Header

Readers, I am tired. As, I suspect, are you. For months now, the discourse has more or less been held hostage by a vocal, angry contingent of self-described gamers who have rendered countless people afraid to engage in social media, afraid to speak publicly, even afraid to remain in their homes. Yes, Virginia, there is a terrorist element in games, and the introduction of national and international coverage in this debacle has put more lives at risk, rather than validate or protect the people this “movement” has already hurt.

Regardless of where you stand on the “issue,” to deny how it has ruined and endangered people’s lives is to turn a blind eye toward the stated, well-documented facts. This isn’t part of a “side” to be debated. You have people, many of them women, almost all of them already disinfranchised in some respect and hardly the movers and shakers of an industry, in fear for their lives. The time to respond to this was over two months ago.

Those who know me personally know I locked my social media accounts ages ago and have avoided making any public, personal comment on current events, outside of simply collecting and curating the words that others have put together. I still, even as I write this lengthy forward to the week’s roundup, feel too afraid to truly speak my mind about what has become all of our lives since August. Just collecting and posting others’ thoughts has been enough for my name to show up in conspiracy charts, accusations of ‘scamming’ our patrons, my private Facebook profile screencapped, nasty emails, the whole lot — just for linking, not even editorializing. Who knows what will happen as a result of my writing this?

The long and short of it, readers, is that something here has to break, and by the looks of it, it’s not going to be That-Hashtag-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named to fall apart first. It’s going to be us.

Now. Having said all that, let me try to muster one last brave face for you and get through this week’s roundup. Welcome to This Week in Videogame Blogging.

The Devil’s Backbone

At The Guardian, Simon Parkin offers up a profile on US politics’ recent move to include game developers in an ongoing conversation on future warfare, thus deepening the connection between games and the military-entertainment-industrial complex.

Also in the vein of military games, over at Vice the seasoned Leigh Alexander attempts to pin down that most inscrutable of creatures, Metal Gear Solid 3. In doing so, she reveals some of its least talked about, yet incredibly compelling commentary on the dirtiness of war.

Hollow Bodies High

At Polygon, Claire Hosking shares a solid takedown of the Damsel in Distress trope and just why, precisely, it’s creatively lazy. (Content warning: Polygon’s choice of stock imagery peppered throughout the piece features close-ups of terrified women tied up and gagged. Why this seemed a good idea to anyone, I’m not sure.)

Meanwhile, at Paste, Gita Jackson dashes off a missive questioning why, for a game which so heavily features fashion as a gameplay mechanic, the costume design in Final Fantasy X-2 is so awful. At Gamasutra’s Member Blogs, Tiny Cartridge’s Eric Caoili goes to some length to illustrate just what makes the card game Netrunner exciting from an inclusivity standpoint.

Finally, at Kill Screen, Dan Solberg has an excellent profile on independent game developer and artist Lilith, creator of Crypt Worlds.

Also, a brief shoutout, but Gaming Intelligence Agency has loads of coverage from IndieCade if you find yourself wanting more.

Dispatches from Vienna

First Person Scholar has begun a partnership with its German-language counterpart, Paidia. As our German Correspondent Joe Köller notes, the fruits of this cross-pollination have already begun.

Two strong pieces from Videogame Tourism: Agata Góralczyk muses on human interaction in post-apocalyptic games while Dan Heck entertains a thought experiment on a large-scale crossover game.

At Herzteile, we find a podcast interview with board game developer Andrea Meyer, while at Kleiner Drei there’s an exciting interview about Lady Internet, an upcoming communication network for women.

This Ain’t the War You’re Fighting, It’s the Red October

If you follow one link in this week’s roundup, let it be this one: Dan Olson’s latest episode of Folding Ideas is a whammy of a breakdown on the Gate of Gamer and why, even if only a minority of the “movement”‘s participants harass, all of them benefit. This line in particular is worth isolating:

The use of terror tactics, even if only by a minority, has created an environment of fear that all members enjoy the privilege of.

While not directly addressing the Gate of Gamer, developer Stephanie Bryant picks apart one of its popular retorts, which certainly predates the campaign: why “just make your own game!” is so oblivious.

I leave the final word to our own Mattie Brice, who more than anyone else has hit the nail right on the head on why the fight against harassment is more like provocation, largely playing into the same spectacle which has already hurt the industry’s most vulnerable members:

This line of thinking seems to come from a couple of factors from what I can see: the ‘logical’ one of if society can see that people in the hate campaign are awful people, they don’t get credence, and the selfish one, that they want to do something but can’t bring themselves to a level where they feel like they can make a real difference. There’s a lot that goes into these two feelings, but simply, society already sees games culture as aberrant and horrible, and therefore doesn’t need to see it get worse to be convinced, and this entire conflict isn’t about gamers and wanting to feel like you’re a good person, it’s about the continual victimization and marginalization of minoritized people in games. It was in the beginning, always is, and yet there hasn’t been any real, healthy effort to counter this. Instead, people waste their energy dealing with people who can’t be convinced, and make bloodsport of it.

It’s Not the End of the World, It’s Just the End of A Song

As always, thank you to our readers who send in submissions via Twitter mention and email. You make these roundups stronger.

Reminder, you have a few more days to get your submission in for October’s Blogs of the Round Table topic, “Masks.”

Critical Distance is community funded by readers like you. If you want to help us weather this brave new world with such people in it, please consider signing up for a small monthly donation. We are very, very close to reaching our next funding target, which is essential if we’re to move ahead on some of our larger projects like the print anthologies.

Someone still loves you, Jakob Dylan. Not, you know, for “One Headlight” or anything. Just because someone has to.

Anyhow, readers — it’s the weekend after IndieCade and I’m back in the saddle. Let’s tuck in with This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Come On Back to the Five and Dime, IndieCade, IndieCade

Speaking of IndieCade, if you didn’t happen to attend, you missed out on some great talks!

Over on Gamasutra, Bryant Francis has an excellent write-up on a well-received panel led by Shawn Alexander Allen (Treachery in Beatdown City) on issues of racism in tech and game development.

