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Hey there, everyone.

Before we start today, a bit of signal-boosting: Digital Love Child is putting together an ebook collection on gun games and has put out a call for submissions, deadline sometime mid-September.

Also, the new videogame StoryBundle is out, containing books by Anna Anthropy and Zoya Street as well as the first six issues of Five Out of Ten magazine. You should get it.

Now that that’s out there, let’s bring it in close and get comfortable today. I have a long one for you and you might need to take a few breaks.

I don’t often dedicate This Week in Videogame Blogging to a single topic, but in this case it was more or less unavoidable. There were a few articles on other subjects, but they would be drowned out by the conversation which follows below, so I’ve bookmarked them for next week. Don’t worry, nothing’s been lost.

I also want to note that this edition of the roundup has a general content warning for at least the following: sexual harassment, stalking, rape threats, death threats, and misogynist slurs, with a liberal peppering of ableist slurs thrown in for good measure. Please use your discretion when proceeding.

Additional article-specific content warning markers will be noted after relevant links.

Tropes vs Anita Sarkeesian

If you haven’t seen it yet, Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Women in Videogames series has released the second in its two-part episode on “women as background decoration.” (Additional content warning: graphic sexual violence.)

The release of Sarkeesian’s video, amidst the ongoing tensions and attacks on women in the industry, has led to Sarkeesian receiving credible death threats on her and her family, forcing her to leave her home. It’s also led to quite a bit of discussion elsewhere, mainly on the subject of the sustained harassment against her.

At The New Statesman, Ian Steadman takes a couple cues from Sarkeesian’s own videos to provide an excellent breakdown in the logical fallacies used to “debunk” and derail the criticisms present in the video series.

While not referencing Sarkeesian specifically, this post by former GameSpot critic Carolyn Petit does a good job at countering the argument that games are beyond cultural criticism:

Games are not politically neutral. Neither are mainstream romantic comedies, or action films, or any novel I’ve ever read. They may sometimes appear politically neutral if the values they reinforce mesh with the value systems of the larger culture, but our culture is not politically neutral, either, and it is not outside of the role of a critic to comment on or raise questions about the political meanings embedded in the works one evaluates. In fact, it is often impossible to review something apolitically, because to not comment on or challenge the political meanings in a work in your review is to give them your tacit endorsement.

At Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Jennifer Justice suggests that for a lot of the kneejerk negativity directed at feminist games criticism, something more fundamental is at play:

A lot of the fear I see about feminism comes from the idea that giving in to feminists means giving in to censorship. For some, that fear takes its shape in nonsensical arguments about threats to masculinity or stealing of power from one group to another [...]

Those who fear censorship could read my posts as an argument to “clean up” narratives… to remove sources of conflict in order to avoid disturbing female gamers who play these games. But I believe women are made of tougher stuff than that, and most of us want a good story as much as the next gamer. It’s not that I want games to be without conflict or to always end with some moralistic theme. I just want more stories.

At The Verge, Adi Robertson also expounds on this theme, in particular the assertion that depictions of women in games can be defended as “realistic”:

“Why is it video games need to be politically and societally [sic] correct? The whole point of video games is to escape reality and have fun.”

If that’s the goal, games like Watch Dogs are failing horribly.

You know what’s not escapism? Having to wonder if any given game (or movie, or book) you pick up is going to include women primarily as prostitutes, murdered girlfriends, vulnerable daughters, and rape victims. [...] Oddly, when someone raises these issues, the people who have been stridently defending their games as “just games” switch to explaining why having women in other roles is unrealistic. A gritty, stylized world built on the corpses of women is defended as a way for gamers to escape from reality, but if someone points out that it makes them uncomfortable, they’re told that they’re supposed to be uncomfortable.

XO Jane’s Lesley Kinzel adds that the attacks only drive home how relevant Sarkeesian’s criticisms are:

It should go without saying, but you don’t stop an activist or a critic by propagating the exact behavior that they are organizing or arguing against. In fact, doing so bolsters their cause.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Women in Games

In addition to these renewed attacks on Anita Sarkeesian, this marks the second week of a harassment campaign against independent developer Zoe Quinn. At The Daily Dot, Aja Romano has an effective recap of last week’s attacks and also showcases how the incident differs from the Josh Mattingly harassment scandal from earlier this year.

(Side note: You may have heard that actor Adam Baldwin is involved in this somehow now. The Mary Sue’s Victoria McNally has a good writeup on it.)

