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July 5th

July 5th, 2015 | Posted by Mark Filipowich in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on July 5th)

To those to whom it applies, I hope you had a festive patriotic celebration day filled with controlled explosives and various grilled meats. Now that another Sunday has come, let’s all settle into our national pride with another This Week in Video Game Blogging!

Binders Full of Stories

Sam Barlow’s Her Story is the subject of a number of pieces this week. Kimberley Wallace’s interview with the creator about the process of creating it for Game Informer seems like a good place to start.

Over at Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Alisha Karabinus describes her own experience with the game’s many Layers of Identity and Meaning:

In any narrative experience touted as a detective game, players and potential players might make a few assumptions, the first being that they’ll be playing as a detective. Early on in Her Story, players who poke around the interface might discover this isn’t quite the case. Once that initial assumption was broken, I found myself questioning everything in the game, and I don’t just mean in terms of narrative. We’re supposed to question everything said in the interviews, I think, but very early on, I began to question things on wholly different levels.

Christian Donlan seems to agree, praising how the mystery story plays with its sequence of events:

[I]ts searchable, hypertextual jumbling of its own narrative feels unique and timely and eminently nickable. As does the fact that simply putting the story together is enough here: most of the play that takes place in Her Story happens in your own head as you reconstruct the events and try to interpret them.

Of course, praise for Her Story is not universal. Ed Smith argues that it follows detective fiction’s tradition of unrealistically romanticizing crime and criminals:

There is a crime being committed in Her Story, but it isn’t Hannah’s. It’s that of yet another crime fiction writer, conflating melodrama with found-footage, documentary, or any otherwise “real” aesthetic, and in doing so helping affirm the idea that society should lock up its criminals and throw away the key.

Give Peace a Chance

Rock, Paper, Shotgun writer Marsh Davis revisits Deus Ex: Human Revolutions to discuss how it and games in general promote an oxymoronic relationship to power (video), where the player both holds all the power but is framed as an oppressed person.

At Vorpal Bunny Ranch Dennis Farr seems to agree in his analysis of Marvel Heroes 2015. While Marvel has recently diversified its canon, games based on its universe still fail to accurately represent power dynamics:

Part of what seems to make the mutants, and the X-Men in particular, so appealing is their use of their powers and fighting a struggle that they always seem to surmount (not without casualties). This makes most games about them into a power fantasy, though the minority status is relegated to barks from enemies calling them less than human.

Writing for FemHype, Sheva believes that the constant use of violence stems from the association between violence and masculinity. The author argues that violent masculinity is at the core of how gamers define games:

Refusing to classify non-violent video games as video games is an act founded in masculine insecurity, and it not only discourages innovation in the medium, but also disqualifies innovative new games from inclusion in the medium.

Lastly, Michaël Samyn of Tale of Tales implores that violence begets violence in writing that violent videogames and violent culture are a self-perpetuating spiral that developers and players are all too willing to ignore:

I’m sure there’s enough studies that disprove the correlation between violent games and violent behavior to allow us to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that we’re not responsible, that we have no idea, that “Wow isn’t this a weird coincidence? There’s violent games and there’s violent gamers and the two are completely unrelated. What are the odds?”

Learning to Let Go

In response to the news that Tale of Tales will be leaving games Gita Jackson compares the studio’s departure with her search for a new apartment in her column for Paste. Although failing to land the perfect outcome is disappointing, sometimes success just isn’t in the cards:

Sometimes continuing to fight when you’re bloodied and broken isn’t about tenacity, but about your own ego. If Tale of Tales had plunged themselves even deeper into debt despite the commercial failure of Sunset, well, what would they have done? How would that have benefitted them? How would that have benefitted us, the people who participate in the culture they hoped to influence?

Meanwhile, Omar Elaasar explains his frustration with fetishizing difficulty. According to Elaasar, too many gamers treat accessibility as a failure:

Fugitive is not the problem. Mega Man is not the problem. Rather the problem lives in our expectation that everyone can, and should, be able to push past these frustrations and continue.

Rethinking Design

Simon Parkin’s interview with long time developer Keiji Inafune for Eurogamer covers a gamut of how Japanese and western developers have historically treated game design. Inafune’s experience with both gives him valuable insight into the strengths and limitations of both.

Over at Gamasutra, Raph Koster explores the ways that players use “compulsion loops some might term addictive” to meet an unfulfilled need in their everyday lives. Koster explores some of the ways developers can use these loops to the benefit, not the exploitation of their players’ psychology.

Writing for her blog, Alternate Ending, Mattie Brice shares her notes and conclusions on a game jam based on creating drinking games:

I was fascinated with the less mechanistic reasons we drink, like for getting to know each other. Games like Never Have I Ever also let people get to know each other, typically with things we wouldn’t readily admit. And that’s an aspect of our culture that I wished to prod, that we often use alcohol in order to be vulnerable, to admit and share things, or to do risky behavior. What kinds of games could we make around that?

If You Look Really Closely What Do You See?

Heather Alexandra did not expect to find much more in Arkham Knight than a goofy action game, yet it caused her to reflect deeply on her fear of death:

Arkham Knight speaks to me in a way I’d never imagine. I thought it was infertile ground. A bit of AAA shlock for me to enjoy. Beating up bad guys, enjoying a sweeping plot, zipping about Gotham. Bam! Pow! Biff! But it isn’t. It reminds me of everything that I fear the most.

Back at FemHype, Ashe Samuels takes a retrospective look at Spyro the Dragon and lauds how perfectly it captured her childhood imagination:

Rather than telling, the games shows you while you play: just like being a kid, the world little Spyro is in is enormous, mysterious, gorgeous, and dangerous all at once. It’s an effective and relatable visual narration that runs through the veins of this deceptively simple game

Lastly, David Shimomura pens a piece on the body politics of the Metal Gear Solid series for Kill Screen.

