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ffviiiThis week in videogame blogging we cruise through some videogame music, take a look back at an overlooked classic, pick up a couple of excellent pieces we missed from last week and a Chick gets stood up by Sony. Onwards and upwards!

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised any more when videogame publishers do something like this but I had thought that after last years Gerstmann-gate saga that the industry had learnt a thing or two. I stand thoroughly corrected this week after hearing that Tom Chick was given the cold shoulder by Sony after publishing some “unfavourable” press about Sony’s upcoming inFamous game. He turned up for an interview with a developer only to be told “Sorry, we don’t want to talk to you anymore” after he published a list of “10 stupid things about inFamous” alongside a list of “10 cool things about inFamous“. Apparently “fair and balanced” is not enough for the big ol’ Sony. That or they’re still smarting over his panning of Killzone 2.

Technically from last week, but good enough to warrant inclusion this week is Justin Keverne’s ‘Playing the Sex Card‘, in which he discusses playing as the racist, sexist, misogynistic protagonist in The Witcher. He makes a great point about how, if we are expecting games to evolve and mature, then we are going to have to get used to [edit: mature  content] in them, much like in other media. He says,

If we want mature games in the truest sense of the word then at some point they will need to engage with themes of prejudice and intolerance. It stands to reason that such games will need to feature characters who are sexist, racist or otherwise prejudiced and offensive.

Also technically from last week is this piece by Nick Dinicola about ‘Why you should care about Dom’s wife‘.  Nick suggests that, in Gears of War 2, we are not playing the main character in the story. He says that,

If the story of Gears of War 2 was told in any other medium, Dom would be the main character because he’s the only one with an emotional arc, an arc driven by his lost wife. We only think of Marcus as the main character because he’s our avatar, but he’s a static character with no development over the course of the game.

The idea that we don’t have to play “the main character” in a game is one that I find extremely interesting and a great area for future exploration in games. Come to think of it, it actually reminds me of Tom Armitage’s assertion that in Far Cry 2 the player’s nemesis and target throughout the game, The Jackal, is actually the main character.

This week, Michael Abbott of The Brainy Gamer is at the ‘Games for Change‘ conference, but before he left he introduced the metaphor of ‘driving your first car through your old neighbourhood‘ for the playing through of old, vintage videogames. There is something immediately familiar about the experience of replaying an old game, but it’s also not the same as it used to be – maybe the clutch sticks a bit more, maybe the windscreen is a bit dirty. It’s a theme that John Walker mentioned as well in the latest Rock, Paper, Shotgun podcast, with his example being the early Ultima Underworld games and how one in particular has become “practically unplayable” in the intervening years.

Leigh Alexander still writes the oddest pieces for the Big K, this week interviewing Brooklyn based ‘Anamanaguchi‘ in ‘The chiptunes band that just might break through‘.

While we’re on the subject of music, Dan Bruno makes a triumphant return to blogging this week at Cruise Elroy with his latest entry in the ‘Irregular Meter’ series of posts. This time he looks at the use of irregular meter in music of the Warcraft series. Previous entries in the series covered irregular meter in Jet Force Gemini, Road Rash 3 and the Penny Arcade game and in Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VIII and IX. A great series for anyone interested in music and games.

This week the pre-eminent game satirists at Hard-Casual invent a situation in Counter-Strike wherein a mysterious player graffities some Dylan Thomas poetry onto a wall near a spawn point, leading to the debilitation of all players as they invariably stop to ponder its meaning.

“I just wish whoever’s tag this is will tell us what the hell is going on,” said Babyduck211. “I would really like to get back to not thinking.”

It reminds me very much of the C-S art-project ‘Velvet-Strike‘ which you should definitely check out if you’ve never heard of it. From the website description, Velvet-Strike is

A collection of spray paints to use as graffiti on the walls, ceiling, and floor of the popular network shooter terrorism game “Counter-Strike“. Velvet-Strike was conceptualized during the beginning of Bush’s “War on Terrorism.” We invite others to submit their own “spray-paints” relating to this theme.

It’s slightly hard for me to recommend this next entry – primarily because I haven’t read it all, but you’ll understand why when I say that it’s apparently 14,000 words long. In the blog post-cum-short-story “Over and Under“, Duncan Fyfe of Hit Self-Destruct writes about… well… it kind of defies encapsulation in 100 words, so you’ll just have to try and wade through it yourself. I certainly plan to as soon as I work up the courage. You can take that as a recommendation of sorts.

This week’s must read piece, and the last one on our list, is an essay on Final Fantasy VIII – the one that most people don’t like. As the piece reveals, however, despite an awkward magic system and questionable English translation, it remains one of the most personal and affecting games of the series. It also suggests that the game presents one of the most convincing, lived in and explorable worlds and cemented Final Fantasy’s visual and architectural style.

