February 14th

February 14th, 2016 | Posted by Melissa King in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on February 14th)

Hark! Is that Cupid in the distance, arrow at the ready to spread love to the Critical Distance readership? Nah, sorry. It’s just me again, dishing out a special Valentine’s Day edition of This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Baby, You Set My Heart on Fire(watch)

The hot topic of the week tends to be the newest game that gets the good old neurons zapping, and this week is no different. Many critics examined Campo Santo’s Firewatch, which released on February 9th.

So far, players are really digging Firewatch’s environments:

Katherine Cross explores the game’s ability to to make the same environment evoke different emotions, stating that “the same stand of trees can be sunny and inviting in one scene, and a milestone of terror in the next.”

ZAM’s review of Firewatch praises its naturalistic yet intuitive environmental design, and over at Eurogamer, Oli Welsh presents the game’s environment as a metaphor for nature itself.

Another aspect of the game that stands out to reviewers is its major characters, who make mistakes in spite of gaming’s history of successful video game protagonists.

Emily Short contrasts Firewatch’s main character to that of interactive novella The Fire Tower. Olivia White at Polygon discusses the player’s restricted agency that develops the protagonist, Henry’s, flawed character.

Dante Douglas sums this facet of the game up like this:

“Firewatch is a game about people who fuck up. They don’t think. They make mistakes. They regret things, and for once in a game, I don’t find it hamfisted or awkwardly written. It’s very real. It hurts to watch. I recommend it wholeheartedly.”

(Content warning: Since they deal with character development, these pieces reveal plot spoilers about Firewatch.)

Let’s Get Personal, Cutie

Video games feature a laundry list of major antagonist such as Bowser and Eggman, but many writers wrote about combatting their own instincts and issues in games this week.

Sometimes, the anxiety a game produces for you can be a challenge in itself. At Gamasutra, Sean May tells an anecdote related to a very shocking and very effective event in Pony Island. (Content warning: This piece features a spoiler for Pony Island.)

Steven Wright recounts the story of how Dark Souls helped him overcome the anxieties he had about his gaming abilities at ZAM.

On the other hand, when we play video games, sometimes the biggest obstacle is not overthinking things.

In his review of American Truck Simulator at ZAM, Mathew Kumar considers the game’s peacefulness one of its biggest strengths. Meanwhile, Matthew Weddig compares interpreting Kentucky Route Zero to meditation practices at Kill Screen.

Other writers discovered that the greatest hurdle a game can present is the problems we face in our life experiences.

Alisha Karabinus at Not Your Mama’s Gamer uses item collection in video games to cope with her and her family’s hoarding tendencies. At Popmatters, Boen Wang compares our notions of progress in video games to those in our own lives.

As part of the ZEAL project, Alyssa Kai narrates the story of her sister’s death and Super Monkey Ball 2. (Content warning: The previous link mentions addiction, suicide, and death.)

Errant Signal’s review of That Dragon, Cancer examines how its design motifs helps the game share the Green family’s retelling of an overwhelming tragedy (video, no captions available).

Valentine, You’re So Creative!

One of the most exciting parts about the games medium is what its consumers add to it via interpretations and creative works.

Ashley Barry explores the depth and creativity of the Star Wars roleplaying community on Second Life over at ZAM.

An Anthropologist’s Guide to Gayming features a piece about reparative readings of gaming in an LGBTQ context that posits, “many of us are trained to read for queer subtext even when it isn’t there, crafting our own, to use Sedgwick’s language, epistemologies—i.e. ways of knowing—from the closet.”

Honey, I Can’t Get Over Your Design Skills

There’s a lot that developers can do to tweak a game’s design to send a certain message to the player, such as adapting its plot.

Greg Johnson provides an overview of different types of narrative technique in gaming at Gamasutra. Meanwhile, Bianca Batti of Not Your Mama’s Gamer discusses Pony Island’s usage of metanarrative in quite the meta manner.

In the return of his Critical Intel column, Robert Rath talks with the creators of Rise of the Tomb Raider about creating authentic feeling fictional religions.

According to How To Not Suck at Game Design, most game stories exist in the first place thanks to romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich. (I’m referring to the movement, not how good he was at kissing.)

In other cases, developers integrate these expressions into the gameplay itself.

Over at Gamasutra, Arthur Canzi Zeferino demonstrates how Undertale’s combat reveals underlying character traits, while Nick Dinicola proposes that the puzzle design in The Witness has a lot to say about how we parse solutions.

The Gameosphere May Be Complicated, but Our Love Is Easy

Another trend in this week’s games writing was criticizing stubborn trends in the gaming industry that stave innovation:

Prioritizing money can limit the creative potential of gaming. On his website, Jim Sterling explains why GameTrailers closed so suddenly, which I think ties in well with Owen Vince’s review of Luxury Simulator, a game that exposes the whims of the upper class.

Additionally, the games industry and games themselves tend to stick to working in favor of privileged groups. Ashley J. Veláquez critiques the lack of racial diversity in video games, framed through a personal narrative. In a postmortem for his game Prune, Joel McDonald is refreshingly honest about the impact of privilege on his success as an indie developer.

And sometimes games just don’t break outside of certain creative parameters. Our former senior curator, Kris Ligman, can’t wait for Kanye West’s game Only One simply because it will provide an outsider’s perspective on how games should be. In another piece at ZAM, Final Fantasy IX is praised for both calling out and embracing the theatrical nature of games:

“When you step into the role of Zidane, or Vivi the Black Mage, or Princess Garnet, or any hero or heroine in any game, you are a player in a performance for which you are also the audience. Push the correct buttons and the performance proceeds smoothly. Fail, and there are no real consequences besides a poor show. These play-acting battles are FFIX’s way of winking and nodding at us, to let us know that it understands this fundamental truth about games.”

