Lana Polansky is our Subjective Reviewer of the Month for April 2014. Each month we interview someone who writes subjective reviews for other review outlets. We also invite them to write an objective review so that they can give their opinions some time to rest, if they would like.
What are some of your favorite video games, and why?
I like games that act like conceptual art, games which are really focused and meditative. These kinds of games try to make use of the form in order to express something through content in a way that only video games really can. One good example is Lake of Roaches. Every so often, and totally at random, it will just shut off. The game will just close. There’s also an Andi McClure game called You Will Die Alone At Sea that sort of does the same thing.
I like that this is a meditation on a meta-element of games, like a commentary on the form itself. It’s really using it as a metaphor for death, and that’s something that the form of games can do: using something that would technically be considered a bug in the system of the game, or something that would be expected to be a bug, and subverting that expectation to say something about the unexpectedness and spontaneity of death.
I also like Dillon Rogers’ Electric Tortoise. Electric Tortoise is interesting because the interactive element is really pared down. You’re interrogating a robot that has been indicted for killing his master, and at the end you’re given the choice between saving the robot and killing the robot, so the moral conundrum that the robot poses to you through his story is then offloaded onto the player. It doesn’t treat the moral choice as this clean thing where if you say all the right things you get the right ending. Rather, both choices are each fraught with their own complications. The only big choice you’re given in the game as far as you can tell is not simple and that it doesn’t end cleanly no matter what you choose.
Most of the games I like are actually really short – I tend to not enjoy games that run for 40+ hours. There are a few I like, but for the most part I think it’s just padding. I think the best games tend to focus a lot. They’re more focused on poetics than prosaics, because I think games are closely related to poetics and theater and music.
One thing I found interesting was when I was reading the comments on Electric Tortoise, a lot of people couldn’t accept that the game was a short as it was, and I thought that Dillon did as much as he needed to do to make the game feel complete. I feel like people couldn’t reconcile the fact that because something lingers, and that you can look at something laterally and think about it after the fact, that this doesn’t have to always manifest itself in a strictly literal amount of content. Just because something is really dense and deep doesn’t mean it also has to be long.
Why do you write video game reviews? What do you see as the purpose of your reviews?
To me, a review doesn’t have to completely sum up the entirety of the piece. It should capture the spirit of what the piece is trying to do. I think reviews work best when they demonstrate a relationship or a dialog between the player and the game (or the reader and the book, or the viewer and the film). I think they’re there to observe and describe.
A lot of people go into games with a lot of preconceptions about what they are and what they can do, and a lot of our reviews are written as these consumer reports according to a checklist of how games meet these expectations, and they’re judged according to how they do or don’t.
I think it’s best when you simply take a game for what it is, try your best to observe what’s going on, and describe it, and if you describe what you’re seeing you can make an evaluation based on that. I think that’s intellectually more honest, it’s fairer to the game itself, and I think if you can divest from industry terminology and simply try to explain what’s going on, you can get better insights into what the game is, what you feel when playing it, what its subject matter is, and so on. I think that’s what criticism ought to do.
What sorts of things do you try to include in your reviews?
I try to go in as blank as possible. I don’t want to go in with any preconceived notions of what I should expect. I do have a critical lexicon, a framework that I work with, which is literary theory. That doesn’t mean just narratology: that means the entire body of literary theory which includes stuff like poetics, for instance. For other people it might be music, or visual arts (for Zolani Stewart, for instance, it’s visual art and typography). I’m really big on comparative analysis and comparative study – not just a cannibalistic look at games as games, but also what is it about this game that I see in other relationships in the real world or in other art forms. I try to use that to strengthen the substance of my argument about what I’m seeing. So, if I see something in a video game, and I say ‘I see what this is rooted in, I know the legacy of this story,’ that’s really helpful to me to be able to use, whether they’re poetic or literary devices or a genre of literature that I’m familiar with.
When I write I like to latch on to an idea, onto comparatives. I like to pick out one element and focus on it. A lot of game reviews try really hard to sum up the entirety of the game rather than focusing on one idea and really expounding. They end up not saying enough of anything, because they’re too focused on talking about how good something is as a whole as a product, rather than talking about one particular idea which is useful when you’re looking at other games and talking about them and playing them.
What do you enjoy or find interesting about writing video game reviews?
I just genuinely really like writing criticism. I like writing games too – I make my own games – and Twine has been a really good way for me to practice short story writing and poetic writing. I genuinely really enjoy writing.
I enjoy the experience I have with games. When I play a game and it really speaks to me or there’s something about a game I find conceptually interesting, I find that genuinely uplifting. I like the fact that artists are doing these really cool things with this art form and finding really neat ways of communicating difficult ideas through games. This is where I think games become kind of musical: I think games can sometimes express ideas through dynamics that are really hard to express with words. I think that sometimes that’s why we rely on industry jargon, because we don’t how else to describe what we’re experiencing and we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.
