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Welcome to the Church of This Week In Videogame Blogging. I’ve prepared a special sermon once again, oh ye faithful.

SnakeLinkSonic wrote last week about the connection between Star Wars and Metal Gear. You didn’t see that one coming did you?

You probably also didn’t see Duncan Fyfe returning to videogame writing, and with a vengeance, with a new series of short stories about games and game culture. High Society is part one and it’s a must read for anyone interested in the development of serious alternative videogame criticism.

The twitter account ‘voracious_shit’ tweets about Sydney based studio “Team Bondi” and the Duke Nukem Forever sound-a-like story of developing the as-yet unreleased LA Noire. True Story: I once applied for a job at Team Bondi. I guess they missed out and by the sound of it I dodged a bullet.

From Matthew Gallant who sent this last week, ‘Love does not exist’, a long treatise on… all sorts of things over ten years of gaming.

Evan Stubbs writes about ‘Mining your habits for fun and profit’, another piece on digital distribution.

Steve Gaynor writes an apologia for the entertainment industries (including gaming) and in the comments has a long discussion with Jonathan Blow.

Daniel Bullard-Bates considers “Dante’s Inferno: A Failure on Two Fronts” and fellow blogger C.T. Hutt takes a rundown of our favourite videogame enemies, saying:

As gamers we want to square off against the most dangerous prey, humanity, but also want to believe that our characters are the good guys. As such, violence in action games is usually directed at enemies which walk and talk and fight like people, but for whom we feel little pity when blowing away en masse…

At The Border House, Cuppycake asks ‘Do Game Designers Have A Social Obligation?

We have designed our games to be so inherently fit, muscular, white American, that it’s now an exception and a social point to include people outside our comfort zone.

Game Set Watch had an interview with Krystian Majewski this week about his amazing independent photo-based adventure game Trauma.

Chris Lepine at The Artful Gamer releases an interview he did with Jenova Chen at GDC09. I haven’t listened yet so I have no idea if it’s any good, but with people as smart as Lepine and Chen I feel safe recommending it.

In ‘Zompocalypse Now’, Mike Hanus examines the connection between the western film genre and modern apocalypse films (and by extension, games) suggesting that those like Fallout 3 are a continuation of the western genre:

I think that the current surge in apocalyptic movies and games is the second coming of the Western genre, and this accounts for this recent popularity. These games and movies share similar characteristics, they establish a frontier, they create a lawless world and they present the player/viewer with main characters who must create their own law and rules in a world gone half crazy.

Corvus Elrod discusses a particular fascination with the ease of pouncing on and killing guards in Assassins Creed 2. While on the subject, Richard Clark has some thoughts about the end of that game (with HUGE spoilers) and some of the things its provocative ending says about the audacity of the developers.

Lastly, Create Digital Motion talks about the upcoming GAMMAIV competition in ‘Indie Game as Visualist Event: As the Deadline Nears, One Button Inspires‘. Since I’m going to be in San Fran for GDC I’m definitely going to go to see all these excellent games.

A reminder that for all TWIVGB posts on Critical Distance comments are turned off by default to encourage discussion on the original entries, and we can always be reached via the contact page.

It’s a long way to Tipperary, it’s a long way to go. Mercifully closer is This Week in Videogame Blogging, which just happens to be right here.

Jenn Frank of Infinite Lives writes one of the best explications of the importance of feminist readings of videogames in ‘Videogame feminist of the decade; or, when “You” is a girl’. It’s a hard one to sum up in the short blurb I usually do for these sorts of pieces, so here’s a big chunk that hopefully illustrates some of its more critical points. Frank is talking about Portal here, and the moment in which the player first observes their player-character through a portal.

And so now you say to yourself—maybe not aloud, maybe internally instead—“I wonder what I look like.” So you backtrack, trying to get a better look at yourself. And ever so carefully, you edge into your own line-of-sight. Surprise! You are a chick. THAT IS UNSETTLING. It’s unsettling even if you really are a chick, but probably also if you are a dude. Because, when you spatially align yourself so that you can observe your own avatar, she is staring off to her right or left through a space/time vortex, ostensibly gazing right back at you. And (this is the horrific part), you and she are standing in exactly the same spot and moment in space and time, eyeing each other. I don’t think there’s a stranger existential moment in the history of gaming.

