Header

Hello everyone! This week is loaded to the brim with writing and criticism of all kinds, so let’s get to it. It’s This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Streaming

I want to start with the surge of video criticism that’s been emerging lately.

Brendan Keogh has been looking at the first Modern Warfare title, showing us how the old blockbuster is more interesting than it seems on first glance. Stephen Beirne reflects on the act of interpretation and value while drawing a pretty picture.

Jody Macgregor has a critical Let’s Play series of the first Thief, Noah Caldwell-Gervais looks at the Mass Effect series, and Stuart Arias has a critical series of System Shock 2 up on Twitch. Critical Let’s Playing is really interesting approach, and I’m excited to see more of it!

All That’s Fit to Print

On Ontological Geek, Oscar Strik reviews Cameron Kunzelman’s On August 11, A Ship Sailed into Port. Meanwhile, at Words That Won’t Sell, Edward Smith writes a very interesting piece about the sense of exhaustion and defeat that pervades the new Wolfenstein.

At Game Church, Joshua Cauller examines the risk of love in war that Valiant Hearts sets in conflict. At Videodame, Virginia Roby reflects on The Last of Us‘s seeming subversion of the Damsel in Distress trope.

Justin Keever’s Virtual Narrative blog has a post about the metanarratives of the Civilization games. And Claire Hosking, negotiating the pull between the procedural narrative and the “authored” artistic work, looks at the urban structures of Transistor and the narratives of those structures and aesthetics.

Lastly, a pair from two of Critical Distance’s own. Mark Filipowich looks at several RPGs and their stands on the morals of violence in a two part post. And Lindsey Joyce tethers Wayward Manor‘s relationship to Neil Gaiman’s fiction.

*breathes*

Histories

At The Digital Antiquarian, Jimmy Maher has a historical look at Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?; the cultural and material contexts that brought it to life, and its lasting impact in mainstream videogames. And in conjunction with his upcoming book on mobile games (currently seeking crowdfunding) Zoya Street writes about the Nokia 3210 phone and the low-res no-colour games that came with it.

Race! Race! Race!

A couple of pieces thinking about race, identity and culture emerged this week.

At Game Bias, Sidney Fussell and Jed Pessgrove have a conversation about the general “race in games” discussion point, making sharp observations with Bioshock Infinite and The Walking Dead, as well as interrogating the presumption of post-racialism. And at Polygon, LeSean Payne gives us personal reflections on his relationship with black characters in videogames and media.

Extended Reading

I’m going to note Zoya’s book again, because it’s near the end of its crowdfunding and it can use all the support it can get.

There are other book/magazines out as well. The new Five Out of Ten issue on “Time” is now available for purchase, featuring Critical Distance’s own Joe Köller, The Mary Sue’s Becky Chambers (whom we feature frequently here) and many more. The newest Surveillance and Society is now out with a focus on games and play (and is free on pdf). And The Arcade Review, an arts/games magazine focused on small experiential works that I run, released its summer issue this week. It’s our last issue for this year, so you should take the time to catch up!

Closing

We greatly value your contributions, and we encourage you to submit links to us via Twitter mention or email.

Mark and Lindsey have taken over for Alan at Blogs of the Round Table and their first new blog prompt for August through September is “Catharsis.” Check it out and get involved!

And be sure not to miss our most recent podcast, where Eric Swain interviews games criticism alum Kirk Battle (better known by his pseudonym, L.B. Jeffries).

That’s it for this week! There’s quality writing and reading here to keep you informed, educated and perspectived on videogames and art, so you should take advantage. 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!

As you probably know, Alan Williamson has passed the Blogs of the Round Table torch on to other stalwart Critical-Distance contributors: specifically Mark Filipowich and Lindsey Joyce. Jointly, Mark and I would like to salute Alan on his amazing job. BoRT will continue to carry on Alan’s legacy in much the same fashion; all the same rules will apply. For right now, it’s just a changing of the guard for BoRT, so make sure you send your submissions to @thejoycean and @MarkFilipowich or collectively to @CritDistance using the #BoRT hashtag.

And now, onto this month’s theme! This time it’s ‘Catharsis’

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’re accepting your blogs until September 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=August14" frameborder="0"></iframe>

Please email us your submissions or tweet them to @markfilipowich and @thejoycean 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.

This month we bring you another interview from the unheard archives. A few years ago Kirk Battle, going under the pseudonym L.B. Jefferies, was one of the most prolific critics of the burgeoning amateur bloggers arising from the boom of 2007 and 2008. Now he is retired from the video game criticism game. We look back on his time as a critic and his view of criticism itself.

In addition to being a personal inspiration to podcast moderator Eric Swain, Kirk Battle was named Critical Distance’s 2010 Blogger of the Year.

Direct Download

SHOW NOTES

Banana Peppers Martinis

PopMatters – L.B. Jefferies

Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess Review

Zarathusra Analysis

ZA Critique: The Darkness

ZA Critique: Okami

Lester Bangs rant

Pauline Kael – 1234

Samuel Johnson and Video Games

Does Video Games Need a Lester Bangs?

The New YouTube Video Games Criticism: An Interview with “moviebob”

Does Video Games Need a Pauline Kael?

On Design Centric Criticism

Telling Tales in Gabriel Knight 2

Opening Theme: ‘Close’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Closing Theme: ‘Wishing Never’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Hello, Critical Distance! I’ve been traveling on and off for nigh on the last month, and since I’ve been back, I’ve been consuming nothing but Games Crit. So delicious, so filling. Please, gather round with me for some nutrient rich content This Week in Video Game Blogging!

At All Costs

This week brings us several sources interrogating the concepts of cost, monetary and otherwise, in relation to games. For instance, both Tami Sigmund and Casey Johnston take a look at free games in terms of their non-monetary costs: Sigmund examines the phenomena whereby casual and mobile players believe once you pay for a game it ceases to be a game, while Johnson examines how “real gamers” harshly judge games like Kim Kardarshian: Hollywood and its players while simultaneously spending and investing in freemium games like Hearthstone.

