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It’s that time of the week again, which means that I’d better get in quick and rustle up another list of the week’s best writing, blogging and criticism of videogames.

One of the more interesting pieces I read this week was Paul Mason at the BBC’s Idle Scrawl blog (courtesy RPS’ Sunday Papers) who finds strategy videogame Heats of Iron III provides a refutation of revisionist scenarios surrounding the outbreak and direction of World War II.

While we’re visiting the big news outlets, The Atlantic has a piece by Alexis Madrigal on ‘The Geopolitics of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?’ looking at, well, just that. Interestingly, “As far as I can tell, not a single academic paper has been written about the boom in edutainment games in the 1980s and 1990s. Not one!

Michael Abbott at The Brainy Gamer blog wrote this week about the game Metro 2033 and its understated morality system (to the point of near-invisibility even). Abbott uses a baseball analogy to explain:

…Metro 2033 is like a pitcher who disguises a nasty cutter. Everything about the windup and delivery looks like a fastball…until the ball lands in the catcher’s mitt and the batter stands helplessly at the plate muttering “What was that?”

Courtney Stanton at KirbyBits says ‘Here is a game: Deadly Premonition’. Yes. Yes it is a game. And while we’re on the subject of said game, JP Grant has finished expounding on his SEVEN blog-post-length reasons for choosing Deadly Premonition as his Game of the Year, check em all out here. They’re all remarkably critical.

Matthew Burns of the Magical Wasteland blog has gotten around to writing a response to last year’s second-most notorious “Games are not Art” piece by the N+1 editors (the first being, naturally, Roger Ebert) and Burns thinks they’ve been looking for art “In all the wrong places”. It’s a solid argument.

Good things seem to be coming in pairs this week as the misleadingly named Game Design Forum (That’s no forum, that’s a space station!) has also been thinking about the same subject. “Can videogames be art?

At the Border House this week they’ve highlighted the words of Halo: Reach writer ‘Tom Abernathy’ who, simply put, said that “We’re not serving half our audience”. Which half? Well if it’s any clue, Abernathy is…

…tired of those of us who care in the game industry complaining that there aren’t enough female protagonists while those of them who make the money decisions keep responding, “Gee, we’d love to, but the market data is clear. They just won’t buy it.”

Our own Denis Farr, also of the Vorpal Bunny Ranch blog, has been writing about characters from Half-Life 2 this week: first was Alex and Eli Vance, then it was Dr Breen and G-Man’s turn.

This week David Banahan at Bitmob begins a piece by talking about his wife’s relationship with Fallout 3, and the ability to save/reload at will, and ends up meditating on what it would be like without that ability. Funnily enough, I have a little bit of insight into what that would be like actually.

Speaking of permadeath, at Destructoid, blogger AwesomeExMachina is playing Fallout: New Vegas with self-imposed Permadeath as well as a raft of other self-imposed requirements. Food and water, it seemed, were the least of his worries, however, as it was the lack of HUD-based information that proved the most game-changing, and the most interesting:

… early on, I foolishly rounded a hilltop without caution and spotted what seemed like a lone wasteland savage, standing stoically in leather, spiked armor and touting an assault rifle. I took my advantage and opened fire on the target from the safety of my hilltop. He went down quick and I strolled up to search his cargo for some much needed supplies. It was only then I discovered the kindly wasteland merchant he was guarding cowered behind the burnt husk of an old car, previously obscured by a fallen billboard. I quite literally cried out in alarm at the tragedy as the panicked merchant drew his pistol on me in presumable self-defense. I did the only thing I could and shot him down before he could kill me.

Jordan Magnuson, normally featured via his blog ‘Necessary Games’, has been busy ‘Game Trekking’ the past few weeks (months?). This seems to be about attempting to make games that reproduce something of the experience of trekking around the world.

At Edge Online, N’Gai Croal has written about ‘Drowning by Numbers, talking about that ubiquitous issue that seems less to afflict all digital after a long enough time, having too many games/mp3s/files/fodlers/etc to handle. And on top of all that, how do we find things we don’t even know we like yet?

Search is great when we have an idea of what we’re looking for – but we don’t only like the things that we’re looking for. The truth is that there’s no one solution to solve the serendipity problem: how do we ensure that we get exposed to a wider variety of content that we might enjoy in addition to the stuff that we’re pretty sure will scratch the itches we already know that we possess? It’s great that we can see what our friends are playing, but if your friends are anything like mine, they’re playing the stuff that’s popular and therefore a known quantity.

At the Spectacle Rock blog Joel Haddock has written about ‘The Experience’ of games, thinking about the environment we play our games in:

Ask gamers to tell you memories of their favorite game, and I have absolutely no doubt that a good deal of those memories won’t be about the game itself. They will be able to tell you about the room they first played it in, or of the dead pixel on their screen that they managed to block out after a few hours, or of how they and their siblings fought over who got to hold the controller. And, perhaps even more importantly, they will probably remember talking about the game with others.

