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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.

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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!

Did you know we have a Facebook page too? We totally do, and you should totally Like it.

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!

June 2015: ‘Pets’

June 6th, 2015 | Posted by Mark Filipowich in Blogs of the Round Table: - (Comments Off on June 2015: ‘Pets’)

As with many others who live on the internet, I have a special place in my heart for adorable fluffy creatures. As a pet owner, there’s a special relationship I have with my poor deaf, doe-eyed furr baby, one that occasionally finds simulations in my games. This month’s theme is as straightforward and exciting as it gets: let’s hear all about ‘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.

My cat tells me that she’s willing to wait until June 30 to learn about your experiences. After that, she’ll have to find a new topic to curl up and rest on while I try to work. Find out what our other contributors have to say so far:

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=June15" frameborder="0"></iframe>

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=June15" frameborder="0"></iframe>

Please email us your submissions or tweet them to @MarkFilipowich or @critdistance with the #BoRT hashtag. Happy blogging!

Rules of the Round Table

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

May Roundup: ‘Plans’

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

I just settled into a deep cup of chamomile tea for the last night at home before a long bus ride takes me away for a week when I realized I forgot to write this roundup. I’ve always been more of a coffee drinker anyway.

Besides, isn’t it true that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry? How often? Let’s dig into this month’s Blogs of the Round Table covering every facet of ‘plans’ to find out.

Leigh Harrison starts us off with a look at Metro 2033 on his blog, As Houses, where he describes the chaotic, close and uncomfortable early combat encounters in contrast with the later, precise and malicious ones later in the game. It’s a good case study of how plans and their absence create totally different experiences:

The Devil is in the detail, so we’re told, and it was certainly present in my flawless approach to tunnel navigation. There was a kind of gentle naivete to my earlier bumblings; I was simply getting by in my environment. There was no time for malice to infect my actions: I was too busy trying to survive. But as soon as I donned the night vision I became calculating and coolly removed from my actions. In being able to plan out my attacks to the letter, rather than responding to those of others, I’d lost something along the way.

Now that Alisha Karabinus is 100 hours into State of Decay, she’s written a not-quite postmortem to discuss her personal experience with it, the failure of reviews in capturing it and the endless plans she and her husband have made for it:

It doesn’t really matter who’s holding the controller; our game is a team effort, meticulously planned levels in advance. We talk as we play, changing strategy and approach, hammering out an order for searching houses and undertaking missions, determining how and when to build the support buildings that will allow us to maximize our crew’s knowledge and abilities. We howl and cringe together over deaths. In this game, we are one unit, one player with four hands, two brains.

Likewise, Joseph Dean argues that the lack of a meta game—that is a list of communally developed strategies organized by effectiveness—is what makes Frozen Synapse such a great multiplayer experience. Because the planning phase recurs, the Frozen Synapse player always reacts and adjusts their plan in a way that meta plans fall apart when faced with unexpected challenges.

The editing staff at Fem Hype get together to discuss the moments in games that made each of them cry, many if them describe events that disrupted their plans or expectations. Whether in Gone Home or Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, some of the most emotionally powerful moments these authors describe are those connected to the plans they brought into their games (content warning: sexual abuse, suicide).

Back at Not your Mama’s Gamer, Samantha Blackmon describes the planning needed to play games with her daughter (and the scaling difficulty that comes with it).

Writing for The Ludi Bin, Rachel Helps notes the delicate balance between the love of planning and the love of spontaneity, noting how both the success of figuring things out and the frustration of missing content hinge on not knowing what comes next. In her own words:

[A]s much as I like to plan things, I also enjoy not knowing what will come next. If never missing out on parts of games means never being surprised, I’m okay with missing out on a few things.

The Rev gives a solid overview of the dating sim genre before describing how Sentimental Graffiti differs. The genre is based on planning and learning, which Sentimental Graffiti pushes even further with a resource management mechanic. For The Rev, dating sims can be summed up thusly:

Even taking points into account,  the player only has two resources to manage: information and choices. Through reading the story and paying attention to the object of their affection, the player is able to make choices that move the story in the desired direction.

