Help send Mattie Brice to GDC

January 30th, 2012 | Posted by Ben Abraham in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on Help send Mattie Brice to GDC)

So you may remember a certain campaign run about this time two years ago to fly me all the way from the other side of the world to GDC in San Francisco. Well, this year David Carlton & co. have teamed up to send rising star Mattie Brice to GDC and I can’t think of a better candidate for it at the present. Below is friend of Critical Distance Brendan Keogh’s post explaining why you might like to contribute to the campaign, and any assistance is greatly appreciated.


There are a lot of excellent writers writing lots of excellent things about videogames. You already know this. Across blogs there is a vastly diverse collection of writers looking at games from all different kinds of angles and making all different kinds of insights.

But on the bigger, professional sites, everybody seems just too agreeable. It’s not that people aren’t writing good articles or are saying things that are uninteresting, but, simply, there are just too many of us from similar backgrounds saying similar things while the dissenters, saying equally interesting things, are stuck on blogs.

Slowly but surely this is changing. It has to change if videogame criticism is to advance and mature. We need more writers approaching more videogames from more perspectives. And, more importantly, we need these writers to have exposure and actually be read.

This is why I am super excited that there is a fundraising effort to get Mattie Brice to GDC this year. Mattie appeared out of nowhere in 2010 and is now writing for a range of places. She’s all over Popmatters; She writes candidly about sexuality and games for Nightmare Mode; and she’s even had the intestinal fortitude to take on Kotaku‘s cesspit comment sections head on.

I don’t always agree with what she writes, and sometimes her forward-gazing optimism just outright frustrates me. But this is why games journalism/criticism/whatever needs her and those writers like her: she is saying interesting things that many of us wouldn’t or won’t say. She is starting interesting discussions and debates.

GDC is the biggest annual event in the game’s industry and is exactly the place any budding game’s writer needs to be if they want to “Make It” as a games journalist. 2010 was the first year I went to GDC and in the eleven months since I have written for EdgePasteArs Technica, and a whole heap of other amazing outlets I could never have imagined writing for a year ago.

If we can help get Mattie there this year, I don’t doubt she will have just as many opportunities out of it as I did, if not more. She has already marched confidently onto a stack of mainstream websites with very alternative views, and attending GDC will only help bring her alternative, interesting writing to larger and larger readerships.

So this is why you should chip in a few dollars and help get Mattie to GDC. Do it for games journalism/criticism. Help expand the angles and voices and articles and topics that people are writing and reading about. Games criticism needs more dissenters, and there are few writing at present with as much potential as Mattie.

January 29th

January 29th, 2012 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on January 29th)

What time is it? … What year?

No… Then we don’t have much time left! We HAVE to release This Week in Videogame Blogging before it’s too late!

Let’s hit the ground running. We start with Jim Rossignol, interviewing Jim Rossignol, with such hard-hitting investigative journalism as:

RPS’s Jim Rossignol: How much are you charging for this deathtrap?

Jim Rossignol: $5. I wanted to charge $7500, but I realise that people need distracting from the basic horror of their existence. I mean we’re all definitely going to die, quite grotesquely in some cases, and anything that can be done to get people to think about colours and pleasant noises instead of the infinite abyss of their own doom is worth doing, I would say.

For a weightier interview, sure to be good reading material while the irradiated Earth cools, we go to Hardcore Gaming 101 and John Szczepaniak’s interview with Agness Kaku, translator for Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and the Katamari Damacy franchise. Here is a sample before you head into the vault:

It’s like a molasses [game design has] been caught in all this time. I think in the early days the medium was quite limited, so the language you used, whether it was graphics or game control, or just the actual text, was in line with that. All was kind of good. But very quickly the medium outstripped the language, and in the meantime it’s just continued to gabble in this stuff grabbed from poor movies. Or just arbitrarily stuck-in comic book pieces. I don’t know when it’s going to get out of this. I’m sure some people have experimented, but as long as everyone sits around… A polite way to say it is a mutual congratulations society. As long as this keeps going on it’s not going to get better guys, it’s really not.