Balamb Garden is the epitome of the game’s unique style: a massive, colorful building shaped like a mountain, with an illuminated halo-like structure hovering above it.  It’s a marvel of futuristic design that apes neither the bland sterility of Star Trek or Minority Report, nor the towering, baroque architecture of Blade Runner or Metropolis.  The Garden looks almost organic, something both man-made and a part of the natural environment.

The real take-away, however, is that the game “starts off as an epic adventure and slowly reveals itself to be a character study” and the story is, for the main characters, that

the experience of warfare stole their childhood innocence and is slowly turning them into soldiers who have no purpose except the next battle.  More than that, it’s a commentary on how the responsibilities and pressures of adulthood can cause us to forget who we once were.

An absolute must read, even for those that aren’t fans of the series in general or that entry in particular. I know it opened my eyes to why I personally found it so resonant, all those many years ago.

As always, if you have read a blog post or article that you found particularly excellent and would like to see it included in TWIVGB, feel free to leave a link in the comments or email us at editors@this-website.

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This Week in Videogame Blogging: Hard-Casual reveals exclusively that Dig Dug has uncovered the body of Jimmy Hoffa!

Now that that’s out of my system; Once more unto the breach, dear friends.

For my fellow Australian readers, David Wildgoose turfs up another thoughtful commentary on the “plunder down under” that is targeting us players of electronic videogames. Actually, that’s a complete fabrication – I just wanted to be able to say “plunder down under”. In reality, David talked about how prices are set for different regions on digital distribution services such as Steam, and in a two-fer-one, the week before he talked about how Australia’s perceived ‘raw deal’ at retail is less ‘sinister price-gouging’ and more a result of publishers hedging their bets around the fluctuation of the Australian dollar. On second thoughts, do we actually have any Australian Critical Distance readers? Hmm…

Matthew Wasteland waxes lyrical on the subject of… not a game this time, but a game blogger – specifically, PixelVixen707 (aka Rachael Webster). A good summary of the situation and perhaps suggestive of how to engage with someone who is part real and part made up. Oh, and the ‘Vixen herself now has a column at the soft-core pornography website Suicide Girls. For this week she wrote about the indie game Today I Die and manages to quite effectively communicate the game’s feel to a non-gaming audience. For another great take on Today I Die, check out Corvus Elrod’s excellent advice – “play it like a poem” – and more here.

Critical Distance contributor Nels Anderson writes about how we often anticipate forthcoming seasons of a television series despite remaining deeply sceptical of movie sequels. He suggests that videogame “sequels” should perhaps be more viewed as “seasons” in the post “Sequel? – Nay, season“, giving some good reasons as to why.

Also this week, this author’s favourite game-designer-cum-blogger, CLINT HOCKING wrote about his time with the game Naruto: Rise of a Ninja. He particularly liked the realisation of the open world city for its conciseness, its interesting NPC interactions as well as its interesting spatial organisation.

While on the subject of architecture and spatial geography, Jim Rossignol puts his head together with the mind behind BLDGBLOG and together they come up with some truly fascinating ideas. Touching on subjects such as gaming neuroscience, texting and literacy, why Rossignol’s book has no pictures, the differences between architecture critics and videogame critics, how CCTV footage always looks like it’s just waiting for an incident, and a whole swath of other ideas to do with the confluence of videogames and architecture, it is this week’s must read. Here’s a quote from Rossignol to pique your interest:

[Videogame] critics and writers are heavily dissuaded from being speculative when talking about games, and I think this is because there’s a tendency for gamers to be backseat designers. There’s a strong tendency for people to dismiss journalists who write speculatively about games or who talk about games’ futures or the possibilities of game design the way that you do with architecture. I wonder if that’s different with architecture because there are so few backseat architects, so to speak.

It’s turning into quite the week for pairs, with two more think-pieces about Braid. In the first, Duncan Fyfe writes around the ever elusive subject of “What Braid is About” in the post ‘Hit Self-Esteem‘ …except that it’s less about what Braid the game is about and more about what Braid in its entirety is about. The second is Logan Crowell’s follow-up post to his initial gauntlet-throwing column ‘The Alligators Have Good Graphics’ mentioned in TWIVGB a couple of weeks ago. In Part 2, he applies his erudition to Braid and, for a large part of a long essay, compares it and its reception to another critical darling; the game Bioshock. He also delves into its “critique of Mario” nature, with perhaps the best contribution coming from his observation that, at least in platformers, narrative is less the player’s actual motivation for doing things and more “an acknowledgment that there is an ending up ahead. [That] you can save the Princess.”