An interview with Quinn’s ex-boyfriend has also circulated a lot this week and was originally pinned for inclusion in this roundup. I’ve removed it, in light of this post by Critical Distance alumnus David Carlton, who warns of the false equivalence we risk creating in the press by covering the voices of abusers as valid:

[T]he media likes to find two sides of the issue to present, and to present those sides without any sort of context that might cause one to evaluate one side more favorably than the other. It doesn’t matter if one of those sides is supported by essentially all experts on the subject while the other is only supported by loons (sic) or guns-for-hire; it doesn’t matter if one of those sides is engaging in behavior squarely within our political norms while the other side is doing historically unprecedented attacks on the very concept of majority rule; and, as here, it doesn’t matter if one of those sides is behaving with simple compassion while the other side is lacking even a shred of simple human decency. False equivalence demands both.

At The Globe and Mail, Emma M. Woolley concurs, asserting that the claims of “corruption” only obfuscate a far greater problem:

Gaming’s most pervasive issue isn’t corruption, but the people who’ve taken ownership of something that isn’t solely theirs to begin with. In trying their damnedest to limit the appeal of the medium and use online harassment to achieve their goals, this group of toxic trolls are proving themselves to be gaming’s biggest problem.

In his tumblr, Australian media scholar (and definitely not Polygon contributor) Brendan Keogh covers this as well, in an open letter to a friend in which he laments that games journalism does indeed suffer from a kind of corruption, but not the kind in the Quinn “scandal”:

What all these people who are part of the attack on women who make games don’t seem to understand is that they are exactly the status quo that is fostered and served by games journalism and its problems. The good parts of games journalism (the critiques of the industry, the coverage of non-commercial games, writing on gender and race and the such) are a sign of games journalism getting better, but, to these people, it is their privileged position being brought down a notch so all they see is conspiracies.

Badass Digest’s Andrew Todd notes that apart from opposition to what “social justice” seems to represent to them, those involved in the attacks have no plan or goal:

Central to the self-centred psychology of these people is that they see themselves as the targets of a grand conspiracy of feminist, progressive journalists and game developers that seeks to destroy their ability to…something. They have no actual issue. It’s all perceived persecution at the hands of political correctness. These “theories” are so narcissistic, so devoid of substance, that the only way to explain them is through delusion. And I mean, I get it – justifying one’s shitty behaviour with a made-up conspiracy probably feels better than confronting the painful truth that one is an asshole. They think they’re part of a “silent majority”, but the real silent majority is the one that either isn’t aware of their ridiculous conspiracy theories, or understands that there’s simply no reasoning with [them].

Developer Elizabeth Sampat draws into sharp focus how Quinn is only the latest in a march of countless women who have been harassed in the industry, many to the point of being forced out:

I could tell you stories about the voices we’ve lost, the women we’ve scarred, the people we’ve left behind. I want to, but I’m not sure you’d get it. I tweeted earlier today, We should have a war memorial for all of the women we have lost to this. We should lay flowers and grieve and see our reflections in stone. And I meant it. I wish there were a way to honor the people our industry has wronged, and a way to visualize the enormity of what we have lost because of it— some representation of the gap between what games are and what they can be, and the pieces of the bridge between that have fallen away.

(Since its posting, artist Paul Reinwand painted a concept piece of what such a memorial would look like. I’ve included it below.)

memorial_reinwand

The subject of erasure turns up in the latest Not Your Mama’s Gamer podcast as well. Podcast co-host Alex Layne notes that while women in the industry have been terrorized in this way for years, it is only the recent wave of abuse coinciding with a bomb threat called in on a male Sony executive that the conversation has finally, seriously turned to acts of terrorism against members of the industry. This topic starts at around the 1 hour part.

Speaking of great podcasts concerning current events, the latest Idle Thumbs episode does it justice. I believe it’s Chris Remo who declares early on in the recording that trying to engage with the torrent of abusers has been “like Buzz Aldrin dealing with that Moon [conspiracy] guy.”

I leave the final word on this to Zoe Quinn herself, who weighs in with some self-declared final thoughts, washing her hands of the debacle. (Additional content warning: Quinn links to multiple screenshots which include 4chan-typical slurs.)

Beyond Nomenclature

In an empathetic post, Polygon’s Chris Plante suggests that games “culture” now stands on the brink, teetering between a new identity and its old familiar one.

This is a theme Leigh Alexander picked up and ran with this week at Gamasutra, saying in a strongly-worded editorial that it’s time to retire the ‘gamer’ paradigm:

By the turn of the millennium those were games’ only main cultural signposts: Have money. Have women. Get a gun and then a bigger gun. Be an outcast. Celebrate that. Defeat anyone who threatens you. You don’t need cultural references. You don’t need anything but gaming. Public conversation was led by a games press whose role was primarily to tell people what to buy, to score products competitively against one another, to gleefully fuel the “team sports” atmosphere around creators and companies.

[...]

Yet in 2014, the industry has changed. We still think angry young men are the primary demographic for commercial video games — yet average software revenues from the commercial space have contracted massively year on year, with only a few sterling brands enjoying predictable success.