The Buddhist Geeks podcast has a promisingly named episode out this week, with a discussion of “Gaming as Spiritual Practice” featuring Jane McGonigal. I haven’t had a chance to listen to it all yet, but I’ve heard great things!

At The Escapist, the now regular ‘Extra Credits’ video series takes on “Amnesia and Story Structure” talking mostly about three-act structure.

At Groping the Elephant, Justin Keverne returns to his long running series of map-analysis meets walkthrough ‘Groping the Map’. In this, the fourth instalment looking at the tenth level from Thief 2, Keverne uses his intimate knowledge of the game to tell us things like this:

What’s not visible from this rooftop is the doorway behind the servant, and the guard waiting in the room beyond. Exploration will provide an alternate means of entry into that very room, and this one encounter is an example of Thief level design in microcosm: the obvious route if rife with concealed dangers, exploration is power.

Three pieces here this week, and they make an interesting trio! Point: Eric at The Elder Game blog asserted first that in a fight between ‘Classes vs. Open Skill Systems’ in an MMO, classes would win out for a bunch of very practical reasons. Next point: The author at the Stylish Corpse blog says “My first reaction was Noooooo! Do not say this! Do not want to hear it! Lalalala! But common sense generally recognises itself…” in a post titled ‘Classless is a pain in the assless’. And lastly, Counter Point: Brian Green at the Psychochild blog writes:

One of the big frustrations in discussing game design is imprecise terminology. What is a “class”? In MtG, as Tesh refers to in a comment on Stylish Corpse, is “Blue” a “class”? Well, if we’re going to shoehorn that game into the MMO paradigm, then it would be. …But, is that distinction useful for discussion? Not really, because the term “class” has a lot of emotional baggage with it. By advocating classes Eric is obfuscating his message and potentially harming those immature designers he is trying to warn since they’ll see “classes” and make a whole host of default assumptions.

And there’s more in the comment threads! Discussion overload, time to move on, and onto Paste Magazine where Kirk Hamilton has written one of the stronger piece of this week that roams across various big-ticket discussion topics that regularly get a play in critical circles: choosing the right pronoun to describe what happened (“Did “I” do this, go here, see that? Or was it the character whose movements I controlled?”); thinking about games that do and do not have sense of ‘home’ or a goal; and the brilliance of Minecraft (“…there is no actual “game,” no end-goal towards which players must strive.”). Yes Kirk, safe to say you’ve arrived.

Gus Mastrapa writing at Joystick Division says we ought to forget about the Citizen Kane of videogames, responding to Richard Clark’s expressed concerns at Gamasutra regarding the upcoming Bulletstorm. Instead, says Mastrapa,

No, I’d be fine with a Starship Troopers of video games. Not a heady work of art, but a viciously satirical piece of trash.

At Gamasutra this week Leigh Alexander wrote an in-depth feature about the Copenhagen Game Collective and how ‘We’re Very Uncomfortable With The Copenhagen Game Collective’. Strong stuff.

And finally for the week, at The Last Metaphor blog the author discusses ‘Red Dead Redemption: misogyny as a male performance enhancer’. Warning! Long, run on sentence ahead! Here’s the deliberately provocative opener:

Red Dead Redemption is a sexist video game that beds its “you know you want it” game play, its pervasive “hey what are you, stuck up?” artistic coercion and its penetrating thematic thrusts on the prone backs of women’s equality and respect. And what’s more, it’s a better game for it – once it leaves before morning.

Another busy week for videogame blogging (when is it ever not?) so we’ve got a nice haul here for your reading pleasure.

First up, Jaime Griesemer of Bungie has started writing about design, and largely multiplayer design: initially its drafts for larger arguments, but they’re still well worth reading. Here’s a definition of “affordance” that borrows from philosopher Martin Heidegger, and here’s a definition of balance that says true and lasting balance is nigh-impossible.

Tracey Lien wrote this week for Gamasutra about grassroots game activism, including the Australian efforts to get an R18+ rating for games, amongst others thibgs. While we’re at Gamasutra, Neil Sorens wrote about God As Game Designer. It starts like this: ‘There are two career tracks with surprisingly close parallels to that of the game designer: politician, and God (Judeo-Christian version).

Trent Polack at his Polycat blog wrote about ‘The Systemic Integrity of Expression’, or why he prefers games to make a statement in line with their mechanics.

The excellent KillScreen magazine (full disclosure: I write for them occasionally) has launched an excellent web-based blog outlet, we mentioned Simon Ferrari’s piece there last week, and since then there’s at least two more pieces worth reading. First, in a new monthly column, Rich Clark looks at the world-view evoked by Hydro Thunder Hurricane:

There are only two speeds: boosting and not boosting. Hydro Thunder Hurricane portrays speed in such a way that it seems like a defensive and necessary response to the world.