Matt Duczeminski offers what is likely a familiar story for many of us about his experiences growing up around games in comparison with the time he needs to portion for them as an adult.

Phill English, from the regular BoRT contributors over at Tim and Phill Talk About Games, offers a brief look at the exciting world of game jams, where the zany first hour of outrageous planning can sometimes prove the most fun and social part of an entire event:

There are a lot of great things about game jams, but my absolute favourite bit is the jammiest part of it: the planning stage. It’s a magical moment when the only limits are a vague theme and the sparkle-filtered memory of what it was like last time. When 24 or 48 or 72 hours seems like an eternity and the air around you still manages to thrum with potential through the grease of a traditional McDonald’s breakfast.

Sean Seyler describes a trip to Germany with his wife for the most recent DiGRA conference and relates it to Skies of Arcadia which, like a good trip, follows the itinerary just enough to know what go expect but breaks to keep things interesting:

I plan for sake of it, trying to use my knowledge of how things have gone to make how things will go better. Whether it’s travel or gameplay, I anticipate what I can and make myself open for challenges that await.

Taylor Hidalgo loves to plan his way through complex systems, but he admits that he never sees his plan through in multiplayer games like Killing Floor 2, where he so expects to fail that he frequently leaves teammates behind:

To me, the concept of a plan is an ideal: a theoretical perfection that rarely survives the first spanner in the gears. When the first things start to go awry, my reflex is to reposition, reconsider, and survive. I am a great survivalist, but I will invariably get everyone around me killed.

I have a friend like you, Taylor, and let me just say that we’ve resorted to making them into the human minesweeper because they’re always first to buckle under pressure.

And that will just about do it for this edition of Blogs of the Round Table. As always, I’m thrilled that so many took an interest in submitting such excellent work and I hope that everyone else enjoyed reading it as much as I did.

Once again, if your site supports iframes, copy-paste this nifty bit of code to add the Link-o-Matic 5000:

<iframe type=”text/html” width=”600? height=”20? src=”http://www.tinysubversions.com/bort.html?month=May15? frameborder=”0?></iframe>

Finally, if you’re interested in supporting BoRT and everything else we do here at Critical Distance, take a look at our Patron page and consider contributing a monthly donation.

Otherwise, I have written in my daybook in red ink that June’s topic is just around the corner so make sure to keep room for it in your own plans.

May 2015

June 1st, 2015 | Posted by Lindsey Joyce in This Month in Let's Plays: - (Comments Off on May 2015)

Hello my friends, another month has flown by, can you believe it? We’ve had an almost full month of rain here in Texas, which means there’s been every opportunity to hide away inside watching Let’s Plays. Thank you LPers for getting me through the month! In summation, here’s what May had to offer This Month in Let’s Plays:

Welcome to the Club

First, Critical Distance is pleased to report that two of its own have joined the rank of Critical Let’s Play creators this month:

In her new series Ways of Playing, Lana Polansky plays LSD Dream Emulator. After some historical background about the game, Polansky reads excerpts from Osamu Sato’s diary while playing the game.

Next, in the first episode of his new series Let’s Talk Trans, Riley MacLeod plays Eldritch. Cleverly, against the backdrop of this Lovecraftian stealth game, MacLeod discusses trans visibility. Importantly, MacLeod draws a distinction between media about and media for the trans people.

Interesting Failures

Chris Franklin analyzes the interesting failures of Only If. The game was an attempt at ludic absurdism but, Franklin notes, there are problems with this interpretation. (Advisory: Franklin warns that the game’s graphics can cause motion sickness. I can attest to this, personally. As a result, this summary was provided by fellow-curator Eric Swain because I could not get through the complete LP on my own. Thanks, Eric!)

Elsewhere, George Weidman, aka Super Bunnyhop, looks at the living artifact P.T. has become and how it now functions as a more valuable commodity than a finalized shipped game. Additionally, however, Weidman discusses the inevitable success the completed game would have garnered and why.

