Vermin and critics

You know I love Pixar. One of the things that Pixar do supremely well is to make up new, self-contained worlds existing parallel to the real human one. And while Pixar’s animations have an extraordinary depth of humanity, the humans in the films are nearly always the menace to the fictional world. In Monsters Inc, kids are infectious agents who have to be confined and cleansed. In Toy Story, the toys are painfully vulnerable to their owners’ changing affections. And it’s the same in Ratatouille: humans threaten the rat-heroes with poison, guns and gibbets. When gastronomically-gifted rat Remy forms a bond with aspiring chef Linguine, the human world still menaces, in the form of a grasping head chef and a baddie food critic Anton Ego.

Anton Ego(Image © Disney/Pixar.) Wait, the villain is a critic? It seems almost churlish for a movie-making team who have had a conspicuously (and deservedly) smooth run with reviewers to make an assault on critics (Ratatouille hauls in a stupendous 96% fresh rating on the Tomatometer), but there you are. And not only is Ego a critic, but he’s a vociferously negative critic who rediscovers pleasure in a moment of Proustian bliss, then issues a long and thoughtful mea culpa before giving up criticism for creation:

In many ways the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and themselves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to a new talent, new creations. The new needs friends…

This is a description that marks critics as inferior to what they criticise. They’re parasites on culture. They’re feeding on the detritus. They’re vermin. They’re like rats, and maybe in a film where the emotional denoument is in the reconciliation of the human and the rat, treating criticism as an inferior species of culture deserves a little more inspection.

There’s a really nifty short film in the extras on the Ratatouille DVD called Your Friend The Rat which explains that the spread of the rat was parallel with then spread of humans. The two species thrive in the same habitats. The omnivorous rat flourishes on a human diet. In other words, we wouldn’t hate rats nearly so much if they weren’t so bloody similar to us. And maybe critics are the same, scooping up the crumbs and dirt of the “average piece of trash” and turning it into something good.

Criticism isn’t just what Ratatouille pretends it is – a hanger-on of the arts. It’s a craft of its own and it can be done well or poorly, but for most average pieces of trash, a good going-over by a strong critic in a fine fury is the best available fate. A railing Victorian bigot like Dr Cumming would have made nothing of any value at all, if he hadn’t given George Eliot ocassion to slam his sermons for their “smattering of science and learning.” “platitudes,” “bigoted narrowness” and “unctuous egoism.” The most interesting part of Big Brother every year is Charlie Brooker dismantling the show’s mechanics in Screen Burn. And, while a self-indulgent kicking is unwelcome, it’s not any more despicable than the sort of writing that piles mewling approval on top of success and pretends that championing the biggest and the boringest is a work of passion.

God is a number

snv80130In the last post, I mentioned the problem of putting a value on unquantifiable things. But obviously, people do find ways to value the unquantifiable: every time I write a theatre review, I have to boil down the experience to a number of stars at the end. And like Leon, I know that the number probably has more meaning to the reader that the 250 preceding words that I’ve delicately prodded into shape. (People really, really love numbers.)

Personally, I don’t find that hugely painful. Skipping down the scale from 5 (amazing), via 4 (enjoyable), 3 (pleasant) and 2 (boring) to miserable 1 (agonising), most things can be comfortably shoved into one of the categories. But these reviews are pretty low stakes: I’ve never had to face down an angry PR or deal with being blacklisted from an arts centre. Some industries take numbers very seriously indeed, and there’s an article in the current Edge (available online here) on Metacritic, the site which collates review scores, weights them by publication and averages them out into a meta-score.

For developers, this creates what must sometimes be excrutiating pressure: not only are there people boiling down your hard work to an inflexible figure, there’s also some bastard sampling all these figures and presenting a final count of your creation’s merit. Ouch. And the industry is racing to work out how to use these numbers, tying royalties to Metacritic scores, calculating the relationship between sales and average reviews. Marc Doyle, Metacritic founder and editor, explains to Edge:

“‬I know that certain publishers have done very comprehensive studies and they’ve been able to highlight certain types of games and certain types of genres for which predictability will be much higher‭ – ‬racing,‭ ‬sports and certain types of action games,‭ ‬certain types of franchises.‭ ‬Others you just don’t know,‭ ‬like why did the Ben‭ ‬10‭ ‬game sell through the roof‭? ‬I don’t know.‭ ‬It’s not so predictable,‭ ‬it’s not scientific or perfect.‭”

Although, if humungous kiddie-bait franchise Ben 10 is the best example of ‘inexplicable’ success you can come up with, that suggests that the Metacritic system might not be so flawed. The numbers actually tell quite a lot, and possibly more than the original reviewers would like them to:

… for every five points above‭ ‬80,‭ ‬on average,‭ ‬sales double.‭ ‬But […] many games buck this trend,‭ ‬and […] the largest‭ ‬publishers have found that the greatest sales‭ ‬growth tends to occur in games scoring in the region of‭ ‬70‭ ‬compared to those scoring‭ ‬80‭ ‬or more.‭  [Of‭ ‬18‭ ‬products achieving scores of‭ ‬90‭ ‬or more in‭ ‬2008‭ ‬and‭ ‬2007] ‬only two were projected to sell over seven million copies,‭ ‬while seven sold less than a million.‭ ‬Overall,‭ ‬12‭ ‬out of the‭ ‬18‭ ‬sold less than two million,‭ ‬a figure that marks a rough break-even point for a triple-A game.‭ ‬In other words,‭ ‬there is a correlation but quality does not assure success.

Or more brutally, there’s a noticable – not universal, but statistically interesting – point at which reviewers’ affections diverge from public interest. The Edge piece comes down fairly comfortably: in the end, sales are still king, and if Metacritic pushes more emphasis on quality, then that could be a good thing. But there’s another option in the numbers too: that publishers identify that 70-80 band as the area that makes money, and squeeze out the developers aspiring to 80+, so choking innovation out of the industry. In that case, the combined voice of every reviewer would have killed off the games they love best. It would be a self-crippling, short-termist strategy for the industry to adopt. But in a time of financial uncertainty, it might be a tempting one.