Welcome to another fine edition of This Week in Videogame Blogging, where we curate the most interesting articles in the critical blogosphere—or “ludodecahedron”, as some prefer to call it—for you to peruse and enjoy. Though whether this week’s edition is truly “fine” is something better left for you to judge, dear reader.

The first article to grace this week’s edition is Adam Ruch’s piece on the immersion of first- and third-person games in Kotaku Australia. He writes:

“My issue lies somewhere in between the concept of immersion and character-identification, which aren’t exactly the same thing. The two are related, and reinforce each other, but can also operate independently and in different ways. The first way, the ‘common wisdom’ is repeated in game design manuals and states that first-person perspective is more immersive and makes the player feel more like they are the character in the game.”

Also in Kotaku, Mark Serrels wrote a two-part article about his quest to obtain 50 street pass hits in one day with his newly acquired Nintendo 3DS.

Elsewhere on the internet, contributing writers to Kill Screen review a few of their favorite fatalities in Mortal Kombat. Here’s Kirk Hamilton with his review of Mileena’s special attack, “Be Mine!”

“Oh, the hunger of Mileena. The insatiable desire of this beautiful golem, driven mad with rageful horniness, built to be as a goddess but cursed with the fang-laden mouth of a Lovecraftian fish-monster. She regards her helpless prey, drawing out the moment before launching both of her sai into his chest, leaving him standing skewered and bleeding before her. She sensually saunters over, laying her hands upon his cheeks and gently turning him to face her. It’s a quiet, intimate moment, almost shocking in its immediacy. Conquered and conquerer, their eyes nearly meeting—in another lifetime, in an entirely different kind of game, this could melt into a romantic embrace. But … no. Mileena tears his head from his body, stepping into the spotlight and removing her mask. With her true visage revealed, she lowers her horrid maw and feasts upon the severed face of her foe, throwing the remains to the ground and moaning in blood-soaked ecstasy. I could lie and say that wasn’t the hottest thing I’ve seen all day, but where would that get us?”

Kirk Hamilton also wrote an article on Paste Magazine on the subject of genres and classifications in videogames.

“Videogames certainly present all sorts of unique challenges when it comes to genre; to start with, they exist across a wide enough experiential spectrum that even the simplest ones require multiple types of classification. We must take into account how a game looks, its setting, and if applicable, the type of story it is trying to tell. But first and foremost, a game’s genre must describe how it plays, the ways in which we can expect to interact with it.”

Also on Paste is Sinan Kubba’s article on what went wrong with Mirror’s Edge, and how to fix it.

Returning to the subject of genres, K. Cox shares her thoughts—or meditations—on the adventure game, a genre long maligned for its strict linearity.

Matt Weise writes about “The Sublime Joy of Flight” for the MIT Gambit Lab, in which he shares his experience with Pilotwings Resort and relates it to his love of flying games.

On his blog Dubious Quality, Bill Harris writes about a storm that’s currently brewing in the game industry, which should give everyone something to worry about. According to the post, game publishers are attempting to starve the traditional games press out of business in an effort to “control the message” about their products as much, and as often as possible.

Johannes Koski continues his investigation into the women of Liberty City on the Border House. The article is part two of a three-part series.

Jorge Albor of the Experience Points blog has a few words to share on the launch of Portal 2’s ARG, which lead up to the release of the game. He writes:

“The marketing stunt, if we can call it that, is unsettling, at least personally, because it fires a spotlight on the cultural power differential between the development studio and its player fan base.”

On Zang.org, William Huber writes about “critical gamification,” and the recent trend of “gamification,” which is quickly becoming a part of marketing buzzspeak, and how critics can deal with it.

Wrapping up this week’s edition of TWIVGB is a piece by Paul Bauman, who rarely updates his Iterations of Cid blog. He’s written a piece on Earth Reborn, a new board game that manages to provide meaningful experiences through strategy elements in its gameplay.