Evan Stubbs writes at Red Kings Dream about ‘the future of digital distribution’. It’s a theme we’ve seen a couple of times this month, first turning up in LB Jeffries piece on the irresistible lure of steam sales, and then several times elsewhere. Rock Paper Shotgun also noted this week the coming of a possible ‘second hand market for downloaded games’. That would be interesting, wouldn’t it?

Latoya Peterson writing for The Borderhouse this week noted that ‘The Patriarchy Hurts Gamer Guys Too: The Rockstar Labor Controversy, Game Developer Wives and Work/Life Balance’. The most important idea being that while poor managerial practices (such as crunch) hurt everyone, men included; it doesn’t affect everyone equally and can have a worse detrimental impact on women in the game development workforce. Quotes from Erin Hoffman and Brenda Brathwaite appear in the article and both make appearances in the comments.

Daniel Bullard-Bates writes about Final Fantasy IV in a post titled ‘Real Sacrifice’.

Paul Bauman writes in to let us know about a piece he wrote on immersion and risk in ‘The Future: Thrown to the Wolves.

Matt Gallant helpfully points us in direction of a piece by Jonathan Morin of Ubisoft Montreal about the importance of context in game design. He uses a touching story of the context around losing a baby and the insights it gave him, and moves onto context in sports games. It’s a very different, very intimate kind of post, but worth reading nonetheless.

Aaron Sexton lets us know that he has written about Bayonetta’s plot, which he feels has been overlooked in favour of discussion around the sexualised imagery in the game. Sexton unfavourably compares the game to the King Kong movie game tie in.

We mentioned Gaming Watch in last weeks post, and this week they discuss ‘A Slow News Day’ in which the enthusiast press echo chamber uncritically re-posts dubious polls from a UK website.

Loyal readers of TWIVGB may remember a post from the Lesbian Gamers website that discussed the nature of the Halo 3: ODST character of Dare, with the argument that the game presented a rather sexist depiction of her character. More recently, the author of the original post came across an alternative reading of the Dare character in an entry on the Halo wikia page called “Examination of Female Characters” and praised it for its thoughtful disagreement with the Lesbian Gamers original. My Xbox is currently dead, so I’m still waiting to play ODST, which is a real shame.

Rock Paper Shotgun’s Kieron Gillen and Quintin Smith have been playing the hex-grid turn-based indie game Solium Inferium, by the same solo developer who did the well received Armageddon Empires. This week saw the completion of a truly stunning series of running game diary posts that describe the game in all its glorious backstabbery and intrigue. It’s one of the best things RPS have done and a highly entertaining read.

Other readers that have gotten in touch this week to point us towards this piece by James Dilks at No Added Sugar asking ‘Do We Need Criticism?‘ to which my own response would be a resounding, Yes!

Stephen Locker is producing a series of video essays on ‘Games Worth Remembering’. If you’re at all familiar with the explosion of video essays issuing forth from the multitudes of film critics on the net then you’ll know the format. This piece on the PS3 game Flower combines video, music and voice-over in what is the first truly solid attempt (that I’ve encountered at least) at this format of games criticism. Ever since I encountered one about a horror film I’ve since forgotten, I’ve been waiting now for the first video essay about games to turn up. The first in this very promising series can also be found here.

Did we really get to the end without mentioning Dragon Age: Origins? Better fix that by linking to this piece by Dan Bruno – ‘Morrigan Disapproves’. The DA:O pool is safe for another week.

“You confront the Abstract Art and its cohorts.”

EarthBound
was released in North America on June 1st, 1995. In other words, it was mainly played in the mid-90s by young Generation-Y gamers approaching adolescence (Maybe acquired on Christmas ’95, or a birthday in ’96). As such, the game is difficult to create a Critical Compilation for. There’s a lack of writing about it, and what does exist is barely critical. 15 years later most of what is written about EarthBound comes from the same Gen Y, now adults. Their declarations of love often appear in forum threads, comments on blog posts, and other secondary channels. When longer posts or articles are attempted, they usually consist of highly personal anecdotes driven by a paradoxical appreciation for—and struggle against succumbing to—the almost overwhelming nostalgia.