Similarly, Nora Khan in her piece ‘Isolation Chambers’ wrote about Dead Space, exploring it’s theme of sensory deprivation, isolation and silence.

The newly minted head-honcho of GamerMelodico, Dan Apczynski wades into the videogame music necessary-or-not debate, responding to last week’s Steven Totilo Kotaku article. Also along for the ride is  Bitmob’s Chase Koeneke with another defense of ‘Why game music matters’.

Also at Bitmob this week, Dennis Scimeca does a little bit of interesting research into how outlets review RPGs:

I tried to read all 77 critic reviews of Fallout: New Vegas on Metacritic in order to see how many of the writers actually finished the game, but I could only get through 26 before I almost died from boredom. Of those 26, only one reviewer stated that he finished the game. Another five reviewers suggested that the game was finished and mentioned how many hours the reviewer logged before writing the review, but the other 20 reviewers gave no indication as to how much of the game they played — and some of these reviews were from fan sites that were certainly under no pressure from anyone to review New Vegas quickly.

Mark Sample provides us with the text of a presentation he gave, in which he argues that new media studies (and this applies to game criticism as well) too heavily privileges the on-screen event ‘at the expense of the underlying computer code, the hardware, the storage devices, and even the non-digital inputs and outputs that make the digital object possible in the first place.’ His answer is to suggest more focus on a close-reading of code itself, and you don’t have to be a programmer to do it either. A very thought provoking read.

At the Border House this week Alex Raymond looked at playing a character’s death in games. Here’s how she describes the moment in Crisis Core FFVII:

But in Zack’s final battle, the DMW [a special ability slot machine] starts to malfunction. The screen zooms to the DMW in the normal fashion, but when it stops, characters disappear, their slots becoming blank. This happens twice more, Zack forgetting his friends and companions until only Aerith is left. In the final battle, the DMW is completely glitching out, its slots stuck or jerking up and down, until finally Aerith disappears as well. It’s pretty heartbreaking.

Here’s a list of ‘5 Gameplay Cliché’s of the 2000’s’ as described by Michael Carusi on his Destructoid blog. The list includes Helicopter Bosses in FPS’s and locked doors making the easy path inaccessible, two of my favourite clichés. Lets put these to bed. Yes.

At his ‘Aporia’ blog, Rainier Jaarsma writes this week around the topic of ‘TES V: Skyrim and the Death of the Author’. Taking inspiration from the newly touted ‘radiant story’, Jaarsma assaults the idea of quest templates that use randomness and variation to build variable side quests:

Radiant Story opens up a new dimension of authorless creativity. It is no longer about a brilliant idea, about a blast of insightfulness, no, it is about creating templates. Yuk! We do not invest in deep, complex characters, no, we conditionalize roles. We have stopped writing, writing is something pre-postmodern, so what’s next? G-e-n-e-r-a-t-i-n-g! Generating is the future. Previously, there was the game maker’s strict and suffocating hand that guided the player throughout the entire game. The Elder Scrolls wants to liberalize the player’s experience: Less governing…

Evocative stuff, but on a purely personal level, I actually find the prospect extremely tantalizing. Randomness, surprise and serendipity in heavily procedural games I’ve always found extremely attractive qualities.

Dave Thier at The Atlantic writes about ‘Factory Farmville: An Online Game’s Industrialization’, a tongue in cheek piece about his time with the Facebook game, sharing his story of virtual exodus to the city(ville):

It became too much. I let the fields go fallow and began playing another Zynga game, Cityville. I see those other farmers still on their land, planted hedgerow to hedgerow, scouring their coops in hopes of golden eggs and waiting for the fat cats at Zynga to bless them with some new piece of machinery so they can click their lives away just to scrounge together enough coins to eke a few more levels toward what I assume is the American Dream. Poor bastards.

Michael Clarkson at Discount Thoughts, discusses Epic Mickey in ‘The Text Blues: Silence is Leaden’:

The problem with the use of text in Epic Mickey isn’t that it supersedes spoken dialogue, or at least it isn’t just that. If Epic Mickey really is, as it appears to be, a game about cartoons, attempting to communicate with its audience in the way early cartoons communicated, then the extensive text presence interferes with the aesthetic goals that the absence of dialogue is trying to achieve.

It’s an older post, but it checks out. I was about to clear it. Katie Williams at the Alive Tiny World blog writes about ‘Deus Ex: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness – or as close as we’ll ever get to it’. In Williams words,

Less of a game for me, and more of an alternate life that played out after dark, I watched JC Denton unfurl a little more of an incredibly complex conspiracy every night in between work and university commitments. Whenever I returned to my more prosaic real life, I longed for the next time I’d get to play Deus Ex and felt incredibly despondent.

And lastly for the week, Salon brings us the touching tale of a mother playing WoW with her son and how it helped her through a divorce.

Ashelia writing for her new tumblr muses on why she works in the game industry, and about why games leave such an important mark on the player:

It’s about the experience, not the game. Your favorite game may not be mine, but it probably affected you in the same way. You played it. You loved it. You learned it. And you’ll never feel the same way about another game unless you work on one.

