Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 22, 2010
We’re in Cedar City, Utah this week. It’s home to the Utah Shakespearean Festival which is going on now, so we hit The Merchant of Venice tonight. It was my daughters’ first live Shakespeare play, and I wanted them to see a comedy rather than a tragedy.
I don’t think we could have picked better. Tony Amendola (Stargate SG-1, Zorro, Blow, Dexter, and a zillion other shows…) played Shylock. He was amazing. Shylock is already one of the best kinds of villains – very believable and almost sympathetic. He’s a guy who has borne all kinds of hatred and venom, until his pride and thirst for vengeance takes him too far. Amendola’s performance really infused Shylock with even more humanity. You can’t condone his attempted murder, but you can understand his pent-up rage.
Okay – bringing it back to games a bit. Kinda. I’m kind of a lousy critic myself, but it occurs to me that if The Merchant of Venice was debuting as a new play or film today, it would probably get nitpicked to death by real critics. I’m sure it did, back in 1597 or so.I guess after standing the test of time, and especially after surviving the death of your original critics, you get something of a pass by all but the boldest critics.
I am old enough to remember when Raiders of the Lost Ark was new, and remember all too well one review in a San Diego paper (I was visiting relatives at the time as a kid) that just trashed it, giving it a no-star (“turkey”) rating. I wonder if he ever lived that down, or if he went through the rest of his career proud of his slam on thw movie. I mean, yeah, you could drive a dump truck through some of the plot holes and silliness of Raiders. Photo-electric eyes that can detect the breaking of a beam of sunlight in the ancient temple? And how do you hide in / on a German U-Boat on a trip along the Mediterranean, exactly? I saw Das Boot – wouldn’t that be kinda like hiding in a VW bug packed full of teenagers on a cross-country trip?
But hey, it was a hugely successful movie and I loved it, in spite of it defying all logic. It’s not as immune to nitpicking as Shakespeare’s most famous plays, but it’s bigger than any critic. As it should be.
The same applies – to a lesser degree – to computer games. I’m reminded of a hilarious review of Chess if it were reviewed by the standards we apply to video games. (I also recommend this old article by Jessica Mulligan that explains how “William Shakespeare was the Aaron Spelling of his day” and how this relates to Games As Art). You won’t necessarily get ridiculed for pointing out the imperfections of X-Com or Super Mario Brothers – well, okay, you will, it just won’t be universal – but they are pretty immune to criticism at this point. Ya just can’t mess with the classics.
You have people like Roger Ebert claiming video games don’t have the legitimacy of capital-A-Art, and others asking when we’re going to see the Citizen Kane of video games. But from my rudimentary knowledge of cinematic history, I think they were still looking for the Citizen Kane of movies years after Citizen Kane. It wasn’t really recognized as a landmark event until about a decade or so after its release. I figure nothing’s gonna help the “legitimacy” of video games more than the simple passage of time.
And so I, personally, have a problem being objective about these things when it comes to games. And why I think I suck as a reviewer, even though I do try my hand at it from time to time. I have trouble setting masterpieces on their appropriate pedestal for comparison. Sure, I’ll use ’em for comparison and all – the benefit of them being classics is that they are well-known and usually well-made. But I have a tough time explaining why Diablo II is superior to Din’s Curse other than – well, it’s Diablo II, it’s supposed to be the best, isn’t it? In spite of some basic similarities, and a clearly bigger budget and higher production values for Diablo II, there’s a lot of apples-to-oranges comparisons going on there that are very hard to objectively quantify. Likewise, you can offer me a hundred reasons why Starcraft was superior to Rise of Nations, but it doesn’t change the fact that I played (and enjoyed) Rise of Nations tons more.
Don’t get me to compare Citizen Kane with pretty much any of my favorite movies, either. Or Merchant of Venice with The Foreigner. I love ’em both, but my enjoyment and appreciation of them isn’t in proportion with their age or critical acclaim.
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