Ian Bogost, he of the perpetual mic drop, spoke during IndieCade’s Sunday microtalks session titled “Why ______ Matters” and has generously posted the full text of his talk online. Here’s a sample, in which he deftly deconstructs the ‘specialness’ of games on the level of culture creation:

Whereas previously culture fought, won, and lost its battles at the scale of mass media — think of Madonna and Bart Simpson and Murphy Brown — now we do so in isolated pockets of niche media hobbyism. [Washington Post writer Alyssa] Rosenberg sees this as an unexpected victory. “Everyone can win the new culture wars,” she declares, because “all stories have a chance to be told.”

The problem with Rosenberg’s account is that fragmentation becomes Balkanization, which becomes recuperated into Libertarianism. Mutual hostility becomes “do what you want, just don’t foist it on me.” Pushed to its limits, all fandom becomes apartheid.

[...]

This state of affairs ought to chasten us. It ought to revise our understanding of the scope of the work before us.

For example: if you want to fight for diversity in games, then absolutely you should fight to broaden representation among players, creators, and characters.

But there’s another kind of diversity: the diversity of our interests and our dispositions, of the company we keep and the influences that inspire us, the people and the groups and the industries and the materials that we contact. It has to do with having dealings enough with the world such that it is no longer possible to be seen as a parochial backwater not even worth opposing let alone supporting.

We have become too comfortable here in games.

Lastly, Liz Ryerson has shared a revised version of her talk from the ‘Influences’ panel, in which she discusses the hard road to really waking up to what games can do and be:

this “new flesh” [from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome] is as another way of looking at digital devices as extension of our bodies – and embracing them as body parts we exercise full autonomy over. because if we don’t, we can easily fall under the order of strong, powerful cultural programming that favors the aims of corporate ideology and the military-industrial complex.

[...]

the problem with fighting back against the tide of all this powerful cultural programming is we’re often bad at envisioning and embracing this new flesh as a tool of progress amidst these vast corporate structures colonizing the internet. in his movie A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Zizek looks at the many apocalypse scenarios increasingly saturating popular media of the last ten years and asks: why is it so much easier for us to envision in the cultural consciousness a total apocalyptic collapse of society than it is to imagine a fairly minor-shift in our ways of understanding and constructing the reality of our situation?

the answer is that is the logical endpoint of the ideological path we’re following now. and there is something intensely painful about, in the midst of this, realizing our own bodily autonomy, and our ability to make even a subtle a shift in our understanding and construction of reality. it’s a struggle, and it involves experiencing a lot of pain.

Class is In Session

In Gamasutra’s Member Blogs, Felipe Pepe salutes the 40th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons — which also marks the 40th anniversary of computer role-playing games based upon it.

Independent critic Lulu Blue has been replaying the original Kid Icarus lately and remarks that it seems to exist during a weird transition point in Nintendo’s 1980s design philosophy:

Maybe it wouldn’t be until Kirby’s Adventure that they’d finally let up and greenlight such a revolutionary idea such as “action game that isn’t prohibitively difficult”. While there were games like Dragon Quest before it, with similar staple ideas such as “a game anyone can beat****” they were often tacked on with a billion [contingency] asterisks that amounted to “a game anyone can beat by spending enough time repeating the same trivial task over and over again and smashing their head against a rock (and also pressing the A button in front of every rock)”. Kirby was maybe the first game of Nintendo fame to not have that gotcha, but regardless of whether it was, Kid Icarus was NOT that game.

Meanwhile, in the newest installment of History Respawned, Bob Whitaker sits down with history professor Michelle Brock, an expert on early demonology, to discuss the cultural and religious underpinnings of Blizzard’s Diablo franchise.

One Does Not Simply…

The new Middle-earth game, Shadow of Mordor, continues to inspire a lot of discussion.

On her personal blog, Carolyn Petit notes the game does poorly by its women characters, killing off many and damseling a woman warrior.

Over at Loser City, Jake Muncy digs deeper into the game’s innovative enemy AI system and how its potential is squandered on the narrative’s thematic contradictions:

[O]rcs don’t quite fit into the world Tolkien created. They don’t fit into the order of the world that Gandalf describes to Frodo, where mercy is absolutely right and redemption is always an option — however distant a one. Tolkien’s world is, after all, based irrevocably in his Catholic sensibilities; his non-Lord of the Rings contributions to the universe feature a benevolent creator God and make it clear that the wizards are maiar, essentially angels. It’s important that even Sauron chose to be evil, deliberately rejecting the goodness inherent in all creation.

Orcs are different. They’re evil simply by nature, inherently corrupted. In Tolkien’s rendering they have no culture and no language of their own. [...] Orcs exist in a permanent state of exception, absolutely Other, nameless and killable in droves. They’re two-dimensional and infused with imported racist prejudice, given no depth in a world full of it.

[By contrast, Shadow of Mordor's] Nemesis system gives the orcs much-needed culture and depth. They have names, they make small talk. They have parties and feasts. They live in a constantly changing feudal society. [...] Orcs are victimizers, but they’re also victimized, set in longstanding oppressive power structures.

[However, for] as much as the Nemesis System feels like a solution to the orc problem, it also reifies and even magnifies it. Orcs are still cannon fodder in the same way they’ve always been. It’s a bizarre double bind: our orcs are special unique snowflakes, now kill all of them.

Nuke It from Orbit, It’s the Only Way to B– Oh, I Already Used That One

Alien: Isolation is another game to see some sustained discussion in the last couple weeks, and it’s easy to see why.

Notorious list-maker Brendan Keogh shares his collected thoughts on the game and in particular, how it manages to show off far more raw personality than comparable big-budget games.

At Vice, Cara Ellison takes a few well-deserved potshots at Isolation‘s one major fumble with regards to its level design: the needlessly expository graffiti.

Meanwhile, at Polygon Danielle Riendeau has high praise for the game’s treatment of its protagonist, Amanda Ripley, as truly befitting the heroine template exemplified by Sigourney Weaver’s character in the Alien film series. And from a visual standpoint, PC Gamer’s Andy Kelly shares how the game stacks up next to the aesthetics of the original film in a side-by-side slideshow.

