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Minisode 03 – B-grade Games

May 29th, 2015 | Posted by Eric Swain in Critical Distance Confab: - (Comments Off on Minisode 03 – B-grade Games)

Welcome to another minisode of the Critical Distance Confab.

These minisodes are something different than our main podcast series. At the end of every month, myself and a guest, will list off a few games each that haven’t gotten the attention of critical discourse we feel they deserve. These games can be anything from ich.io art games to prestige indie games to left by the wayside AAA games.

This month I’m joined by the editor-in-chief of the micro zine ZEAL, Aevee Bee.

Direct Download

Aevee’s Picks

Drakengard 3 by Square Enix

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair by Nippon Ichi Software

Odin’s Sphere by Atlus

Eric’s Picks

Hand of Fate by Defiant Development

Memoria by Daedalic Entertainment

ICBM by REPUVLIC

Opening Theme: ‘Close’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Closing Theme: ‘Wishing Never’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Episode 26 – Five out of Na Pali

May 26th, 2015 | Posted by Eric Swain in Critical Distance Confab: - (Comments Off on Episode 26 – Five out of Na Pali)

This month we have a double, yet related, feature.

First, in side A, I talk with Alan Williamson and Lindsey Joyce, the editor-in-chief and managing editor respectively of Five out of Ten. We chat about the creation and ongoing process of creating the magazine, what it’s like working with a hand of experience and what it’s like learning the ropes.

Then, in side B, Alan Williamson returns, this time, with his co-author Kaitlin Tremblay to talk about their book, Escape to Na Pali: Journey to the Unreal, that came out of an upgraded Five out of Ten pitch. They explain their love of the game and the collaborative process for crafting the collection of essays.

Direct Download Side A

Direct Download Side B

SHOW NOTES

Five out of Ten

Escape to Na Pali: Journey to the Unreal

Five out of Ten Patreon

Reality Check: Murder We Wrote

Opening Theme: ‘Close’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Closing Theme: ‘Wishing Never’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

May 24th

May 24th, 2015 | Posted by Eric Swain in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on May 24th)

I haven’t done this in a while, so excuse me while I shake some of the rust off. Welcome to another round of This Week In Video Game Blogging!

The Look Back

Starting off today we take a look into the past.

Richard Moss wrote a feature at Polygon on the very first First Person Shooter, Maze Wars, talking with the people who were there. Meanwhile, Jeffery Matulef at Eurogamer, explores the legend behind the maybe government experiment, maybe not real arcade cabinet Polybius and those making a documentary about it.

Bryant Francis at Gamasutra asks, “Where in the world did the blockbuster educational games go?” Mostly it focuses on the companies that managed to balancing the earning with good, not-boring game design and what happened to those studios through the 90s.

And Richard Cobbett doesn’t go quite as far back to postulate exactly why Doom 3 doesn’t work both as a classic that its predecessors were or as a game of the trends of its time.

Meanwhile in a new Critical Switch episode, Austin C. Howe takes a look at another form of nostalgia, a longing for a past that never was, at what benefits such a goal could mean for games, as seen through the lens of Shovel Knight.

Additionally, Critical Switch hosted a guest episode by Devon looking at the JRPG genre and what underlies it beyond numbers and skills.

The Identity

Who are you? Who, who?

At Femhype, Shel Shepard wrote how representation matters through the example of Krem in Dragon Age: Inquisition and how it’s more than just being in the work, but being a convincing part of it.

Bianca Batti, writing for Not Your Mama’s Gamer, looks at Alien: Isolation and how it genders the player activity of inaction as female in deference to many other examples where such design and progression of abilities may not be accepted with a male character.

Kaitlin Tremblay writing for Dorkshelf talks about her choices in characters and classes in Borderlands she feels more comfortable with the non apologies hulking brutes than with the crafty Sirens.

Brendan Keogh typed up a version of a talk he gave at DiGRA, using Binary Domain as a launching platform to explore the concept of cyborgs and binaries established early on between hackers and the other in the video game communities.

And writer of the upcoming adventure game Herald, Roy van der Shilden reflects on the challenge of telling a story that is both universal and personal as well as about a person who is not him. He did a lot of research into the effects of colonization, struggling to find the voices of the colonized instead of the colonizer.

The Game Messages

What a game has to say for itself.

Mark Filipowich explores what he calls, “The Ludic Rashomon.” He went looking for examples in order to dissect the craft of a Rashomon story in video games and what they say about subjectivity.

At PopMatters, Jorge Albor looks at Bloodborne as a representative of our human want and need to learn from our mistakes. He also takes umbrage that reviewers should have warned “regular people” it wasn’t for them, wondering what that term is supposed to mean.

Eron Rauch continues his series “Bridging Worlds” at Videogame Tourism by comparing the veracity of the cultures in Ready Player One and Gone Home and how they represent their larger world.

Carolyn Petit on her tumblr, A Game of Me, explores the meaning behind keeping the two occupants of the apartment in Sunset separate. At first it seems a cheat to the potential message about class and race, but instead turns into a story of feeling intimacy.

The Critical Sphere

Self reflection in the face of discord.

Heather Alexandra expresses our current model of interaction as a critical community as a “Broken Discussion” and the main reason medium as a whole remains in arrested development.

As if to prove it true, Catherine Ashley at Girls on Games, comments on the controversy surrounding Arthur Gies’ review of The Witcher 3. One industry person calling the review “poisonous to the industry: to gamers, to game developers, to game journalists” all because it brings up ideas for consideration.

Meanwhile, Cara Ellison says goodbye to the “new wave” of games criticism, whatever that means. She doesn’t quite know, so she supposes a meaning and works from there. Goodbye, Cara, and good luck in your future endeavors.

The Culture

How gaming sees itself verses how it actually it.

Bob Mackey wrote “The People vs. ‘Nerd Culture’” for US Gamer. He uses Simon Pegg’s recent words about the co-opting of this demographic term to explore the insidious nature of “nerd” as a false identity in the present culture.