Here’s one we missed last week: Brady Nash of the How Curios blog writes in response to Nick Paumgarten’s New Yorker profile of Shigeru Miyamoto, and connects Miyamoto’s attempts at reconstructing the experience of a child exploring the natural environment with the literature of Philip K. Dick. About Miyamoto’s efforts, Nash writes,

I’m sure the problem feels especially acute in Japan, the world’s most urbanized country, but the idea pops up again and again in Western fiction as well, especially in science fiction. In Dick’s Palmer Eldritch and a host of other apocolyptic or pseudo-apocalyptic literature, a depreciated natural environment deprives us of essential aspects of our humanity.

Michel McBride writing for Gamasutra again this week ‘Adding a little performance to everyday play’. Also at Gamasutra, blogger Kamruz M looks at the oft-overlooked classic PlayStation game ‘Vagrant Story and its lessons for uninspired JRPG game design’.

Nicholas Lovell at Games Brief asked a host of thoughtful and influential people ‘What is a social game?’, including John Romero, Ian Bogost, Jesse Schell, Brenda Brathwaite,Margaret Robinson and a host of others. To quote Bogost, “A social game is the last unicorn in the vacuum of space.” I blame Bogost for getting the song from Robot Unicorn Attack stuck in my head again.

At Gamers with Jobs Chris Clemens writes about ‘The Game before The Game’ in a text-adventure emulating prose style:

You are at a social gathering and the sit-down small talk has ebbed to its conclusion. An awkward silence fills the room: the silence of opportunity. “Let’s play a game,” someone suggests.

>>RESPOND YES

“Games are a social lubricant,” you say. Bad phrasing. Everyone stares at you like you’ve just proposed a mudslide orgy. Cassandra rummages in her purse; looking for five hundred Bermuda wedding photos to share, no doubt. The evening is balanced on a knife’s edge.

Kris Ligman at PopMatters writes about ‘One Chance: playing with the notion of irreversible consequences’ discussing the flash game ‘One Chance’ and a particular moment from Mass Effect 2:

Realizing that the action wasn’t in my hands freed me from feeling guilty about it, theorizing that it was reversible spared me from grieving about it. It’s a little ironic that in a series of games promoting the empowerment of the player to make choices, I got my biggest shock from something that I only thought that I could control.

Also at PopMatters, G. Christopher Williams looks at ‘The Politics of Submission: The Romance of Enslaved. While we’re talking about that game, Eric Swain at The Game Critique writes about ‘Enslaved’s thematic failure’ and links to a couple of other thoughtful and interesting responses to the game. Here’s Swain’s takeaway: “Enslaved is the game that finally made me think about abandoning single player games and their strictly authored narratives.

Alex Raymond reminds us why Final Fantasy VII is such a memorable game, looking back at the world-building done in the games intro sequence:

FFVII has a reputation for being huge and confusing (and I certainly remember being confused a lot the first time I played it), but I found the introduction to be pretty well-done in that it conveys important information about the characters without being boring.

At his blog Cosmic Maher, game designer and critic Maher Sagrillo has a piece this week titled ‘Dooming roar of a god: Sinistar’. Here’s a lengthy excerpt to give you an idea of the diverse subjects he’s covering here:

While we expand as the medium of video games, we encounter an area that black metal did a long time ago, during its second wave of existence. We know what we don’t want, and we will destroy everything in response to that. For black metal, it was modernist society, dogmatism, and the rampant advance of rationalism over emotion. Black metal wanted to be free and powerful, unrestrained by morality or Christianity, among many other things, and most of all, to be individual, but without sacrificing our gains in knowledge, wisdom, and strength of character. Games are running into a similar territory with mainstream gaming focusing more on ways to play games than real design, on accessibility and ease of use over a personal and meaningful play, and more on gaming as a care-free social event than a challenge.

David Carlton at the Malvasia Bianca blog wrote about Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in Rock Band 3, and how it’s a strange song choice and an apposite one:

The song has a (quite!) distinctive vision, and the goal of playing through one of the instruments in the song isn’t to go through a checklist of what makes a game-playing experience pleasant (or, for that matter, what makes a musical experience pleasant), it’s to experience a portion of that vision.

Simon Ferrari writes for KillScreen’s newly launched blog, talking about ‘Popping Smoke’ in the Call of Duty series. Persuasive stuff:

The rule that defines Call of Duty, and separates it from the single-player campaigns of most other shooters, is the infinite spawn. It’s a bit of scripting built into discrete segments of every level, code that states: “Continue spawning enemies from points ab, and c until the player crosses invisible line x.” When most people say that the Call of Duty games are realistic, they’re referring primarily to their photorealism and point-of-view effects like distorted vision and tinnitus following a nearby explosion. But the social realism of the games is the sine qua non of their design: the realization that there is no end to the enemy force in front of you.