Finally, at Eurogamer, Jeffrey Matulef shares a bit of optimism that Alien: Isolation is but the latest in a broader trend in high-budget, first-person games (including The Last of Us and BioShock Infinite) to offer a more contemplative, sedate experience.

Listen and Believe

As we now enter our third month of the debacle that has come to be known as Gamergate (though in fact, it’s been going on since July or even earlier, for some of those affected), it’s important to keep the profile high and the dialogue open. With that in mind, like much of our Gamergate coverage, these links come with a General Content Warning for strong descriptions of harassment, stalking and slurs.

Let’s start with Brianna Wu, who became the third woman to be driven from her home in two months due to credible violent threats on her life. On XO Jane, she shares a first-person account of being targeted, including screencaps of threats sent to her.

Touching on Anita Sarkeesian’s recent XOXO talk (which this subsection also derives its title from), Damion Schubert has been busily collecting the stories from women from all “sides” of Gamergate, proponents as well as targets and others completely uninvolved, who nonetheless have been subject to harassment, doxxing and other attacks. On her tumblr, Secret Gamer Girl has also collated the experiences of many women targeted by the loosely-defined movement.

The Awl’s John Herrman takes a different approach, reprinting the comments and tweets from parents who have discovered their children are participants in Gamergate.

Also, on The Daily Beast, Arthur Chu (who has never actually written for Critical Distance, despite reports to the contrary) draws an astute comparison between Gamergate and the Disco Sucks “movement” of the 1970s. It’s all great, but here’s a sample:

Just look at the rhetoric used by angry 1970s rock fans to bash disco. It goes beyond just finding the music unpleasant, it invokes the rhetoric of legitimacy. Disco artists aren’t “real” musicians. They don’t play their instruments live, like rock guitar gods; it’s too “produced,” it’s too “studio,” it’s fake.

Moreover, guys who listen to disco are fake. They dress in expensive leisure suits and hang out at fancy clubs. They don’t get down in the dirt and tear it up like us hard-core, genuine, masculine fans. They’re not real men, and women like them for not being real men, which is unacceptable. [...]

And there’s the aggrieved underdog stance, calling disco artists and producers “elitists,” spinning a narrative that rock was authentic music made by blue-collar kids in garages while disco was being “pushed on” America by corporate labels. (Are you kidding me? Led Zeppelin the hardscrabble underdogs vs. the Bee Gees? That’s as ridiculous as saying Call of Duty fans are oppressed compared to people who like indie text games about what it’s like to have depression.)

Gamergate reached the front page of The New York Times this week, due largely to a school shooting threat called in over a scheduled appearance by Anita Sarkeesian. With the NYT coverage, many game news outlets have come forward officially denouncing Gamergate. However, just ahead of this development, Jetta Rae DoubleCakes published this strongly-worded editorial at Ravishly which urges news writers to properly frame their Gamergate coverage, and it’s still relevant:

So eager [are some outlets] for that “big scoop” that they didn’t bother to look at what they were picking up. Or to check if it was toxic. [...]

The willful ignorance of the media, both mainstream and “niche,” has fostered an antipathy without fear of reproach. [...] And every second journalists sit there tapping their lip with their fingers, ahhhh I wish there was a word for people threatening to harm bystanders in public if their demands are not met, if only we’d gotten on this sooner—it emboldens the violence.

Soft Reset

It’s tough, but we have to keep moving. In light of some of the above links, and in particular Ian Bogost’s calls to diversify the critical and cultural landscape of games, let’s look at a few writers who are doing just that.

First, at Haptic Feedback, Austin C. Howe has a look at the recent wave of dismissiveness toward reflexive games (what he calls intertextual games; that is, games which comment upon or are “about” games) and concludes that by doing so we not only diminish these titles but risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Speaking of taking things one level above, here’s Stephen Beirne reviewing an interactive review of Dontnod’s ambitious but flawed title Remember Me.

And here’s a couple plucked from our own contributors. At Paste, Lana Polansky describes her recent venture into card gaming, in particular the simple 1965 game Nuclear War and its critique of the titular subject matter:

But one of the game’s best little touches is that, here, in state of war, there is a nonzero chance that everybody dies. When war is declared, it can’t be undeclared until the first player to launch a missile is knocked out of the game. That means genocide must effectively be committed before peace can resume—there is no going back. However, a losing player can go out by detonating all their playable nukes at once, and therefore has a chance to take out another player with them. There’s nothing in the game prohibiting every player from being taken out, losing their entire population. This means that, in all likelihood, you either end up with a pyrrhic victory or, quite literally, no one wins.

Also, our own Eric Swain is starting a project on his blog The Game Critique, aiming to start folding in criticism from other media forms as a means of diversifying how we approach games. Have a look.

Entering the Sublime

A couple hearty pieces for the road. At PopMatters Moving Pixels, Scott Juster takes a look at The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and the subtle ways it subverts player expectations.

Also from Scott Juster his long-time blog partner Jorge Albor, a brief podcast discussion on games and eating, from our gustatory traditions to our Soylent futures. Mmm.

And So I Send You Out Into the Night, Not, I Hope, Unarmed

That’s it for this week! As always, we value your contributions via Twitter mention and email.

There is still a bit of time to get involved in October’s Blogs of the Round Table. It’s a fun topic touching on Halloween, so I encourage you to give it a whirl!

Did you know we’re commissioning new features? Because we are! Head over here to learn more.

And a few more sites and resources to relax into your Sunday:

-Arcade Review is a quarterly magazine edited by our contributors Zolani Stewart and Lana Polansky
-Five Out of Ten, edited by our sysadmin overlord Alan Williamson, has just released its 10th (!) issue, “Heart.”
-Memory Insufficient is a great free zine edited by Zoya Street.
-Forest Ambassador is an important, free curated resource for small independent games, run by Merritt Kopas.

Did you know? Critical Distance is community funded by readers like you! If you like what you do and want to help us get our “BOTH SIDES” knuckle tats for when we get sent to Games Journalism Prison, please consider signing up for a small monthly donation!

Hello everyone! Welcome to a new roundup of This Week in Videogame Blogging.

Such Justice. Very NPC.

