Seven Months with Kratzen
December is here already, and like how dollar stores parasitically latch onto whatever arbitrary tradition the public unfeelingly and unconsciously partakes in order to sell them cheap plastic crap that won’t enhance their lives in any way, I have parasitically latched onto three weeks and also one week’s worth of indie games in order to review them for my own evil and degenerate purposes, plus or minus a few days not including those days where I didn’t review them and including those days where I did.
I have learned many things during this month, as I tend to do that sometimes, about how high the highest highs of games can get, but also how lows its depths can sink. I have seen natural beauty and unnatural beauty. I have seen great writing which makes me proud to have read it. I have even seen that which makes your soul burn slow, sinking into you and not letting go and making you think about why you care so. But with all joy comes sorrow, and this too has passed. I have seen work so bizarre that you wonder why it was made. I have seen that so generic it shames the genre it was born out of it. I have seen bad writing, and I have seen terrible writing. All of these are cardinal sins: they abuse the limited time I have on this Earth. Their existence damages those who experience them. Sometimes I wish they didn’t exist.
My struggle was not voluntary. It was coerced — by yours truly. I made a wager on the first day of this month that I would not go a day without updating this very website. For just ten dollars a day, I slaved away to make sure that I got each article, each review, and each pithy announcement from yours truly up and active on the Kratzen front page that you know and love. Somewhere in the middle I ended up one day behind with a review backlog I never quite cleared. Yesterday I ended up two days behind… I’ve already paid my last twenty dollars to the Kratzen Selects bundle. I hope those two gentlemen enjoy the proprietary software I’ve given them. I hope, most of all, they take those Kenney assets and make something great. Probably won’t.
All Work and Some Play
Maybe I’m not cut out for this “unpaid labour” line of work. Perhaps all the time I’ve invested into scrounging up the best and brightest that Itch.io has to offer can be spent best by getting me skills that will make me more employable. For instance, learning piano… or learning how to draw. Look, I’m going to be an artist somehow, so you better start respecting me while I’m poor. When you see me out there on the streets with my two honeys and a fat stack of cash, who’s going to pay for your dinner that night? Will it be me, or will it be — hold on, I’m confusing “artist” with “pimp”. Still a good career.
But it’s true: working on this site is like a job that I’m not getting paid enough for! And even if I was paid, there’s a hell of a lot more, you realise, than getting paid to play video games. Most obvious is the writing; I gotta format all of my thoughts into an HTML document that only I understand how to navigate, make sure it’s all semantically correct, and that nothing breaks when I publish it. And the actual writing itself is a damn pain. Anybody who tells you they enjoy the act of writing is a damn liar. They enjoy the fruits of their labour, not the labour itself. Writing is a frustrating, scrubby, sometimes painful – in – the – wrists process where you barely understand what you’re going on about and what you’re getting at, requiring a particular mood and peace of mind in order to write, writing without getting distracted by the ten thousand billion other things your brain wants you to look at, and publishing anything that anybody would want to read top – to – bottom is a small miracle in itself.
I’ve written a lot on my writing philosophy in scattered thoughts; I attempted to write a book on it, but it ended up being scattered thoughts, except in a book. But no matter what you write, this truth is fundamental: the audience makes the author. How hard is it to be the most interesting person on the Internet? Damn hard. Sure, you can be “interesting” by running a website that looks so damn awful that everyone is looking at it for the same reason you look at Jihadist videos on the Dark Web, but that’s a novelty which only works once, because even being a fascinating idiot is still being an idiot. It’s the struggle of not being an idiot — of saying things that are of value to you and not just to me — that underpins much of what I attempt to achieve with Kratzen.
It’s not just about me writing opinions on some games I happen to come across and play because I think they look interesting. I am a more learned man than the majority of fanboys masquerading as journalists, and the time I spend not writing is most often spent on becoming more learned. I do not mindlessly consume content, and nothing I say should ever be seen as a mindless recommendation of content… the concept of “binge watching” is so foreign to me, so aggravating to my mind, that I wonder how people allow themselves to become mindless vegetables in that way — and to the point, in a way where mainstream society encourages not using your brain to critically think about the material you are consuming.
