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Me thinks it's the X buttonThis Week In Videogame Blogging is going to have to tend ever-so-slightly towards brevity I’m afraid, as I’ve got exactly two hours to bash this out before I go to a charity event organised by a friend called ‘Drawtism’. I’ll let your ample collective imaginations fill in that one.

First thing I spotted this week was Jim Rossignol’s ‘Fuel: Around the World in Eight Hours‘, which is exactly what it sounds like. Rossignol drove around the post-apocalyptic world of Fuel, taking him pretty much all day. I’m a sucker for open worlds and exploration so this is officially on my ‘must play someday’ list. Also spotted at RPS, Alec Meer is on a Morrowind bender all this week and the diary-like entries make for some excellent reading. I often say I enjoy writing about games more than playing them, but in this instance I think I also enjoy reading about the game more than playing it.

Indie Gaming Bingo’s Dustin Gunn makes some poignant criticisms of… a fictional future indie game? Or is Night Game an actual game and it’s just written from the perspective of the enlightened future? Either way, colour me both confused and impressed.

Iroquois Pliskin is back on the blogging bandwagon, writing about how Mirror’s Edge came perilously close to being a fantastic videogame. Read about how “the designers of Mirror’s Edge apparently managed to mistake [the] core pleasures that their game offered.”

Matthew Gallant reminded me to make sure I check out a piece in Resolution Magazine called ‘Good things about Bad Games: Kane and Lynch‘. It reminds me that L.B. Jeffries always defended that game’s poor image, talking about some of the good things he appreciated about the game in The Brainy Gamer podcast, episode 13 (way back in May ’08, no less!).

RPS tipped me off to the next one, a discussion of the impossibility of role-playing religion in The Sims 3, with a specific focus on Christianity as more than just church attendance. Apparently there just aren’t any options to pick that make your sim appreciate non-materialism or spirituality. The discussion of how games can represent, model, reflect or simulate religion is one that I think is largely lacking from videogame discourse. It is my pick for this week’s must read.

Over at The Reticule, Chris Evans interviews the World of Goo developers 2D Boy. When asked what, if anything, they would change in World of Goo, Kyle Gabler responded by saying,

There are tons of curious little mistakes and quirks in World of Goo. Sometimes Goo Balls suicide themselves off cliffs. Sometimes players can squish balls past the giant red robot head in that one level to rescue almost everyone in the level. Some levels allow clever players to win with zero moves, using sneaky ball-flinging tricks. But I think I like that unusual things happen here and there. We are not a big shiny game studio with dozens of layers of QA. Players seem to enjoy discovering tricks, and hopefully the slightly rough edges show that our game was duct taped together with love.

Matthew Wasteland’s brain wonders what it would be like if Shakespeare was a game developer, and his fingers type the wonderful piece of satire ‘Elsinore Baby! New Hamlet Preview!‘ My favourite part – “We suggested some kind of skip function, and the Bard seemed to like our idea”.

PixelVixen makes an interesting point this week by noting that no one can really decide if Jason Rohrer ‘selling out’ is actually a bad thing or not… A man’s gotta eat, after all.

There’s a temptation with ‘Best Of’ lists towards a dry, sterile recitation of the sure-fire hits, but this top 10 list of architecture in computer games strikes a note-perfect tone by mixing tongue-in-cheek seriousness with some really insightful observations. My favourite? The Halo 2 comments, saying,

The prevalent use of local sandstone and homogeneous approach to design make for an environment that is comparable to the Regency spa towns of Harrogate or Bath. The indigenous material is ubiquitous – whether left rough in rural settings (to encourage the growth of moss and lichens) or finished smooth for urban environments, it lends a sense of grandeur to the to local buildings.

Comparing the Delta Halo and New Mombassa levels to grand old English cities? Yes please! (I found this first via Christopher Hyde’s excellent 25timesasecond and then again via Jim Rossignol’s twitter feed.)

This has been well linked already, but I’ll give them another shout out because it’s more games-journalist bashing (although with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek). Hard-Casual goes all out on the news of Michael Jackson’s death, Twitter, and hackneyed games journalists in ‘Anxious Nation waits for Games Journalists Twitters about Tragic Death‘.

Michael Abbott wrote a post on photo-tourism in Africa, via the PS3 game Afrika this week. He also mused on why upon playing games a second time we are often able to appreciate them more and on their own terms. In the comments, he reaches some interesting conclusions, saying,

[A commenter] also notes above that he feels like he’s not part of the audience reviewers are writing for, and I definitely share that experience. More and more, the hype machine sounds like a big blabbering idiot to me (Mitch Krpata has written eloquently about this), and I find myself doing all I can to disconnect myself from it, if only to keep my vision unclouded.

And that’s this week in videogame blogging as I found it. Hopefully I left it in the same, or nearly as good condition as I found it.

P.S. Gregory Weir has a new game out. It’s about Dragons.

“Oh, our Merciful Mother, Okami Amaterasu…”

In early 2006 Clover Studio released Okami for the Playstation 2 in Japan. Several months later it crossed the oceans to Western audiences in North America and Europe, and eventually found new-found life when re-released for the Wii in 2008. Okami, meaning both ‘Great God’ and ‘Wolf’, was immediately recognized and appreciated by Western critics for its distinct Sumi-e and Ukiyo-e visual style and unique take on the Zelda genre of action-adventure. I believe it can be safely assumed that most people who have played the game — who have seen it in motion — have shared Michael Abbot’s impassioned response:

All I know is that when I look at this game – its flowing streams of watercolor flowers; its ink-and-wash brushstrokes; its Zen-inspired landscapes; its radiant creatures and dancing demons – all rendered through textured filters of canvas, parchment, and wood – I am awestruck by its fluid elegance and beauty.

In a reply to a reader comment, Michael goes on to suggest that the visual language of Okami is not merely cosmetic, but an important aesthetic that “communicates meaning to the player”.

In an especially discerning post titled Three Artists in Okami, the pseudonymous Iroquois Pliskin separates Okami into three layers and assigns an artist to each. The artist of the narrative is Issun, the tiny character who accompanies Amaterasu and records her deeds through paintings. The artist of the game is the player, who uses the designed mechanics to literally paint solutions and create a ludological work of experiential art through play. The third artist is Clover Studio, those who designed the game in such a way so as to communicate “a set of values (traditional piety and reverence for nature) by having the player act out the illustrious deeds set out in the designer’s plan.” He contrasts this last benevolent relationship between player and designer with the more “sinister” ones that exist in games such as Portal, BioShock, and Metal Gear Solid 2. Whereas Okami’s design celebrates the player, these other games have been criticised for sometimes being condascending and insulting (The most famous example of the latter appearing in Clint Hocking’s critique of BioShock).

Matthew of Magical Wasteland briefly reminds us about the excellent game score, which is “…at once sweepingly grand and surprisingly intimate, blending the traditional and contemporary, it draws upon a tremendous range of sources and associations over the course of the player’s journey.” Indeed, the music is such an integral part of the experience that many pages in the Okami Official Complete Works art book are annotated with specific tracks from the Official Sound Track that the reader is meant to listen to concurrently.

“…a bridge of hope across the skies…”

The defining element of Okami’s gameplay — what immediately separates it from Zelda — is the brushstroke interaction. Yu-Chung Chean of Game Design Reviews calls this a quasi-mode, a game mode where “the whole process of going into the drawing mode, doing the brushwork and finishing it by letting go the R1 button feels like one action.” Zelda, in contrast, requires that the player potentially break immersion by leaving the game world to navigate several menus to choose the sought-after item or action.

In his critique on Popmatters, L.B. Jeffries uses the brush technique in one of his many examples of how Okami successfully exploits the interactive nature of videogames to provide a narrative experience simply not possible in purely passive media: “The moment where you must help Susano by inking in the sword slashes for him also explore a relationship that would otherwise not work: having the audience actively enjoy redeeming a fallen hero.”