‘Murica

Vice writer Corey Milne disagrees that there are too many games about the Second World War, rather Video Games Have Sapped the Spirit Out of World War II by focusing too much on a few events from only a few perspectives,

But it needn’t be so, as there are multitudes of stories that have never received any attention. The role of Indian troops has never really been covered. We’ve never had to survive the Dunkirk evacuation. China’s retaliation against the Japanese is ripe for exploration, or you could even take the bold step to present the war through Axis eyes.

Stephen Beirne, meanwhile, argues for more nuance from game critics when discussing prejudice and representation. In looking at Irish Travellers, an indigenous ethnicity in Ireland that faces a number of institutional prejudices. For Beirne, the discussion loses something lose something when focusing purely on American perspectives and as critics we need to appreciate the complexity of intergroup relations.

&c &c

Clayton Purdom pens this excellent piece for Kill Screen about Cats, The Internet, and You with special focus on Catlateral Damage.

At Curbed, an architecture magazine, Alexandra Lange speaks with Neil McFarlane, director of games for Monument Valley developer, UsTwo about the architectural inspirations of the game. The article analyses the game’s design from an architect’s perspective, offering a rarely represented view of games:

When McFarland talks about the user experience of the game—no secrets, no time limit, no alternate routes, and no reading—he could also be talking about the user experience we seek in IRL places like museums, where missed galleries, pushy crowds and unclear paths also disrupt your concentration and enjoyment.

Finally, Hua Hsu reviews the lasting impact videogames have had on popular music in an article for The New Yorker.

Signal’s Lit

We encourage interactive fiction writers to take a look at the submission guidelines for Sub-Q, a new IF publication.

Also, B.R. Yeager has written a book of poetry focusing on violence in popular culture like videogames.

That’s All Folks

Thanks for reading! These roundups, as always, are made possible by the suggestions of our readers throughout the week, by our email or our Twitter account. We encourage you to send something in

Still haven’t quenched that games crit thirst? Lucky for you our podcast wizard Eric Swain has recently posted another minisode featuring Paste writer Imran Khan for your enjoyment.

There’s also a whole month’s worth of Let’s Plays curated by the inimitable Lindsey Joyce.

You could also take a look at the June Blogs of the Round Table roundup where we explored the topic Pets. Or if you’re looking for inspiration for your own blog, take a look at July’s topic, Pure Fun.

Critical Distance is also completely reader-funded, so please consider supporting us with a monthly Patreon donation.

July 2015: “Pure Fun”

July 4th, 2015 | Posted by Lindsey Joyce in Blogs of the Round Table: - (Comments Off on July 2015: “Pure Fun”)

Hello, my friends! I have missed you! With my PhD qualifying exams nearly over, I am clearing out my mental cobwebs and attempting to rejoin pleasant society. I want to take this moment to thank the entire Critical-Distance team for their support while I was preparing and testing. Special thanks to Mark Filipowich for being the sole caregiver to BoRT over the last few months.

Given how un-fun the exam process can be, I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few months daydreaming about fun and trying to remember what it felt like. Then, Nicholas Hanford, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Games Criticism, took to twitter to ask a great question about fun and its ability to exist purely. So without further ado, let me share his question with you and our theme for the month, ‘Pure Fun’:

Nicholas Hanford posed the question “Is fun meaningful? Is the creation of fun equal to the creation of meaning? Or does something always have to tag along with fun for meaning?” I think these questions resonate loudly, whether we consciously address them or not, in the discussion of videogames. What’s your take? Have you experienced pure fun while playing, or is fun tied to the meaning of the experience? Does a player bring fun to the game, or the reverse? Is it reciprocal? Is fun more accessible in some games than others, and if so, why? This month, I want to hear your thoughts on fun, meaning making, and where the two meet.

We’ll be taking your submissions till July 31st. You can see your 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=July15" frameborder="0"></iframe>
Please email us your submissions or tweet them to @thejoycean 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.

June Roundup: ‘Pets’

July 3rd, 2015 | Posted by Mark Filipowich in Blogs of the Round Table: - (Comments Off on June Roundup: ‘Pets’)

Welcome back friends far and wide. As I write this I’m struggling to pick at keys underneath the belly of a particularly snuggly cat which can only mean that it is time to round up June’s edition of Blogs of the Round Table where we asked you to discuss all things related to ‘Pets.’

Who is the pet you find sitting in front of your computer at the deciding moment of a boss fight, or who falls asleep on your lap after you find the airship? Conversely, tell us about the mount, summon creature, or animal familiar that sticks out in your mind. On the other hand, maybe games cheapen the process of domesticating or building trust with an animal. Heck, maybe characters in games shouldn’t domesticate animals at all. We want to know about the animal friends that inspired you to make a game or the reasons why you named your first pet after a game character. Tell us about the connection between games and pets.

At Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Alex Lance describes all the pets that have tugged on her heart strings in her gaming history, ranging from her dogs who rest on her lap or helpfully hop in her way during streams to some of the more memorable friends and sidekicks that have helped her avatars.

Leigh Harrison reports, as he usually does, from his blog at As Houses about Mr. Jibbers, his adorably named hamster. After describing his nightly routine with Mr. Jibbers, he describes the mechanics of Puzzles & Dragon, ultimately concluding that it and Skinner boxes like it treat him very much like he treats Mr. Jibbers:

[the game]’s not for me if I’m being honest, not even in a morbid curiosity way.
BUT I keep logging into it once a day, just to keep everything ticking over. I receive a little gold, and some points to use on another vender (vending machine to Southerners), one that gifts you tat to further upgrade your cards with. I’m probably never going to play it again, but just on the off chance I do, I want to be in the very best of positions to get back on the horse.

