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An exclusively obtained screenshot of an early prototype of Norwegian WoodQuick! It's that day of the week again, which means it's time for a decidedly laissez-faire overview of the game criticism blogosphere. And don't forget: you can always send links to Critical Distance's twitter account for inclusion in TWIVGB.

After last week's acclaimed critique of The Joker and ludonarrative dissonance in Batman: Arkham Asylum, Michel McBride looks at the composition/execution cycle (as originally put forward by Clint Hocking in a GDC presentation) as played out in the game.

Alex Raymond had the pleasure of having her critique of gender issues in Mass Effect responded to by one of the designers from Bioware. Her original article can be found here.

Trent Polack talks about 'Gaming Gen-Y'.

Michael Abbot writes about the critical reception to two very different DS games in 'I'll Take Refinement', namely Scribblenauts and Mario and Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story. He makes an interesting statement that I'd like to highlight:

Scribblenauts was, for awhile, the talk of the town in a way that a new M&L game could never be… [but] Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story (despite its cumbersome title) is a smashingly good game, and it deserves at least as much critical consideration as Scribblenauts – or any other game for that matter.

Worth thinking about: but are all games really equally worthy of discussion and scrutiny? I'm sure there are things to be gained from and appreciated in any game, but I'm not as convinced as Michael, and I told him as much. He followed up with 'The Joy of Iteration'.

Nels Anderson, on a similar riff, says “Perfection? I'll take personality“.

Ian Bogost in his Persuasive Games column discusses Scribblenauts inclusion of the racially loaded term 'Sambo',

On the one hand, it is tempting to celebrate this new ignorance. If a more accepting and less bigoted society is one we want to live in, then there is some sign of cultural success when a racial slur obsolesces.  …But on the other hand, this very neglect points to a social ill even worse than racism itself: disavowal. We must strive for more than the destruction of stereotype, slur, and other visible signs of bigotry, as if eliminating the symptoms also cures the cause.

One of my friends In Real Life (don't make a face: I have friends) has started a blog to talk about her time with Habbo hotel: in her first post, she reminisces of times spent in chatrooms and the eponymous A/S/L. I love the name of the blog too: 'Talking Bobba': you'll get it when you figure out what 'Bobba' means.

Lewis Denby writes for Rock Paper Shotgun about the mod 'Korsakovia' from the same Portsmouth University researchers-cum-developers who brought you Dear Esther:

From the fusion of musical styles, to the alarming bumps and thumps, and particularly the utterly alien sound of the smoke monsters, it's an absolute aural feast. That is, a particularly poisonous one that ravages your insides. The whole mod sounds unthinkably horrendous, in the most brilliant way you could ever imagine.

I played most of it through in one night and can attest; it will disturb you quite a bit, or annoy you with its frequent use of blasts of white noise.

Sean at Finding the Fun writes about the Chronicles of Riddick re-release of a few months past and talks about where the fun is in shoving screwdrivers into throats and ramming knees into faces. I like where this is going.

The Videogames and Human Values initiative publishes it's first ever 'proceedings', written by none other than Justin Keverne of Groping The Elephant. It's called 'Game within a game: freedom and control in Assassin’s Creed' which sounds appropriately journal-ese.

Michael Clarkson critiques a section of Muramasa with the catchy title 'Muramasa goes to Hell'.

Some colourful criticism of GameInformer's review of WET from the Play Like a Girl blog. If that's not enough WET criticism, the fifth Beatle (if Rock Paper Shotgun were the Beatles), that is Quintin Smith, reviews WET without ever playing it. Because he's a professional.

Speaking of the RPS crew, Jim Rossignol imagines the future with a dream-based GTA5 Review.

GTA5 would, I/they explained, feature apartments across the city into which your character could walk, and rather than entering the living cutscenes of the previous games, he'd face a kind of dynamic soap opera, which would resolve in a mission. Each of the apartments contained the characters of popular sitcom, Friends, but these were placeholders, so as not to spoil the game for viewers.

Even when he's awake he's dreaming, that Rossignol, as he has written a new Offworld column too, called 'Game Research, Ghost Stories, Alan Moore, and Academia: The Far Reaches of Edutainment'. At the real Rock Paper Shotgun, Kieron Gillen wrote a 'Wot I Think' about Red Faction Guerrilla: saying interesting things about it, like:

…the series has always played in these political waters, but from its Blackwater-esque PMCs to its insurgency escalating in proportion and in response to corporate-statism, it's Iraq the game. It's at times like this Volition should think itself lucky that no-one actually takes videogames seriously. If someone had made Red Faction as a film, make no mistake: it'd be pilloried as anti-American propaganda.

He also talked about Art Game Lose/Lose this week, which deletes files on your computer as a game mechanic. He has a think about more mainstream applications for this kind of ultra-hardcore game, which then inspired me to go looking for the name of a classic game from the early 90's that I played the crap out of the demo for. In the search I Google'd up this piece by Greg Beaton about the game, Operation: Inner Space. Ah, the memories.

Chris Livingstone plays notorious, online Civ-alike game, Evony, for a week just to make jokes about the lack of buxom beauties and ends up spending much more of his time sending soldiers off to be slaughtered in nearby fields and woodlands.

Chris Dahlen talks to Corvus Elrod about his flexible storytelling ruleset 'The Honeycomb Engine'.