The brushstroke interactions are used to overcome the numerous environmental puzzles, but players will find themselves using it often in combat with the various demons that wander Okami’s Nippon. Dan Bruno of the blog Cruise Elroy wonders why he found the combat to be downplayed, and speculates that it was largely due to the fact that the brushstroke attack mechanics were “a greater test of my memory and problem-solving than of my reflexes.” As time is paused during the brushstroke quasi-mode, the pressure to react quickly is not as emphasized as in other action-adventure games. He also suggests that the ability to easily avoid combat, and the rarity of combat-heavy dungeons, successfully “reflects Okami‘s thematic focus on life and rejuvenation.”

“…and now will I rejuvenate this dying world by growing against the cold snow.”

On Malvasia Bianca, David Carlton writes that the ongoing rejuvenation process that makes up the majority of Okami, or more specifically the fact that this rejuvenation allows the player to gain experience and level up, is “A very humane way to design a game.” Dan Bruno agrees, and confirms the effectiveness of the design when he tell us “I look forward to reviving Guardian Saplings not just so that I can progress through the story, but so that I have a new area to explore and nurture.”

In Nature and Nurture: Okami and Practicing Shintoism, Mike Leader points out that the extent to which the player restores the natural world of Nippon is entirely optional, but encouraged as a logical extension of the narrative. In a brilliant example of ludonarrative consonance, Mike explains that “the player, encouraged or manipulated into these objectives for completion’s sake or otherwise, actively participates in the worship of nature.”

Attempting to draw from Okami lessons that are applicable in the real world, Michal Wisniowski of Mentisworks suggests that the game “equates the prosperity of humans with the prosperity of the natural environment” and that by “granting the player powers of nature, Okami shows us that natural forces are strong enough to effect change in the world.”

The cutscene that appears when feeding wild animals was the source of some contention as to its thematic value. Dan Bruno agrees with a reader comment that criticizes the cutscene for being the only rejuvenation action other than the epic “uncursing” of an area that takes the player out of the game world. The New Gamer’s Glenn Turner, however, argues that the importance of this feeding scene is being underappreciated: “It’s a small moment, but it serves as a reminder as to Amaterasu’s benevolent nature, as well as reminding the player of the peaceful world that Amaterasu is fighting for.” He then notes that “there’s no other moment: not even in the game’s loading screens: when you’re unable to do anything but sit and contemplate.”

“… the sweet aroma of blossoming flowers  … wherever your travels may take you.”

The ludological and geographical divisions between town, overworld, and dungeon — so common in action-adventure games of this sort — still exist in Okami, but, as David Carlton points out, the boundaries between the three have never been more loosely defined. Rather than each type of area serving a very specific and unswerving purpose, the “towns and overworld interpenetrate, overworlds are destinations rather than simply areas to traverse on your way from town to town or dungeon, and the extremes of dungeons are muted.”

L.B. Jeffries points to these blurred boundaries as the reason he could not continue playing the game for more than 15 hours (about the halfway mark). Without any solid idea of when new brush powers were going to be granted, or the precise number and location of the dungeons, he found that “the flow just keeps going and going without me having any real way to stagger my engagement.” This kind of sustained flow was ultimately draining for him, and perhaps one of the contributing reasons that numerous other players never finished the game.

“Were I to have my powers once again, these rivers of heaven would soon overflow with stars.”

Player comments concerning game length seem to be unanimous, in that they expected Okami to end around the 12-15 hour mark after the defeat of the first boss, and that it would have been a better game for it. What they were actually met with was the introduction of another demon-god and brand new areas to explore. Yu-Chung Chen summarizes his experience plodding through the game:  “Instead of being able to estimate the amount of challenges to come and eagerly expecting the actual ending, I was thinking: let’s see how many of those chapters there are.” The narrative build-up to a final confrontation was never fully realized, as it was never entirely clear to players when the game was going to end.

Michal Wisniowski offers a potential narrative explanation for this repetition in a post titled Okami: Thoughts on Karma. Drawing on his understanding of Buddhist Karma, he explains that Amaterasu’s “actions, and those of other characters, during the first encounter with the opposing forces of the game remained in part unresolved. By the laws of karma those events began to repeat themselves, yet with greater intensity.”

The excessive length of the game is due, in no small part, to the large portion of time the players spends smashing pots and collecting items. Glenn Turner, in his post Okami: Gorging on Excess, takes the game to task for relying on the genre staple of item collection in a way that seems to contradict the natural themes of Okami: “The collecting of these treasures and artifacts exist in-game for no thematic purpose in the game other than to line your wallet”. Ink pots, yen, and even Amaterasu’s weapons are called out as being unecessary. He ends, however, by recognizing that the repetitive tasks that do support the narrative — blooming withered trees, feeding animals, collecting art for the bestiary scroll — are what makes the game such a rich experience. In regards to these good elements of excess, Glenn writes, “Okami is loaded, almost bloated, with these sort of extravagances and often is better for it, weaving in character nuances and making the world feel more fleshed out and alive.”

“The mortals tend to forget that which they cannot see…”

I’ll end this critical compilation with a quote by Kamiya Hideki, (Creative) Director and Writer at Clover Studio, from his message to us that appears in Okami Official Complete Works:

Within the many comments that I have made all over the place, I have always stated that “I love games.” But I don’t mean it like “I love any game.” The games that I am referring to when I say “I love games,” are the games that moved me, that stayed with me even unto this day, those excellent games that I appreciate and respect. As a game designer, I can see a “light” in my predecessors. Every game comes in a different package, but those with an almost holy light that shines with an irrepressible brilliance are the ones that will go down in history as epics.

Critical Distance is a community driven blog and as such we rely on contributors for our posts. Until now we have solicited contributions by invitation only; however we would now like to open it up and invite anyone with an interest in videogame criticism to contribute to Critical Distance.

Critical Distance exists to serve the emerging field of games criticism primarily by highlighting the excellent writing being produced by videogame bloggers, writers and journalists. We hope that Critical Distance can be part of making sure that this new and important aspect of gaming discourse doesn’t get lost amongst the sound and fury of mainstream games journalism.

Our goal for the site is to have it act like a ‘memory bank’, by drawing upon our collective memories of all the past articles and blog post we have read. The hope is that collectively we can counteract the presiding trend towards frantic, short-sighted, disposable games writing. Hence, we favour a little bit of ‘distance’ in our writing and deeper, more lengthy articles over flashy previews.

So, if you are interested in writing about videogame criticism and blogging, now’s your chance. What exactly are we looking for in terms of contributions?  If you’ve been reading the site for a while, you’ll know that we quite like the odd piece that is purely about highlighting an important or exceptional article or blog post. Think of it like, ‘This article at X-blog is great, and here’s why‘ style posts. We also like longer articles that synthesise a bunch of posts together to highlight some particular aspect, trend or salient point about games and/or videogame discourse. If you have an idea for a regular, semi-regular or even completely irregular series about videogame blogging, let us know as we’d love to discuss it with you.

You can send anything from half-formed ideas to full text articles to the editors. Thanks to you, our readers, for the generous support and interest you have shown us thus far. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

– The Editors.

gameoverWelcome to This Week In Videogame Blogging, where I try to round up the best blog posts from the critical gaming blogosphere.

This week, Rob Lefevre’s reflective post about why he runs a gaming website caught my eye. Because of the decision by his managing partner to leave the Games Are Evil website, Lefevre has been left holding the fort on his own. He says,

So I’m rushing around, spending far more of my time off from being an education technologist on the internet instead of outside in the sunshine with my family, and my wife asks, “so, why do you do this?”

I quite like his answers, so be sure to go read them.

This is actually older than last week but it’s too good not to mention – Tom Armitage hits the nail on the head with his appeal for more “Hudson’s and less Hicks” type players. Of course, he’s talking about the characters from the 1986 film Aliens and how he’d

…like it if more gamers were more like Bill Paxton’s Private Hudson… I’d take a legion of stumbling, wise-cracking Hudsons over a dour Corporal Hicks any day.

It’s been noted all over the internet how much Aliens informs modern videogame Sci-Fi tropes, and it only makes Armitage’s argument all the more potent when talking about modern videogame players. I should add that he talks about it in the context of Valve’s Left 4 Dead and how that game is best enjoyed when you are able to make ‘Dangerous Mistakes in the Company of Friends‘. I couldn’t agree more.