Hugs and Kisses

All right, I’ve had my fill of making bad Valentine’s Day jokes, so that’s a wrap for this week. If you like what you’re reading, we’d love it if you’d send us a tip at our Patreon, Recurrency, or Paypal. And if you see a piece about games that makes you think, “Woah! This should go on TWIVGB,” you can send them our way via Twitter or email. Finally, if you have any valentines for me, you can find my classroom mailbox at @LongLiveMelKing. You know, the snazzy one with Fluttershy on it?

January 2016

February 10th, 2016 | Posted by Riley MacLeod in This Month in Let's Plays: - (Comments Off on January 2016)

Welcome to the new year, readers! I hope you’ve been the same fabulous you doing your usual great thing or making headway on being a new, even more fabulous you doing some new great things! Oh, me? I’ve been busy keeping up with one of the most awesome things, This Month in Let’s Plays!

The cool kids at Cool Ghosts have been doing a fun Let’s Play of Invisible Inc., a game you, like me, might have forgotten how much you loved until you watched Matt and Quinns have a blast with it.

In related Let’s Plays of fun people having fun, Todd Harper and Kitty Stoholski played some Bayonetta, bringing a lot of good humor and knowledge about fighting games to this slightly older gem.

Chris Franklin over at Errant Signal did a fantastic video on The Beginner’s Guide, comparing the work of media critics to the character arc of the game version (or real version?) of Davey Wreden.

Lena LeRay creates a personal analysis of the moving That Dragon, Cancer, showing how the game’s very specific subject matter nevertheless applies to so many of our lives.

In a deeper dive, Heather Alexandra delves into Fallout 4, turning a critical eye to a game you’re probably all still playing. In particular, she compares it to previous entries in the Fallout series in order to get at what it does both right and wrong.

Exploring another open world roleplaying game, History Respawned turned an eye to Red Dead Redemption, exploring both the historical West and the way it has changed in the American imagination over the years throughout fiction and film.

The scarily smart folks at PBS Idea Channel looked at videogames in a recent episode by asking whether or not Undertale is the most violent game of the year.

Jason Vega made a live Let’s Play (Let’s Attend?) of New York’s Game Devs of Color expo, which brought together an array of talented developers and awesome games.

Nelson over at Video Games and the Bible looked at what maturity means through the lens of Doom and Lovely Planet, exploring how both games present themselves through their image, mechanics, and the cultures surrounding them.

Kent Sheely has undertaken a fascinating pacifist run of Call of Duty, finding ways to subvert a game that expects you to shoot things by… well, mostly letting all those things shoot each other, but still.

Lastly, Joshua Trevett (one of my many talented colleagues at Haywire Magazine) brings us a New Year’s episode of Talk Simulator, a unique take on the radio talk show to the stylings of Euro Truck Simulator 2. Expect lively talk of videogames, books, and more!

And that’ll do it for this month! Don’t forget to submit your favorite February Let’s Plays to us on Twitter using the hashtag #LetsPlayCD or via email! Also, please consider supporting Critical-Distance through Patreon or Recurrency.


February 7th

February 7th, 2016 | Posted by Zoyander Street in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on February 7th)

The games blogs are coming in two by two this week. With great discussions of friendships, dualities and Street Fighter II, it felt fitting to arrange everything in pairs. We’re going head-to-head on discursive battlefields from psychology to politics.


We’ll start by looking at the videogame hero from very different perspectives. G. Christopher Williams looks at the exposed torso of Kratos in God of War as a visual signifier of his power, while in contrast to the buff nude killing machine, Fabian Fischer looks at the mortality of roguelike heroes.

“[…] the nearly nude Kratos belongs to the tradition of the figuration of the romanticized and unclothed (or unarmed, perhaps) heroes, like Beowulf, King David, Samson, and Hercules.”

“This omnipotence of typical videogame heroes is also the reason for almost any game that actually contains the ability to “lose a match” being labeled “roguelike” these days. The idea of “permadeath” has become a sign of quality and a unique selling point to players looking for intrinsically motivating games.”

G. Christopher Williams in fact appears again this week, now looking at how the difficulty of games relates to how we are taught to play them, while ZAM Editor-in-Chief Laura Michet offered an extremely enjoyable read on the interplay between friction and freedom in survival sandboxes.

Both Polygon and Gamasutra published vox-popathons on Street Fighter II on its 25th anniversary. Both will likely prove to be useful resources for years to come.


In The New Inquiry, Alfie Brown discusses the position of mobile games in relation to labour, arguing that rather than being counterproductive uses of workers’ time, they are designed to maximise compliance. Over on Medium, Alex Fleetwood discusses the difficulty parents have deciding how much digital distraction their children should be allowed, and offers his mixed digital-physical project Fantastic Beasts as an alternative for parents who feel alienated by screen-based play.

“These distractions, far from being as useless as they pretend to be, are productive and powerful tools that transform us into suitable workers. They set into motion a strange guilt function that turns one into a good capitalist and ultimately makes more money for the company.”

“I hope that we can start to shift perception of game design as a profession — from ‘glinty-eyed exploiters of the lizard brain’ to ‘empathetic explorers of what gives us cognitive pleasure’.”

The driving force in the next two articles is the idea of energy: Jamie Madigan introduces the concept of “Newtonian Engagement”, while Nathan Savant considers the “momentum” at work in Kirby games.

A number of critics this week considered unreality and ambiguity as a storytelling technique in games, arguing that designing for co-authorship with the player can enhance their ability to imaginatively project into the work. Leigh Alexander interviews Firaxis producer Garth DeAngelis, and Kym Buchanan discusses the imaginative power of sensory limitation.

Continuing on the theme of ambiguity, Vincent Kinian discusses the storytelling power of the dreamlike half-reality of Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance, while Miguel Penabella describes the dreamlike experiences portrayed in Off-Peak.


Gamasutra and Polygon went head-to-head another time this week, on the topic of game development in Africa. At Gamasutra, Richard Moss offers a fascinating survey of several studios across the continent, while at Polygon Basim Usmani focuses on developers in South Africa.