But we’re not done yet – another thoughtful piece from John Walker of Rock, Paper, Shotgun should be read this week, as it deals with a rarely touched upon subject. ‘The Extraordinary Saga of Left Behind‘ is probably most worth reading because so very little is often said about being a gamer of faith, and Walker tries to distinguish between criticism of the game on design grounds and criticism of it for its blatantly Christian (and often sexist) message. Here’s how he approaches it,

Declaration of interests: I’m a Christian. Church-going, Jesus-loving, God-botherer. And yet somehow, at the same time, I’ve managed to keep a grip on my critical faculties. So when someone makes a “Christian” version of something, I don’t immediately declare it a bonus chapter to the Bible and build it a shrine.

“Christianity as lifestyle”, or defining my faith by the “Christian” flavoured media I consume, is something I’d be all too happy to see kept from the videogame space. Anyway, It’s a good read.

And finally, a quick plug for something that Michael Abbott will probably be quite interested in but which remains interesting for the rest of us: an interview at Edge Online with Celebrity Voice Actor go-out-and-getterer Lev Chapelsky. You might have seen it do the rounds at the big news sites as they particularly focussed on how Chapelsky says he tried pitching the role of President Adams in Fallout 3 to Bill Clinton (One in a million, but worth a shot!) and the rest of it is worthwhile reading too.

And that’s your lot for the week – As always if your read a post that was particularly excellent and would like to see it included in TWIVGB, feel free to leave a link in the comments or email us at editors@this-website.

P.S. – Messhof has a new game out.

By the mid 1970′s, Rock & Roll sounded nothing like the energetic blues-inspired pop songs after which the genre was named. The soundscape was now made up of concept albums, rock operas, synthesizers and 30 minute ballads. The music was elaborate and pretentious, carefully constructed by trained musicians and backed by symphony orchestras.

Then a bunch of angry teenagers yelled into their mics, strangled their guitars and killed rock and roll forever. They were fast and cheap and young and refused to compromise. Punk music made people remember what they had loved about rock in the 50′s and 60′s; the raw energy, the excitement, the emotion, the counterculture.

The game industry today shares many qualities with the bloated, elaborate, high-concept music industry of the 70′s. Budgets are skyrocketing, endless sequels are the norm, and team sizes range in the hundreds. At the same time, many of us pine for the kind of games we grew up with, the ones that made us fall in love with the medium in the first place. As Greg Costikyan put it:

You love games. You sometimes despair at the conventional game market. You look to the fringes — to indie games, to tabletop, to serious games and game for change, to anything outside of the industry mainstream — to try to recapture the sense of wonder and bliss that games once wrought in you.

Are indie games then the new punk? Are they tearing down an establishment that’s long in the tooth and has forgotten what it’s really all about? They certainly share the DIY attitude and a predilection for lo-fi technology. Jesper Juul argues:

Indie video games are like punk rock, short, low production costs, wrestling our art from the claws of big corporations.

Japanese designer Suda 51 has also called for more “punk games”, albeit with a fairly unique definition of what that means.

Suda said that a truly punk game will strike a chord with gamers the same way the Sex Pistols, Joy Division or Nirvana impacted his view of music. “We need to create that kind of game… I’d like to ask publishers to help us and support us [to make more punk games],” he said.

However, Greg Costikyan pokes holes in these comparisons:

The punk aesthetic is relentlessly anti-intellectual. …[However,] the Ramones themselves proved remarkably articulate and intelligent. And the punk revolution was equally fuelled by art-house poseurs, like the Talking Heads, who treated the anti-intellectual pose ironically. …But really. The East Village, 1973, is not gaming in 2008. And Jonathan Blow, say, is not Joey Ramone, despite a certain similarity in Brechtian cool.

I don’t think there’s one right answer to this question. Punk and indie games are similar in some ways and dissimilar in others, and it’s disingenuous to draw out the connection farther than reality. However, I can’t help but find a certain measure of excitement in the comparison.

This episode of the CDC Podcast is extra long to make up for the missed days in releasing last week’s CDC Podcast. This week we discuss genre in videogames by starting off with the Western and eventually interrogating the role of genre between videogames and other medium, videogame genres in general, and the role of genre and videogame hardware. After this week’s episode the CDC Podcast will be taking a brief hiatus, but stay tuned for future episodes. As always, I urge you to leave feedback in the comments thread and don’t be shy to drop by IRC to chat. The room is #GBConfab under the freenode.net server.

Cast:

Michael Abbot: http://www.brainygamer.com
Travis Megill: http://www.theautumnalcity.com
D. Murray: http://www.graduateschoolgamer.com
Roger Travis: http://livingepic.blogspot.com/

Show Notes:
Braingamer on Silent Hill: Shattered Memories
Judith
The XBOX Live community “Seasoned Gamers”

Get it via: RSS, iTunes, Direct Download.