In the past two years we’ve seen critical writing about games explode from bloggers searching for a deeper meaning in AAA and indie games alike. Games are torn apart piecemeal in search of something that might confirm the artistic potential of the medium and signify progress. If nothing else, I hope this somewhat unique take on a Critical Compilation can serve as a reminder that in many ways this potential has already been realized. The importance of EarthBound isn’t found in its contributions to the development of the medium, but to the development of actual human beings who played it during their formative years.

“Here is the map. All the info is there, except for the info that isn’t there.”

The essay Tim Rogers wrote on Mother 2 (the original, uncensored Japanese version of EarthBound) is perhaps the single most comprehensive examination of a video game that exists. I will refrain from attempting to incorporate all of his research and dozens of personal accounts and observations into this critical compilation and instead encourage you to read it for yourself. This critical compilation, in a way, could be considered a companion piece to his essay. “All the info is there,” but what follows is some of the info that isn’t.
“At times like this, kids like you should be playing Nintendo games.”

In EarthBound: One Boy’s Coming of Age, Tomm Guycot provides an anecdotal account of his first experience with the game, and how it single-handedly proved to him that games were capable of something inexplicable but undeniably powerful. The post is not a good introduction to the game mechanics or story; as he explains, in listening to someone go on about EarthBound, “You may not learn much about the content of the game itself, but you’ll probably walk away with a good idea of the feelings it evokes in that person.” A similarly personal account appearing on GayGamer.Net was written by Justin, who first played it in his early teens. Like Tomm, he also struggles with attempts to present the game to a larger audience. The language he uses to describe his relationship with the game might appear overly dramatic or incomprehensible to most, but there’s likely a small group of players who felt something similar. In the following lines EarthBound is personified, made as real in memory as a long-gone childhood friend:

The game wants to know you, because you’ve been a part of this story longer than anyone within its universe. The game wants to know you, because the story won’t end without you … . It will miss you, because it never really got to know you. It heard you, it felt your prayers, and it knew that with you the impossible was actually within reach.

Recognizing the difficulty of attempting to explain what makes the game special, Justin concludes “EarthBound requires an appreciation of nostalgia to operate at full force. This isn’t a prerequisite for play, and you may eventually grok it at length, but it is necessary so as to understand the depth available.”

In a post titled Gaming Made Me Also (part of a 2009 meme in which authors wrote about some of their formative videogame experiences), Nels Anderson indirectly reminds us that EarthBound did not exist in a vacuum, and he acknowledges that it impacted his life alongside—not to a greater extent than—several other titles. While the sensations of first playing the game remain with him as vivid memories for nostalgia to exaggerate, he feels the game holds up in retrospect by having ‘heart': “It was sophisticated enough to be able to take itself less seriously at times without compromising its more resonant moments.”

A forum post by user Lestrade on Large Prime Numbers suggests that the game can, under certain circumstances, still be deeply meaningful for people playing it for the first time today. He did not play it as a child, but had acquired the necessary “appreciation of nostalgia” by growing up in a small village surrounded by nature, blue skies, lakes, and a healthy whiff of innocence—not unlike the opening territory in Onett.” He then echoes the nebulous sentiment of those who did play it at a young age, explaining that playing EarthBound has so far been a well-needed reminder for me. A reminder of what, I won’t bother going into, since it would be strictly personal, anecdotal, and probably of no interest to anyone.

“(I can sense … that … you have a controller … in your … hands … .)”

EarthBound seems designed to encourage its players to empathize with Ness, without necessarily inviting us to fully inhabit his character. The game breaks the fourth wall several times, but only so as to expand the stage so it can include us. As Jason Love writes in a comment on Emily Short’s blog, the player is given the role of “an uninvolved NPC, or God, or the incorporeal force of narrative inevitability, depending on how you’d like to interpret it.” In a comment on his blog, Darius Kazemi links EarthBound‘s self-awareness of being a game to hypermediacy, a concept first developed by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin which suggests that “experience of the medium is itself an experience of the real.” The breaking of the fourth wall, in effect, does not harm our immersion, but enhances it.

