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No, you did not read that incorrectly. This is indeed episode 10. Episode 9 is in the works still. (It’s a little more evergreen of a topic.)

Another year has come to a close and with it another year-end podcast to try and catalog it all. This time around we got the whole Critical Distance crew around the Skype fire to chat. This being that time of year a few of our panelists had to leave for family and friends, but the rest of us stuck it out. We don’t get around to talking very often, but we sure make up for it in volume.

The first two parts are on the events of the year from the Supreme Court to SOPA, from Sonic to Suparna Galaxy and everything in between. And the we wrap up with all the major releases this year from DC Universe Online to The Old Republic.

CAST

Eric Swain: The Game Critique

Ben Abraham: i am Ben Abraham

Kris Ligman: Dire Critic

David Carlton: Malvasia Bianca

Ian Miles Cheong: Gameranx

Katie Lloyd Williams: Alive Tiny World

SHOW NOTES

Suparna Galaxy

The Many Faces of Tim Schafer

A blunt critique of game criticism

Bioware Neglected Their Main Demographic: The Straight Male Gamer

The Best Gaming Podcast Ever: Episode 19 [SOPA Special]

Debacle Timeline

Final Fantasy VII Letters

On the first person military manshooter and the shape of modern warfare

Part 1: Direct Download

Part 2: Direct Download

Part 3: Direct Download

Part 4: Direct Download

Part 5: Direct Download

Opening theme: ‘Close’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Closing Theme: ‘Wishing Never’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Happy Saturnalia, gamers young and old! As you know, today is the day we celebrate the Sega Saturn, a game console too divine for mortal hands. On Saturnalia it is traditional to gather around the Sega fire pits in town squares all over the world and warm our hands on the flames of crackling, melting discs of 3D Sonic games, singing our chiptune carols all the while. Perhaps when the day draws to a close you’ll return to your iHouse and light up your Saturnalia tree with a traditional portal gun, then curl up by the firewire for a rousing ol’ tale of game criticism, theory and commentary. It’s This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Our piece for the week to light up that child’s heart of yours goes to Jason Tanz over at Wired, whose new critical piece on Ian Bogost’s notorious Cow Clicker is a game in itself.

Next, two pieces on the experience of “flow” as it pertains to games. The first arrives to us by midnight post from Lana Polansky, who likens mastery of fighting games to music, describing the focused state of mind it induces in the player. The other, also emerging from the crisp white pages of Kill Screen, is Tom Armitage’s meditation on landscaping and the direction of the player’s attention.

This week in digital pedagogy: researchers Laleh Aghlara and Nasrin Hadidi Tamjid have released their findings on the role of electronic games in vocabulary retention among Iranian children. Meanwhile, Robert Yang at the Radiator muses on a future where game design is not iterative, test-marketed commercial product but a pastime for everyone.

Dan Apczynski offers us an extrapolation on Andrew Plotkin’s cruelty scale, which is not what you’d expect (or perhaps it is). While over on Forbes, Paul Tassi wants these damn dragons off his lawn:

Is Skyrim a monumental achievement in gaming? Absolutely. The world Bethesda has created is perhaps the most technically impressive in video game history. It’s teeming with life and adventure, and it’s easy to see why you can spend countless hours getting lost in it.

But from a narrative and gameplay perspective, which I would argue are the two most important facets of a game, it’s surpassed by a few titles this year, Portal 2 and Deus Ex among them. A thousand square miles of map means nothing if there’s not a compelling story to be found anywhere.

To round off our rather brief last TWIVGB of the year, the Extra Credits team has a new episode up which should prove an interesting use of your time even if you’re not a fan, as they go step-by-step through a practicum analysis of Bejeweled 2.

We hope you enjoy your last week of December, however it is you choose to spend it! Remember that the deadline to submit your recommendations for Eric Swain’s 2011 This Year in Videogame Blogging is December 25th at midnight, Eastern Standard Time. Don’t be late! Our normal weekly roundups will resume the first week of January, 2012.

Ahh, Sunday. I have crossed oceans of work shifts to reach you. It’s time for This Week in Videogame Blogging!

The big newsworthy moment of the week deserves some equally worthy coverage. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) has raised some legitimate hackles across the web, including gaming communities. Kirk Hamilton has arranged your one-stop primer, including reference to our own Ian Miles Cheong’s call to action on Gameranx. But why should you care?

Arguably, the law would be fine if rightsholders didn’t abuse it, but as we’ve seen, rightsholders are more than capable of abuse even with existing laws. [...]

As a gamer, here’s what you stand to lose if SOPA passes:

  • Mods
  • “Let’s Play” videos
  • Video replays
  • Video reviews and commentary
  • Unofficial game guides
  • The taking, hosting, and sharing of screenshots, artistic or otherwise
  • Image forums (Reddit, 4chan)

If even the articles above are too dense for you, don’t worry. John Bain has a video version.

I would encourage readers to take these articles to heart as they read the rest of this roundup, particularly how so much of the articles featured here depend on the legal gray areas SOPA would snuff out.