Flower was released three months ago, and has spawned an amount of discussion that is quite disproportionate to the game’s brief length. Given all this, we thought that it was time for a Critical Compilation on the subject. If you’re aware of pieces that I missed, please link to them in the comments.

One of my favorite early reports on the game was Michael Abbott’s shout on The Brainy Gamer that “I LOVE THIS GAME. IT MAKES ME VERY HAPPY.”  He followed up with a somewhat longer musing on “[h]ow a video game can convey such emotions without words or a formal story”, and then dug into the details of how it works – the controls, the wind, the choice between structure and play, the pathfinding, its narrative, and its music – but his original unmediated response is one that many others share, and shows one of the defining characteristics of the game.

Another early experience report is Chris Suellentrop’s description of it in Slate as “the only video game I’ve played that made me feel relaxed, peaceful, and happy”, as the reason why he “decided to spend more than $400 for the privilege of playing a $10 game”.  We also get reports of gamer’s parents’ experiences with the game: Eric Swain of The Game Critique and Scott Juster of Experience Points both tell us of their fathers’ enjoyment of the game; the latter story ends on a sadder note, as Scott’s father can’t download it for his Wii. Both authors also return with more analytical takes: Eric Swain writes on Flower‘s User Experience design in Creative Fluff, while Scott Juster together with Jorge Albor in an Experience Points review of the game addressing its “comfortable, almost confident feeling”, its “sense of purpose”, its “exploratory learning”, wondering if “In the quest to find the Citizen Kane of video games, are we not in danger of ignoring the Fantasia of video games?”

Much of the discussion of Flower centered on what traditional game elements it omits.  Stephen Totilo reports in MTV Multiplayer on revelations by Jenova Chen at GDC that the team considered and discarded using timers, desert terrain, spells, and orbs; interestingly, they discarded these features not because players didn’t like them but because players reacted in a way that the team wasn’t looking for. Matthew of Magical Wasteland goes further in this direction, talking about what traditional game elements remain in Flower as well as its reception on both sides of the gamer/non-gamer divide.  Steven O’Dell of Raptured Reality probes our expectations more broadly, even considering our expectations of the objects we encounter in our everyday life.

Dan Kline of Game of Design discusses the fact that, in Flower, “[t]here is no way to say ‘I die’.”; Shane Hinton of First Wall Rebate also explores this theme, discussing the lack of failure as a mechanic in both Flower and in thatgamecompany’s previous title, flOw, while also pointing out the difference in accessibility between those two games and between Flower and Braid.  The First Wall Rebate team also produced a podcast episode devoted to Flower, with Shane being joined by Trevor Dodge and Shawn Rider.

Jebus of Noise Tanks also contrasts flOw with Flower; he takes particular note that narrative and a sense of accomplishment play more prominent roles in the later title.  Steve Gaynor of Fullbright digs into Flower’s mechanics, focusing on its “transmitting a concrete, sensational aesthetic”, on its “discoverable progression elements and intuitive controls”, and its “small scope, high fidelity”.  In a Gamasutra blog, Joseph Cassano also contemplates Flower’s successful use of the SIXAXIS motion controls, speculating on how it could be used in other games.

Many commenters were particularly moved to comment on the fifth and sixth levels of Flower, usually rendering a less-than-positive verdict. Bill Harris of Dubious Quality goes so far as to describe the fifth level as “a heaping bowl of I Don’t Give A Shit”; Randy Ma of GraduateSchoolGamer pens a “diatribe” where, among other things, he describes its ending as “a counter-thematic tone that completely subverts everything I have done before”.  And in Destructoid, Topher Cantler isn’t pleased by the bait-and-switch that “After spending several levels with a game that’s done everything in its power to lull me into a state of carefree relaxation, I’m now meant to wiggle between these hulking masses of twisted steel and cable to chase my flowers, and I can’t touch the sides?”

Justin Keverne of Groping the Elephant also “nearly stopped playing” upon reaching the fifth level; the game redeemed itself for him with its sixth level, leading him to conclude that playing Flower is “exactly what you want to do, even if maybe you don’t know it yet.”  I had my own say on those two levels at Malvasia Bianca; I began by finding them problematic, but ultimately ended up with a reading of the game in general and those levels in particular that I was much happier with.

Steve Amodio of 8-Bit Hacks wasn’t impressed by the “Operation-style penalties” of Flower‘s fifth level, either, but most of his post focuses on the game’s “sublime” music; he contrasts it to the music in 2001: A Space Odyssey, saying that “Where the majesty of space demands a Strauss waltz, the wind requires a Paganini caprice, and that’s what we get.”  Those with an interest in game music may also wish to read Jeriaska’s GameSetWatch interview with Vincent Diamante, the game’s composer; Diamante goes into details on the game’s instrumentation and layering.  The Flower team as a whole was quite generous with their availability and I particularly enjoyed Michael Abbott’s interview with Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen on the Brainy Gamer Podcast and Gieson Cacho’s Mercury News interview with Jenova Chen.