Taylor Hidalgo of The Thesaurus Rex fame describes the leisurely sunny days of Harvest Moon as symbolized by the game’s dog:

Although the arcane and often unspoken ending requirements are never really made clear, the ending cinematic is simply a part of the credits roll. The true strength of the game is in how it’s experienced. Whether that experience is done through the systematic growth of crops and livestock, or simply spent in the nearby village’s bar flirting with the waitress, Harvest Moon is a game about finding an experience that suits the player’s desires, and then investing time into that experience.

And the dog is the physical embodiment of time spent relaxing.

Mariel Hurd on her very cleverly named blog, Veni, Vidi, Velcro. describes the process of trying to breed the perfect mount in Age of Wonders 3, leaving every unwanted byproduct of her experimentation “in a custody battle that nobody wants to win.”

Lastly, I humbly submit my own writing on the anthropomorphic animal tribes in the Breath of Fire series as ever forced into the role of pet to a “more human” deity.

For those more tech savvy than myself, use this line of code to add June’s Round Table to your own blog:

<iframe type=”text/html” width=”600? height=”20? src=”http://www.tinysubversions.com/bort.html?month=June15? frameborder=”0?></iframe>

All of our efforts here to preserve, promote and prescribe(?) games criticism is assisted by the awareness of you, our beloved readers. Those who’d like to see BoRT and our many other projects continue should look at our Patreon page and consider pledging a monthly donation to us.

As for me, my cat has had just about enough waiting for dinner, and while I’m always happy to be your Round Table guide, I’d like to extend a warm welcome back to Lindsey Joyce, who shall be taking over next month’s BoRT as she escapes from qualifying exam purgatory so keep an eye for July’s topic and happy blogging!

June 2015

July 1st, 2015 | Posted by Riley MacLeod in This Month in Let's Plays: - (Comments Off on June 2015)

Happy end of June, readers! Your regular correspondent, Lindsey Joyce, has handed me the reins this month while she takes her PhD qualifying exams. I have two Master’s degrees and no intention of getting more, which means I’m free to do my favorite thing: watch This Month in Let’s Plays!

E3

If you’re anything like me, you turned on the E3 stream, heard a man in a T-shirt and suit jacket say the phrase “play the way you want,” and turned the whole stream off as fast as possible. Luckily, Matt Lees has summed it all up for you in his E3 2015 Abridged series.

Speaking of things that happened at E3, Not Your Mama’s Gamer took a look at one of the show’s more controversial new announcements, Cuphead, in light of the potentially problematic legacy of the 1930s cartoons it draws on (Content Warning: racist imagery in archival footage). They also looked at a game with a similar art style and pointed out where it drew on its source material responsibly.

Back to the Future

In contrast to the flurry of future hype drummed up by E3, many Let’s Players considered facets of older games this month. Cameron Kunzelman revisited middling 2011 shooter Homefront, exploring where the game went right, most notably in its unexpectedly emotional core and its careful characterization. The only thing I remember about Homefront is playing it in front of my dad and saying, “Well, it’s a videogame,” so I really enjoyed Cameron’s thoughtful take.

Going back in time quite a bit further, Matt Leslie analyzed Crash Bandicoot 2 through the lens of its surprising innovations in the early days of 3D games. He shows how Naughty Dog worked around technical and camera constraints to create a memorable character and challenging play.

Tommy Thompson from AI & Games explored the legacy of Super Mario Brothers, drawing on the evolution of its formula and the patterns behind its level design. He extends these patterns outward to show how the series iterates on its earliest design with each new addition. (Content Warning: mild gendered insult.)

Taking a longer look, Liz Ryerson continued her exploration of early first person shooters with her Wolfenstein 3D stream, which is archived for your YouTube enjoyment. Liz combines personal reflection with fascinating design insights and information about the history of the game, breathing new life into this perennial classic.

In another blast from the past, Heather Alexandra lends similar broad knowledge to her playthrough of Suikoden III, a PS2 RPG from 2002. In the same vein as Liz, she blends personal reflection with astute design critique, making fascinating watching. (Additionally, though not from this month, her YouTube channel includes an archive of her P.T. Twitch stream, which I watched through my fingers while marveling at her steely nerves.)

Lastly, Soha Kareem and Scott Benson have been archiving their ongoing Streamfriends stream of Vampire: The Masquerade— Bloodlines, and they make hilarious guides through this 2004 digitization of White Wolf’s pen and paper roleplaying game.

Heart of Dark Souls

No one gets tired of the Souls games, it seems. I’ve never played them, but I never get tired of watching other people play them. The fast-talking fellas from Extra Credits have been doing an insightful series through the first game, so if you, like me, have never gotten up the fortitude to play it, now you can cozy up to your computer, grab your controller, and pretend you’re playing along.

Josh Trevett continued his critical playthrough of the first Souls game, this time highlighting the way the level design reflects Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. This series brings a lot of useful insights to the game, and I look forward to seeing more of it.

Marsh Davies of RPS took a look at where Dark Souls 2 less than shines in the latest installment in his “Fail Forward” series.

And though not specifically Souls-related, Stephen Beirne’s latest Two Minute Game Crit looked at weapon degradation, something that figures heavily into the Souls games.

Endings and Beginnings

You’ve probably heard the news of Tale of Tales closing its doors following the release of its final game, Sunset. In light of this, Chris Franklin of Errant Signal explored the game’s mechanics and what the story of its development says about the games marketplace.

Over at Gaming Looks Good, Shareef Jackson played through part of Sunset alongside the game’s voice over artist, Tina Marie Murray. Together they discuss how the game explores diversity and politics through its presentation and gameplay.

In new beginnings, Bob of History Respawned interviewed Ishmael Hope, the lead writer of Never Alone, a platformer by Upper One Games, the first game studio run by Native people. They talk about storytelling, game design, and the future of games highlighting often marginalized cultures and people. While Tale of Tales’ departure is a loss for gaming, studios like Upper One hopefully represent a bright future for diversifying games.