If I’m not reading or gaming, I’m most often watching YouTube or a cartoon or anime I’m interested it. But never to the point where I’m simply “turning my brain off”, because to do such a thing is not only impossible, it is insulting to assume I should do such a thing. I am always thinking, always criticising, and always developing opinions of everything I watch and read. I look at what is presented to me, such as the stories, the acting, the themes, the information within, and the processes required in order to make such work. And though I don’t often look behind the scenes and see the context behind something like, for instance, the movie Coraline, I can still be fascinated by some part of what I’m seeing, and still find fault in other parts. Every day I sharpen my critic’s teeth in this way. If I ever shut my brain off, I will be dead.
And the thinking is as exhausting as the writing is. Your brain can only handle so much thought before it demands a break. It only has so much willpower, so much willingness to cooperate, before it forces you to rest. It is an active fellow, best served through giving it food for thought and vigorous exercise, but even it must relent and focus on easy tasks. And, lately, I have been relenting on its behalf more and more. Delaying the writing of articles, not playing any games in favour of dining outside, and spending more time with my friends. If I was a scheduled man and could cut out these distractions from my life, as pleasant and fulfilling as they are, I will find myself with much more time in order to update this site. But then, would the quality of the articles reflect my unwillingness to do so?
So much of art is finding the strength to get up off your ass and do the work that nobody else in the world seems able to do. It’s being able to deliver that day after day after day, no matter the consequences, and finding yourself in a battle with yourself during every waking hour, thinking: “will I have enough time to write today? how will I update? about what? how do I write? should I do this or that or the other thing?”. Going the past month with this mindset has significantly decreased my appreciation of what I can do in life, because now I am restricted not to do as I please, but to do the one thing as you see before you now. And with my appreciation, I also find my skills decreasing. I misspell more words than usual, forget the definitions of those words, and have a harder time reading them because of how exposed I am to my own website.
It is cognitively proven that the brain functions best when it is given a chance to rest before attempting the same task multiple times — and at that, instead of monotonously grinding out the same task hour after hour, to switch up its activities, to rebel against a set schedule, in order to better stimulate it. I don’t know why the brain works like this. Like I say: it’s an excitable little bugger. But I cannot argue with millions of years of evolution, so I will take my brain’s advice and, for the month of December, scatter my thoughts some more.
The New Kratzen Schedule!
Starting today I am now updating Kratzen every two days instead of one. It is obvious, so very obvious to me, that I need the extra time in order to catch up on what I want to write about, to make those writings better, and to give the writer the time to become a better writer. Twenty – four hours is a very long time, but for most of us they go by in a blink, and so I must use this time – manipulation privilege in order to make the most of my waking hours. Some of you may complain this is effectively halving my content. I wonder if you have read half of this month’s writings.
To explain why I don’t have a schedule: they have never worked for me. I am a man whose attempts to motivate himself has all failed banally. Whenever I have a schedule, I break it. Whenever I set alarms, I get frustrated. No smartphone app or time – tracking software has ever gotten me to be a fuller human being. It’s only in education, patience, personal benefits, and emotional satisfaction that I can change my fundamental personality tenants, to become less of the boy I too often feel like, and become the man I want so much to be. Time is the greatest gift you can give someone. I am giving it to myself in order to be someone.
The only system of self – motivation that has worked for me is stealing my own cash and witholding it until I post something every day. You can’t reason with someone logically, because we are not logical beings. Doctors smoke all the time, and some take up smoking as doctors. They know the damages. They’ve seen the results. But they do it because they have an emotional dependence on the thing. I have an emotional dependence on getting my fucking payday: that’s my motivation right there. Donate all my money if I fail to update? Can’t let that happen. I need it to live a comfy life — a comfy life earned through the work I put in each day.
You will notice I’ve posted this article a day late: on December 1 instead of November 30. I’m backdating it for convenience sake. Tomorrow I am posting a real review on the real date, so I can get caught up and not have to worry about being a day late every damn day I sit down to write something. Tomorrow I am withdrawing more money from my bank account and withholding it from me again. Because, as you can see from the results of the November Wager, it was ridiculously successful.