Holly Nielsen, at The Guardian, explains that the game industry does indeed have a dress code despite the more free wheeling image it likes to present and the pressure that invites to anyone outside of narrow ideas of masculine dress.

G. Christopher Williams at PopMatters says that what is missing in competitive video games in an inherent behavior of sportsmanship: “In a sense, League of Legends players lack good coaches, who step in to define the boundaries and etiquette of competition, not just how to play the game.”

The Grab Bag

And the rest…

We’ve heard the argument before how big Kickstarters take money away from indies and the numbers that prove that argument to be hyperbolic at best. However, Katie Chironis approaches the issue from a different angle, one we are just starting to see the effects of, how it may not be damaging directly, but how the big Kickstarters distorts how much it takes to make a game making it harder to the little projects that don’t have the institutional support.

Though, Rob Remakes counters that a lot of the problem of perception aren’t as big a problem as its made out to be because it’s always been there. If anything, Kickstarter has made the process the least opaque it has ever been. That, plus the view and use of Kickstarter is vastly different to the audience than it is to developers.

Responding to Dinofarm Games’ Blake Reynolds and their renouncing of pixel art, Brandon Sheffield explains why Necrosoft Games will not being abandoning the art style.

Anna Jenelius gives a primer entitled “Armor for Dummies and/or Game Developers” to explain logistically the major and minor problems with game armor.

And finally, Devin Vibert explains his awesome practice of creating music for the tabletop game sessions they just played over at Memory Insufficient.

The End Times

Thank you for stopping in for your weekly dose of game criticism. If you liked what you read, please consider supporting Critical Distance through our Patreon.

If you have any recommendations for the weekly round ups you can send them via our email or @ message us on Twitter.

Our Blogs of the Round Table feature is currently accepting submissions for its May prompt. And Lindsey Joyce is accepting recommendations for the monthly critical round-up of Let’s Plays.

Thank you and have a great Sunday!

May 17th

May 17th, 2015 | Posted by John Kilhefner in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on May 17th)

Whoa, talk about a lot of good writing to get through in This Week in Videogame Blogging! Let’s get right into it.

In trying to figure out what to say this week, and by say, I mean figure out how to structure what these other writers were saying in such a way as to best complement their work, I found this piece by Maddy Myers to really say it all:

Creating art and music is not just about the glamorous act of being inspired and pouring out your soul. It, too, is rife with the thoroughly unromantic grind of production and editing and refinement and polishing. The grueling march of notating, measure by measure, every single not that every instrument must perform, and at what time, and in what way. The rote memorization required for performance. The expectation of acknowledging an existing “canon,” even if only to rebuke and subvert it. And even when the code loads or the right notes get played, all art can fail, in its own way. That’s exactly why creation is terrifying.

It might be my own background in music, but what a beautifully succinct description of creators of art. I hope you’ll find the selections this week to be a phrase of individual notes, the different tones creating a harmonious melody.

What’s In a Story?

At Offworld, Leigh Alexander asks, “Why are the stories in video games so bad?

The writers of FemHype want to make you cry, or at least, relive what games made you shed a tear or two in “Press F to Grab Kleenex: Our Top Emotional Moments in a Video Game” (Content Warning: descriptions of sexual assault).

Elsewhere, Drew Toal writes of two games recently released that both take place in Victorian London, but only one of them gets it right.

Sam Zucchi riffs on the narrative defining tracking shots of Daredevil and True Detective, comparing them to the camera in action games, and it’s not pretty:

Yet the very elements that tracking shots can transmit are too often the very same elements that action games neglect, producing their opposites: linear environments instead of complex ones; buggy, stodgy action instead of grace; the lazy expression of a vicarious power fantasy instead of legitimate tension.

Over at VICE, Ed Smith writes about Watch Dogs‘ Aiden Pearce and how the music on his smartphone makes him an even worse character.

While at MotherBoard, Soha Kareem takes on “The Dirtiest Job in Video Games

In light of Koji Igarashi’s Kickstarter campaign, Michelle B. took to FemHype to examine Igarashi’s history with women protagonists in “What Is a Woman?! Bloodstained & Koji Igarashi’s Female Characters

Blake Reynolds comes to terms with pixel art and his desire to communicate with his audience in a language they understand, even if it means foregoing the form he loves.

While at Offworld, Jon Peterson writes about the blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy by not the players, but the authority figures.

Finally yet importantly, Carolyn Petit looks at how a graphic novel challenges the convention of videogames:

Why do we simply accept that so many games present violence as the only way to solve a problem? Why do we accept so many narratives about brave heroes fighting evil and rescuing the girl without ever questioning how the narratives are constructed precisely to leave us with no room to ask questions about whether the bad guys are really so bad or whether what we’re doing is really so good?

Actually, it’s about…Ah, Screw It

At Tech Crunch, Tadhg Kelly takes videogame journalists to task for rigidity in their thinking:

However in videogamemedialand the idea that iPhone and Android games matter more than PC or console games is still heretical. This is because gaming journalists are still operating from an older paradigm with a richer cultural heritage. Theirs is the paradigm of console as blockbuster-cinema, PC as arthouse-cinema and a few darlings like Nintendo doing their own thing. This kind of thinking is so prevalent as to be unconscious. It’s the conventional wisdom, but it radically needs updating.

In “Not So Hot: GamerGate’s Deep Freeze and the ‘Facts’ on Game Journos”, Alisha Karabinus struggles with the latest iteration of GG confusion in the form of a website dedicated to upholding journalist integrity without personal bias but only when personal bias is needed, or some such.

Meanwhile, David Wolinsky grapples with defining “games journalist” and concludes that we’re all just in marketing.

Over at Forbes, Michael Thomsen posits “A More Robust ‘Valve-Is-Evil’ Hypothesis“:

But considering its success alongside an epochal transformation of employment that’s allowed relatively small pass-through companies like Valve to amass more profit than they would have as content producers, there is a real argument that a fully commercialized and professionally polished Gone Home isn’t an adequate upside to the downsides of THQ going bankrupt, Konami and SEGA slowly cutting their investments in console game development, a massive surge in outsourced labor and short-term contract employment leading to long-term precarity and emotional suffering for families.