“Well-known South African games as they exist today, like Broforce, Toxic Bunny and Desktop Dungeons have an understated South African quality that is in contrast to the games developed in Nigeria and Kenya where locally created games are so culturally specific they couldn’t exist anywhere else. Highway Free, a phone game about sitting in a Nigerian traffic jam is one example.”

“Everyone consulted for this article stressed that, despite the massive diversity across the continent in terms of language and local customs, success for one African developer is good for all of them.”

At Gamechurch, M. Joshua Cauller discusses how the limited verb set of Oxenfree contributes to the poignant sense of intimacy in its friendships, At Vice, Kaitlin Tremblay looks at Oxenfree alongside Tales from the Borderlands and Life is Strange, to discuss the value of platonic relationships in storytelling.

Yet more talk of friendship comes out in a video about Undertale by Rantasmo. Also on Undertale, a meta-post about Let’s Play videos on Looping World discusses the game’s “manipulative soul”.


Matthew Kumar’s post on Watch Dogs and Ed Smith’s article on Grand Theft Auto both call out the games’ racism in connection with portrayals of urban crime.

Watch Dogs is the kind of crap where you don’t feel like whoever laid the egg even really needed a shite in the first place. It’s not just crap, but pointless.”

Watch Dogs is a racist video game. That’s not to say it is a bigoted video game—this isn’t pointed. It’s simply the kind of thoughtless everyday racism that infests most cultural works.”

“In an act of rewriting of history so blunt and tactless only game critics could miss it, Rockstar doesn’t [simply] attempt to justify the white system – it tries to extricate it from implication entirely”

Frida Svensson shared the first part of her study on how character creators handle race, while Sara Rodriguez wrote a piece interviewing women of colour in game development about how ethnicity affects their work.


Two writers this week pointed out the right-wing rhetoric at work in videogames: Edward Smith at the International Business Times, and Joe Köller on Medium.

“They consistently advocate right-wing ideology; ideology that has become particularly visible during the lead up to this year’s US Presidential election. Jingoism and capitalism rule in video games. To that extent, they act as a mouthpiece for the American right-wing – they are themselves Republican demagoguery.”

“Games criticism, in its current form, is the eager accomplice of canon. We happily turn the alleged importance of “smart” games into self-fulfilling prophecies, placing their creators on the thrones of a history we’ve allowed them to write.”

A trio of writers (Jace and Taylor Hidalgo and Riley MacLeod) gave their unbiased critical assessments on journalistic integrity sim The Westport Independent, and Dante Douglas also chimed in with criticism of the game’s politics.

Finally, a pair of videos on the history of conflict in game development and game settings. First, a “past mortem” on Hideo Kojima’s troubled relationship with Konami, and then a leisurely chat between Bob Whitaker and John Moran Gonzalez on how Red Dead Redemption portrays the Wild West:

Wait, hang on…

These final articles have nothing to do with each other, but I couldn’t bear to leave the two wallflowers out in the cold while all the others got paired off. Here’s Simon Schreibt sharing some interesting technical details about the design of videogame fishtanks, and Todd van Luling explaining why it’s very likely that Michael Jackson wrote the soundtrack for Sonic 3.

And that’s all for this week. I hope you enjoyed travelling together on this little discursive road trip; if you want to comp us for gas/petrol, you can do that with PatreonRecurrency, or Paypal. Got suggestions about some spots we should visit next week? Send them through Twitter or by email.

Minisode 09 – Long Games and Short Games

February 1st, 2016 | Posted by Eric Swain in Critical Distance Confab: - (Comments Off on Minisode 09 – Long Games and Short Games)

New year, new games to discuss on the Critical Distance Confab.

With the minisodes, every month, both I and a co-host, go back and forth listing off a game we think hasn’t gotten the critical attention it deserves until we’ve each done three. The hope being that some of you listening will take the initiative and fix that oversight. These games can be from anywhere. Itch.io art games, prestige level indie games or even AAA games that fell through the cracks for whatever reason.

Co-hosting with me this month is lecturer and critic, Professor Todd Harper.

Direct Download

Todd’s Picks

Xenoblade Chronicles X by Monolith Soft

Dragon’s Crown + Odin’s Sphere + Muramasa: The Demon Blade by Vanillaware

Super Robots Wars Z by Namco Bandai

Eric’s Pick

Sunless Sea by Failbetter Games

Knee Deep by Prologue Games

Dr. Laneskov, The Tiger and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist by Crows Crows Crows

Opening Theme: ‘Close’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Closing Theme: ‘Wishing Never’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

January 31st

January 31st, 2016 | Posted by Zoyander Street in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on January 31st)

This is my first post as the new Senior Curator! It’s been an absolute delight to start the role on such a strong week. While a lot of the active discussion has been about The Witness, I’m going to start this roundup with some excellent pieces on other topics that are worthy of your attention.

Observing through lenses

Developer-oriented analytical writing goes from strength to strength. Edwin Evans-Thirlwell explored spatiality and movement in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, highlighting some of the exemplary design choices that made it influential.

“[…] as freeing as it feels, the Prince’s moveset is all about serving the needs of the space rather than vice versa. It might allow you to defy gravity, but it’s designed to permit the elegant solution of problems within a rigorously mapped environment, rather than in order to be exploratory and transgressive.”

Jerome Bodin shed light on “navigation nodes”, an aspect of spatial design that will be instructive to anyone working on or writing about 3D first-person games. Mark Brown analysed how enemy design and level design came together in Doom (video) to create interesting problems that players solve through skilful use of space. Deanna van Buren built on the example of The Witness to advocate for the role of trained architects in game development. We’ll be looking at The Witness in more detail at the end of this roundup.

Beyond 3D game design, Joel Couture provided a guide to communicating through visual language, theme and puzzles, and Anjin Anhut published a super helpful guide on how to talk about art style.

Gazing in wonder

Chris Priestman gave a beautifully-written account of one of my favourite topics: inactivity.

“There’s a satisfaction to be derived in comparing our own motionless to the busyness of the world around us—to be the silence among the noise. This dichotomy can help us meditate on the glory of that singular moment.”