See You Next Time

And that will about do it for This Month in Let’s Plays! If you, like me, love to watch Let’s Plays and Twitch streams, I’d encourage you to check out Tanya Depass’ “10 PoC Streamers You Should Be Following” list over at Paste, which is full of awesome people to get to know and watch. Tanya also curates a list of PoC streamers and Let’s Players that you can add yourself to via the article.

If you make or see a great Let’s Play in July, please let us know via Twitter using #LetsPlayCD or by sending us an email. We’d love to know what you’re watching and making!

Thanks for having me on board for this month’s roundup. If you like us and want to support what we do, remember that we’re reader-supported and consider making a monthly contribution here.

Minisode 04 – Wandering Around and Feeling

June 30th, 2015 | Posted by Eric Swain in Critical Distance Confab: - (Comments Off on Minisode 04 – Wandering Around and Feeling)

Welcome to another minisode of the Critical Distance Confab.

Unlike our main podcast series, the minisodes are a chance for me and a guest co-host to highlight some games that have gotten virtually no criticism written about them. This is our chance to correct that. They can be anything from ich.io art games, prestige level indie games, all the way to AAA games that might have slipped between the cracks. Though generally they will skew a little smaller.

Joining me this time is freelance writer for Paste Magazine, Imran Khan.

Direct Download

Imran’s Picks

Petrichor by Sundae Month

Fallow by Rook

Rain, House, Eternity by Kitty Horrorshow

Eric’s Picks

EDDA by Diane Mueller

Small Worlds by David Shute

The Graveyard by Tale of Tales

Opening Theme: ‘Close’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Closing Theme: ‘Wishing Never’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

June 28th

June 28th, 2015 | Posted by John Kilhefner in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on June 28th)

Facebook feed getting you down? Clear those tabs and get ready to open a bunch more, it’s This Week in Videogame Blogging!

What’s Old is Shenmue Again

Stu Horvath explains how the enthusiasm (or lack thereof) surrounding both Metroid Prime: Federation Force and Shenmue 3 are two sides of the same bad penny, but David Carlton has a different outlook, choosing to refute several opinions of Yu Suzuki’s Kickstarter:

Of course it’s true that there are other funding models possible for the game: doubtless, in a many-worlds version of the universe, there are universes where Sony decides to pay for it out of pocket, universes where a collection of fans somehow scrape together money to buy the IP, universes where Warren Buffett is a huge Shenmue fan and decides to pay for it himself!

It’s Business, Not Personal

Getting away from Shenmue 3, Austin Walker slides into his new role at Giant Bomb nicely with a thoughtful piece on public funding in the games industry:

Yet every year, around E3, I feel like we have this conversation: “Why do so many games feel so focus tested, so same-y?” And the answer is (again and again) the same: “Because it’s risky to take chances.” So I find myself wondering: What if there was more consistent, predictable funding? What if small studios had access to the same sorts of public support that some major developers do? And hey, what if those major developers had more support, too? How might that encourage a little bit of creative risk taking? A new IP instead of another sequel? The adoption of new, expensive technologies like VR? Maybe (could you imagine?) a little less ‘crunch.’

While at Gamasutra, Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey talk about the liberating feel of trying and failing to make a game for gamers.

Josh Bycer looks at game development from artistic and business viewpoints, and Rob Fahey examines Bungie’s decision to produce Destiny content without a subscription.

Elsewhere, Stephen Winson looks back at World of Warcraft’s gold economy:

But what is true in the rest of the world is true in the world of gold farming: reducing your labour costs is a fast and easy way to increase profits in the short term. And as in the physical world, farmers had three basic choices to make in how they went about it: automation, theft, and slave labour.

Higher Level Gamer’s Nick Hanford writes about capturing nostalgia as a game publisher. Johannes Köller muses on the insipid dizziness of E3 in “The Circus of Values” in Unwinnable Weekly. Jackson Tyler, meanwhile, writes about his victories and defeats in “These Lost Three Years”.

The Ghost in the Machine

At the New York Times, Nick Bilton discusses how online playgrounds mimic real-world social constructs through the eyes of 10 year olds.

In “Footsteps in Movies,” G. Christopher Williams posits that audio visual representations in media do not have to agree wholeheartedly with their real-world counterparts, while at Kill Screen Devin Raposo discusses silence in videogames and Jess Joho examines surrealism in Tangiers.

Stephen Beirne talks weapon degradation over at his blog, Normally Rascal, which you can fund here, and A.L Brown schools us on competitive symmetry in games. Over at The Dweeb Jar, Jake Crump delves into why we love boss fights.

At Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Alisha Karabinus avoids combat, and Matthew Jenkin talks about the pointless grind at Gamasutra while Brendan Caldwell weighs the benefits and pitfalls of fast travel.

Javy Gwaltney dives into the character of Batman and Why Dishonored Is The Best Batman Game Ever Made. While, back to Gamasutra, Felipe Pepe gives an abridged history on 21 RPGs.

Sex, Exclusion and Art

Katherine Cross uses Night Witches to define the “difference between a ‘sexist portrayal’ and a portrayal of sexism.” Meanwhile, in response to another Katherine Cross piece for Gamasutra, Lana LeRay argues AAA games are making progress with depictions of sex and intimacy.

Over at FemHype, Jillian looks at exclusion in GTFO The Movie:

What was most uncomfortable for me to watch in GTFO was when women’s experiences were explained through the lens of cis white men on several occasions, most notably concerning Miranda Pakozdi. The sexual harassment she faced and subsequent media frenzy following her time on Capcom’s reality show Cross Assault was bad enough to witness, but hearing it explained by a man with only peripheral knowledge of the incident was deeply troubling. I’m not saying we should be completely dismissive of men’s opinions whenever the topic of ~women in the games industry~ is brought up, but I am saying that maybe GTFO wasn’’ the appropriate space for that dialogue.