Fire Dancers, Speed Runners and the Cruelty of the Industry

At VGChartz, Corey Milne bemoans the loss of P.T. and the need for a culture of digital conservation:

There’s a cultural numbness here that dictates that if a product is not actively generating capital then it is rendered worthless. To compound the issue, while publishers actively seek to dismantle the past, they try to sell us on the lie that our digital-only future, as inevitable as it is, will mean that our games will live forever. At least until they unplug the servers.

Elsewhere, Simon Parkin deftly navigates the intersection of the real and virtual in Eve Online.

In keeping in the spirit of immeasurably vast expanses of digital spaces, Raffi Khatchadourian of The New Yorker profiled No Man’s Sky chief architect Sean Murray:

Because of the game’s scope, and because he had decided not to reveal key features, he feared that it had become a Rorschach test of popular expectation, with each potential player looking for something in it that might not be there.

Jeffrey Matulef dives into the world of speed running in “The Loneliness of The Long-Distance Speedrunner”.

Meanwhile, at Kotaku, Jason Schreier reluctantly goes into “The Horrible World of Video Game Crunch” and over at The Guardian, Keith Stuart reminds all of the Sega fans of their grueling years begrudgingly clinging to their Saturns in “Sega Saturn: how one decision destroyed PlayStation’s greatest rival“.

Elsewhere, Scott Juster writes on PopMatters of the excitement of the unique discovery in “Fighting FOMO in Bloodborne”.

Virtue Ethics, Mental Health and Online Confessions

Over at Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Jennifer McVeigh talks virtue ethics in Life is Strange in “Doing the Right Thing: Life is Strange and Virtue Ethics“, while Carly Smith talks about the importance of support for students in “Mental Health and the Do-nothing Adults in Life is Strange”.

Kill Screen’s Chris Priestman plays Selfie: Sisters of The Amniotic Lens and finds the bottled despairs of relative strangers as “beautiful” and even “new to videogames.

On FemHype, Doc Martens gives a harrowing account of a family member’s sudden terminal illness:

I can’t hack and slash my way through cancer no more than I can pummel my coworkers when they are driving me crazy to deal with stress. But I can hack and slash 10,000 attack squads, armored golems, Cactuars, and Master Tonberrys instead, watching my character’s attributes and my gil keep climbing higher.

Mechanical Error

Josh Synder’s attempt to review Ether One on the PlayStation 4 was called into question by a blurring of game mechanics and bugs from shoddy porting:

Each time, after a couple minutes, the game will magically reappear, as if load times of that length are normal. Granted, one could argue that this is intentional design, given the game’s subject nature, and I may be willing to buy that with the texture pop-in (a literal translation of someone’s memories slowly coming back to them, I suppose) but when looked at alongside the inexcusable load times, I begin to suspect that there is nothing intentional here.

PopMatter’s Nick Dinicola discusses the relationship between horror, tension and control in “She Who Controls the Flashlight, Controls the Horror” and over at the Haptic Feedback blog, Austin C. Howe talks “republican dad” mechanics in Dark Souls.

Ray Porreca at Wizards of Radical talks about his favorite RPG of lateMLB 15: The Show, and Shawn Trautman played Modern Warfare and found the perfect analogy for what bothered him so much about it.

Lastly, on Gamasutra, Katherine Cross writes about game manuals functioning as alternative game mechanics:

The manual becomes, here, another vector for expressing Minkomora’s aesthetics and sensibilities, conveying the game to you as you read it. Simple though it may be, lacking my beloved appendices and subsections, it still effectively conveys a strong sense of what Minkomora is and means, lending character and colour to the game world before you even set foot in it. It also shows a path to digital distribution for cost-conscious developers; you no longer need to expensively print copies of a manual in order for it to perform these functions.

This is The End, My Friends

Whew! I told you it was a lot to get through, but I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I did.

Don’t forget to check out May’s Blogs of the Round Table as well as Lindsey Joyce’s critical round-up of Let’s Plays.

As always, we’re entirely funded on the generosity of our readers, so if you haven’t already, please take a look at our Patreon page and consider donating!

And don’t forget to keep those links coming via Twitter mention or email.

Until next time, I’m going to see about ascending in Kanye Quest!

01: Subjectivity

May 13th, 2015 | Posted by Mark Filipowich in Critical Discourse: - (Comments Off on 01: Subjectivity)

Every so often, a topic comes along which invites a higher level of discussion from the many bloggers, vloggers, critics, scholars and thinkers surrounding games. In our newest feature, Critical Discourse, we tackle one of these enduring topics and invite several writers into direct conversation with each other, to tease out further even further insights and perspectives.

With that in mind, our inaugural topic for Critical Discourse is subjectivity. Stephanie Jennings starts the conversation with her essay, “Why We Need More Subjective Games Criticism,” Iris Bull chimes in with a short poem about games and subjectivity called “you” and Heather Alexandra describes how she includes herself in a game with her essay “Games Are Better With Heart.”

(more…)

May 10th

May 10th, 2015 | Posted by Mark Filipowich in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on May 10th)

Friends, it has been too long. I’ve been looking forward to kicking back, pouring a hot beverage and sharing a leisurely Sunday afternoon with you over another This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Sensual Design

Let’s start with a few pieces on how game design creates meaning through the senses. In part 3 of his ongoing series on lighting, Robert Yang discusses the particularities of lighting 3D games. The three-point lighting system often found in film and 2D games is a great standard most of the time, but, according to Yang, it can’t be the standard in 3D spaces:

[developers] think their goal is to achieve great screenshots, and in film / photography / theater / 2D games that is an admirable goal. But as people working in 3D games, our actual goal is to craft some sort of navigable 3D space, experience, or system, and our lighting needs to be part of that context.