Hello and welcome to another sumptuous and satisfying edition of This Week in Videogame Blogging. Ben Abraham is stepping out again this week and Eric Swain is busy with the Critical Distance podcast so it is left to me, your newcomer editor Kris Ligman, to provide your links this week. Yes, I know, I’m excited too. So without further ado, let’s dig in.

We start off this week with an ode to Monster Tale from the ever-erudite Michael Abbott.

How do I ignore thee, Monster Tale?
Let me count the ways.
I overlook thy most generic of generic names.
I scorn thy tedious kids-save-the-world conceit.
I disdain thy prosaic box art.
I yawn at thy derivative anime stylings.
I scoff at thy clinging to 2004 technology.

These truths evident, Monster Tale, tell me why
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach. Or at least as much as Castlevania.

Another piece by Michael Abbott from his Brainy Gamer blog looks at styles of abstraction in art and design represented in recent indie successes, “Driven to abstraction”: “We bemoan the derivative nature of games, and we’re fed a steady stream of imitative designs that prove the point. But focusing on threadbare tropes and overused mechanics may cause us to overlook the astonishingly creative work being produced by game designers experimenting with form, representation, and abstraction.”

In a similar vein, John Walker over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun takes aim at development-stifling genre conventions and argues there is one place where “genre crossing” is thriving: “Do you know? It’s casual games.”

Raptured Reality’s Steven O’Dell laments the quick turnover of commercial titles like Super Mario Galaxy:

Nobody seems to care that Super Mario Galaxy, a game that released in 2007, still has a lot to say about the status of the platformer genre, or where Mario as a franchise currently sits. In some respects, why should they? That game has a sequel and practically everything else does these days too. But that attitude, that approach to the medium where only the current — which gets forgotten about once the next big thing arrives — and future matter, is dangerous and is one I wish would change.

And you’ve all seen the anti-smoking ad of a mocked-up Breakout styled game with a set of lungs and a cigarette, yes? Bothered by this analogy, Chris DeLeon at Georgia Tech’s Newsgames blog went and made a functional game based on the image.

Over on Electron Dance, Joel Goodwin has an in-depth analysis into the role of privacy (and voyeurism) in Christine Love’s new visual novel, don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story. Writes Goodwin,

The students make me think of people who don’t use their vote, forgetting how hard people have fought for that vote throughout history and how some people are still fighting for it right now. These are people typically subjected to indiscriminate surveillance without checks and balances.

If not everybody signs up for the glass society, those who remain behind walls will hold all of our lives hostage. I hope DTIP scared you as much as it scared me.

Moving on, Mitu Khandaker’s new GameSetWatch column “Gambrian Explosion” continues this week with a piece called “Games, Randomness, and the Problem with Being Human”. And over at the PopMatters Moving Pixels blog, Jorge Albor treats us to a musing on the semiotics and relational aesthetics of Brenda Brathwaite’s Train and One Falls for Each of Us, quoting Brathwaite’s GDC talk when he says: “Wherever there is human-on-human tragedy, there is also a system.”

Speaking of reflections on the most recent Game Developers Conference, Jason VandenBerghe over on Gamasutra has a candid reply to Brian Moriarty’s now-infamous speech in defense of Roger Ebert, saying in sum: “The game itself is not Sublime Art. Without players, it doesn’t exist. However, I will counter Brian’s argument with the following enhancement: -play itself- can be Sublime Art.”

Finally, we have a trio of articles from Critical Distance’s own which are worth your attention. First off, regular irregular editor Eric Swain, writing in his own blog The Game Critique, looks at the scoring models and perceived biases of various gaming publications and concludes:

The score is the thesis in a way and the text is the support for that thesis. If you think a game is a 9.0 then your writing has to support that, just as if you called a game a 1.0, the writing must support that. But most of all raise your expectations to reality.

The second comes from yours truly at my new Dire Critic blog, which… Well, don’t look at me, Eric submitted it. For my part, the article does serve as a direct response to Eric Swain’s “Manifesto” post, arguing for reviewers to embrace their subjectivity and regard games as relational objects, a point not so coincidentally raised in Albor’s post at PopMatters as well.

