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Welcome to This Week in Videogame Blogging! There’s a lot of writing this week, let’s go through them.

First, Erik Bigras explores the epistemological boundaries around our concept of a “good” videogame, and Andy Astruc writes of their experience playing Skyrim’s “Live Another Life” mod with their own roleplaying rules.

Gita Jackson looks at the tough and practical attire of Resident Evil’s Claire Redfield, and gives tips on how you can emulate her look. Sarah Nixon takes a closer look at the Romance options in Harvest Moon: Story of Seasons. And novelist Moira Katson documents their experience writing a videogame for the first time:

As I started to write the character, issues became plain: not only did I need to make a character arc largely without internal dialogue, but I needed to show the character in juxtaposition to the world without a great deal of external dialogue, either. This was an idea I had simply never faced before. The world would be shown as it was, not as my character perceived it, and my character’s main actions would need to be comprehensible, while allowing for the characters to feel they had an influence on the story. Oh, crap, would be a good assessment—if not quite a verbatim transcript—of my internal dialogue at this juncture.

Konstantinos Dimopoulos interviews Tale of Tales of their new game Sunset. And Paolo Perdicini published his keynote for DIGRA 2013’s Art History of Games. Stephen Beirne, on his Two Minute Game Crit, examines how Ace Attorney presents clashes of ideologies, and Peter Christiansen at Play The Past asks what it means to design ethical systems in “historical” games.

Amsel Von Spreckelsen writes on The Order: 1886. Alexandra Orlando and Betsy Brey examine the politics of shooting a photo in Pokemon Snap. And Devon Carter reflects on the moments of silence in Dragon’s Dogma.

Lulu Blue writes a brief critique of the superficiality of common videogame language, and Heather Alexandra writes a Defense of Lore in games, exploration alternatives ways of communicating a world.

Over at Arcadian Rhythms, Shawn CG goes over the successes of Pillars of Eternity. On Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Ashley Barry examines alternative perspectives on Powerful Femininity. And lastly, at Kill Screen, Dillon Baker examines the rising trend of games about rural, pastoral life.

That is it for this week! As always, we greatly value your contributions, and we encourage you to submit links to us via Twitter mention or email.

The roundups, writing events, podcasts, and interviews done at Critical Distance are only possible through the support of our Patreon, so please consider helping us sustain the website!

Happy Reading!

 

This month we are joined by game historian, University of Lancaster PhD candidate and editor-in-chief of Silverstring Media’s Critical Publishing arm, Zoya Street. Zoya has written two seminal books on games, Dreamcast Worlds and Delay, and is the founder of the wonderful free e-zine, Memory Insufficient. Here, we talk about his background in design history and what that lens means for videogames as artifacts as well as what isn’t said by the artifact itself, but rather is left to the community surrounding to interpret and define. Have a listen.

Direct Download

SHOW NOTES

Dreamcast Worlds

Delay: Paying Attention to Energy Mechanics

Memory Insufficient Back Catalog

Memory Insufficient at Silverstring Media

e:\>_

“Between excessive fantasy and selfish disillusionment” – Reading a Japanese essay from 1999 about visual novel ‘Captain Love’

Opening Theme: ‘Close’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Closing Theme: ‘Wishing Never’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Critical Distance is proud to present this Critical Compilation of cult classic Deadly Premonition by Robert Hughes, which represents the first in our new series of commissioned features.

Since its staggered transcontinental release in 2010, Deadly Premonition has been a source of continuing bafflement for the gaming press. It is a game so confounding and aberrant that it poses almost existential questions to critics’ reviewing methodologies. How could this game – with its dated waxen graphics, its jarring musical cues, its Resident Evil 4-lite dungeon slogs – be considered ‘good’?

And yet, Deadly Premonition is hypnotising. It is a singularity. A pure descent into the idiosyncratic vision of director Hidetake Suehiro (Swery). It is a game wherein it may take you fifteen minutes to corral your boxy vehicle across the bare map to the next objective but, damn it, you need to see what’s there. It was this cognitive dissonance which informed much of the critical discussion around the title.

Jim Sterling’s review at Destructoid was perhaps the initial harbinger of the sinuous cult trail Deadly Premonition would eventually leave. It is a hyperbolic and unapologetically enthusiastic declaration of enthusiasm for this flawed product. The review readily concedes the game’s shortcomings but still pronounces it:

[A] masterpiece of atrocious, a veritable triumph of terrible. It takes everything we’ve come to accept as bad in videogames and somehow makes it work in the most ironic of senses.

Sterling awards it a perfect 10/10. Importantly, he treats the game as if it is a B-movie to be mocked (or at least, loved mockingly) and describes it as “the very first game I’ve seen that has been able to pull off that unique ‘so bad it’s good’ flavour.”

This approach of viewing the game ironically was not uncommon. Kill Screen announced the 2013 “Director’s Cut” re-release of the game with the headline “Deadly Premonition in High-Def is like Remastering Tommy Wiseau’s The Room” while IGN’s review of that re-release similarly, and approvingly, notes that it remained “still the best worst game.” John Richard Albers at Altergamer was more affectionately blunt in his assessment: “What it’s meant to be: an homage to shit.”

The question must therefore be asked: what does it mean to ironically appreciate a video game? Outside of Let’s Plays, why does there not seem to be the prominent culture of laughing at bad games the way people gather to enjoy bad movies? Certainly, there are major differences between the two activities. While movies tend to be over in under two hours, a game will generally take far longer and will require the player’s direct input for the duration of the experience. How then, with the levels of time and energy required, can a game be played all but sarcastically?

“So Bad, It’s Good”

Several sites have considered this issue. Nick Dinicola at PopMatters contrasts the boredom of playing a bad game by oneself against the joy garnered through watching someone else struggle through the same title. A Kotaku blog entry by user Raw Danger expounds upon the idea and suggests, much like Dinicola, that the key element is socialisation. That a bad game alone is a bad game but sharing the misery can elevate the experience to real enjoyment. Victor De La Cruz at Gamemoir suggests that it is the reversal of scorn that is the reason for the absence of a prominent ‘B-grade’ game culture outside of Let’s Plays. That is to say, it is no longer enjoyable when we are not laughing at the creator — or individual artist or technician — responsible for a film’s folly, but instead find ourselves as the butt of the joke. When we are watching another struggle, either socially or through a Let’s Play, we can at least draw pleasure through their pain.