Let’s start with Austin Walker at Paste, who writes on Watch Dogs and Shadow of Mordor’s nemesis system. His piece is comprehensive and meaty, moving from Mordor‘s approach to failure, its perpetuation of colonial enslavement narratives, and weaving succinct observations of Watch Dogs and both games’ presentation of NPCs, and the violence we perform onto them.

Eric Swain also writes a piece that laments the superficiality of Watch Dogs, surveying the numerous problems with its themes and structures.

Ludology of Hunger

At the blog videogameheart, Grayson Davis twists the connection between meat and health in videogames, and asks what it means for a game to reflect a vegetarian’s way of life.

Kevin Wong traces lines between Sleeping Dogs and his experiences being an Asian American. He examines the struggle of the diaspora prevalent in his and Jackie’s life, and the negotiation of belonging and acceptance in the tug between cultures. It certainly touched into some of my own experiences as a Black Canadian, A rewarding and relatable piece well worth reading.

Nuke It From Orbit, It’s The Only Way to Be Sure

Edward Smith looks our relationship to technology as a conceptual character in Alien: Isolation. Hazel Monforton examines Outlast in the context of surveillance, and Jon Peterson writes a history of war games in the early 20th Century, and the places women have taken in those spaces.

Surveying Gamergate

It’s been about two months since a loose anti-feminist collective known as Gamergate began carrying out harassment campaigns and waves of abuse towards women developers, writers, journalists, critics, and many of those who are active in the indie community and the videogame industry at large. A lot has been written about this already, so I only chose the most enlightening and useful pieces regarding the situation.

But before I mention these pieces, I’d like to express a moment of solidarity, to the women who have been victimized, abused, harassed, driven out of their homes, had their private information stolen, their friends and family put in danger, and their careers and livelihoods severely damaged by groups who saw them as a threat to their sense of power and domination over discourse. We know this is unacceptable, and cannot stand. And all of us, in the blogging community, stand with you, and are dedicated to your well being, and your right to practice your craft safely and reasonably. You deserve better than what this industry gives you.

(Zolani’s sentiments are echoed by all of us here at Critical Distance. It has not been said often enough: we would not contribute to this site if we were not squarely focused on promoting the voices of the disenfranchised and creating safer spaces for everyone in games writing and discourse. We denounce harassment in all its forms. –KL)

So with that, let’s start on Jacobin, where Peter Frase discusses the Gamergate groups in a larger context of how right-wing reactionaries tend to function. Not only does he provide a useful description of what Gamergate is ideologically, but he makes interesting points about how Gamergate reflects larger constructions about industry and consumption. Check it:

So this is not just a story about gamers. And within the boundaries of the games world, it is also not merely a story about a “toxic culture” among game fans, but rather about an industry that is structurally and systematically reactionary, and cultivates the same values among a segment of its consumers. It’s not just 4chan mobs terrorizing writers and game designers, it’s a games business that pushes out workers who don’t conform to its political assumptions and demographic stereotypes.

At First Person Scholar, Katherine Cross uses a slightly different context, examining how the Gamergate groups differ from the typical radical extremism in how they view themselves as an apolitical `consumer movement. It’s a piece with remarkable scope on the situation, and is highly recommended.

T.C Sottek at The Verge writes a hard damnation of the Gamergate groups, emphasizing their role in the waves of abuse and harassment during the past two months. Brendan Keogh does the same, but puts focus on the complete lack of engagement from mainstream games journalists in dealing with Gamergate, calling “the sheer radio silence… nothing short of embarrassing.” Indeed so, Brendan.

BioWare developer Damion Schubert, at his blog Zen of Design, has a longer and more comprehensive roundup of links about Gamergate, as well as a survey of large videogame websites and where they’ve stood.  And Patrick Miller writes a list of things we can all do to curb the damage done by Gamergate. It’s a refreshing piece to read, one that will hopefully give you some hope, regardless of all that’s happened.

And some good news: Stephen Beirne of Normally Rascal has ventured into critical curation on his own blog! “This Week We Read” takes up several writers, each with their own pieces to contribute. Take a look if you’ve gotten tired of reading in my voice.

We’re Good!

That’s it for this week! We greatly value your contributions, so if you write something that you want us to see, send us a Twitter mention or an email! And to support the work that we do here, you can help us continue our curating work at our Patreon.

Happy reading! And take care of yourself, friends. Stay strong, and stay powerful.

We’re Commissioning Two New Features!

October 8th, 2014 | Posted by Kris Ligman in Announcement: - (Comments Off)

Hey, folks. Kris Ligman here, with a special announcement!

As many of you know, we’ve been community-supported since earlier this year. I’m pleased to say that we’ve reached a funding level that not only ensures the continued smooth operation of the site, but also allows us to pay all our contributors. This is all thanks to you, the readers, so give yourselves a hand!

Second bit: because of our current funding level, I’ve decided it’s high time we start ramping up production of some original features, such as our Critical Compilations and Spotlights. You may have noticed a recent Nier Critical Compilation, which was brought to us by First Person Scholar’s Michael Hancock. We’re looking to run two more such features, sourced from the community, in the near future.

If you have a game you are particularly passionate about and want to write up a Critical Compilation for it, or if there is a writer or gameplay subject you are interested in and wish to write a Spotlight on it, this is the time to send us your pitches!

Because our budget for features is generous but not in any way huge, we’re starting off commissioning just two features at this time (two Critical Compilations, two Spotlights, or one of each). However, we have plans to commission more down the line. So, if your pitch isn’t picked up right away, you’ll be put at the head of the queue for the next batch.

If you have any questions about the format of our Critical Compilations or Spotlights, check out our links at right to see how other authors have approached them in the past. Or if you have another issue, feel free to drop us a line.

There is no deadline for getting your pitches in, but the sooner is better, obviously. We would like to run the first feature as early as November.

In the meantime, if you want to support Critical Distance, please, consider signing up for a small monthly donation through our Patreon! Your contribution goes toward paying writers and maintaining a space for smaller voices within the ongoing games discourse.