Storyworld Building and Limits

This LP on Castlecouch combines the essay by Olivier Blouchard with a voice over by Raphael Bennett to look at the storyworld of Grim Fandango in the remastered edition. Blouchard notes, “It feels like the perfect memory of the game, if you had it [the memory]”. That said, Blouchard didn’t play the original Grim Fandango, but remains impressed by the game’s ability to craft a believable world. He notes that the environments feel like real places because they offer more options than are necessary for the mere progression of the game. The spaces are big and the characters, with extensive dialogue options, feel multi-dimensional.

Heather Alexandra considers what it means and what  it entails to be “out of bounds” in games. Alexandra suggests that when players boot up a game, they “forge an unspoken contract with the game” about its rules and its limits, including the boundaries of its simulation. From this, Alexandra looks at the strong exertion of boundaries in Final Fantasy XV; the system will forcibly end the players game if they threaten the boundaries delineated by the simulation.

Death, Time Control, and F.E.A.R

This month, in another comprehensive franchise retrospective LP, Noah Caldwell-Gervais reviews all of the F.E.A.R games, including 1-3, both expansions, the DLC, and F.E.A.R Online. Personal sidenote: I always look forward to the title screen/intros in Calwell-Gervais’s Let’s Plays.

Actual Will considers whether time control is making you miserable in Life is Strange. Actual Will notes that while people want the ability to change their mind, and that while the time control mechanism in the game makes that a possibility, people are also “notoriously bad at predicting how they will feel,” and as a result, the game creates more, not less, agony as a result.

Stephen Beirne proposes that The Absence of Is is more cynical than it lets on. He suggests it is “much more interested in unknowability than themes of discovery.” This unknowability extends beyond the game too, Beirne notes, as the source material on which it is based comes from an unpublished novel.

Closing

If you didn’t see your Let’s Play in this month’s roundup, remember that we operate via submission! Send your submissions to us via Twitter using #LetsPlayCD to designate them for the Let’s Play Roundup, or you can always email us. Please don’t hesitate to submit your own Let’s Play.

Next month, I’ll be taking my PhD qualifying exams (word of encouragement can be sent here). Since I’ll be busy stressing over those, Riley MacLeod has agreed to host This Month in Let’s Play for June. So, my friends, I will see you on the other side in July!

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

May 31st

May 31st, 2015 | Posted by Joe Köller in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on May 31st)

You are in a maze of links, all alike. Obvious exits are Forward, Back and [x].

>n

You can’t go that way.

>i

You are carrying: a lantern, a blue keycard, a can of chainsaw fuel, a sense of existential dread and an indistinct scroll.

>read scroll

You need to unroll it first.

>unroll scroll, read scroll

It is signed by one Joe Köller. “The date is May 31st 2015,” it begins. “and this is This Week In Videogame Blogging!”

[press any button to continue]

An Ouroboros of Trouser Snakes

(Content warning: sexual discussion and imagery.)

Continuing his series of gay sex games, Robert Yang released the dick pic simulator Cobra Club this week, accompanied by an artist’s statement detailing his intentions to explore both the aesthetics of these images, and concerns over sharing them opposite the game’s fictional dating platform and twist ending.

Patricia Hernandez shared her own experience with the game, and many, many screenshots on Kotaku, while Todd Harper responded on his blog, arguing that the game may accurately represent the weirdness of taking one of these pictures, but that its inconsequential interactions with would-be matches fail to capture the inherent dread of sharing them.

[W]hat’s missing from Cobra Club that problematizes it as a “devastatingly honest” look at the relationship between dick pics and gay male identity is the dick pic as a measure of a person’s worth. At no point in the game is the player’s cock or pictures of said cock given any sort of real, qualitative evaluation. Every potential viewer engages it at the level of acceptance: “I asked for a dick, you gave me one. Thank you.” And there it ends.

What Is Love But A Second Hand Emoji

Last week saw an interesting triptych of mediations on the state of our medium.

First off, Gita Jackson took to Offworld to critique the abysmal state of games archival, noting that our failure to preserve “extends beyond just the games themselves and into our collective database of knowledge, criticism and practices within our field.”

The next day, Leigh Alexander described, among many other things, the personal effects of working in an industry more concerned with achieving legitimacy than with achieving permanence and stability: “Our ongoing memory crisis […] means we are all afraid to stop lest we be swept away and forgotten. If I were ever to stop, then five years from now, someone quite like me will not have known of me.”