Questionable Definitions of Science
As I stated in last month’s article, “I have decided then, in some silly science experiment, to continue on with Kratzen and see, in the course of thirty days, if I may find anything in games that will continue to justify my writing about them, when what I should be doing is creating them instead. I will decide, in just thirty days, if I will be more suited continuing this small corner of games journalism, or if I am better suited trying my hand at teaching these whippersnappers a lesson or two in how to make a medium that’s worth it’s fucking salt.” Perhaps I’m not so suited, given how I typed “it’s” instead of “its”, no matter how possessive that apostrophe claims to be.
And like all experiments, once must take a look at the data earned and analyse it for the greater good — and by “analyse”, of course I mean “manipulate to say whatever you like”. So, in the month of November, I have given out the following ratings:
• Five one – star reviews. (5 ★)
• Six two – star reviews. (6 ★★)
• Eight three – star reviews. (8 ★★★)
• Two four – star reviews. (2 ★★★★)
• And seven articles that aren’t reviews — including this one. (7 ⁂)
So twenty – eight posts in total, excluding those two days I took off on November 24 and November 29. I still counted those as part of the Wager because I updated the blog instead of just letting it die. I’m okay with telling you what I’m doing — I just hate it when I abandon you like that, because then you don’t know what’s going on. Hell, back in 10kB I had someone ask if I was doing okay for being gone for three days. You can’t have that type of reputation just come to you… you have to earn it. It’s high praise. I guess I didn’t deserve it, given how little I updated Kratzen.
The Kratzen star system makes it really easy to determine what games I consider good, and what games I consider bad. As it is said in “What Doth Stars Mean?”, three stars is good, and anything below three stars, isn’t — which is, once again, not to say you cannot enjoy games with lower star ratings, it just makes it less likely you will. So the data is (and not “the data are”, you arbitrarily prissy academic twats) clear on my subjective analysis of the games in question: I have rated eleven games as “bad”, and ten games as “good”. The rigour in which I’ve done so is up to you to decide, as my opinions are already published, and redoing them would be overtly perfectionist — and also revisionist, to imply my words were perfect when they weren’t.
Data is fascinating in its own special way because of all the correlations and causations it can produce. In the case of criticism, it can reveal startling biases in the types of games the critic rates, such as seeing which authors they like, whether they rate higher on days with good weather, what types of genres they disparage, and all sorts of points you don’t realise until you look at them all, down to rating a game based on what day of the week it is. A naïve attempt at analysis would take the twenty – one titles I’ve reviewed and attempt to derive conclusions from those. But the sample size is much too small for that. Even the rest of my reviews would only create small – time revelations that could be proven false as time marches on. Too much rigour is just paperwork, but the right amount is good science.
This is why I maintain such a detailed archive: to allow amateur researches, and critics of my criticisms, to detect any bullshit that slips past the radar. Open research like this allows fans to understand their mentors best, lets those mentors look at their past work in order to improve for the future, and creates a carbon footprint of everything they’ve ever done in order to categorise, systemically, what they do and why they do it. For most observers, it’s just a way to find reviews and games of interest. If they see a game with a rating of four stars, they might click on the review and see why it’s gotten the “great” star rating. But even this casual search for information is amateur data sleuthing: to see what type of game it takes for me to enjoy it. Indeed, reading my reviews at large is just trusting that the things I like will be the things you like. It’s fascinating to see how much of a cottage industry criticism is, to be so dependent on art and yet dissect it all with ease…
All of this is just the background noise of science. The core is to find evidence and express strong conclusions. I asked myself if gaming is worth writing about, or if I should devote all my time to attempting to make games to slightly improve the medium. A big question, not suited to such lackadaisic conclusions, but the evidence suggests that, 47.6% of the time, gaming is worthwhile enough and enjoyable enough to want to experience, and therefore write about those experiences. It would be silly, though, to suggest that there is a 52.4% chance any game you play would be “bad” or worse. That would just be egghead pencil pushing with no understanding of practical circumstances.
