After I released my book Killing is Harmless in 2012, the response was overwhelmingly positive. I’m pretty sure that was mostly just because someone had written a book about a videogame, however, and not due to any inherent quality of the book. That’s not me trying to be modest or putting down my own work (I’m still pretty chuffed that I wrote it), but as some pointed out at the time, probably the most shared piece of information about Killing is Harmless at its release was its word count. It was an exciting book first and foremost simply because it existed, regardless of what it actually said.
Some people, though, wrote some really important and really great scathing reviews of it. Cameron Kunzelman wrote this one, and Darius Kazemi wrote this one. Both Cameron and Darius are good friends and both are incredibly intelligent writers and developers, so I really valued their feedback and critiques of my work. Because, truly, I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote Killing is Harmless. I didn’t even know I was writing a book for most of it! While many took the sheer size of it as a sign of its authoritative stance on what Spec Ops: The Line is ‘about’ (I still cringe every time I see somebody say it is ‘the last word’ on the game, or that there is no need for anyone else to write anything because I’ve already said it), I always intended the book to more modestly be ‘Well, I really enjoyed it and I think this is why’ and also ‘I have no idea how one should even write long-form criticism but let’s try this way and see if that works’. Maybe that just sounds like I am trying to defend myself with retrospective caveats, but Killing is Harmless was always really just an experiment that was taken way more seriously than I anticipated (which, truly, is one of its faults).
So Kazemi wrote his review (which I strongly encourage you to go read before reading this post). Then, this year, he authored his own book about a videogame, Jagged Alliance 2 for Boss Fight Books. It’s a really good book and I highly recommend it! It is also about as different an approach as you could take to analysing a videogame as Killing is Harmless is. Whereas my book was deeply interpretative (something I’ve come to regret; I’ll get to that below) and really just asked the question ‘How did this game allow me to have the engagement with it that I had?’; Jagged Alliance 2 instead asks ‘How is this game a thing? What humans and nonhumans and circumstances and code came together to mediate each other to make this thing into this thing?’. As Daniel Joseph explores in his own post on the book, Bruno Latour’s Aramis is a large influence on this approach that Kazemi takes. Kazemi follows the actors (the creators, the publishers, the other games that came out around the same time, the state of the games industry, how long it would take the code to compile, etc.) to try to understand how Jagged Alliance 2 came to exist as it exists in the time it came to existence.
The other book that Kazemi notes was influential on his own writing is Killing is Harmless. Not methodologically in the way Aramis clearly was, but in a reactive ‘Well if I didn’t like this book about a videogame, how would I write one?’ kind of seed way. That’s very flattering!
In the comments of Kazemi’s review of Killing is Harmless, there’s a conversation between us where I probably fail at not sounding like a slighted, misunderstood artist (you just don’t get it, man). I note in that wall of text about how what interests me about Spec Ops: The Line is how it is such a broken game that shouldn’t even exist. Like, it simply shouldn’t. It’s commercially unfeasible. It’s a game that reflects the anger and frustration of its own development, as I found out months later when I actually spoke to somebody who worked on the game for the first time. As with Jagged Alliance 2, there is a very interesting story to tell about Spec Ops: The Line in regards to ‘How is this even a thing that exists?’. About how (as far as I can tell) 2K really wanted their own military shooter franchise and threw Yager at it and then threw Walt Williams at Yager and then everyone making the game realised they hated this kind of game and all that anger and spite found itself in this beautiful mess of a game. The Aramis analysis of Spec Ops: The Line would have been fascinating. But I didn’t do that. Instead I just spoke about myself and how I felt about the game. Knowing now what I didn’t know about the game’s development then, I see how that approach would’ve been frustrating to read.
Going to go sideways for a minute here and work my way back: through 2013 (the year after I released Killing is Harmless), I read a whole bunch of Susan Sontag’s work. In particular her essays “Against Interpretation” and “On Style” had a dramatic influence on how I think about my own videogame criticism. You can probably find those essays pretty easily but, essentially, Sontag hates metaphor. An artwork, for Sontag, isn’t about X, it is X: a painting isn’t some melancholic ode to loneliness; it is a painting. She insists that the critic has to stop trying to look past the formal properties of an artwork to interpret its ‘content’, and instead talk about how that content (what the artwork is ‘about’) is emergent from its formal properties. Which is true, right? Any themes or meanings or tones or atmosphere of any work of art emerges from how its material, formal properties are arranged (how they are able to be arranged and how they are not able to be arranged). This is no less true for videogames (and really, the whole obsession with immersion and virtual worlds is just an extension of this centuries-long obsession with looking past form to analyse content).