Talking about first person shooters, Jamie Madigan looks at ‘The Psychology of Shooters’ for GamePro and digs up some of the psych research that’s been done to look at how and why shooting games are so enjoyable. In one study, researchers discovered that violent and non-violent versions of games with identical mechanics,

…equally satisfied those basic psychological needs, which predicted how satisfied people were with the game and how much they wanted to play more of it. The researchers concluded that it’s not the violence per se, but the degree to which the games met players’ desires for competence and autonomy.

At the Border House blog, blogger Kimadactyl writes ‘An open letter to Day[9] & eSports commentators in general’ asking for Day[9] and others to continue working to make eSports more accessible to those outside it’s current, somewhat niche, demographic. Also at The Border House this week, Gunthera asks ‘Can a violent fighter be a good caregiver?’ and concludes that, in the case of Kazuma Kiryu of Yakuza 3, the answer is yes. Gunthera notes, “I found it remarkable to discover such a caring figure in a game that, on its surface, is about violently beating enemies.

Speaking of care-giving, Michael Abbott at The Brainy Gamer wrote this week about teaching his daughter to sleep in a bed on her own courtesy of game design lessons from Jenova Chen. A clever and touching piece.

Troy Goodfellow at the Flash of Steel blog continues his series on The National Character, this time looking at England. According to Goodfellow, “England is a nation with a clear national character that has proven resistant to good game translation.” Go read to find out why.

At the No Added Sugar blog the editors have rounded up a bunch of TED talks that relate to or touch on some aspect of videogames. It’s a lengthy list, so  expect to sink a few hours into these if you intend to watch them all.

Lastly, a bit of Point-Counterpoint: Steven Totilo at Kotaku writes about playing videogames without listening to the music, and then Dan Bruno at Cruise Elroy responds with what’s wrong with Totilo’s conclusions. Namely,

My issue is not with Totilo’s behavior but with his conclusion that, because he can now enjoy some games without music, composers ought to be classified as “non-essential personnel.” Separating composers from artists and writers and sound designers in this way is bizarrely myopic, not just because it assumes his experience is universal but because it ignores the variety of ways in which games and music interact. For every game that can be muted without much harm, there is another in which the music is “essential.”

Time to play catch-up. Since Christmas there’s been no shortage of worthwhile reading so let’s take a walk around the blogosphere and see some of what’s worth your time.

Jorge Albor at the Experience Points blog returns his critical eyes to Civilization V, taking his early comments on the how barbarism and civilization are depicted in the game in a new and profitable direction. Here’s an excerpt from his conclusions:

Civilization V procedurally renders a vapid conception of social relations marked by blanket uniformity. Although players can unlock globalization as a technology, the game does not model a complex economic system of globalized production and consumption across borders. Civilization’s are neatly confined and controlled. Poverty and inequality are not an issue, and class holds no explanatory relevance for historical processes or civilizational growth.

Albor also wrote for Pop Matters about ‘The Topography of Fear’ in Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

Darshana Jayemanne got in touch this week to let us know about something he’d written a while back in the Overland literary journal looking at videogame culture. It’s a piece titled ‘The Resident of Evil Creek’ and it starts a bit like this:

In developed economies, design is valued highly. Designers receive attractive remuneration and are celebrated in glossy trade publications. Video-game designers, however, get treated as a cultural blight. According to a recent white paper by the International Game Developers Association, they even face significant quality-of-life issues, working long hours but with poor job security. Designers of video games simply aren’t as dear to the managerial class as the wunderkind who created their flimsy prefab furnishings, the engineer who devised their plasma screen and the entertainment executive behind the reality TV fare they watch.

Gamasutra hosted a neat two-part series on CityVille by Tadhg Kelly, for which Kyle Orland wrote a little forward titled ‘How Self-Interest Supports CityVille‘s Socialization’.

Also at Gamasutra, Michel McBride writes about ‘Affordance Design in Half-Life 2’, another neat little look at the ‘Pick up that can!’ and other scenes in Half-Life 2 and how the communicate to the player.

This week just gone Clint Hocking delivered the fifth post in his ‘Convergence Culture’ series. It’s largely about the changing expectations audiences have of their games, and Hocking says,

We were too long handcuffed by a wrongheaded desire to protect the coherence of the fiction of our game worlds, and this made allowing players to play co-op games difficult.

At the blog Digital Kicks, author Lyndon Warren talks about ‘Wittgenstein, Games and Language’. I won’t tell you what the post is actually about, however, as it’s a bit of a surprise. It is very good though, so do give it a chance.

Adrian Forest at the Three Parts Theory blog takes a look back at some of ‘2010’s most interesting games spaces’. Enough said.

Robert Yang has begun a new series called ‘Dark Past’ (semi-in-response to Rock Paper Shotgun’s ‘Dark Futures’ series) which will be taking a look at the history and future of ‘the immersive sim’. And what’s that, pray tell? Yang tells us,

…the difference between sandbox games and the immersive sim is that emergence didn’t affect the “whole” of the game. Is JC Denton the guy who uses a taser or a shotgun? NPCs notice. The world notices.