It’s clear that most of the people who drove those revenues in the past have grown up — either out of games, or into more fertile spaces, where small and diverse titles can flourish, where communities can quickly spring up around creativity, self-expression and mutual support, rather than consumerism. There are new audiences and new creators alike there. Traditional “gaming” is sloughing off, culturally and economically, like the carapace of a bug.

[...]

Developers and writers alike want games about more things, and games by more people. We want — and we are getting, and will keep getting — tragicomedy, vignette, musicals, dream worlds, family tales, ethnographies, abstract art. We will get this, because we’re creating culture now. We are refusing to let anyone feel prohibited from participating.

“Gamer” isn’t just a dated demographic label that most people increasingly prefer not to use. Gamers are over. That’s why they’re so mad.

In a community post, Devin Wilson goes one further than Alexander and speaks directly to industry members about the things professionals can do, starting right now, to be better:

We need to consider the very real possibility that the offensive behavior displayed by gamers in recent weeks is not unrelated to the artifacts they rally around (which I doubt are especially obscure). These people didn’t come from nowhere to fight about nothing. They came from games to fight about games. They’re organic results of the medium we’ve all played a role in cultivating, and they won’t go away if the medium doesn’t change significantly.

Star Wars: The Old Republic lead designer Damion Schubert took to his dev blog Zen of Design this week to call upon communities — including but not limited to developers — to call out and oust toxic individuals:

I’m issuing a call to arms – a call to arms not just to developers (who in the last two weeks have risen heroically in defense of our comrades under assault), but also to the large contingent of ‘good guy fans’ that I know are out there, and I put it on them to work with us to address this issue. Call out the assholes as you see them doing assholish stuff. Welcome and foster healthy, mature, respectful debate on the forums. Kick players from your groups and your private servers who can’t treat other players with a modicum of genuine respect. Do what you can to create a welcoming environment for ALL new players, no matter their demographics.

Back on Gamasutra’s blogs, Robert Fearon issues the (almost radical) proposition that the real force “ruining” games for the hardcore set is, in fact, the AAA industry itself:

The death of the videogame is not at the hand of women, queers, PoC or more human white men, it did not happen at the hands of journalists reporting on the more disturbing aspects of videogame culture, it did not happen because people decided that “gamer” was maybe something not so great to identify as. It did not happen because someone made a video pointing at a few things videogames have the habit of doing.

It happened because the big box money machine found itself more people to make money from. The very people who pandered and supplied the wares shifted their focus. And that’s when the hardcoreiest of hardcore, the vocal screamers who just want to play videogames with none of this ethical rubbish or DLC or microtransactions or or or lost their fight.

Critical Distance’s own Mattie Brice raises a similar point, suggesting that our communities need to be built on sterner stuff than what products we buy:

Petitioning gamers, companies, and publications to make a stand for the values we care about won’t happen at a healthy speed without strings attached. Everything will be mediated by consumerism, and simply buying or not buying from certain places isn’t going to solve core issues. So the next time you’re wondering what to do when things seem so bleak, reach out to the people around you, and tell them it’s time to get together, and form a supportive community. One that has, from the beginning, at its center, the ideals and ideas we want missing from industry.

Dubious Ethics

Another recurring topic this week was Kotaku’s announcement that it would forbid its writers from supporting the Patreons of independent developers (but not other crowdfunding and early access platforms).

At Unite Youth Dublin, Stephen Beirne challenges the decision, asserting that it will have little effect but punishing already marginalized devs. Brendan Keogh is also skeptical, comparing the situation to a hypothetical one between a music critic and a busker.

At Game Bias, Jed Pressgrove doesn’t much like Keogh’s analogy, reminding readers that old media has no clear answers for this either:

To put this another way, ethical concerns involving Patreon or Kickstarter are relatively new; ethical concerns related to the review of purchased or free products are quite old.

But, as Samantha Allen points out in The Daily Beast, this goes beyond sites or individuals — the next social media technologies need to be designed with the safety of the marginalized in mind.

Hand in Unlovable Hand

I’ll spare you all the regular song and dance usually reserved for these ending sections. Though, as always, be aware that we welcome your submissions through email and by Twitter mention.

And to reiterate, anything that was submitted this week but was not included is being kept for consideration next week. This subject just needed its own space.

If this is all a bit much, I’d recommend this roundup on Ars Technica by Casey Johnston, which refers to many of the links above and many more besides.

Lastly, for newcomers who may be confused about the format or purpose of this site, I’d like to direct you to our Mission Statement and Support page, which contains our anti-harassment and funding policies respectively.

Be safe, be well, sleep. We’ll be announcing something cool in a few days.