Nevertheless, since the first wave of reviews upon the game’s release, the critical appraisal of the title has shifted substantially. Discussion around the game now takes a more protective, almost defensive, tone. Shaun Roopra’s article “Deadly Premonition: From ‘So Bad It’s Good’ to ‘Life is Beautiful’” at Thumbsticks considers the factors which led to its “pejorative branding.” In particular, he blames:

[T]he contrast between the high and low scoring reviews, the Giant Bomb endurance run playthrough, comparison to other eccentric Japanese games […] These all shaped the opinion of Deadly Premonition and consequently it became known as ‘that’ game, the game that is ‘so bad it’s good’.

The import of this aforementioned polarity in review scores cannot be discounted either. The reputation of a game can only be muddied when it receives contrary scores from not only the same organisation (the transatlantic disagreement of IGN US’s 2.0 against IGN UK’s 7.5) or even within the same review (Altergamer awarding the game 2/10 and 9/10 simultaneously, in a review appropriately entitled “Deadly Premonition: The Janus of Video Games”).

This divisiveness does not stem from nothing, of course, and the individual responses to the game’s narrative and mechanics are as important as the broader considerations of the tenor of the critical response.

“Damn Good Coffee”

The game narrative follows FBI Agent York as he investigates a murder in a small town, believing it to be connected with a series of other grisly murders across the country — all with the same cultish undertones. He clashes with the local police force while gradually ingratiating himself into the life of Greenvale, filled with oddball townspeople and hidden horrors.

The clashing of small town sensibilities with big city oddness, all wrapped up in a gruesome whodunit, led many to make comparisons to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks TV series. These were exacerbated by the wholesale lifting of iconic imagery from the show found in one the game’s early trailers and then, slightly less aggressively, within the final game itself. Stephanie Carmichael at Kill Screen examines the intertwined relationship between these two creations in her article “How Twin Peaks finds new life in the world of Deadly Premonition.” The crossover has even inspired two separate, exhaustive archives of similarities between the two.

It is not just the subject matter but also the presentation which invites such comparisons. Emily Payton at Pixels or Death writes eloquent, impressionistic thoughts on the ethereal and dreamlike qualities of the game, and how Lynch achieved a similar result with his show. While the latter utilised his cinematographic assets, Swery is able to invite the player to be part of Agent York’s struggle and make even the altered controls upon a change in camera a means of invoking the power of nightmares.

There are other crossovers: Agent York, much like Agent Cooper in Twin Peaks, regularly monologues to an unseen character – in the show, Diane; in the game, Zach. While Zach is seemingly posited as an invisible friend of Agent York, it becomes clear that Zach is in fact a stand-in for the player themselves. This startling breaking of the Fourth Wall is fascinating to Mary Goodden at God is a Geek, who discusses the intriguing shift in perception this role lends the gaming experience, particularly in light of one of the game’s shocking final revelations about Zach’s ‘other’ identity.

“Cinephilia as Characterization”

Drew Byrd, in his blog entry “Deadly Premonition, Mass Effect 3, Bioshock Infinite: Three Choices, or No Choice?” praises the device as a “satisfying middle ground between choice-driven story development and a focused creative vision” when contrasted against other so-called ‘choice based’ narratives, stating that is in an effective mechanism for directly integrating the player into the events of the game world.

Such enthusiasm was shared by Daniel Weissenberger who put together an extensive 11-part series on Deadly Premonition, celebrating it as GameCritic.com’s Game of the Year for 2010. While criticising the gameplay and the archaic shooting mechanics, Weissenberger asserts that the ‘Zach as the player’ premise turns the narrative into an admirable innovation in form for the medium. He further admonishes both the condemnatory IGN US review and the Destructoid veneration, criticising them as not properly engaging with the world of the game — albeit in inverse ways.

The game also features what has been described as one of the more successful romantic sub-plots to be found in modern gaming. Romance in gaming is an area usually fraught with disastrous attempts at recreating complex human emotion but Nick Burgener at The Nocturnal Rambler finds the burgeoning affection between Agent York and Emily, a deputy sheriff, to be surprisingly natural and subtly developed. This is despite many of the problems he has with the third act of the story and his castigation of the combat.

Many reviews and articles have poured scorn upon the shooting sections of Deadly Premonition, wherein Agent York is sealed within a discrete area and must shoot his way through undead creatures in linear corridors until he can return to the ‘real’ world, for being seemingly unrelated to the main thrust of the game. In contrast, the blog Chris’ Survival Horror Quest found these sequences complemented the game’s general aura of surreality. He posits that they are not irrelevant tangents but instead important moments of realisation and foreshadowing for York and player alike.

Key to the game’s narrative success is the singular figure of protagonist Agent York. His odd quirks, his incomprehensible non sequiturs, his passion for schlock cinema – he is a triumph of memorable character design. This latter trait in particular is examined in the blog entry “Cinephilia as Characterization in Deadly Premonition” which features an extensive comparison against the use of filmic obsession in the Metal Gear Solid games.

Steve Haske in his review of the Director’s Cut at Digital Trends makes the same observation and posits that Greenvale is deliberately sparse so as to facilitate this aspect of Agent York’s personality. When there are extended eventless trips to be made, the protagonist has time to wax lyrical and add this extra dimension to his personality.

That is not to say that Greenvale is a complete ghost town, however. Indeed, David Houghton’s article at GamesRadar praises Deadly Premonition’s open world, characterisation, and character writing — comparing them favourably to those found in Heavy Rain and the Grand Theft Auto games. He asserts that the low population and lack of traffic in the world are true to the game’s location and that it makes possible “little details like noticing the townsfolk all start to make their own way to a town meeting at the same time as you drive there yourself.”