I don’t know if the persistent heat wave has sapped us all of our wills to write, but I have a short but sweet one for you this week, dear readers. Join me, won’t you? It’s This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Design Notes

At his blog Just Delete It, James Earl Cox offers an interesting analysis on the four kinds of “metafiction” in games, which he defines as self-aware fiction meant to mediate player suspension of disbelief.

Meanwhile, at Kotaku, GB Burford shares a fascinating long-form essay on the Dead Space series and how the games, moreso than creating a language with its various components, create a unique and memorable “dialect” through mechanics, art, sound design and more.

Even though a crafting system [in Dead Space 3] sounds interesting and cool, it kills engagement. When players don’t have to think about what guns to bring, what items to carry, or what order to engage enemies in, the game reduces its vocabulary. It becomes flat and boring.

Dead Space 3 has the vocabulary of a caveman’s poetry. Dead Space 1 and 2, comparatively, were the combined works of Shakespeare.

And at Joystiq, Anthony John Agnello has a quirky series of interviews with some artists on the lost art of fighting game backgrounds.

Press X to Precious

On Polygon, Zach Gage draws focus to the tutorial for Shadow of Mordor, in which a skill introduced to have the player character kiss his wife uses the exact same mechanical grammar to later kill enemies. Meanwhile, at sister site The Verge, Chris Plante reflects how the game’s over-the-top brutality casts the player into the role of a terrorist:

The concept of this game is shocking when you think about what’s actually happening. As an ultra-powerful white dude, you use fear and extreme acts of violence to manipulate an enemy’s behavior, destroy its militaristic structure, and ultimately gain control of it in the form of living bondage despite being outnumbered by the thousands. Really, chew on this: This is a video game about a spurned man terrorizing an entire foreign culture, literally killing, branding, torturing and enslaving hundreds of living beings. And really they’re only tangentially connected to the man’s real enemy: another ultra-powerful white dude.

While we’re on the topic of Lord of the Rings, over at Paste Ian Williams has penned something of a living epitaph for the outgoing Lord of the Rings Online, Turbine’s seven-year-old MMO which now appears to be entering the last stage of its life cycle.

From Your Gate to God’s Ears

Rab Florence — yes, that Rab Florence — offers a passionate appeal to those sincerely interested in criticizing games journalism:

Okay, okay, look. Are the games press too close-knit, too cosy with each other? Absolutely. Are they too cosy with game developers? Absolutely. Do they circle the wagons when they get criticised? Absolutely. You’re right. You’re right.

[...] But how do you respond to that? By joining a gang? By entering another bubble? Fuck bubbles, man. FUCKBUBBLES. That’s why you think all the games websites are the same! Because you’re stuck in a bubble! Break out — look for games writers you love, and support little websites and blogs. Discover them! They’re out there, desperate for you to find them. I’m with you, dude. FUCK those big websites.

[...]

Sometimes when the barrel is sour you need to walk away from the barrel, y’know?

Scholar and seasoned critic Katherine Cross has been abuzz on Twitter of late, and this Storify of a series of tweets on the (actually quite common) human compulsion to see one’s own interpretation as factual, while all others are “forcing” a narrative, is a worthwhile read.

Lastly, lest you think there was any shortage of valid things to get angry about when it comes to games, Leigh Alexander has compiled a (non-exhaustive) list of actual ethical concerns in videogames, with relevant links.

Dispatches from Vienna

Our German correspondent Joe Köller has the latest for us from the German-language games blogosphere.

First up, Nina Kiel, Hendrik Thiel and Marcus Dittmar all attended the recent PLAY14 games festival in Hamburg and have come back with their report of the goings-on.

Also on Superlevel, we have this delightful Games Journalism Dummy Text Generator, complete with AAA-to-indie language slider. Nearly as good as the real thing!

At Kleiner Drei, Martin Pittenauer interviews game designer Henrike Lode, while at Herzteile, Helga Hansen interviews Nina Windisch, who has an interesting job: she develops games for German television shows.

Lastly, on Paidia, Franziska Ascher takes a look at the Souls games’ spin on the ‘unreliable narrator.’

All the Rest

It’s so thrilling when a site outside the usual games blogosphere stumbles upon something of interest. Over at Scenes of Eating, Sara Davis recently found her way to Memory Insufficient’s Food Issue as well as the Games and Food Tumblr, comparing what she found there to how she sees food used in film and literature.

Lastly, anna anthropy has shared another interview conducted for her recently released book on ZZT, this time with developer and author Jeanne Thornton.

Hello, Goodbye

That’s it for this week! As always, we welcome your recommendations via Twitter mention and through email, and yes, you are free to link to your own work!

The August-September Blogs of the Round Table recently concluded, and you can view the delicious offerings here. And there is a new topic for October: “Masks!”

Critical Distance is completely funded by readers like you! If you like what you see and want to help us continue cancelling the Apocalypse every time that little Ragnarok pop-up notification shows up on the task bar, consider pledging a small monthly donation. We now offer an exclusive physical reward tier for people who pledge a little more!

Casey in Kid Chamelion, Link in Majora’s Mask, Captain Hotline and the Miamis from Hotline Miami. (So I haven’t played that last one). All these protagonists share common motif, one I’d like to see spark a conversation. For this edition of Blogs of the Round Table, let’s talk about the power of ‘Masks’

Masks serve a wide assortments of functions in many cultures. They’re ceremonial, playful, religious, criminal, empowering, and so many of other traits. They protect heroes and villains alike, they keep identities secret and they give identities and opportunity to flourish.

Tell us how masks are reflected in games. Is there a game that uses masks in an interesting way or are they all just uninteresting stat modifiers? Is role-playing at a tabletop or online a mask of sorts or does it let you take a mask off? Have games ever provided you with a mask when you needed it or are masks just a chance to abuse anonymity? What does masquerading symbolize and how can these effects change the experience of a game? In short, tell us about how masks effect a game, a player, and the culture.

We’re accepting your blogs until October 31st. You can see current submissions here:

Use this code to embed the links in your blog, if your publishing platform allows iframes:

<iframe type="text/html" width="600" height="20" src="http://www.tinysubversions.com/bort.html?month=October14" frameborder="0"></iframe>

Please email us your submissions or tweet them to @markfilipowich or @critdistance with the #BoRT hashtag. Happy blogging!

