself in order to be accepted by the community. To be clear, I’m not arguing that I like fan studies because they have no standards. It’s just that the standards that fan studies sets are actually achievable. Fan scholars understand that you can’t possibly be a fan of everything that anyone is a fan of. Recent scholarship even makes the argument that as a fan of one thing you aren’t even expected to know everything about it. Zubernis and Larsen (and Jenkins) argue that defining a fan as someone who makes or collects things—as being active—denies the ways in which fans can participate by reading, by thinking, by sharing links (Zubernis and Larsen 16). There are as many ways to be a fan as there are fans.
When writing about videogame aesthetics, there is no more contentious issue than the medium’s status as an artform. The arguments in favor are many, stressing commonalities between videogames and recognized artforms. Many arguments against games as art mirror objections that have always plagued mass art, from film and comics to novels—that their structure is too simple; that their subject matter is too base and populist; that they are produced for money and not for art’s sake
There is nothing conclusive to be said about enduring violence save that it endures through its violence. When encountering the shifting yet systemic violence perpetuated by elements of a gaming culture obsessed with finding pleasure and prestige in the very play of violence, the individuated enunciation of critical theory finds itself tasked with sharpening the aphoristic insight. By embracing the strategy of the inconclusive and epigrammatic, the tension of play and desire at the intersection of technocapitalism, gender, and power can be articulated to the gaming cultures of militarisation.
However, What Is Your Quest? is not just an historical account. Without being overtly confrontational, What Is Your Quest? pushes game studies outside of the boundaries its practitioners sometimes take for granted, and that, for me, is where the book’s value lies, even beyond its work documenting the adventure genre. Rather than rehash old debates about narratology and ludology, Salter considers adventure games not just from the perspective of videogames, but also from the perspective of multiple media types and users. I think the best example may be Salter’s frequent and persistent use of “fans” to refer to adventure game enthusiasts. In popular culture discussion and academia alike, games are often segregated away as unique and separate from other media forms. What is Your Quest? Is not a fan studies book, and doesn’t go much further in this direction than some references to Henry Jenkins. But by means of the single word “fan,” rather than just gamers or players, Salter keeps her discussion rooted in a larger discussion of new media economy, intertextuality, and transmedia.
If the games of the Dark Souls series (Dark Souls (2011) / Dark Souls II (2014) ) are renowned for one thing, this would be being literally murderously difficult. In Dark Souls every mistake can end deadly, for every opponent can kill the avatar, no matter how innocuous he might appear. All it takes is a tiny moment of carelessness. For narrating stories, other games are renowned—for example the Witcher or Dragon Age series or the recent games by Telltale Games , their narrative quality stemming from the momentous decision-making; or author games by David Cage whose gameplay don’t always live up to the standard of their cinematic narration quality.
Drawing from the international popularity of the Pokémon series, Snap repositions gameplay from the role-playing mechanics of earlier games. Due to its in-game mechanics and integrative real-world mechanisms, Snap shifts the definitions of digital subjects and photographers, illustrating the complex relationship of subject and shooter in digital photographic practices. Ultimately, the practices portrayed in Snap prove to be deeply imbalanced experiences in terms of power dynamics, complicated by the popularity of the Pokémon series which encouraged players to “catch ‘em all.” These competitive practices extended beyond digital spaces with the intersections of print and digital photography and the gamification of photographic practices as taught and presented by the game.
It’s lonely at the top of the mountain. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has reigned supreme more or less uninterruptedly as the Greatest Game of all Time in popular culture for nearly two decades. Other challengers have periodically risen from the masses (The Last of Us, Journey, whatever GTA game came out last, etc.), but the conversation always finds its way back to Ocarina. Conversely, Nintendo has been accused of sitting on its creative laurels with nearly every Zelda game they’ve put out since Ocarina. It’s an unenviable position: how do you navigate the already precarious balance between convention and innovation when the foundational title you put out ten sequels ago remains such an enduring sacred cow?