“Lovely Useless Elements”

Others were less generous in their assessment. In a review of great ambivalence, Rock Paper Shotgun’s Adam Smith describes the town not as a living breathing universe unto itself but, instead, merely a “fairground attraction, a ghost train in which animatronic figures shudder in and out of position as their timers tick down.” Though perhaps Deadly Premonition’s failure to hide the illusory nature of NPC behaviour is not necessarily a fault in a game which already has such a strange view of its characters.

In fact, such an argument is made by Peter Shafer on the Ruminatron 5000 blog – that the artificiality of the world is irrelevant since it still operates on its own consistent (albeit eccentric) logic. Polygon were in agreement in their review of the Director’s Cut. Although otherwise fairly critical, Dave Tach praises the oddball jumble of characters and side-missions, while noting that the player must really get onto the wavelength of the game to take anything away from the experience.

Part of this acceptance is understanding the tone of the action and character interactions. Justin Miller at The Saquarry Analyses blog details the (common) scenario of finding the jarring and sometimes cacophonously loud music baffling at first, before accepting it as a strangely fitting piece of the experience. Despite this initial hurdle, he commends muddied reality of the narrative which leads to an ending “both disturbing and heart-wrenching.”

Shaun Prescott’s look back at Deadly Premonition (in an article that requires the Wayback Machine to access) embraces the tone and suggests that the murky graphics and sound design actually beautifully supplement the world of Greenvale. The piece describes the game as creating an “impressionistic world” in which the real mixes with the unreal in a unsettling way. It forces the player to clash their understanding of how games should feel against the compelling artificiality of the world of Deadly Premonition.

To be engrossed in such a world is a dramatic sensation. While technically rough in some ways and downright shoddy in others, the power of immersion cannot be denied. Oli Welsh at Eurogamer recognises that the game “borders on plagiarism” in the way it draws from Twin Peaks and lambasts the games shooting sections for being “nakedly lazy video game design.” He also dismisses the game’s villain The Raincoat Killer as half-baked and ridiculous (an interesting contrast to the description in the Destructoid review, where the same character is said to be “taken from the Clock Tower book of ‘shit your pants’ scary”). And yet – and it is an important yet – the author still finds himself unwittingly falling into the routine of Agent York and becoming wrapped up in the experience of becoming this character in a different world.

Amanda “AJ” Lange at Tap-Repeatedly finds herself in the same boat. She commends the open world, which the player (and thus Agent York) is free to traverse at their own pace. They can let the main murder mystery sit dormant while they wander aimlessly or interview townsfolk or find dumbbells for the Sheriff or fish for items. The game absorbs the player. Lange notes that even the map, which usually remains the one trusted objective companion in any game, is dreadful and almost more of a hindrance than anything. The player becomes York — a stranger lost in a town that they can’t even properly navigate.

This worldbuilding extends to the superfluous incidental features which colour life in Greenvale. Agent York must shave or he will grow a beard; he must wash his suit, otherwise it will grow dirty and attract flies; he may use his turn signal and window wipers as he drives through town. None of these features, nor many of the others present, have any tangible effect on the actual furthering of the narrative.

The blog Infinite Lag, authored by J.P. Grant, ran a 7-part series of articles celebrating Deadly Premonition as Game of The Year. While these articles thoroughly cover a variety of aspects of the title, GOTY Reason #5: Lovely Useless Elements salutes the game’s embrace of the pointless. He suggests it is a declaration of honesty — that the game “is telling the player outright that these elements are indeed useless — and that’s okay!” A comment by Michael “Sparky” Clarkson on Part 4 of the previously detailed GameCritics.com articles amusingly notes that the in-game money Agent York is gifted for shaving and changing his clothes could be simply read as York “being rewarded for behaving like a well-socialized individual.”

Although they do not formally add to the story, these gratuities are not without purpose. The game’s director Swery noted in his 2011 GDC address that he was attempting an intertextual link between the game and the player’s life — to make the player identify with the characters, certainly, but also to make the player think of the game when they perform these actions in their everyday lives. This GDC address further details a variety of strategies Swery uses to craft an engaging story. Indeed, he has been rather loquacious about the successes and failures of the title, with both Polygon and Game Developer magazine (archived on the GDC Vault) featuring in-depth post-mortems with the director, including revelations about the production and the reception of the game.

Despite its initial reputation as schlock to only be viewed through a deeply ironic lens, Deadly Premonition has grown to achieve a level of respectability its detractors likely never thought possible. The power of the idiosyncratic narrative and singular characters manage to overcome the game’s technical flaws, all of which is further enhanced by the intriguing subtextual insights into the distance between player and avatar. Deadly Premonition is a triumph of eccentricity; a victory for the weirdo. It is a game which flirts with normalcy before doubling-down on its strangeness. As Agent York announces before plunging into Greenvale: “there goes the civilized world.” Good riddance.

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!

Hello, readers! If you’re anything like me, you’re choking down a boatload of antihistamines to survive a brutal allergy season. And so, bleary-eyed, exhausted, and sniffling… I bid you welcome to another installment of This Week in Videogame Blogging.

Worldbuilding

If you’ve been playing Bloodborne recently, why not take a break and read about it instead? Or watch a video? George Weidman at Super Bunny Hop covers Bloodborne’s relationship to H.P. Lovecraft as expressed through the mechanics and lore of the game. Aevee Bee discusses Bloodborne’s worldbuilding, and Tim Rogers goes full Tim Rogers on the design of the game.

The real Bloodborne is making your own game! Lulu Blue has a post discussing how she thinks about making games. Tegiminis points out some design decisions that can stigmatize about 50% of your potential audience. Over at Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Alisha Karabinus looks at the array of characters in State of Decay and how they avoided design tropes:

By and large, the characters in State of Decay simply look like people in a bad situation. Sometimes they’re a little scruffy, sometimes they have bad haircuts, but they all look ready to survive, and that’s something to appreciate, considering the hyper presentation of gender in many — not all — zombie-themed games

From the same site, Ashley Barry looks into BloodRayne, Let The Right One In, and Interview with a Vampire to talk about unconventional femaleness in vampires.