In “More than Representation,” Mattie Brice talks Tale of Tales and the burning out of marginalized creatives.

While Sidney Fussell asks “are black nobles and paladins really too fantastical to exist, even in worlds of sorcery, wizards and unicorns?

Brendan Keogh explores the oeuvre of Robert Yang’s works in “Immersion Phallicy,” and at Kill Screen, Jake Muncy takes Hatred to task for its violence:

By taking on such a subject matter, the game places itself at the nexus of a number of powerful issues and veins that real transgressive art has let bleed — anonymous violence, the relationship between spectacle and real destruction, the pernicious discomfort of simulated death — but it doesn’t seem particularly interested in any of them. It doesn’t even seem to understand them.

Over at Medium, Elise Wehle taps the Impressionists to say angry mobs shouldn’t dictate art and Samantha Blackmon and Alish Karabinus respond to criticism to the critical analysis on Not Your Mama’s Gamer.

Lastly, Salvator Pane uses his affinity for Spring Breakers to explore the notion of entertainment in media:

It will not be our generation who unlocks the artistic potential of videogames as a medium, it will be the next, the one that grows up on BioShock and Noby Noby Boy, the generation who goes into gaming without any preconceived notions about fun.

Until Next Time

That’s it for this week! Remember to send us your crit picks for consideration by email or Twitter mention, and share our stuff on Facebook.

You have a little time left to submit to June’s This Month in Let’s Plays and Blogs of the Round Table.

As always, Critical Distance is completely reader-funded, so please consider supporting us with a monthly Patreon donation.

June 21st

June 21st, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on June 21st)

Phew. Bit of a brief one this week, readers. Not sure why — something about a giant days-long series of ads and trailers occupying most of everyone’s time? Well, who knows. Let’s cleanse your palettes with a short-but-sweet This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Design Notes

There have been a few essays connecting the film Mad Max: Fury Road to games, but this piece by Matthew Codd is by far the most effective I’ve seen, identifying how the film’s writing mirrors that of successful games.

At Terrible Minds, author Amanda Gardner discusses the writing of Perception, an upcoming independent game developed by Gardner, her husband Bill (formerly of Irrational), and a robust team of industry veterans. As a novelist, Gardner shares her impressions of working in a collaborative medium:

When you’re writing a novel, it’s yours. Sure, you may have great critique partners and a stellar agent […] but at the end of the day it’s your baby. You own it, regardless of how much input you’ve listened to or how many eyes have edited it.

Writing a videogame is quite different. […] I was a piece in this very intricate puzzle of designers, artists, musicians, voice actors, and more. And each of these people have different, and often game-changing ideas that they contribute. You have to be flexible and not get too precious about your ideas, because in one day, an entire level can be struck from the game, or two characters could end up becoming one.

(A necessary caveat: while the author mentions some of her influences in crafting Perception‘s blind protagonist, I didn’t see any reference to the team bringing on co-writers or consultants with any sort of sight impairment. However, the game is still in development.)

Past is Present

Don’t Die continues to profile some of the lesser-known names in game development, this week offering up a laid-back interview with Microsoft alum and founding Xbox team member Ed Fries. Don’t Die’s David Wolinsky also wants me to let our readers know his site has a Patreon.

Shifting from real histories to the imaginary, in the latest Memory Insufficient Mark R. Johnson explores how the Command and Conquer: Red Alert series communicates its alternate history timeline through its art direction.

And on Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Samantha Blackmon notes a few of the problems inherent in Cuphead‘s reference to 1930s-era cartoons, which are often rife with racial caricatures (such as blackface and black minstrelsy). As she points out, some of this may be entirely invisible to those who don’t have to navigate racism in their daily lives:

My life, my experiences, and the body that I live in makes Cuphead and its artistic style problematic to me because of all that it has come to mean in the last 85 years or so and that’s something that I just can’t let go of. […] The game threatens to draw upon racist caricatures to inform the narrative and give players a series of racism infused bosses and obstructions to justice to properly hate. Perpetuating the stereotype and, in some cases, feeding the racism that is foundational to the art style itself.

Blackmon and NYMG co-editor Alisha Karabinus extrapolate further on this in an excellent video analysis, while also taking care to note Cuphead is still in development.

(Content Warning: both of the above links include examples of racist imagery.)

Players Playing Play

On his blog, Andrew Brown proffers an engrossing analysis of symmetrical competitive game design, and in particular the simple-yet-effective systems in place in Nintendo’s Splatoon.

Meanwhile, at Psychology of Games, Jamie Madigan has a brand new, fantastic interview with Riot Player Behavior Team leader Dr. Jeffrey Lin (podcast). If you haven’t heard Lin speak on some of the strategies Riot Games has experimented with over the last few years to reduce toxic player interactions in League of Legends, this is a highly recommended listen.

Inversions

At First Person Scholar, Mark R. Johnson has this fantastic long-form article on danmaku (bullet hell shooters), the player culture surrounding them, and the particular ways in which the adaptive enemy generation system of Warning Forever turns the genre’s tropes on their head. As he explains:

[W]hereas in most danmaku games the player learns the bosses’ patterns, the reverse is true in Warning Forever. The bosses — or rather the AI which generates them — learns the player’s pattern, and constructs each subsequent boss to be more and more effective at defeating that particular type of player. This means that the player is forced (if one wants to seriously compete at a world-class level in this game) to adjust their strategies as the game goes on; adhering too long to certain strategies will meet with increasingly challenging foes as the AI zeroes in on the player’s strategy and adapts to challenge it.

Paired with the above interview with Jeffrey Lin, these two pieces have some excellent observations about machine learning intuiting player behavior.