Over at Castle Couch, Oliver Bouchard describes how adventure games, Grim Fandango in particular, nurture the development of nostalgia with the design of their spaces.

By the time I was done, I knew the city and its many intricacies. I had exhausted every possible conversation option with all of the people that live there. I wandered around for hours solving puzzles without knowing how they would add to the main story. I was a resident like any other (although it’s possible I was the only one with a purpose). Suffice to say, I lived there.

In a similar vein, Miguel Penabella compares the similar cinematic and writing techniques in The Last of Us and the 1956 John Ford western, The Searchers.

Switching from sight to sound, our own Zolani Stewart hosts this week’s episode of Critical Switch and plays some of the background noises in Mirror’s Edge to illustrate how its sound effects ground the game’s setting and the avatar’s body.

Finally, Ashley Barry, describes the isolating silence that accompanies and deepens both Shadow of the Colossus and Journey.

Representative Character

Ben Gabriel responds to Ian Bogost’s systems-centric contention that “Video Games are Better Without Characters” by arguing that characters are themselves systems. If this is a topic you’d like to dig a little deeper into, than I recommend taking a look at John Osborn’s submission to April’s BoRT, where he offered his own position on this subject.

Likewise, on PBS Game/Show, Jamin Warren discusses the ways that a player’s avatar and in-game behaviours influence the real world, specifically through race. Warren discusses the subject in light of Facepunch Studio’s recent decision to randomize avatar ethnicity in Rust.

Alisha Karabinus at Not Your Mama’s gamer also digs into the systems of representation in games by looking character diversity in the top selling games on the Xbox 360.

Finally, Heather Alexandra closes the topic for now in an article in Paste magazine. Alexandra argues that “Videogames Have a Pessimism Problem” that can only be solved by restoring a lost sense of heroism. Her diagnosis of the kinds of games published in the last decade doesn’t pull any punches:

Created works always reflect the times they are made in and we all contribute to the tone of our time. The American zeitgeist is dominated by hopelessness. How could it not be? Debt cripples our students, the people meant to protect and serve citizens are little more than militarized thugs and our politicians vote to restrict the rights of the marginalized. This hopelessness isn’t unique to America; there are problems everywhere. It’s global.

A Personal Look

At Sufficiently Human, our own Lana Polansky profiles the work of indie developer, Strangethink. Polansky describes the aesthetic commonalities from one game to the next. As Polansky summarizes,

Strangethink’s games have many aesthetic and conceptual calling cards. They’re all pink and blue and made in Unity. They’re all on some level preoccupied with player exploration of space, with designed, virtual space as architecture, and with architecture as guiding not just naked interaction but also the internal work of interpretation. They tend toward a tension between “magic”, the metaphysical and affective, and to the science of construction, the math of procedural generation.

Christopher Malmo interviews the creator of Bitcoin Mining Profit Calculator: Gaiden, Totally Not Satoshi for Motherboard. Their conversation covers their games, cryptocurrency and internet libertarianism.

Little Games

Rachel Helps offers a brief overview of Taarradhin, a dating sim where the player’s objects of desire really don’t have a lot of interest in them:

The “true ending” only unlocks after you’ve seen the other endings, as if you, the player, needed to get your selfish romancing desires out of the way before you could start to care about the characters on a deeper level.

Johannes Koski, keeper of the blog Persona Matters, has been overwhelmed with work lately, but has nonetheless found some comfort in the Alarm Playing Game, Dreeps:

For a person labouring under intense stress and lacking free time, Dreeps offered a window to another world. I plucked away at my keyboard all day, and every hour or so I would check on how Ishida (my little android – you get to name it) was doing. It was walking down the long road, encountering hardships that I very much sympathised with. Sometimes Ishida needed to be picked up. Often I felt I needed picking up too.

Weighty Ghost

Writing for Offworld, Aevee Bee describes the agency involved in controlling how her avatars make contact with others. Whether through dodging attacks or controlling the flow of a fighting game, Bee describes the pleasure and power in being the one who “controls the conditions of touch.”

Todd Harper uses Bee’s essay as a launching pad for one of his own. Harper discusses the bodies and movements in games that erase or diminish his own body, along with the ways he’s found to build himself in a game:

Perhaps because there is a strong note of aspiration. I didn’t make my Lady Boss to “reflect” me; I made her of something I wish I could be, and which was just close enough so that I could believe it wasn’t that far off.

Jillian from FemHype describes how games have influenced the perspectives on her body (content warning: discussion of eating disorders). Although games were there when she was too overwhelmed to socialize any other way, they kept their body standards:

In Second Life, the smaller and slimmer my avatar was, the more attention I’d receive. People (in this case, their avatars) would actually initiate verbal contact with the character I created—and it wasn’t to shame me! I was being acknowledged as a human being, which is kind of hilariously pitiful, since my assembled collection of pixels wasn’t human at all. At my lowest, I remember wishing that I, too, could be computer generated like the person-shaped avatar with decisions made by keystrokes.

Mothers and Babies

Bianca Batti discusses gender norms in the baby-protagonist of Among the Sleep. Batti details some of the changing gender expectations the community have brought to the character’s onesie along with the expectations involved in their actions and objectives.

Speaking of babies, Jillian from FemHype has written a very good essay about motherhood, magic, and the monstrous feminine trope in the Dragon Age series.

Strength in Design

The folks at Shut Up and Sit Down have taken Cards Against Humanity to task this week, detailing how its needless, immature, embarrassing and boring design makes it a poor ambassador to the growing board game community. From Paul Deen’s writeup:

In an age of greater awareness, where more and more people push for social change, this game is winking at you and telling you it’s okay to indulge those backward prejudices.

Chris Bateman pens the final chapter in his three-part retrospective of roleplaying and games history, which describes how the tabletop has shaped and reshaped the different ways players can expect to roleplay in various genres.