Have you ever wondered how many people own which consoles in North America? No? Me either, but apparently someone has as Crispy Gamer's Kyle Orland get his hands on some NPD data about console ownership and uptake. News Flash: People play games on more than just the Wii/PS3/360! A lot of people at that.

I don’t like to link to stuff that I’ve written, but I’ll make exception for an announcement about the ever popular ‘Permanent Death’ story series that I don’t want anyone to miss. I’m very excited about the final production.

I have on good authority from twitter user m_eilers that the GSW column 'Design Diversions: (Press Any Key to Skip This Article)' is a good read. It starts like this:

About thirty levels into World of Warcraft, I realized that I did not need to read two paragraphs of text to justify killing twenty specific woodland creatures. It was at this point that I realized something crucial: in these two paragraphs, the only words that held any interest for me were “kill” and “woodland creatures.” It was very liberating to know that aside from the very few quests that tied into a larger narrative, I wasn't missing anything at all.

That does sound good. I don't think it took me 30 levels to figure out that most of the text in WoW was superfluous, however. I think it probably took me about 3. Don’t forget that you too can send links to the Critical Distance twitter account for weekly inclusion in TWIVGB.

Special bonus! Matthew Gallant & Friends New Videogame for Personal Computer running Windows/Mac/Linux is out and it's glorious. It's called Norwegian Wood. Here's an Offworld write-up by Brandon Boyer.

Some days, I even do some of the work myself!By the time you're reading this we brave few involved should have recorded a new CDC podcast for your listening pleasure (in six to eight weeks’ time). Until then, how would you feel about taking a stroll about the blogosphere with This Week in Videogame Blogging? It's coming up on that time of year wherein new games all start releasing together in crowds to alleviate their inherent embarrasment at new social situations and as such the blogging tempo is picking up. If you don't believe me, just check out the ever increasing length of these posts: I have a feeling this week is one of the longest ever.

Ian Bogost's DiGRA 2009 Keynote is worthy of attention if only for its interesting discussion of the Ludology/Narratology debate and the kinds of foregone conclusions that debate presupposed. Towards the final third of the piece it goes a bit metaphysical and seems to be arguing a point that I would have thought most people have already agreed on by now out of sheer common sense. Still, quite worth a read.

One I didn't catch in time for last week: Denis at Vorpal Bunny Ranch critiques the presentation of an ostensibly gay character in Phoenix Wright. As one commenter on the article points out, a fair amount of this, I'd hazard a guess, boils down to cultural differences between east and west and perhaps unfamiliarity with non-stereotypical representations of gay characters in Eastern media. As Denis says,

…this is what I would expect of a gay representation from film and television in the 80s. Even though almost all bit players in the series are couched in foibles and comedy, I found myself extremely uncomfortable when the game wanted me to laugh at Jean

In 'Unexpectedly Serious Games' Scott Juster argues that the blogosphere is laying the groundwork for a critical game analysis and drawing out social commentary from games in unexpected ways. Yep.

Michael Abbott played The Sims 3 and had as the most heart-rending and engaging story since Alice and Kev.

Plato and Aristotle discuss Grand Theft Auto. 'Nuff said,

'Where are the War Games?' asks Eric Swain in the context of talking about the experience of playing Battlefield 1943. Yes, it's ostensibly a 'war' game and yet it bears next to no similarity to the real experience of war.

Regardless of a few fleeting moments it ends up being a game of checkers and wack-a-mole. In fact I think I can extend that to any game that purports to be about war. As noted over at Experience Points, and Hit Self-Destruct there is an absence in civilians that would engender certain consideration on a real battlefield.

Hardcasual get the scoop on the richer topsoil present in Dirt 2. As the grandson of a true-blue Aussie farmer I know the value of good quality top soil. “Just wait till you see the colluvium deposits!”

Steven Totilo talks to lead designer Patrice Desilets of Assassins Creed II-fame about the conversation he is aiming to have with the gamer through the game. I'm terribly excited for not only the game itself, but the implications for the industry by designers and developers employing this kind of language and approach.

Touché Bitches has been mentioned here before and they've recently undergone a bit of a refresh. They've started doing shorter, more editorializing link posts – hey, guys, that was our schtick! (just kidding). Head on over for some interesting linking, editorialising and the occasional long form post.

Simon Ferrarri on EA's marketing department's creativity: which itself shows more potential and cleverness than the game it's ostensibly marketing: and the journalistic issues that it has given rise to.

RPS does a Retro feature on Typing of the Dead in which they compare the game to a cat. No really!

Sometimes when my cat is licking herself clean, something I can't see or hear will distract her. A rustle. An insect. Someone belching 18 miles away. The ghost of Michael Jackson. Y'know, whatever it is that their tiny animal brains mysteriously fixate on without warning. So she'll stop cleaning herself, close her mouth and stare unblinkingly at whatever it is. Once a while, though, she'll close the mouth but forget to put her tongue away first. So she sits there with her little pink tongue sticking out, sometimes for ten or fifteen straight minutes, looking charmingly, ludicrously foolish. She doesn't seem even slightly aware that she's doing it, or of how ridiculous, how hilarious she looks. And that only makes this absurd image all the more delightful.

And that, right there, is The Typing Of The Dead.

Speaking of the slack jawed; the thousand pixel stare of the concentrating videogame player is examined by Dan Kline.

