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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.

Hello loyal readers, welcome to another This Week In Videogame Blogging!  Let’s jump right into another digest of the week’s best offerings from around the blogosphere:

Straight from the New Yorker’s Culture Desk we have Chris Suellentrop’s piece on ‘The Video Game Art of Fumito Ueda’. It’s a little bit purple in places (what writing about games in a mainstream newspaper isn’t?) but it’s still quite worth reading.

There are no points in Ico, nothing to collect, and very little to kill. There is also very little dialogue, and nothing that a movie lover would recognize as romance. But it is a love story. The boy’s motivation—and therefore, yours—is to help the girl. Sometimes the boy is attacked by shadowy, globular figures and he must fend them off with a stick and, later, a sword. If he fails to do so, the girl is pulled into a void. The prospect of losing a fight evokes feelings of guilt and sadness in the player, rather than panic and self-preservation.

Suellentrop also quotes from Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives, referencing some comments of our next entrant this week.

Clint Hocking’s post this week is a surprisingly self-effacing thesis for a game designer: he reckons that in videogames the players themselves are the creators and artists. Definitely go read his “Nature of Videogames” post. Hocking has been making this point for a few years now, but this is another great examination of it.

Another great thing this week comes by way of KillScreen’s online presence: it’s Gus Mastrapa writing about “Things I Ate In Skyrim”. Equal parts absurd and telling, the piece emphasises just how meticulously described-in-code the world of Skyrim is:

It is raining by the time I get to Rorikstead, a small weatherbeaten farm on the far end of the tundra. Small plots are ringed in by a low wicker fence. An uptight woman works her crops of potato, wheat, and cabbage. “We’re honest, hard-working folk here and we don’t suffer beggars or thieves,” she says. I pick all of her crops and sell them back to her, saving one of each to taste for myself. The wheat is edible but unappealing.

Also from Gus Mastrapa this week is the rebirth of his Pretension +1 column on Unwinnable, with a damning future history of game journalism.

But my absolute favourite piece of games-related writing from this week was the following: “I’m Tired of Being a “Woman in Games.” I’m a person.” by Leigh Alexander, writing for Kotaku. Here’s the brilliantly combative opening:

Sexism in games remains an unsolved problem, it’s clear. Some of you will be nodding along, and some of you will hear the s-word and roll your eyes and go, “oh, this again?” You guys can piss off-–go click on some new screenshots or a trailer consisting of a release date slowly fading into view. You’re hopeless.

Eric Schwartz at the Critical Missive blog writes on aim-assist and other filters game designers place between the players raw input and their in-world actions:

Sitting down to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 with a friend in split-screen, it often feels as if there’s a third presence in the room – an invisible game designer sitting between the controller and the television, who anticipates my own movements, says “oh, you want to shoot the guy on the left?  I see, let me get that for you!” and pulls my crosshair in the right direction.  Actually winning in such a scenario feels less about my skill in the fundamental act of shooting, and a lot more to do with my ability to simply select the right targets at the right time.

At the Pop Matters moving pixels blog, Jorge Albor Nick Dinicola discusses Rage’s excess of empathy, drawn out of him by the excruciatingly detailed character animations.

The Ambient Challenge blog has another top-notch piece this week, taking on the Chronicles of Riddick game this time, with ‘Assault and Vinegar’. Here’s the pithy opener:

I once spoke to someone about a conversation she had with a schizophrenic man. The man described disembodied voices coming from over his left shoulder. They would comment, offer advice, and sometimes issue commands. The nature of their words were often violent and dangerous, and the man had learned mostly to ignore voices coming from that direction. Not above trivialising a serious mental disorder, I reflected that it must be a lot like playing videogames, except that in videogames you’re supposed to listen carefully and do exactly what the voices tell you.

At Nightmare Mode this week Eric Lockaby enlightens us with the following: games are by no means the only interactive thing! I’m going to cheat and quote from the conclusion:

a videogame’s standout feature, a feature that is possessed by no other medium, is that it gives the conceptual author an analyzable presence…The author is systematized, sometimes by the creators (Pac-Man), and sometimes by the system itself (the kill screen). That embedded author “who” we have such difficulty describing, such trouble pinning down, is in videogames preserved in ones and zeroes.

At the excellent group blog Play The Past, Shawn Graham sings the praises of the point ‘n’ click adventure game.

Kirk Hamilton is bad at videogames. Accordingly here he is complaining about all the people who laugh at you when you die in Uncharted 3:

You will die, and you will die often. And the kicker? After each death, your foes will laugh at your corpse. Despite its toothy grin and good sense of humor, sometimes I just want to punch Uncharted 3 in the nuts.

At Significant Bits, Radek Koncewicz looks at a number of irresistible, gratuitous actions in gaming. It’s important because it’s talking about things that the player doesn’t have to do, but instead wants to do. Very cool.

At the Molloyboy blog, Patrick Molloy has two posts this week, the first on Squall from Final Fantasty VIII (my favourite character from the series), and the other about Axel from Kingdom Hearts. Perhaps these are relevant to your interests?

Speaking of the Final Fantasies, Brendan Keogh has this alternative-reading of late-game Final Fantasy VII placing Cloud in the role of post-traumatic obsessive, one stuck playing games in The Gold Saucer in order to attempt the many apocryphal Aeris resurrections… kind of creepy and sad, but also compelling.

Chris Lepine of The Artful Gamer writes about ‘The Sober World of Wither’:

What separates Wither from games like Jason Rohrer’s Passage that try to grapple with the same kinds of human existential problems? Passage tries to mechanically represent emotion through gameplay (e.g. walking forward in time and watching one’s loved one age and die) that leaves absolutely no room for interpretation. In contrast, through strangely poetic moments like having bizarre nightmares and witnessing suicidesWither leaves the protagonist’s psychological world open to interpretation.

I’m not really sure where this image comes from, as our own Eric Swain linked us to it without explanation, but it seems to be an email from “Grandpa Aaron” talking about all the games he’s enjoyed, including Castlevania, Red Dead Redemption, and quite a superlative description of his enjoyment of Bioshock.

Mary Flagnahan blogs “The Twelve Propositions” about games at the Tilt Factor blog. These “Twelve Propositions from a Critical Play Perspective” start with the following: “#1 – Values are everywhere, designed into play and into games”. Interesting and provocative.

And two videos to close out TWIVGB this week. First, video blogger ‘Egoraptor’ has an excellent video in his ‘Sequelitis’ series discussing the mechanical changes between the original Mega Man and the sequel Mega Man X – changes that are thematically important and rich with meaning.

And secondly, what if Quake were made today?

That’s it for this week, but a special thank you to everyone who sent in links (even those that didn’t make it in). Keep sending stuff in as we really do rely on you lot telling us about stuff we’d miss otherwise. Hit us up on Twitter or via email, as usual.