In (mashedmarket), Matt Vernon classifies Flower as “‘lucid gaming’ – interactive experiences so unpolluted by reality they recall nothing save for the joys of tinkering and discovery.”  Daniel Johnson of Daniel Primed tells us “the part that everyone missed”, saying that it’s “this constant reliance on landscape (the game’s sole protagonist) that allows Flower to suck you into the narrative and atmosphere.” And Clive Thompson of Collision Detection classifies Flower as “the first game about global warming”, at times finding the game’s messaging a bit heavy-handed but on the whole feeling that “what’s most remarkable is that Flower manages to do this without being cloying and preachy.”

Simon Parkin of Chewing Pixels is impressed by its “vibrant cause and effect”, and by its successful contradictions: “It’s wonderfully abstract and yet wholly tactile at the same time. The strength of the game is in its wholesale embrace of its fragility: the confidence to be an art game without apology, the courage to be textless, the strength in focusing on a subject matter with such feminine overtones and association on a platform that has neither.”  He also notes that its divisiveness is assured, evidence of which we can see even within the writings of (what we assume to be a single voice) the pseudonymous Rachael Webster of PixelVixen707. Rachael begins by being rather surprised that Flower isn’t “corny as all damn”, that “it doesn’t seem that way in a game. The only way I can explain it is that the interactivity brings it closer to real life. After all, a flower isn’t corny until somebody takes a tacky photo of it. The flower itself did nothing wrong.”  On second thought, however, she turns to describing it as “hope in a pill”, saying that by the end, “Flower didn’t remind me of a ‘haiku’ or a dream so much as a commercial.”

On a meta-analytic level, Leigh Alexander lets it be known via a trio of  SexyVideogameLand posts that she’s less than impressed by the discussion of the game.  In her first post she says that “[Flower] does not create belief; instead, it asks us to suspend disbelief. It works not because it defies the traditional bounds of video games. It works because of how well it adheres to them.”  Her second post turns to the designers’ intension, claiming that “the deliberate intention of creating emotion is manipulative.”  And she ends with a lament on “Poor Flower, unpermitted to simply be a good, thoughtful video game.”  Not everybody agreed with her criticism: Iroquois Pliskin of Versus CluClu Land doesn’t appreciate her “accusation of bad faith”, and also disagrees with the above quote on the manipulative nature of creating emotion.  Schlaghund of Schlaghund’s Playground also disagrees with that quote, and with Alexander’s claim that what Flower does has been “done to death”

To close, I leave you with a Mister Raroo Moment from Bill Sannwald to encapsulate one of the defining aspects of this brief but remarkable game:

The noise and congestion are stifling. Even in the sanctity of my own home, the grimy outside world creeps in. Suddenly, I’m away from it all. Not a soul is  in sight. A lone flower sits before me and soon a single petal flutters free. The petal and I fly forward through the valley, skimming across the blades of grass, grazing their tips as we wake up the rest of the flowers. More and more petals join the parade. In a cornucopia of colors, we zoom across the landscape and breathe new life into the world.

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A short ‘n’ sweet one for This Week in Videogame Blogging. Not because no-one wrote anything good but because I didn’t keep my usual close tabs on the regular blogs I read. C’est la vie! As always, TWIVGB makes no claims to comprehensiveness, only quality.

This week saw N’Gai Croal return to his Edge column with ‘In the Line of Fire: Part One‘. In this post, Croal talks about the reactions he faced to his now (in)famous comments expressing his hesitancy with problematic imagery in the Resident Evil 5 trailer. It’s interesting to see how the context in which he originally uttered them – a casual interview – became lost as online readers decided to read Croal’s comments as an accusation of racism on the part of Capcom, which wasn’t exactly the point he was trying to make.

Hit Self-Destruct writes about the confluence of Game and Real Life in ‘Photo Album‘. Duncan tells how he empathised particularly strongly  with the protagonist in one particular situation in Mass Effect because it mirrored his own.

The ‘Gameology’ blog has been around for a long time now, but posting had fallen off recently. Being an academically minded blog, this week on Gameology contributor Tanner Higgin writes about Erik Loyer‘s talk ‘Stories as Instruments’. Loyer is probably best known for his well received iPhone game Ruben and Lullaby, which received copious attention at this year’s GDC. Tanner says that

Loyer’s central critique is of the obsessive push in game design toward large branching plot-driven stories centered on the freedom and autonomy of a character … He argues that the focus should be on the potential for dynamic experiences of subjectivity, affect, and emotion rather than thousands of potential choices.