Matthew Wasteland waxes prosaically about a bunch of things to do with games, real life, game design and the boundaries between bugs and “features”. I think there is a wonderful wealth of things to take away from his piece ‘The Very Opposite of an Airport‘ and that’s in large part thanks to it being written in the (increasingly popular) style of a short, fictional narrative. This is the kind of thing I am most excited for in games criticism and I’m planning on writing a bit more about the subject in the near future.

In his ‘Diamond in the Rough‘ GameSetWatch column, Tom Cross takes an in depth look at Steve Gaynor’s post ‘The Immersion Model of Meaning‘ from November 2008, which is itself a suggestion for an alternative approach to game stories. Cross applies the sort of rigour to his critique that wouldn’t be out of place in an academic paper – well worth a read, particularly if you are already familiar with Gaynor’s posts.

The Pixel Vixen is playing Final Fantasy VII on PSP for the first time and describing the good and the bad of the game, showing how the game has both in parts aged and in others remained timeless.

On Fidgit, Tom Chick investigates how a community of Christian gamers reviews, discusses and applies their own lens to games like Soulcalibur. It seems worthy of attention, in my opinion, because it provides an insight into a non-mainstream gaming approach. Chick says,

Videogamers tend to cluster into small and insular echo chambers, usually based around message boards and fan communities. Because of this, I feel it’s important that we see the games we play through other people’s eyes.

An interesting discussion was had over in the comments thread for a post on the new game Crane Wars at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Mostly it’s interesting because the review was rather critical of aspects of the game and a number of actual developers responded courteously in the comments thread with suggestions and explanations. It’s great to see this kind of dialogue – last week it was game developers discussing with each other, this week it’s developers engaging with their critics constructively. One day I hope this will stop being noteworthy because of its regularity.

Duncan Fyfe writes this week about the relationship us blogger/writer/critic-types develop with our games. Namely, that it’s actually not the most fun ones that we enjoy, but rather the ones that stimulate and inspire us to write the most. I know this totally applies to me. Far Cry 2 anyone?

I’ll leave you with another entry from Indie Gaming Bingo, who ain’t afraid to tackle the big targets in Indie Gaming! This week, they go after Jason Rohrer’s Gravitation and note that,

If this game were any more “lo-fi” it would be a low quality speaker, because the term “low fidelity” has nothing to do with games when you think about it.

Which made me laugh out loud. Could IGB’s choice of game have been inspired by recent news that Jason Rohrer is leaving his indie spirit behind and has signed up to work for an advergaming agency? I guess it doesn’t really matter, in the end, we still get the goods. Also: I don’t blame Rohrer for wanting to eat more than dandelions and sourdough.

As always, if there’s a post I didn’t mention that you think should be included in TWIVGB, feel free to leave a link in the comments or email us at editors@this-website.

Creative Commons licensed, via flickr user Mike Baird

Creative Commons licensed, via flickr user Mike Baird

This is the first entry in a new series for Critical Distance – the writer/critic’s spotlight. This series focuses on the body of writing produced by a single videogame writer, critic or commentator. In this post I turn the spotlight on the mysterious blogger, critic and industry deep-throat that was Surfer Girl and her blog Surfer Girl Reviews Star Wars.

Come with me on a trip in the wayback machine – the date is early 2008 and the name on everyone’s lips is “Surfer Girl”, author of the videogame industry tipster blog Surfer Girl Reviews Star Wars. Fast forward to the present and barely a trace of her existence remains outside of our personal memories and a few year-old blog posts. She was never a typical member of the critical game blogging cohort, drawing most of her readers for the industry insider information she passed along. So why exactly am I taking the time to remind Critical Distance readers of her existence? Because one of our goals is to help circumvent the tendency in the games industry towards short memories and even shorter attention spans. Surfer Girl also merits attention for how ahead of her time she was, despite the fact that she bowed out of the scene before the 2008 explosion of videogame bloggers, writers and critics. She blazed a strange (and occasionally mixed-message) trail with her posts, which often interleaved tidbits of information about the latest game in X series with comments arguing for journalistic integrity and for increased political and social awareness.

When a once-prominent videogame blogger disappears, I feel it is the duty of us who remember to remind others of those that have gone before.

Surfer Girl primarily used her blog to pass along information from numerous ‘sources’ about un-announced and in-development videogames – something that would not necessarily in itself make Surfer Girl notable enough for Critical Distance. She copped a lot of flak from people who questioned whether she was just after the attention her information brought her, and in a way they were quite correct – she stated in interviews and a number of her own posts that her main goal in revealing such “valuable” info was to use the platform it gave her to raise awareness of what she felt were more important issues.

Counting against her efforts in this direction were questions surrounding her identity, as she remained staunchly anonymous until her eventual disappearance from blogging (her very last post being in May of 2008). If after reading about the many mysteries surrounding her you find yourself inclined to make certain parallels with the game-crit sphere’s very own ARG blogger you’re certainly not alone. Her anonymity, the questionable accuracy of her tips as well as an incident where her blog was apparently ‘hacked’ before she ‘guessed’ the new password and regained control, leave one with the distinct feeling that all was not as it seemed behind the nom de plume. I started with much the same suspicions but can give confirmation, by way of word from the ‘vixen herself and ARG group Smith & Tinker, that neither were involved with Surfer Girl. In fact, the Smith & Tinker group started up after Surfer Girl and her mysterious blog.

While it is not strictly relevant to what makes Surfer Girl a good critic, the fact that Surfer Girl got so many of her dubious (at the time) predictions correct lends her words a credence I feel she did not always receive at the time. I will readily admit that a large part of my own investigation and research for this piece stems from a curiosity in discovering and documenting what she got right in terms of her predictions. With the benefit of a year’s worth of hindsight we can now examine some of her statements and compare them to what actually became reality in terms of games. Indulge me a moment as I describe some of what she got right in her predictions; most of the following links are to Internet Archive pages from her blog.

Earlier than most, she was aware of and began to tout the game Brütal Legend, also asserting the existence of a Max Payne 3. She also mentioned Far Cry 2 in one post and said that a PS3 exclusive Far Cry game was cancelled in order to get FC2 onto the PS3. There was also a claim that a new Zelda game was going to be released in 2009 and, as we recently saw, that game was announced at GDC 2009; I’m sure it came as no surprise to Surfer Girl who knew as early as 2007. A Batman: The Dark Knight game was allegedly in development, but according to Wikipedia was itself later cancelled, adding another game about which Surfer Girl was probably correct. Lego Indiana Jones and Super Punch-Out!! were both predicted well in advance, with the latter apparently slated for 2008 – it arrived, however, last month. A Ghostbusters game, a Lost game (which she forewarned was bad) and a new Knights of the Old Republic game (which if I were to speculate may have become the MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic, though perhaps not) were all also mentioned well in advance. She raised the possibility that a new Nintendo hand-held was coming in 2009 (the revamped DSi debuted last month, but wasn’t officially revealed until October ’08, way after Surfer Girl left the scene) as well as mentioning The Sims 3, Call of Duty 5 having started development in Jan ’08, by which time an Assassins Creed 2 was in the works, and that a spiritual successor to Red Dead Revolver was also being worked on in Jan ’08. There was even a scoop on the album that was the musical equivalent of Duke Nukem Forever, predicting the imminent release of Chinese Democracy! Lastly, in perhaps the most high profile reveal, she asserted that there was a Beyond Good and Evil 2 game in the works. The game was not officially announced until the Ubidays event in May 2008 (incidentally, right around the time Surfer Girl disappeared), but Surfer Girl was claiming it was I development as early as November of 2007.

At the time, reactions to Surfer Girl’s claim of a BG&E2 ranged from ‘hopeful, wishful scepticism’ to outright scoffing, ridicule and claims that she was just making it all up. With the benefit of hindsight we know that in this case she was absolutely correct (and the Wikipedia entry for BG&E2, until a recent edit, credited her for the initial reveal). While this is running the risk of turning into a defence of Surfer Girl’s tips and accuracy, I’ll add that credibility is a relevant issue for all game bloggers – for better or for worse, anyone on the internet can get a blogger account and say anything they like.