Stephen Beirne describes ascending an exceptionally long ladder in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater to a disembodied singer as a moment of game-breaking clarity, one with analogues in a pair of Sherlock Holmes-themed games.

… Snake Eater’s ladder is wonderful in being perhaps the most subtle act of media-bending in any Metal Gear Solid, but which acts its magic through channels which are perfectly ordinary in nature. We see the past, the future, we become absorbed in the moment at the same time as we sail high up above in adoration of its dramatic structure.

Finally, our own Eric Swain explains on PopMatters how The Charnel House Trilogy is designed to evoke a sense of theatricality,

We are both an actor going through a set of motions and audience watching the story play out before us. If you think about it, this is really true of any adventure game. Except instead of being incidental, here it is the central design focus.

Dispatches from Vienna

Courtesy of our German Correspondent Joe Köller, let’s take a look at what’s been happening in the German-language games blogosphere.

The A Maze Independent Games Festival took place in Berlin recently, and audio recordings of all talks are available online. Reporting on the triple A meetup that preceded it, Lisa Ludwing concludes that the German games industry isn’t all that exciting.

Sebastian Standke has been interviewing Ludum Dare contestants for a series of 21 profile pieces. Also on Superlevel, Josefiene Pertosa translated the third part of Magnus Hildebrandt’s comprehensive guide to the inspirations and cultural reference points of Kentucky Route Zero.

Nina Kiel wrote about the FEMICOM game jam challenging the supposedly masculine history of games, and has also been continuing her column on sex games.

Oh, and there’s an interview with the director of a Monkey Island theater production, which is the second most ridiculous idea I’ve ever heard.

Until Next Time

Once again, I thank you all for inviting us into your home and sharing another week of videogame blogging with us. If you’re looking for more, though, don’t be discouraged, because our Lindsey Joyce has compiled a whole month’s worth of critical Let’s Plays for your viewing enjoyment.

Additionally, don’t forget to keep an eye on May’s Blogs of the Round Table, where contributors are invited to discuss the theme of ‘plans.’

On top of that, guest editor Rollin Bishop has put together a critical compilation of a whole swath of articles on Dragon Age II.

We’ve been a busy bunch here at Critical Distance, but that’s the way we like it. So if there’s a great piece of games criticism you come across that you’d like to see us feature please get in touch with us on Twitter using the appropriate hashtag or through email.

Lastly, Critical Distance remains a community funded project and if you enjoy the projects we’re a part of please take a look at our Patreon page and consider contributing a small monthly donation. We’d really appreciate it!

Dragon Age II

May 6th, 2015 | Posted by Critical Distance Contributor in Critical Compilation: - (Comments Off on Dragon Age II)

Critical Distance is proud to present this Critical Compilation of BioWare’s critically polarizing Dragon Age II by Rollin Bishop, as part of our new series of commissioned features.

Dragon Age II is a divisive video game, but not so much within critical circles. There are essentially two kinds of discussions people have about the current middle child of the franchise: they either talk about the poor enemy mechanics and reused maps, or they gush about the incredible characterization and setting. Even then, the latter tends to outweigh the former in terms of sheer amount of words put to page.

But that’s honestly probably why the game maintains such a strong following even now. On one hand, it’s not much of a game when you look at the mechanics it plays with, but it tries so hard to do something different and break from the typical role-playing game mold — one that BioWare themselves patented — that a lot of the rough edges tend to be forgiven. On the other hand, those rough edges cause constant friction between the experience the game so clearly wants the player to have and the one they are actually presented with.

The problem with systems

Dragon Age II has a systems problem, according to the majority of critics. Specifically, Dan Bruno at his now-defunct Cruise Elroy nails the game’s biggest problem with a succinct paragraph about how it uses environments:

One especially grating change, even for fans of the game like myself, is the frequent reuse of environments. Rather than creating unique dungeon layouts for each quest, Dragon Age II relies on the same handful of maps and varies them — or at least attempts to — by walling off certain sections, such that each trip to a dungeon reveals a particular subset of its tunnels.

On a slightly positive note, Geraldo Nascimento compares the structure of the game to a three-act stage play, and comments that the backgrounds in plays are often reused and recycled–they are unimportant beyond their service as backdrops to character action.

The expectations set by the original Dragon Age in terms of scale makes this shift chafe even more for some, however. As John Walker notes in his 2011 Rock, Paper, Shotgun piece about what went wrong with Dragon Age II, “[i]t would be madness (sic) to say that Dragon Age II is a bad game.” But he then goes on to provide a litany of legitimate issues with the game–including how it manages the jumps in time between acts. Those jumps represents years, and yet:

[T]he same people mill in the same places, the same merchants stand at the same stalls, the same buildings stand in the same places. It’s a conceit that the game seems entirely unwilling to deliver on in any imaginative way.

(It’s also worth noting here that Walker is one of an incredibly small number of critics that have enjoyed the combat system.)

Walker’s not alone, either. Brad Gallaway also found the reuse of the environments to be frustrating and suggests it’s a sign of the developers taking shortcuts, and he also lambasts the “mess” of a combat system. He even goes so far as to straight up tell folks to not bother purchasing the game. His full review is scathing. Bill Coberly at The Ontological Geek had similar issues with the game, but thinks that some critics are perhaps equating certain design decisions with specific problems that aren’t actually to blame:

Dragon Age 2’s problems stem from liberally reused environments, a sadly shallow combat system, and a clumsily shoehorned ending. But these problems somehow get conflated with its deliberate choice to reduce its scope, such that now people will say that “being stuck in Kirkwall” was the problem, when in fact it was 2’s best idea. The problem wasn’t that the game took place only in Kirkwall (nobody seems to complain that all the big sandbox games mostly take place in one city, after all). The problem was that Kirkwall’s designers apparently only had about three sets of building plans.

It’s not just the more traditional gameplay systems that are troublesome, though. Sparky Clarkson argues that the biggest problem with Dragon Age II is the fact that its mishmash of smaller issues “never build towards a whole, coherent story.”