Elsewhere, Solon Scott uses Zoya Street’s Delay: Paying Attention to Energy Mechanics to discusses how marathoning games like Civilization demand players pay a physical and psychological cost while casual games like Candy Crush and Farmville have been designed to encourage players to take breaks from the game.

Flipping from player to developer, Guillaume Boucher-Vidal breaks down the costs – financial, emotional, time, social, etc – of operating an indie studio, and over at Eurogamer, Wesley Yin-Poole tells the story of the 26 years it took Brian Fargo to bring Wasteland 2 into existence.

Keeping Up with Kapitalism

Speaking of costs and Kardashians, this week brings us more analysis of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood through the lens of capitalism. Over at Gawker, Michelle Dean argues that the game, unlike Candy Crush, has a lesson to teach players: money doesn’t buy things of value – for that you need energy and star power. Meanwhile, over at The Atlantic, Megan Garber observes that by refusing to sell anything but herself (as a thing, rather than a person), Kim Kardashian makes herself a rare but desirable commodity people are willing to pay for.

“Empathy, Empathy, Put Yourself in the Place of Me”

This week, at First Person Scholar, Steve Wilcox argues that rather than moving us toward a ludic future in which we become more aware of systems and patterns,

Games are inherently about developing empathy towards one another. This begins by thinking of games in the same way that others have thought about art in general: as a means of training the imagination to create new contexts in which to discover new knowledge.

Acting as wonderful support for Wilcox’s argument, Asi Burbak discusses how developing Peacemaker forever changed how he thought about the Israel-Palestine conflict, saying:

There is nothing more challenging than expressing empathy for the other side, especially when your side is under attack…In PeaceMaker, walking in another man’s shoes is not only a concept; it’s the heart of the simulation.

Conversely, Elena Cresci questions whether it is possible to base a game in a volatile real-world setting, such as Gaza, without belittling those involved in the conflict and concludes, using Peacemaker as an example, that when dealing with complicated subject matter it is essential for the designers to make their intentions clear.

Elsewhere, Daniel Nye Griffiths catalogs several games and how they are being used to change real lives, including newsgames such as those discussed by Cresci and Burbak.

So Many Feels

Discussing how games touch our emotions, Carli Velocci writes about how choices are presented in The Walking Dead and the ways in which such choices can lead to character deaths, initially agitate her social phobia leading to panic attacks, but also eventually help her to combat anxiety by allowing her to become more confident in her choices, including what to say in conversation, over time.

Finally, Kenneth Chen examines the intrinsic motivator of guilt while playing the MMO Warframe and discusses how acknowledging guilt as a game motivator has changed his design philosophies.

Story Mode

For those of us who enjoy a good game story, this week brings numerous articles discussing innovations (and, in some cases, failure) to tell the player a good story.

Paul Shumann, for instance, takes a look at the way Betrayer, an FPS game, employs a novel listening mechanic in order to focus both mechanics and story on a respect for history, faith, and humanity.

Over at PopMatters, G. Christopher Williams discusses how Sepulchre quite literally puts its game on rails in order to tell a horror story about frustrated progression. Careful, this article contains spoilers!

Elsewhere, Critical Distance’s own Eric Swain indulges in the minor story moments by discussing (with spoilers) two moments near the end of Quest for Infamy that add important character dimension to Roehm, the player character.

Sam Z. writes about the story in Transistor (spoilers here too) and how the love story of this digital game lightly critiques the digital world.

Daniel Galera has a wonderful long-form read this week that lets you relive the wonder of Prince of Persia while simultaneously making poignant observations about agency, algorithms, youth, love and more.

Zolani Stewart, who has also recently joined the Critical Distance team, brings us another long-form read this week about the history of Sonic The Hedgehog and his status as a fluid media object moving between mascot and fully realized character.

Finally, Perter Christiansen uses Dwarf Fortress and its allocation of processing power to craft narratives to trace the historical paths computer have taken to be better simulators of physic than creators of story.

Adventure Games

Do you like Adventure Games? Do you know their long and stories history? Leigh Alexander does and her most recent Let’s Play is of the “pure” adventure game, Curse of Crowley Manor.

Speaking of historical adventure games, Emily Rose and Pierce Huxtable talk with Roby Miller about the story and score of one of the most popular adventure games ever: Myst

Let’s Talk About Sex [and Gender], Baby

In an open interview, Cara Ellison talks with Nina Freeman, among other things, about how sex informs her game design, and the control she garners via game creation.

Also this week, mrsdawnaway discusses the literal objectification of women in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, stating,

Painting someone turns that person from a ‘someone’ to a ‘something’; you can possess a painting in a way that it is impossible to possess a person. So when Yuga is running around Hyrule acquiring pieces for his art collection (to use his words), he is, quite literally, objectifying these people. In my opinion, it is no accident that most of these people are women, since the Zelda games have a history of treating women as objects participating in a man’s destiny rather than agents of their own.

Elsewhere, Corey Milne argues that the Tower of Latria is a sustained assault on the player’s sexuality. Warning: article deals with sensitive issues such a rape.

Over at Killscreen, Zach Bugdor compares and contrasts the success of women in doom metal to the hard-fought success of women in games to argue that:

Adherence to tradition, or worse, to a fanbase, has rarely produced relevant and vital art… Imagine the kinds of experiences we’re going to get as more women flood into games; as the default protagonist shifts from White Vengeance Man to something infinitely more interesting and rich; as all types of new settings and characters and conflicts and mechanics come to life; as the palette of creators becomes increasingly vivid.

Take a Look, It’s in a Book

Leigh Alexander has announced her new book, Clipping Through on Gumroad, but has done so with a critique of the games writing market. Alexander says,

I want there to be alternatives — not only for myself, but for the very idea of a mature career for experienced people who want to continue writing and speaking in games.

