I recently saw a comment about an article on academic games criticism. The comment was an approving one: the commenter believed that the article was a fine example of an approach to games criticism that was not “weakened” by a method that focused on the player as a site of meaning-making.
I was furious. What made me so livid about the comment wasn’t that it was some lone graduate student tossing out an opinion that I happened to find objectionable. Quite the contrary: it was that this opinion is a widespread, domineering one. At its base is a fiercely-defended value: objectivity. According to this assumption, methods of criticism that focus on players and their subjective experiences are weak. That, in turn, must mean that strong methods locate meaning elsewhere—somewhere outside the dark subjective cave of player experience and in the bright objective world of game forms.
For a franchise with friendship as a central theme, Pokemon has been shockingly remiss in offering trainers ways to form bonds with their companions. Battling notwithstanding, opportunities to interact with one’s Pokemon have been virtually nonexistent across the series. The games’ plots dictate that the love and trust between player-protagonist and Pokemon are powerful. It is due to those strong bonds, the games emphasize, that the player-protagonist is so exceptional as to both become League Champion and take down the various crime syndicates threatening the world. But the growth of this love and trust between trainer and Pokemon is a gap that players must fill in on their own. It is not developed onscreen.
Since its release in November, I’ve been playing Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. A lot. To the point that I haven’t been playing much else.
It started off innocently enough. It was free on PS Plus and my SO is a fan of the original, so I decided to download it and give it a try. Then it disrupted my entire gaming agenda. I quit The Evil Within and haven’t picked it back up since. I assign Isaac partial blame for causing me to not finish a Pokemon game for the first time in my life. It’s also made the thoroughly tedious Dragon Age: Inquisition seem all the less appealing. I just haven’t been able to put it down.
My friends have been teasing me, asking when I’m going to move on to something else, badgering me to download this or that game (and I do have a long and growing list of games untried or unfinished that have taken a backseat to Isaac’s draw). My aforementioned SO is taking a break from it and is therefore no longer a motivating source of friendly competition. Still, I’ve been logging hours every day trying to accomplish this or that task, returning to the game with a devotion and diligence that has virtually made it into a job.
At some point, I got it into my head that I could finish the game. Finish as in 100% complete it—unlock every item and secret, beat every level with every character, get every trophy.
When I was a kid, I had Barbie: Race and Ride (1999) for the PC. I despised Barbie. I wasn’t a kid who played with Barbies. But I was a kid who hoarded horse figurines, read books on horse care, studied tack magazines, and asked for a horse every birthday and Christmas. I was also a kid who couldn’t afford riding lessons, let alone an actual horse of her own. So to satisfy my wish for a horse, I had to content myself with my toys and my books and my daydreams—and occasionally a game like Barbie: Race and Ride.