Another useful resource for assessing the accuracy of some of Surfer Girl’s rumours is this old thread from NeoGAF which details an extremely long list of the games she passed along rumours about along side their status as confirmed/unconfirmed/wrong. The confirmed and partially confirmed rumours seem to far out-weigh the incorrect ones. There are also a pair of posts by Simon Carless on GameSetWatch that discussed the relative merits of a few of her tidbits of information, as well as one that mentioned her secondary blog dedicated to un-released and un-announced games, ones that were cancelled and never saw a release. I get the impression that she empathised with the numerous people who poured their creative energies into those games only to see their creative fruits left to go to seed. She said in an interview that she was “fascinated by the sheer amount of creative things that go to waste.”

In one GSW post ruminating on her identity, she turns up to comment on Carless’ speculation about her identity and goes as far as using a proxy to disguise her IP address, showing her internet savvy. Her willingness to engage with her commenters and detractors was a characteristic of her blogging and she was candid in her answers to many of the questions posed in the comments of her blog. While she always remained anonymous, she shared with her readers an inordinate amount of her personality, opinions and insight. In the small number of interviews she conducted throughout her time as the videogame industry’s deep-throat, she came across (to me anyway) as a thoughtful and enigmatic character. In an interview with Destructoid, she mentioned the entrenched mysogynism present in the games industry. When asked what she thought was the root of the problem she said that,

…females in creative roles are still forced to output things that conform with male interests… We need females who are willing to express themselves. Jade Raymond is not doing anything remotely unique. Assassin’s Creed is great, but it is just another game. But then you have someone like Kellee Santiago with a passion and drive to do something different and something mind-blowing results.

As a commentator and critic of the industry she was passionately vocal about a number of issues, speaking out about originality, experimentation and innovation. In response to a question about she thought what was ‘holding back the industry’, she said,

Surfer Girl: Hesitancy, I’d eradicate that like Ron Paul wants to do with the federal government (like a crazy, crazy irresponsible man).

Destructoid: Do you mean hesitancy to embrace new ideas?

SG: Yes.

The posts on her site often reflected what N’Gai Croal would call an “innovation bias“, with commentary that often amounted to her chastising one publisher or another for their reliance on sequels and licensed fare – the predictable hits. Her sarcastic catch-cry, often added to the end of a piece of news that so-and-so developer was working on another game in a franchise was “Originality! Excelsior!” Like so much of the things Surfer Girl said, a multitude can be read into those two little words.

In November of 07, around the height of her fame, Surfer Girl revealed in a blog post that she had turned down a high-profile interview with a UK Playstation 3 magazine. She subsequently went uncredited when they published her rumours, and her reasoning for declining the opportunity was that she found the idea of a “technology magazine” printing a story about her blog on “dead trees” to be ironic and outdated, not least because it would take a month to get to print. The interviews she did conduct were with a Destructoid blogger, from which the above quotations are taken, as well as one with Logan Booker of Kotaku Australia. In both cases, she insisted on also conducting her own interview of the interviewee, an interesting personal quirk.

In her interview with Logan Booker, she revealed her disdain for MMOs, RPGs and licensed games, and even commented on the use of licensed music for games, saying:

In quite a number of RPGs there is what seems to be this library music that companies have had since the early nineties and have kept recycling for their games. It is the most irritating thing in video games.

When asked by Logan whether she ever had any interest in journalism, she mentioned that she was actually a journalism major in college, but that it was “not necessarily a career path” for her. One does wonder how she managed to become privy to her information and has only ever cited having “numerous sources” for her info. Perhaps even more peculiarly, in her Destructoid interview she revealed that “in a way” she was already in a position to have her ideas on games realised. It seems hard to reconcile that statement with the idea of Surfer Girl as being just a games journalist, and she stressed that she had never broken an NDA.

An interest in journalism and games journalism in particular, however, appeared in many of her posts. For example, she was one of the first bloggers/writers/critics I can recall raising the issue of journalistic integrity in games journalism. In this post from November 07, she talks about how Ubisoft allegedly pulled advertising arrangements that were in the order of magnitude of a five figure value from a website that posted unfavourable coverage of Assassin’s Creed (the website may or may not have been Eurogamer). Similarly, when the Jeff Gerstmann saga was coming to light, she made a post titled simply “Gerstmann” containing no text, only an image called “Gerstmannone.jpg” now long since lost to the ravages of time and the internet. Given her track record, you can expect it to have been a pithy commentary on the complex, vested interests at play within the field of professional games journalism.

Another characteristic of her tenure as a blogger was an emphasis on politics and she highlighted a number of controversial situations in politics on her blog, right alongside the game info. She discussed the Blackwater controversy amongst other political events of the period and in the last few months leading up to her final post added a Barack Obama banner to the bottom of each post.

Sometime after May 2008, Surfer Girl decided to delete her blog, and it has been gone for a good long while now. There still exists, however, a small record of her last few posts on Bloglines, a few searchable pages on The Internet Archive, as well as some quotes that exist on other websites in dusty old blog posts. Looking back over the last few in the lead up to her final farewell, the juxtaposition of inane requests for some new scrap of information about so-and-so game, on posts ostensibly about serious issues like the US election, torture and global politics gives me the impression that Surfer Girl was failing in her struggle against the current. Her stated desire was to use her blog to raise awareness of serious issues and, while I say this reluctantly, in comparison to something like North Korean nuclear ambitions, well, game’s don’t really rate on the same scale. Actually, I wish that they did, but I doubt you’ll change a dictator’s opinion by showing him Tropico or be able to eliminate third world hunger just by playing enough of Free Rice.

In her final post she echoes this sentiment, saying that she felt unsuccessful in her desire to use the platform she had to make gamers aware of more important issues. Her last post was headed by a music video of the French electronica duo Air and their song ‘Surfing on a Rocket’, and she left her readers with a series of bullet points which do well in summing up:

  • Please don’t devote coverage to this–focus on any of the plethora of more important things such as QoL [Quality of Life] issues.
  • Industryites, bad QoL situations will not get better by telling no one about them.
  • What was the point of this blog? Force folks to pay attention to important things going on in the real world and encourage them to become activists for social and political progress. I probably failed miserably, but at least I tried.
  • You cannot honestly be surprised that Doom 4 was announced, can you? I’m guessing you are the kind that will be shocked when things like Call of Duty 6, Diablo III, Hitman 5, Onimusha 5, Max Payne 3, the non-wagglefest starring those Rabbids, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 3, Sniper Studios’ Capcom title, Dynasty Warriors 8, NBA Street 5 and Turok 2 are announced.

Full of wit and character, Surfer Girl was never above self-parody or criticism of the games industry which she was so obviously a part. In more ways than just those outlined here, she was ahead of her time and I wonder what she would make of the explosion of interest in videogames beyond the enthusiast fare; what she would think of the Critical Distance project itself. I can’t help but imagine that she could be on-board with any efforts that worked against the industry’s notoriously hyperactive tendencies. Surfer Girl, if you’re still out there – I hope you’re still pushing the industry in the all right places.

BioShock is the rare game that really does change the way we think about video games, if for no other reason than that it has turned up as an example in almost every discussion of game style, mechanics, story, or design that has been written since its initial release in 2007. BioShock has received excessive adulation, a much-discussed backlash, and even a backlash to its backlash. Discussions of the game spawned the most popular jargon in games writing. So much has been written about it that I could only put my hands on a fraction of the material without driving myself nutty as a splicer. Thus, this constitutes an in-progress draft of a survey of critical thinking on a game that will likely be regarded as a classic.

“Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?”

One of BioShock‘s most compelling features is that it details an interesting philosophical system and then uses it to frame an ethical question. The underwater utopia of Rapture was founded by an industrialist named Andrew Ryan on a system of principles much akin to Randian Objectivism, so much so that John Lanchester argues in the London Review of Books that BioShock is the only popular work in recent years to give Rand a drubbing. Lorenzo Wang fleshes out this case in his rich and interesting essay BioShock Explained”. In his view, the game attacks two key flaws of Rand’s philosophy: society can never sustain its ideal state (somebody must, after all, scrub the toilets), and free will, even in the land of plasmids, is limited. A sprawling essay at Popular Symbolism interprets the game’s history and many characters as a condemnation of Objectivism and transhumanism. Jay Barnson felt that the game critiqued the intrinsic short-sightedness of the market, which is regarded as all-wise by the lovers of laissez-faire economics.