In this spirit, we also want to link you to Robert Yang’s write up of the book ZZT by Anna Anthropy.

Access/ibility

Speaking about the importance of accessibility issue in games, Richard Moss notes that increasing accessibility is never a wasted effort, nor is it hard to include. As he quotes Mike Zaimont in pointing out:

It takes very little time, and if more people can potentially enjoy your game, there’s really no reason not to do it.

Other Sundry

Other good reads this week include Nick Dinicola’s article on propaganda in Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag. Dinicola examines the creeds of the Pirates, the Assassins, and the Templars and the philosophies that guide them as well as how each creed is presented within the game as a lure for the player character rather than as an alignment the character already maintains.

Justin Keverne has produced an extensive and incredibly detailed analysis of Thief. Keverne discuss the stealth system, the environmental design, story, and more.

Lastly, Rainer Sigl interviews Casey T. Brooks about in-game photography.

Foreign Correspondence

Dennis Kogel wrote about Ropecon and Nordic LARPS as a way of exploring political and societal differences.

Kevin Stäubli summarized the recent Twitch.tv brouhaha.

Over on Superlevel’s new forum, Leonard Ritter, on half of the team behind Nowhere, talked about their difficulties selling the idea of a psychedelic “everything in the entire world” simulator.

So Long, Farwell

Thanks for spending some of your Sunday with us. We value both your readership and your submissions, so please keep sending them our way via twitter or email.

As a final remember, please remember that Critical Distance is funded by readers like you. If you like the work we do and aren’t already a supporter, we hope you’ll consider pledging to our Patreon.

 

Hello, lovers and other strangers. Welcome to a short but edifying edition of This Week in Videogame Blogging. This week brings us offerings on love, hate, media studies, and the greater horrors that lie between them.

Play it Again, Sam

Kicking us off, Jennifer Culp invites us to take another look at the badassery of one Dr. Karin Chakwas, Mass Effect’s Chief Medical Officer. Culp sings the doctor’s praises while also observing the dearth of visible–let alone active and interesting–older women in videogames,

In a medium in which women are often fridged early on in order to provide narrative development for male characters, in a real world where a distressingly large segment of the population seems to consider women obsolete once we pass mid-life, it’s refreshing to encounter an older woman upon first boarding the Normandy.

At Videodame, Jeremy Voss reconsiders his negative reaction to the GTA V boycott. Contemplating the paltry inventory of female characters he’s played in games, Voss wonders if the most subversive thing Rockstar’s attempt at social satire could do would be to provide a playable and well-written female character.

At Paste, Maddy Myers admonishes game designers to take another look at Metroid and Alien if they intend to make Metroidvanias. It’s not enough, she argues, to borrow mechanical tropes and conventions, or even to feature a playable woman protagonist in your winding space platformers without also acknowledging the “aesthetic and tonal success” of Metroid’s and Alien‘s universes respectively. (Content warning: discussion of rape.)

Show, Don’t Tell 

Katherine Cross challenges the hostile anxiety surrounding criticism in videogames, calling it a cultural “terror dream” that games are going to be censored or taken away by nagging parents and moralistic lobbyists. Or just as well, perverted so much by the inclusion of different audiences that the traditional design focus of games as havens for straight, white, cis male power fantasies will disappear. (Oh, the humanity.)

On Infinite Lives, Jenn Frank uses the lack of a pause button in Destiny as a jumping-off point to discuss her feelings of guilt, frustration and resentment of being made into a “Game Widow,” and talks about how design choices in games can put real strain on personal relationships depending on how they influence the player to manage their time and attention,

Later, Ted tells me there is no “pause,” not in the sense where games often have a “pause.” He isn’t even playing multiplayer; he is on a solo mission. “I can’t put the game down,” he explains to me, helplessly.

This, I do understand.

I am not angry with Ted. I am furious with Destiny, however. Due to a design flaw—in this case, the flaw is with a game that cannot be paused—I am finally experiencing true relationship strife.

At Eurogamer, Christian Donlan compares two unfinished, procedurally-generated horror games, Monstrum and Darkwood, looking at the various ways they succeed and fall short at designing truly horrific experiences. Donlan looks at how they both handle pacing, mise en scene, perspective and even UI to suggest horror through design, and where those design styles might actually obstruct feelings of horror by making the player too comfortable.

Casey Brooks recaptures the spirit of GTA V‘s extensive gaming photography subculture with this artful photoseries, which uses the game as context to tell its own stories through the static medium.

I’ll Take “Business Ethics” for 200, Alex

At Twenty Sided, Unrest’s lead writer, Adam “Rutskarn” DeCamp, speaks frankly on the energy, labour and resources required to manage an indie game studio when Kickstarting a game, why game companies might fail to deliver on promises or fall apart under strain, and why asking for thousands of dollars from patrons isn’t absurd or obscene.

Finally, on Gamasutra Blogs, Folmer Kelly explains his decision to quit participating in game jams, saying,

And I couldn’t help but wonder- “are we perpetuating the idea that game jams make games happen rather than people make games happen?” And that thought fucked me up! I started feeling like game jams have become a forced frame for creativity, a required activity for those interested in making games. It’s like we collectively started saying “You wanna make games? Do jams.”

Instead of focusing on jams as sites for game creation to happen, he argues, we have to instead holistically support the people who are coming to these jams to make games.

That’s All She Wrote This Week, Everyone

Remember that every bit helps Critical Distance provide the goods, including submitting reading recommendations via our email submissions form or by mentioning us on Twitter. And please consider keeping us in perfumes and caviar by donating to our Patreon! (She’s lying about the furs and caviar. :{ –ed)

See you next Sunday!

It’s the end of the month! I’ve got ten tabs open in my web browser and am listening to loud, aggressive music! It must be time for another Blogs of the Round Table roundup!

