I really liked the new God of War. It has problems—pacing is a mess in the second half, the absence of Kratos’ wife underscores the game’s broader avoidance of a series with a history of violent misogyny—but in broad strokes, I really liked it. It spoke to me as a new father, and as someone who, like Kratos, looks back at their older self in embarrassment, cherishing the growth that comes from getting older. (I have not killed any Greek gods, but it’s all relative.)
That said, I reserve the right to change my mind; it is not my settled opinion on this cultural artifact. My personal reading of God of War informed the 2,000-something word review published on Waypoint, but it reflects a fixed moment in time, when I played through a very long game largely in isolation, left only to my own thoughts, impressions, and reactions. I then wrote a lot of words very quickly.
I’m confident in my opinions, but not arrogant enough to think they’re unmoveable, which is why I’m eager to read what others think in the pending wave of new criticism about the game. Which brings me to my next point: BioShock Infinite. Stay with me.
Though I haven’t played it since 2013, I still think about BioShock Infinite a lot.
After finishing BioShock Infinite, I was over the moon. Columbia wasn’t Rapture, but it was a sprawling, ambitious science fiction story that checkmarked all the boxes Patrick Klepek looks for. Combat was a wash, and the multiple lighthouses a boring trope, but it pitched itself and felt like a capital s Serious video game. This was a story that had something to say about race, politics, and the messy ways conflict and power corrupt even those with the best intentions. If you wanted video games to be seen as art, we needed more BioShock Infinites, and as someone who was, at the time, trying to transition to more serious criticism, this fit.
When the game came out, everything supported my initial reading. Reviews dropped, and everyone liked the game. Not only was it good, it seemed important.
Then, others weighed in. Specifically, people outside the establishment game reviewing cognoscenti, a small group of individuals who tend to review the “big” games, and thus set the tone for how a game is perceived and talked about. (I’m part of this, and have been for a long time.) As critics like Waypoint’s Austin Walker (“I Can See My House From Here: Bioshock Infinite, Nostalgia, and The Uncanny”), Anjin Anhut (“Infinite Privilege”), Gary Alexander (“Columbia: Problematic Racism Theme Park”), Leigh Alexander (“ BioShock Infinite: Now Is The Best Time”), and others published essays, my calculus changed. I’d taken so much of BioShock Infinite’s at face value, and mistook a game projecting as serious to mean it was also “right.”
Isolation is not how I come to terms with understanding—well, anything. Politics, video games, movies, music, whatever. I’m anxious to read as many opinions as possible beyond the scope of my own lived experience. There’s a reason I listen to podcasts at 1.5X or 1.8X speed. Otherwise, there’s no way to keep up; there’s so much good stuff out there, and we live in a time when it’s possible to easily find viewpoints highly divergent from your own. This is especially important when you’re in positions of power, influence, and taste-setting. Your only excuse for staying in a bubble is because you’re choosing to elevate emotional comfort.
Every time, someone says something that makes me go think, puts into words a feeling I couldn’t articulate, or argues in a way that forces a re-examination of conclusions. The opinions of others help me better form my own. It’s a process built on my reaction, and the result is a delightful mixture. What’s important is the fluidity, keeping one’s mind open to the possibility of not only challenging a personal reaction, but willing to admit you could be wrong.
I don’t know what I don’t know until I finally do.
Which is all to say that I still very much like parts of BioShock Infinite, but having processed the viewpoints of others, my feelings on the game are far more conflicted now. I don’t think that’s a particularly controversial take, but complicated in the context of reviewing, where people are being asked to provide a definitive “take” that’s really more of an impression.
We all bring a hierarchy of values to how we understand and interpret a work, and every person’s hierarchy is different. My guess is that hierarchy is awfully similar amongst game reviewers, despite recent encouraging pushes for diversity in games writing, which means a break in uniform opinion, often itself indicative of a problem, is construed as a “backlash.” (This often leads to a backlash to the backlash, when the original group reasserts position.) Is it a “backlash” when the consensus probably shouldn’t have existed in the first place?
I don’t know that I could consciously verbalize my own hierarchy of values, but there are certain critics I follow because I can understand theirs, and they help me fill in the blanks. I consider their voices vital to filling out my reaction.
If you talk to a bunch of reviewers, my guess is most have a policy of not talking to other people about how they feel about a game (or reading another critic’s review) before they’re done with their own. It’s the notion of being “tainted” or “biased” when you’re trying to settle on your own thoughts, and it’s driven so much of my own critical thinking because it’s what I was taught, observed, and practiced during my (too) many years doing this professionally. But it's also a practice that hasn't evolved much, even as the way we talk about games has.
What if that’s bullshit? Or, at least, what if we gave reviews less weight? Not because some aren’t true or well-argued—again, I liked God of War and my review reflects that—but reviews are nothing more than an opinion from a moment in time. It’s an introduction, not a conclusion, with reviews acting as the first wave of (usually mild and gameplay-focused) examination.
In reviewing God of War, I knew I was hopelessly biased to a game about trying to be a good father. As a new parent who grew up with a dad who loved them but rarely found ways to express it—and let me be clear, he was a good person who in no way reflected the toxic masculinity of Kratos—I’m predisposed to the game’s emotional beats. It’s the same way after my father passed, I can barely keep it together during a sentimental commercial for Kleenex. Certain topics are going to grab me, they’ll blind me to others, and the joy of reading other reactions is using them to help me better understand a work holistically.
Everyone has blind spots, but it takes conviction and patience to find your own.
As reviews went live, for example, people started wondering if the game reckoned with its deeply sexualized and angry history with women. My review touched on that point, but largely focused on what the game did want to grapple with: violence. It made me think back to BioShock Infinite: Had I made the same mistake, blindly accepting a game on the grounds of what it wanted to talk about, not realizing what it didn’t say was the more important point?
Maybe? That’s something I’ll need to take stock of, do more research, and grow as a critic. I said what I wanted to say about God of War in my review, from the very specific perspective of a person trying to understand what it means to be a father, but that's only one way to view God of War. It is not truth, it's a truth.
That’s what I’m excited to do in the weeks and months ahead, as people process the game. So far, I still like God of War, but who knows? I don’t think it’s a contradiction to have written a positive, if critical, review for God of War, and to land somewhere else at a different time. If we’re granting Kratos is allowed to change, I’m allowed to change my mind on Kratos, too.
Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you have a tip or a story idea, drop him an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.