Responding to both, but also responding to neither, Stephen Beirne examined his own reasons for writing about games, and whether we should even want to preserve them.

Sick Bio Warez

Writing for Gamasutra, Katherine Cross compares the systemization of morality in D&D, Pathfinder and Bioware games. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Sampat wrote a blog post about othering, fantasy racism and the evolution of the portrayal of the Qun across the Dragon Age series.

Written between 1937 and 1945, The Lord Of The Rings was actually the final story in a world Tolkien had been working on since 1917. His work was inevitably influenced by the end of Britain’s “Imperial Century” and the beginning of decolonization, which lead to waves of new immigration.

Over on Femhype, Jillian looks at some of the stereotypical writing and problematic comments (Content Warning: transphobia) that turned her off Sera in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Gamesculture.biz

Exciting news broke last week when EA announced that women’s soccer would at last be included in the latest installment of their FIFA series. Mary Hamilton talked about the predictably terrible reactions to this absolutely minor effort at inclusion.

In Fifa 15, the last instalment of the franchise, there are more than 16,000 players. All of them are male. (Many of them are not as good at football as the women’s World Cup players.) There are 23 players in a World Cup squad. This suggests that approximately 1.7% of the players in Fifa 16 will be female.

Elsewhere, Megan Condis looked at the consequences of Rust‘s decision to randomly assign skin colors to its players. Chief among them “a definite uptick in overtly racist language.”

Time for some poetry. Take it away, Savannah Winter.

And Then There Were Videogames…

Chris Franklin looks at the mess that is Only If and is left wondering if an absurdist videogame (video) is even possible.

Claris Cyarron compares Rothko’s multiforms to the games Forska, A Cosmic Forest and Condor. Also in the latest Arcade Review, Eve Golden Woods compares Dan Olson’s Resist to James Joyce’s The Dead.

In case you’re curious what the kids are playing these days, you may want to check out David Wolinsky’s interview with a 13-year-old gamer in the latest issue of Unwinnable Weekly.

Holly Green shares her experience playing games with OCD.

Ultimata Ratio Regum developer Mark Johnson examined the advantages and disadvantages of unlocking additional content over time in roguelikes, arguing that it ultimately distracts from the intention of learning through failure.

Reminding us not to get carried away with our analogies, Amsel von Spreckelsen points out that Bloodborne is nothing like an abuser (Content Warning: discussion of abuse and domestic violence).

Kim Foale examines the tendency of both video- and boardgames to gloss over problematic aspects of history.

G. Christopher Williams has found the game design equivalent of trashy movies: making them play fast.

Making a different analogy than the usual film or book comparisons, Naomi Clark asks: Where is the Brie of videogames?

On The German Side of Things

Ally Auner has a recent radio interview she did on gender roles in games available online for listening.

Nina Kiel reviewed the LGBTQIA* documentary Gaming in Color.

Video Game Tourism’s latest monthly discussion covers Bloodborne and the Souls series. It includes an essay by myself, which I won’t link, but do check out Agata Goralczyk interpreting the games using Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, and Robert Glashüttner’s contrary opinion to the games’ critical adoration.

Another One Bites De_Dust

That’s about it for this week folks! Until then, why not listen to the latest two episodes of our podcast? Blogs of the Round Table just wrapped up, but this month’s summary and the announcement of next month’s theme is going to be out soon.

If you have any interesting links for us, be sure to throw them at us on Twitter or by email. Please remember to tag any links meant for Blogs of the Round Table or This Month in Let’s Plays with #BorT or #LetsPlayCD. And don’t forget that we accept German and French submissions as well, and are always looking to expand to more languages if you know anybody who’d be interested in helping us out with that.

Oh, and did you know that I just started a weekly discussion group for reading seminal games criticism and critical theory? We are wetting our beaks with a bit of Wittgenstein this week. Why not join the fun!

Lastly, a reminder: Critical Distance is funded entirely by you, dear readers. If you appreciate our work, or have an interest helping with our own curatorial and preservation efforts, please consider pledging to our Patreon. My birthday is coming up soon, hint hint.

See you next week!