Posting on the Something Awful forums, OzFactor makes an argument that the varying difficulty of the game is used to subtly convey meaning about Ness’s state of mind. Since a registration fee is required to view his posts, I have provided a slightly abridged version here:

These areas are hard because they’re supposed to be. Each one is a conscious plot decision; the department store and Moonside are so hard because Ness and Jeff are scared with their friend missing. They had just conquered so much in Threed, only to be separated once again. Twoson/Peaceful Rest/Happy Happy Village is actually the very best example in the game. Ness is leaving home for the first time and his courage is wavering. Luckily, he finds it again in a new friend. In Threed, the two come upon a town that not even Paula’s optimism can brighten up. It’s looking pretty bad until another friend arrives. After you get Poo, the next couple places are a breeze, like the Fourside sewer, Dalaam, and Scaraba. You even pretty much blast through the legendary Kraken, because now as a full team you are some pretty brave kids. Deep Darkness, however, is a pretty scary place, and the Stonehenge base is really the first full assault you have against the forces of Gigyas. They should both be putting the kids to the test. It’s pretty easy to understand why Magicant is so hard: Ness has to fight his demons, and he has to face them all alone. And in the end, the four are all alone, so completely removed from the world they know.

Were these actually conscious plot/design decisions as OzFactor claims? Some might say it doesn’t matter, and that every interpretation is valid as long as it doesn’t contradict the reality of the work. Another example: EarthBound was programmed in such a way that the randomly generated enemies reset when off screen, which allows you to walk away from an area with enemies you know are too tough and then approach again hoping for a more manageable group. This is something I personally always do in Peaceful Rest Valley, where Ness’ “courage is wavering.” The brainwashed dogs and old ladies and hippies have suddenly been replaced with robots and UFOs and trees that explode into flames when they die. It’s hard. It recently occurred to me that my little maneuvers used to exploit a “bug” reflected the hesitation Ness must feel. A few steps forward, run away, gather courage, approach again, and yes, it turns out the enemies weren’t so bad after all. We can both go on.

Matthew Gallant considers Ness’s family in-depth in Long Distance Love. He claims that “by wrapping your interactions with them in gameplay mechanics,” they are able to take on an importance to the player that mimics Ness’ reliance on them as a son. Matthew goes on to suggest that throughout the game “storytelling minimalism” is used expertly to manipulate us into relating with Ness, the most obvious example of this being the parents appearing as “‘empty vessels’ that are ready to be filled by the player’s imagination and expectations.”

“I’ll talk about my adventure, and you can tell me about all of your mistakes.”

As Darius notesEarthBound is particularly unusual in that is has a playable dénouement. Tim Rogers explores this in more detail, examining several specific instances of unique opportunities, NPC conversations and even sound effects that can only be discovered after defeating Giygas.

Everything about that final boss fight is twisted, from RPG battle conventions to the grotesque background imagery and taunts. Under “Reader Feedback” for the Retronauts EarthBound article, Nick Fagerlund contributes his thoughts on this battle and recalls that “most astonishingly, it reverses the single most basic power dynamic in an RPG: Instead of the NPCs existing to support a small group of mighty heroes, the heroes’ only ultimate value is to serve as a focal point for the hopes and beliefs of the NPCs.”

In The Hidden Themes of the End of the EarthBound, someone writing under the name Scary Womanizing Pig Mask attempts to shed some light on the nature of Giygas and what exactly is going on in the final battle. He provides a compelling theory that “Giygas has the mindset of an infant almost. He’s not fully aware of what is going on, only that something is attacking him, and his survival instinct[s] kick in. He can’t be held accountable for what he’s doing, and in essence you’ve just killed something primal and instinctive that isn’t even self-aware.”

After these anecdotes and interpretations, I can think of no better note to end on than the following observation by Tim Rogers: “Mother 2’s voodoo curse is that it reflects something back at you if you put enough into it. It’s the only video game I’ve ever known to change people.”

Let us ponder together the mysteries of the week in videogame blogging, but first something I missed reading last week.

And it’s Ian Bogost writing about the potential for fruitful exploration of classic consoles and expired platforms by developing new titles for them via, for example, the Virtual Console and XBLA’s Game Room. Bogost says, “I find myself once again hoping that Microsoft might open this channel to sell new games made for old systems.

A quick plug for Sun B Kim’s “Design Play Blog” which is looking for help in translating English videogame design blogs into Korean. Kim has previously translated Critical Distance’s “GTAIV” critical compilation, as well as a number of other articles from other authors, so it’d be great if any of our readers could give him a hand.