The Runner has a new episode in its interesting, and always pretty, criticism-slash-diary style posting. One of the weird things about reading game diaries for a game you've never played is you kind of have no idea what's going on at times. Also, spoilers. At least you can always look at the pretty pictures.

Chris Lepine of The Artful Gamer discusses the changing preferences and play-styles of young people contrasted with his own experiences. I left a rather lengthy comment because I felt he was doing a bit of a Bogost in writing off rather than trying to understand the differing values and experiences of a younger generation of gamer, and was labelling them not as virtuous as his nostalgia-tinted remembrances of gaming past. I.E. games these days are too easy, geddoffmylawn. Maybe you'll get a bit more out of it?

Gerard Delaney writes about achievements on his blog 'Binary Swan', talking about how he often finds their breaking of the fourth wall intrusive. I'd never thought of them in that way before, but really that's what they are, and when thought about like that they seem quite out of place in any Triple-A title aiming for immersion. Silly then to remind the player they're playing a game by including pop-up achievements.

Lyndon Warren is yet-another Aussie game blogger and critic, and I wonder why I haven't stumbled across his excellent blog before. No matter, there's always time to correct that. For example, in his most recent post discussing what we mean when we talk about non-linearity in games, he has this to say:

…for example in Far Cry 2 when I come across a guard post I have a number of options, I can play it stealthily and eliminate them one by one up close with a silenced pistol or at long range with a sniper rifle or guns blazing or by saying fuck it and running away. I have not only options but those options lead to different play styles as well, guns blazing is aggressive, sniping defensive, stealth Machiavellian. The result being that the many rinse and repeat gun fights in Far Cry 2 are a lot more interesting than they have any right to be.

He makes quite a useful break-down that I've been thinking about myself for a while  – describing the different levels that non-linearity can happen as 'micro', 'macro', 'structural' and 'meta'. I think this is a seriously fantastic discussion and it's this week's must read. I should add that I discovered Lyndon's blog via his pacifist play-through of the original Fallout. It's also an engaging read.

Michel McBride does a really nice analysis of the character and role of The Riddler in Batman: Arkham Asylum and how the old spectre of Ludonarrative dissonance comes back to haunt.

When the hand-to-hand combat and use of gadgets and atmosphere all come together the game shines and we think “I am Batman”. I wonder, when crawling through a dead-end vent for the thirteenth time in search of a trophy is Batman thinking “I am a gamer”?

Okay, so before I wrap it up for the week I wanted to make a small announcement: it's becoming clear to me that even with the near-infinite amount of free time that I possess to read videogames blogs, the Pokémon catch phrase was an overly idealistic lie and I can't catch 'em all. So I need and want the readers help in compiling the best of videogame blogging for the week. If you read a really great article during the week, I want you to send a tweet to the critdistance twitter account and I'll check them out before writing TWIVGB. As always, thanks for reading.

Occasionally, the punch ups and drunken debauchery would ceace just long enough for a four part harmony.Ay Carumba! The east coast of Australia is suffering through an early-spring heatwave. What does this have to do with This Week In Videogame Blogging? Nothing, but I wanted readers to know the torture I endure to provide you with fresh, tasty reading for the weekend. I'm workin' up a sweat just sitting here.

First up, Carey at the Play Like a Girl blog does a strange and wonderful thing. She talks about Zombie Clowns. Then, filled with revulsion at just the idea of zombie clowns and with a staunch refusal to let them have a post all by themselves she re-tells an unrelated awesome story about a match of Halo 3. My hat is off to her for such a light-speed change of direction: it displays a certain mental agility I fancy, and there's a skill to being able to do it without giving readers whiplash, too.

Steve Gaynor writes about play, being playful and all things filled with playfulness. Okay, I just went for the alliteration, but here's a quote:

As we age, we lose it: 0ur sense of constant wonderment, endless possibility, unfettered, carefree joy. Perhaps in rare moments we get it back. But it’s not what we are anymore.

Matthew Wasteland puts himself inside the mind of… wait, what? A slice of pizza? Pizza speaks:

You can talk all you want about working nine to five and how the long hours are burning people out, but as long as I'm around, I think it's gonna be pretty difficult to change anything. What game developer could possibly turn down the prospect of a fresh, mouth-watering pizza? I mean, seriously.

Time to note and potentially make fun of an emerging trend in games writing: namely, describing a game (or games) as “Punk Rock”. Rolling Stone did a piece that basically conflated Braid's ambiguity with being “Punk”. As Roger Travis put it in a tweet “Oh Look, dude's mystifying-dude must be punk”. Continuing the trend, Rock Paper Shotgun's Kieron Gillen described Indie Game studio Zombie Cow's Lo-Fi adventure games as “punk rock aesthetics”. I guess I'm mostly pointing out this trend because Matthew Gallant wrote a piece on 'Punk and Indie Games' back in May that pulled together a lot of different ideas about punk and games to make some good observations. Always with the self-referencing, am I.

There's a little group of us on Twitter that that noted to each other that we aren't really all that interested in The Beatles or their impending Rock Band debut. I'll admit to enjoying them for a time, but generally speaking my musical taste lies elsewhere. Controversially, Ian Bogost felt somewhat more strongly in the negative than I did. As an aside, I feel he's deliberately veering head-on into cynicism and contrarianism mostly for arguments sake, so read with that in mind. His reasoning is largely a generalisation about the generation of Baby Boomers for whom The Beatles epitomised and he now questions whether;

…[we must] give them their final thrill in the medium we popularized, and which they spent decades not only failing to understand, but also deriding as useless and insolent?