Our mutated descendants might not have much use for football when they’re trapped in the still-warm subterranean tunnels near the Earth’s core, but in case we do, two pieces this week have turned their attention to the intersection of sports and games. The first, from Scott Juster, remarks on how much more like sports than board games videogames happened to be. The latter, from the ever-erudite Tom Bissell, suggests that if there is art in games, there is art in sports games as well:

Whatever art is, it must be, in some way, beautiful. Acts of physical beauty performed within rule-set confines are not art, but acts of mental beauty performed within only slightly less rule-set confines (like, say, a sonnet) are. Is that really how we’re going to play this? It doesn’t sit right. Here’s what I just realized: A world in which sport at its best is not seen as some kind of art is a world that doesn’t deserve any art.

Eric Schwarz attempts to take a fine-toothed comb to that infamously nebulous term ‘immersion.’ Sentient machines intent upon enslaving mankind in perpetual simulacra, take note.

And now for a moment, we refer back to a simpler time, a happier time… last week, when Raph Koster asserted that narrative was not a game mechanic. He clarifies further this week: “Narrative Isn’t Usually Content Either“. This may leave some games depending heavily upon what Koster deems “feedback” in a curious position. Take Mafia, or as Joel Goodwin likes to call it, “The Don of Cutscenes“.

And when they excavate our servers from the ruins of bomb-blasted wreckage, I hope it’s Drew Millard’s portrait on 50 Cent, man, icon and game avatar that they uncover first.

[At] the end of the day, he’ll go home to a five-million-dollar mansion and sleep in a hyperbaric chamber fueled by crisp, non-consecutive twenties and the tears of a unicorn. If life is a videogame, 50 Cent has already beaten it. So why does he keep playing?

Alien paleontologists may be more perplexed by Eric Swain’s fixation on the dynamics of Driver: San Francisco, although those of us who hang on to survival in those first lean years after the end might take some comfort in the game’s campy genre logic. But what are they to make of Kirk Battle’s eerie precognition, writing about the wastelands of Bastion and New Vegas?

Clint Hocking coined the term “ludonarrative dissonance” to describe when what you’re doing in the game doesn’t really reflect what the story says is going on. Over the years, this has proved to be a bit of an impossible standard. Inevitably, game mechanics assert themselves, and the game’s story becomes less important as a motivator compared to gaining a level or grabbing that next powerful item. Fallout: New Vegas doesn’t so much solve this problem as it doesn’t really care. […] Bastion, as the smaller game, has a different solution. It lets the narrator completely diverge from the player and makes its points with that dissonance.

And, who knows? Perhaps rebuilt civilization will have a proper appreciation for Okami, such as that of Jeffrey Matulef’s retrospective and Johannes Koski’s studies on its localization.

Future generations and/or slavers might also appreciate the nuance we game bloggers had in appraising our own cultural creations. Such as Nick Dinicola’s critique of Arkham City, which he argues shows The Man Bat at his most static. Or Bill Coberly, asserting that Catherine‘s portrayal of sexuality and relationships only appears mature next to the alternative:

It is infuriating to constantly talk about the potential for greatness in this medium and play game after game after game which retries the same broken formulae and wallows in the same muck. I can thus understand the desire to seize on anything that seems at all different, anything which tries even a little bit to engage with mature themes. I know I’m guilty of this sort of behavior.

But if anything survives the ruins of our self-destruction, it must be the art. Van Gogh. Banksy. Tracey Lien, who proves once and for all that game journalism can be impressionist painting too.

Soberingly, there might not be time to preserve Suikoden II, especially as it appears likely the Apocalypse will arrive before Konami and Sony get around to putting it on PSN. But perhaps we’ll keep it in our hearts. Jason Schreier will surely keep it in his.

Yes; even as we near the almost-certain twilight of our existence before the Cetacean Uprising, many authors this week also looked to the origins and trajectories of this medium of ours. Rowan Kaiser pays tribute to the origin of the open world system, Ultima, while Lisa Foiles suggests one of gaming’s “literary masterpieces” has been with us for years.