Hamish Grace offered a detailed overview of Brutalism, an architectural style that has been increasingly significant in games of late. For many, this style inspires awe and wonder at the majesty of concrete. PopMatters published a fascinating cinematic analysis of Kojima’s cut scenes, and how the meticulous, lingering gaze of his early work has been replaced by a faster-paced, minimalist single-shot approach.

Viewing in perspective

It’s often said that games allow us to walk in somebody else’s shoes, but what if the shoes don’t quite fit? It’s enlightening to hear from somebody who has directly experienced the situation a title purports to simulate. Reflecting on his past work as a journalist in a communist regime, Zach Hines argued that newspaper simulator the Westport Independent portrays a naive view of self-censorship.

“Even a good-hearted person can end up on the wrong the side of a repressive agenda, and yet still believe they are right. It’s too bad that The Westport Independent is far too blunt to carry this point home.”

Former US Marine Chris Casberg praised and problematised fantasy revolutionary violence in Just Cause 3Jay Barnson used his memories of playing Go and learning AI to put the news of a Go-playing AI in perspective.

Recognising erasure

[Content warning: racism and harassment] Tanner Higgin shared an article published in FibreCulture exploring the racial semiotics of 4chan raids on Habbo Hotel and World of Warcraft.

“[…] trolling more generally oscillates between harassment, lulz, and protest/intervention, creating controversy not just between troll and trolled, but between trolls. I would go as far as to say that all trolling has a version of politics; even those trolls who claim to do it just for fun have a stake in protecting that fun. It’s what’s behind the fun, or what’s truly at stake, that’s of more interest.”

Oscar Strik examined the way that depictions of racism often end up using fictional settings to depoliticise the subject matter, by separating it from the systems of oppression we participate in outside of fictional settings. The piece is itself something of a roundup of excellent writing on the topic, citing Sidney Fussell, Yusef Cole and Tanya D among others. Definitely worth checking out. [End content warning] Finally, Daycia Harley was interviewed on competitive Smash Bros and inclusivity at tournaments.

Celebrating love

Challenging the assumption that every relationship simulation has to be romantic, Lena LeRay leaned into the discomfort of role-playing relationships that feel incongruent with her graysexuality in Emily is Away and Cibele, and used it as a lens for better understanding what enables us to relate to a story.

“[…] love stories are generally regarded as universal and exploring the relationship between two people is a natural direction to take for a piece of interactive fiction that revolves around instant messenger conversation. But there are so many other ways of addressing intimacy and relationships between two people.”

In another take on the power of non-romantic love, Sloane Cee shared a postmortem of a debut project that offers a compassionate approach to a trans coming out story.

As always, some developers’ attempts at representation leave much to be desired. Andrea Ritsu played Atari’s Pridefest and found no mention of LGBTQ rights whatsoever: Pride is portrayed instead as a celebration of rainbow-coloured joy, put in place to revive a stagnating economy. Todd Harper also gave a no-holds-barred criticism of Pridefest‘s erasure, stereotyping and depiction of pink-washed gentrification, while still defending the symbolic pleasures it may offer players. 

Examining contexts

In Capitalism, games, and diversity work, CK Jong discussed how advocacy bends to economic conditions:

“We feel pressured to justify ourselves in terms of how capitalism values us, not as complex, fallible human beings, but as potential profit, as untapped markets, as innovators, as positive PR, as productivity, as a more “dynamic” workforce.”

Nathan Altice discussed the Pico-8 with an eye toward the social forces that turn a technology into a thriving platform. Meanwhile, back in the fictional realm, Austin Howe put JRPG landscapes in a socio-economic context.

Looking respectable

Gaming’s labyrinthine quest for institutional recognition seems to go on forever, and it can lead to some uncomfortable places. On the positive side, an avant-garde art blog covered a French festival featuring games as well as some remarkable digital art installations (part one | part two)

“One of the interesting phenomenons about game[s] is that techniques and experiments that were pioneered by artists, users and hackers feed into the R&D labs. And vice-versa, with innovations about interfaces, control systems and interactions bouncing back and forth between these two worlds and eventually seeping into mainstream consumption and culture.”

However, the notion that games have “arrived” at some promised land of artistic credibility can be toxic, as argued by Ed Smith in a well-crafted, acerbic takedown of some of the simplistic reasoning that is often applied to defend a product’s status as Important Art. A post on the blog for Concordia University’s TAG centre problematised the much-celebrated announcement of USC’s new publishing initiative which aims to provide credibility to artistic projects.

Beyond the institutional politics of art and academia, Rick Lane talked to developers about the things they cannot talk about, in a piece on industry’s overwrought use of non-disclosure agreements.

Witnessing the Genius

At last, we can turn our attention to the biggest topic of the week, Jonathan Blow’s much-anticipated island of mystifying puzzles. While much of the coverage has been effluent in its praise, some of the most interesting reviews have been frank about how it can frustrate, irritate and even enrage. Heather Alexandra’s review highlighted The Witness‘s arrogance as well as its charm.

“[…] you can almost feel how impressed with itself The Witness is. Like a giggling child sitting right over your shoulder, The Witness perches itself to watch and judge everything that you do.”

In a forthright piece that takes no prisoners, Lulu Blue captured what makes The Witness so galling.

“Perhaps it is clever that the island in the witness more closely resembles a mini-golf course than an earnest place. It carries with it all of the deep capitalist ennui and shallow tourism of places and cultures you might expect.”

In Paste, Garrett Martin argues that The Witness is not as deep as it thinks it is.

“Did you know that everything’s connected? Did you know that if you slowed down and truly observed your surroundings you might notice details you otherwise missed? Did you know that kid in college who became insufferable when they read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? If not, do you want to? Play The Witness.”

Bill Coberly composed a critique of gaming’s thirst for geniuses, which sits quite well alongside Ed Smith’s piece on gaming positivity mentioned earlier.

