It’s not for you, unless it is
I am as fond of anyone as saying that maybe something isn’t necessarily for you. Which is a great message to internalize until something is for you and it still blows.
The problem with the idea of “it’s not for you” is that it can easily becomes some sort of precautionary principle that shields a game or a book or a movie or whatever from any top-level criticism. If you think that the Game of Thrones series is awash in unveiled misogyny and way too many gratuitous bare breasts, well, it’s not for you. On the flip side, you could also be complaining that it’s a fantasy piece with a lot of swearing and no clear heroes or villains, which… kind of does merit the “not for you” defense.
Point being, the whole thing is a fuzzy area. But there are a few pretty firm signs that someone is complaining about something that isn’t for them or something that is, in fact for them and just not doing a very good job of it.
How well a piece accomplishes its goals vs. what those goals actually are
Dragon Age: Inquisition is a terrible soccer game. It features no goalies, no soccer balls, no season or tournament play options, none of that. Instead, you spend a whole bunch of time killing fantastical creatures and eventually boning an elf. (It is always an elf, and if it’s not an elf, it’s still an elf.) Which is probably why the game is marketed as a fantasy RPG rather than a soccer game, after all.
It’s not legitimate to criticize Inquisition on the basis of how much soccer action it delivers. Nor is it fair to criticize it based on how dissimilar it is to, say, Bravely Default – they’re both fantasy RPGs, but they both have wildly different formats and goals. It is, however, perfectly fair to critique it on how its quests are structured, how its maps are laid out, or how well your various tasks relate to the core of the game’s story. I find the presentation of story in the Elder Scrolls games dull, the combat uninspired, and the various objectives fairly unengaging, but I’m not going to say that the games would be better if they swapped over to the classic Final Fantasy structure of town-dungeon-town-etc.
Not every game has goals that you find particularly engaging, and that’s fine. But complaining that Pacific Rim isn’t a cerebral science fiction drama is complaining about what the movie isn’t trying to be. It’s complaining about a movie you wanted it to be. Meanwhile, calling Transformers: Age of Extinction a bad action film when stacked up against Pacific Rim doesn’t mean you’re blaming it for not being what it doesn’t want to do; you know what it wants to do, and it does it badly.
Critiquing the piece vs. critiquing the genre
By and large I try to steer clear of adventure games. I don’t like them, see. Any criticism I can level against them is the same stuff that anyone can say about the failings of adventure games as a whole, offering no particular insight as to how this adventure game does a better or worse job of playing to the genre’s strength. That wouldn’t be talking about a game, it would be talking about an entire type of game.
If someone at, say, Rock Paper Shotgun talks about an adventure game, odds are better than even that they’re a fan of the genre. They can speak to or criticize the parts of the game that are better or worse than other adventure games. The game is for them.
Some of this does tie directly into the aforementioned point, but it’s also a higher-level sort of thing. Complaining that an RPG features a large amount of people talking is chiefly informative insofar as I now know you don’t like RPGs; complaining that the dialogue is wooden and doesn’t advance the plot is another story altogether. The same goes for subgenres, as well; I can’t legitimately say that a bullet hell shooter is bad simply because it’s a bullet hell shooter, which I personally think makes for a less entertaining shooting experience. What would be more useful is talking about why it’s not a good bullet hell shooter.
Assuming breadth of audience vs. assuming a niche
Kurt Vonnegut said that you should write to please one person, and I agree with that. But unless you’re writing for one person and to just one person, you know that other people are going to see your work. You have to account for that.
This is what I like to call the comic book mistake. The two biggest comic publishers have a longstanding assumption that their audience consists of teenage boys and manchildren, at which point they consistently put out a large amount of stuff that would only ever appeal to teenage boys and manchildren, thus justifying a stupid belief and ensuring that said teenage boys and manchildren are the only ones without shame for buying this dreck. Then as soon as something, anything comes along that isn’t set up with the dudebro douchebag gaze as the first priority, it’s a runaway hit with the rest of the world that isn’t on Team Manchild.
There is a full world of people who are not straight white cis men and those people are potential audience members. A piece of work that ignores that fact and markets itself solely toward a single group’s gaze doesn’t then get to hide behind “it’s not for you” when the only justification is that the people in charge couldn’t be bothered to look at the entire rest of the world. There’s nothing wrong with marketing toward a niche, no, but there’s a difference between aiming at a niche and excluding everyone but that niche.
Objecting to a message vs. objecting to its existence
There’s a lot of discussion to be had about the messages underpinning The Dark Knight Rises. Stuff exists there to be unpacked, messages tracing through all three films, and there’s a lot of room for debate about what those messages were meant to be, how they came across, or even if the films do an adequate job of conveying those ideas. My best friend and I have completely opposing viewpoints about all of Nolan’s Batman films, we enjoy going back-and-forth over it.
What isn’t up for discussion is whether or not the films have the right to have a message.
A toxic idea has flooded culture, an assumption that not every story has a message or indeed should have one. But the whole reason we tell stories is to convey a message. Every story has a message to tell, even if it’s just the message of every single episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (specifically, “don’t be like these people”). Even if the author just starts writing until they hit a word count, they’re conveying a message based on what they think is important. Messages are always present.
Objecting to a message, to its presentation, to its relevance – those are all totally all right. But objecting to the very presence of a message in entertainment is like objecting to the presence of a letter inside an envelope. The latter is a vehicle for the former. If you dislike the message, that’s fine, but all of those stories you see as not having messages do have ’em. They just line up with what you already believe.
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