-KL

Critical Distance is proud to present this Critical Compilation on Nier, put together by Michael Hancock, book review editor for First Person Scholar. You can visit First Person Scholar here, and visit Michael’s personal blog here.

Cavia’s 2010 Nier is not a game that goes out of its way to endear itself to its players, and this indifference has been met in kind by the gaming public at large. Back when the game was released, there was a relative dearth of criticism in comparison to other games, and it hasn’t enjoyed a swell in popularity that sometimes happens with older games, which means that criticism has only decreased over time. Many of the best pieces written on Nier are on sites that have been abandoned, blog pages reachable only through Internet archives.

But in this case, the slow decay feels oddly appropriate. Nier reserves its rewards, such as they are, for those who persist with it, and it makes sense that even reading about the game requires a level of persistence. (It’s thematically appropriate too — while it’s reductive to say Nier is about any single thing, struggle against slow decay and entropy is certainly up there.)

But just because it requires persistence doesn’t mean it has to be done alone. Here, then, to aid anyone else interested in doing a similar search, is a Critical Compilation of criticisms on Nier. I considered grouping the pieces by major topic, but a lot of these pieces are hybrids (much like Nier itself, as we’ll see), and not so easily classified into a single category. Instead, look for bolded keywords that will highlight main topics that tend to crop up in multiple discussions.


First, there’s The Grimoire Nier Companion, a massive fan-based translation project which, among other things, translates the Grimoire Nier, a book of short stories that was packaged with the Japanese versions of the game. It includes not just those short stories, but also stories behind each of the game’s weapons, interviews with the game’s creators, and a translation of the transcription of the game’s accompanying radio drama. If you’re interested in the sheer depth of backstory involved in Nier that didn’t make it out of Japan, or some insight into the game’s design philosophy, this is the place to look.

There isn’t much of a body of sustained academic engagement with Nier. The sole exception that I can find is Damia Riera Pau Muñoz’s “Narrative, music, and transmedia in Nier: towards a new full artwork” (Spanish) from Characters: Cultural Studies and Critical Digital Sphere 2.1 (May 2013). Muñoz wants to draw a link between Wagner’s Romantic operas and videogames in general, and Nier in particular, under the basis that both are intensely multimedia, both use music to illustrate their themes, and both involve sacrifice and tragedy. It’s a comparison that has a lot going for it: it addresses the multimedia aspect of videogames, and does so in such a way that it assumes videogames are as much art as opera. And in terms of Nier, it unifies a discussion of much of its major points: the tragic story, the in-depth backstory, the genre borrowing, and the music.

As for the articles, to get things started, Elizabeth Bahm’s 2011 review for Hardcore Gaming 101 is a good place to get acquainted with what it’s like to actually play Nier. She also covers most of the game’s broad points, including the backstory, characters, and genre borrowing. Bahm reflects on how the game changes its cutscenes when doing repeated plays, calling on the player to replay the same game, but with different narrative cutscenes from the Shades’ perspective:

Ultimately, the effect is not so much one of moral reversal as near nihilism: you are left with the tale of two sides, equally justified in their cause and equally at fault for their sins, fighting over a world that may ultimately be little more than a husk.

Over at Theology Gaming, in 2012, Zachery Oliver wrote a three part retrospective on the game, titled The List: Nier, starting with looking at narrative in games in general, and then arguing that with Nier, it’s the repeated play and genre borrowing that gives it its kick. In his conclusion, Oliver argues that while many criticize JRPGs for their linear plot, Nier‘s many reversals and replays prepare the player to make its ultimate choice, emphasizing that while the player has little control over the greater consequences of their actions, what truly matters are the choices they make themselves (he also draws a fairly extended religious conclusion here; your mileage may vary on its efficacy).

Jack Menhorn, on his Gamasutra blog circa 2011, talks briefly about the quality of the game’s music design in his post “Let’s talk about Nier‘s audio while not making a pun on its name.

Also back in 2011, PopMatters Moving Pixels’ Nick Dinicola looks critically at the game’s genre borrowing, and decides it doesn’t go far enough, in that it mimics other forms without really tying those borrowings to the story as it unfolds. The exception is the text-based portion of the game, which feels does well mimicking the sense of dreaming:

Dreams are intangible by nature, so its always struck me as odd when they appear in movies or games as a tangible, physical world. By leaving much of the visual world building to the player’s imagination, Nier‘s dream world retains a sense of the intangible: It’s not really there, to touch, to see; it’s literally all in your head.