There’s a bit of a meme going around the game blogosphere at the moment, and Denis Farr hops on the wagon with his post about his Shepherd in Mass Effect. The point is to “make sure people don’t forget that not everyone plays a default white male”.

Kate Simpson has long been known as the best blogger without a blog. However she’s got one now, and its initial offering is a fantastically well realised conversation about her “Commander A. Shepherd”, another offering in the Mass Effect ‘my Shepherd’ meme.

Lyndon Warren does not understand why people dislike Game of the Year awards and picking a “best” game out of the year’s crop. I added my own rationale for avoiding referring to a game as the ‘best’ in the comments, which are full of interesting points on both sides.

Michael Abbott writes about Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, calling it ‘the wrong game’. This week, Abbott also started a new monthly column for Game Set Watch called “Abbott’s Habit” whose initial entry contrasted the imagined landscape of Demon’s Souls with the architecture very grounded in reality present in Assassin’s Creed 2.

Scott Juster calls the film Avatar a “colonial wet dream” and says Uncharted 2 is “the most dangerous game in recent memory”. Here’s why:

Uncharted 2 is a post-Quentin Tarantino response to Indiana Jones: Drake is a hero who indulges in both witty repartee and self-aware meta-comments; he is a struggling everyman and a sociopathic killer; he walks the line between affable bumbler and ruthless professional. The game features lush-looking environments and textured characters, but does so by enforcing the rigidity of film onto a medium based on malleability.

C.T. Hutt writes about controllers and how their development has influenced “The way we play.”

Eric Swain has been reading up on Bayonetta & sexuality, sending in this series of links containing various responses to the game. Tiffchow writes about “Sexuality as decoration vs. celebration” which is in turn responding to Leigh Alexander’s initial post about the game, “If you run out of ammo you can have mine.” William Huber also has a negative opinion of Alexander’s article, labelling it “the perpetuation of a misguided notion.” In related news, Iroquois Pliskin responds to Gus Mastrapa’s review of the game for Wired. Pliskin dissents from Mastrapa et al.’s view that paints Bayonetta as a dangerous employer of sexist imagery, saying

…the real perniciousness of sexualized images of women, to me, resides in the way that they warp our images of womanhood. The evil begins when a girl sees that image and says, that is what I am supposed to look like. I cannot imagine how anyone, even someone in the grasp of the body selfhatred industrial complex, could take these representations seriously. The faux verisimilitude of your standard issue of Cosmopolitan is far more harmful per capita than this ludicrous game.

Our final entry in the Bayonetta discussion is Chris Dahlen’s Edge Online column that talks about the imagery in the game while taking a look over the critical reception it has received. Don’t miss the comments thread on this one, either.

David Carlton sent us this link to Emily Short’s latest “Homer in Silicon” column “On Ageing”, which primarily discusses indie game The Graveyard.

Gamecritics’s Chi Kong Lui writes about ‘The fallacy of universal authorship in games’, inspired by a number of other authors’ comments primarily centred on the interactivity in Uncharted 2.

Michael Clarkson takes some time out of this week to talk about some of the immersion breaking moments he experienced in Assassins Creed II.

Richard Clark looks at “Five videogame moments that give me hope for the medium”, including two unexpected moments from the games Lucidity and Spider.

I don’t remember if we’ve linked to this before, but Dan Golding’s started a new project called ‘Gaming Watch’. Australian readers will be no doubt familiar with ‘Media Watch’ on ABC TV, and Golding’s aping of the format takes away nothing from his pointed observations into videogame demonization and misrepresentation in the media. Definitely one to watch going forwards.

And lastly for the weeks worth of writing, Sean Sands’ editorial at Gamers With Jobs is notable for coining the phrase the “Kotick Doctrine” when it comes to game publishing. That’s a keeper, that is. The piece also contains an excellent discussion of sustainability in game development and publishing.

And we’re back, with the first instalment of This Week In Videogame Blogging for 2010. Straight to it as there’s a lot to get through, having been off-air for some time, and quite a bit of it has been sent in by readers. It is much appreciated.

Grayson Davis has two good reads from the past week-plus-change; the first on ‘The Players Role’ and the second on ‘Time and Games’ which looks like quite a thorough treatment of that particular aspect of game design. Here’s a quote to whet your appetite:

I think it’s fair to say that games are disproportionately concerned with time compared to other media, and we should consider why that is and why games are uniquely suited to talk about time.