Rules of the Round Table

  • Blogs of the Round Table is not curated. If you write it, we’ll publish it, as long as it’s connected to the topic and has been written specially for BoRT or up to one month prior.
  • This BoRT post is the home of the discussion: as I receive new submission blogs, I’ll update the ‘BoRT Linkomatic’ so new blogs are reflected on this page immediately. We’ll also use the @critdistance Twitter account to post regular updates, so follow us!
  • Your duty as a knight of the round table is to leave a comment on a blog to which you respond with a link to the response piece, to give them a ‘right of reply’. Keep the conversation going.
  • If your work contains potentially disturbing content, please include a suitable warning at the start. Use your common sense.
  • You can submit as many articles as you like throughout the month, and it doesn’t matter if they are commercially published, paywalled or available for free. We will need a transcript for paywalled content to be approved.

Well, Lindsey and I have reached the end of our first month at the helm of BoRT and I think I speak for both of us when I say there’s a great big emotional relief – a catharsis, of sorts – in seeing such enthusiastic participation. Wait a minute, ‘Catharsis!’ Why, that was the theme of August-September’s Blogs of the Round Table! (Nailed it.)

It’s not abnormal to hear players reference the time they devote to games as a type of stress release. We play to escape reality, to cope with emotions, to vent frustration, and to experience surmountable problems in the wake of real-world problems that may seem unsolvable.

Tell us about your experiences with games as catharsis. Did a particular game experience help you find peace of mind? Did a particular narrative strike a chord that helped you overcome a challenge? Did your frustrated rage of a particularly hard level help you vent deeper frustrations that weren’t game related? Did you ever rage-quit a game and have an epiphany about yourself? Did you ever find yourself in a better place or positive position as a result of play?

We begin our decompression with Rachel Helps at one of the best blog-title puns around, The Ludi Bin. Helps found playing the third Ace Attorney game useful in mitigating her anxieties surrounding the first time she had to breastfeed her newborn daughter. As she concludes in the article, “Playing games also helped me to feel like I was more than a milk machine–I was a milk machine AND someone who could connect small logical leaps in a videogame!” And, really, is there anything more to want? In seriousness, I was happy that the roundup kicked off on such a positive note.

Over at Experience Points dot net, Scott Juster and Jorge Albor turn one of their infamous “serious, but not humourless conversation about videogames” to our current discussion. They run the gamut, from the games that expunge negative emotions, games that seem to encourage negative emotions but actually don’t, games that inspire positive emotions, games that vacate bowels…wait. They cover a lot in thirty minutes and their trademark levity makes even the headier ideas digestible.

Matt Leslie takes to his blog, Lesmocon, to describe how his experiences with videogames and borderline personality disorder interacted in cathartic ways. Leslie describes not only how success in a multiplayer match of The Last of Us can help him negotiate difficult social situations or how failure in a game can be profoundly frustrating.

I find it helpful that there is always an opportunity for me to interact with other people without the need to engage with them intellectually or emotionally. I go through semi-regular periods of withdrawal, where it’s just best for me to lock myself in a dark room and get on with whatever needs getting on with, but it’s important to not completely detach yourself from the world.

It’s a really balanced approach from a perspective often overlooked in games, which is why I was glad to see Leslie and a few other folks take it.

One of the other writers to personalize and balance the idea of catharsis is Jake Tucker on Indie Haven. Tucker discusses how videogames provided a cathartic outlet that helped him deal with Asperger’s syndrome while also evincing how that same catharsis, without moderation, resembles addiction. “I wanted to write an entirely uplifting blog post, but there’s two sides to the story. Catharsis is defined as the purification and purgation of emotions. Sometimes this catharsis can do more harm than good.”

Over at As Houses, Leigh Harrison has a brief conversation with her younger self via Internet Time Gate about Postal 2. Harrison, who has made me suddenly very conscious about my high clause-per-sentence ratio, praises Postal 2 for letting the player dictate the terms of its violence. In a nutshell: “Postal 2 was/is compelling because it allows you to, for a time, play it as though you exist in a world where you have least one other response available to you.”

Like Harrison, Bill Coberly of Ontological Geek fame looks at how violence can prompt a form of catharsis. Coberly examines the Lancer, the default, be-chainsawed weapon of Gears of War series. As Mr. Coberly explains, the use of the totally-practical auxiliary chainsaw bayonette is rife with emotional drama:

In many games, killing an enemy is not, in and of itself, particularly tense.  The badguy pokes his head out of cover, you blow it off with a sniper rifle.  But the chainsaw kill is rife with tension.  When you rev your chainsaw, you have to stop shooting and slowly advance towards your target…

…It’s brutal, egregious, and incredibly satisfying.  The catharsis after a successful chainsaw-kill comes not only from whatever real-life emotional baggage you might be working out on the poor bastard, but also from the emotional tension the mechanics built along the way.

Amanda Swan goes a different direction. As she explains in her blog, Player One, Lara Croft’s self-assertion in the latest Tomb Raider is remarkably cathartic because she is able to be heroic and without the usual baggage that women protagonists are saddled with, “She kills the bad guy and rescues the damsel in distress while maintaining a believable feminine edge.” Context is queen for Swan, and Lara’s deviation from the norm is a huge relief.

Meghan Blythe Adams invites us to her online home of The Bagatelle to describe the most anxiety-provoking moment she ever experienced in a game: the accidental killing of Ellen, an NPC in Fallout 3. Her experience, though unpleasant, became “something of a watershed moment for my academic practice…the fact remains that I already experienced the worst anxiety and self-doubt my beloved object of study could muster in me.” For what it’s worth, I also felt too bad about what happened in the vault to get much farther.

Daniel Parker at Arms Folded Tight puts the topic to rest with his own personal remix of Depression Quest. Parker stamps his own experiences with depression onto the game’s template in a deep account of his own experiences with the condition and Depression Quest’s role in learning to manage it.