Back on his older, gracefully retired blog Discount Thought, Michael “Sparky” Clarkson continues the negative criticism on Nier, with two posts from around the game’s original release in 2010. The first, “New Game Minus,” argues that the game’s repeated plays are also a detracting point, as the cutscenes on the second playthrough are heavy-handed, don’t fit with the original story, and attempt to make the player feel bad for actions she didn’t have any choice over to begin with (Oliver’s piece above addresses this third point somewhat). The second, “The curious case of Kainé,” looks at the subject of intersexuality of Nier, represented by the character Kainé. Clarkson notes that while her design may have an in-game justification (given her past, Kainé is trying to establish a gender identity through exceptionally revealing clothing), the extreme objectification goes way too far, and does the overall game more harm than good. As an editorial aside, I’ll say I agree with him 100%.

In fairness to Clarkson, he gives a more positive, yet still even-handed second opinion of the game on Game Critics. Among other things, he compliments the game’s unique approach to pacing in the early sections:

Nier uses this diversity of game styles to keep your interest while it’s introducing the characters. Instead of weighing itself down with interminable expository cut-scenes, it lets the gameplay keep your focus while Nier‘s (and the player’s) relationship with the secondary characters grows.

(All the following links are from 2010 unless stated otherwise.)

On Game Set Watch, in “Defying Design: Alternate Perspectives,” Jeffrey Matulef speaks in favor of the repeated plays, arguing that presenting different perspectives in the New Game + allows the exploration of viewpoints that wouldn’t fit tonally with the forward thrust of the first playthrough.

Also on Game Set Watch, speaking more broadly, Christian Nutt argues that most of time, many games lack proper characterization; in “Opinion: Characters, The Building Blocks of Your Reality,” he points to Nier’s bond with his daughter as creating a more meaningful connection for aging gamers. In particular, Nutt addresses critic Seth Schiesel’s argument that Nier illustrates a step towards games as art, and while he doesn’t entirely agree, he does agree that it’s a positive step, wherever narrative is going:

A lot of critics and developers think we should be pushing narrative in games because narrative helps bring us closer to a vaguely defined goal — of making games art. Schiesel argues that this is, in fact, the outcome with Nier. But my argument is simpler: pursuing meaningful characterization will simply help bring us closer to the goal of making our worlds — our games. And if it happens that we accidentally make art in the process, well, it’s serendipity.

And since Nutt mentions it, Nier got a New York Times feature: “Wielding Swords in a World of Sharp Tongues” by Seth Schiesel. As Nutt notes, the review is less notable for the commentary on the game (Schiesel praises its characterization and its genre borrowing very effusively), but for the fact that, in a period where the Supreme Court was considering whether violence in games should be legally obscene, Nier was Schiesel’s immediate example for the depth a game could offer. What did he think of the game?

Nier does many different things at such a high level of sophistication and accessibility that I cannot think of another single game of recent years that more faithfully represents the sheer intellectual breadth of modern video games.

More recently, in 2014 on Game Church, Jonathan Clauson summarizes in English an interview with director Taro Yoko, offering a reasonably clear account of Yoko’s design philosophy, both in general and for Nier more specifically.

It also delves into Yoko’s conception of what violence means in videogames: in particular, Yoko recalls coming up with the basis for Nier shortly after considering the response to 9/11, and wanting to explore the idea of morally justified killing: “That’s why I made Nier a game revolving around this concept of ‘being able to kill others if you think you’re right,’ or ‘everyone believes that they’re in the right.’”

Back in 2010, Justin McElroy gives a brief post on why Joystiq will not be giving a full review of Nier, based largely on his troubles with the game’s fishing mini-game. I’m including this here not because it provides any particularly useful insight on Nier (except perhaps a point in the favor of the argument that its side quests are deliberately designed poorly), but because it became a talking point for Nier, and — according to other game journalists at least — the video played a part in Nier‘s negative reception. The podcast below gets into this issue in more detail, specifically where McElroy’s own actions made fishing more difficult, and what sort of ethical responsibility a game reviewer has to a game at hand.

On Chronoludic, Chris Green responds to the general original negative reception of the game, driven in part as a response to Justin McElroy’s fishing video. In particular, in the course of “Nier — More than just a fishing mini-game,” he argues that much of what McElroy singles out as bad design was deliberate, pointing out how the game uses Weiss to mock the game’s ridiculous parts, and the way most of those parts are genre borrowing from other games. (Note: this is the first, but not last, item on the list that requires The Wayback Machine to view.)

With another perspective on agency and repeated plays comes this post by Jeff Feeser of Spectacle Rock (another Wayback Machine entry). Feeser argues that lack of agency to do anything differently in response to the new perspectives offered by the second playthrough is a positive thing. In fact, it functions much like the lack of agency in BioShock:

Forcing a player to act in a way that doesn’t appeal to their morality at all can make for a very uncomfortable and introspective experience, one that ends up being far more memorable in the long run.