Last but certainly not least we have a piece from David Carlton, talking about achievements in Tiny Wings: “I’m glad I followed that nudge and did so. It added texture to my experience: without these varying goals, I would have just been touching the screen over and over trying to get as far as possible, and I would have gotten bored and frustrated fairly soon. But with the different goals given by the objectives, I had to think differently about my approach to the game.”

That’s all for this w– Oh, wait, I take that back. Before I forget, have you been keeping up with Kirk Hamilton and Leigh Alexander’s Final Fantasy VII letters over at Paste? Because they’re up to Part 7, including Alexander’s ruminations over the game’s major plot twist leading into the final act.

April 10th

April 10th, 2011 | Posted by Ben Abraham in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on April 10th)

Oh dear, I’d better stop daydreaming about the gig I’m about to go to and make a start to this instead. It’s This Week In Videogame Blogging and there’s no shortage of good reads to go round. And hey, Critical Distance is exactly two years old to the day! Let’s celebrate by raising a glass to you, dear readers, and to all the fantastic bloggers, writers and critics out there.

First up, John Sharp writes about the meaning of Drop 7 for the ETC Press blog. Which is odd, since those who know of Drop 7 will be aware it’s a puzzle game, not a story game. So what gives?

I would like to propose the term Drop7 practitioners for people like myself— individuals who find something more in the game than one might suspect an iPhone game could provide. This essay is an attempt to understand the game’s effect on me.

Jason Killingsworth at the UpUpDnDn blog writes about creating his own family Tetris lexicon with his brother in ‘Throwing Shapes’:

When we lived together briefly during college, my younger brother Josh and I played a lot of Tetris. Like a whole lot of Tetris. We played so much Tetris, in fact, that we quickly found ourselves needing a more nuanced language to discuss the types of scenarios we encountered in the game.

At The Fremen Blog, Miles Snell writes about ‘Why I never connected with Duke Nukem, and never will’. I remember playing Duke3D when I was younger and being generally oblivious to most of its worst excesses. Here’s Snell’s take:

The characterization and attitude of Duke was something altogether foreign to me. I hadn’t seen any films with hyper-masculine or stoic lead characters (unless you count Ripley). I certainly hadn’t seen “They Live” which is where “I’ve come to kick ass and chew bubblegum…” came from. I had been raised thinking it was acceptable for boys to play with cabbage patch dolls. Mr. T was my most traditionally masculine childhood hero. It’s a fact that Mr. T beat up bad guys but he also drank milk and pittied fools.

Christian McCrea writes for Gamasutra this week what I think is the definitive piece about Australia’s lack of an R18+ rating, taking a very long view of the whole socio-political situation. Sadly, McCrea has little hope for change:

I am beginning to lose hope Australia will get an R18+ rating for games. We have a culture of cynical manipulation around the issue that is firmly entrenched. Twenty years ago, it began with cynicism, and it continues to this day. How children and young adults use media, choose games, play games and go about their lives with and without parental guidance has been put aside in favour of easy answers.

Simon Ferrari writes brilliantly for the Georgia Tech Newsgames blog this week, talking about a ‘newsgame’ called Zangief Kid, about the experience of bullying victim Casey Heynes. Yet the game fails in one damning respect, says Ferrari:

The invocation of “just fun” on the game’s opening screen isn’t the defense of a speech act. It’s an excuse, one for being completely incapable of capturing even a sliver of Casey’s experience.

At the Alive Tiny World blog Katie Williams has been writing a series for the past fortnight called The New Vegas Diaries. First a short story-esque piece about the character ‘Boone’ and then this week she talked about ‘Wasteland Romance’ and the how the game treats sex.

It’s not the sex so much that piques my curiosity (after all, it is only politely and very vaguely alluded to in New Vegas, with a blackening screen signifying the act). No – I am more interested in the way portrayals of sex, and the sex industry especially, are handled in the fictional worlds of video games.