Finally, Darius Kazemi’s interactive review of The Witness is affectionate and illuminating; a lovely thing to observe and ponder.

That’s all for this week! Make sure you check out the latest call for entries to Blogs of the Round Table; writing for BoRT could be a great way of making sure that your senpai notices you. If you spot a piece that should be included in This Week in Videogame Blogging, send it along via Twitter mention or email.

Critical Distance exists thanks to your support. You can make a small financial contribution to us via Patreon, Recurrency, or Paypal.

It is an absolute joy to take on the role of Senior Curator. Please feel free to send comments or feedback to my Twitter: @rupazero, or for an overview of my other work check out rupazero.com.

January 24th

January 24th, 2016 | Posted by Mark Filipowich in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on January 24th)

I could say this on a lot of Sundays but I’m going to say it on this one: I’m flabbergasted by the quality of writing featured in This Week in Videogame Blogging! Let’s dispense with the pleasantries and hop right to it!

Reality, History and Violence

[Content Warning: violence, sexual assault, genocide] In a piece for The Guardian, Anna Moore discusses online grooming and Murder Games, a documentary about Breck Bednar, a London boy who was murdered after a man developed a relationship with him through an online game.

Erik Twice argues that This War of Mine is an opportunistic simplification of the real Sarajevo conflict:

All those elements; the scavenging, the threat of an unideological enemy, calling your house “our shelter”, the moral conundrums, the restriction of only being able to go out at certain times during the day,…they are not the elements of a game about war. Rather, they are the elements of a game about zombies and once one removes the shallow coat of paint that covers it, it’s impossible not to notice that its setup is identical to that of Dead of Winter or all those “zombie crafting survival” games that spawned in the wake of Don’t Starve.

[end Content Warning].

More broadly, Not Your Mama’s Gamer’s Bianca Batti responds to E. McNeill’s argument that game choices, like history, are effective because they are rooted in truth. Batti agrees that choices in a game resemble history but she complicates the idea that either can be reduced to a universality. Games, like history, are difficult to link to something pure and detached from human relations:

What does it even mean to argue that history is rooted in truth? Whose histories get to be true? Whose histories get to be told? Whose truths are we talking about anyway? And I have some similar questions and concerns when it comes to games—what does it mean to say that a player’s choices are real or true? Can our gameplay choices be unrealistic? Can they be realistic? What makes a choice true? Can choices be false? Whose choices get to be true? Whose choices become false? And who gets to decide?

Less historical but certainly as pertinent to reality, Ed Smith interviews Ryan and Amy Green for Playboy, the couple behind the autobiographic That Dragon, Cancer about their son, Joel:

A Christian family who during their son’s illness turned frequently to God, the Greens do not shy away from discussing religion. Both in conversation and in their game, they recall periods when their faith has been tested, miracles they have witnessed and the times prayers have gone unanswered.

Current Mood: Doom

Rich Stanton covers John Romero’s newest level for Doom, “Tech Gone Bad” 22 years after the game’s original release:

Stanton’s piece details everything from Doom’s legacy, the personalities of the original Id Software team and the personal flourishes that have kept the game relevant, “Tech Gone Bad shows Romero’s still got it and, even more impressively, Doom’s still got it.”

Making Play

Justin Keverne writes a short and sweet gem on his blog about the systems of supplying resources in Super Metroid:

These pipe creatures are organic resupply points, where time can be sacrificed for a complete replenishment of resources. This dynamic is never explained, the act of discovery is a sign that you have developed an understanding of the underlying systems. You are rewarding for showing this understanding of how the game systems functions in a way that is in context and non-patronising.

Gamasutra’s blogs editor, Christian Nutt, reflects on one of his favourite games of 2015, the frequently overlooked Legend of Legacy, whose critics Nutt neatly counters with the following:

Many people who have limited time and love the JRPG genre tend to save what time they do have for the big games, but my philosophy is increasingly becoming: Fuck that. You need to dig deep and figure out which titles you’re genuinely going to enjoy.

Walk Around My Good Intentions

Jason McIntosh shares his feelings about Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and offers a reading of its ending on his blog, Game Shelf.

None of it should have existed. On the aesthetic level alone, it seemed too beautiful and fragile to exist within the medium of video games. I hate how hokey that sounds, and I dislike how it sounds like I call the entire game a masterwork for the ages, because I’m not sure I would.

Plot details abound in the article’s second half but even if that sort of thing is important to you it’s still a strong piece and McIntosh gives plenty of warning for the spoiler-averse.

Returning to another acclaimed game-as-atmospheric-story, Simon Rankin has written an excellent deep reading of Terry Greenbriar, the father in Gone Home whose story is reputed as one of the game’s darkest but is actually one of considerable hope [Content Warning: discussions of child abuse, substance abuse and divorce]:

Terry’s struggles are cast in a new light, and it’s heartbreaking, but Gone Home doesn’t dwell on the abuse itself, so neither will I. What could have manifested as a sad statement on the powerlessness of abuse victims instead becomes a story of Terry’s transition from victim to survivor.

What Show Tells Us

PopMatters’s Moving Pixels editor, G. Christopher Williams,  investigates the connection between feminine heroism and costuming in light of the recent team-up of fashion designer Louis Vuitton and Final Fantasy XIII dev Square-Enix to dress up FFXIII’s heroine, Lightning, in the designer’s newest fashion line.

That which makes a woman “superior or iconic,” like, say, a Marilyn Monroe, is how she appears to others or how she has constructed herself to appear to others, something that can be comfortably achieved in a video game (like…character creation systems of many video games) or in virtual spaces in which we create avatars for ourselves.

Emily Short shares mixed feelings about Read Only Memories, praising its thematic and aesthetic novelty but finding some of the writing lacking on a concrete level.

Also on Gamasutra’s blogs, CJ Payne offers an in-depth look at how Dragon Age: Origins demonstrates several principles of social psychology through its companions.