Moving forward, let’s set the tone for this week’s blog offerings. Taking a long view, Voorface argues that gamers need to study up on their art history, saying that Capital-A Art is a relatively recent construction:

Videogames do offer a challenge to traditional ideas of the value of Art and of the Work of Art, but this is only because the foundations of those concepts are so flimsy that they are challenged by their own shadow. For a while now it’s been understood that trying to make videogames conform to our understanding of other media – film especially – is foolhardy. Instead of trying to paste past aesthetic models onto videogames we should try to understand videogames as a separate medium.

The past week also provided fertile ground once again on considerations of gender both in gamic representation and among gamer communities. We begin with Mark Sorrell, who (perhaps enigmatically) declares “I am bellowing”:

I will not be accused of being a shrill moaning harpy. I won’t be asked to make anyone a sandwich, nor will I be accused of being a lesbian, asked to suck anyone’s cock or be threatened with rape. Partially, this is because those who have met me understand that I view other humans as lunch with a temporary stay of execution. Let the Wookie win, as they say. Mostly, it’s because I’m a man and so people will read what I have to say rather than switching off their brain and spewing out some astonishingly unimaginative sexist bullshit.

This prompted a response by Margaret Robertson, who meditates on her own past tendency toward self-censorship, lest she face misogynistic ostracization:

These things pervade everything about how I comport myself online, and indeed in the industry. I posted a picture of my skirt on Twitter the other day, because the pattern reminded me of a Pokemon. I was anxious about posting it, in case it seemed like something that would lay me open to accusations of being a camwhore or an attention-seeking flirt. In the end, I decided I would, but was careful to take a picture where you could only see the pattern, and not – god forbid – some of my leg or something like that.

In a word where Jade Raymond gets accused of being a sex-token for standing in front of her team and smiling, these are sensible precautions to take.

With these two links we form a chain, the next link in which is Alex Wiltshire’s more problematic opinion article which subsequently showed up on Edge: “Many male gamers act like animals online, but should women also change their attitudes?”

It fell to another Alex, of the Raymond variety, to rebut Wiltshire’s points on The Border House:

No one can deny that women speaking out inspires others to do so as well. It’s a powerful thing. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay to tell women to risk their own safety and well-being–which, remember, is why Robertson and other women hide their identity online in the first place–in order to change male behavior. Cheerleading and encouraging people to speak out is necessary and invigorating, but this is not it. This is condescension and an abdication of responsibility. Men need to do their part in fighting sexism (and, no, their part is not telling women what to do!).

Fifth and finally is an unconnected article from Harris O’Malley which nevertheless responds to the spirit of Raymond’s piece in that it advocates for men’s responsibility for challenging sexism: “Bringing the spotlight onto the concept of male privilege as it exists in nerd culture is the first step in making it more welcoming of diversity, especially women.”

Speaking of male nerd culture and its ramifications on accessibility, Johnny Cullen takes a moment this week to mourn the VGAs, saying gaming deserves better.

But just in case you thought we could go one roundup without a Skyrim discussion, let’s venture into the past week’s dragon’s nest and see what’s hatched:

*FWOOSH*

There. Is that the last of them? Thank Notch.

From the dragons of some elderly scrolls to the dragons of the heart, we venture to this heartfelt piece by Patricia Hernandez, editor in chief of Nightmaremode and a gamer who was surprised to discover some unexpected emotional authenticity in the Atlus game Catherine:

In the critiques following the game’s release, I saw people claim how unrealistic and stereotypical the whole thing was. Yet, as I played the game, the parallels seemed eerie. Vincent, becoming frightened at the prospect of a serious relationship with his long-time partner, makes an irresponsible, and frankly repulsive, choice.

Heh. Easy– and perhaps hypocritical– to condemn when it isn’t me, eh? ‘It doesn’t matter what the context was, Vincent!,’ I thought to myself. You are responsible for your actions, just like any other adult!

And yet I think back on my own situation, and it wasn’t as easy or simple as it sounds.

Kirk Hamilton has a different dragon in his closet (to completely abuse my metaphors): namely, the horrors of high school, and an open musing on why more games are not set in it.

Bah, feelings! Who needs them? Not Brad Gallaway. At least, not when they apply to game reviews.

On the subject of reviews, Adam Smith takes a glance back at 2011 in roguelikes. And on the more technical end of things, Gamasutra expert blogger speculates that we may be approaching a bottleneck in cloudgaming: “The Cloud isn’t as elastic as you think.”

I see no better way to cap off this week’s offerings than to refer you, dear reader, to Eric Lockaby’s latest. Lockaby, who knows damn well he’s on probation with me, melted my Snow Miser heart with his musings on “the Vanity Glitch.” What is “the Vanity Glitch”? Well…

“No…” Snake exclaims, “I can’t do it. I can’t do it.”

“Well why the hell not, Snake?!” That’s our usual reply. “I–the frickin’ player–have been using a rocket launcher for half the game now…don’t you tell me what you can and cannot do! I point at things, push a button, and those pointed-at things explode!["]

[...]

[I]t should be immediately evident what has happened here: that the player’s desires have been pitted against the character’s; that a gap has been created between the two, or rather a gap has been re-introduced, one that players had collapsed intuitively: the Vanity Glitch. And though our little pattern-sucking brains are angry at the ruse, we grasp its purpose: to convey Snake’s own feelings–despite the fact that the players themselves couldn’t care less about some wack-ass ninja.