What really invigorates me is when games really do make me think about relationships, and not just relationships in games but relationships in the real world, and challenge me to get better at my compassionate or empathetic skills, or other kinds of emotional or cognitive skills. Games that question expectations are interesting to me. Those dynamics put me in a really good mood and I like writing something that really gets into the meat of those things.
How do you think your personality influences the reviews you write?
I think the only place objectivity has in reviews is in the part where you’re simply observing and describing. All experiences with art are essentially interactive. Whether it’s interpretively or explicitly, there’s always a base level of interaction where you’re parsing what the art is doing and reconstituting it back into your own life. For me, it’s really important that I don’t make myself central to the equation of the game experience. I see it as a dialog between myself and the game. The problem with ‘it’s all about me’ and ‘it’s all about the gamer,’ the weird preoccupation that it’s all about agency, is that it’s fundamentally false, because this fails to realize that any time you’re engaging with a game or any art form, it’s fundamentally a mediated experience
I definitely think that being poor, being a woman, and being queer all contributed to a fundamentally difficult relationship with myself and with people growing up. Being excluded in these certain ways has made me sensitive to certain things: I see certain interrelational dynamics in games, or how systematic oppressions are reconstituted in video games a lot. I think if I didn’t have that personal perspective, I don’t think those dynamics would be as readily apparent to me in video games. I also read a lot: not just books and poetry, I read a lot of nonfiction as well. I have a lot of interest in capital distribution, socioeconomics and world politics. There are people who can simply take games as games as nothing else, but I have my perspective on these things, and I can’t detach video games from the infrastructure that they’re made in.
What are some reviews you’ve written that you’re proud of? Why are you proud of each of them?
I enjoyed Rainbow Space Donkey Escape, if for no other reason than that I got to review a game called Rainbow Space Donkey Escape. I’ve written about sex in games in articles like “Pushing Buttons” and “Nameless.” Intimacy and video game relationships are an important overlap for me. You have to think of negotiated dynamics: between yourself and a system, between yourself and a lover, between yourself and another player, etc.
In “The Eroticism of Uselessness in Videogames,” I wrote about passivity or exploration in games that is non-laborious, where you’re not just doing contrived work to get to an end with a bunch of feedback. I used that to meditate on intimate relationships. I posited these games as essentially anti-capitalist because they’re non-instrumentalized with the way they explore relationship dynamics. I find that they’re rooted in craftsmanship and the idea that art doesn’t exist for any other reason than to be there as an expression of self. Humans like to put their mark on stuff, and that’s why art exists. It doesn’t need any justification outside itself. So I wrote about games that embraced that. They aren’t consumer products or means to an end. They’re just themselves.
One cultural piece I’m proud of is “Fuck This Shit We Call Games Journalism Because Dammit I’m Tired of This.” It is about the nature of Patreon and the nature of fame and visibility within these critical discursive spaces, and the way we only look across or up at what’s going up, while we very rarely look down. There I made a pledge to be more aware of who I’m elevating, who I’m paying attention to.
I wrote recently about my experience at GDC, which was not really about GDC. It was more about the surrounding culture of San Francisco, which was a real eye opener for me, as a Canadian. I couldn’t reconcile the weird affluence bubble that was GDC with the human misery which I saw all around it. All you had to do was leave what was basically a compound, it was everywhere, and it was really tough to suppress that. The disparity between rich and poor was so pronounced in that culture. It wasn’t just proximity – it was the extremity, from one to the other. There seemed to be no real middle. That’s something I had just never seen before. A lot of our gadgets and the games we play come from that context, it’s really uncomfortable to be participating in a culture that relies on those things, knowing what it’s doing to those people. I still don’t really know what to do with that information.
I recently wrote one for The Arcade Review, a piece about comedy and in particular Major Bueno games, called “The Buenos of Comedy.” It’s about how Major Bueno in particular have a really fine-tuned idea of how to implement humor in games. Most humor in games kind of falls flat, because the timing is just not quite right. The pace is kept by the player, and comedy needs a controlled pace to work, which is why it fails a lot of the time. Major Bueno are really good at knowing how to control the pace through controlling what the player is able to see, and at embedding the comedy inside the mechanics. Because there’s a certain degree of linearity to their games, because they’re sidescrollers or platformers or that sort of thing, there’s a controlled aspect to the time and space of everything, so they’re able to pace out the punch line.
A fun one I did was called “Sext Bob-ombe.” It s about this game I used to play all the time called Bakery Story. That was a funny one because it had this in game trade and chat system, and people were finding ways around the vulgarity censors in order to sext each other. I got sexted and I wasn’t even mad – I thought it was funny that someone went to such lengths to sext me in a bakery sim. That article was an interesting look into how people will infuse any kind of experience with their own wants, needs, and whatnot. If somebody wants to do something in a video game, no matter what it is, by gum, they’ll find a way to do it. That was a fun one for me to write, and it was also one of the more uplifting ones I’ve written.
Lana graciously agreed to write an objective review for Objective Game Reviews. Read her objective review of Gorogoa here.
We thank Lana for agreeing to be interviewed. If you would like to see a reviewer featured as a subjective reviewer of the month, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or see our contact page.