A thought provoking post at the very least, and a whole bunch of smart comments are made by the likes of Iroquois Pliskin, Michael Abbott, Simon Ferrari, Daniel Golding, Erik Hanson, and a host of other just as intelligent commenter's who I'm not personally acquainted with.

Speaking of The Beatles: Rock Band, here's another great story from the Hardcasual stable, a story about one man, his fight with infidelity, and the undeniable attraction of The Beatles: Rock Band. And on top of that, Mike Schiller on his new blog 'Unlimited Lives' has a bit of a crack at 'The Rooftop Concert of Peripheral Based Music Games'.

This just in! A dispatch from the trenches of game development: Dan Bruno has been working on The Beatles: Rock Band for the better part of a year. He adds his own angle to the release of the game with his usual level of adroitness.

I should probably have given out some TWIVGB love for my fellow link-round-up-fiend, Erik Hanson before now, but I've been a bit remiss. Hanson writes a weekly summary for the Videogames and Human Values Initiative and remains A Kindred Spirit of TWIVGB; his offering remains far and away more comprehensive.

LB Jeffries takes a look at some studies of female avatars and how desirable they are to play, by both men and women: with some startling conclusions.

The issue of objectified and hypersexualized women in video games is often glibly dismissed because the target demographic for games is still 18 to 35 year old heterosexual men. That's why the study is really interesting, it disputes the entire notion that this demographic enjoys playing as these hypersexualized avatars.

While I was reading Ian Bogosts aforementioned piece on The Beatles: Rock Band, I noticed a keynote paper Bogost had presented at the recent DiGRA 2009 conference. He raises an interesting point re: videogame studies, examining the tendency in academia of studying the medium itself and overlooking its message. He says:

If we use McLuhan’s own logic on his very thinking, we might say that media ecology reverses into criticism. It treats individual works as important and meaningful, each one possessing its own properties that both combine with and resist those of the medium that encloses it. Perhaps this is a starting point for what game criticism might look like, should look like in the future.

I can't help but think that some of the online pieces being self-published and blogged and discussed on twitter and IRC comes close to Bogost' idealised 'future game criticism'.

N'Gai Croal in his latest Edge Online blog talks about “Off-label Gaming” in the context of achievements, and self imposed game limitations. Look out for a name-dropping of yours truly in said article.

Jim Rossignol writes in his regular Offworld column on games taking their Artists and concept artists work more literally.

Ultimately, I think there needs to be much more mutiny in the art ranks. The concept artists need to fight back and conspire with the graphics programmers to bring about many more revolutions of the kind that started with Borderlands. We’ve heard years of rhetoric about videogame design tools putting power back into the hands of the artists, but clearly it needs to go further. If videogames want to be taken seriously as art, then they need to be art.

It begs the question, for me at least: if the concept art in many games so often gets left behind in the implementation, then why do studios even bother having them around for? Inspiration? Surely you don't need a whole department to inspire your team… just a thought.

Returning to The Beatles: Rock Band Crispy Gamer responds to the New York Times gushing ejaculation that is its review of said game with a biting piece of criticism that leaves the review in tatters. I should probably add that this was the same NYT review that inspired Ian Bogost vitriolic backlash, and in this author's opinion, yes it was more than just a little bit over-the-top. Crispygamer also have a look into how the review trade works, and why some PR firms do and don't give out lots of copies of their game for review. Insightful.

Create Digital Music interviews the creators of trippy indie game Brainpipe, and talk about synaesthesia, integrating music into the design from the beginning, building their own sound engine, and reference some other indie games that use music in a distinctive manner. What's that – you want more game music related reading? Well, how about a 1up feature on the music of Halo 3: ODST. I does like me some Halo music.

Finally, Rock, Paper, Shotgun talk with Ragnar Tornquist, creator of the upcoming The Secret World MMO which is apparently a 'classless' MMO. Speaking of which, Tom Francis has a great piece this week on 'A different way to level up' in online games: he's really getting good at not only pointing out how dumb some default game design elements are, but usefully suggesting not only as-good replacements but genuinely excitingly better ones!

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to try avoid heat shock by staying wet.

Zookeper Steve pushed me over and trod on my hand when I kept throwin stratberries into the turtles house (strateberries make turtles sick up their Neccesaries)What a week it has been. From Langdell to PAX and everything in between: it's time for This Week In Videogame Blogging.

Early this week David Carlton posted some thoughts about a game that has largely passed the critical blogosphere by: Puzzle Quest Galactrix. I came to the demo without ever playing the first Puzzle Quest game, so it was largely a novel experience for me. David, however, has his own views.

What better way to introduce this next piece than by the ringing endorsement of hot-shot Edge columnist Chris Dahlen. “This made me laugh,” he says, “but also bummed me out“. It's a piece of satire from the Hardcasual dudes, titled 'Loser kid on playground still talking about Shadow Complex'.