And last but by no means least, on PopMatters Moving Pixels G. Christopher Williams praises the attention-based systems which differentiate Kitty Powers’ Matchmaker from other games modeling human relationship dynamics. Nothing revolutionary, but certainly an uncommon approach!

That’s All, Folks

Thanks for reading! I warned you it was a short one. Have a link to submit for consideration? We very much welcome your recommendations by email or in a mention on Twitter!

Also, you have a little more than a week to submit to June’s Blogs of the Round Table and This Month in Let’s Plays!

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And as always, a reminder: Critical Distance is entirely funded by you, the reader. If you like what you see and want to help us continue doing what we do, please consider lending your support with a small monthly donation on Patreon! We really do depend on all of you.

Episode 27 – Review Comes For The Arcade

June 16th, 2015 | Posted by Eric Swain in Critical Distance Confab: - (Comments Off on Episode 27 – Review Comes For The Arcade)

Joining us on this month’s podcast is Zolani Stewart, fellow Critical Distance contributor and founding editor of The Arcade Review.

Coming up on its first year anniversary, Arcade Review is a publication that situates itself as an arts magazine first and a games magazine second. Wishing to break away from the stagnant circles of what is traditionally considered games writing, Zolani, with some help, has created a space where he can foster the type of writing he and others would like to see. In our podcast, we discuss how the magazine has sharpened its focus over time, in terms of both its philosophical bedrock as well as the more visible aspects of its design and layout. Enjoy.

Direct Download

SHOW NOTES

The Arcade Review

The Arcade Review Patreon

Why Weird Games Are Important

Glitches: A Kind of History

We Who?

Predatory Queerness: A Response to “Neighborhood Bondage”

Lana and Zolani Visit A Gallery

Opening Theme: ‘Close’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Closing Theme: ‘Wishing Never’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

June 14th

June 14th, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on June 14th)

Greetings, fellow travelers of roads perhaps sometimes better off not taken to begin with. As I write this, it’s early Sunday morning, so here we go: it’s time for This Week in Videogame Blogging!

It’s (Still) Not About The Witcher 3

The discussion on race representation in games which reached a fever pitch last week is still going strong. First, Austin Walker blogs a bit on Giant Bomb, noting any criticism of a game like The Witcher 3 must take into account its country’s history as well as its present social politics:

It’s not that the game isn’t aware of this stuff. It’s that despite its engagement, despite the greater context of race in games right now, despite the fact that the game is not a pure replication of Polish history and myth, and despite what Ian Williams calls its “relentless humanity,” it misses this one opportunity. And some fans want to lay on a sword over this. And whether its intentional or not, when those fans say “Why should they include a person of color?” it ends up sounding a lot like “I’m glad they didn’t include people of color. It was right of them not to. The game would be ruined otherwise.”

And would it? What would be ruined? It’s can’t be their escapism, a fear that they’d suddenly have to care about ethnic and racial politics — because again, the game already touches on those. Would their “immersion be broken” the first time a brown or black face walked down the street or into a tavern? I have my doubts.

Walker later expounded upon his points in a full-on editorial, challenging the argument that criticisms such as his “force” an agenda on developers:

Those of us who write about things like race, gender, class, and sexuality in games do so because we fucking love games. […] We want to figure out how a game might fit in a larger cultural context or try to communicate how it fit just so into our lives. We often see the faults in these games we love because we’re so close to them. And sometimes, pointing out those flaws doesn’t mean we love them any less. Even our most brutal critiques–the ones that come closest to head shaking and dismissal–are rooted in a broader love for the medium.

On Gamasutra, Katherine Cross echoes Walker’s sentiments, questioning the premise that a series like The Witcher is bound by cultural influence — or that any game should be:

Being influenced by something should not mean being shackled to it; that’s the opposite of creativity. Influences are merely that: ways to flavour your creation, expressions of what you have learned over the course of your life, the threads that comprise your unique creative fingerprint. But they are not a prison, and they most definitely do not demand prejudice.

Finally, inspired by these recent discussions, the writers for FemHype recently together to list off their recommended games featuring non-white protagonists. While the list is admirable, it should also be observed how often the same titles are repeated — which is just what cultural critics like Cross and Walker are getting at.

Moving on:

There Will Probably Be Blood

At Vice, Javy Gwaltney argues not for less violence, but for more realistic consequences for violence in games. Meanwhile, at IndieHaven, Joe Parlock criticizes Life is Strange‘s stigmatization of disability as tragedy and poetic justice.

Design Notes

In reviewing Puzzles & Dragons Z + Super Mario Bros Edition for The Washington Post, Michael Thornsen strikes upon a difference in design philosophy between console and free-to-play mobile games which should ring true for many developers straddling that divide:

Free-to-play games are designed around creating conflict between short-term desires and long-term plans, inducing purchases on essentially useless in-game goods. If you die mid-level in the free-to-play versions, you can buy Magic Stones that allow you to continue without having to lose all of the items and upgrades you have collected. But in the 3DS version you simply collect them as in-level treasures. Stripped of their real monetary value, these stones and the systems they connect to, feel strangely disruptive.

[…]

[T]he design ethos of Mario games isn’t the threat of loss, but delight in variation and discovery, games designed to engineer success rather than failure.

At ZedGames, Jody Macgregor lays out an analysis of Akira Yamaoka’s compositions for landmark survival horror series Silent Hill. At Paste, videogame critic cum fashion blogger Gita Jackson takes aim at the historical inaccuracy of the costume design in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. And writing for Offworld, independent developer Anna Anthropy contends that game design can learn a lot from the simple playfulness of children’s books.

Over on Gamasutra’s Expert Blogs, Michaël Samyn pops the hood on his two-person studio’s newest title, Sunset, to show some of its inner programmatic workings. Meanwhile, Don’t Die has just released their latest interview with lesser-known industry voices, this time with producer Maxwell Neely-Cohen.

