Nothing Is Good, Nothing Is Bad
or, Why Death Stranding Is So Hard To Talk About
When I first started reviewing videogames and contemplating how I wanted to analyze them, I arrived at a hypothesis: When it comes to evaluating art, nothing is ever good and nothing is ever bad.
And, after five years, I’ve yet to find an argument that disproves this idea.
Recently, it seems that the reviews of Death Stranding might be causing some others to have this realization too.
@danthat seemed to sum up this phenomena pretty well.
The Giant Beastcast debated this briefly, starting around the 17:00 mark.
The Giant Beastcast: Episode 232
The gang's all here! And boy do we have some games to discuss! Including Ring Fit Adventure, Disco Elysium, Outer…
And Tim Rogers’s Kotaku Review asks and doesn’t answer the question after only 4 minutes and 39 seconds.
The idea of a creative work being “good” or “bad” is so ingrained in our minds that we just assume it’s a valid way of looking at things. But once you actually start thinking about why things are “good” or “bad,” you realize this entire concept is absurd.
Here’s how that thought process broke down for me:
When someone says something is “good” or “bad,” they are really saying one of two things. The first thing they could be saying is:
I personally liked this thing, therefore it is “good.” Or, I personally disliked this thing, therefore it is “bad.”
This is fine. Everyone has personal, individual tastes and enjoys different things. Something that’s entertaining and satisfying for one person might be boring and frustrating for another person.
However, framing something you personally like or dislike as “good” or “bad” inherently (though perhaps unintentionally) suggests that every other person in the world has or should have that opinion. At the very least, it suggests that a hypothetical average person would have this opinion. Saying “this is good” is very different than saying “this is good to me personally,’’ even though that’s what the speaker may have meant.
So if we just want to leave this issue there, that’s fine! If we want to assume that every time someone says “this is good” that there’s an implied “to me personally” invisibly appending it, that totally works for me.
But I think this runs deeper.
Because we always seem to acknowledge that, “well, yes, of course THESE opinions are subjective,” which would imply that there is also always an amorphous universal opinion floating out there.
One new, common technique designed to divine this universal opinion is aggregating many individual opinions into a single number or recommendation. We see this anywhere on the internet that has a five-star rating mechanic, but in this context, websites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic come to mind. They collect both user and critic reviews to calculate a score that, they claim, reflects the quality of a work.
However, both of these sites also highlight the inherent weakness of this technique by separating user reviews and critic reviews into different numbers. User reviews will reflect favorably on more popular, mainstream works, while critic reviews often reward smaller, lesser-known works. Sometimes there’s alignment between the two groups, but any situation where there’s disagreement creates debate over which one is more accurate. Does the general public liking something make it good? Or is it critical acclaim?
Either of these answers — as well as commercial success metrics like ticket sales and units sold, which I haven’t covered here because they’re undone by simply asking the question, “can a good movie not sell tickets?” — seem incomplete. The popularity of something, or anyone’s opinion of it, seems divorced from determining whether it’s “good” or “bad.” Which can only mean that quality must be determined by the second idea that people have when they say something is “good or bad:”
There is a universal metric that all works can be judged by, and this thing either conforms to that metric (making it good) or it does not (making it bad).
At first, this seems intuitive. Of course there are certain things that, if they’re present in a work, make it good, and likewise, if absent, make it bad. These range from the obvious technical aspects (the shots in a movie should be steady and focused) to the almost philosophical (a videogame should be “fun.”)
Unfortunately, when you actually try to list these definitive attributes that make things good or bad, you’ll probably also be able to find at least one work that you might consider “good” that doesn’t have it and one that’s “bad” that does have it.
For instance, when we talk about steady shots in movies, it seems like something every film should have. But shaky, handheld cameras became common in many movies starting in the mid-2000s. Does this lack of steady shots make these movies bad? Maybe? But probably not. I can’t imagine someone standing up and leaving a theater as soon as the see a single handheld shot. I would imagine the argument goes something like, “Well, they’re using it for a creative purpose. As long as they’re doing it creatively, it’s ok. Movies have to have creative.”
But this line of thinking — works have to be [insert abstract adjective] — is the other side of the spectrum, and it’s equally erroneous.
Any individual adjective we use to describe what every single work in a particular medium should be begins to fall apart if you start asking questions about it. For example, “videogames have to be ‘fun’.” Sure, that makes sense at first. But does it also mean that games with a serious, dramatic tone can’t be “good” because they’re not lighthearted? And if you’re referring to purely the gameplay being “fun,” what type of gameplay is fun? Also, what even qualifies as fun? Maybe you mean games should be fun…to you…personally?
And here we are back at square one.
Trying to find a universal element or metric that makes works “good,” whether simple or complex, ultimately leads us back to personal preference. All the rules that creators are supposed to follow eventually get broken, and all the amorphous attributes that all works should have are too amorphous to generalize with.
So if we can’t define what makes a work “good” or “bad,” maybe the only thing left to consider is that nothing is ever “good” or “bad.”
And although this could be seen as an admission of defeat, it shouldn’t be.
This should be liberating.
Dividing the world of creative works into “good” and “bad” corners you into only liking one type of thing. But once you approach things without the mindset of “good” and “bad,” you’re free to explore everything the world has to offer. You no longer have to feel guilty about enjoying a guilty pleasure. You no longer have to worry about people judging your taste. (Maybe they are, but I guarantee they’re not judging you as harshly as you’re judging yourself.) Sure, you may be opening yourself up to the occasional bore, but you might also be letting yourself discover something that invigorates you like nothing else you’ve ever seen. You’re still free to love and hate different works as much as you want, all you’re surrendering is the presumption that everyone should agree with you.
Art makes people feel things. This, I believe, is why we love it. Sharing the feelings art evokes and exploring how it evokes them is an act of sharing this love. And if you are open enough to believe that nothing is “good” and nothing is “bad,” all this love will be yours to enjoy.