…Hey, speak for yourself! Foooooox! *sobs*

With that, we end our little link collection for the week. Remember, time is running short to send in your This Year in Videogame Blogging submissions! And your weekly submissions by email and Twitter are, as always, completely welcome and encouraged!

It’s cold outside, but baby, it’s warm in here. It’s time for This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Before we begin this week, please read our new Terms of Service agreement. Feel free to come back once you’ve signed. (What do you mean it’s just a Gamers With Jobs post? Quit bugging me, kid.)

There. First for the week, one short announcement: Medium Difficulty is doing a Call for Articles, deadline slated for January 20th. You can find out more about it here.

Now we swing by our friends at Second Quest, where Eric Brasure and Richard Goodness recently sat down for a podcast with the Brainy Gamer himself, Michael Abbott.

Next stop, MIT’s GAMBIT Lab, featuring a three-part talk on games as an aesthetic form.

This leads us into our first major topic of the week, aesthetics. It’s a theme next followed up by James Hawkins at Joystick Division, as he takes us on an excellent breakdown of the comparative aesthetic and narrative strategies of indie game darlings Bastion and Limbo:

This is where the strength of the video game medium truly shines. We’re given two adventure stories about unremarkable children set inside ruinous places, searching to restore something that has been lost. But because of the aesthetic interactive nature of video games, themes of loss, fear, and reconciliation can be conveyed to us in contrasting methods. They resonate with our innate proclivity to sympathize with one another, with that resonance being heightened by the character of the worlds we reside in.

Further in this vein of aesthetics and storytelling, we have two pieces on the narrative strategies of (wait for it) Skyrim. At Eurogamer, Rich Stanton contrasts Bethesda’s latest with the recent Dark Souls, concluding that one offers far less narrative sophistication than the other. And at Gameranx, our own Katie Williams discusses how, in contrast, the game’s prologue works to completely captivate the player.

Finally on the subject of game aesthetics and the power to grip players, Jim Rossingol has an evocative retrospective on S.T.A.L.K.E.R.:

The message for the games industry is clear: you don’t have to have pretensions to art – because here is a game that could not be more unpretentious in an artistic sense – for your game to have a serious message. Even the manshooter can be about something, without having to carefully distance itself with irony or hyperbolic absurdity. But, more importantly, Stalker is a example to designers that there is also scope to do shooters differently on a mechanical level. They do not have to be linear rollercoasters, nor multiplayer menageries. They can be slow. They can involve wandering. Even contemplation.

Adrienne Shaw speculates on the existence of a “charmed circle” of gaming sociability, using sexual taboos as an analogy. Elsewhere, Karen Bryan riffs off Jesper Juul’s book A Casual Revolution to address the book’s implications in RIFT.

Aaron Matteson pays tribute to the childhood inspirations for Zelda and Pokemon, in doing so describing the boyhood exploratory spaces previously drawn upon by Henry Jenkins, among others:

[T]he more anecdotes of video game designers drawing from their lives as children that I hear, the more I believe in the medium as not self-serving but deeply communal. Because I played these games, felt those things as a kid myself. Even if I didn’t have the wilderness of Japan, I had this amazingly crafted vision of a child’s experience of that — with the embellishments and exaggerations that a child’s mind can lend to any experience. I was in communication with Miyamoto and his brethren, and their excitement and optimism about the scope of their own exploits became my own.

Thus we arrive at the second overarching theme of the week: the differences between these boyhood experiences and those lived by gamers outside the majority.

We start with Kate Cox, who articulates it best:

Any discussion of gamers who are female, any kind of queer, any race other than white, or indeed any other non-dominant population tends to kick up a fuss. Some of it just goes under the heading of trolls, or “haters gonna hate.” But what’s most disappointing and frustrating to me is when gamers who could, in theory, be allies say: “Why don’t we just talk about the games? Whatever happened to having game sites just be about games already?”

Because for many of us out there who aren’t the “right” sort of gamer? It has never, ever been “just” about the games.

(Emphasis from the original text.)

With this quote in mind, we move over to TreaAndrea M. Russworm’s essay “‘We’re Grinding Like Everybody Else’: Race, Video Game Culture, and New Media Authorship”, a most excellent critique of male white normativity in the construction of the “gamer” image:

What conclusions are we to draw from the finding that “Latinos, who play more per day than whites and form 12.5 percent of the population, are only 2 percent of characters”? Or, of the fact that low-income families play more games than high-income families? If it is commonly remarked that violence, racism, and sexism sell in games, and people of color, along with the economically disadvantaged, are playing games the most, is this ironic? Tragic? A cultural embarrassment?

On a more positive note, Keith Stuart has a profile on women game designers– including women of color, such as Mitu Khandaker (follow her on Twitter!).

Shifting gears from players and designers to player characters, Drew Dixon observes an underlying problematic assumption in the Playstation Long Live Play commercial. Also writing for Paste, the most prolific man on the Internet, Brendan Keogh, pays tribute to choice and consequence in ICO. In a similar vein, Amanda Lange profiles the very concept of failure as it applies to games: “Failure is boring – the credible threat of failure is very exciting.”