Sontag’s work has strongly challenged my approach to games criticism both academically and, uh, ?journalistically?. It helped me realise my purely ‘textual’ approach was pretty insufficient. Not because you can’t textually analyse a videogame (you can; ‘interactivity’ doesn’t prevent that), but because you can’t ignore the actual, formal, material engagement the player has with a videogame object in videogame play. I think I already accounted for this somewhat in my writing (Killing is Harmless jumps back and forward between the actual and virtual world as easily as our eyeballs do when we play videogames, rather than pretending the virtual world is ever really completely sealed off from the actual), but I don’t think I ever really appreciated talking about the videogame as an object in that engagement. And criticism around other media do this all the time. Film criticism will talk about the certain camera angles or lighting styles or lens/film sizes that allowed certain things to emerge in a certain film; painting criticism will talk about the types of paint and canvas used that evoke a certain tone; music critics will talk about the age of a certain instrument used in a certain performance that gave a certain timbre to the music. We do it a bit in videogames (talking about how the Rage engine gave Grand Theft Auto IV‘s world a real weight or whatever) but not to the same ubiquitous extent. This is mostly because how games are actually made is mostly closed off from us outside the industry (both because most of us writers simply don’t know how to make games, and also because of cagey publishers not wanting technological secrets to be leak out); that makes it real hard to talk about the formal properties of a videogame. Especially a new game.
But you can do it! Rob Zacny’s feature on how Homefront came to exist in its messed up state remains one of my favourite pieces of games journalism ever. I went and bought the game after I read it just to experience the object he is talking about. The game is terrible but it was such a rewarding experience to play this game and really understand why it was the way it was. Two very different books, Anna Anthropy’s ZZT and Geoff Keighley’s The Final Hours of Titanfall, both do it superbly, and are two of the best things about videogames I’ve read this year. Anthropy’s book does this absolutely wonderful job of explaining how ZZT plays, how it functions as code and quirk, and how a community of creators and players was able to form around it. Keighley, with an inevitable but tolerable amount of triple-a optimism and buzzwords, traces the bizarre story of Respawn Studio from Activision to EA, and the weirdness of having to start from step one all over again to make a new game (my favourite piece of trivia in this book is that Respawn spent a whole year trying to make Titanfall in the Rachet and Clank engine simply because they could get it for free). This type of writing about videogames as object that exist and exist in a certain way for a certain reason are a really important type of criticism, especially if we are to understand the formal properties of games and avoid interpretation (which I’m increasingly sure we should).
And, of course, Darius does this approach well in Jagged Alliance 2. Through extensive interviews, a historical perspective, and a deep understanding of the game’s source code, Darius is able to give us a really insightful look at why this game exists in the manner it exists, and that is a really valuable thing to exist. I have never played Jagged Alliance 2, but Darius successfully communicates his own excitement and curiosity around the game, and then answers the questions that he makes me curious about. I’m not sure I’ll ever play Jagged Alliance 2 (just as I’m not sure I’ll ever play ZZT), but I feel like I understand it now on some level I didn’t previously. Criticism that can make someone who has never engaged with a certain work of art appreciate that work of art is pretty successful criticism, I think.
This is not to say that I necessarily find this approach ‘better’ than the one I took with Killing is Harmless. I think the first-person experiential type of writing I deployed is still invaluable for communicating what it is like to engage with—to play—a videogame separate from why it came to exist and what the creators’ intentions with it were. I guess for Killing is Harmless, why or how Spec Ops: The Line exists in the way it exists is a less interesting question to answer than how it feels to engage with that thing that exists. To be sure, Darius’s book does discuss what it is like to play Jagged Alliance, how the game evolves over time, how it can be both frustrating and rewarding. But these insights feel more like asides to an analysis of this object than the focus. Which is fine! It’s not what the book is focused on.
So ultimately all I’m saying is what should be obvious: that it’s so important to have multiple approaches to writing about any medium and that these different approaches will all enunciate different facets of a creative work. I think Killing is Harmless has far more leaks and holes in it than Jagged Alliance 2, and its ignorance of the formal properties of the creative work it is focusing is a realy oversight. It could have been a much better book, in retrospect, if it had inquired more about The Object that is Spec Ops: The Line: and not solely on The Experience that is Spec Ops: The Line. But the irony there, of course, is that I never could’ve hoped to know about Spec Ops: The Line that I know now if I hadn’t first written the book and then become friends with so many of the game’s creators. Sometimes, writing about the experience of playing the game is the only avenue open to the videogame critic, for better or worse.
Anyway, if you enjoyed Killing is Harmless I implore you to go read both Jagged Alliance 2 and ZZT. Both are short and easy to read, and each points to a different way of writing about videogames than the purely experiential/textual, and it’s important to have that diversity of methods. And its important for the experiential/textual to account for the formal, too, which is something I want to work on getting better at.
Oh! One thing I forgot to mention! Towards the end of Darius’s introduction, his brings up this moment in Killing is Harmless where I talk about a reflection in a window. It’s a moment Darius was originally certain I was over-reading, but when he later spoke to one of the developers, he found out the reflection was indeed there, it was just unclear because of how the level was rendering at that point of the game which meant the video that was the reflection was stuck at a lower resolution. I think this is a great example of what both approaches show: I was able to muse on the fact I thought there was a ghostly reflection and what it might mean; Darius spoke to a developer and found out why that reflection was so ghostly in the first place.