And, as has been illustrated, many articles comment on the repeated plays aspect, Alan Williamson’s “Nier Death Experience” in Issue 4 of Five Out of Ten (2013) is the one that most draws out the game’s final ending and its significance. Williamson gives one of the better overviews of the game in this respect, starting with its narrative connection to Drakengard. The piece is really a testament to the value of magazine format (or at the very least, a testament of Williamson’s writing), as the multiple pages give time for it to slowly unfold and provide the details and background necessary for Williamson’s argument.

Nick LaLone’s “Images of Women 12: The Final Bout” is another post now only accessible through the Wayback Machine. It’s a fairly complicated piece, as it’s the culmination of a series of posts by LaLone that looks more generally at videogames and popular culture with regards to gender and intersectionality, but it’s also a study of Kainé and the game’s representation of intersexuality. What distinguishes LaLone’s approach from others (aside from his references to Hegelian dialectics, Deleuze and Guattari, and sociology as a discipline) is that he takes an intersectional approach, by contextualizing Kainé within Japanese culture. Specifically, he argues that Kainé is best interpreted as a moe character, the embodiment of an idea in a character, and that Kainé’s general design and intersex state reflects the game’s commentary on transcending binary oppressions regarding the body.

Sinan Kubba’s “Nier the Caregiver” (another accessible only by Wayback) is a brief, more personal, piece, looking at Nier’s role as caregiver for his daughter Yonah, a perspective similar to, but distinct from Christian Nutt’s earlier take. The NPC barks in Nier’s home town are well-meaning inquiries into Yonah’s health that become grating over time, reinforcing Nier’s lack of control over the situation, a sentiment Kubba can relate to.

Though Kubba’s speaking of providing care for someone with an ongoing, debilitating illness rather than necessarily a father caring for a child, it may be interesting to compare Nier’s relationship with Yonah to more recent surrogate father relationships in games (for example, the repeated statements from BioShock Infinite developers prior to the game’s launch that Elizabeth was going to be “useful” to the PC) — or for that matter, comparing the relationship to that in Cavia’s other version of the game, where Nier is Yonah’s brother.

Nightmare Mode has two 2012 pieces that also delve into more personal reactions to the game, addressing directly how Nier presents violence to its players. First, Big Shell goes into detail on the changes involved in the cutscenes featuring the Junk Heap (one of the game’s later areas) after seeing things from the antogonists’ perspective. She argues that by doing so, the game leaves the choice up to the player in a manner more subtle than videogames usually manage. One of the most interesting aspects is one the author addresses in the comments, regarding the game’s final ending. It’s usually interpreted in terms of the player’s perspective, but Big Shell questions what it would mean to the character Nier:

What was Nier’s intention? Was it out of altruism…? Was it redemption for his own actions? Or was it a cowardice of leaving the mess he created so he didn’t have to deal with the shortcomings himself?

In the other Nightmare Mode piece, Alois Wittwer presents a different take on Nier‘s violence, suggesting that its genre borrowing functions like the alienation of the Epic Theatre movement. That is, it’s meant to draw players’ attention to its status as game, to force the players to address their own complicity in the game’s violence. It’s an argument that works very well with director Yoko’s own account, available from the previous Clauson link. Wittwer ends on that note of complicity:

You’re the one who willingly submits to the game’s arbitrary requirements to unlock everything while it screams at you to stop and think about what you’re doing. This set up shatters the false reality of fiction and places the ramifications of murder solely on us, rather than our avatar. But if you’re capable of dismissing the violence you commit on screen, Nier is more than happy to treat you the same way.

Finally, for those who prefer their discussion distilled into a single podcast rather than dispersed over multiple links, Big Red Potion’s 2011 podcast “Nier Far Wherever You Are” includes commenters Sinan Kubba, Jeffrey Matulef, Eddie Inzauto, Brad Gallaway, and Chris Green. The podcast runs a little over 1 hour and 20 minutes, and covers such topics as the game’s negative reception; its genre borrowing; the way the game’s repeated plays adds to the overall game; its tragic tone; and the sexualization of Kainé, the game’s intersex character. While most of the points they cover are covered elsewhere (including in things that some of them have written elsewhere), it’s worth noting that it was thanks to this discussion that the connection between the genre-borrowing of the early half of the game and the story deconstruction of the latter part really clicked with me.

Want to contribute to this Critical Compilation, or pitch one of your own on another game? Send us an email with “Critical Compilation: [game]” in the subject line!