June / July’s theme was ‘VINPCs’:

As players, writers and readers, we are often focused on player-characters: the protagonists, anti-heroes and avatars whose destinies we directly control, whether alone or as a party of adventurers. Yet there are so many other characters we meet, befriend, bed and kill whose stories are perhaps even more interesting than our own.

Tell us about a memorable experience you had with a non-player character (NPC). Were they were fighting by your side in Skyrim or visiting your house in Animal Crossing or The Sims? Did you ever have a fierce rivalry with a faceless driver in Ridge Racer? How many attempts did it take you to defeat Goro in Mortal Kombat? Whose audio diaries intrigued you in BioShock without ever meeting the character who recorded them?

Grant Howitt tells you how to save Knight Solaire in Dark Souls. I still haven’t played Dark Souls beyond the first fifteen minutes – it’s on the shelf behind me, mocking, goading, ALWAYS WATCHING. Every time I read or watch something about Dark Souls, I immediately want to play it and also immediately don’t want to play it. Grant’s blog makes me feel the same way – but at least it also makes me laugh!

Mary Hamilton travels through Morrowind with Ralen Hlaalo, the corpse cupboard – “He is the most memorable NPC in my twenty-odd years of gaming, because he is the only one that never pretended to be human.” This is a classic example of how the Elder Scrolls series are memorable because of their sheer gamey-bugginess that you either love or can’t stand. I love the silliness, and I think Skyrim suffered compared to Morrowind and Oblivion because it got a bit po-faced. The bugs were still there in droves, though: it was still a Bethesda game, after all.

Justin Keever thanks Kane of Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days, and we may as well get this out there – I am disappointed this blog isn’t about Kane from Command and Conquer. However, the disappointment soon ended when I started reading this great essay:

“Kane and Lynch 2 is misery calcified; a long march through a hellish city stuck in a purgatorial loop of violence, death, and rebirth that mirrors the aesthetic of internet snuff.”

It’s really interesting how Dog Days was excoriated on release, but many critics are now discussing it as a “proto-anti-shooter” in the vein of Far Cry 2 and Spec Ops: The Line. I guess the question is when a game is being intentionally “oppressive”, and when it’s just shit.

Dakoda Barker is attached to their players in Football Manager 2014, everyone’s favourite mod for Microsoft Excel. I’m working on the next issue of Five out of Ten (it’s not out yet – we both know I’d have promoted it in this space), and one of the articles is a piece on bonding with the denizens of Dwarf Fortress that has parallels in this one. Both games work to create micro-stories that are more interesting than any kind of overarching narrative, but also reinforce it: what would the story of Barker’s Grimsby career be without the work of Lenell John-Lewis? Football Manager is still my idea of gaming hell, though.

Joseph Garvin over at Game Intellectualism has a crush on a game character! oooooOOOOOoohhh! I’m a little ashamed I had to look up Heavy Gear on Wikipedia – sounds a bit like Mechwarrior. It has an interesting permadeath mechanic where NPCs won’t necessarily survive missions: bad enough if they’re a key member of the team, but far worse if you’re a teenager with a crush on them.

Andrei Filote remembers the good times and the bad with videogame guards. The guards who called you a taffer, the ones who got gunned down in failed attempts at stealth, the thousands in Assassin’s Creed with their perforated necks. Makes you think – has there even been a game with genuinely good guards, or a game where you’re the guard?

Back in Tamriel, Daniel Parker writes an ode to Skyrim’s Lydia. I remember a few Lydia-themed blogs at the time of Skyrim’s release – nothing sordid, mind – but I used to leave her in Whiterun, letting her enjoy an early retirement. Based on Parker’s experiences of keeping Lydia alive for 130 hours of adventuring, I think I made the right choice. Either way, it’s nice to have the choice.

Finally, Philip Regenherz writes about Bastion’s Zia. Bastion is a game that’s full of exposition from the narrator, but also ambiguous – even ethereal – when it comes to the details, but Zia is an exception to this. The narrator Rucks has plenty to say about her (he’s got plenty to say about everything) but she doesn’t speak for herself much. Damn, Bastion was such a clever little game.

And that’s it for this BoRT, and from me. This is my last Blogs of the Round Table: don’t worry, the feature is in safe hands. Thank you to everyone who has contributed to this month’s BoRT and over the past two years or so – a round table is only as strong as its knights. I’ll still be around at Critical Distance, but I’ll miss you all…

I know now why you like Football Manager, but its something I can never do

I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. It’s This Week in Videogame Blogging, everyone!

Cult of Celebrity

Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is a massive moneymaker, and it’s provoked quite a bit of discussion. On The Daily Dot, Samantha Allen lauds the game and its central figure for flouting the highly gendered negativity being directed at it:

Kim Kardashian is surfing this wave of male tears all the way to the bank. In a world with limited opportunities for famous women as they age, Kardashian broke the Internet simply by lending her likeness to a single mobile game. And to read Kardashian as a vapid figure who does not deserve her fame is to fundamentally misunderstand the ways in which women exercise agency within the sexist constraints of celebrity culture.

At Paste, Gita Jackson goes one further by pointing to how the by-now familiar mechanics of the free-to-play genre reflect the game’s subject matter:

My avatar is whisked from engagement to engagement to engagement. Literally — as soon as I leave a cover shoot, I get a “call” from my “agent” with another offer with the implication that I should run over now. At these engagements, each action takes a bit of energy. When you run out, but try to continue, the game tells you that you are tired.

It does seem tiring. [...] For Mrs. Kardashian West, however, this isn’t a diversion. This is her reality. She doesn’t have a choice on whether or not she is scrutinized. She had a choice when her sex tape was released—be forever known as a woman who had a sex tape, or try and take control of that situation. She no longer gets to have “off the clock.”

Let’s Talk

This article by Dan Grilopoulos on Eurogamer delving into the origins of Minesweeper could have gone further into today’s competitive scene, but it is still an interesting piece on the ubiquitous software. In it, he interviews the original developers behind the game and Microsoft’s better-known plagiarism.