Our last stop for this evening draws us nearly full circle back to an academic perspective on games and pedagogy, with Yam San Chee’s paper: “Learning as becoming through performance, play, and dialogue: A model of game-based learning with the game Legends of Alkhimia“. A dense read, as you would expect an academic paper to be, but very valuable all the same.

That’s all for this week. As a reminder, Eric Swain is once again heading up This Year in Videogame Blogging and he needs your submissions! With your help we can save Christmas A Generic Winter Solstice-Related Holiday. So send us your links!

Stay toasty (or, for our south-of-the-equator friends, stay pleasantly cool) and we’ll be seeing you all again this time next week!

Last year I pulled off, largely in secret, Critical-Distance’s first This Year In Video Game Blogging feature looking back at the best the year had to offer. I remember that time and the pain it caused. So I’m not doing that again this year, instead I’m telling you up front we’re going to be crowd sourcing This Year In Video Game Blogging  to help alleviate the burden. That means we need you, readers at home, to join in!

There are some limitations: This is the best of the best for the whole year, so we are looking for pieces that fit some or all of the criteria below.

1. Any piece of writing that really sticks out in your mind. Something that weeks, even months after it’s published stays with you because it was influential or important. Pieces that get cited to this day. Examples from previous years include:

  • Ludonarrative Dissonance by Clint Hocking (’07)
  • Taxonomy of Gamers by Mitch Krapta (’08)
  • Permanent Death by Ben Abraham (’09)
  • No Cheering in the Pressbox by A.J. Glasser (’10)

2. Any pieces that are an excellent example of a larger trends within the conversation from critical community surrounding the big games of the year. Last year the big talked about games were with extensive conversations around them were Red Dead Redemption, Heavy Rain, Bioshock 2, Bayonetta and Mass Effect 2. This year we want example pieces highlighting the discussion around that took place around the games this year.

3. The best pieces from some important bloggers or sites that stood out this year. These are the pieces that highlight the critics’ writing that did worthwhile work throughout the year.

4. Any excellent pieces pertaining to gaming culture that highlights a particular conversation had this year. Large compilation pieces, for example, or the Ebert Response from last year.

5. Any pieces that are simply great pieces of exceptionally beautiful writing about games.

These are just rough guidelines to what we are looking for. We would prefer if you would email these links to us, but if you do send them via twitter let us know these are for the Yearly Roundup. Take your time and send us your favorites this year, and if remember any additions later you can always send through another email. And if you could include one or two lines about why you think the piece should be included that would help up greatly. The only deadline is Midnight December 25th Eastern Standard Time.

Thank you one and all for reading and whatever suggestions you send in. I’ll be disappearing into my hovel to reading through a lot of criticism now.

The internet… the final frontier. These are the roundups of This Week in Videogame Blogging. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new blogs; to seek out new writers and new forms of content. To boldly game where no one has gamed before!

…Yeah, someone’s on a Next Generation kick. Ignore me.

We begin our retrospective tonight with a bit of somber news: the fantastic critical gaming blog GameSetWatch, pioneered by Simon Carless and platform to countless original essays and brilliant content, is closing its doors.

But fret not. The boundaries of the ludodecahedron grow ever farther each day, and this past week has proven no exception with some exceptional samples of game-themed writing and discourse.

We start with Robert Yang at The Radiator Blog, distilling the themes of a recent BLDGBLOG panel into an incisive commentary on the obsolete ways games depict war. You’ll forgive me as I quote Yang at length:

But the long con of these first person military manshooters is to tell you so many small unbelievable lies so you’ll swallow the big ones: that it is possible to optimize a path to victory, that victory in war is even possible, that war involves soldiers and personal agency, and that war is fundamentally fair and just in the context of a balanced game system. (None of those things are true in Afghanistan.) By that measure, no AAA FPS currently depicts “modern warfare.” The war they present, of roughly symmetrical forces meeting each other on battlefields in trenched combat, is an antique of World War II and the Korean War.

The danger is not someone going out to shoot a school or impulsively join the army; the danger is that these games are affecting how we think of war in a decidedly misguided way, and that pattern of thought affects popular support of real-life wars that actually kill people.

(Emphasis from the original text.)

Another compelling piece for this week is brought to you by Diana Poulsen at Kill Screen, describing ways in which games create ersatz memories:

Videogames are distinct because they allow us to experience lives we’d never have a chance to live. We get to participate in the game, which strengthens our relationship to the experience.

According to Landsberg, prosthetic memories try to create empathy rather than sympathy. [...] In empathy, you literally feel another person’s plight.

Another article following in a similar vein of human perception comes to us via Gamasutra’s Member blogs section, where Rob Lockhart writes about how media such as film and games take advantage of our limited “theory of mind,” or the ability to perceive intentions or feelings in other beings–even game AI.

Lieutenant, set the Holodeck to dragons. The ludodecahedron has been busy again writing about their favorite Elder Scrolls game du jour, covering subjects such as creating a system that trusts the player to find the story, the design underlying its morality spectrum, distorted senses of perspective, and aspects where Skyrim‘s worldbuilding does not quite ring authentic. But my favorite of the pack goes to Rowan Kaiser’s piece for Gameranx on Skyrim‘s weather system. Weather, people!