The indefatigable TIGSource scored a high-profile interview this week with Jonathan Blow of Braid fame. Worth reading for claims like

There is this idea of chasing innovation in game design that I used to be a big proponent of, but that I now suspect is a little bit misdirected.

Which is an interesting revelation and something that he goes into a bit more depth into later on in the interview.

Matthew Gallant returns from his three month hiatus with a post on the “sport” of Grifball, which intrigued me from the time I first heard of it. It’s like a weird hybrid of Football and Basketball played inside the Xbox game Halo 3, and is a great testament to the potential for creative emergence in games. It also reminds me of Iroquois Pliskin’s argument from July ’08 that ‘Lasering Dudes is a Sport‘. Yep, you can have that one for free!

On the ever popular (and ever excellent) BLDG BLOG, Jim Rossignol guest contributes a post this week called ‘Evil Lair: On the Architecture of the Enemy in Videogame Worlds‘. Rossignol compares and contrasts several games’ treatment of enemy architecture with the relationship the player has to said enemies. Regarding the trend to use Gothic architecture to have locations “emanate evil”, he notes that

… I suspect, these signposts – or the ways in which game designers architecturally represent evil – are becoming too much a part of our everyday imaginative discourse to remain affecting. They’ve begun to lose their danger. The connection with the inhumanity that makes the enemy so thrilling has started to fade via over-familiarity.

Rossignol also posted another entry in his ever-excellent ‘Ragdoll Metaphysics’ series on Offworld. It’s on the newly announced game Thief 4 and the legacy of the previous games in the series.

And I got so close this week to going without linking to Rock, Paper, Shotgun! But then I read just yesterday the post by Resolution Magazine’s UK General Editor Lewis Denby called ‘Touched By The Hand Of Mod: Dear Esther‘, which is this week’s must-read. It’s about a mod for Half-Life 2 created by some researchers at the University of Portsmouth in the UK, and it sounds genuinely interesting. Using non-linear and randomised story elements the game works to create an ambiguous picture of a story that the player assembles in their own mind. I haven’t had a chance to play it yet but when I get the time I’ll certainly be downloading its 200 and a bit megabyte file.

And that’s another round of This Week In Videogame Blogging. As always, if you’ve seen something excellent this week that you would like noted, leave a link in the comments or send an email to editors@thiswebsite and we’ll add it in or include it next week.

In a recent post at his blog The Inbetween, Mike Nowak bemoans the gap between intent and action which appears when game controls are more than usually complicated. Nowak notes that the unwieldy button combos in the Street Fighter series would seem unacceptable elsewhere.

This [kind of] first person shooter doesn’t exist. Can you imagine the backlash if it did? Controls like this in such a competitive and highly reactive genre would be dismissed in an instant. No one wants such a vast roadblock between intent and action in a game. It adds nothing but an added level of obfuscation, complicating what is, already, a tactical and twitchy genre.

Nowak dismisses more conservative interpretations of the Street Fighter formula saying, ‘If you answer: “…it’s part of the skill of the game” or “it’s always been this way and it doesn’t make sense to change it”, you are wrong’) and his cries for more intuitive controls reminded me of Michael Abbott’s post on a similar subject from earlier this year. Abbott’s personal feelings regarding the gap between the player and game world were similar and he said at the time,

If I get right down to it, games with great controls render the distance between my hands and the game almost nonexistant.

For Abbott, controls reach their full capacity when they become imperceptible. In this view, their role is one of enabling, and joysticks and gamepads are perhaps just a stepping stone on the path to utterly immersive virtual worlds. These two posts, though, and the resulting discussions, led me to question whether or not there weren’t other roles for controls to play in our understanding of video games. The comments section on Abbott’s blog turned up this gem by Joseph Leray.

Ostensibly, Leray’s thesis resembles Abbott’s, suggesting that controls should make the gap between the real and the virtual melt away:

Take the grabbing mechanic for example. In order for Wander to grab onto things — ledges, walls, colossi — the player must hold down the R1 button. The distinction is subtle: You don’t just push R1, you have to hold it. The physical associations between holding onto a ledge and holding down the R1 button allow the player to always have a connection with Wander.

But further inspection reveals a nuance to Leray’s perspective: for Leray, the relationship between the game’s controls and its mechanics becomes a metaphor for events in the game. It isn’t as simple a matter as just immersing the player in the game world. Rather, “the artistic merit of Shadow of the Colossus is inextricably linked to its control setup.”

On a similar note is Jenova Chen’s thesis, Flow in Games, in which Chen applies Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of “Flow”, a state of equilibrium between challenge and ability, to video games. The chapter entitled Implement Flow in Games is especially relevant to this discussion though it’s a little longer than the other pieces. It seems to suggest – as the other posts implied – that controls are at their best when they are at their least visible to the player and at their most complimentary to the game’s mechanics.