Dan Cook of the Lost Garden blog celebrates beginning 2011 by looking at all the new frontiers of game design still waiting to be mapped out. He exhorts us,

If you come across someone who claims that all games have already been designed or that game design is a solved problem, show them this list. And then challenge them to stop fiddling about with over-exploited games from decades past and make something new and wonderful that will change the world.

Radek Koncewicz plays through all of Super Mario Bros 3’s World 1 and gives us some Level Design Lessons to take away from it. Thorough! Oh boy is it thorough.

Have you been keeping up with Troy Goodfellow’s ‘The National Character’ series about nations as portrayed through Civilization? Well either way, he’s up to Egypt.

For The Border House blog, Gunthera looks at some ‘Characters Done Right: The Honeywells’ who are a family of characters in The Last Remnant, and Denis Farr looks at ‘Final Fantasy VII’s Drag’. I remember this scene with much fondness, even thought I played it when I was a little too young to know just how risqué a scene it was.

Ferguson at Interactive Illuminatus thinks about when certain kinds of dissonance might be a desirable thing in a game.

Jeff Jackson at the Game Language blog looks at ‘Religion in AAA Releases: Some Thoughts on Real and Fictitious Faith’. Primary targets of analysis are Dragon Age and Mass Effect.

Rob Goodman writing at literary site The Millions tells us about ‘Interactive Art: What Videogames Can Learn From Freud’. Here’s an excerpt:

…every argument about art is about validation, about the assignment of prestige—yet those arguments are still worth having, because they can also be about something else. The argument over video games is about finding a place for choice in art, about respectability, and about empathy. And the best way into that argument may come from considering another cultural practice’s struggle for respect in its early days. I think that there’s already been a powerful interactive art, one that has some lessons for video games: psychoanalysis.

Here’s another one from a while ago that has only just been pointed out to me: Richmond Chaisiri at Art-Eater looks at an arcade game from the 90’s in ‘Darkstalkers and the Twelve Principles of Animation’. Practical analysis of 2D sprite animation that I can see being beneficial to apply to other games.

NPR’s On The Media did a whole series on videogames this week, and they’re all very listenable. Comments from favourites like Tom Bissell, Clint Hocking and Jamin Brophy-Warren are all worth hearing again, even if it’s stuff they may have said elsewhere.

Kris Ligman looks at ‘The Business of Falling in Love with the Virtual’, in other words, falling in love with a computer:

…taken in context as flights of fancy, you can see why they occupy the same entertainment role as an Edward Cullen or a yamato nadeshiko. Or, as Cleolinda Jones put it when explaining the appeal of the Twilight series in otherwise sane women, it’s like a twinkie. Sometimes you just want sugar.

Speaking of falling in love with a computer, Jonathan McCalmont is back this week with his column for Futurismic, this time talking about a similar thing in ‘Digital: A Love Story; Nostalgia, Irony and Cyberpunk’.

At The Escapist, Brendan Main discusses cult point and click adventure game Grim Fandango in ‘No Gods, No Devils’: “It imagines an underworld without…diabolical fixtures – no hellfire, no eternal torment. Instead, the afterlife looks like Thursday afternoon.

John Walker at Rock Paper Shotgun considers owning our own games. He asks us,

What do you pay for that’s yours to do with as you wish? Food, clothes, knitting needles. But what about games? When you pay money for a game, do you own it? Increasingly, not in any understood meaning of the word.

And lastly for the week, and also from RPS, Tim Stone talks to a flight sim enthusiast who is very enthused. The things you learn when you take games pretty seriously.

2010 has been one hell of a productive year for game criticism and writing. In our first full year of the TWIVGB feature, Ian and Eric decided to look through them all and cull from the 995 links the greatest written, most memorable and best representative writings over the last year. So here we present them to you in the first ever This Year In Video Game Blogging.

Print

Before we get on to the internet entries I think we should point out the print entries from this year.

Tom Bissell’s book, Extra Lives, from earlier this year is the longest and probably best written piece of game criticism and definitely worth the read.

Also, the newly minted magazine Kill Screen has recently released its third issue. Buy it. It’s a bunch of great writers writing great stuff in a well-produced magazine. Plus, our Editor Ben made it into the latest issue.

Critical Video Game Blogging

Much of the writing from this year focused on specific titles, both from this year and previous. Some took a look at the game as a whole, some at specific elements or characters.

First off we had the epic four-part RedLetterMedia-esque critique of Heavy Rain by Daniel Weissenberger at GameCritics completely eviscerating the inconsistencies, plot holes and other flaws of the game’s story.

Denis Farr at the Border House, meanwhile, took a closer look at the character Madison Paige and the general failure and her offensiveness as a character.