Back on Paste, Ansh Patel interviews Arvind Raja Yadav, game designer of the recently released Unrest, a game set in ancient India. (Full disclosure: I am a backer of this game.)

Meanwhile, at Sufficiently Human, Critical Distance contributor Lana Polansky and alumnus Zolani Stewart get into discussion over several recent topics, including Brendan Vance’s “On Form and Its Usurpers,” our flash-in-the-pan obsession with Mountain, and our problem with technological ahistoricity. Or as Lana puts it: “Be skeptical of the narrative of the new… the constant distraction of the immediate.”

A Matter of Interpretation

At Sinister Design, Craig Stern asserts there are, indeed, ‘wrong’ interpretations of games, or at least interpretations unsupported by the body of information within and surrounding that work:

If the creator of an artistic work leaves gaps in the work for the player to fill in, then yes, the creator will have to expect that players will fill in those gaps themselves–but this does not change our conclusion. The player’s interpretation must still be consistent with those elements for which the game does not leave gaps. Otherwise, the interpretation will be built upon false premises–which is to say, it will be wrong.

[...]

[T]he “no wrong interpretation” theory does not just promote interpretations from marginalized voices; it provides cover for unsupported interpretations from every perspective, including racist, homophobic, and misogynist perspectives. For instance: some have interpreted the inclusion of a gay character in Dragon Age Inquisition as a cynical bid on Bioware’s part to push “the gay agenda” [...] If it is not possible to provide a wrong interpretation, then that loathsome interpretation must also be “not wrong.”

In a direct response to Stern, Stephen Beirne contends that there is a middle path to walk between authorial intent and the critic, or player, as authority:

[W]hat we can do to reconcile these two forces of text and meaning is to produce with our criticism, not data or reference work, but folklore. Communally existing knowledge that is inseparable from consciousness on a social plane, as extelligence, inverse to intelligence, consciousness on an individual plane. Much like geist suggests the mindfulness of ideas, extelligence sees ideas and consciousness embodied in cultural artefacts. [...]

The value of this comes as I accept the existence of the social world and my place in it, and contribute to it my consciousness as given in the experiences and perspectives representative of a game’s narrative through me. I accept my fallibility and fragility as a condition of this. And in admitting myself as a participant in your world, rather than maintaining we each live in distinct bubbles, I accept responsibility for my message appropriate to my failings in the context of it as a socialized text and me as a socialized person, rather than appropriate to everybody’s individual imaginations.

Marginalization

On Polygon, Patrick Lindsey stresses the ways various (chiefly mainstream) games pathologize and stereotype mental illness, while also offering a few productive alternatives. (Content warning: ableism.)

This next link requires some background: last year, when the Entertainment Consumers Association named Gerard Williams, better known as HipHopGamer, as its new brand ambassador, the move was met with criticism as news outlets called attention to Williams’s past use of sexist and homophobic language. While these issues oughtn’t be downplayed, Williams’s new video brings to bear on the racially-inflected respectability politics which played into how his appointment was discussed in the media.

Back at Polygon, developer Brianna Wu presents four brief case studies of high-profile women in games journalism and development and the harassment they’ve experienced, as well as her own. (Content warning: sexist and racist slurs, descriptions of stalking, harassment rape and death threats.)

Wu’s article provoked several response pieces. First, Crystal writes that it’s stories like Wu’s that make her afraid of diving further into the industry. Second, at Gamasutra’s Member Blogs Elizabeth Sampat responds particularly to the way Wu’s article opens with a racial slur but subsequently elides the racial underpinnings of games industry inequality.

Lastly, this Tumblr post by ‘eponymous-rose’ cuts right to the heart of how we talk about gendered fandom, and it’s just short enough that I’ve elected to quote it here in full:

Like, let’s talk about how gaming fandoms often have an official forum that skews heavily male. Let’s talk about how that forum is almost universally an unfriendly locale for female contributors. And let’s talk about how that forum is often the only point of direct contact with devs, and how it shapes their perception of fan preferences and trends, and how that shapes their future work. Let’s talk about how the female-dominated online spaces are considered intrinsically easy to dismiss, the butt of a joke. “Man, tumblr overanalyzes everything and hahaha ships what’s with that anyway. Oh hey so this guy did a sweet 360 noscope montage to dubstep music let’s publicize that!!!”

Let’s talk about how folks in fandom were rewriting [Mass Effect 3] in a massive variety of creative and clever ways for over a year before that one dudebro did it, in horribly out-of-character quasi-prose, and was the subject of front-page Kotaku articles showcasing his devotion to the series.

Let’s talk about how female-dominated fannish spaces have been around for decades. Let’s talk about how “fans brought back Star Trek in the 70s!” always brings to mind stereotypical Trekkie dudes and not the women who were actually organizing and running conventions.

Let’s talk about how women are over 50% of moviegoers. Let’s talk about how women make up nearly 50% of gamers. Let’s talk about how, despite all this, the industry is still almost entirely guys making content for guys.

I’m just saying. Let’s fucking talk about this.

Building Blocks

In the latest Errant Signal, Chris Franklin contends that while Valiant Hearts is at times successful in striking a balance in gameplay and tone, it ultimately shows no confidence in the story it wants to tell:

[T]here’s this whiplash inducing indecision between “Let’s make this a moving, powerful game about a small number of characters” and “Let’s make this a super fun video game that people want to spend fifteen dollars on” and you never know which direction the next scene’s going to go.

[...] The game demonstrates that it’s perfectly capable of being maudlin without ever falling into mawkish or manipulative but also without attempting to overreach and deliver a story deeper or more complicated than its lush drawings and simple mechanics can tell. It knows how to be a quiet, somber eulogy those we lost during the Great War punctuated with warmth and humor to remind you why we should mourn and what we lost. It just, for whatever reason, doesn’t or can’t commit to that vision.