…Jeremy realizes he's missed his chance. Maybe next year. He slinks away, his mind already drifting to the indignities due over another year at P.S. 120. He dreamed that night about one day being a real big-time game blogger, where people would always be interested in what he had to say, and he would never be stuck worrying about dealing with what other guys were playing. He knew that one day, if he just tried hard enough, he could do it.

Eric Swain thinks-out-loud about what he wants to do with his videogame blog: something I think we've probably all done once or twice. It's the kind of activity I think can be valuable to do every so often, particularly when struggling with motivation or direction.

Martin Nerurkar of the Game Architecture blog hypothesizes that “Level Design is Game Design” and makes a compelling argument.

I'd been wondering what happened to indie game  publisher Gamecock for a while now, back in early '08 they looked like they were about to become the next indie game publisher and critical darling. Coming across this first person account from a Gamecock contractor of what went down, I now see they've had a particularly rough twelve months;

Near the end of 08, it was blatant and clear that one particular representative was intentionally lying to me. At this point, I was confident that SouthPeak [who now owned Gamecock] had no intention to pay me. In fact, that one representative accused me of making the invoices up in one email and threatened me in another email. It's that sort of thing that, when it happens, you start to feel like you want to vomit. You wonder why anyone would treat someone else like this. So, I disconnected and handed all communications over to legal counsel. That was early this year, and we're still working for a resolution.

While researching the situation a little bit more, I came across this Joystiq article that focuses on much of the non-payment and distraction tactics new Gamecock owners SouthPeak Interactive has been using. Did you know that Velvet Assassin was a Gamecock published game? I certainly know I didn't, and it makes me wonder how much the game development (and by inference it’s critical reception) suffered because of all the legal shenanigans. The above Joystiq article mentions an anecdote – apparently the Dialogue Editor on Velvet Assassin “was denied payment simply because he had waited “too long” to accept a settlement.” That’s not exactly a healthy development environment.

While we're talking corporate brouhaha, the big news of this week is that Tim Langdell has bowed before the onslaught and rather than face the indignity of being properly voted out of his position on the IGDA board, has resigned. I'll add my own little editorial here: I don't think this will be the last we hear of Mr. Langdell. The chances that he's “learned his lesson” from this episode are, to use a piece of Australian idiom, “Buckley's and none”. However, his influence over the IGDA is now at an end and in no small part thanks to the efforts of one person, who now deserves your unreserved congratulations and thanks. Simon Parkin couldn't do it, TigSource couldn't shame him into it, but Corvus worked within the established system and made a tangible difference. I sincerely hope that doesn't get lost in the midst of all the celebrations. You can read Tim Langdell's farewell statement here, but beware; it's liable to make one dizzy from all the spin.

David Wildgoose talks to Need For Speed: Shift producer Jesse Abney about the connection between Mirror’s Edge and the new EA racing game. It boils down to cross pollination of talent with DICE (Mirror’s Edge developer) founder Patrick Soderlund being both a professional endurance racer and now vice president of EA's Eurpoean branch.

The Brainy Gamer Podcast is doing a mid-year round up for its 25th episode and Michael talks to a whole cast of intelligent people about the first half of 2009. Episode 25 Parts One, Two and Three are all out as of the time of writing. (Bonus Trivia: This week marks the 25th installment of TWIVGB if you count the first two that weren’t posted on CD)

Jim Rossignol, who I would consider Eve Online's most loquacious advocate, wrote what is possibly one of my favourite pieces on the game in a long, long time. “The Five Year Spree” comes in five parts and I highly recommend them all: Part One is here. Also at Rock, Paper, Shotgun this week is John Walker's lengthy treatise on Quests in RPG's.

Justin Keverne and Travis Megill had a bit of a cross-blog discussion this week talking about how the just-released Batman: Arkham Asylum game depicts it's mentally ill inmates. I haven't had a chance to read them both yet but here's what Mitch Krpata said about the conversation in his Friday Afternoon Tidbits:

Both are concerned with the game’s portrayal of mental illness as something to be stigmatized, instead of the health problem it actually is. Although I did take note of the shrieking “Lunatic” enemy type, none of this occurred to me while I was playing. It’s a fair point. Even though the majority of the foes are garden-variety criminals, Batman does lay a beating on a good number of inmates who’ve committed no crime, and may understandably be freaked out by a six-foot bat in their midst.

Justin's post is here, and Travis' is here.

Inspired by Mitch Krpata's criticism (as featured last week's TWIVGB) of Game Informer and its puff-piece on Metacritic, Bitmob blogger Rob Savillo does an analysis of 30-odd games over a ten week period and compares sales numbers to Metacritical reception.

Simon Ferrari has created a nifty little tool for us critic types: A Game Blogger search engine. As Ferrari says,

…by selecting against commercial sites we cut down down on the number of press releases and product reviews that typically clog searches.

Now how do I add it to my Firefox search bar?

Continuing the podcast trend, the Experience Points bloggers put out a ‘cast of their first day at PAX. And thus, the circle is complete.

Except for this – lastly for the week, via Kate Simpson's twitter stream comes the crazy, crazy game 'Fruit Mystery'. I love it. So does Ellie Gibson. Game of the year? In ’08 Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist was only edged out in my personal GoTY awards (unofficial) by Far Cry 2, and with the dearth of any Clint Hocking developed games in the ’09 calendar year Fruit Mystery’s chances are looking good! But wait, Ellie even goes one better – Game of the Decade. That’s quite a lot of hyperbole for one little flash game. You’d better check it out.