From a more mechanical perspective, David Carlton discusses the simplicity of Ico’s mechanics vs that of Dragon Age: Inquisition. G. Christopher Williams talks about the use of scale in Risk of Rain. Problem Machine checks out Super Hexagon as a way to focus. Jillian at FemHype talks about Game of Thrones and her appreciation for the women in the game. Jorge Albor talks about decision making in Life is Strange and Game of Thrones:

When I play Game of Thrones, I try to create a compelling story about a family on the raggedy edge. I roleplay my decisions as each character, each with their own unique faults. When I play Life is Strange, I play a bit more like myself. I try to do what I think is right, and I make no decision lightly.

Keith Burgun has an interesting discussion on his definition of “games” vs “toys” which is sure to ruffle some feathers. Such boundaries don’t concern Gita Jackson and Maxwell Neely-Cohen, who review Tinder as a game.


Real World Implications

Simon Parkin investigates drug abuse in eSports, and finds “Adderall is basically a stimpack for gamers.” Pixie discusses the reinforcement effect games might have on real-world attitudes in light of a recent study on sexism and gamers. Charlotte wants to know what behavior Valve is encouraging with a “funny” voting button on Steam reviews. Christian Donlan talks about Touch Tone, saying “Touch Tone would be satire so heavy-handed and implausible that it might carry no sting – if only we didn’t live in a world that’s even more heavy-handed and implausible.”

Laura Hudson writes for FiveThirtyEight about using Telltale game, The Walking Dead, to teach applied ethics. Joe Parlock looks at the transhumanism of Deus Ex through the lens of disability. Kaitlin Tremblay remembers what she learned from Tifa when she played Final Fantasy 7.

A Place and Time

Bob Mackey discusses how Nintendo white-washes Yokai Watch by downplaying elements of the Shinto religion. Brian Crimmins talks about an obscure Playstation 1 title, Boku no Natsuyasumi and how it creates a sense of location and time. Brad O’Farrell discusses how the geography of Pokemon is based on real-world countries, including Japan, and how that plays into the game’s plot. Colin Campbell investigates people developing games from a country not commonly discussed or represented - Cameroon!

Keeping What’s Ours

Mitch Stoltz gives EFF’s perspective on the lack of legal protection for preserving older games.

Samantha Blackmon talks about the importance of preservation. Ciarán Ó Muirthile proposes backwards compatibility as a way of preserving games. However, Heather Alexandra has a slightly different idea.

For more perspectives on the history of games, Noah Caldwell-Gervais has a two hour video critically examining every Call of Duty game. Mike Mahardy discusses the history of Looking Glass Studios. Ian Williams discusses the history and murky future of Warhammer. Finally, our own Eric Swain positions Grim Fandango as an artifact out of time, whose modern re-release reveals some outdated logic.

Back Into the World

Thanks for reading! We thrive on your submissions so whether you’re a reader or self-promoting your latest work, please send us a link through email or by Twitter.

If you’re looking for a topic to write about, April Blogs of the Round Table would love to hear your take on “Palette Swap”. Critical Distance is proud to be completely funded by our readership.

Lastly, if you like what we do and want to help us continue to expand, consider pledging a small monthly donation of your own! It would help us a lot!

 

Good morning! To those who celebrate it, a Happy Easter! Let’s get right underway with This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Systems and Beyond Systems

On First Person Scholar, Gino Grieco has produced a stellar essay on the lenticular design of Nintendo games — and also Magic: The Gathering.

Meanwhile, at Videogame Tourism, Kent Sheely has an interesting piece up on the recent revival of games with rules and conditions mediated by the player. A world away and yet in a strikingly similar vein, we have Eurogamer’s Robert Purchese writing about Eve Online again, namely on why it is Eve‘s metagame of its economy and alliances which make it so much larger than life. It also fits in nicely with this piece by Austin Walker on Clockwork Worlds, about the metagames and in-character/out-of-character dynamics which play considerably into what we often call “immersion.”

Speaking of resuscitations of some fraught game design terms, Roland of 9pp pens a short-and-sweet piece on the medium specificity of games, without invoking a wishy-washy word like “interactivity.” Namely, Roland says, it is about games’ ability to both offer control and depict its loss.

Next we move over to The Guardian where Simon Parkin, in his characteristic style, paints a compelling portrait of Dark Souls and Bloodborne director Hidetaka Miyazaki, whose unconventional entry into the Japanese games industry makes him an unusual success story. And keeping with the focus on Japanese games, on Metopal Nathan Altice offers a fascinating analysis of the time dilation and compression functions of J-RPGs, and in particular Square-Enix’s Bravely Default:

Though many RPGs stretching back to the 80s have a Charge, Wait, or Defend option, I’ve never seen them used as a temporal modifier, nor have I seen their opposite function used as a play mechanic. Strategically using multiple stacked Braves [advance actions] can end battles after one party member’s turn. Effectively, that member’s battle timeline is operating independent of both their combatants’ and allies’ battle timelines, as if they have a time machine transporting future selves to the present in hopes that they will erase a possible future where the enemies are still alive. It’s conceptually mind-bending, but works smoothly in practice.

In the Creases

At Wizard of Radical, Ray Porreca has embarked on a touching letter series on childhood memories of videogames with his incarcerated brother.

World Autism Awareness Day occurred this past week, and at Polygon Joe Parlock surveys several games depicting autistic characters, finding most of them wanting. Going a step further, at Vice, Jake Tucker (who like Parlock is on the autism spectrum himself) relates how L.A. Noire inadvertently created a player-character who seems to share his disability.

Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency has launched the first in a new series highlighting positive, strong, and unique representations of women in games, which is certainly worth a look.

At Video Game Researcher, Wai Yen Tang has drawn up an interesting condensation of several research studies seeking to identify the (manifold) reasons women are not equally represented in STEM fields and game development. Coming at it from a player and industry perspective, Tegiminis responds to the assertion that women “naturally” prefer different games than men, arguing that to treat the push for better representation in the core market as “cultural colonialism” is, at the very least, misguided:

The framing of our new conversation on games as cultural colonialism is appalling on just about every level. Asking for games to mature in their treatment of women and minorities is, and it’s comically absurd that this even needs to be said, not colonialism. […] This isn’t colonialism, it’s maturation. Games aren’t being colonized because everybody who is saying these things was already here.