Over on Dinofarm Games, Keith Burgun gets his rant on over game-breaking power-ups and whether the onus is really on the player to re-balance an imbalanced game:

if we’re charging players with the responsibility of balancing our games, then why do we even bother trying to balance games at all? If anything’s too powerful, we can simply trust that players will house-rule it out, right? [...] Designers need to take pride in your work and trust that you have the ability to create a ruleset that couldn’t easily be improved by some random dude who happens to be paying for server fees.

Speaking of house rules turning into global rules, Machinima.com has been publishing an interesting four-part documentary on the history of the MMO. The first part can be streamed here, with links to the subsequent parts to the right of the video.

And over on The Border House, Zaewen takes to task a series of graphics originating on Reddit, saying the way they model sexist versus nonsexist character design is too limited to be useful:

[For] the last panel of this chart to be true and for it to have greater impact, we would need to see the real equivalent to the sexually objectified woman. We would need to see a man in heels and a skimpy, flimsy loin cloth that lifts and separates his balls, posed in an odd, unbalanced way that best shows off his impossibly tiny hips and waist and perfectly sculpted pecs while making a face better reserved for the bedroom than the battlefield. And ya know why we probably didn’t get to see that in the last panel? Because it would look freaking ridiculous, just like the woman already does.

Mattie Brice entertains a similar notion in “On Men’s Sexualization in Video Games“, noting that many existing examples of sexualized men are intended as parodic, and that more needs to be done to correct the disparity.

Brice also made a noteworthy appearance on Kotaku this week, taking to task not just that particular publication but an overwhelming culture of exclusion:

I’m part of the gaming community, but Kotaku doesn’t see me as a gamer. No, instead I’m a multi-racial transgender who-knows-sexual possibly-feminist woman gamer. A boogie monster. Someone who uses too many –isms and –ists in their daily tweets to actually enjoy anything. I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone ask what it’s like to be me in this pocket of society.

You know that invisible ink in detective movies? If you could get an internet lighter, you’d find “This site is for heterosexual white American men gamers.”

It’s a highly evocative piece and I most certainly recommend reading it in full.

This touches on the edge of the big back-and-forth discussions of the week, which kicked off when Tom Bissell, writing for Grantland, wrote an article on The Elder Scrolls series which included the claim: “If you have no idea what the Elder Scrolls franchise is, you are probably [...] an adult woman.”

Bissell has since apologized for the remark (although it, too, contains problematic language), but not before the original article received a flurry of response pieces. Stephen Totilo provided a round-up of the situation as well as linking to Carrie Patrick’s excellent blog post, arguing that more than the tone of the original article, it’s the reaction from its defenders which is really telling:

“Women, it was a goddamn joke. Settle down. No one’s trying to take away your right to vote.” — a guy.

“Relax, people. If anyone should be offended by that line, it should be guys like me. But I’m not.” — a guy.

This sort of response creates a perfect 10 on the blinding insane berserker rageometer. Best of all, it shuts down all possible further rebuttal. The women who weren’t particularly upset or angry when they posted their original comments are now completely unable to express their further annoyance at being told to shut up and go away, because if they do, they’re just going to prove they Can’t Take A Joke.

A sentiment which ties in quite well with Brice’s remarks in her article above, and the overarching conflict we’re seeing come to the fore lately between gaming forums’ dominant and minority members. I leave the last word on the subject to Tracey Lien, associate editor of Kotaku Australia:

It was a reminder that this isn’t a new and isolated incident where someone has made a silly remark about women; rather, this has happened before and people are clearly okay with it to allow it to keep happening. And it will happen again. These jokes are a reminder that if someone writes a post about sexism on Kotaku (or where ever) tomorrow, or next week, or next year, or five years from now, if I make a contribution I will still be dismissed, my opinion will still count for nothing, and I will still be accused of being anything other than a rational human being. The moment I contribute to the discussion, it won’t matter what my role is — I will just be another hysterical woman who is over-reacting.

We round off this week’s list with a few more articles for your general interest.

The first comes from Scott Juster over at Moving Pixels, paying tribute to the bold moves undertaken by ICO. The next arrives from David Sirlin, theorizing what one key factor may be in the success or failure of game spectatorship.

And leading off what is sure to be a December ripe with retrospectives and projections, Seb Wuepper takes us on a look back at 2011′s gaming trends and where we may be headed in the coming year.

That’s it for This Week in Videogame Blogging! Set your phasers to read and join us next week for another thrilling adventure in the depths of the ludodecahedron! Remember that you can submit your own links to us via Twitter or email! But please, no tribbles.

Never fear! This Week in Videogame Blogging is here!

Let’s kick off this Sunday with a quick jaunt back to a piece we unfortunately overlooked from October, where SpecsandHeadphones turns those specs on the characterization of several women characters in videogames–that is, not their appearances, but what is actually written into their backstories, revealed through their creators, and told through their personalities.

