Despite not believing in ghosts, as time passes, I find myself haunted by phantoms. Echoes and figments pursue me relentlessly, and I must face them one day, or I will find myself lost without awareness of where I am, or how I came to be here. For others, this may be fine, but I cannot simply yearn for the past; I must examine the journey I’ve made, else I would fail to live up to my own standards, my own ideals, as a critic.
The way we interact with art, games included, is complex, prone to flaws and inconsistency, shifting endlessly amid the waves of culture and society. It’s often overlooked, but it’s foundational to how we discuss media, and thus I find it relevant to muse on.
A simple explanation would be that the audience (a single person, for the sake of example), consumes the media (a game, again for the sake of example) and forms an opinion on the game. This, however, is an incomplete explanation, assuming a vacuum of context, a situation unheard of in any relevant slice of time to the creation and consumption of art.
The audience brings expectations and past experiences with them; the creator of the media likewise has intent both conscious and subconscious, which must first survive the process of both creation and consumption before it reaches the audience. And make no mistake, creation is inherently a threat to the survival of intent. Creating media, a human endeavor, carries with it human fallibility. These steps of imperfect transfer are why the concept of the “death of the author” is as useful as it is for assessing text and subtext in media; bereft of intent, what does the resulting art have to say?
There’s an easy, familiar shorthand for the audience’s expectations and past experiences that color their impressions of a new piece of media: taste. There’s no accounting for it, as the saying goes. The way I prefer to analogize the development of one’s taste follows a comic I remember reading but could not properly recall the source of, on how, sometimes, we perceive people we’ve just met in terms of bits of people we’re already familiar with. Comparing new information with familiar points is how we grow. There’s a nature vs. nurture argument to be had about the starting point for said development, and how that origin’s influence on your exposure to media can radically change the trajectory of your taste, but I’m setting it aside for this project.
The earlier in your history of media you are, the larger impact every piece has on the lens through which you view media, by ratio if nothing else. Everything you experience is inescapably colored by what came before it. Even if the similarities are so few that you’re exposed to something completely outside of your existing knowledge of media, you learn the information “this is not something I know”, and a broadening of your scope occurs. I tend to call the residual impact of a work on my taste its “phantom” for lack of a more concise term, in reference to the phenomenon of phantom sensations in amputated body parts, and the analogous effects of a piece of media that isn’t present in my perception anymore, but whose imprint still shapes how I move forward.
There’s no accounting for taste! But despite the adage, I know that I’ve definitely played a lot of games, read a few books, and listened to a fair bit of music in my fairly uneventful life, and I want to reminisce and reflect on how they’ve shifted my taste. What games have shaped my views and expectations? What experiences do I carry with me for use as a litmus test? Can I truly express how so many games have altered my life?
This project, which I’ll be calling Critical Phantoms, is my attempt to answer these questions, for no other purpose than self-satisfaction and practice as a critic. Twice a week, I will publish a retrospective post on my experience with a game; these will vary in length and complexity, and because I’m exclusively dealing with games, it won’t be an exhaustive examination of all of my development via media or life events, which is fine.
I welcome any critics or writers to join me in ruminating on their history in part or in full; my twice-weekly goal is simply to push me to write regularly, for as long as I can manage to think of substantially influential games in 2018.
If you’re looking for other work of mine and/or are confused by the gap of nearly three years since my previous post, you can find the podcast I host with my cohorts Becky Davnall and LeeRoy Lewin, along with JRPG-centric writing by us and commissioned critics, at jrpgsaredead.fyi. Support us on Patreon!