At Medium, Robin Sloan compares Minecraft‘s metagame with Star Wars‘ expanded universe, in which a core work which “calls forth” volumes of secret knowledge and spiraling fan creations. And at The Ludi Bin, Rachel Helps recently came across some articles on adding explicit educational skills to traditional board games and balked at the idea:

This kind of modification makes games less fun, because it introduces tasks that are irrelevant to game mechanics. How about using games that involve math facts or words directly, instead of inserting them into otherwise perfectly good games? We go to educational games to get away from the worksheets and flashcards. When a game uses math or reading relevantly, it helps motivate children to learn those skills.”

Helps then goes on to outline several ways that existing and upcoming board games can introduce explicit learning, integrated with the games’ mechanics.

Unseen Academicals

Wai Yen Tang of VG Researcher rounds up four recent studies on game genre preferences by gender.

Also, Critical Distance contributor Lindsey Joyce recently presented at the Videogame Cultures and The Future of Interactive Entertainment conference held at Mansfield College in Oxford, and provides an overview of the event for those who missed it.

Finally for this section, this 2010 article on Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly resurfaced recently on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, albeit with a busted link. I’ve elected to run it despite its age, first because of the subject matter, and second because its author, William Huber, is one of the savviest games scholars I know (though in the interests of full disclosure, I should add I’m also a former student of his).

Dollars and Sense

Using iD Software and the proliferation of the first-person shooter as a touching-off point, Higher Level Gamer’s Erik Bigras argues compellingly that the why, how, and who of information distribution has at least as much influence on game design trends as having a good idea:

In the case of video game design, the ethic of access that was present in the early years of shooter design [shareware and engine licensing practices] was able to be coopted by the discourses that promoted an increased militarization of society in general and leisure in particular. Because of this increased in militarization discourses and of the ethic of access, the shooter design strategy was able to spread out to many other game genres. Video games that can neatly be classified into a single genre are now very rare. The spread of the shooter design — through the ethic of access and the militarization of information technologies — enabled an hybridization of video games that is heavy slanted towards military themes, which allows military discourses to access the private spaces of American citizens.

In a similarly incisive vein, Leigh Harrison looks to how Game Dev Story, by itself not seemingly all that controversial, in fact replicates some of the cutthroat and anti-worker practices of its subject matter. She notes:

Now, I’m not saying that the indentured game developers featured in GDS are somehow more important than all the ostriches, golfers, firemen, alien meat-curers or even medieval brewers in all the other management sims ever created for all of the computers. It’s just that I’m more familiar with the caveats and weirdness of their tumultuous real life job market. It’s this added knowledge which makes the game quite difficult — morally speaking — to play in its intended way.

On that note, Simon Parkin has turned up in The New Statesman this week to discuss why framing independent game development in terms of financial success is a dead end:

If the incentive that we present to young people for making games is predominantly a financial one [as in Indie Game: The Movie], then we are all the poorer. Video games allow people to express themselves and present the ways in which they experience and interact with the world and its systems in a unique way to others. [...]

This focus on financial gain rather than artistic gain is, arguably, at risk of turning video games into a cultural backwater. The big business side of the industry is characterised by creative conservatism, sure-fire bets based on bankable precedents.

In the Palm of Your Hand

At Lookspring, Margaret Robertson looks back at 2007′s Coolest Girl in School, a game made by and for young women in an era when small titles such as this were only beginning to appear. She observes:

Contemplating 2007 from 2014 is a really good exercise in understanding how weirdly time moves for the games industry. Is 7 years a long time ago? Obviously not. Except it’s an eternity ago.

This near-yet-remote history of mobile games prior to Apple’s App Store is the subject of a new book by Dreamcast Worlds‘s Zoya Street. It’s currently seeking funding and could certainly use your help.

Ten Seconds to Air

Thank you for reading! Remember that you can send us your recommendations for This Week in Videogame Blogging by tweeting at us on the twitters or emailing us on the emails. Go on, say hi!

There is still some time (mere days!) to get in on the June-July Blogs of the Round Table.

And you know the score, folks — Critical Distance is kept running entirely through the generous support of readers like you. If you like what we do and are eager to see that print anthology I keep talking about, consider signing up for a small monthly donation! We really do depend on you.

I’m back from GaymerX and I have a whole trenchcoat full of new genders to pass out. Many thanks to our deputy curator Zach Alexander for covering the roundup in my absence.

Let’s get down to business to defeat the Huns. It’s time for This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Mountain Phenomenology

We start out by following up on last week‘s lively Mountain discussion with this analysis from Ian Bogost, who finds the game exemplifies the concepts of alien phenomenology.

(My own mountain presently has a glittering meteorite, an enormous chair, an even larger analog clock, a bowling pin, and a bottle of rotgut embedded in it. Game of the year.)

Standard Models and Their Derivations

From Kill Screen’s Joshua Calixto we find a compelling look into the fighting game community which has emerged around Super Smash Bros Melee and Nintendo’s resistance to acknowledging these hardcore players:

For [game director Masahiro Sakurai], Melee was more than a sequel, more than a game even. It was his idée fixe, his impossible ambition to create something infinitely deep and comfortably shallow at the same time. Now Melee has become his Pinkerton: A revitalized cult masterpiece, a bolt of lightning caught in a bottle, and the one puzzle piece that could fix everything… if it didn’t already belong to another era.

At Paste, Ansh Patel contrasts Kentucky Route Zero‘s third-act music number to the operatic detour of Final Fantasy VI. And speaking of JRPGs, at Gamers with Jobs Alex Martinez shares a personal history concerning the cousin who inspired him, the name he would take, and the first game he experienced start-to-finish on his own: Earthbound.

While we’re looking back, Play the Past’s Angela R Cox asserts that by categorizing games as ‘retro’ (aesthetically or chronologically), we fundamentally change what they are:

That is, when we consider a text as a socially situated object, we find that as textual practices change around a material (or digital, in the case of code) object, the text itself changes as cultural perception and use of the text changes.