Coming back to our offerings for this last week of November, let’s start with Jerry Bonner’s recent tribute to BioShock, suggesting that it’s ruined him for other first-person shooters:

Could it also be that I find the whole “dudebro” culture that these games engender to be a repugnant blight upon the hobby I love so dearly? Abso-fucking-loutely. I’ve played competitive sports all my life, yet never found myself comfortable with the locker room hazing and ass-slapping that seems to go hand in hand with playing those sports. I didn’t play so I could cast dispersions on the new guy’s mother or to duct tape his scrotum to his thigh. I played for the love of the goddamn game. Period. The “dudebros” and patently racist adolescents that populate these virtual, FPS arenas serve as a harsh reminder of that nonsense, so I’ll take a pass, thank you very much. [...] [BioShock's] Rapture truly seemed like a living, breathing, fully-realized world. Hell, even though it was clearly unraveling at the seams, if I somehow acquired a one-way ticket to that damned, underwater metropolis I would have jumped at the chance to go.

Katy Meyers, writing for Play the Past, might have a reason for BioShock‘s lasting appeal as a compelling aesthetic and narrative experience. In “Anthropology of Social Behavior in BioShock“, Meyers outlines the audio, visual and behavioral cues that lend Rapture that “living, breathing” quality.

And try as I might, everything just seems to be coming up dragons lately! You folks really like your Skyrim. First we have Kirk Hamilton, arguing that the ambient world of “the province of Skyrim is much more compelling than the game, Skyrim.” Nick Simberg is more provocative in his wording, contending that the procedural quest generation of Skyrim places the game more in the realm of Facebook and other casual games. Where is Peter Molydeux‘s “cascore” when you need him?

Next on the long, scaly tail of Skyrim blogging, Joel Haddock criticizes the nondialectical way Skyrim forces violent conflict resolution:

For a few glorious seconds, Skyrim teased me with the potential to do something so few games do. Yet, shortly after, it showed me that it was, after all, merely a tease. I suppose Bethesda scripted near-death opponents to act in such a fashion to provide a little extra flavor to the already-rich world, but I feel they missed an opportunity in having it mean nothing.

In a similar vein, Craig Lager, posting on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, opines that many games, including Skyrim, have some way to go in overcoming their ludonarrative dissonance–in this case, the friction between reductive combat systems and the larger sociopolitical worlds these games claim to inhabit. And while Lager notes that Skyrim appears more finessed than many others in this regards, he does add:

Of course [...] you still get the stupid things like guards telling you to be careful around the mages guild even though you, in fact, run it, or that you can still be a murderous psychopath yet still invited to save the world. So, while still flawed and stories aren’t particularly branching – there’s progress there, especially when it’s part of such a massive, gorgeous, freeform (and admittedly buggy) world.

I am also particularly fond of his conclusion:

If the next five years of big-title gaming development can focus on closing that disparity of what we want to do in a world and what developers can afford to let us do, rather than pushing technology to add complexity to raw assets, we can end up with environments that are more interactive, manipulable, intelligent and alive, rather than just prettier.

Moving on from the dragon’s den, we arrive on the sandy shores of the modern first-person shooter once more, first with John Walker’s cutting critique of Modern Warfare 3 as an “un-game” and Brendan Keogh’s (in this editor’s opinion) provocative rebuttal:

So this is what I ask of you, and of all videogame critics and players alike: stop using “freedom” as a metric for a game’s quality or, even worse, for a game’s gameness. Every game is a dance between player and code, but that doesn’t mean the player always gets to lead. A game that leads the player can be just as meaningful, significant, intelligent, stimulating or exhilarating as a game that lets the player do whatever they wish (within the games confines). The player is not the centre of the equation, and neither is the game. It’s the interrelationship between the player and the game that matters most.

Meanwhile, the Brindle Brothers have a more intense interrogation of the FPS genre, especially how “first person” and “shooter” have become synonymous and how we might decouple the genre’s current set of conditions.

Over on Gameranx, Brendan Keogh–huh? Brendan?! Quit being so prolific!–describes Audiosurf‘s ability to capture the “feeling” of music. And while we’re on the subject of Brendan’s highly overactive set of fingers, you may want to check out his Games on Net tribute to Qwae, his enduring game persona alter-ego.

Furthermore, thematically expounding upon Keogh’s “Qwae” piece, David Lake offers up a consideration on the distinctions between Player Character and Main Character–in particular asking “who is the PC?” in games where the answer is at best abstract:

The problem of who the PC is only deepens when we consider the myriad ways the player can interact with the game. [...] Who is the PC in a God Game? While this is something openly toyed with in Black & White, the question is ambiguous in The Sims. Maxis seem to have completely removed it from the equation by saying the Player Character is you, the player, playing with this box of toys. The question then falls to what type of play are you likely to be partaking in? (The answer most likely the sadistic torturing of hapless Sims in their underpants with a prison of dangerously cheap gas ovens).

Much more difficult is who the Player Character is in games which operate on a number of gameplay paradigms, such as Dwarf Fortress. There is no direct relation to an in-game character like in a Total War game (where the PC could conceivably be a series of monarchs, or perhaps even a nation’s guiding spirit). With an interface so abstract as to represent nothing in particular within the gameworld, the PC in Dwarf Fortress would again be more directly identified with the human playing the game, an unsatisfactory answer. An analysis of who the PC is here reveals what a strange game Dwarf Fortress really is. It is a game without an aim, without an ending, where failure is held up as the purpose of play.