The unexpected journey

Perhaps part of Gallaway’s major disappointment is the fact that his expectations were for some version of the Hero’s Journey; his articles seem to suggest as much. This isn’t what Dragon Age II truly provides, as it instead opts for something more akin to the Heroine’s Journey–at least according to prolific Dragon Age theorizer and Tumblr user Flutiebear. In some ways, it almost feels like Flutie is directly responding to Gallaway’s criticisms while explaining what the Heroine’s Journey is and how it applies to Dragon Age II:

When seen through the Hero’s Journey lens, a story like Buddha’s enlightenment or Journey to the West might look weak or unsatisfying. But that’s only a fault of perspective. Trying to understand these stories as Hero’s Journeys is a lot like looking at a black hole through a backyard telescope – it’ll never work, you won’t see anything worthwhile. That is, unless you use the right filter, you’re missing how beautiful that blown-out star can be.

If there’s one word to describe the construction of the game’s narrative, it’s ambitious. Kate Cox goes so far as to compare at least the way the game begin’s to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. She argues that the use of Varric and the larger frame story immediately sets the stage for a tragedy; players are made aware that something dramatic has occurred in the past, and so the actual game plays out with a certain sense of suspense. In fact, Cox posits that the mixed reception Dragon Age II received upon release is at least in part due to this unexpected structure for the sequel to a game that was admittedly more standard fare:

Players went in to Dragon Age 2 expecting the arc of Star Wars and instead got handed something out of Sophocles. Saving the world, after all, is par for the course. No wonder so many were disappointed with what they got.

Writing for Paste Magazine, Kirk Hamilton similarly found himself questioning whether it was a desire to return to this expected journey that was holding him back:

“‘Maybe I miss the journey,’ I said to myself, trying to put my finger on why I was so thoroughly disenchanted with this game. Compared with its epic, far-ranging predecessor Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2 is a bit of a homebody—the narrative concerns itself entirely with the city of Kirkwall, and so players are rarely given the opportunity to leave the city’s cramped and dusty alleyways.”

In a tangentially similar way, Dan Bruno praises the game for its strong sense of moral ambiguity that delves even further into the murk than its predecessor. Often as not, the Dragon Age II tasks the player with making a call between what are arguably two bad choices, and it’s a change Bruno finds refreshing considering the typical fare found in role-playing games.

It’s not just the greater structure of Dragon Age II that’s unexpected. Denis Farr, for example, found the relationship between the protagonist and their brother, Carver, almost hauntingly reminiscent of his own relationship with his brother.

Agency and sometimes the lack thereof

One of the most interesting criticisms of the game is a seeming lack of agency. This is particularly evident in regards to Hawke’s companions–they have lives of their own that continue and expand with or without Hawke’s approval.

Denis Farr actually relates the inability to make certain changes with companions, such as whether Anders blows up the local Chantry, to social change in reality. As Gunthera1 notes at The Border House in a lovely post about Aveline, a companion with her own motivations and even romantic entanglements, “[i]nstead of serving only as aides to the main character, their motivations and goals are independent of the main character.”

Critical Distance’s own Kris Ligman also points out that some of the best dialogue and character development — between the previously mentioned Aveline and her apparent opposite, the pirate captain Isabela — doesn’t even involve the player at all beyond overhearing it. Cara Ellison actually found that, in the case of Aveline’s awkward wooing of Donnic, the protagonist seems to be superfluous when it comes to the most interesting and important choices that companions make. Yann Wong notes that when the player actually does have an influence on a companion, it isn’t always positive despite the best intentions.

This sense of absent agency isn’t only confined to the companions, however. Mike Schiller points out that the game sort of forces the player into making Kirkwall their “home” regardless of whether they want to do so. Alex Raymond at While !Finished writes at length about how the nature of the immutable choices in Dragon Age II aren’t that different from those in Dragon Age: Origins, but the emotional impact and depth to those choices in the sequel are more significant, and thus create strong reactions. For example, Mark Filipowich actually posits Hawke as an active participant in the subjugation of and prejudice against others thanks to the inability to make significant changes.

Even the player’s romantic options aren’t entirely of their own choosing. As David Carlton notes, the only available options are a series of broken and lonely people. Aveline and Varric, the two most likely to be considered complete and functional adults, aren’t available options. The “romantic agency,” as he refers to it, is in the hands of the companions. Alex Raymond explores similar ground in an issue of ctrl+alt+defeat.

That doesn’t mean everyone gets to take part in this agency. Sara Davis at The Ontological Geek dives deep into the greater sexualization of certain classes of characters in BioWare games and specifically calls out the way Dragon Age II treats city elves as something of a sex class by default. Davis doesn’t take issue with the fact that they’re sexual creatures, but in how they’re handled — they are seemingly meant to be insightful critiques of the problems they represent while also being sometimes used in the exact problematic way that’s being critiqued. Katherine Cross makes a series of similar points about sex workers in the game at The Border House.

We need to talk about Anders

More so than any other character in Dragon Age II, Anders represents an important keystone. Arguably, he represents the most important keystone: it is his actions, regardless of those taken by the player as Hawke, to blow up the Chantry which set the stage for the wider conflict in the third game in the series, Dragon Age: Inquisition. Gaby at Girl from the Machine lays out the importance of Anders — both in the game and to herself as the player — in an incredibly detailed and nuanced post. The post specifically ties back to a seeming lack of player agency, though with Anders it’s even more complicated:

Wait, what? Undisguised manipulation coming from another PC? This whole conversation is easily one of the most stone-cold insane things that’s ever happened to me in a video game, period. When, if ever, is a player character placed in a scenario when they don’t hold most or all of the cards in a relationship? It’s a daring move, and one that I think was intended to make the player uncomfortable — yet another occurrence of Dragon Age II deliberately being provocative.