Eric Schwarz at the Critical Missive blog wrote about unreliable narrators and the application of such in Dragon Age II this week. He feels that, while “BioWare’s take on the unreliable narrator is rather unique…and BioWare deserve a lot of credit for attempting to tread new ground in this fashion” he’s unconvinced it’s a trend for the better:

The more I see games attempting to integrate unreliable narrators into their stories, the more I see games trying to be something they aren’t.

And while we’re talking Dragon Age II, Geraldo Sciemento writes a lengthy discursion on Dragon Age II.

And inspired by Dragon Age II, Radek Koncewicz at Significant Bits looks at Planescape Torment and the system of conversations that game pioneered.

At Futurismic, Jonathan McCalmont talks about two games, SPENT and American Dream, and the differing approaches they take to presenting critiques of the madness in our current systems of capital:

…while both games are ultimately concerned with critiquing capitalism, they set about their task in very different manners as SPENT attempts to model the real injustices and difficulties of life in America while American Dream presents American capitalism as a grotesque fantasy in which people throw money at celebrities, take a load of drugs, buy $1,000 kettles and somehow get rich in the process.

Ben Chapman, aka AwesomeExMachina, who you’ll remember from earlier instalments of the excellent ‘No Clip’ series in which he restricts his gameplay abilities in some way or another, is back with a new instalment targeting Red Dead Redemption. It is, in a word, revelatory. Playing as the most horrible, mean, nasty and evil Marston he could possibly manage,

… there was a strange disconnect between the light-hearted but gruff John Marston from the cutscenes and the one I controlled. As I left a wake of dead sheriffs on my trail from each crime, it felt strange returning to making innocent quips with Bonnie and quietly tending to a ranch. After breaking into Armadillo’s bank in the dead of night, robbing the vault, and shooting my way to freedom, I felt remarkably two-faced the next morning when Bonnie sarcastically asked “Have you needlessly risked your life since we last spoke, Mr. Marston?”

At the Discount Thoughts blog, Michael Clarkson has ‘Trouble with Tripitaka’. This is the kind of analysis I like to see – sometimes I just want to say, “No videogames, I’m not going to suspend my disbelief and let you do whatever you want I’m going to take you seriously”. Here’s Clarkson doing something similar, looking at whether Trip really is as productively feminist character as she’s sometimes made out:

Although she holds the power in her relationship with Monkey, she gets in that position by doing something that’s openly evil. In her use of that power she is selfish, dishonest and irresponsible, often in ways that adhere to patriarchal tropes about overly emotional women making rash decisions. I won’t deny that there are some aspects to Trip’s story and character that are interesting. From the opening moments of the game, however, Trip comes across as a tremendously awful person, and at no point does she really do anything to redeem herself. If she represents one of the better female characters to appear in games in recent years, the situation is more dire than anyone has acknowledged.

At the Infinite Lag blog, JP Grant writes about the intro to Dead Space, and openings in general:

When I taught high school English in a former life, I used to tell my students that if a book didn’t grab them in the first 15 pages, it was probably the book’s fault, not theirs. Unless it was one of the books I assigned in class, in which case it was definitely their fault.

Eric Snodgrass at Experiments in the Foam has a piece called ‘Level-headed’ which describes itself as being about “Inception, Saint Teresa’s El Castillo Interior and gamification”. Not having had the time to read it all yet, I’ll direct you to where the parallels between the film and the book meet up with videogames:

There are several similarities between the mental architectures that both Inception and St Teresa lay out in their respective fashions. The most obvious parallel being the way that both the text and the film present an idea of interior castle-like structures of the mind that must be, in a way, breached in order to achieve certain goals. Both also share a notion that these mental interiors consist of progressively more difficult to access levels (Dante’s Divine Comedy, scientology and videogames being other examples of such a strong focus on progressive levelling in their structures).