PV1Like the Hollywood of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the PixelVixen707 blog is a place where the fictional and real co-exist. Rachael Webster is a native of the Domestic City; she is a character who might have once been the teenage indie-game-hipster Emily’s roommate and has now somehow found her way into the real world. Games have unchallenged cultural value in her world and she naturally takes it for granted in her writing. Her blog posts never suggest a desire to see the medium mature or become something it’s not already. When Duncan Fyfe writes “We can do better” he exhibits optimism for the future of games that a lot of us share. In contrast, Rachael Webster writes in her critique of Fracture “I thought our standards were higher.” It’s a subtle difference which I don’t think is a fluke of language. Fracture is disappointing to her because it fails to meet certain standard expectations, not because it failed to exceed them. She never blames bad games for not fulfilling the potential of this medium just as no one blames Transformers 3 for holding back film.

In the world of PixelVixen707 games are ubiquitous. I don’t mean a console in every living room, but rather games of all types permeating every aspect of daily life – the kind of stuff Jane McGonigal often goes on about. Her friend thinks she’s too shy to meet developers and network at GDC, so Rachael develops a game of sorts that will entice people to seek her out. She later makes a bet with her dad that involves searching for an old arcade machine – the first video game she ever played. She turns to her readers for help solving the mystery, at one point asking us to play actual arcade games and submit our high-scores. These are, of course, alternate reality games. Rachael is a fictional character from an alternate reality, so what else could they be? But if she was a real person, if everything she wrote about the coin-op was true, would it not still be a game?

Everyone agrees that Rachael was running an ARG at GDC, but how is what she did any different from the IdleThumbs newspaper? For a few days those guys lived in an alternate reality where they roleplayed newsboys and print journalists and where game criticism, not just Halo 3 launch day mania, can appear on the front page of a newspaper. For several weeks the person (or persons) behind Rachael Webster was roleplaying a journalist in a temporary reality where nobody thought twice about Tim Schafer and Planescape: Torment retrospectives appearing alongside reviews of Blueberry Garden and inFamous on a website that describes its subject matter as “Beautiful naked punk rock, goth and emo girls with tattoos and piercings.” Just two months after Duncan Fyfe finished his Domestic City series of short fiction that had games appearing everywhere and anywhere, we saw Rachael Webster making it a reality with her Suicide Girls columns.

I believe the reason she started blogging was to make us consider the role of identity and games in our lives. I don’t think it was a marketing gimmick. I read the entire PixelVixen707 blog archives and never once saw a link to an upcoming book or product of any sort. I think, in a way, she was preparing us for the next decade. It will be a decade where identity is even more blurred and associated with social web representation than it is today, and those of us who don’t embrace alternate/augmented reality games will end up being left in the dust by a younger generation that experiences the outside world through projections and mobile phone screens in ways we’re only beginning to imagine. I never did submit an arcade score to Rachael and now I’m left wondering why. Rachael and her games offered a glimpse of a future we’re all going to be part of whether we like it or not, and I wasn’t an active participant. I think this is the kind of introspection she wanted to inspire, and is what will stick with me long after I’ve forgotten whether she panned or praised Fracture.

Her quality of writing was top notch. None of this meta stuff would have worked if nobody wanted to read her blog in the first place. Her critiques were sharp and witty, incorporating references to pop culture and other mediums that were notable for the simple fact they didn’t seem forced. For example, in “Left 4 Dead is PUNK AS FUCK” she compares Left 4 Dead to a moshpit, some of its players to hardcore punks, its campaign structure to a film, and then includes a throwaway joke mentioning how the Obama election failed to reform XBL racism. And why not? As far as Rachael’s concerned you can write about politics and racism and film and the punk scene in a post about a video game without making it an awkward 6,000 word essay dissecting what it all means for the future development of the medium.

One of my favourite lines is from her fourth post, a review of God of War: Chains of Olympus. In her short plot summary of the game she writes: “There's also a titan, Atlas, who you can chain to the bottom of the world with a few well-timed button clicks.” There’s no jadedness, judgement, or excited claim to a new sighting of ludonarrative dissonance; just a deadpan statement that succinctly illustrates the game’s ridiculous marriage of narrative and mechanics.

We’re going to see more writers like Rachael in the next few years. I don’t mean invented personas, but rather writers with a style that can only come honestly and comfortably from someone who grew up in a world where games have the kind of cultural relevance and ubiquity that makes constant justification unnecessary. I have a 12 year old cousin who is more hyped than I am for Beatles: Rock Band and is always asking me for iPod Touch game recommendations. She’s not an outlier, she’s one of an entire generation of girls that are growing up with Facebook, games, iPods. I don’t know if my cousin will want to write about games, either as a hobby or professionally, but I think it’s inevitable that that is something many of her peers will pursue. Nothing Rachael did or wrote will seem extraordinary next to the output of this new generation, but the sneak-peek she provided us with has been fascinating.