This interpretation of the game’s attitude towards Objectivism was not universal, however. Shamus Young interviewed an Objectivist on the subject, who argued that BioShock really aims its criticisms at the idea of philosophical certainty. Ava Avane Dawn argues that the game isn’t a fair critique of objectivism because the people of Rapture actually betrayed objectivist ideals. In his very interesting Marxist critique, Richard Terrell lays out a case that the game conditioned the player to accept the principles of Rapture’s economy. In his view, the choice to attack the Big Daddies (and possibly the little sisters) makes the player part of the oppressive capitalist regime. Justin Keverne argued that the mechanics of the game suggest that one’s goal is to acquire power in order to gain the ability to acquire further power.

At this point, designer Clint Hocking felt that BioShock went off the rails in a certain sense. In his essential essay “Ludonarrative Dissonance in BioShock, Hocking argues that the game presents the player with two conflicting contracts. The gameplay establishes that the player must serve his own interest in order to advance, while the story forces the player to serve others in order to advance. Our attempts to deal with or ignore this tension are them mocked by the game’s central twist.

“How can you do this thing? To a child?”

The philosophy of rational self-interest provides context for the story, and also for a moral choice that the player makes. When Rapture’s lumbering Big Daddies are defeated, the player may choose the fate of “little sisters” they protect. If he rescues a little sister, he receives a small amount of ADAM that he can use to purchase plasmids, tonics, and other upgrades, and the girl survives. If he chooses to “harvest” the girl, he gets a great deal more ADAM, but she does not survive. For Leigh Alexander, saving the girls is like saving Rapture’s last bit of innocence. In her view, the whole saga with ADAM was like a child’s wish, and saving the girls is a way of forgiving Rapture for making that wish, despite the destruction it caused. Yet many did not find this choice to be compelling. As Wes Erdelack notes, in BioShock as in many other video games, the moral choices are too simplistic and do not feature a sufficient challenge to “goodness”.

One frequent complaint about the rescue / harvest choice is that if the player rescues enough little sisters, then the twisted Dr. Tenenbaum will leave a Teddy bear at a nearby vending machine, stuffed with plasmids, ammo, and extra ADAM she has presumably harvested on her own. In a thorough critique of this moral choice, D. Riley argues that the benefits of rescuing are sufficiently great that the whole system is neutered. Duncan Fyfe concurs, and wonders how the developers could have gotten this so wrong.

This opinion is not universal. Leigh Alexander believes that approaching the rescue / harvest choice with a cost-benefit analysis is too limiting. In her view the question to ask is not what you want to get but who you want to be. As she says, “The merit of choice in games may not be what we get from it, but when done this richly, how it feels.” In her detailed essay on BioShock‘s critique of objectivism, Mighty Ponygirl similarly argues that the choice to kill the little sisters says less about morality than it does about the player’s acceptance of Rapture’s ideals. In her words, “If you can look at a sentient being as an expendible resource… you would make a great objectivist.” Bonnie Ruberg feels that the choice is really there to expose the selfishness of gameplay tactics in general. I also felt that the near-equivalence (in economic terms) of the two choices was making a point about the hidden values of games.

Some also argue that the harvest choice is not compelling because the player is spared having to watch the act or even see the body that remains. D. Riley’s previously noted essay includes a comment on this point, and I make a similar case in my own essay, “Ecce, soror”. Nels Anderson acknowledges that this may be so, but points out that on-screen child murder by the protagonist of a game simply could never get by ratings boards or the easily-outraged public. Nonetheless, he argues that the nursery scene provides some of the necessary emotional impact.

And perhaps the little sisters aren’t even the real focus of the moral choice. Justin Keverne argues that the player’s real moral choice is whether to attack the enslaved Big Daddies for his own personal gain. Unlike the other denizens of Rapture, the extremely dangerous Big Daddies won’t harm you unless you attack them first. For Glenn Turner, the choice to put down a Big Daddy was harrowing because of the little sisters’ reaction. Gene Koo felt that becoming one of these lumbering behemoths brought the game’s emotional and philosophical threads close to each other. In his view, however, this didn’t quite succeed, because the player has no choice about whether he becomes a big daddy.

Whether the rescue / harvest choice was compelling or not, BioShock at least invited a fresh consideration of the meaning of moral agency in games, according to Leigh Alexander. She also pondered whether our behavior in the game would change if our peers were aware of it (perhaps through achievements or trophies).

“A man chooses; a slave obeys.”

Choice is the subject of BioShock‘s most compelling moment, the confrontation with Andrew Ryan. This moment twists the preceding exposition of the ideas of rational self-interest into a commentary on the nature of gaming itself. Wes Erdelack views BioShock as a parable about gaming, highlighting the fact that the feeling of agency is always an illusion. The Graduate School Gamer notes in an essay comparing BioShock to Braid that “The player can only converse with the text within the confines of the game’s design and always remains at the will of the designer.” The illusion of choice is not a subject unique to gaming, according to Roger Travis. He notes that the non-choice of killing Ryan resembles Achilles’ non-choice to join battle in the Iliad. Travis also expands on this idea in arguing that the game’s ethical challenges exist to highlight the illusion of choice.

The first-person perspective heightened the impact of the climax. Matthew Gallant regards the first-person viewpoint as essential, especially in moments like the confrontation with Ryan. The personal choices at the center of the game couldn’t be the same if the player’s eye into the game world didn’t seem to make him a part of it. Sinan Kubba shares Gallant’s skepticism about a BioShock movie, feeling that the immediacy and immersion of the game’s perspective could never truly be replicated in film. The praise was not universal, however: Brad Gallaway felt that the silent, first-person protagonist interfered with the narrative at several important points. He especially felt that the internal logic of the game collapsed when the player injected himself with a plasmid for the first time.

The more widely-expressed complaint about the plot, and specifically the encounter with Ryan, is that there is far too much game after it. The denouement of the game is widely recognized as its weakest segment, a fact that Josh Birk explains by pointing out that BioShock, like many other games, has more backstory than story. The confrontation with Ryan is the culmination of the fascinating backstory, leaving the rest of the game to become little more than the tale of a man with a gun out for revenge. Moreover, the game doesn’t exactly free the player up to make his own choices after its climax. The player continues to obey a character, only now it is Tenenbaum rather than Fontaine. Andrew Vanden Bossche was not disturbed by this, in part because the game did a good job of keeping the player’s goals aligned with those of the narrative. Duncan Fyfe, however, was frustrated by BioShock‘s refusal to engage this dilemma. Chris Dahlen also found it troubling, because the game’s most compelling character (Ryan) has so much agency and the player has so little. As he puts it, “…within the game, you never become a man. The only choice you have is to stop playing.” In a very interesting piece, Tom Francis proposed an alternate ending sequence with stronger inherent logic and an actual choice in the final moments.

Aside from Ryan, surprisingly few writers have gone in depth on the characters of the game. A worthy exception to this rule is Leigh Alexander’s examination of the bizarre Sander Cohen. She relates his personality to people she knows from her theater background, seeing in him a metaphor for the whole backstory of the game. In her view, Cohen is “a brilliant character not only for his spot-on characterization, but for the way his endless wrestling with ‘the muse’ is a perfect metaphor for the consumptive nature of Rapture in general.”

“I know why it has to be children, but why just girls?”

Without focusing a spotlight on particular characters, several interesting pieces have examined the role of women and femininity in BioShock. Although creepy little girls are a staple of the horror genre, as Leigh Alexander has noted, BioShock uniquely gives the player power over their fate. Bonnie Ruberg found the female enemies in the game particularly disturbing, and wondered whether their horrific power drew from the simple fact of their gender. She also found the power relationship between the player and the little sisters to be troubling, and agreed with a Penny Arcade comic suggesting that it had overtones of pedophilia.