Greetings, the Internet. I have come here to chew bubblegum and curate games writing. Fortunately I have plenty of both so let’s not draw this out. Welcome to another edition of This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Economics and Faerie Magic

On The Mary Sue, Victoria McNally reflects on Neopets’ economic history since its 1999 release:

In Neopets, the rising rate of neopoints got particularly bad as it expanded. The trend didn’t gounnoticed, either; as early as June 2001, many economically savvy users noted in the Neopian Times that inflation was occurring and might need intervention to balance itself out… [suggesting] the site is now “a horrifying and disturbing look into the faults of late capitalism and the unfettered exploitation inevitable in unregulated economic systems[…]”

Zombies Ate My Culture

At Paste Maddy Myers reflects on the pre-9/11 anxieties represented in the original Reisdent Evil along with what would now be considered its genre-defying message of cooperation, “Most strikingly, however, the original Resident Evil differs from post-90s-era zombie videogames because it does not have a libertarian message.”

To compare how zombies have changed, take a look at Reid McCarter’s analysis of The Last of Us as a conflict between “the Apollonian virtues [of Joel] (logic, individuality, denial) and Ellie the Dionysian (chaos, universality, acceptance).”

Lastly (and not technically involving zombies), Dan Whitehead of EuroGamer hopes that Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro’s collaboration on the next Silent Hill will bring back the weirdness of Silent Hill 2.

First-Person Whistleblower

Kill Screen’s Christ Priestman talks to Nicky Case about Israel aggression in the Gaza strip and police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri and how they relate to his upcoming game about citizen journalism.

Case hopes that his game will illustrate how controlling the narrative of something like escalating police violence in Ferguson controls how people understand the event: especially given how mainstream news outlets failed to broadcast what went on.

Battlefield: USA

Speaking of Ferguson, EA’s upcoming first-person shooter, Battlefield: Hardline has been scrutinized by a number of writers for its indifference and outright enthusiasm for the “warrior cop” figure seen in so many images of Ferguson over the last week.

Mike Williams of USgamer warns that “Life Imitates Art“:

Battlefield: Hardline plays on the growing militarization of the police, showing scenes of all-out war between heavily-armed police and criminals. It’s a war game in a different skin, something that should probably disturb us more than it does.

His concern is that Hardline equates police with soldiers and cities with warzones.

Meanwhile, in an article for the Paris Review, Kevin Nguyen is disquieted by how nonchalant the game appears to be toward police violence: “Simply put: as a cop in Hardline, you have the choice of killing people or not. The decision is entirely dependent on your mood.”

More Conflict

Mike Joffe investigates the relationship between conflict minerals and electronics on his blog, Video Games of the Oppressed. It’s well researched piece covering a topic that often gets ignored in both gaming and tech circles (Content warning: discussions of rape and slavery):

The current climate of phone consumption encourages people to upgrade and replace phones as often as possible. This is mirrored in the video game industry, where the lifespan of consoles is ever shrinking in favor of increasingly incremental upgrades. Even activist groups admit that recycling, even on a colossal scale, can not approach meeting the current demand.

Won’t Someone Think of the Gamers?

(Content warnings for this section: sexist language, harassment, stalking.)

Zoe Quinn (you might remember her as the woman who helped create Depression Quest, a free resource designed to help people through mental illness) is under attack for an alleged professional transgression.

For the last week a hate campaign including a number of prolific videogame personalities has coordinated harassment of both Quinn and her friends and colleagues. In Quinn’s own words:

Suddenly I don’t have any right to privacy or basic dignity. Suddenly I don’t get to live out normal parts of life, like going through a bad and ugly breakup in private. I have forfeited this by being a blip in a small community, while those who delight in assailing me hide behind their keyboards and a culture that permits it, beyond reproach.

My life and my body are not public property. No one’s life and body are public property.

In response, Liz Ryerson sifts through the 4chan forums where Quinn’s harassers lurk and analyses the conservative extremism behind their thinking.

the idea of trusting the word of a frighteningly narcissistic ex who’s out to ruin her reputation is fine with them, because it meshes with their worldview. suddenly they have a convenient situation that explains away all their disillusionment and misgivings with themselves and game culture.

At The Border House, Zoya Street dissects how TotalBiscuit, one of the aforementioned videogame personalities involved in harassing Quinn, has leveraged his privilege to deflect criticism.

Luke Pullen, on the other hand, looks at how gamer culture at large has taken literal fascist leaps of reasoning to protect the purity of videogames as an institute.

(End content warning section.)

Rules of Engagement

Lana Polansky pens a reminder that harassers are not entitled to a place in the conversation, adding that comment sections do less to democratize discourse and more to distract people from making a point of their own.

Elsewhere, Mattie Brice offers some practical advice to those wishing to help:

Instead of ‘how can I solve oppression for every person on the planet,’ start close to home; are you doing things for your loved ones? Have you sat down with the people in your life you know are minoritized and had meaningful conversations about these topics and how you could contribute to their safety? Do they even know they can come to you in the first place about these sorts of issues?