First, Dragon Age: Origins does an impressive job of making use of the availability heuristic. As the companions are almost always with the player, especially when venturing out into the world, they act as the player’s moral compass, her checks and balances in a way. This affects the game in two ways: decisions made while adventuring (both primary story and side-quests), and companion availability.

View From the Top

Gita Jackson—who is, I’m proud to remind you, Critical Distance’s blogger of the year for 2015—pens a piece for Kotaku on Dwarf Fortress, escapism and life as a millennial under neoliberal austerity.

The point, really, is to build something that lasts. In Dwarf Fortress, “something that lasts,” is often a trial by very literal fire. Even if it doesn’t last very long, you have a real legacy to point at. “Look,” you can say, “I did something.”

I don’t mind saying that not many writers can connect these dots with the skill and humanity that Jackson does.

Wired hosts an article by Jake Muncy about the recent influx of metafictional “games about games”:

Some metafictional games certainly can come off as self-important while still having a lot to offer. The best strive to expand their boundaries and give players genuinely thought-provoking questions.

Sausage Recipes

Zack Gage proposes some changes to IGF’s categorizing scheme to more appropriately celebrate more games in their own context rather than awarding the same few games for the same metric multiple times.

Those interested in games in a less digital and more Jenga-esque form, I suggest you take a look at this interview with Leslie Scott (video), the inventor of Jenga, who shares where she got the game’s name, how she came up with the idea and the global popularity of the world’s least feasible drinking-game.


George Weidman of Super Bunnyhop fame covers the current legal climate in Japan around gambling (video) that has, in a roundabout way, prompted the development of a new entry in the King of Fighters series (albeit without the gorgeous pixel art it was once known for).

Gregory Avery-Weir, keeper of the blog Ludus Novus, entertains questions of how strategy optimizes or limits the depth of a game’s systems.

In the book Rules of Play, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman use the term “degenerate strategy” to refer to a dominant strategy which results in the player focusing on one narrow approach to play, making miss out on the full complexity of the game. If one unit type in a strategy game is universally the best choice to use, with no need for another type of unit, that presents a degenerate strategy. The most effective way to play the game is to use that unit at the exclusion of others. And that’s a boring way to play.

Avery-Weir uses X-COM: Enemy Unknown as a lens for his discussion but it’s easy to see a broader application of his article.

Signal Boosting

German speaking games academics take note that the University of Kassel is seeking a professor of games studies in their Department of Visual Communication.

For those on the reading side of games, Unwinnable has shaken up their structure a bit for 2016 and includes a litany of new segments as well as a return of their fabled “theme” pieces. I’ll refer you to their store page where I encourage you to pick up their new issue if for no other reason than Melissa Graf’s gorgeous artwork.

Not convinced? Well there’s over a hundred pages to this issue filled to the brim with the finest quality media criticism that we love so much here at Critical Distance.

Given the impossible task of finding a suitable excerpt from the newest issue I’ve chosen this one from Carli Velocci’s piece on the dialectic between art and the tools that make it:

How intertwined are art and technology? It all seems to go back at least to the invention of photography in the 19th century and even further back to innovation surrounding the printing press. The final product of a creation is heavily influenced by the innovations of the time period and crafts a certain look or feel that can only be achieved with the supplies and tools at hand.

Every End is a New Beginning

It’s no easy task trying to sufficiently round up so much games criticism, so we implore you to bring any you come across to our attention either by email or on Twitter.

And if you’re looking for more games crit, give a listen to our latest podcast wherein Eric Swain interviews game developer and Extra Credits writer James Portnow.

If you’re looking to contribute to one of our monthly features you still have just over a week to submit a piece to our Blogs of the Round Table focusing on the theme of ‘Progress’ or a video to our monthly compilation of critical let’s plays.

Critical Distance is made both by and for the community so if you’d like the projects that we offer take a look at our Patreon page or consider a one-time donation via PayPal.

Finally, it’s my great pleasure to welcome Zoya Street as our new senior curator. I’m sure I speak for everyone else when I say that I look forward to working with you from here onward.

January 17th

January 17th, 2016 | Posted by Melissa King in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on January 17th)

What’s up, Critical Distancers? DJ Melissa here, spinning the sickest new written beats in the gameosphere in This Week in Videogame Blogging!

That Dragon, Cancer and Its Emotional Impact

That Dragon, Cancer, an interactive look into a couple’s experience with their son’s fight with cancer, released on January 12th and touched many heartstrings.

Over at The Guardian, Keith Stuart compares his experience playing That Dragon, Cancer with his own experience dealing with the death of his father.

Stephen Addcox from GameChurch and interactive fiction author Emily Short examine the game’s usage of contradicting aesthetics to simulate the experience of losing a child.

At Kill Screen, Alexander Kriss focuses on That Dragon, Cancer’s methods to express the deep sadness of the Green family’s situation.

Our own Riley MacLeod specifically looks at the way that That Dragon, Cancer tells Joel’s, the Green family’s son, story when he is too young to tell it himself.

Intertwining an interview with creator Ryan Green with his own reactions to the game, Satchbag’s Goods reflects on the game’s greater implications on our purpose in life (video, no captions available).

The Art of Speedrunning

Awesome Game Done Quick, or as the cool kids call it, AGDQ, sparked discussion for two game bloggers. First, Games That Exist clarifies a point made in a previous work of theirs, classifying speedruns as “creative, anti-consumerist, community-driven performances that double as oral histories.”

Meanwhile, on her Tumblr, Carolyn Petit explains how speedrunning brings back the magic of videogames that she felt as a child.

Are Gamers the New Religious Right?

You, our kind and helpful reader base, pointed out to us that there’s a debate going on in the gaming blogosphere this week that simply asks “are gamers the new religious right?”

At Houston Press, Jef Rouner argues that yes, gamers are the religious right of today, stating:

The gamer right has its moral crusade, now. It wants gaming to be orthodox and traditional and easy to swallow without thinking too much about it.

In response, Damion Schubert posits a counterargument on Zen of Design: “So don’t call these people you refer to as ‘gamers’. That’s a term for good people. Go with ‘fuckwads’.” While his response was fairly concise, I also recommend checking out the discussion in the comments!