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Welcome! Welcome! Pull up a pew – anywhere will do. Let us now pray and give thanks to The Gods of Blogging About Videogames for this bountiful harvest of tasty reading we are about to receive.

Today, we give thanks for the Polycat blog, and its excellent summary of the pros and cons of eliminating numerical health values from games. A rather interesting point is the argument that what it can do is act on the player psychologically similar to being shot at and not hit in a real combat simulation. It’s noted that it becomes a trade off for the fact that for you and your enemies it’s a little too easy to hit each other and the alternative would be… frustrating? Boring? All of the above? Go read and see for yourself.

We also thank thee mighty Deity of Digital Gaming for this think-piece by David Wildgoose of Kotaku AU about ‘The Morality of Megaton‘ and how Bethesda hid away some of the more… unsavoury details about the inhabitants of Megaton and left it up to the player to discover them.

Prithee deliver more unto us like JC Barnett’s ‘Memories of Days Gone By‘ and its discussion of platformers and where they’ve all gone since the end of the 16 bit era. Largely it’s in the context of a discussion of the Banjo-Kazooie games from the N64, which are so dear to my own heart. Barnett says,

The first few generations of 3D games are, frankly, ugly as sin these days. Banjo-Kazooie and Tooie however still seem to stand up pretty well. The textures are rough enough to count the pixels, as are the models and their polygons, but Rare still managed in those dark ages to squeeze a lot of character out of their worlds with cute animations and design.

Dear Lords of First Person Shootage, we thank thee especially for the work of your hands, wrought by your servant CLINT HOCKING. He has most recently aggregated some demographic information on the generational groups of people that are now making the games we consume and it looks very interesting – check out the slides and text of his presentation.

We give thanks as we break this bread which is the body of L.B. Jeffries post on Traveling in Games. It is something of which I am quite fond and I find the simulacra of games representing the boring parts of everyday experiences to be oddly compelling at times. Games should be fun? No! Games should be boring!

We give thanks for our good fortune at not being the Eurogamer reviewer Ed Zitron. This week he played an indeterminate amount of the Indie MMO “Darkfall Online”, leveling some pretty harsh criticism at it and awarding it a 2/10 score. The developers got angry, claimed that he didn’t use his press account for more than, at best, two hours (hardly enough to review any game, let alone an MMO, they argue) and say they have server logs to prove it. Eurogamer hemmed and hawed but stuck with the reviewer, at the same time offering to have the unimpeachable Kieron Gillen review it so readers could compare/contrast the two. Said game developers declined said offer, and stuck with the line that the original was a farce and was in need of removing. Which Eurogamer isn’t willing to do, so for now they’re (according to The Escapist, and the Developers Own Forums) wearing the review as a badge of honour.

A few questions come to mind — the issue of how long it takes to review a game hasn’t (to my mind) been satisfactorily answered. Does it have to take 10 hours of banging your head against a brick wall to comprehensively “review” brick wall banging in all shapes and forms? Conversely, can one make claims of any kind of authority of review without at least covering what most people would likely see? If that is too lofty a goal, should reviewers even bother to try? I don’t know the answers, but if you’ve read anything that makes a case for anything related to this point, drop us a line in the comments and I’ll retroactively add-in some links for interested readers.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of canceled games and closed studios, I will fear no Vapourware, for thou art with me. Being the big happening story this week, the closure of 3DRealms generated a lot of interest.  Duncan Fyfe applied his pen and his wit in creating a story of melodramatic tragedy in ‘Twenty One Guns‘, which I would have called ‘The Duke is Dead’.

If you’re more into the poking-fun at the absurdity of the dearly departed studio, have a look at the list Randall Munroe from XKCD put together which is “a list of things that happened since the List of Things That Have Happened Since Duke Nukem Forever Was Announced was written. Suitably Meta.

And lastly, as if that weren’t enough craziness to go around, you really need to read about “The Chair Story“. It’s like Hunter S. Thompson’s ghost came back to life at the mention of hookers and booze and possessed this dude. Pure, dripping, acidic Gonzo at it’s worst/finest. This week’s must-read.

And that’s This Week in Videogame Blogging.

Amen.

Dear Critical Distance Readers, Contributors and Interested Parties,

What is Critical Distance? What is its purpose and what is its aim? What gap in the field, what niche of interest, does it serve to fill?

These are questions I have been asking myself for the past few weeks, and they go largely without satisfactory answers. However, I think we are beginning to see at least the general form these answers will take – outlined by the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, as it were.

So far, we’ve operated quite successfully from a “we’ll figure it out as we go along” mentality, and that has resulted in some great initial efforts, and more than our fair share of attention. We have started by posting links to blogs and intelligent articles that deal with aspects of games, game design, game culture, player theory, and that’s been fine so far. The internet clearly does not need another Aggregator site for videogame content – and we have rightfully identified this. We have however identified the related, yet fundamentally different need forarchiving” – that is, having an easy and sensible way of collating, arranging, referencing, and just generally remembering important blog posts, articles and discussions.