Others cast their gaze further. Sebastian Wuepper contends that gamers must consider “The Outside Perspective“, but have his objections come in time? Or will we be remembered in the same ways as soap opera fans, as John Vanderhoef describes?

[What] we think of as distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate culture, between Mad Men and General Hospital, between Citizen Kane and Call of Duty, is actually just a way to legitimize power of one group over another. And this works in ways beyond class. Taste distinctions are also formed around categories of gender, race, and age, among others.

No, says Rowan Kaiser, the future will not care for our culture or community; they’ll care about our games.

Yes, the business of gaming matters in terms of making more games. Yes, review scores matter in terms of encouraging more honest discussion of video games and possibly making them better. Yes, issues of inclusion on fan sites are related to issues of inclusion in the industry generally. They’re all related, and that’s important to keep in mind. But that these things are related to one another does not mean that they are the same as one another.

Sometimes it’s worth taking a step back and remembering this. Gaming is about the games, and it has to be, otherwise it’s not gaming. Chasing arguments based on perceived intent is a good way to get into arguments, but it’s also tiring and frustrating. It’s not like there’s not plenty to discuss already.

Such as zombie plans. Or, for instance, that many writers cannot simply forget the role communities play in how they engage with their games. Keza MacDonald of IGN: “You may think, so what? Why should sex in videogames matter any more for gay people than straight? But this visibility actually is important, for the same reason as having believable and relatable female characters is important.” Fox Van Allen of Joystiq: “this incident [of implicit and explicit homophobia and transphobia in WoW] should serve as a powerful wake-up call to a company that makes millions of dollars in yearly revenue from the gay community.” (Trigger warning for phobic slurs in the second link.)

My time… it’s almost out. Please, before I go, run your favorite games through the Bechdel Test! Posterity, if there is any, will thank you!

But readers, there is one more article I want you all to see, the one which brought me back in time with only a photo and a mission… This one, by Jenn Frank, “On Death, Motherhood and Creatures“:

One day, when I was visiting my adoptive mother in Texas, I sat at the old computer and shuffled through old floppy disks. I was looking for things I had written as a teenager; I had saved all those stories to disks too.

And this was how I found all of these labeled disks, one after another: a name and a date. A name, a date. A name, a date.

I realized these were all Norns [the A-life in Creatures].

I thought about what I had done to these creatures. I thought about how I had wanted to save them.

I was not looking at save dates. I was looking at epitaphs. I was looking at headstones. This was not suspended animation at all. I had made coffins.

I had been paralyzed by my own fear of mortality, and so, one at a time, I’d paralyzed my Norns.

I had not saved them from their own too-short lives. It was exactly the opposite: I was so frightened of watching them die, I had murdered them instead.

Please, readers… the future, it’s in your hands now.

We will see you next week, if the Calamity can be stopped! Send all zombie plans and your favorite game blogging posts to us here via email or Twitter. And remember, Martha, I hate pears.

January 22nd

January 22nd, 2012 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on January 22nd)

Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria… it’s This Week in Videogame Blogging!

We start off with Brad Gallaway, who responds to recent opinion pieces (like those by John Walker) about working for free as a game journalist. Not only does Gallaway believe in unpaid writing positions for “sweat equity,” he also argues that:

The available number of opportunities for reviewers and writers out there is a fraction of a fraction of the number of people who want those gigs. There’s just too much supply and not enough demand, so unless there’s some kind of worldwide moratorium, people who want to write for free (and who do so) are always going to be around.

Tackling the legal paradigms in which games find themselves on the industrial side, Greg Lastowka looks at how Minecraft does IP differently:

In theory, bigger and more experienced studios could have come up with a game like Minecraft years ago. The reason they didn’t, I think, is that most developers in the industry have been steeped in the logic and culture of intellectual property. In short, the dominant story of intellectual property is that game developers should make content and players should consume it.

Those interested in copyleft and other fair use issues, especially in light of last week’s anti-SOPA/PIPA protests, may find this interesting.