At the Gamamoto blo Pietro Polsinelli looks at the ubiquitous iPhone game Angry Birds’ ‘narrative logic’, focussing on the appearance of the enemy pigs:

The pigs are there to defy you skill, to test you, to examine you: and all the fears of tests and examinations from “enemies” from bureaucratic structures (quite universal…) act as motivators in playing this simple game, enhanced by the intelligent use of symbols. The game’ authors may of course be unaware of the symbolic choice of the pigs – but it makes no difference.

At Paste Magazine this week, Michael Thomsen assembles threads of connection between Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Burt Bacharach (among others) and Alcoholism. It’s a mighty feat.

It reminds me of the jazz schmaltz of the 1970’s, when Burt Bacharach, Harry Nilson, and Randy Newman composed childishly playful tunes with a ragged tear of adult disillusion. In many cases, there was a direct connection between alcoholism and whimsy. InArthur, Steve Gordon’s cinematic fable of binge-drinking as a way for the boy to put off the difficulties of becoming a man, Bacharach’s theme song plucked out a wish—a wish no less deluded than Kirby’s happy land of cotton ball fluff—that romantic love is the only thing a person really needs. In discovering it, you can find yourself elevated, between skyline and moonshine, all of the sooty adult details dismissed to the diorama world below.

And lastly, I’ll just leave this here

Perhaps you have heard about Suparna Galaxy…The answer to the question, “What is Suparna Galaxy?” is a bit like the Louis Armstrong’s response to the question, “What is jazz?”

“If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

Now, that isn’t exactly fair. It is still possible to understand Suparna Galaxy even if you have arrived late to the party. Suparna Galaxy, essentially, is crowdsourced improv satire; it’s an imaginary “in-development” videogame that both mocks and pays weird tribute to many of the conventions of modern role-playing games.

April 3rd

April 3rd, 2011 | Posted by Ben Abraham in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on April 3rd)

Good things come to those who wait, and we’ve been waiting all week: It’s time for This Week In Videogame Blogging.

Good things also seem to come in bunches. Rich Clark pens a pair of posts, the first of which, at Christ and Pop Culture, looks at ‘The Beautifully Dark Side of Videogames’. In the other, at Gamasutra, Clark claims that ‘(Virtual) Reality Is (Just As) Broken’, referring of course to Jane McGonnigal’s book with a similar title.

Clark’s is only the first in a freakishly large cohort of posts about Gamification this week, starting with Heather Chaplin’s review of McGonnigal’s book and a discussion of related issues around Gamification for Slate. Criticisms, Chaplin’s got ’em.

Next was Steven Poole writing for Edge Online about the topic, saying that:

Through the phenomenon burdened with the unlovely term ‘gamification’ – in principle, the application of game mechanics to everyday life – gaming threatens to become not just ubiquitous but a conceivable way of living: a lifestyle.

Heck, even at the Australian national broadcaster’s ‘Future Tense’ radio program is talking about Gamification, and will be speaking to a number of the prominent ‘Gamification’ experts next week.

For a more theoretically rigorous take on the idea, however, I’ll direct you to Levi Bryant of the Larval Subjects blog and his post about ‘Gamification as a new diagram of power’. You may wish to brush up on your Foucault for this one:

If gamification marks the possible emergence of a new form of power, then this is because action and movement is now modulated by agents entering into competition with one another in games organized around particular sorts of goals. While these games certainly have rules, power here does not function through the force of the law and its possible sanctions, but rather through people electing to become participants in the game.

Also this week, the You Are Not So Smart blog looks at ‘The Sunk Cost Fallacy’, or why we are so prone to throw good money after bad, using the example of FarmVille:

Farmville is a valuable tool for understanding your weakness in the face of loss. The sunk cost fallacy is the engine which keeps Farmville running, and the developers behind Farmville know this.