Defying Gravity

At his development blog, independent designer and games instructor Robert Yang goes into the development process of his game Stick Shift, in which the player participates in erotically stimulating… well, exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a fascinating exploration of both social-political metaphor and alien phenomenology, considering that, as Yang says, “this is arousal on the car’s terms.”

At Hopes and Fears, Joe Bernardi details the lasting impact of Dogma 99, a Scandinavian LARP scene aimed at reducing the artifice and barrier for entry to live action roleplay.

Lastly, at the ever-delightful Offworld, the equally delightful Katherine Cross reviews Gravity Ghost, a small and accessible game best played by letting go:

I stopped trying to tightly control my orbit and instead relaxed into the gravity of the little planet that I’d been fighting this whole time. I stopped seeing Iona as a superheroine battling against an impossible power and yielded to it instead, embodying her trust and turning her into a ghostly moon swinging in the arms of a larger force. […] There was no hurry, no clock to beat but my own. I’d find a way, gravity would find a way. Ultimately, the solution was simple: I had to stop treating Gravity Ghost like every other game I’d played.

Pagan Fertility Rites Et Cetera

Thanks for reading! As always, we greatly appreciate your submissions through email or by Twitter mention! And yes, we welcome (and encourage!) self-submission, so don’t be shy.

A bit of the usual footer business: the April Blogs of the Round Table is here with the prompt “Palette Swap” which should be promising. Also, we’ve released our March BoRT roundup for “Extended Play,” our latest March This Month in Let’s Plays roundup is live, and we have two new podcast episodes with Anna Anthropy and Polygon’s Danielle Riendeau, respectively! Whew!

Some signal boosting: our friends and colleagues at Five Out of Ten Magazine have released a special collection of features from some of our other friends and colleagues at Haywire Magazine. You should definitely give it a look!

While we’re at it, have we mentioned that Five Out of Ten has switched to a Patreon model? Because it has and we recommend you give it your attention. Likewise, Not Your Mama’s Gamer have also launched a cool new Patreon. If you are an independent games and media publication or writer who has recently launched a crowdfunding campaign, let us know about it!

Critical Distance is proud to be completely funded by our readership. If you like what we do and want to help us continue to expand, consider pledging a small monthly donation of your own! It would help us a lot!

That’s it from me! Now I’m off to watch my favorite Easter film, Wicker Man. Enjoy your Sunday and have a great week to come!

March 2015

April 3rd, 2015 | Posted by Lindsey Joyce in This Month in Let's Plays: - (Comments Off)

Hello hello, my friends! Didn’t I just post the February Let’s Plays? How is already April? I guess time flies when you’ve got your head down watching content. Speaking of, you are in for some good content here on this March edition of  This Month in Let’s Plays!

Life is Strange

On of the more popular games to Let’s Play this month was Life is Strange.

On Errant Signal, Chris Franklin jumps into the realm of episodic games with Life is Strange. Franklin’s analysis of episode one notes that instead of decisions that feel immediate and weighty, the game is more about “exploring the possibility space of interaction,” and that this inversion makes every choice intentional. Because you can rewind choices, experiment, and move forward with whatever choice you find, you have more capacity for intentional action. Franklin also notes this difference helps make characters the focal point of the game.

Meanwhile, giving consideration to both episode one and two, Geek Remix provides a theory about the rewind mechanism and suggests the camera is an essential component toward supporting this theory.

Communal Play

There were lots of friends playing together this month too! For instance, Philip Kollar and Danielle Riendeau of Polygon venture into Let’s Play territory with Bloodborne. In Part 1 of this LP series, Kollar and Riendeau create the avatar Pickle Hedgehog and discuss various stats for the character as they do so.

On Four Play Show, Matt Albrecht sits down to play the as-yet-unreleased Extreme Exorcism with the game’s two developers.

Elsewhere, on Steam Friends, Soha Kareem and Kelsey play and take in the beauty of Raetikon. It’s enjoyable to hear just how responsive they are to the game’s aesthetic.

 

Quiet Comforts

Leigh Alexander debuted her Let’s Play series “Lo-Fi Let’s Play” on Offworld this month, starting with an LP of Loom. Alexander “gently revisits” this classic and discusses old design forms and choices, as situated within their historical moment, as she plays.

Elsewhere, in the first episode of Player/Knowledge, Critical Distance’s own Cameron Kunzelman quietly reflects on gamer memory and Grand Theft Auto III.  Kunzelman considers how the communal memory of a game can, at times, inhibit critical reflection and “allow us to create hierarchies of taste, of skill, of ability, and of privilege.” Kunzelman concludes with a call to action to further interrogate gamer memory.

 

Speaking of Memory…

While Alexander and Kunzelman bring a concerted critical focus to memory and nostalgia, there were also several LPs this month that revisited older games with a more lighthearted (though also not uncritical) spirit.

For instance, Game Informer’s Andrew Reiner, Tim Turi, Jeff Cork, and Ben Hanson revisit and reflect on the very creepy (pun?) Sneak King. Together, the team discuss the game’s and its developer’s history while asking the tough questions like “Why is the setting a Saw Mill?”

Meanwhile, having never played through the early Mario Bros games, Jackson Tyler Let’s Plays his first experiences with these earlier games. To provide the frame for his LP, Tyler states, “[Super Mario Bros has] begun to exist to a younger generation as more of a cultural icon and reference point than a tangible and known work of art in and of itself.” (Note: I have only watched episode one of this series though the embedded video below is for the whole series.)

In yet another first edition (so many great first episodes this month!) Squinky plays the game, Cubert Badbone, they developed 13 years ago when they was still in high school. Squinky remarks that the experience is much like looking back, years later, on one’s high school yearbook. Squinky discusses design choices made in the game and how the game reflects their thinking back then.