No, the proper conclusion is that I’m a critic, and it’s my job to criticise games, including those I would have shown no interest in if I didn’t want to write about them, and that my particular judgement of a game will not be the same as your particular judgement. The high rate of games I’ve rated as “bad” is due to a number of factors. First off, I have a clear critical philosophy that I apply to every game I review, which is summed up simply as: “Is this game worth your time?”. All the artistic discourse, branching sub – philosophies, and talk of themes, tropes, and theories is all subservient to the fundamental question of whether a title is worth playing. The primary beneficiaries of this talk are the artists and savvy customers who want to get to know more about how to make good art, and how to find good art. It’s disappointing to see the majority of media consumers are not those type of people, but I never did cater to the majority, now did I?
Because of this deliberately harsh philosophy that prizes the audience above all of the artist’s imaginary privileges, such as the unwritten rule of art communities which is to say exclusively nice things about a work no matter how much good honesty does for an artist, I am much, much harsher on games than the average audience member is. A minor proof of this observation can be seen in how many downvotes I get on Itch.io for posting negative reviews. Why am I harsh? Because the silent majority of audience members who play a title, think it’s shit, and then goes on with their lives never telling the artist why they dropped their title in under an hour, are doing the artist a great disservice by not giving them the information they need to make better work.
I have an obligation to the artists who make the work that I enjoy to tell them, in great detail, why I don’t like their work… criticism is honesty, full stop. If you say you enjoy a work when you didn’t, or if you give something two stars when you know in your heart it really should be one star, then it damages the trust and reputation you have spent your entire career building in order to make your opinion more valuable than the random asshole who thinks they’re hot shit because they can comment on an Itch.io page. I don’t care if I hurt the artist’s feelings. I have zero obligation to be kind to someone I don’t know, and yet has polluted my culture with mediocre work that people praise because, hey, at least they tried, right? One of the harshest lessons you can learn is life is that, sometimes, your best isn’t good enough. And nobody who matters is going to give you a free pass for making shit work because you tried your best. If you’re not willing to make your work the best you can make it at that point in your career, then you shouldn’t publish it and expect me to praise it. I don’t lie in that way, and I cannot stand it when other human beings look at crap work and praise it for being crap.
So long as my reviews are true and honest, so long as I have a consistent voice and philosophy built up over dozens of reviews worth of precedent, and so long as I write in that particular way which entertains while at the same time imparting knowledge that you can’t get anywhere else, then my opinions are valid to those who are reasonable enough to accept that I have them. Not everybody has a right to their opinion. I believe, in my short and yet prolific career, I have earned slightly more of the right to say what I may, and to say it in whatever way I may.
I would require a larger article to explain each particular of my critical philosophy, though you would be much better off just reading my reviews and deriving what I value. I know it’s hard to sum up somebody else’s opinion, and in many cases I write only that which makes the most sense to me. And it would be arrogant to assume that, at this point in my life, I am somebody deserving of so much exhaustive study, as if I was even worthy of an autobiography. But you can glean what I like to see, and for the most part, it’s mostly about what I would like to see.
So, that’s the first factor done. The second factor, to explain the higher incidence rate of “bad” games, would be that I have gotten more liberal in calling a spade a spade, a bad game a bad game, and a good game a good game. I have learned how to discern them better and better, and so my star ratings are now even more biased towards the lower ends as my standards increase and I learn about how great games can really get. I really do have more of an appreciation for art when I write about it. Even if I must write about the chaff, at least I still get that lovely, bread – giving wheat.
The third would be that your average Joe is likely only to play games that appeals to them, and so are naturally inclined to like more games that they try out. When you view work you think you’re going to like, more often than not, you end up tricking yourself into believing that you actually like it, when there’s actually many niggling doubts in the back of your head that you can’t quite materialise into actual thought that all passively sabotages your enjoyment of a work, causing you to eventually lose interest. The majority of audience members are biased in their own special way. It’s their privilege to be; they are rarely obliged to form opinions of what they watch.