PixelVixen707When PixelVixen707 was first getting started and sending out friendly e-mails to various bloggers, in the one I received she asked me why I used a pseudonym. The inspiration mostly came from one of my favorite periods of American literature where authors using fake names played an important part in magazines and newspapers. Petroleum B. Nasby wrote a weekly column mocking the Confederacy in the voice of a pseudo-intellectual Yankee and was read by everyone from the President to soldiers on the march. Mark Twain, which is the warning phrase a riverboat navigator shouts when the boat is at neutral depth, became famous for his hilarious travel books and satires. In Europe, the pseudonym was often a way for women to get more sales while men used them to post scandalous jokes. George Eliot, who wrote the long (but worth it) masterpiece Middlemarch, is no more real a person than Mark Twain. Nor is George Orwell, Artemus Ward, or countless other fake names that have been used to produce great writing.

Often these fake names were such wild and vulgar characters that they slowly began to have little to do with their authors. Samuel Clemens had an incredibly tragic life before his alter-ego became famous. By the end of his days, many people claimed he would alternate between the two identities, revealing Clemens to steadily fewer people. If you want to read some of the most incredibly withering comments ever conceived, just read some of Orwell’s articles attacking pacifist politics during World War II. He was not someone you picked a fight with lightly. Yet in person, he was sickly. When it comes to fake identities and writing, their biggest function has always been to find a way for big ideas to come from big places. Mark Twain had a witty remark to every question, could drink you under the table, and smoked cigars constantly. Samuel Clemens could only pretend to be such a wild person.

At the core of PixelVixen’s character was the idea of being the ultimate punk rock gamer girl. The author of Personal Effects, J.C. Hutchins, which was the book the website connects with, says in an interview that one of the biggest inspirations was the website Suicide Girls. If you’ve never visited the website, a variety of tattooed and pierced models that fall far outside mainstream definitions of beauty post nude photo shoots. Hutchins explains,

“The women at SuicideGirls aren’t just…gorgeous, they’re brilliant. They’re geeky, they’re empowered, they take shit from no one. As I poked around and explored the site, I was like, “This is exactly the kind of person that my hero, Zach Taylor, would be with.” It absolutely informed the creation of Rachael.”

The tattoos, the music references, all of these things became a part of Webster’s character.

The very first post on the blog shows this original angle for Rachael by being about Rock Band. She muses on the merits of plunking away at a plastic instrument, her punk rock days, and praises the game for finally giving her a chance to play a decent female character. She writes, “Rock Band isn’t a rock instrument simulator: it’s a rock experience simulator. It creates a democratic fantasy: unheard of in RL: where every race, creed and sex can share the stage.” Such musings were both a reflection of the role Rachael was intended to be, the ultimate gamer girl, and the difficulties of how to present such a concept. In a medium dominated by male empowerment fantasies that constantly objectifies and hypersexualizes women, how does one create a strong character who is never bothered by such things? In a later post she wonders, “Do women who write about games have to write about sex?” The post, along with her subsequent pieces, sticks with the promise of only mentioning it if it’s relevant.

As a reviewer, she was good. You got a pretty thorough run-down of where the game was bad and where it was good. Rachael could always do this with apt analogies and a few good jokes. Her piece on GTA IV points out the limits of the simulation (there aren’t enough people or pigeons in the city) and the satire is the usual stereotypes Rockstar uses. Sharply critical of the Wii Fit, she ends up comparing it to young adult fiction and how uninspiring the game is in contrast. In video games about teens and young adults, anything is possible. They have their whole lives ahead of them. She writes, “The Wii Fit knows we’re over the hump: and so it never tries to change us. It just pats us on the head as if to say, “I know you’ve already given your best. I expected nothing more.” The post on Far Cry 2 was one of the first to praise the game’s attempt to reflect the player’s immortality through the game design. The Joseph Conrad quotes don’t really help the game’s point, but the malaria mechanic which constantly reminds you of how sick your avatar is certainly does.

And then the day the truth came out. PixelVixen707 was an ARG designed to promote a book. The timeline of Personal Effects takes place during the week she posted the fatal essay, so it adheres to the plot of the book. Links and places mentioned in the blog go nowhere or don’t exist. It details her having a crazed encounter with a serial killer, so people naturally did some snooping and figured out the truth. My reaction to the revelation was the exact same as Mitch Krpata’s. Whenever someone starts a blog post with “I love my boyfriend” I try to do them the favor of skipping it. But as Krpata notes about the whole ARG, “That’s pretty awesome. Can’t imagine the planning and dedication it takes to execute a stunt of this magnitude.” As a huge fan of Andy Kaufman’s comedy work, I couldn’t help but admire a well played stunt that didn’t really have any negative consequences on anyone.

And for all the hubbub, PixelVixen kept on writing. The nature of being a girl gamer would come up again in a post on Rock Band 2. She points out the strangeness of winning a female merch chick, essentially a groupie who wants to make out with you. Since they were both female, Rachael pondered whether this was adhering to rock culture or gamer culture. A Harmonix writer in the comments chimes in that they were indeed tapping into fan culture and how the merch chick is in love with the band, not you in particular. She addresses the issue of guys coming onto her because of gaming through a mock shmup session. When one friend starts getting a bit close, PixelVixen offers a personal explanation for why such things must always be deflected. As old as it is true, she gives a great take on the friendship talk. Rachael explains, “The way this works is, some people you meet, and you share a story together. You’re in it for the long haul. And other people? You give each other a few minutes of laughs. You meet and ricochet off each other and move on.” For the fantasy of the ultimate gamer girl, it’s no surprise such a thing had to be said over and over.