Y’know, that actually did feel pretty cathartic. I think I needed that. Anyway, don’t forget to add the BoRT Linkomatic 5000 to your blog. Just embed the following code on your blog’s page:

<iframe type="text/html" width="600" height="20" src="http://www.tinysubversions.com/bort.html?month=October12" frameborder="0"></iframe>

I’d like to thank all the writers who partook in this festival of feels and I hope that everyone else enjoyed reading this month’s submissions as much as I did. Lindsey and I are going to try to make BoRT to a monthly activity again, so stay tuned for October’s theme.

Welcome, Guardian. This cave is an important part of our history. It is called The Cave. Essays spawn outside of The Cave and drop legendary Engrams of Critical Distance: The This Week In Video Game Blogging. I am The Traveler, Zach Alexander, here to give you The Insight so that you might combat The Darkness with Knowledge.

First Things First

Guardian! Outside the cave are The Genders! E McNeill discusses the field of virtual reality and the gender gap. Jenn Frank, Guardian of The Guardian, discusses her personal experience with community and gender.

Elsewhere, Sande Chen talks about why gender representation is important:

[W]ith repeated exposure to this stereotyped content, viewers merely become further entrenched in gender stereotypes and beliefs.

Be on the lookout, Guardian!

Mirror, Mirror

The representation of history in games is also important. Gilles Roy talks about how our understanding of history can be altered by games over at Play the Past. At Polygon, Alexa C Roy talks about the history of Lord of the Rings in videogames.

Tom Battey would like to remind you, by the way, that criticism is neither an attack nor censorship, but the act of bringing context to dialogue. Tom also links to an older, excellent article by Kameron Hurley (cw: racial slurs used) about how women have always fought—er, been Guardians. Nick Cummings writes about how Unity excludes its intended audience by not taking casual games very seriously:

I get the sense that casual gaming is still seen by Unity (and by the many developers who clapped and cheered for this feature) as a fringe market instead of what I see as the millions of potential gamers who aren’t being targeted properly. Too many games are made by too few people with too myopic a perspective, and that, I think, is the biggest hurdle to growing the gaming audience.

Design

As we inch closer towards The Cave, Guardian, take a moment to reflect on design. At Gamasutra, Leigh Alexander interviews Bennet Foddy about Speed Chess. Bennet advises designers to do their own take on the basics: “figure out what the bread is, and what the eggs are, and then give them your best shot.” Sounds delicious!

Marshall Sandoval talks with Kentucky Route Zero’s composer Ben Babbitt about the incredible music of the game. Over at Connected Learning, a panel discusses respectful game design specifically when targeting games used for education. In it, Caro Williams asks to “interrogate multiple concepts… if we take a textbook and wrap it in a game, we’re reproducing the logic that children best learn math by repeating an algorithm over and over again.”

Meanwhile, Owen Vince talks about the tension of open world games over at Ontological Geek.

Essays

On a literary note, we have a scattering of game-specific essays worthy of a Guardian’s attention. Jared Ettinger talks about his experience with Metroid: Other M mirroring his experience with anxiety. On First Person Scholar, Luke Arnott discusses Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard and the “sovereign exception”:

Beyond the protection of human law, already belonging to the gods (hence ‘sacred’). Reduced to ‘bare life,’ the homo sacer could be killed with impunity by anyone, but, conversely, he could not be offered up in sacrifice.

Some light is shed on Metro: Last Light by Stephen Beirne, who reads it alongside The Last of Us, and Ed Smith, who reads it alongside Modern Warfare.

At Joystiq, Ed Smith compares the storytelling of Gone Home to X-COM. “Rhaomi” has rolled up a big ball of essays on Katamari Damacy on Metafilter. Finally, Zolani Stewart talks about the use of image and space at his own blog.

Rolling in Engrams

The time has come, Guardian. You have made it to… THE CAVE. Kirk Hamilton lines up the first shot with Kotaku’s review of Destiny, which frames The Loot Cave as a critical design flaw of the game. Michael “Sparky” Clarkson flanks with a focus-fire on The Loot Cave.

Matthew Gallant scouts out the area in depth, discussing the game mechanics at work in and around The Loot Cave. Trent Polack pulls up the rear with a comparison between Destiny and Halo.

Meanwhile, Mark Filipowich is happily mowing down grunts, asking why do we look down on “grinding,” anyway?

Exuent

Well, Guardian, I hope you got the drops you needed. The galaxy requires my services elsewhere.

While I’m gone, please submit any and all writing you’d like to see featured in next week’s This Week in Video Game Blogging through our Twitter, our email, or through random drops the next time we meet in the Crucible.

Also, don’t forget to participate in the upcoming Blogs of the Roundtable!

Our regular podcast host Mattie Brice needs a bit of extra time for her latest interview, so we’ve dug into our archives again for yet another heretofore unheard Critical Distance Confab episode. In this installment, Eric Swain interviews our very own founder and former head curator Ben Abraham.

Part of the original games blogger boom in 2007-2008, Ben Abraham has always found himself focused on the community of critics. It led him to try and bridge many of those working unknown and segregated by the internet’s distance to eventually founding a curation site (this one!) to bring all the best writing.

Also in this podcast, we discuss some of his other notable projects and his obsession with Far Cry 2, the focal point of a few of those projects.

Direct Download

SHOW NOTES

SLRC

Permanent Death – The Complete Saga

Frank Bilders is Dead

A Post-Comment World

i am ben abraham

Replayability is NOT a word

Opening Theme: ‘Close’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Closing Theme: ‘Wishing Never’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Hello everyone, welcome to another week in games curation. We had a great many submissions this week, and since I’ve had my head down preparing for doctoral qualifying exams, it was a pleasure to read each article and be reminded why I’m doing this whole PhD thing, anyway. Thank you for submitting! Now that you have my sincere gratitude, let’s get down to brass tacks on This Week in Video Game Blogging!

Interactive Planetary, Planetary Interactive

In the “What makes a game a game?” debate (a debate Joe Parlock argues is unproductive at best and damaging at worst), the term “interactivity” is thrown around frequently as a defining element of “game.” This week Jess Joho at Kill Screen argues that we should be more careful with the term, as its misuse or misinterpretation overstates the “game worlds’ responsiveness to player input.”