And as we wind down here with this week’s roundup of links, a moment’s introspection may be valuable. It’s easy to forget, writing in the position that we do, that we are at times a fairly isolated community using a highly specialized vocabulary to speak from a perspective those outside our little ludodecahedron might often find impenetrable, as Leigh Alexander wrote in Edge this past week. Of course, it may be that all of us professional game critics don’t actually know what we’re doing.

Lastly, a word of thanks to Richard Terrell, who has kindly notified us that his critical glossary of game design terms has now been compiled as a PDF, as has the first four years of his Critical Gaming blog. Ta muchly, Richard!

That’s all for this roundup! Remember, you can submit your own links for Critical Distance via Twitter or email– I look forward to reading them (after… you know… finals are done with). Tune in next week, same Crit time, same Crit channel!

Do you believe in life after Ben Abraham? I hope you do, because it’s time for This Week in Videogame Blogging!

As Ben wrote earlier in the week, I have taken on his role as the new senior editor of TWIVGB. Let’s all give Ben another hearty round of thanks for the 2.5 years he’s devoted to our little project and the fantastic things it’s done for the discourse of game criticism and commentary. Then thank yourselves as well– because like always, these roundups could not exist without YOUR important contributions each week.

We start out this gorgeous Sunday with Kate Cox, who has been giving Dragon Age: Origins another try. Her latest entry is a commentary on the sheer diversity of possible stories and the unexpected ways players are able to fill in the blanks in the game, referring in particular to her own noble character’s class privilege.

Speaking of Dragon Age developers BioWare, Tadhg Kelly of What Games Are has a piece up on them as well, arguing that the RPG genre is defeated by its own emphasis on systems:

The roleplaying game profoundly struggles with its ambition toward art because its play is full of this sort of generalised mechanical play. It is pretty bad at evoking intended emotions within players (as Tolstoy would say it perhaps) because it’s so busy being a giant accounting exercise. So supposedly significant moments in the narrative and the actions of gameplay are in conflict with one another.

In a similar vein of toolsets and systems, and just in time for the official release of Minecraft, Matthew Briet laments that the game is just too addictive for its own good. Elsewhere, brill.iam notes that a categorization system like the one we’ve set up for videogame genres unfairly impoverishes their expressive range. In particular he poses this scenario:

If SimCity had come out after Starcraft, would it be criticized for representing a city-building sandbox? Would it be panned for having no competitive multiplayer aspect? It is, after all, a strategic game (in fact, I would argue that the layers of strategy outclass those of most RTS games that came after it) and it plays out in real time. But RTS means one very specific thing now: little buildings that make little men that kill other little men faster than another person can make other little killing men. This concept of how representation should inform design is completely backwards.

And my old blogmate from Moving Pixels, Kirk Battle (aka LB Jeffries) is back again this week with a critique of Modern Warfare 3‘s dreaded on-rails structure keeping him from appreciating the game’s littler details for their own craftsmanship: “Content Degradation”.

Keeping with our general theme of systems and the greater apparatus of game mechanics, Katy Myers has a lovely little article that is close to my heart: if graduate school is a competition, and most games are a competition, why not game grad school? It’s an interesting, if depressing, notion, as Myers’s numbered proposals feed right into conventional “incentivization” models typical of that much-maligned word “gamification”–which leads me to this next exciting piece from Tom Ewing, on de-gamification:

D&D has – as you’ll know if you ever played it – a vast and hydra-headed system of rules. At first we would modify them, as almost all players did – dropping the ones that weren’t fun. But eventually we abandoned the rules entirely, shifting to what used to be known as “freeform” gaming – something more like interactive storytelling.

The reason we did this is that we’d reframed the aim of the activity to be creative rather than simply competitive or even co-operative. Once we’d done that, the game mechanics became a hindrance to play, rather than a spur.

[...]

The implication of this is that once you have people who are confident with what they’re doing and enjoy it, there may be something to be gained by degamifying their environments – handing over more responsibility and autonomy to the players, dialing down the rewards and rules structures you’ve put in place.

While Ewing caveats that this observation is based strongly on his own gaming experiences, the essay addresses many other good points, like the usefulness (or rather, the lack thereof) rewards for the seasoned player.

Over on Edge, a more industry-oriented article tackles the ethics of overpromoting a bad game–such as the one in its header image.

And Gameranx is offering up some truly quality work lately, with three stand-out articles all written by Critical Distance regulars. From Sebastian Wuepper, we have an examination of the American action game’s fetishization of “big bads” like Nazis and Communists, arguing the latter has now succeeded the former as the FPS gamer faceless enemy du jour. From Rowan Kaiser is an essay comparing and contrasting the original Deus Ex with Human Revolution, arguing that HR is “a remake of a classic that has the rough edges shaved off for mass, not cult, consumption”. Finally, Brendan Keogh treats us to the virtues of grinding in Dark Souls.