Also, a blog recommendation for any and all designers: Tiny Design is a fantastic Tumblr dedicated to “an in-depth look at the smaller bits of game design.”

Beyond the ‘Single Story’

Latoya Peterson delivered a powerful one-two this past week, first showing up on ESPN to question the relentless focus on harassment narratives when we talk about women and girls in games. Instead, Peterson argues, we should celebrate the diversity of these stories, and has announced a new series for Fusion dedicated to just that.

The Steam Refundpocalypse

Valve recently introduced system-wide refunds on its industry-dominating distribution platform, Steam. That this also landed around the same time as Steam’s annual summer sale got a lot of developers talking about the economics of Steam and how it helps or harms the business.

One dev, Rob Fearon, is particularly concerned with modern sales practices like bundling and frequent Steam sales, which he argues may move copies in the short term but don’t build and retain an audience. Meanwhile, Craig Bamford contends that while Steam refunds have the potential to be a boon for indies (for example, by reducing the amount of post-purchase customer support for technical issues), without facilitating in-depth feedback, Steam refunds don’t really help a developer understand what they need to improve.

I Don’t Know Where To Put This

This didn’t exactly fit within any of the sections above, but it’s so good I can’t not include it. At Videogame Heart, Grayson Davis provides a complex breakdown of the emotional stakes of getting “salty.” While he notes the slang precedes games by decades, its particular inflection in the competitive game scene is pretty engrossing:

The driving thesis of salt is not “I should have won” nor “you should have lost.” To be salty is to believe that there is a “should” at all, that competition has a moral arc with a rightful conclusion.

[…]

One match from a 2013 fighting game tournament perfectly summarizes the problem of salt and the plateau it can represent. FSP, a talented Street Fighter IV player, squared off against a random competitor named, in a delightful irony, Gandhi. Gandhi played in a spectacularly terrible fashion, making random, sometimes bizarre choices. He played the game at an astoundingly low level for someone attending a major tournament. […] The problem is that FSP is trying to play well, but Gandhi doesn’t behave like any rational player. You beat such players by playing patiently and defensively, two qualities compromised by frustration. FSP is visibly upset on stream, but you hardly need to see his face to recognize his anger. The commentators state that he shouldn’t lose, but that doesn’t change the fact that he does.

(The link above contains video of the match in question, if you’re curious.)

End Notes

Did you enjoy this week’s roundup? Many of the links we feature here come from readers just like you! If you find or create a piece of writing (or a video, podcast, or virtually anything else to be honest) you think would suit these pages, please send it in to us! We take submissions on Twitter and through email.

We also welcome submissions for our other ongoing monthly features, Blogs of the Round Table and This Month in Let’s Plays!

Critical Distance is proud to be completely funded by its readership. If you like what you see and want us to reference poems in our openings a little more esoteric than Robert Frost, consider kicking a small monthly donation our way on Patreon! We’re on Recurrency too!

See you next week!

June 7th

June 7th, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on June 7th)

Greetings, Sunday readers! It is I, your senior curator. Did you miss me? I’ve been off fighting a few dragons of a more mundane variety (see: taxes, traveling, and day job), but I trust my capable team have kept your eyeballs busy while I was gone. Let’s get right to it, then, with This Week in Videogame Blogging!

The Things We Don’t Talk About Enough

Over on Gamasutra’s Member Blogs, Felipe Pepe raises a good point: for every lost game like P.T., there are countless other game histories that are being lost without apparent outcry. In particular, Pepe calls out the dead archives on game sites of days gone by (something that matters quite a bit to us and our own anthologies project!) as well as a lack of interest in interviewing some of development history’s smaller names.

As if in answer, David Wolinsky’s audience- and developer-focused Don’t Die has just released an interview with Purple Moon founder Brenda Laurel which is enlightening as it is bracing:

I remember when we showed our website to [Microsoft co-founder] Paul Allen he said, “Oh, this is cool. Can you make this for boys?” Now this is after $4 million and four years’ worth of research on girls he says this. I don’t think they ever got it, honestly. And that was true of Atari, as well. Investors in those days, they rarely understood what they were doing. And those of us who were doing the work were trying to do stuff that mattered.

Turning from developer histories to the current state of the industry, Brendan Sinclair has been doing some important legwork following up on game hardware manufacturers’ use of conflict minerals — another aspect of the business which could benefit from more active discussion.

Design Notes

At his Radiator Blog, Robert “Cobra Club” Yang has adapted his recent GDC presentation on level design and architecture to point to a philosophical disconnect in how large studios approach matters of design, instead advocating for what he calls “local level design”:

The idea here is that these gray boxes ARE the soul of the level, and art assets and detail are just “ornament” — and according to the high modernist architects of the early 20th century, ornament is not “real” architecture. This is VERY different from ideas of early level design […] Industrial level design views every design problem as a problem of production time, dependent on the ability to scope and plan and manage human labor.

In contrast, local level design views every design problem as a problem of dialog and methodology, it is a “compassionate formalism” that tries to collaborate on conceptual frameworks rather than imposing them. I hope these already existing examples of locally-oriented practice across architecture and level design demonstrate that it is something possible, important, and real.

Also from a past GDC, the good folks at Gamasutra have revived this 2012 design talk by Timothy Cain (video) about the development of the first Fallout.

Meanwhile, at Play the Past, Gilles Roy has published an interesting two part interview with developer Jos Hoebe, developer on the recently released World War I-themed game Verdun. From the interview’s first half:

Hoebe: All the studios were mainly driven by a commercial agenda. [You] just take the biggest subject, like World War 2, with a clear narrative of Good versus Evil, which doesn’t exist in World War 1. There are reasons why there have not been World War 1 games made, especially from a first person perspective, which at bottom is the lack of Good versus Evil narrative, which is better for selling games to a broader audience, etc. […] [There] are other titles which have something to do with World War 1, like time travel, and zombies, etc. But we wanted to take a realistic approach, in a similar fashion how the Red Orchestra series — and to some extent the earlier Call of Dutys — went about it.