Continuing the conversation about interactivity, Andy Astruc analyzes Metal Gear Solid to suggest that, in games, there is no fourth wall to hit or to break precisely because of the interactivity of the medium. He says,

These are not traditional examples of a broken fourth wall, but they do demonstrate something I think Metal Gear Solid asks us to consider constantly: the very nature of interactivity means there is no fourth wall to break. A video game story necessarily exists in a world that includes the player, not just the character they control, and you can’t simply pretend they don’t exist.

Elsewhere, Andrew Ferguson suggests that the inherent playfulness of James Joyce’s literary work Finnegans Wake lends itself to interactivity and to play. He goes on to show that reader’s interactions with the text are not dissimilar to those of Let’s Plays.

Submitted for the Approval of the Midnight Society

Moving from concerns of interactivity to discussion of story and narrative, Dan Stubbs writes about his attempts to create, what he calls, a “dynamic narrative system” in his game The Hit.

Looking at story from a different angle, Edward Smith suggests that, by designing a horror game that subverts standard game rules, P.T. submerges players in a truly nightmarish experience.

The Avatar is the Bridge between Our World and the Game World

Of course, if there’s a story to interact with in games, it’s commonly done through a first or third person avatar. This week brings us several articles that discuss the importance of the role of the avatar.

Mattias Lehman looks back at the options for avatar customization he was offered in youth and how such customizations were ill-fitting to his own identity and experiences. Lehman poignantly remarks,

I realize what bothered me so much about never being able to create an appropriate avatar. All this time, I’d thought that I wanted to be able to see my character as me. What I really wanted was for ‘me’ to be a character. I wanted other people to have thought “people might choose to play that”, and put it in a game, because then I’d know that somebody would ever choose ‘me’. The fact that I was never a choice meant (to me) that nobody wanted ‘me’ as a choice.

Over at Vice, Leigh Alexander also questions identity associations to game avatars, and the oftentimes confusing shifts avatars create between first person “I” and third person “He, She, It, They” reference as we play.

Jake Muncy questions (with spoilers for the game!) his engagement with Dark Souls 2. Muncy admits that while he personally questioned both his avatars motives and his own as a player of the game, it was the NPCs , especially Lucatiel, who lured him back and provided the means for personal reflection on why to play at all.

Fish without Bicycles

Not that it was ever really in doubt, but this week’s submissions show Anita Sarkeesian isn’t alone in her assessment of female representation in games. Nor, according to a statistical analysis of Sarkeesian’s actual usages of terms written at Zen of Design, is she wrong.

For instance, letominor discusses the way Ground Zero subjects the female body to “base manipulation” and torture purely for the purposes of shock value. (Content warning: discussion of sexual violence and torture.)

Elsewhere, Falling Awkwardly’s Kateri continues the series “Binders Full of Women: Collecting all the Ladycards in The Witcher.” Part 8, takes a look at the game’s portrayal of Toruviel, whose worth is downplayed by terrible writing, and White Rayla who is little more than a “best her to bed her” character trope.

Also this week, Drew Mackie takes reviews the origin of Toad in the Mario Brothers franchise to reveal that our perceptions of Toad as a male may be the result of culture as some Japanese fans believed the original Toad to have been female.

Design, Culture, Coverage and Other Great Debates

Studying games from a sociological background, Joe Baxter-Webb examines PC gamer culture – how it’s discussed and portrayed online, and how this reflects back on games culture and perceptions of it from those who don’t identify as a part of it.

Alternately, Zolani Stewart and Lana Polansky posted a podcast that discusses leaving videogames behind when its culture and spaces are no longer those with which one can, or wants, to identify.

Joining in the debate about the potential for objectivity (in general or in games and game journalism, specifically) Owen Grieve writes about the simple logic that: “Politics is not inserted into games by critics, but is in fact an integral part of the design process.

Similarly, John Walker reports that not only is objectivity an unreachable target, but that it is also “antithetical to useful, accurate reporting on games.”

At Game Bias, Mary Lew Florida takes a critical look at the general state of journalism to suggest that the way readers engage with journalistic material is economically fraught and wrapped up in ad revenue in ways directly related to how readers are willing to engage. Complaints about patronage and support within the industry should be refocused as: “The issue stems from the nature of an industry built on consumptive media.”

Multifarious Sundries

At Gamasutra, Tanya X Short gives a designer’s-eye-view of procedurally generated systems.

Nick Dinicola talks about his experience playing Blackbar, a game about “Big Brother” and government mandated censorship, and his inability to solve one of its puzzles.

Tim Schneider has composed a three part history of low-poly art over at Kill Screen. He calls it comprehensive, and thus to attempt to summarize seems like it would be an act against its totality. I will, therefore, only urge you to go check it out.

Over at Polygon, Liana Kerzner writes about the myriad of games that deal with mental illness. She discuss both those games which have focused on the negative aspects of mental illness and have, as a result, further stigmatized it, as well as those games which have given mental illness more relevance within increased character nuance too. (Content warning for discussion of child abuse, sexual assault, and suicide.)

Errant Signal’s Chris Franklin (with spoilers for the game) offers a critical review of Glitchhikers this week. Amidst considerations of the game’s narrative and choices, Franklin also considers the game more broadly by comparing it to Dinner Date and arguing that “games need more attempts to capture an almost universal moment through visuals, narrative, and mechanics.”

In another video submissions, History Respawned is joined by Dr. Evan Torner and Nick Heckner to discuss Wolfenstein: The New Order‘s “depiction of Nazi futurism, concentration camps and German language.”

That’s All the Time We Have, Folks

Before we go, I’d like to remind you that the deadline for this month’s Blogs of the Round Table is approaching. Mark and I are keen to read your submissions on the topic of “Catharsis!”

As stated in the opening, we read and feature writing based on the submissions we receive. We value the contributions of this community and encourage you to keep submitting those articles/blogs/vlogs/etc. that you’d like to see featured here. Send us links via email or by mentioning us on Twitter.

Critical Distance is proud to be funded by the community. If you like what we do and want to support the site, please consider signing up for a small monthly donation. We now offer a physical rewards tier with buttons and a few other goodies for those who donate a little more!