We leave off with a glance back at one of the bigger “discussion” topics from the week, namely Kotaku Editorial Director Joel Johnson’s controversial post defending the content of his fine publication. Mattie Brice (whose recent “Speaking in Accents” article is also a recommended read) led the pack with an open letter to Johnson at The Border House. This was followed up by Richard Goodness over at Second Quest, who criticizes the tone Brice takes and suggests instead that women and LGBTIQ gamers need to push harder for fair treatment and representation, citing the Women’s Social and Political Union’s motto, “Deeds, Not Words”. A third essay from Jenn Frank at Infinite Lives argues for the middle path between the two, concluding, “Kotaku cannot, will not, be a ‘safe space’ tomorrow. And that’s maybe the real point: Kotaku has always tried to maintain its finger on the pulse, and the fact that Kotaku is changing tells you things are changing.

And that seems like enough meta to cap off one linklist! Enjoy your week, everyone. To my fellow Americans, have a happy and safe Thanksgiving. And for all of our readers around the world, thank you, as always, for your amazing support. Remember that you can submit your own links to us via Twitter or email! (Non-perishable food items only. Spay and neuter your cats and dogs. This week’s TWIVGB brought to you by the letter Y…)

Hello dearly devoted readers!

I’ve taken the almost unprecedented step of posting a non-TWIVGB post to let you know about some changes that are happening here at Critical Distance. There’s one main thing to appraise you of, and that is that I am handing over weekly TWIVGB duties to the extremely talented and accomplished Kris Ligman, who you’ll know from her own excellent work here and at her blog Dire Critic. Kris has been slowly taking over my role with her own Roundups of Unusual Size (or perhaps more accurately, Roundups of Unusual Regularity and Worth) and it’s one I’m more than happy to hand over to her. In April of next year it will mark three years (Three! Count ‘em!) of Critical Distance and in that time I feel I’ve had gotten at least as much from the role of chronicler and collector of great writing and blogging about videogames as I have given.

So I want to thank some people – first, to all my helpers and editors here at CD, both past and present – you’ve been an amazing help, all of you, and a special thanks to Eric Swain for propping me up with his own contributions of links for so long and so tirelessly. Thank you to everyone who ever sent in a link, be it via twitter, email, smoke-signal, telepathy, telegram, or just personally mentioning it to me. And a special thanks to all those people who wrote the amazing pieces we link to every week – you are the real hard workers here, and without you we wouldn’t exist.

Last week’s post will be effectively my last as person-in-charge of TWIVGB – but fear not! – the same great collection of links will still appear every week, but it’ll be headed by Kris, rather than myself. I’m looking forward to whatever direction she chooses to take it in. But I won’t be disappearing either – I’ll be helping her out when she needs a break, or can’t otherwise cover TWIVGB – and in January I’ll be launching a new endeavour for Critical Distance that I think will be a really great community fostering, conversation spurring exercise. But more on that as we get closer to the end of the year. For now, please join me in saying “I for one welcome our new TWIVGB overlord“. Okay your turn…

A Nordic tundra. A distant figure is spotted running with great haste, all arms flailing and apparently trying to shout over the sound of the howling wind. As the figure approaches you make out “The dragon is coming! The dragon is coming!”

As the figure approaches you see it is none other than your trusty host of This Week In Videogame Blogging! Clearly something serious is going on. The figure arrives in a near-breathless state:

“The dragons are here! There’s no time for a full run-down of the week’s best blogging, writing and about videogames – we’ve got to get back to fighting the dragons!

Brendan Keogh writing for GameRanx talks about Dark Souls in ‘A time to grind’.

Jonathan McCalmont’s regularly irregular column at Futurismic is also about the Demons/Dark Souls series, talking about the meaning and import of virtual death.

Martin Falder at Oh no Videogames! describes “the fascist politics of infinite respawn”!

At the Ambient Challenge blog Lee Kelly talks about ANGER MANAGMENT (and LA Noire). When those dragons get here we’ll be in need some of that anger.

This week sees an expansion of an Ambient Challenge post, in the form of ‘The Assassination of Rockstar by the Coward John Brindle (or, three design failures in Red Dead Redemption)’.”

A dragon swoops overhead.

“Oh no! We must hurry! It’s nearly here!

Joel Goodwin at Electron Dance went to the BAFTAs and saw the IGDA writers’ panel. What did he think? Enough to write two parts.

At Systems Operational, Richard Naik writes about ‘If Team Fortress Two Were A Baseball Team’.

Richard Goodness at Second Quest writes about not understanding why Sword and Sworcery was such a critical darling.

At PopMatters G. Christopher Williams wrote about Batman and “Bitches”, riffing off something Kirk Hamilton wrote at Kotaku a few weeks back.

A dragon roars somewhere overhead, our poor beleaguered chronicler winces visibly before pushing on.

“At Gone To A Strange Country Andrew Lavigne writes about CODBLOPS.

Stu Horvath talks not really about trolls but about consensus and disagreement and diversity for the Unwinnable blog in a post called ‘The Ecology of the Troll’.

Patricia Hernandez at Nightmare Mode writes about ‘Playing Catherine as a Cheater’,  and aaaaaaaahhh!!

A dragon swoops out of the clouds and lands beside our figure. A change comes over him – an inner peace and composure – and then from his mouth blasts forth a shouted word of power. The dragon issues an answering roar and jet of flame, and our figure becomes shrouded in smoke and flame, the sound of spell and steel echoing across the tundra…

Apologies for the thinness of this week’s post but, well… you know.