Elsewhere, Nate Ewert-Krocker revisits the games on the Playstation Interactive CD Sampler including Twisted Metal, Warhawk, Mortal Kombat 3, Loaded, Descent, NHL Faceoff, Wipeout, and more. As he plays, Ewert-Krocker notices things like “floaty controls,” how insufficient the d-pad is for navigating through 3-D space, and how many games in the demo feature the type of senseless violence that sold well in the 90’s.

Grab Bag of Critical Play

Innuendo Studios has started a new  series Let’s Plays posing questions about the adventure games genre – initially defined in the video  as “Games that tell stories using puzzles.” This first episode of the series considers “Why did the adventure game die?

Elsewhere, Matt Lees plays through a portion of Hotline Miami 2 and explains why he was disappointed in the game. Identifying two key reasons, Lees notes the game’s tonal shift and design shift from the previous release.

In recognition and celebration of International Women’s Day, Stephen Beirne looks at three games created by Sophie Houlden.

Brenden Keogh has started a Critical Let’s Play of Half-Life. Among other things (like the non-looping music) in this first episode, Keogh considers how the long and non-violent intro establishes the setting as an actual continuous space rather than segmented level spaces. (Note: I have only watched episode one of this series though the embedded video below is for the whole series.)

 

Final Thoughts

Thank you for joining me for another month of Let’s Plays. This has been such a pleasing venture for me, and I’m heartened to see how it’s already grown in three short months. Thanks for participating and remember to keep submitting the Let’s Plays you’d like to see curated here! Also, keep in mind, the LP’s don’t have to be video. We are broader thinkers here and welcome other styles of LPs you make and find. Send your submissions to us via Twitter using #LetsPlayCD to designate them for the Let’s Play Roundup, or you can always email us. Together, We’ll keep growing this into something great.

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

 

 

Glad you could make it. I hope you enjoyed your March and the first of April’s showers have already started to wash away all of winter’s cigarette butts and dog poops. Come in, come in. We’ll play a game! Pick out the piece that will represent you. Oh, don’t worry, they’re all the same. No. Not the green one.

I’m the green one. I’m always the green one. Green is me. Green cars are the fastest, green armour the most protective, green hair the most alien-seducing. I’m not making it up, I have a lifetime of being the green piece to back it up.

It doesn’t take much to identify with an in-game representation: just a colour or a reflection is all we need to craft ourselves in our on-screen or on-board surrogates and we want to know all the ways you come to identify with that most simple of identifiers: the ‘Palette Swap’.

Sub-Zero and Scorpion, Billy and Jimmy Lee, the weird technicolor nightmare relationship of Mario, Luigi, Wario and Waluigi. Palette swapping a character was an easy way to differentiate characters with the same model that was cheap, efficient and, let’s face it, effective. But what does palette swapping do? Does it leave an original with multiple copies or does that bare minimum of difference mean something? Does the palette swap assume there is no original and does that even matter? Do games themselves treat players like palette swaps of a template? Is a palette swap a lazy stretch for more content or does it show how important subtle differences can be? Do we expect more out of games now that they’re “beyond” pixels and palettes or has nostalgia sweetened an old artistic technique? We want to know about the avatar haircut that made you identify with a character, or the shopkeeper model you most engaged with. We want to know how the player-2 model felt more right than the default character.

We’ll be accepting blogs until April 30 . 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=April15" 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!
  • 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.

I want to make this clear from the get-go: there are no April Fool’s jokes to be found here. Just 100% undiluted Blogs of the Round Table. This month, we were discussing “Extended Play”

Have you ever been so immersed or so invested in a game that it bleeds over (or extends over, if you will) the border of the screen and into your life? Maybe after a particularly grueling game session, you incorporated the game into your dream. Maybe while shopping at the grocery store you momentarily had to fight off the urge to see how much of your carrying capacity was left and whether you needed to “drop” a few items to lighten the load – or maybe you considered how many rupees you had instead of real-world currency in line at the check-out. Have you ever attempted to apply game logic outside a game? Forgotten you don’t actually know how to shoot a bow at all? We’d like to hear about the moments in your day-to-day where the line between game-fiction and reality have, even if only for a moment, collided. What was the result? Did the collision force you to think about the game in a different way? About reality differently? both? Share your thoughts with us on the expandable and extending barriers of play.”

Over on his blog, Hoeyboey, Joseph Dwan considers the way 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 doors and Virtue’s Last Reward prime players to continue thinking about the story and strategies when they weren’t playing. He notes:

“The style is difficult to play for an extended period, meaning the player is given this time to consider the story, to really think about where it’s going.”

Elsewhere on JEB Writes, Jeb Wrench discusses how grinding in Monster Hunter 4 gave him something to do and to focus on while he was giving up his smoking habit. Jeb notes that Monster Hunter 4 was specifically ideal because,

“It’s a game that not only requires both hands to play well, but also doesn’t usually let up during the action long enough to keep a cigarette going to periodically steal a drag off while hunting.”

Next up, Sean Seyler compares his childhood attachment to Hinopio, the shop owner located in the volcano in Super Mario RPG, to his life as a store clerk now. He states,

“Between my gameplay and my reflection on those experiences of play, I am comfortable with what it means to be a clerk. In the pre-dream stories I would tell myself, I had constructed the possible self that dealt with tedious retail work. I wouldn’t have guessed back then that I was directing myself towards becoming a sales clerk, but I feel the imagined possibility of “something more” was, in the end, something simple and defined.”

This month, Phill from Tim and Phill Talk Games writes about the blurry line between fugue states while driving and flow in driving simulators, or more specifically, the moments when the brain slightly confuses the two and makes game suggestions to the driver’s mind. Phill describes a driving experience in which game impulses from Burnout came to mind:

“I was receiving impulses to cross lanes, powerslide into corners, and bump cars to the left and right of me into freeway exits. It was more than a little disturbing to realise the barrier between the reality of driving and its arcade simulacrum was being blurred.”