Nels Anderson indicates that the design of the girls is intended to evoke sympathetic feelings, but what attitude does this imply on the part of the player and developers? In a comprehensive critique, Richard Terrell argues that BioShock pervasively trades in patriarchal values because it “depicts women as weak, emotional, submissive, and nurturing and men as strong, and protective…”. The little sisters are portrayed as helpless human commodities, and for much of the story Diane McClintock equates her self-worth with physical attractiveness. Moreover, Dr. Tenenbaum’s redemption comes through an acquiescence to patriarchal ideas of motherhood. Terrell’s analysis encompasses the mechanics of interacting with female characters as well. Alex Raymond offers a counterpoint, noting that Rapture’s only remaining sane geniuses are women who integrate intellect and emotion. Since the game shows the conditioning of the little sisters into partriarchal ideals as disturbing and corrupt, she believes it may even have feminist ideas at its core.

“I chose the impossible. I chose… Rapture”

It’s easy to understand how Cohen, Tenenbaum, and so many others could have chosen Rapture. For Ed Borden, the environment was key to BioShock‘s immersion of the player. The crumbling city arrests the player’s attention and inspires his curiosity. Glenn Turner felt the same way, arguing that the art design was perhaps the game’s best feature. For Richard Naik also, the selling point of the game was Rapture’s auditory and visual design, overwhelming all of the game’s shortcomings. The art design unified the disparate levels, making the world of Rapture feel like a coherent whole and maximizing the emotional impact on the player, as Tom Cross explains in “Surviving Rapture”.

Part of the power of the environment was the way in which it was used to tell a story. Steven O’Dell compared the player’s journey through Rapture to a guided tour of a dying city, one in which the enormously detailed spaces tell a story through the way they are designed. Wes Erdelack points out that the much-loved environmental storytelling of Fallout 3 has some roots in the construction of Rapture’s spaces. While the audio logs constitute the most powerful storytelling in BioShock, the game’s spaces allow the player to play detective and reconstruct his own history for the game world. Careful construction of spaces and traversals played a significant role in player experiences as well, as Simon Cooke explains. Every time the player encounters a massive set piece, the developers use clever design to make sure he is able to see every bit of it. The hub-and-spoke design used for most areas of Rapture also increases the player’s sense of familiarity with its major spaces, as Steve Gaynor details in his essay “Reorienteering: Spatial Organization in Bioshock.”

“…bugger gets into his ‘ead that he’s gonna go down guns blazing.”

Also making sure that the player can see every inch of the city is the fact that he simply can’t die in it. In some respects, the Vita-Chambers that resurrect the player after every fatal encounter resemble a streamlined checkpoint system (much like Elika in the later Prince of Persia), and Scott Juster places them among a number of ways that BioShock used narrative elements to disguise common gameplay tropes. Nonetheless, the Vita-Chambers were widely criticized. This goes beyond the hardcore player’s lament, articulated for us by Josh Bycer, that resurrection makes the game ‘too easy’. Josh Birk complains that they interfere with the scare factor in the game and the logic of weapon collection. Justin Keverne points out that they encourage the player to take the path of least resistance, though for him the draw of using the plasmid powers was enough to keep him playing fair. Not so for Richard Terrell, who felt that the chambers too strongly encouraged the wrench / revive / repeat approach to combat, and demoted the central activity of the game, which he felt to be shooting. Moreover, he argues that the effective immortality of the player weakens the psychological impact of the game in his psychoanalytic evaluation.

Another way to conceive of the Vita-Chambers might be as a resurrection spell, an apt comparison since BioShock had so many RPG elements. In fact, Richard Terrell felt the game’s mechanics tended more towards the role-playing side, in particular because the almost nonexistent cover system forced the player to behave like a bullet sponge. He compares tactics in BioShock to the attack / attack / heal approach common in RPGs. Justin Keverne comments on the oddity of this, as the Vita-Chambers actually make healing and health packs totally superfluous in all but the final battle. Writing for Eludamos, Matthew Weise connects BioShock with RPG roots originating in Ultima Underworld.

BioShock resembled RPGs in even less flattering ways as well, specifically because of its fetch quests. These quests added numerous objectives that muffled the story, in Duncan Fyfe’s view. Rather than engaging in a breakneck pursuit of Ryan (or Fontaine), the player spends his time mucking about Rapture looking for 7 vials of bee spit. This quest temporarily scared Tom Armitage right out of the game, even though it ultimately led to some interesting exploration. He warns, “I was thrown by the instructions the game gave me…” saying that even a good game can be derailed by players’ bad memories of similar quests.

And despite the “too easy” vita chambers and exciting plasmid powers, the conventions that BioShock embraces limit its audience. Although Lanchester praised BioShock‘s consideration of Randian philosophy, he criticized the game because even its modest difficulty would keep it from being experienced by a broader culture that might genuinely appreciate it.

Author’s Note

If you go to any of these blogs and search them for the word “BioShock” you will come up with dozens of posts. The game has become a kind of yardstick by which we measure others, and a rich source of examples to illustrate points. I attempted to limit what I included here by stipulating that the post must be at least 50% about BioShock, and that it should be in fully developed paragraphs rather than bullet points. I’m not sure I actually ended up holding to that, but that was at least the approach I tried to apply. I am positive I left some excellent posts out, mostly by failing to find them in the vast wilds of the internet. If I omitted your dissertation on the semiotics of dentistry in the context of Rapture, it is probably because I didn’t run into it while I was doing my survey. Would you kindly let me know about it in the comments, via Twitter, or with an e-mail?

Last updated: 12/5/09

blueberry-gardenTime to play catch-up – what posts did I inevitably miss reading last week? First, this piece on Left 4 Dead (the first) from Gregory Weir’s Game, Set, Watch column ‘The Interactive Palette‘. He says that “by creating enemies that can combine their abilities to become even more powerful, Valve significantly increased the complexity of L4D gameplay.” What I find interesting about this observation is that practically everything Weir mentions is the basic information that every player will pick up by playing for as little as 30 minutes before internalizing it and expressing it as ‘being a better player’. Props to both Valve & Weir.

Matthew Gallant makes sure we all know that, in Half-Life 2, “birds are never just birds” but almost always serve to guide the players attention to an important detail in the world. There are all sorts of sneaky tricks they do to guide where players look, and Gallant outlines them with excellent examples.

Jim Rossignol expands on a previous Offworld ‘Ragdoll Metaphysics’ column and takes JG Ballard’s themes of the future, as well as the idea of ‘The Fermi Paradox’, to flesh out ideas about space travel, videogames, and aliens.

And Auntie Pixelante writes a little bit of commentary about Messhof’s Thrill of Combat, which I still haven’t bought (much to my own chagrin).

But what have the blogs been talking about this week? Kotaku expounded upon some problems with previous videogame studies, a ‘Boycott Left 4 Dead 2‘ steam community group cropped up with 15,000, 28,000 members, and Gamasutra ran a piece that explained why current-gen AAA games are all so brown and bump-mapped. It’s all in the tech, baby.

Nels Anderson wrote this week about Three Dog (Awwoooo!) and the potential of a ‘Procedural Skald‘ that would recite, and respond to, players’ actions. I think he’s really onto something here.

In a post called ‘Defibrillate This‘ Tom Francis republishes an old post that gets my heart racing with memories of classic Battlefield 2 matches.

Dan Bruno’s Cruise Elroy blog is consistently excellent and this week he comments insightfully on The Sims 3 and its broad appeal and diverse potential play styles. He says,

I once sat behind a young girl on a train who played The Sims for three hours straight. Amazingly, I didn’t see her spend any time interacting with the characters in “live mode” – ostensibly the focus of the game. Rather, she spent the entire time constructing floor plans, deliberating over wallpaper colors, furnishing and decorating all the rooms – and then deleting all her work and starting anew…I don’t play in quite the same way, but I think that girl had the right idea.

Create Digital Music is a great site for an electronic musician like myself and it’s a happy coincidence that they occasionally run stories on music for games too. This one links to a video from Wired about the music for Sony’s game inFamous.

