One of my favourite parts of the larger Steam sales is finding dirt cheap (generally under two pounds), low-budget games I’ve never heard of before and buying them almost completely blind. In the recent autumn sales, the games I found were the Frederic series by Forever Entertainment.
Frederic is a series of rhythm games where you play as the undead Frederic Chopin as he travels the world, defeating the people of the world in various musical duels. It’s silly, it’s over the top, it has great music, it’s kind of racist.
Jamaica sees you duel a Rastafarian, weed-smoking guy with dreadlocks, Japan’s enemy is the infamous Otaku, Ireland is a horde of leprechauns. The list just goes on and goes all downhill from the start screen. Within that hammy, over the top story there are some portrayals of other nationalities that could be seen as genuinely offensive.
Many critics, both amateur and professional, tend to fall on one side of a piece of work: they either talk almost exclusively about the form, or they’ll discuss at length the content. The form of a game is the methods the game uses to exist as a piece – the art, the gameplay, the music, the mechanics etc. are all part of the form.
The content is what the game says. The images, ideologies, stereotypes or beliefs put across by the game. Both content and form are incredibly important and neither should ever be totally dismissed at the sake of talking about the other, because they are intrinsically linked.
For there to be content (the message), structures within the form must be in place; a message cannot appear without a speaker after all. Likewise, form will be incoherent and disorganised without the content to bind it together.
In discussing elements of a game’s content, such as the racial stereotyping in Frederic, many critics (myself included) are at risk of losing some of the contextual depth that discussing the form in relation to the content brings. This sort of critique can often be very philosophical or based in art studies and as a result be esoteric and maybe bordering on pretentious (and boy am I good at pretentious.) It may include concepts that may not be very well defined or easily understood by the reader and as such may be less ‘user friendly’. In an industry as heavily focused on the enthusiast as gaming is, user friendliness is paramount.
Of course, this sort of critique is most certainly not without merit; understanding the content of a work both on it’s own and in the context of other pieces of work in the wider society it was created in is a process that is applied to every other medium from punk rock to Pre-Raphaelite art. Encouraging the same to be done with games does nothing but hold it to the same standards every other art form and medium is.
However, it does raise the question of whether this sort of artistic critique of a game should be put in the same spaces as commercial reviews, previews and gaming news. They have two different (but potentially overlapping) audiences, and so questioning the user friendliness of academic critique of games is a valid one that should be considered.
On the flipside of this though, many critics also do the exact opposite and focus on the form. This type of critique is fairly prevalent among visual and unscripted mediums such as YouTube or livestreams, where talking about what is right in front of the player is easier or more relevant to a content creator’s audience. This type of critique is very capitalist-based; discuss the game as a product to be bought and whether or not it is worth the player’s money.
There is also nothing wrong with this approach. Games are a product people pay money for, and critique that focuses on the form is important to make sure people do not buy broken, buggy or incomplete games. However, focusing exclusively on either how the game is made or what the game’s messages are is not the only way a game can be discussed.
In Frederic, the dependency on 1v1 duels and a stage-based system lend themselves well to rhythm games, but not so much to allowing the development of characters. The entire genre is based off of using quick stereotypes as adversaries; Guitar Hero presented many stereotypical images of rockstars, goths, metal fans and other alternative music subcultures, for example.
However, Frederic suffers due to it’s basis on Frederic Chopin returning from the dead and experiencing the modern world – throwing the emphasis straight on to nationality. In fact, the sequel, Frederic: Evil Strikes Back went a way to fix this problem by already having Chopin established in modern times due to the events of the first game and focusing more on parodies of famous musicians rather than nationality.
This is just one example of content being the focus of the critique while still acknowledging the form – and of course, other critics would be able to carry this out much more masterfully than I can. This raises a new problem though: if form and content are so closely linked, does the problems in one of them make the whole game bad? No. No it does not.
Discussing questionable elements of a game is what both players and critics should be doing, without taking extreme stances. “This game is racist so it is bad” and “this game is an iOS port so it is bad” both show over reliance on content or form that fail to acknowledge the relation between them. Every piece of work in any medium ever has objectionable elements in both the message they say and how they say it. Nothing is perfect.
While we should be working to improve the industry and the games it produces, we must not take the extremes that shallow critique (again, from both amateurs such as forum posters as well as larger professional critics) can so easily fall in to. Hating games is fine, I do it all the time, but understanding why you hate that game is just as important.