It’s this sort of manipulation that left something of a bad taste in Kate Cox’s mouth, and ultimately caused her to connect with the game, and Anders, even more through her distaste. Players are traditionally rewarded in the kinds of games that Dragon Age II initially seems to follow in the footsteps of, and that means companions like Anders generally get their way–it’s just how it’s done. But Cox essentially argues that the game provides as much if not more satisfaction from disagreeing with Anders’ actions:

What Dragon Age II has done for me is that it has allowed me to bring that last, formerly missing piece of my personal moral core with me into my characters. You know what? I don’t need Anders to like me! I don’t need to help him. And if he’s making a series of poor choices that harm Miriam Hawke’s life and her other relationships? He can go to hell.

While not necessarily about Anders’s specific actions, it’s worth noting that his sexuality was also given close scrutiny by members of the community, leading Dragon Age II scribe David Gaider to reply with a self-described “wall of text” in defense of the game’s romantic options:

The romances in the game are not for “the straight male gamer”. They’re for everyone. We have a lot of fans, many of whom are neither straight nor male, and they deserve no less attention. We have good numbers, after all, on the number of people who actually used similar sorts of content in DAO and thus don’t need to resort to anecdotal evidence to support our idea that their numbers are not insignificant… and that’s ignoring the idea that they don’t have just as much right to play the kind of game they wish as anyone else. The “rights” of anyone with regards to a game are murky at best, but anyone who takes that stance must apply it equally to both the minority as well as the majority. The majority has no inherent “right” to get more options than anyone else.

Perhaps it is best if we end here on a note from Kris Ligman’s review of Dragon Age II at PopMatters. The review goes back and forth on the game, both crucifying the poor bits and glorifying the ones that land best, but it’s really the final passage that’s worth noting here.

I’m making this impassioned plea right now: we need more quality games. We need games like this that court a more cerebral sort of controversy and subtlety in equal doses. Perhaps eventually we’ll work up to “quality” being a general descriptor and not simply refer to the themes of its premium cable cousin, but for now, I’ll take poorer production values as a more than acceptable trade off if I get characters even half as dynamic as Anders or half as quirky as Merrill or Isabela. It’s been too long.

In short, Dragon Age II is a fascinating, provoking, and an — at times — inconsistent game that, if its critics are anything to go by, the world could use more of. Amen.

If you have an article you feel would be a good addition to this Compilation, let us know about it! And if you enjoyed this feature, consider pledging a small monthly donation so that we can continue to commission more just like it!

May 2015: ‘Plans’

May 4th, 2015 | Posted by Mark Filipowich in Blogs of the Round Table: - (Comments Off on May 2015: ‘Plans’)

Hello again friends far and wide, to another edition of Blogs of the Round Table. Lindsey Joyce, your scheduled guide through this May’s BoRT has been swamped by the demands of school, work and family, while I, on the other hand, have nothing planned except sitting in this library and wondering what that smell is. A good plan changes, though. But enough about me. What about you? We want to know about your plans, and what they mean to you. Do you love it when a good plan comes together? or do the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry? This May we want you to consider all the different dimensions of ‘Plans’ in videogames:

How much planning do you expect from a game? Do you pine for minutia or do you crave chaos? Does something happen to you when a game twists sharply or should games stick to the promises they make in the tutorial? And what do you think about developers? Are their plans too ambitious? Too mundane? Should devs be more flexible or do they need to run a tight ship? We want to know about how you schedule your backlog, the degree that a game should respect your expectations, how hard it is to get your friends together for a game. How can plans hold their shape and how do you meet changes? Tell us about how boring it is when things fall in place and how exciting it is when they fall apart.

As of now, the plan is to accept submissions until May 31. Feel free take a look at all the submissions throughout the month 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=May15" 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, we’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!
  • 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.

April 2015

May 4th, 2015 | Posted by Lindsey Joyce in This Month in Let's Plays: - (Comments Off on April 2015)

Hello Friends! As it’s May 4th, I’ll go ahead and do the obligatory “May the fourth be with you” salute. Of course, if you prefer the dark side, you can wait till tomorrow when it’s Revenge of the Fifth. Ok, now that’s out of the way, we can get on to the April edition of This Month in Let’s Plays!

Let’s Do the Time Warp Again

Taking us back in time to games of yore, Jessica Brown provides a trip down memory lane for those of us who had the Sega Game Gear as kid (or adults) to play Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Like Jessica, I also never managed to beat the game back in the day, so it was great to indulge in nostalgia and  finally see the later levels.

Joining Jessica in game nostalgia is Isaac of TheOneHDuck YouTube channel. In this new series, Isaac takes a new approach to LPs. Here, Isaac uses Kid Icarus as the catalyst and backdrop for childhood reflections and how the game form some of his early ideals. A specific gem quote from Isaac’s reflections: “Kids are the victims of poor game design because they don’t know any better. You take these tropes on board with your life and you learn things from them.” (Content warning: some insensitive cultural commentary within).

Doin and Doin it and Doin it Well

This month several LPs also discuss how to do things right. For instance, Cee Marshall looks at a variety games to dissect the videogame trope he calls the “Forced Stealth Section.” Marshall argues that these sections undermine the learned expectation of player power most action games provide. To succeed, Marshall continues, the game play mechanics must translate well from action to stealth or must devote type to fleshing out new systems to accommodate the change to stealth play.

Elsewhere, Greg Weidman analyzes how Bloodborne uses Lovecraftian material properly. While the first half of Bloodborne relies are more hokey horror, Weidman argues the second half “goes full Lovecraft.” The exciting twist, he notes, is that in Bloodborne, the majority of the population worship the Lovecraftian gods rather than the minority, as in Lovecraft’s works. The game also pays homage to the piety of mad men in Lovecraftian mythos. Other tributes to Lovecraft are a little more spoiler-laden and thus, I’ll leave it to your discretion to learn more.

From Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Quintin Smith discusses the item degradation in the survival game The Long Dark and why it’s actually good.

Full Disclosure

In an incredibly feat of both play and analysis, Noah Caldwell-Gervais offers a comprehensive retrospective of all eleven titles in the Call of Duty franchise noting what is unique about each and how the franchise changed over time.