It is telling that the most excitement and interest in Critical Distance has been for the “Critical Compilations”, and I have personally seen the Braid Critical Compilation name-checked in a number of places, completely unexpectedly. So where does that leave us? Have the link-out posts been a failure? Certainly not – however I think that they can be significant improved and brought into line with this core idea of keeping the threads together and of archiving.

It is also telling that the most successful of these ‘link-out’ posts have been the larger, more comprehensive ones. Specifically, Denis Farr’s recent Achievement Unlocked: Sex which, while focused on the discussion of a single post, elaborates on certain points with links to other articles and the ideas contained within them.

This is where I see the most fruitful area for the future of Critical Distance coverage – in being able to bring together and synthesize a new post and new coverage from disparate arguments and multiple sources. Think of it as providing the community with access to your memory, your own history of reading, your store of knowledge gained through the engagement with ideas in blog posts, and with each-other. Within this notoriously short-memoried and shortsighted community you the contributors are the elders. A videogame blog that has a critical slant and that has been around for more than a year is still a bit of a rarity, and the fractured nature of the community results in a lot of what seems like ‘re-inventing the wheel’. We see it all the time when, for example, videogames get compared to movies – I’m sure you will have read a lot of arguments for and against aspects of the topic over the years (Michael Abbott’s from some-time last year, and LB Jeffries’ most recent essay on the subject come immediately to mind).

But plenty of people interested in our writing and writing about games haven’t read those yet, or may have just forgotten about them. We can remind them, if we make the effort and do so in a humble and non-condescending way, we can help to work against the trend to continually re-hash the same old tired topics. And we can do it without becoming elitist, or inwardly focused (an allegation some have leveled against the game studies movement within academic circles). What better way to say you’re outwardly focused than to demonstrate how widely read you are on a subject?

So what can we do practically? For starters, I would like to solicit your feedback on this proposed shift of focus, as well as on the general operation of Critical Distance so far. What parts have you found personally useful? What things would you like to see change, or would you do differently? Secondly, I would like to ask contributors to re-think their approach to posts from now on (and if you haven’t done one, consider this for any future posts) by trying to include alternative sources, contrary opinions or further elaborations on the topic of the original article. If you have read something before that has relevance to the discussion, include it. If you’ve never read anything about the subject before then obviously the post is doubly worth highlighting for its unique contribution as well as to find out about what others might have read related to it. Sharing relevant links with others interested in certain topics or discussions has, in my view, been one of the better successes of Critical Distance so far.

All of this will necessitate posts being longer than they have previously, but that’s actually fine. We will work to keep a limit on the number of daily posts to keep it manageable for our readers. We are most definitely not trying to compete with the Kotaku’s of the world and their frenetic posting schedule, slow and thorough is good (In fact better – and I have personally had to make a mental adjustment in this area).

Thank you again to everyone who has worked to make Critical Distance whatever it currently is, and whatever it shall become.

Edit: 5/10/09 – The comments section is now closed, we thank everyone who took the time to leave feedback.

Alex Raymond, of the While !Finished blog at the Iris Gaming Network, explains how games have established a rather simplistic view of relationships in her post “Women Aren’t Vending Machines: How Video Games Perpetuate the Commodity Model of Sex“:

What the vast majority of these games inevitably do is present relationship mechanics that distill the commodity model down to its essence-you talk to the NPC enough, and give them enough presents, and then they have sex with/marry you.

This design approach is extremely simplistic and perpetuates the commodity model of sex-the player wants sex, they go through certain motions, and they are “rewarded” with what they wanted (like a vending machine). Furthermore, when sex is included in a game, it is generally framed as the end result-the reward-of romance, rather than one aspect of an ongoing relationship/partnership.

Using as a basis for her comparison Thomas Macaulay Millar’s “Toward a Performance Model of Sex” from the book Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, she illustrates how this creates a problem when trying to make a compelling world with which to interact, as well as one that does not dehumanize its inhabitants. While this is in response to the recent MTV Multiplayer article on Alpha Protocol, she also takes a look at Mass Effect. As she points out:

In addition, it perpetuates the narrative of the Nice Guy (described in Millar’s essay, and elsewhere): that men are entitled to sex from women if they follow the rules and do the right things, or in the case of Alpha Protocol, “select your responses wisely.” It is not only dangerous but just plain unrealistic to portray a world in which every single woman is a potential sex partner: in the real world, there are lesbians, and there are straight or bisexual women who won’t sleep with you no matter what you do, because they are human beings with their own preferences and desires and interests.