While I would love to say all these things were put forth to make the audience aware of what females may face in a world where their sexuality is seen as a commodity, Madison is never fully enough developed to allow such a statement. Paired with the way she is treated in both plot and camera, she is a character I would warn off many people I know just because of the constant triggers with which she is faced.

I give the last word on Heavy Rain this year to Julian “rabbit” Murdoch of Gamers with Jobs who said,

A year from now, when the initial bloom is off the rose of this game, and we poke holes at its flaws, I believe designers will look back at these three things and say, “Those were craftsman at the top of their game.”

I have to agree.

John Marston is generally held to be one of the better characters of 2010. Michael “Sparky” Clarkson back in June looked at ‘The ‘real’ John Marston.’

Mike Dunbar at Chronoludic wrote the first of four eventual parts about the western influences of Red Dead Redemption. It is an extensive piece looking at the thematic and set piece similarities to The Wild Bunch.

And then there was Michael Abbott’s little emergent story about a certain racist shopkeeper in “I’m your huckleberry.”

Earlier this year Jorge Albor on the Experience Points blog, wrote about the politics of Mass Effect, by comparing the fictional problems to the real world tragedies and politics that inspired them. The Quarian as refugees, the Salarian as Nazi scientists, and culture clash between races.

Luke Halliwell on his personal blog goes into detail the problems and poor decisions that led up to the failure of the MMO All Points Bulletin. It is an extensive three-part write up that is as much a cautionary tale as it is fact.

Kateri on her blog Falling Awkwardly, writes some superbly well written and thought through pieces on Morrowind this year, by picking apart and straitening out some of the most complex lore a video game can have. She went deep into the metaphysics and dug down to the point where reality, both in and out of the game twists, breaks and reconstructs itself.

Quarter Down had a great piece of satire this year by Josh Harmon about ‘Bioshock 2‘s multiplayer as an Avant-Garde Masterpiece,’ though given the material it is hard not to see the multiplayer as a genuine critique of Objectivism in and of itself.

Critical Distance’s own Ian Miles Cheong at Hellmode half a year ago wrote about Uncharted 1 and 2 saying, “Dude Raider he is not.” It’s a well-written piece of all the positives the game has to offer.

Kirk Hamilton wrote ‘Fisher Fest‘ over at GamerMelodico, a hilarious expose about the enemy barks in Splinter Cell: Conviction. Worth a read and a couple of laughs.

Our contributor Eric Swain wrote about “The Milieu of inFamous” and the lengths it went to be a missed opportunity. He also wrote defending the Gears of War series as a prime example of ludonarrative dissonance instead of resonance.

One of the most well imagined and well-explained critiques/theories of the year has its own site, ‘Squall is Dead‘, explaining the few Lynchian aspects of Final Fantasy VIII in the context of the whole.

Joshua Casteel wrote one of the most moving pieces of the year at the Point Magazine. From his point of view as a former Abu Grab prison guard and a real modern warfare veteran, he writes his take and experience on Modern Warfare 2. A gripping piece of writing that doesn’t pull any punches.

During the year Zoan Iovanovici at Gamasutra and GameSetWatch, wrote a series of posts focusing on major themes of the various games in the Metal Gear Solid series. Probably the most important of which is the last one about what the series as a whole has to teach us about centralized power, especially in relation to modern events and politics.

In August, Yakuza investigative reporter Jake Adelstein sat down with three real life Yakuza bosses to discuss the how accurate they felt Yakuza 3 was to their real life. Turns out, it’s pretty on the mark.

Greg Purcell at The Supercollider used the XBLA game ‘Toy Soldiers‘ as a jumping off point to explore the ideologically rich viewpoint all war games use and those attitude’s reminiscent of WWI songwriters and reporters.

Design Blogging

While many works focused on game elements such as character, theme or the feel others looked to a game’s design. Some went really in depth into single games or a single aspect of a game, while others focused on the general concepts on a genre.

Justin Keverne wrote a powerhouse series of level design criticism, Groping the Map. His first one looked at Pauper’s Drop from Bioshock 2 as the game’s turning point. Then he focused on Liberty Island, the first level of Deus Ex, and the intricacies foreshadowed this opening level. He also managed to get halfway through his exploration of the Life of the Party level from Thief 2. All three links have an index for all the posts relating to those levels.

Nels Anderson at the Above 49 blog answered the question ‘Why Are So Many Indie Darlings 2D Platformers?‘ It is a piece I still refer back to.

Michael Abbott discusses a fact that has come to his attention in his latest RPG class. A majority of his students were defeated by Ultima IV‘s design and he wonders if the game is now completely unplayable by a modern audience. Our history is important and it may be that we can no longer experience some of it for ourselves.

L.B. Jeffries in his column at PopMatters wrote how most games are variations on Groundhog Day and how we as players mirror the philosophical journey Phil Connors experienced in every game we play. Lastly, there is L.B.’s final post ‘On Design-Centric Game Criticism‘; a perfect bookend for his entire career as a game critic and almost-academic.

