Let’s Critique

Critical commentary layered on top of video is a staple of modern film criticism. re/Action co-editor, Stephen Winson, thinks the same can be true for video games, and begins a series of Let’s Critique videos of Dishonored.

When our illustrious Editor-in-Chief, Mattie Brice, asked me to help with this project, lo these many months ago, it came not long after I had asked her if she was interested in participating in another project. That got put on hold as Mattie, Andrea, and I started getting the magazine together, and dealt with all the distracting things that life decides to throw at you once you settle on the task of setting up a new magazine: all of us coming down with the flu, a terrorist attack with free car chase/gun battle in your neighborhood, surprise three months of grand jury duty, conferences to speak at, weddings to attend, among other things. Today, I finally get to talk about that original idea I had.

The first DVD I ever owned was the Criterion edition of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. It was a movie I had been obsessed with ever since I first rented it on VHS. I hadn’t, and still haven’t, taken a class in film studies. What I had was a new apartment in San Antonio after a pretty messy breakup, no VCR, a DVD drive in my computer, and a lot of time on my hands. So, I figured why not buy the White Album again. I watched the movie, still great, and with really nothing else to do I decided I’d see what this whole commentary thing was about. Three and a half hours later, I watched it again. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve watched the movie without the commentary. How many times I listened to it? Well, I wore that original DVD out some years ago. Who knows?

DVD commentary, for better or worse, was my film school.

Not a great film school. There are more than a few gaping holes in my “education.” But without it, I’d never have had any, and no idea what I was missing.

Today, commentary is everywhere. Just about every movie that did any business has a “special edition” with some of the people that made the film talking about it. The Criterion Collection still gets critics to record film-schools-in-an-audio-track for them. And game developers are beginning to get into it. Valve puts commentary into their video games directly, most notably in the Portal series, but most of the developers overlay them on gameplay videos like the DVDs were are by now so used to.

The Let’s Play phenomenon has exploded, and all kinds of people are talking about their experiences playing a game as they play it. Twitch.tv is booming. However, vanishingly few of them that I’ve seen are done from a critical perspective.

Something that tries to dissect and discuss, rather than simply repeat what’s happening, or perform what amounts to a very long product review.

The ability of video commentary to speak directly to what’s on the screen in front of you, like marginalia in the critical edition of a book, is a largely unused mechanism for making direct connections between criticism and what’s being critiqued.

So to that end, I present the first part of a full length playthrough of Bethesda’s Dishonored, with critical commentary provided by yours truly. If we get funded, I hope to bring other, more established critics in to do this, either with me or on their own (because I’ll be able to pay them something for their time) and make future videos about other games (or future ones in this Dishonored series) with more diverse perspectives than just my own. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope it starts you thinking, moves you to help fund the re/Action project as a whole (Support us! http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/reaction-2013-fundraiser) and maybe doing your own.

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Stephen Winson (@stephenwinson) is the technical editor of re/Action. When he’s not doing that he’s fixing computers, playing games, reading, or trying to stop his kitten from destroying the apartment.

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