Party Like It’s the Classical Era

Other writers this week have been getting in touch gaming’s roots in classic art and literature.

Brick by Break’s Ario Barzan brings us a piece on the link between Dark Souls’ concept art and its environmental design, comparing the game’s concept art to paintings by Joachim Patinir, Friedrich Schinkel, and Caspar David Friedrich.

Meanwhile, at The Guardian, Holly Nielsen explores the idealized vision of country living in games such as Story of Seasons and Animal Crossing and how it relates to ideals from a variety of time periods in history.

Mechanics, Mechanics, Mechanics

A big chunk of videogames blogging this week highlighted mechanics usage in games:

Did you know that Bossa Studios is working on a VR version of Surgeon Simulator? Thanks to Jake Tucker at Pocket Gamer, now you do.

In Gamasutra’s blog sections, Chris Pruett tells us about the different elements of tension he’s found in the horror genre and how he applied them to his own game.

YouTube channel Game Maker’s Toolkit dissects the quest “Beyond the Beef” in Fallout: New Vegas and lauds it as a great example of sidequest writing (video, captions available).

Over at The Atlantic, Will Partin presents different case studies of an MMORPG’s version of the apocalypse.

Grayson Davis at Videogame Heart praises Emily is Away’s interface’s representation of the instant messaging of yesteryear.

According to G. Christopher Williams at Popmatters, if you take a good, hard look at the interaction between mechanics and storytelling in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, there’s another shocking twist to be found! And no, for once, it’s not Ocelot’s fault.

The packaging for a PS4 controller skin makes Brendan Keogh wonder what, exactly, we consider to be “cheating” in a videogame.

At Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Bianca Batti checks out the relationship between games, their mechanics, and life.

The Term of the Week Is: Ludonarrative Dissonance

Did you think we were done discussing mechanics? Sorry, bucko. A few of the works from this week brought up the term “ludonarrative dissonance,” which means a disconnect between a game’s mechanics and overarching message. The more you know!

Uninterpretative’s Zack Fair contemplates how Undertale’s theme of distrust affects whether the game features ludonarrative dissonance or not. (I’m totally digging the Hello Kitty blog theme, by the way.)

After some controversy over the previous game in the series, Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days did not receive much critical examination, and Miguel Penabella at Thumbsticks wants to remedy that, featuring the game’s usage of ludonarrative dissonance to prove a point.

On Gamasutra’s Expert Blogs, E. McNeill ties history and videogames together, arguing that a contradiction in veracity cheapens the experience for both.

(Critical Distance alumna Lana Polansky already came up with a much better term and approach for all this, by the way. -ed)

For All Your Representation Needs

Another cluster of games writing aims to raise awareness about diversity in gaming and game design.

In another gem from PopMatters, Jorge Albor muses on the potential for VR games to provide us an empathetic view on the lives of marginalized folks.

Game developer Rami Ismail writes about the intersection of Islamophobia and opportunities for Middle Eastern game developers on his Storify.

Gamer mom Nicole Tanner tells the story of raising her young daughter as a videogame player.

At The Guardian, Simon Parkin interviews Helana Santos, developer of Epic Mickey 2.

In an incredibly detailed essay for Analog Game Studies, Aaron Trammell teaches us about Dungeons & Dragons’ appropriation of the “Orient” and its influence on modern gaming.

See You Later, Space Cowboy

Thanks for reading, friends! These roundups exist courtesy of your contributions, so we are always happy when you share your favorite brain food of the week with us via Twitter mention or email.

If you like to dish out your own brand of games writing, make sure to keep our monthly Blogs of the Round Table on your radar. This month’s theme is Progress! If you’re looking to expand your horizons in professional writing, Onological Geek is looking for new contributors, and are accepting applications throughout January. Applications close on February 1st.

We can support our writers (myself included!) because of your financial support, so if you like what you read, throw us a dime on Patreon, Recurrency, or Paypal. All questions, complaints and cute pictures of guinea pigs can be directed to my Twitter, @LongLiveMelKing. Toodles!

Episode 32 – Supplementary Grades

January 15th, 2016 | Posted by Eric Swain in Critical Distance Confab: - (Comments Off on Episode 32 – Supplementary Grades)

Welcome to the new year of podcasts here at Critical Distance!

Last year we went over publications, both books and magazines, in the critical video game sphere. Having, for the most part, run out of those we turn our eyes to different forms of criticism. Now we turn out eyes to video. Joining me this month is game designer and the writer behind the Extra Credits series, James Portnow.

Starting out as a final course project for fellow Extra Credits creator, Daniel Floyd, the series has only grown in the years since. Every week the crew at Extra Credits creates a short cartoon Youtube video as a basic introduction of design concepts, craft implementation and surrounding issues of the videogames industry. Over the years, supplementary shows have been added. You can check them all out (as well as specific episodes we discuss on the podcast) below!

Direct Download


Extra Credits Channel

Extra History

Extra Remix

Extra Play

Design Club

Video Games and Storytelling

Call of Juarez: The Cartel

Spec Ops: The Line Pt. 1

Spec Ops: The Line Pt. 2

Power Creep in Hearthstone – What it teaches us about games

Opening Theme: ‘Close’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Closing Theme: ‘Wishing Never’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

January 10th

January 10th, 2016 | Posted by Taylor Hidalgo in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on January 10th)

The turn of the calendar brings with it a new, shiny coat of life. New year, new goals, and new writers to Critical Distance! As one of these new writers, it’s my job to ferry my dear readers into the new year’s words with This Week In Videogame Blogging!

Getting a Different Angle

Over on Not Your Momma’s Gamer, Bianca Batti examines how literary examination can be used to explore videogames, and how the inverse can also apply:

To me, it seems, such a lens might allow us to more fully realize how video games converse with other new media forms and how it is they converse with other means of storytelling. And such an understanding of games can allow us to understand how it is that games expand the way we interact with and engage with narrative structures and with the stories we tell.