Over at Errant Signal, Chris Franklin uses a “selective ludography” to look at the design ethos of Blendo games. In particular, Franklin notes the recurring themes of playing with player expectation, using absurdist humor, making jokes at the player’s expense, and incorporating systemically valueless interactions that still feel right in context.

Story Time

In this Let’s Play SolePorpoise and his friend James give an impromptu analysis Axium Verge’s literary value. Together, the two try to make sense of the narrative with what little exposition is provided in the opening sequence. They note how rare this is in more contemporary games which regularly establish backstory and narrative motivation for the protagonist. This game, the note, lets the player discover the exposition and uses the player’s confusion as the motivation for narrative progression.

Elsewhere, Stephen Beirne suggests, when looking at narrative in games, it’s important to note how the ideology of a protagonist meshes with those of the villain and the player. Beirne argues, when they resonate or clash, they’ll probably be more interesting and satisfying.

Closing

If you didn’t see your Let’s Play in this month’s roundup, remember that we operate via submission! Send your submissions to us via Twitter using #LetsPlayCD to designate them for the Let’s Play Roundup, or you can always email us. Please don’t hesitate to submit your own Let’s Play. We want you on our radar! Also keep in mind that I’m about to take PhD exams and have had my nose squarely in books as I prepare. This means I’m increasingly reliant on the submissions to keep me informed. In other words, send me all the submissions!!

As always, remember that we are reader-supported and you can make a monthly contribution here.

 

May 3rd

May 3rd, 2015 | Posted by Lana Polansky in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on May 3rd)

Hello, dearest games literati, and welcome to another edition of This Week in Videogame Blogging! This week’s theme is that there is no theme; instead, enjoy a mixed bag of thoughtful bites on everything from international politics to level design in Dark Souls to Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Around the World in 80 Frames

Let’s begin with a short video report by Al Jazeera on Saudi Arabia’s Prince Fahad al Saud, whose initiative, New Arab Media, aims to support the development and distribution of games for a growing, billion-dollar Saudi audience. In particular, al Saud seeks to encourage more games geared toward Saudi girls.

By contrast, Skoryh Tatyana takes to Kotaku to discuss how economic sanctions and structural upheaval in Russian-occupied Crimea has affected the games industry, and for that matter the communications industry, in the region. Tatyana writes that despite relative peace in the region, the sanctions and bureaucratic changes have been trouble for developers especially. One subject, an IT professional and developer named Ignat, lamented:

The only option now is either to move to continental Russia or to Ukraine, and by officially registering there we can revive our internet business. In fact, going by what I’ve heard and read amongst my friends and on forums, about 1,000 developers have already left Crimea because of these sanctions.

Meanwhile, and on a happier note in the Netherlands, a new English-language podcast hosted by Erwin Vogelaar brings together interviews from game-lovers from all walks of life, including developer Adriel Wallick, a local writer and even a catholic priest in one very well-executed radio package. Listen to Vogelaar’s dulcet tones on The Life We Play here.

Sexism in Games, By the Numbers

At FemHype, a new comic by Kiva Bay expresses a moving, personal argument for how classism and misogyny intersect in gaming. Her story reveals how those who lack the funds to participate in this relatively expensive hobby tend to be socially excluded, no matter how much they may love the form.

At Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Sarah Nixon discusses the double-bind of self-representation that female streamers often have to grapple with in “The Female Streamer’s Dilemma“, while Jennifer McVeigh’s “Let’s Clear the Air: A Closer Look at the Sexist Games=Sexist Gamers Study” describes the dubious research methods employed in a German study which some say demonstrates how games don’t make gamers sexist. McVeigh notes that the study, by the researchers’ own admission, doesn’t actually prove very much at all, writing:

While this research is interesting, it is difficult to assess whether the study offers any new information regarding sexist video games and their effects. The study suggests that future research be conducted on more specific genres and subgenres to determine if any correlation between video games and sexism exist and ultimately admits that the research is limited due to location specificity. Certainly, the study does not offer quantifiable proof that games do not cultivate first order attitudes nor does it disprove Anita Sarkeesian’s claims regarding video games. All this study really reveals is that we should shift our focus from investigating the belief that games cause certain behaviors and instead concentrate on the attitudes that allow and promote sexism in games.

This is Not a Phase. Mom, I’m An Adult Goth

At The Serious Work of Play, Corey Milne compares and contrasts the subtext and symbolism of level design in both Dark Souls’ Lodran and Demon’s Souls’ Boletaria.

Over at Kill Screen, David Chandler traces a literary history between Bloodborne and Stoker’s Dracula, remarking in which ways the decadent, gothic death-sex-fest by From Software emulates the thematic preoccupations found in Stoker’s decadent, gothic death-sex-fest.

Finally, at Offworld, Leigh Alexander pens a heartfelt apology for Silent Hill, mourning the death of an era of Japanese games marked by the departure of Hideo Kojima. Alexander revisits Silent Hill 2 to see if the moody, abstract, deeply symbolic and elusive horror game still “held up.” She poetically recounts:

But somehow it was better and more beautiful. Though as uncomfortable to play through as a belly full of battery acid, it was somehow graceful in its age. Its rattling cages, its nauseating architecture, inhuman shapes. My radio hissing as a silent executioner in a red metal pyramid mask followed me down an apartment building’s fire stairs. My flashlight throwing a headless dress form into sharp relief, my wife Mary’s clothes still on it. The way I ran, with purpose, up the broad carpeted steps of a fateful hotel, almost to her room, only to suddenly come up against a rusty gate, the sound of my own name murmured urgently, sepulchral, from beyond it.

Au Revoir, Mes Ami(e)s

That’s all we have for this week! If you have an thoughtful piece of writing you’d like to shove in our faces, please submit it to us via Twitter or email.

And don’t forget, Critical Distance is reader-supported. If you want to help keep critical curation in videogames alive, please consider contributing to us through Patreon!