Leigh Harrison, from As Houses, discusses how Portal 2, beyond any other game, has most haunted his psyche post-play. While Harrison notes Portal is the better game, he states:

“it actually resonated with me much more strongly precisely because it so wonderfully follows an already watertight game in a smart way. Portal cements all the basics of storytelling, mechanics and tone, which leaves its successor ample room to finely craft character and place.”

Elsewhere, Steph Roman describes the psychological imprint left on her from playing Heavy Rain and a jarring moment when an ad campaign called “Project Butterfly” (a campaign meant to be uplifting) became a sinister reminder of Heavy Rain’s serial killer. Roman remarks:

“What was supposed to be an uplifting image of community outreach was to me a completely abject, horrifying reminder of the Origami Killer’s malevolent torture chamber.”

Moving into more theoretical territory, Mark Thorne extends Derrida’s observation about the interrelational dependence of language to make a similar claim about game mechanics. He states:

“Just like the words that make up our language, mechanics come with their own history, one which feeds the understanding the player takes from situations the game places themselves in.”

Despite this, Thorne finds that games frequently make the mistake of saying too much, whereas other mediums are better tuned to say a great deal by crafting what goes unstated and unsaid. In trying to create the “every-game,” games have neglected to take the necessary risks intrinsic to art.

Rounding off the round up, Wendi Sierra examines the residual effects (and how she overcame them) that followed playing Elder Scrolls: Oblivion for 50 hours in a week. The residual effects weren’t just confined to the impulse to collect flowers for alchemy, but instead included conflicted feelings of guilt and shame too. Sierra leaves us with a nice closing thought for the month:

“It’s ok for play to just be play, not always in service of some higher goal or ideal. It’s ok for us, as people, to simply enjoy play and not always work to justify it as a more “legitimate” pursuit.”

I hope you enjoy/have enjoyed reading this round of submissions as much as I did. I was pleased to see the variety this theme brought and the way it provoked personal narrative alongside game analysis. Thank you to the participants for such enjoyable reads! If you haven’t already, feel free to use this code to embed the links in your blog (provided your publishing platform allows iframes, that is):

<iframe type=”text/html” width=”600″ height=”20″ src=”http://www.tinysubversions.com/bort.html?month=March15″ frameborder=”0″></iframe>

As a final note, I want to announce that Mark Filipowich will be managing Blogs of the Round Table solo for the next few months. I am preparing to take qualifying exams for my PhD and need all the focus time I can get. Mark will make sure BoRT contributors continue to get the attention they rightly deserve. I’ll be back in mid-to-late summer. In the meantime, I know you’ll enjoy the themes Mark has up his sleeve! Have fun.

Welcome to the first Critical Distance Confab minisode!

We’re trying something new with the podcast. There are so many games coming out at every level, everyday. So many of them fall through the cracks for one reason or another. Everybody has asked themselves the question, “How did this game not get talked about? How is there no criticism on it?” We are a curatorial site. As curators we see the conversations that happen and as individuals often the conversations that do not happen.

In an effort to combat this in our own small little way, we have decided to do a series of minisodes, on a trial run, that will specifically highlight those games that fell through the cracks. Every month, one guest and I will list off three games, each in hopes that the critical community sees them, tries them and maybe write about them, giving them the criticism we think they deserve. Anything goes. They can be anything from ich.io art games to prestige indie games to missed AAA titles, just so long as they are games that missed the boat for one reason or another.

This month’s guest is Polygon Senior Editor, Danielle Riendeau. Take a listen!

Direct Download

Danielle’s Picks

Dyscourse

Disorder

VA-11 HALL-A

Eric’s Picks

Journal

Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut

Beneath Floes

Opening Theme: ‘Close’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Closing Theme: ‘Wishing Never’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

What’s up, fellow crit enthusiasts? If you’re looking for Easter candy, you’re a week too early, but we’ve got plenty of goodies from a slew of amazing writers to keep you content until then. So, welcome to This Week in Videogame Blogging!

What It Means to be Indie

Luke Pullen reacts to Offworld’s printing of Zoe Quinn’s Alt Games manifesto with jubilation for its recognition and a pessimism of historical sorts for how its artists cope in the future. On Gamasutra, Bryant Francis interviews several developers including Dan Cook, saying: “Let Get Real about the Financial Expectations of ‘Going Indie’:

“In another industry, we’d have labeled the folks making games on new digital platforms as ‘entrepreneurs,’ but because of the rush to be ‘art,’ mere discussion of business takes on a negative tinge. The result is a lot of very poorly-equipped folks trying to run businesses for the first time.”

Over at TransGamer Thoughts, Heather Alexandra talks about the lack of empathy dealing with the emotions and fears of trans people in games. Soha Kareem discusses “Games That Heal” at Offworld, noting how her work, and others of a deeply personal thread, facilitates a coping method for indie artists.

Trauma, Transcendence and Mental Illness

Bouncing off that last one, let’s dive into a few articles peeking under the curtain of themes of illnesses and healing. On PopMatters, G. Christopher Williams describes how mental illness in White Night allegorises American economic inequality, and At Madness and Play, Amsel Von Spreckelsen discussed the treatment of mental health in Darkest Dungeon:

It is mired in decades-old RPG design and all that the automation of putting it on a computer does is  make the bookkeeping easier; and when mental health becomes relegated to a bookkeeping exercise, when the advances are based on more efficient crunching of variables and modifiers, then it should be clear that this does not help us understand pain and dysfunction and joy and the life that you lead when you are mad.

Back at Offworld, Laura Hudson talks VR’s applications for immersion beyond marketing. Meanwhile Dara Khan, delves into profound spiritual experiences with games, and finds Dragon Age: Inquisition’s story at odds with its gameplay.

Laura Kate recounts a deeply personal trauma on Indie Haven, one resurrected by a scene in Life is Strange: Episode 2. (Content warning: discussion of suicide.)

Joe Parlock, inspired by Laura Kate’s post, tells of how his own feelings blinded him to an option in Fallout 3, and elsewhere, Taylor Hidalgo tackles morality in The Deer God.