G. Christopher Williams at PopMatters Moving Pixels discusses how board games’ variable strategies lend poorly to artificial intelligence, but how the innate rules-based intelligence can still teach meaningful lessons on them all the same.

On the opposite hand, Alex Wiltshire over at Rock Paper Shotgun interviews developer Alex Vostrov while exploring Infected Planet’s mutation mechanic, and its special AI to counter single-strategy play.

Arcade Review and Ansh Patel explore willful intent and unified identity with indie game Crime Zone.

Elsewhere, on the Gamasutra Member Blogs, Jane Friedhoff takes the definition of “personal games” to task by examining game design based on the Riot Grrrl movement, explaining that “it means that a personal game must always be about making something legible to outsiders–which feels like the opposite of personal to me.”

Allegra Frank, over at Polygon, attends 2015’s No Quarter exhibit with a particular focus on the diversity of tone, style, and sociology.

Over at Overthinking It, a group of collaborators known as Think Tank discuss the nature of re-envisioning narrative, applying narrative reasons to what were originally mechanics, and how it all affects adaption.

What Life Isn’t

Converse to the new perspectives, some articles approach what isn’t there at all. Thomas McMullan at alphr follows in the footsteps of Oscar Wilde by saying our art imitates and organizes our lives, and speaks on how games do much the same:

Life is not an ordered experience. It is a mess. Pushing life’s imitation to its extreme soon betrays how inadequate the neat containment of a game is in dealing with the near-limitless possibilities of real-world situations. To take this tendency to its logical conclusion, I decided to treat a real-life situation as if it were a point-and-click adventure game. I found a door and I found a man. I needed to get past the man to gain entry to the door. In the real world, I’d find another way into the building, but in a game i’d (sic) approach a challenge as a puzzle to be solved – an experience structured around explicit, limited, solvable systems.

Ed Smith, for Playboy, writes about how games paint a beautiful, rustic facade of England that reflects on older, more conservative past, one that is dishonest about how it truly looks.

Elsewhere, Kate Kadowaki paints a picture of the Garden of Eden with Animal Crossing: New Leaf, one unattainable in actual reality.

Gina Roussos writes for Psychology Today by examining the way a game displaying the effects of poverty conflicts with the way games give players personal agency.

For the Articles That Don’t Color in the Lines

Buried in the halls of Medium, Patrick Miller tells a story of a fictionalized game developer who creates a monetized game for bots to save a sinking studio, with boggling results.

Pixel Popper presents a video from Doctor Professor, who speaks on the value density of tight game design, rather than pure scale (video).

Over on Inverse, Brock Wilbur interviews Gita Jackson, our 2015 Blogger of the Year. You can read our words on Gita Jackson and our best loved pieces of 2015 here, if you missed it the first go around.

Insert Coins to Continue

That’s it for this week’s pieces, and as always thank you so very much for coming by! We always value your contributions, and we encourage you to submit links to us via Twitter at @CritDistance or by sending us an email.

If the wise words above have inspired in you the desire to craft your own breed of wise words, we always welcome contributions to our own monthly Blogs of the Round Table, with a theme of Progress this January. Of further interest to interested writers, Onological Geek is looking for new contributors, and are accepting applications throughout January, with applications closing on February 1st.

We’re able to bring these things and more to you thanks to your generous support on Patreon, where we’re hoping to recover some of the support we’ve lost late last year. If you’d like to help us out, consider pledging to our campaign, if you can. If you prefer, you can also use Recurrency, or make individual donations via Paypal.

It was an absolute pleasure to bring you with me on this inaugural TWIVGB of 2016, and I hope that the coming year brings with you every bit of wonderment you deserve. Thanks for coming along with me this week!

January 2016: ‘Progress’

January 7th, 2016 | Posted by Mark Filipowich in Blogs of the Round Table: - (Comments Off on January 2016: ‘Progress’)

With 2015 nestling into our memories the time has come to look forward to a glorious future of development, upward mobility and technical innovation. Soon the troubles of yesteryear will settle into a cautionary tale, one that we tell only as a monument to how far we’ve come.

Unless…unless really 2015 was the last good year! And that all those fond memories are lost forever as we naively bury our childhoods in reckless pursuit of “new!” Lord helps us if we wind up like the kids these days who can’t put their phones and appreciate nature, tradition and the value of taking things slow.

Okay, so hyperbole aside, we have some pretty extreme ways of looking at the motion of time. It seems like no matter how hard we try, we keep getting sucked into thinking of progress either in terms of utopia or apocalypse. Like anything else that speaks, games seem to have a lot of things to say about progress, especially as a medium closely tied and contingent on technology, resources and expertise. Let’s welcome 2016 with a conversation on ‘Progress as it pertains to the ways we play and relate to games.

What is the typical story of progress in a game? What exceptions are there to the rules of progress? And how have games changed in relation to social or technical progress? We want to know about the analogue game that captures the mechanisms of technology and the digital game that captures the complexity of social movements. Tell us about the tools you use to build games and how they’ve changed the way you think about play. Where do you see games going? Have they really changed much at all? What does progress mean to you as someone invested, one way or another, in games?

I foresee a bright and devastating conclusion to 2016’s inaugural BoRT, but it can only happen if you get involved and pilot this machine forward. You have until January 31st to submit but be sure to check back throughout the month to see what other writers have had to say.

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=January16" frameborder="0"/iframe

Please email us your submissions or tweet them to my brand new twitter handle, @thecybersteam or Critical-Distance’s good ol’ fashioned one, @critdistance. Be sure to use the #BoRT hashtag so we know where to include your work. Happy blogging!

Suggestions for 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!
  • As a knight of the round table we encourage you to leave a comment on a blog to which you respond with a link to the response piece and give the original writer a ‘right of reply’. Keep the conversation going!
  • If your work contains potentially disturbing content, please include a suitable warning at the start.
  • 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 but we will need a transcript for paywalled content to be approved.