Culture Blogging

There is more to gaming than just the games. An art form can only be as advanced as the culture surrounding it. To examine the effects art has on people, you have to look at the people as well.

Back in February, Matthew Wasteland wrote a short piece ‘The New Debate on Games as Ert‘ satirizing the whole debate, which by that time was well worn. Who knew it would be prophetic as well.

Because later in the year Ebert reaffirmed his declaration games cannot be art and Eric Swain at The Game Critique wrote about the importance it is to have these debates by going through the arduous process of cataloging every response to Ebert’s renewed declaration that he could find. They’re still coming in.

Probably one of the two most important pieces written about game journalism this year is AJ Glasser’s ‘No Cheering in the press box’ and other rules games journalism needs.’ Required reading for aspiring games journalists and developers alike. (Link is defunct. Thanks to our friends at PCWorld for republishing this great article! You can read it here. –ed 2012.)

The other one is Chris Hecker’s ‘Me and the Wii‘, in which he talked about the danger and pain caused by disinformation and manipulative headlines.

Early in the year, Grayson Davis at Bleeps and Bloops revealed the outdated, insufficient and frankly overused ways of discussing a video game’s graphics and how they really don’t say what we mean anymore. And probably never did.

Our own editor, Ben Abraham declared, ‘Replayabilty’ is NOT a word, so stop using it idiot!‘ It is a word that should be cut from our collective vocabulary. But more importantly, late in December he wrote ‘Rhetorical Questions‘ about our need for more persuasive writing in our criticism.

Chris Dahlen wrote the ‘Just Another World‘ series at his save the Robot blog. I’ll let him explain:

Now, a “believable world” can mean a lot of things. Lore-heavy RPG franchises build worlds, but so do tiny indie titles. Canabalt has a world, even though we just see a sliver of it. But either way, worldbuilding is important-and not many people are talking about it. How do you pull one off? What are the best practices and tricks of the trade? Should worlds obey a strict, error-free canon, or can they be mythical and malleable? How do we get our heads around this gigantic and nebulous and yet totally important undertaking?

Annie Wright wrote for GamerMelodico ‘The Zombie Apocalypse is the New American Dream.’ A great deal of our culture, including that of geek and gamer culture, has become fascinated by zombies and surviving a world inhabited by them. She explored in depth the reasoning why.

Alex Raymond wrote on her blog, While !Finished, one of the first posts of the year, about why the things we critique are not just entertainment, why it is important to point out all their problems, and the moment this clicked with her.

It may be an April Fools Day post, but ‘A Matter of Resources‘ is one of the year’s best satires. It’s about the difficulty and lack of resources towards creating male characters in video games. According to developers,

“We just didn’t have the resources to put Mario in New Princess Peach Wii. I mean, he doesn’t wear a skirt, he has two legs and pants. Both legs have to act independently and that is thousands of lines of code!”

What’s even better is that it continues on in the comments.

Jeff Green wrote a rant about the Spike VGAs. It’s an eloquent write up of everything everybody wanted to say about that travesty. It is the go to post on the subject.

Leigh Alexander did a thorough analysis and explains the myriad of interconnected elements that lead to the toxicity and unhappiness between the three pillars of the games industry: the developers, the journalists and the consumers. I’d call it The Wire of our industry if I felt confident enough.

Video Essays

Not all of the best criticism was found in the written word. Ever since Yahtzee started Zero Punctuation the video essay has become an increasingly popular form. Several new shows started this year and others came into their own.

The GameOverthinker did a number of great videos throughout the year. The standouts being ‘Who’s Your Daddy Mega Man?‘ exploring the genesis of one of gaming’s icons. ‘I Heart Bayonetta‘ is Bob Chipman’s character analysis and explanation of why he thinks she is a well defined, sexualized being.

TheGameLocker started his series of youtube videos entitled ‘Games Worth Remembering.’ He released the first three of a four-part essay on Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. They are long, but like the game they take their time and let the atmosphere that accompanies his points sink in. Check out his other videos in his channel.

And finally the Extra Credits people had a great inaugural half-year at the Escapist. They explore Kratos’ character and his decent into parody as the God of War trilogy continued. They talked about meaningful choices where the asking can enrich your life. They explained how games, solely through their mechanics could explore themes and tell a more powerful story than cutscenes are presently capable of. Plus you will never think of Missile Command the same way again. Finally, they show the net positive that sexual diversity can have in video games.

It’s been a great year for video game writing and Ian and I have both had a blast going back over it all. It was not an easy job. Several of our favorites ended up on the cutting room floor during the vetting process.  We tried to get those post that are still referenced, those that left some sort of mark, those that had great writing or arguments, or those that captured the zeitgeist of the blogosphere around a topic.

We start off another year next week, as always thanks for reading. Keep sending in those suggestions to @critdistance on twitter, and have a Happy New Year!