Mapping Out Our History

Over at the Ontological Geek, James Hinton wrote about how game maps tend to ignore practical implications for interesting design in land masses, and Brendan Vance’s “The Ghosts of Bioshock” reflects on the Wounded Knee massacre of the Sioux and the framing of history in Bioshock: Infinite:

On one hand I feel [Bioshock: Infinite] appropriates: It snatches the juiciest, tenderest piece from a complex and valuable history so it can put that piece on display, neglecting to offer its historical subjects their due consideration. I think it telling that the game’s plot reduces the Massacre to a mere skeleton in the closet of its protagonist Booker DeWitt; I think it tells us that Infinite is a game about white experiences to the detriment of non-white experiences, greatly complicating any sympathy it may bear towards the myriad victims of white imperialism. Yet on the other hand I must consider in its defence that it uses Wounded Knee as shorthand because that is the most its matrix of contradictory constraints permit it to do; that in employing this shorthand it creates a tiny space for others to approach the game’s subject matter with more focus and more empathy (a space I now hope to cultivate).

On Offworld, Tanya D. gives developers a reason to be historically accurate by including more black characters and fewer stereotypes:

Even Vivienne de Fer, who gave me so much hope initially, disappoints. She falls head over hennin into the “Strong Black Woman” archetype from the moment she’s introduced. She’s a supposed “ice queen,” an untouchable woman who’s too good for the plebes around her. She says “my dear” like some women say “bless her heart,” and her words cut sharper than any spell. Any flirtation attempts result in her putting you down, emphasizing her own unattainability. Why can’t she just be a black woman with the romantic and relationship quirks we all have?

But what if we couldn’t choose race in games? What if race were parceled out at random?

Battlefield Hard Sell

Battlefield Hardline came out last week, and with it so did plenty of interesting writing. Let’s start with Austin Walker’s “Cop Out“, which takes Hardline to task in an incredibly thoughtful review:

And so Battlefield Hardline speaks to our context, too (whether or not that’s what the developers would like). It speaks a politics even as it flails in the single player campaign, desperate to avoid saying anything about the dead black boy on the pavement—about 75 unarmed black bodies on the ground. It flails in the multiplayer, eager to wave aside any critiques of police militarization. It flails and flails and flails. And the flailing is the message.

Carolyn Petit, too, takes on Battlefield: Hardline, both on KQED and Tumblr, finding its mechanics shallow and its themes underwhelming.

Meanwhile, Marc Prices believes Battlefield deliberately avoided social issues by disguising itself as a cop procedural, and our own Mark Filipowich explores his thoughts on crime gleaned through invoking literature, film and TV:

The player does all the friendship building questing that would be expected of an RPG, but it does so in the context of an urban world: they only have power with access to electricity, the internet, social conventions, architecture and guns; the power’s domain is the city and the city is everywhere. Most of the game the player takes on errands for cash, selling their bodies into violent labour to undermine the big-bad. And yet, the existence of magic always provides hope. As miserable as things may seem, there is a force beyond the city that promises equilibrium.

Finally, Anthony McGlynn at The Arcade talks “Battlefield Hardline and Politics in Games“…

Politics as Usual

…a point echoed by Leigh Alexander who argues “You can’t ‘just keep politics out of it’“, while Emily Joy Bembeneck discusses how even games like Cities: Skyline inject politics:

Games are engines of persuasion, and despite some common rhetoric that disagrees, they are delicious morsels of politics. They’re drenched in it, marinated in it, and just because it tastes good doesn’t mean it’s all ok. And the politics of Cities:Skylines is that education is the easy answer.

Keza MacDonald at Kotaku UK reacts to the strange desire to keep politics out of fiction:

It also makes me monstrously uncomfortable, because in a former life I was an academic (I did a Masters in German and another in Comparative Literature before ducking out of the first year of a PhD to do this video game thing full-time), and every time I see language like this it kinda reminds me of the Nazi attitude to art. They very much took the view that art should be “apolitical”, which of course eventually resulted in the extermination of all the art that didn’t fit THEIR politics. I feel like anyone who’s ever read anything about Entartete Kunst couldn’t help but feel deeply troubled by the notion that art “should” be unpolitical.

Whose Category is it Anyway?

Just because I failed to properly categorize the following doesn’t mean they aren’t compelling in their own right. Just look to Jorge Albor, who plays Earthbound as an adult and finds it a compelling piece of children’s literature:

Playing Earthbound now, it is easy to find moments of satire, when the game criticizes the strange and mysterious elements of adulthood. At the Stoic Club in Summers, Ness and his friends encounter a room full of adults who have meaningless verbose conversations with each other. One denizen exclaims, “You guys can’t envision the final collapse of capitalism? Incredible!” This isn’t just a silly in-joke for adults. This is the “kids’ table” perspective of adult conversation. Earthbound is the closest piece of fiction that I have seen to induce the feeling of being a child.

In keeping with Brendan Vance’s “death and photography,” Rowan Kaiser re-articulates his 1UP article, “The 80 Most Influential Videogames of All Time,” and Doom still tops the list, while Jillian of FemHype elaborated on her love for the original Lara Croft:

While her clothes were laughably ill-suited for raiding caves and deep-sea diving, the Lara from the earlier Tomb Raider installments was never a pawn to be neatly directed by the hands of the men she encountered in-game. That Lara faced some pretty tough shit, too. A couple hundred cultists armed with guns and grenades? Pfft. Oh, please. The original Lara faced down a T-rex with only two pistols and lived to fight another day. Don’t even play, folks. She’ll mess your dinosaur ass right up.

Auke Peters listed “Ten Fierce Female Game Characters That’ll Blow Your Mind“, and yes, Lara Croft is in there.

Last, but far from least, we have some video for you by way of Innuendo Studios, “Who Shot Guybrush Threpwood“, giving a compelling explanation for why adventure games died and why that was a good thing.

If Every Pork Chop Were Perfect, We Wouldn’t Have Hot Dogs 

Welp, that’s it folks! Thank you for reading, and please continue to support and send us underappreciated voices; whether it’s your work or a writer you’re keen on, send it via Twitter mention or our email submissions form.

And don’t forget to submit to this month’s Blogs of the Round Table and This Month in Let’s Plays.

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