L.B. Jeffries makes a connection between hipster culture and the ‘hardcore/casual’ divide in videogames this week. Hipster culture, he says, defines itself as being an ‘anti-culture’ and increasingly that is how the gaming ‘hardcore’ is also being defined – as anything that isn’t casual. He also makes an almost throwaway observation at the end about the formation of critical darlings and classics in game writing, saying,

Consider how a game becomes “high art” in gamer culture. The means by which we judge which ten year old game is significant is mostly artificial. Critics just choose games that they will then discuss in a more complex fashion.

Which is a subject worthy of a post in itself and I can definitely see a case to be made against such a claim. The example in the post is Shadow of the Colossus which is said to have achieved its current critical status simply because of the critical attention it received. While it’s true that it wouldn’t be perceived the same unless critics held it in such high regard, it seems to ignore the fact that there are lots of games that simply wouldn’t stand up to the same level of scrutiny and attention. You can’t make a game be worthy of critical attention… can you?

Leigh Alexander writes this week from her perspective as a woman and a target of ‘exer-gaming’ marketing and in an only tangentially related post PixelVixen comments on the sexism of an IGN competition that ran exclusively for 18-25 year old males. I’m really glad these kinds of posts exist. Update: The IGN competition has since been changed to include women.

The Experience Points crew dive into Far Cry 2 and the politics of war, violence and setting the game in Africa. I think it might be physically impossible for me not to read a blog post if it’s about Far Cry 2.

Alan Jack writes this week about the tired old debate that is ‘Games as Art’. Now wait, don’t give me that look. He makes an interesting contribution by turning the argument on its head, wondering not ‘Are games art’, but instead  ‘Is Art Games‘?

If Duchamp is correct, art – and specifically the process of appreciating, understanding, and/or being moved by art, also shares the parallel of shared authorship with games.

This weeks’ must read is N’Gai Croal’s ‘In the Line of Fire’ part two on his Edge blog. He explains what it was like to speak to the producer responsible for of the troubling imagery in the Resident Evil 5 trailer that sparked his initial comments. He says,

I felt like I once again understood where he’d been coming from. That a two-to-three-week trip to unspecified African countries and looking at a number of movies set in Africa alongside pop-cultural inspirations like the Indiana Jones series simply hadn’t been enough to sufficiently educate him or the team about the legacy of the imagery that they were tapping in to and, as a result, they’d lost control of their message.

Speaking of discussions of game developers, two highly esteemed developers – Manveer Heir and Clint Hocking – had a bit of a back and forth this week via twitter and their respective blogs. It began with Manveer posting the slides and audio of his ‘pecha kucha’ style presentation “Designing Ethical Dilemmas” from the recent GLS (Games + Learning + Society) Conference; they pack some really interesting ideas about decision making in games and how to force meaningful ethical decisions onto the player. Clint Hocking who is always generously willing to share his opinion, responded on his blog to Manveer’s presentation and elaborated on why he is unwilling to accept some of the implications in Manveer’s talk. Even if you aren’t all that interested in creating meaningful decisions for players in games, you can be encouraged by the fact that this conversation is being had by people who themselves make, ahem, meaningful decisions in the games industry.

And lastly; it can be Indie Game backlash time nao? Surely it can’t be far off, now that Steve Gaynor has said via twitter ‘what I’ve seen of Blueberry Garden just screams Indie Gaming Bingo so hard that it makes me not want to play it’. But when Dustin Gunn of the aforementioned Indie Gaming Bingo blog applies his discerning eye to Blueberry Garden he doesn’t even win! Phew, maybe we’re in the clear for another week. As always, if there’s a post I didn’t mention that you think should be included in TWIVGB, feel free to leave a link in the comments or email us at editors@this-website.

e3Is it really that time of the week again already? I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the whole “passage of time” thing – surely it’s some sort of crazy conspiracy…

Much like this week’s announcement of Left 4 Dead 2 by Valve – which is apparently a crazy conspiracy to charge money for a videogame! No way! While this announcement wouldn’t be noteworthy on its own (Critical Distance ain’t about the previews and hype, y’all), it’s noteworthy because of the hyperbolic indignation brought out in some people who were expecting more free stuff would be added to the first game. Apparently when you give stuff away for free in some of your games, you now have to do it in all of your games.

Matthew Wasteland this week writes about how ‘The Cake is a Metaphor‘ for the dirty business of game development. If Stringer Bell were here, I’m sure he’d make some kind of insightful comment about how “What you’re thinking is that we have an inelastic product here. But what we have here is an elastic product.”

And while we’re on the subject of videogame game economics, Ian Bogost wrote an insightful column at Gamasutra the other week on the economics behind iPhone App Store game sales. Check out ‘I want my 99 cents back‘ for its discussion of consumer impressions of disposability and price points.

Michael Abbott of ‘The Brainy Gamer’ wrote somewhat disparagingly about the steady stream of a particular type of game that seems to be dominating the Electronic Entertainment Exposition (E3) this year. In case you aren’t aware, E3 is seen as something of a yard-stick for the industry – everyone who is anyone in the games is strutting their stuff on the show floor and it’s possible to quickly glean an overview of what the next 12 to 18 months looks like in terms of game releases. On this front, Abbott questions whether the industry is really making any progress towards a (perhaps idealistic) place where games cater to more than just “adolescent male power fantasies”. In the post ‘Thank you sir, may I have another?‘, he opines that,

It’s not my nature to be cynical, but the overwhelming preponderance of histrionic combat-oriented games, nearly all delivered in spectacular cinematic style, sends a clear message to gamers everywhere. ‘We’re bringing you bigger, edgier, and more visually arresting versions of the games we brought you last year, and the year before that. Sure, we’ve got casual games too, and a new slate of appalling games for girls; but we know you know where the action is.’ To which gamers are apparently eager to reply “Thank you sir, may I have another?”

If you are looking to fuel your E3 and games industry cynicism, look no further than these quotes pulled from an article published on Gamasutra and sister site Game, Set, Watch. Steve Gaynor on twitter questioned whether one can justifiably say that a game “sets the new gold standard on limit-pushing” while Mitch Krpata pulled out the quote that “The videogame press “Whoops, cheers, [and] howls” when new games are announced.” Isolated on it’s own like that, it sure sounds more like a criticism than a ringing endorsement of the state of the industry.

If, however, you are looking for something to make yourself feel good about the industry, you need look no further than Tom Francis’s post “All books found to be reasonably or very good” which pulls the latest 20 book reviews by The Onion’s AV Club with some interesting results. “And you thought Games Journalism didn’t use the whole scale” he says.

PixelVixen does another column for Suicide Girls and focuses on how inFamous strikes a nice balance between ‘feeling like a God’ and ‘feeling like a regular dude’.

On TigSource they’re doing a ‘classics’ week where they cover a bunch of old, underappreciated, but still highly playable Indie Games. Who knew that the indie scene was old enough to have classics?! Fantastic! (and that’s not me being facetious)

As I said at the start, Critical Distance ain’t about the previews, but I make a small exception for Tom Chick’s feelings about how, after playing Red Faction Guerrilla, he has been spoilt for realistic destruction in his action games.

After over twenty hours of playing time with a game so shrewdly built around the idea of breakable objects, it’s a bit strange to see demos of other games where rockets bounce harmlessly off buildings and trucks don’t plow through houses they hit. It’s like going back to black-and-white TV, a big clunky iPod, or manual steering.

Which reminds me of a post on my personal blog (shill alert!) called ‘A Spoiled Gamer, Am I‘, in which I lamented that Far Cry 2‘s smooth animations and high level of first person embodiment had ruined me for the jilted animations of Fallout 3. Of course, I got over it and I’m playing Fallout 3 again right now, so I wonder if something like this is just temporary. I kind of hope not, actually.

Offworld has a great post on the game Intelligent Qube (also known as Kurushi outside of North America) which I have fond memories of playing as a kid.

And lastly for the week, Rock, Paper, Shotgun are doing a series on classic board games and the lessons Kieron Gillen is taking away from them to apply to videogames. Here’s the introduction with links to the rest in the series (some of which are as yet forthcoming).

And that’s your lot for the week – As always, if there’s a post you think should be included in TWIVGB that was particularly excellent, feel free to leave a link in the comments or email us at editors@this-website. Ciao for now!

P.S. The Path now has some kind of crazy prologue demo type thing.