Empathy

At Game Bias, Jed Pressgrove blasts Always Sometimes Monsters for what he perceives as a sort of shallow pessimism.

And at PopMatters Moving Pixels, regular columnist Jorge Albor analyzes how The Wolf Among Us keeps its sympathies with the marginalized and victimized throughout its five-part arc.

New Cartographies

At Killing of a Goldfish, Jesse Mason has set out on an ambitious historical game criticism project oriented around Magic the Gathering, viewing its early expansion sets in the context of their release.

Meanwhile, at Medium, Zoya Street continues to do important scholarship translating from Japanese-language games criticism. Here, he draws upon Nobuki Yasuda’s framework for ‘omoshiroi’ (‘fun’ or ‘interesting’) and ‘tanoshii’ (‘enjoyable’) to ask what role, exactly, ‘fun’ (and semantics thereof) should play in discussions of games.

New Paths

If this article by Kirk McKeand at IGN on accommodating red-green colorblindness in game design reveals anything, it’s that far too many developers continue to stumble upon accessibility issues by accident. However, it should leave you optimistic that things are, gradually, getting better.

Likewise, on Media Diversified, Jordan Minor foresees a convergence of the afrofuturism aesthetic movement and a new wave of racially diverse games:

“Afrofuturism is the intersection between technology, black cultures, the imagination, and liberation with a heavy dose of mysticism,” says Ytasha L. Womack, author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. “It is expressed through an array of genres including music and literature. It can also serve as the basis for critical theory around culture and/or race. It is a lens to see alternate realities through a black cultural lens.” And it is particularly prevalent in literature like sci-fi/fantasy novels and comics books, gaming’s geeky cousins.

[...] Adopting the aesthetic could also give games a chance to be at the forefront of black narratives, an area they are currently lagging behind in to say the least.

Switching gears to talk about the more commercial end of current trends in games, at Eurogamer the one and only Simon Parkin looks into a particular legal wrinkle in the growing world of Youtuber advertorials, in which some publishers or developers pay video producers for coverage.

In all the discussion on Twitch and Youtube that’s been going around lately, not much attention has been directed toward women reviewers and streamers, of which there certainly are many. Here, Kim Correa interviews popular Twitch streamer Jasmine Hruschak.

And Then There Was Silence

I’m leery of deploying the phrase “mic drop” too casually, but if any article deserves it, it’s this one. No less than five of our readers sent in this same link this week, and once you get a few paragraphs in, it’s easy to see why.

At his home site, game developer Brendan Vance has released a 10,000-word tour-de-force on the intersections of games industry, industrialization, and spiritual wholeness. Summing it up could hardly do it justice, but here are some choice excerpts:

We have hereby come to prefer our ‘content’ the same way we prefer our pig feed: Smooth tasting, from an Ikea-branded trough. Think about how a 19th century philosopher like Hegel might regard the concept of ‘replay value’. Would he commiserate with us about how the mind/spirit of romanticism just doesn’t make for large enough murals? Or would we have to pull out a bunch of obscure 21st century English words just to explain to him what the hell we were talking about? It’s important to realize that ‘replay value’ is not some timeless virtue sought by all media for all of history. It is a political viewpoint wrapped in a sales pitch perpetuated by people trying to improve the market position of their mass-produced entertainment products. By appropriating the word ‘content’, which denotes what we want, our intrepid capitalist marketers have steered us away from the conceptual, spiritual and artistic content Hegel envisions. All we want now is more stuff for a lower price.

When we observe today’s class of small, broke, powerless game studios subsisting from tiny mobile project to tiny mobile project, we typically attribute their existence to an apathetic audience and/or soulless business executives. We neglect to notice how convenient our ‘neutral third parties’ might find it that these developers are incapable of renegotiating the royalties they pay or, say, founding a new ‘ecosystem’ of their own. Today we see Valve travelling in the same direction as Apple, and we wonder whether Gabe Newell can ‘fix’ the madhouse (sic). If you’re Gabe Newell the madhouse is not broken.

We who Twitter views as ‘content creators’ now live in a world where, paradoxically, the most anti-capitalist measure we could take is to charge money for things. I believe we need to do this whenever possible. Offering your work free as in gratis might seem noble and kind to those who want to see it, but remember that giving things away ‘for free’ via services like Steam, the App Store or Twitter costs both you and your users far more in the long term than $5 would cost them right now.

You Know the Drill

Thanks for reading, everyone. As always, we value your submissions, so please keep sending them in by Twitter mention or via email!

Next item: There’s still a bit of time left to get involved in the current Blogs of the Round Table, if the topic catches your fancy.

A timely call for papers: Zoya Street’s tremendously invaluable Memory Insufficient zine is currently seeking submissions for its upcoming issue on labor and games history.

And hey, listen — Critical Distance is a public resource supported by readers like you. If you like what we do and want to see us continue to signal-boost and connect the most interesting critical thinkers on games from across the web, consider pledging to our Patreon! Every contribution helps!

This month’s podcast is all about a subject near and dear to our hearts: curation.

Here at Critical-Distance we curate games writing and other forms of criticism. But what about curation of the games themselves? Steam is getting flooded with new releases to say nothing about the games that never seem to get the spotlight at all, hidden away individual projects scattered around the web.

For this month’s podcast, Mattie brings two curators of small, free indie games (Merritt Kopas and Chris Priestman) to discuss the process and the philosophy behind what games they try to give the spotlight to and what audience they are trying to reach.

Direct Download

CAST

Mattie Brice: Alternate Ending

Merritt Kopas: mkopas

Chris Priestman: Warp Door

SHOW NOTES

Forest Ambassador

Forest Ambassador Patreon

Forest Ambassador Twitter

Warp Door

Warp Door work in progress

War Door Twitter

Opening Theme: ‘Close’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Closing Theme: ‘Wishing Never’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Hello, and welcome to another rock-solid episode of This Week in Video Game Blogging! I’m Zach, and not to make mountains out of molehills, but we have an Everest-sized pile of links this week.