Her review style began to adapt and evolve as well. Not content with just talking about content and design, she began to broaden the topic into talking about games outside their context. She rags on Little Big Planet for its strange British Imperialism as you play a little Sack Boy looting items from various countries and taking them home with you. Rather than just analyze Crayon Physics Deluxe, she contrasts her solutions to puzzles with her boyfriend’s creative ideas. Whereas she would just draw a line and win, Zach always drew an elaborate solution and ended up getting more out of the game. One of her best reviews was for the FPS flop Fracture, which she got obsessed with playing for a weekend out of the hope that it would redeem itself. She writes,

“I spent that time looking for something – a glimpse of the passion that made them launch this project, a sign of the excitement they must have felt at the idea of making the ground quake or the fires rage or just making the sniper rifle reload feel just right. Some sign that the artists on the boss design tweaked the jumps and bad-assed the head and grinned when they first watched him stomp the dirt with deadly force. I wanted to find some sign of the love – the love of games, the love that kept people late at night, later than I was up playing it. Maybe some of that’s in there. Buried. But I never found it.”

Even GDC proved to be a challenge Rachael was up for meeting, claiming that she would be there and that people could meet a person who did not exist. A friend would distribute various cards with a code to be deciphered while Rachael herself wrote reports on the conference. Her writing presented a side of the conference I only saw a few other people address. Absent were the longwinded summaries of speeches that everyone was covering and instead a more personal tone was presented. She wrote about the camraderie that people have for one another after meeting up for years and closely reported what the indie developers were saying. Her support for the Heather Chaplin rant was interesting because it talked about how less macho games were important for more than just women. There was an entire audience of men who weren’t interested. She explains, “There’s a spectrum of masculinity and femininity, and endless ways for both boys and girls to respond to it. But in games, aggression is the default, and relationships are usually as clumsy as a third-grade dance.” Although critical of some of Chaplin’s remarks, Rachael is quick to point out that few would argue games could not stand to broaden their horizon.

Every critic, whether it’s in a review or just a rambling blog post, is imposing their vision of what they think video games should be. Rachael’s vision seemed to always ground herself with the argument that a game should be open for anyone to enjoy. In a post about the nature of professional gamers and leagues she opines that they are mostly a step backwards, “Kill your alpha geeks. Kill your Goddesses. The only diff between you and whoever’s the champion of gaming is that they’re a better shot. So get out there and practice.” She extended this even to game auteurs, arguing that a game was ultimately about vision and it separated from creator once it was released. She argued against my concern about the growing resemblance to hipsters that hardcore gamers were developing because elitist cultures don’t work in video games. She points out that Penny Arcade is almost “Christ-like” with their inclusiveness for anyone except the occasional extremist. They are also the most popular video game critics on the scene. With her constantly changing styles, sarcastic gender discussions, and punk rock attitude, Rachael chiefly believed that video games should be enjoyed by everybody.

By April of 2009 the blog was steadily branching out into new territory. A one-time review for the music group The Dirty Projectors was followed by the announcement that she would be blogging bi-weekly for Suicide Girls. The work there is solid, covering everything from Grim Fandango to Planescape: Torment but the arrangement would ultimately not last. The users of the website are there for women they can look at and talk to, while Rachael was only capable of one of those things. A post about why you should write a gaming blog almost reads like a goodbye letter. She writes,

“Why start a game blog? I already stumbled on the answer: writing about games is as much fun as playing them – probably more. In fact, the writing is the game. We swap links and post comments like soccer players scoring assists. The best points score a goal. And everyone’s on the same team – which maybe breaks the analogy, but, no worries. I’m just glad to share bandwidth with some of the best bloggers on the globe.”

The next to last post, detailing the capstone of a New Games Journalism playthrough of Final Fantasy VII, ends with a discussion about Aeris. Criticizing how crassly the game’s overtures to care about Aeris can be, she admits to still feeling responsible for her death despite having the event spoiled. Knowing now that this was possibly intended to be the final post, you can’t help but wonder about the analogy. Rachael was never real and everyone knew that, but it didn’t spoil the dynamic as much as you’d expect.

Various writers have tackled the mystery of the ARG known as PixelVixen707. Matthew Wasteland wrote an excellent essay detailing the history of the website and her creator’s interviews. One of her defenders after the truth came out, Chris Dahlen, points out that everyone writing online is like an ARG. He writes, “We all have to become such characters in order to fit ourselves online: a little smarter, a little funnier, a little brasher or moodier than we are in real life. The fictional properties we love are doing nothing more than meeting us right in the middle.” Speaking as someone who took inspiration from writers who used pseudonyms in the past, I can’t help but agree. L.B. Jeffries, as a character, is a combination of numerous styles and writers that I channel into how I want my work to sound. He’s the dry informative tone of the crotchety Professor from The Paper Chase with the wit of Pauline Kael but tempered with the sincerity of Samuel Johnson. Anyone who has met me in real life can assure you, the real thing is rarely up to such standards. So for me, I don’t really take much offense that Rachael Webster was a little bit too perfect at times. Super smart, loves video games, knows all the indie bands, reads all the cool books, always chill, always ready with a joke, happy to talk to anyone…these are impossible standards for any human being to maintain. But I think most people like the idea, and most try to put on a good show for our readers. On the internet, perhaps we all become the characters of our own ARG.