As two of the most successful Xbox 360 exclusive titles to date (with a Metacritic average 93.5%), millions of people have played the Gears of War games, and even those who haven’t  know what to expect: muscle bound soldiers in enough body armour to make a tank jealous shouting macho insults while chain-sawing aliens into bloody chunks. But there must be more to it than that?

Now, several months after the release of the second game in the series, it seems like an apt time to ask the obvious, but often over looked question: What is Gears of War?

For Andrew Smale it’s a game, and a series, that “encourages hooting and hollering and much chest-thumping after each challenging firefight”, a game that “revels in the act of shooting a weapon so much that it becomes the only reason you come back to [it]“. IGN’s Michael Thomsen calls it “pornographic in the best sense of the word”, a game where every action is destructive; that “like a great horror film, is a psychic acknowledgement of fear and mortality without having to endure any of the painful consequences”. Despite this Michael describes his overall experience with Gears of War 2 as “a hollow one”. It’s this dichotomy between the tugging of heartstrings and the exploding of brain pans that is one of the most interesting aspects of the Gears of War series.

Denis Farr sees this dichotomy, this dissonance, as being reflective of the developers themselves and “the culture that influenced [them]“. This is a culture still struggling with traditional notions of masculinity, and the role of women in the military, while fighting a war of ambiguous morality. It comes as little surprise that the soldiers of the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) are known as ‘Gears’, those simple naming conventions revealing a “pretty sardonic view of involvement in war”.

In a number of ways Gears of War can be seen to be struggling between tradition and innovation. In the words of Slate’s Chris Suellentrop, “Gears of War also employs a couple of nifty gameplay innovations”, but it is not “getting critical acclaim because it’s unique or revolutionary”.

L.B. Jeffries highlights how steeped in traditional and potentially clichéd staples Gears of War can be when he examines how it “relies on the characters of The Iliad as stereotypes” for its own cast. He also calls the COGs “an interesting take on the epic hero”, noting how they are depicted as “enormous muscles and armor”. This is an interesting comparison to how David Houghton sees them. In his article Why you’re actually playing as the bad guys in Gears of War he risks Godwin’s Law by reminding us of the oft overlooked back story of the Gears of War universe and the planet Sera. The COGs “only really rose to dominance when the catastrophic Locust attack of Emergence Day made the human population desperate for radical leadership”. The comparison is an obvious one, as these are the same tactics used by “such luminaries as Emperor Palpatine and Adolf Hitler”.

However Gears of War’s characters are viewed it’s noteworthy that an underlying foundation of the story of the series, especially in the second game, is the concept of relationships. But which relationship is the central one? Is it the overtly stated and played upon relationship between Dom and his missing wife Maria, or the less explicit but potentially much more relevant relationship between the two playable characters themselves — Dom and the default player character Marcus? As Denis Farr asks and answers in Two Cogs in a Gear, what is the “relationship that really matters? The one for which you can earn achievements”. The term “bromance” has been somewhat liberally applied to the relationship between the two primary characters, even extending to the implication that there is some degree of homosexual frisson. The conceit that Gears of War is homoerotic is a common one, but how much weight does it really hold? Denis, an openly gay gamer and critic, states that “At no point while I was playing this supposedly homoerotic game did I ever have that knowing eyebrow raise that denotes I found something scintillating”. He goes on to point out that “There wasn’t even anyone in a state of undress” throughout the whole game. He concludes that “the game seems to push its homoeroticism in a seeming wink at the social aspects of our gaming culture”.

As well as their possibly homoerotic overtones, there has been a lot of discussion of the portrayal of race and gender roles in the Gears of War games. In Gears of War and Gender/Race Simon Ferrari points out that with a white actor providing the voice for the one character of obviously Asian descent Lieutenant Minh Young Kim, Epic Games have succumbed to the “long tradition of using whites for Fu Man Chus and Charlie Chans”. Looking at the few female characters in the series Denis Farr finds that “females in this game mainly existed to have violence or the threat of violence visited upon them”. Alex Raymond was similarly unimpressed with the manner in which the game “utilizes the tired and sexist Women in Refrigerators trope”, where “female characters are killed off in order to develop or provide motivation for a male character”. It’s a portrayal of female characters familiar from decades of film and television, which makes it somewhat surprising that this anachronistic treatment of women as perpetual victims can still be directly affecting.

Returning to the relationship between Dom and Maria, there is a specific scene near the conclusion of Gears of War 2 that reunites Dom and Maria, for however brief a moment. It is a scene that seems out of place amid the machismo and joyous blood letting of the game at large, but the very fact that it is out of place might be why it has been able to affect some people. Rachael Webster talks about how this part literally made her “sick to her stomach” and how the scene “horrified” her. This is a sentiment shared by Brandon Erickson who considered the scene depicting the fate of Maria “a punch in the gut”. For PopMatters’ Nick Dinicola the strength of that scene comes not from the fact that it is an event that directly affects the player character, but that it affects the true lead of Gears of War’s story, Dominic Santiago. Dom is a much more interesting character than Marcus because “he’s personally involved in the conflict”. Marcus might be a cliché, “but he’s the very cliché that we want to play”. Of course not everybody felt Gears Of War 2 was successful in its attempts at an emotional connection. Jorge Albor felt that it consistently failed to evoke an emotional response because “we are never shown what makes this planet worth saving, so there can be no sense of loss”. Variety’s Chris Morris ponders if Gears of War 2 might be a better game with a simple New Super Mario Brothers-esque “10 second introduction”, feeling as he does that the game’s writing was “clichéd, mawkish, and bombastic” to the point where he “could never get through a cutscene without cringing in embarrassment”.

Such a scene is bound to evoke a variety of reactions. Some wondered if is ever possible for a game like Gears of War to have any kind of emotional impact. Clint Hocking certainly believes it is; in his Tears of War post he looks at how players “feel a powerful psychosomatic connection to Marcus”. He also considers a possible way in which the reload mechanic of Gears could have been used in a different manner to evoke emotion. Though such a mechanic is ultimately not present in either game it is an interesting take on how emotional responses can be created in an action game. Even if  Gears of War doesn’t reach the level of emotionally engaging mechanics that Clint might have desired, for Rob LeFebvre both the mechanics and the characterisation were able to immerse him because “the gameplay mechanics fully mesh with the way I would act in a similar situation”: they led him to act in ways he felt were entirely consistent with the context of the narrative.

Though not directly dealing with such issues, Ben Abraham’s musing on the The superfluity of sound in Gears of War 2 suggest an interesting correspondence between the design of the sound effects and the game mechanics. The mainstream music industry puts a lot of effort into making everything as loud and noticeable as possible and Gears of War seem to be taking a similar approach. The sound effects have likely been “compressed extremely harshly” so that they are as “clear and loud” as they can be, and this idea seems to have carried over into the entire aesthetic environment and gameplay of the series. Though it is paced to provide moments of calm in counter-point to the bombast of its action sequences, even these calmer periods are overlaid with heavy-handed dialogue and attempts at stirring emotions. Everything about Gears of War feels loud and noticeable — even the moments when it’s trying to be subtle and reflective.

If Gears of War is a series built around a dichotomy then nowhere is that more apparent than in the divide between the singleplayer/co-operative campaign and the multiplayer — especially the sequel’s Horde mode. Stripped of any narrative beyond ‘kill or be killed’, Horde mode is almost survival horror-like in its focus on the pure concept of staying alive in the face of overwhelming odds. It is Space Invaders for the Xbox generation; controller in hand and a near endless waves of enemies in front of you. Free of any narrative pretensions, Gears of War 2’s Horde mode is almost universally praised. As Andrew Smale puts it “Horde lets the player experience the best parts”of the game “over and over again”. Mitch Krpata describes it as “genius”, Gears of War “stripped to its most elemental”.

In the end, despite attempts to evoke an emotional response that only sometimes work, as well as some troublesome uses of clichéd and stereotypical characters, Gears of War is a successful series. As Kieron Gillen puts it “Felix and Dom probably have testosterone-producing glands the size of grapefruits” but “that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate its adolescent charm”. After all, “man does not live on Proust alone”. And in any case, it’s worth remembering that sometimes popular things are popular for a reason.