Before we get into this week’s Big Topic, a few pieces might set the stage for productive conversation. Zoya Street dug through Nobuki Yasuda’s work to extract how players describe games in Japanese. Are games “fun”? Are they “interesting”? Mark Filipowich talks about engaging with a work and how that work communicates to an individual. Both of these topics are embedded in the discussion that follows.

First, There is a Mountain

A game called Mountain recently came out. Cameron Kunzleman discusses Mountain over at Paste, which is important for understanding the conversation that follows. Stephen Beirne took a couple of shots at the concept of “interactivity”. Raph Koster responded, the conversation flooded over to Twitter, and then Raph wrote another post addressing interactivity as well as Mountain.

Michael McMaster took the discussion around Mountain down a different path in an essay on Medium titled “On Formalism”:

“Games are expected ideally to be fun/digestible/gratifying, but if that’s not possible then they should at least be meaningful (i.e. if I can’t play it like a game, I should at least be able to read it like a book).”

Brendan Keogh used McMaster’s post to understand his own feelings on Mountain. Meanwhile, Austin C Howe gave a short but sweet two-part rebuttal to one of McMaster’s headier claims: On Mountain and On Text Vs Form.

Time and Time Again

On the less philosophical side of things, Alex D Jones compared the passage of time in Mountain to another game called Durations. Mattie Brice talks about the lens through which she has been critiquing text games based on their use of time and pacing. Extra Credits has a new episode talking about how games elapse at different paces to signal if they are “traditional” or “weird”.

Aevee Bee jumps over from time into “space”. She wrote a great primer on the fighting game tournament EVO 2014, looking at a few of the featured games and how they define the control of space. Over in the meat world, Joseph Leray writes about soccer and the act of diving to communicate injustice. Robert Yang talks about communication through code in a “post-mod culture”.

Shoulds and Shouldn’ts

Shawn Olson argues that imbalance in games shouldn’t be taboo. Ansh argues anti-climactic endings shouldn’t be taboo. Nick Dinacola agrees, but says we should probably leave complex moral anti-climaxes until the end of a game.

Leigh Alexander asks if “joy” in games is actually more adult than violence, contrasting games like Flower and Katamari Damacy against games like Mortal Kombat. If you want more on the faux-adulthood of violence, Liana Kerzner puts GTA V’s“satire” on blast, while Patricia Hernandez investigates a GTA V “bikerclub”. On the other hand, if you want some more joy in your life, Heidi Kemps’ journey to find the secret origins of a lost Sonic the Hedgehog level is an incredible read.

Foreign Correspondence

Joe Köller reports in from… uh, the Alps? Foreign correspondence covers the last month or so this time around.

A new issue of the local games bookazine WASD is out. There’s a substantial preview available to make your buying decision easier, and articles have already started appearing on other sites, such as this introduction to licensed firearms in shooters by Michael Schulze von Glasser, or an anonymous free-to-play insider getting even.

On that note, students from an online journalism program have been trying their hands at games criticism on the site, and the sum of their work is well worth a look.

Maria Kutscherow wrote about Beyond: Two Souls as an autobiography co-created between player and game. Robert Glashüttner talks Valiant Hearts, serious games, and simplified history. We mentioned Nina Kiel’s Gender in Games book before, but now some preview sections have finally made it to her homepage. Also, Helga Hansen reviewed the book for Herzteile.

Slightly old news at this point, but Valentina Hirsch has a response to the lack of female assassins in Assassin’s Creed: Unity. In more recent news, Robert Bannert recently wrote about the stereotypical depiction of men in games, concluding that cliches are simply an essential part of storytelling. Sanczny swiftly responds with an analysis of his arguments.

 

Structure of Games

Nick Lalone lays down some “Principles of Simulation”, going through what works and doesn’t work when creating a simulation. Luke Pullen talks about the world-simulation Civilization and what it’s structure entails, in particular calling out “the way that colonisation prevents rather than incites native uprisings”.  Simon Winters talks about how Earthbound’s unique Mu Training sequence and the structure it uses horrify and confuse the player. Sam Zucchi talks about horror in Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. William Hughes talks about the function of repetition in games. William Hughes talks about the function of repetiti—sorry.

Katherine St Asaph gives a rundown of a New York Times article on Interactive Fiction (“There’s a distinct whiff of the trendpiece”). Merritt Kopas has more details about how great hypertext is.

Lindsey Joyce examines The Last Of Us by looking at the role of Ellie. S. Delling Dyre talks about how romance and sex are always intertwined in Bioware games. Miguel Penabella talks about how difficult it is to get proper preservation of video games.

Finally, Samantha Allen talks about the difficulty of teaching someone the intricacies of Mario Kart 8.

(Content Note: Discussion of Harassment)

On a personal note, Samantha has decided to exit the games writing space due to an interminable campaign of harassment. She isn’t the first woman to exit games writing for this reason, and won’t be the last: Laura Michet wrote this piece about her experience getting harassed out of writing. Samantha has always written excellent essays full of humor and insight, and I’m sorry to see her go.

At Critical Distance, we are extremely concerned with the elevation of voices not traditionally heard in the video games space. It’s hard to find people willing to speak out when dedicated campaigns of harassment are launched out of sites like Reddit and 4chan. These harassments are explicitly gendered and/or racist. They are horrifying and pervasive. They need to stop. We can’t keep losing great writers because Reddit and 4chan perceive them as a threat.

Then, There Is No Mountain

Well, we’ve reached the peak of this week’s roundup. I hope the view we’ve afforded you of this week’s writings in video games was worth the trek.

As always we greatly value your contributions, and we encourage you to submit links to us via Twitter mention or our email.

Have a safe trip down, and we’ll see you next week! – Zach A