Zach Whalen is back to (sporadically) blogging at Gameology.org, and he wrote recently about the issue of videogame canonization, suggesting on the way a few more titles that could be added to the ‘existing canon’. Wait, you didn’t know there was a canon? As Whalen notes, in 2007 “a committee of game scholars, developers and journalists” picked ten rather foundational videogames for preservation by the IGDA game preservation special interest group. His own piece, however, seems interested in the inherent value of making lists, and he puts forward a few more games for inclusion in a gaming ‘canon’. Says Whalen;

Anyone familiar with the discourse of literary studies over the past few decades will be well aware of the intellectual and political stakes in canon-formation, but a simple look through Digg or Cracked.com reveals how much appeal a top-ten list can have. More importantly, the kinds of questions a game canon raises are useful pedagogical ones…

The Escapist ran a piece by Erin Hoffman this week that briefly summarised the Riot Grrrl movement in music that arose in the 90s, and suggests that the games industry is in desperate need of something similarly empowering to female gamers. Not being particularly familiar with the movement in question (I was busy growing up in the 90s) I nevertheless found it a fascinating read. Developers – take note!

Jonathan McCalmont wrote in to let us know about the writing he’s been doing at the website Futurismic and his most recent piece about Dragon Age: Origins (looks like the pool is still going). Addressing Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas about Cultural and Social Capital, McCalmont goes on to suggest that DA:O is doing something akin to World of Warcraft minus all the other players. He doesn’t take this to heart however, as he postulates that:

The end of human civilisation is millions of World of Warcraft servers with only one human player on each of them. Dragon Age: Origins seems to bring that day one step closer.

This one was sent in by Matt Gallant, who links us to Nick Rudzicz’s post critiquing some of the “science” in Modern Warfare 2. I liked the part about the size of the earth being all wrong, and how a certain shockwave that plays a major role in the plot would actually fail to propagate through the vast vacuum of space. The above quotes are there for a reason.

Jim Rossignol at Rock Paper Shotgun looks at some recent gaming-related scientific research and summarises the results. It’s quite an intriguing read, for instance, playing Tetris can help with post-traumatic stress related flashbacks.

Alex Raymond wrote this week about why she writes about games, namely because,

…talking about pop culture is a great way to reach out to people. Not every feminist-minded individual is going to take a women’s studies course or pick up a bell hooks book from their library, but plenty of folks love discussing games, television, movies and so on on the internet. Looking at these things from a feminist perspective can introduce these concepts to people who may hold feminist ideals and just don’t know it yet.

The TigSource forums reveal some of the less-than-useful feedback some entrants received from their IGF judges and… hey, that feedback looks a shoe-in for almost any first-timer’s videogame review. They do seem to say, however, that on balance the judges were generally good.

Ian Barczewski responds to an article in the Orange County Register called, quite hyperbolically, ‘Video games were invented by the devil’. Which seems odd to me as I always thought it was William Higinbotham that invented gaming with Tennis for Two for the vintage 1958 oscilloscope. Barczewski opens his critique of the offending column with this statement that made me sit up and pay attention:

When I was only three years old, I taught myself to read. That’s right. Guess how I did it? Video games.

One of my favourite reads this week was ‘The Videogame Store is Decadent and Depraved’ by Quintin Smith. He got the title wrong on his own blog the poor man, but after an experience with a game shop like this, who can blame him?

LB Jeffries took time out this week to write about the license to print money (for Valve at any rate) that is Steam online sales, as well as other time-limited discounts on digital delivery platforms in general.

Brenda Brathwaite did some research about Daikatana recently (the game everyone knows sucked) and she came up with this interesting observation,

In researching a game that it seems most haven’t played, I’ve now counted 100 negative comments in a row, not a one of which resulted from actual play.

To which I reply, ‘So you’ve been reading Gamestop user submitted previews then?’ Seriously though, audience reception and perception of games they’ve never even played is an issue that is well worth addressing, and I’m glad Brenda’s doing so here.

A reminder that for all TWIVGB posts on Critical Distance comments are turned off by default to encourage discussion on the original entries, and we can always be reached via the contact page.