Part of being a critic is being able to put aside your natural biases and review a game from the viewpoint of someone who, despite not being interested in the title, is mature enough to experience it for what it is rather than what you expect it to be. Even when you know, you just know something is going to be a flaming dumpster fire of shit and piss and every other nasty bodily fluid, you have to be prepare for it to pleasantly surprise you, because otherwise you’ll be stuck in an echo chamber of your own opinions and never grow as a human being. I had extreme hesitation when it came to tackling games like Heartbound, Raft, and Things that aren’t Real. None of this stopped those games from being some of the worst and most unpleasant games I’ve ever played in my life (at least from the high standards of yours truly), but I was ready to be surprised if they turned out to be good!
More seriously, I had low hopes for titles like The Difference Between Us, Cynical 7, Packing Up, and Don’t Get a Virus. And you know what? Those all turned out to be really good titles! I actually was pleasantly surprised when they turned out to be great pieces of work, especially when you consider work I expected to be great, such as FIGHT KNIGHT and Lost Constellation turned out to be really not that good at all. Being a critic is being enough of a man to look past the differences between you and a title, and to assess it fairly on its own merits, no matter what its genre is, no matter what it takes inspiration from, and no matter who made it. Because all that context makes for a nice write – up, but it doesn’t make for what the audience wants to see: a good work of art made by good people, and something they won’t feel ashamed to look at and recommend.
And fourth is the easiest factor: it’s possible the statistics are just flukes of the month and they’ll end up wildly different the next month. Look, sometimes math is just like that, alright?
So, to answer the main question: is it worthwhile to keep on reviewing? And given all the philosophy I’ve just espoused here, how much good it’s done for me as a person, and how much good it can do for you as a person… well, the answer is an obvious yes. At least, scientifically speaking, until the data proves otherwise, and I really will have to stance up and show these Millennials how to make a game worth playing, I say, as I remain blissfully unaware I am also a Millennial.
But my main points do stand: I really do want to appreciate more that life has to offer that isn’t being offered to me by a computer screen. I want to be able to become a man of many skills and be good enough at those skills so I can appreciate all the hard work and effort that goes into crafting them. I want to learn how to draw, make music, and program with real code in order to best understand all the hard work that goes into all the things I love so much. I only know of these trades in the way a book – smart nerd can: by reading about them and talking to those who have done them. But there’s a big difference between repeating theory and, through the hard work and personal experience that can only come from one who lives their life as best they can, having informed opinions of the type of work that goes into the production of your favourite art pieces.
Criticism, especially written criticism which requires you to organise your thoughts, create interesting prose that exhumes personality, and present those thoughts in an orderly and understandable fashion, is an art form in itself. The critic says: “all art must be like this!”. But, really, is that not what the artist does, by making their own art and offending the sensibilities of their creative rivals? Yes, I am the arbiter of culture, and I pass decrees on what art should and should not have the privilege to grace your eyeballs. But the artist is the one who wants you to see their work, and so long as they are doing that, they are competing with everyone else who wants you to see it. I recommend what deserves to be seen, and disparage that which doesn’t. I do not feel this is as harsh and cynical a discipline as criticism’s detractors make it out to be. If we had no quality control, then what would we even watch?
And though it takes one many years of thinking, many tireless nights of research and writing and watching media and discussing what you’ve watched, understanding each and every nook and cranny of every fictional property you can, there is still a special joy to criticism in being able to understand particular things about works that other people just watch and have wash over them like it was nothing. The tragedy of knowledge is that, once it is shared, it seems so obvious to those who know it. But ask someone to derive, for instance, any point that I’ve made in this very article, and they would be hard pressed to do so unless they were as woke as I.
And even then, it is one thing to understand something, and another to teach it… through criticism, we become better writers, better creators, and better artists — and, through the careful study of pieces which made us feel particular things, we learn to appreciate an eye for detail, an eye for quality, and an eye for being someone who can do a little bit of everything and understand all the little pleasures that life can offer. The fruits of writing’s labour is a pleasure, and reading it back is a life – changer.
I will continue on writing, and I will bribe myself in order to continue writing. Next month, I will write much the same as I have written now. But as the days of our lives slip past like grains of sand in the powerful man’s hand, I can only take each month as it comes. But it seems to me, with all the surprises I have in store, it’s going to be a good one. A real good one.