A Culture Fit

David Mullich, a long-time game developer, writes on Gamasutra about his experience with ageism in the industry, dispelling many of the myths associated with older developers and pointing out the ridiculous anxieties that prevent older devs from being hired.

At The New York Times Chris Suellentrop salutes a number of women who are a neglected part of game development history.

Things I Couldn’t Connect with a Bad Pun

Mathew Burns uses an analogy of a consumer-king and his board of advisors to break down the consumerist logic behind the gamer-reviewer relationship.

Wendi Sierra examines Always Sometimes Monsters, cautiously applauding it for “attempting to tackle serious issues” while critiquing it for “coming off as too exaggerated to be relatable.”

Dennis Scimeca praises the educational value of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiago and Oregon Trail.

~Fin

So as you can see this week has been a bit of a downer. But if you’re looking to lighten your mood you can submit a humorous takedown of your favourite game for Patrick Lindsey’s Crit Roast.

Or you could get involved with our Blogs of the Round Table for August and September, where the theme is Catharsis.

As ever, Critical Distance depends on its readers to submit links to critical writing by email or by Twitter! And if you’d like to support us further you can help us keep growing by contributing to our Patreon. Thanks for stopping by.

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

Streaming

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

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

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

All That’s Fit to Print

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

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

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

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

*breathes*

Histories

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

Race! Race! Race!

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

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

Extended Reading

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

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

Closing

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

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

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

That’s it for this week! There’s quality writing and reading here to keep you informed, educated and perspectived on videogames and art, so you should take advantage. To support the work that we do here, you can help us continue our curating work at our Patreon. Happy reading, and take care of yourself!

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

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

It’s not abnormal to hear players reference the time they devote to games as a type of stress release. We play to escape reality, to cope with emotions, to vent frustration, and to experience surmountable problems in the wake of real-world problems that may seem unsolvable.

Tell us about your experiences with games as catharsis. Did a particular game experience help you find peace of mind? Did a particular narrative strike a chord that helped you overcome a challenge? Did your frustrated rage of a particularly hard level help you vent deeper frustrations that weren’t game related? Did you ever rage-quit a game and have an epiphany about yourself? Did you ever find yourself in a better place or positive position as a result of play?

We’re accepting your blogs until September 31st. You can see current submissions here:

Use this code to embed the links in your blog, if your publishing platform allows iframes:

<iframe type="text/html" width="600" height="20" src="http://www.tinysubversions.com/bort.html?month=August14" frameborder="0"></iframe>

Please email us your submissions or tweet them to @markfilipowich and @thejoycean with the #BoRT hashtag. Happy blogging!

Rules of the Round Table

  • Blogs of the Round Table is not curated. If you write it, we’ll publish it, as long as it’s connected to the topic and has been written specially for BoRT or up to one month prior.
  • This BoRT post is the home of the discussion: as I receive new submission blogs, I’ll update the ‘BoRT Linkomatic’ so new blogs are reflected on this page immediately. We’ll also use the @critdistance Twitter account to post regular updates, so follow us!
  • Your duty as a knight of the round table is to leave a comment on a blog to which you respond with a link to the response piece, to give them a ‘right of reply’. Keep the conversation going.
  • If your work contains potentially disturbing content, please include a suitable warning at the start. Use your common sense.
  • You can submit as many articles as you like throughout the month, and it doesn’t matter if they are commercially published, paywalled or available for free. We will need a transcript for paywalled content to be approved.

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

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

Direct Download

SHOW NOTES

Banana Peppers Martinis

PopMatters – L.B. Jefferies

Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess Review

Zarathusra Analysis

ZA Critique: The Darkness

ZA Critique: Okami

Lester Bangs rant

Pauline Kael – 1234

Samuel Johnson and Video Games

Does Video Games Need a Lester Bangs?

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

Does Video Games Need a Pauline Kael?

On Design Centric Criticism

Telling Tales in Gabriel Knight 2

Opening Theme: ‘Close’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Closing Theme: ‘Wishing Never’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

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

At All Costs

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

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

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

Keeping Up with Kapitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Many Feels

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

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

Story Mode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adventure Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take a Look, It’s in a Book

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

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

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

Access/ibility

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

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

Other Sundry

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

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

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

Foreign Correspondence

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

Kevin Stäubli summarized the recent Twitch.tv brouhaha.

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

So Long, Farwell

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

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

 

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

Play it Again, Sam

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

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

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

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

Show, Don’t Tell 

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

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

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

This, I do understand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s All She Wrote This Week, Everyone

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

See you next Sunday!

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

June / July’s theme was ‘VINPCs’:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cult of Celebrity

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Talk

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

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

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

A Matter of Interpretation

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

Marginalization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Blocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unseen Academicals

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

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

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

Dollars and Sense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Palm of Your Hand

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

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

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

Ten Seconds to Air

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

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