Gosh it’s been a bit of a downer so far this week, so here’s a pick-me-up, from Mitu Khandaker who writes ‘On Simulation, Science, and Love’ for the relatively new Digital Romance Lab, who are “a group of writers, researchers, designers and gamers interested in how games tweak the emotions associated with love, romance, and flirting.” Khandaker talks about how, when Annie Druyan and Carl Sagan were first in love and in charge of attatching music and things to the Voyager spacecraft for possible extraterrestrial discovery, Druyan digitised her brainwaves while meditating on her love for Carl:

In the same way that those theoretical future beings may find Annie Druyan’s impulses, and translate them into thought, how can we, at Digital Romance Lab, provide players with the appropriate procedures, the appropriate simulation, so that they too, may translate from it, an understanding of this beautiful human experience – of what it feels like to love. This is what we hope to explore.

At the Discount Thoughts blog, Michael Clarkson writes about ‘Two (too?) Easy Games’, namely de Blob 2 and Kirby’s Epic Yarn. He makes some good points about difficulty, here’s how it begins:

A few games — Super Meat BoyI Wanna be the Guy — can uncontroversially be called hard, but the essential question is actually whether they are too hard. …It is even harder to accurately say whether a game is too easy, primarily because most reviewers are skilled and experienced gamers, many of them drawn to the hobby during its early days when challenge was practically all a game could offer in terms of fun.

Nels Anderson at Above49 writes about worrying design philosophies, echoing some of Tom Francis’ recent comments about developers treating players like imbeciles and dragging them around on a leash:

Even more worrisome than this is the leap from “We’ll tell the audience everything we think they should know” to “We’ll make sure the audience does everything we want them to do.” Player agency is flayed away, what little choice remains amounts to choosing how you’ll shoot these three dudes before hitting the next cutscene/NIS trigger. When John Walker says “Homefront is barely a game,” this is exactly what he’s referring to.

The aforementioned John Walker at Rock Paper Shotgun this week takes a look at what Dragon Age II got wrong, making the point that expectations were probably part of the problem for the sequel. Walker hits the very definition of criticism in this piece, as he enjoyed the game and still found elements worth unreservedly criticising:

It would be madness to say that Dragon Age II is a bad game. Such is the lunatic binary nature of people’s responses to games that its having fallen short of its own predecessor, and indeed its own expectations, seems to create a desire to loudly deride it. The iTunes rating system of 1 or 5 seems to be infesting our realm, and it’s important to recognise disappointment in context. Am I disappointed by Dragon Age II? Very much so. Does that mean it’s terrible? Absolutely not.

Similarly, Dan Bruno at the Cruise Elroy blog has his own take on Dragon Age II, calling it an ‘Overcorrection’:

To summarize: the compromises in Dragon Age II are far more obvious than they were in Origins, and though it solved some of its predecessor’s problems it created new ones in the process. Meanwhile, the new design direction pulled it further afield from its roots, and they’ve scaled back my favorite part of the game. And yet, even with all of this, I still maintain that it’s better.

At The Brainy Gamer, Michael Abbott explains baseball in videogame terms: ATT, HP, STR, etc, etc, etc. Well worth reading.

Pixel Hunt is a free Australian gaming e-zine that’s been around for quite some time but which I haven’t mentioned in TWVIGB before. Time to correct that, and the launch of Issue 14 is the perfect excuse to do so. Highlight of the issue: Brendan Keogh’s GDC piece, featuring a comparison of Satoru Iwata’s keynote talk with a Babushka doll. Also excellent is James O’Connor’s update on his PhD thesis about GTA:IV in which he’ll be talking to gamers and finding out what they think about the game as they play it:

The voice of the ‘gamer’ is largely missing from games academia. Certainly there are examples of ethnographic research with players out there, but most of them seem to have been conducted by people who don’t actually play the games themselves.

At the Spectacle Rock blog Joel Haddock pokes his metaphorical fingers in the metaphorical cracks that are the logical inconsistencies present in many games. Haddock is focussing this time on why it is that we’re so quick to kill for those measly 5 gold pieces.

And lastly, do you want to read about Mario and Luigi’s magical trip through the magic kingdom, aka a short story called ‘Tripping Up’ by Justin McElroy at Gamers with Jobs? You did? I thought so.