The Play’s the Thing (Or Sometimes, Isn’t)

Gamasutra columnist Katherine Cross sings the praises of Darkest Dungeons‘ minimalist characterization, which acts on the player’s tendency to create closure out of the elements presented to them. And over at The AV Club’s Gameological Society, Jake Muncy takes a turn at Republique and muses on the omnipresent voyeurism of games.

Paste’s Maddy Myers wonders why so few women protagonists are given love interests and interrogates a few of the reasons developers have offered in the past. And on his Worldmaker blog, Max Battcher challenges the idea that a “skip combat” feature is either novel or, in any sense of the word, “cheating.”

It’s Not About The Witcher 3

Much has been written in the last few weeks concerning the disproportionate whiteness of the game industry and its resulting products, versus the increasing racial diversity of its players. But Tauriq Moosa’s opinion piece on Polygon turned the flame into a firestorm when he called particular attention to the all-white cast of The Witcher 3:

The Witcher world itself features Zerrikania, whose inhabitants seem very much inspired from the Middle East. In the first Witcher, a prominent Zerrikanian character is named Azar Javed, an Arabic name. Like mine! Culture and names are welcome, but skin color, it seems, is not.

You’ll often hear “based on mythology” as well as “historically accurate,” in the same breath, even though it can’t be both. If it’s based on mythology, then it’s fiction. If it’s historically accurate, then we must talk about our ancestors’ legendary fights with sirens on shores of [the game’s] Arg Skellige.

It is incredibly unwelcoming to be shown the door by the same people who open it for fantasy creatures.

(If you’re not yet swayed, consider this breakdown of the “it’s based on Slavic mythology” defense presented by Actual Slavic Person Luke Maciak.)

But this extends far beyond The Witcher, as highlighted by the #GamesSoWhite hashtag which saw a revival in response to Moosa’s article. Jelani Greenidge provides a great overview of #GamesSoWhite as well as why racial representation matters in games. Quote Greenidge:

American society has so traditionally catered to the needs, whims and desires of white people that often people of color feel like we are invisible. So when teams of exclusively or mostly white people assemble to develop a video game, even if none of those people have racial animus in their hearts, they inadvertently perpetuate white supremacist norms by filtering their narrative through white lenses. They think only of the stories, issues, foods, clothing and other cultural signifiers that matter to them. The reason why the #BlackLivesMatter movement has gained so much steam is because PoC in general and African-Americans specifically are told, again and again, through examples from popular culture, that their cultural priorities, tastes, or experiences are at best tangential and at worst completely irrelevant to the American story.

It goes further. At Houston Press, Jef Rouner did some digging and managed to find only 14 playable black women in the entire history of videogames, discounting avatars whose skin color can be chosen by the player. And at RH Reality Check, Shonte Daniels reflects how recent pushback on this topic together with current events have turned videogames from a hobby into a source of distress (Content Warning: discussion of violence, racism, mental health).

Virtual Bodies

At his blog Arms Folded Tight, Daniel Parker muses on the aesthetics of games’ “power fantasies,” many of which go beyond our conventional understanding of the term. In doing so, Parker surveys several recent articles on the subject of avatars and how these writers engage in a “power fantasy” of embodiment.

Elsewhere on the subject of virtual bodies, Kat Hache opens up about their childhood affinity for Legend of Zelda‘s Link and how it continues to influence their self-image.

Meatspace Bodies

And at last, we come full circle, back to the subject of the faces behind the screen. On Gamasutra’s Expert Blogs, Laralyn McWilliams writes bracingly on the “culture fit” of the tech world and the creative diversity this mentality has helped suppress. Speaking as an educator, Not Your Mama’s Gamer’s Alex Layne reflects on the games brought into the classroom and how they may influence the next generation of young developers. And finally, we find The Mary Sue’s Emma Fissenden interviewing Catt Small, game developer and co-founder of Tech Under Thirty and Code Liberation.

Further Reading

Want more? Of course you do. Co-editors Reid McCarter and Patrick Lindsey have just released SHOOTER, an ebook collection of essays on the first-person shooter. The book is available on Gumroad and Amazon. If you’re interested in a preview, McCarter and Lindsey have a feature in the most recent issue of Unwinnable Weekly which should be right up your alley.

Further Listening

But wait! There’s more. Paste’s and Offworld’s Gita Jackson has been on a bit of a podcast high of late, not only appearing on the (fantastic) Spawn On Me podcast but also launching a new, Chicago-based podcast with Kotaku’s Patrick Klepek and former developer Sam Phillips, Match 3. Both are very much worth a listen.

Did I Forget Anything?

No, seriously, did I? As always, we greatly appreciate your recommendations and self-submissions, so please keep sending them in over Twitter and email!

The past week saw a new This Month in Let’s Plays roundup as well as the conclusion of May’s Blogs of the Round Table theme, “Plans”. And you’ll love June’s BoRT prompt: “Pets”!

Did you know we run a twice-monthly podcast now? Be sure to tune in to our full-length episode featuring Kaitlin Tremblay as well as Critical Distance’s own Alan Williamson and Lindsey Joyce, and then check out latest minisode featuring ZEAL‘s own Mammon Machine, Aevee Bee!

“Wow,” you must be saying, “Critical Distance actually runs a lot of features these days. I remember when this was all field.” So do I! Want to help us continue this breakneck pace of ours, as we also embark on our own print anthologies project? Consider kicking a small monthly donation our way via Patreon! We really do depend on you to keep this car running, in my now hopelessly mixed metaphor.

Be well!