Writing for Kill Screen, Jason Johnson reflects on why he drinks the “purple rain” of bullet hell games, also known as manic shooters, a niche genre known for its horrendous difficulty:

The harder the game is, the more imposing it becomes. Playing on Normal is a fairly mundane activity, even inspiring a few yawns. Bump up the difficulty a notch and drowsiness turns into a meditative experience. Take it all the way and it will melt your face off. Somewhere in between lies the perfect balance—but I’m looking to be perfectly annihilated. I want to get to a place where I have pushed the game to its limits—where if there was one more bullet on the screen it would be unsolvable; where all I can do is set the iPad aside and say, “Whoa.” That sense of wonder would be lost if I came close to winning.

Surely, difficulty can be an art in itself for certain communities of players. Mattie Brice, however, says our conventional understanding of “hardcore” creates its own problems in the forms of barriers for players who are after a different “difficulty” paradigm, away from needless complexity and boy culture:

The backlash that social minorities are combating in gaming is similar to the resistance to valuing other experiences besides the simulation or abstraction of technical skills in gaming culture, and the demographics that represent each side aren’t too different. Video games reflect themes and skills found in boys’ styles of play as children, and any introduction of qualities that are different from that (especially if tagged as feminine) are cast out as inferior “casual” games. The movement of making games accessible gives designers the opportunity to boil down what works without the trappings of conventions that exist “just because they’ve always been there” and establish new ways of interacting that would be unavailable in generic RPGs.

Speaking of RPGS, we’re seeing several worthy retrospectives on the Zelda franchise with the recent release of Skyward Sword. First, Leigh Alexander looks back on the beloved Ocarina of Time and why it is not her favorite game, or even her favorite Zelda game. Next, Michael “Brainy Gamer” Abbott takes us on an insightful contextual analysis of the franchise and why it provokes such love despite its flaws:

Link often enters a “Sacred Realm” (“Silent Realm” in Skyward Sword) where he encounters beings inflicted with suffering caused by Ganon’s corruption of the earth. All beings in nature suffer from this polluting force: spirits, trees, forest creatures, and humans alike. Link must set things right by healing the land, restoring harmony to humans and nature.

In essence, he must embrace the Shinto philosophy of humans and nature as one, and he must accept his pivotal role in Shintoism’s indigenous vision of Japan (Hyrule) as connected to its ancient past. Link is that link.

On a similar bent of games addressing spiritual and ecological issues, John Vanderhoef profiles the cult classic Oddworld series and its frequent allusions to green issues. In the course of which, Vanderhoef declares: “gamers need an environmental wake up call more than ever.”

Dear Princess Celestia: this week I learned there are many ways to be a girl, even in virtual spaces. Becky Chambers at The May Sue does some informal guysourcing to get some uncommonly insightful explanations for why many of men choose to play women characters:

One friend told me that in most RPGs, he prefers to play as a woman. Bear in mind, this is a guy who is biologically male, identifies as male, and presents himself in what I would consider to be a traditionally masculine manner. He found that if the gender of the character didn’t affect the story too much, then female characters were usually easier for him to relate to than their hyper-macho, gravelly-voiced counterparts. The typical portrayal of men in games was so far removed from his own identity that he often found it easier to play a woman.

This segues nicely into Matt Kopas’s recent guest blog on The Border House, regarding childhood experiences with gender policing: “I had learned that playing as female characters invited questions that I didn’t want to deal with. If playing a male character meant that I could easily neutralize one potential site of harassment in my life, then I would do it gladly.”

Also at The Border House this week, Rachel Walmsley draws yet another interesting lens on Dragon Age: Origins, talking about her play perspective as an atheist in contrast to her theist character.

Narrative was another recurring topic this week. We start with Raph Koster, who first declares “Narrative Is Not a Game Mechanic“, then proceeds to lay out how story, as a feedback system, can be fine-tuned for the player.

Less about specific story moments and more about content and context, Jorge Albor’s Moving Pixels article this week discusses slavery as a game mechanic in Endeavor, posing whether modeling such systems can be both functional and provocative.

Two noteworthy articles from this week looked at intersections of narrative and Skyrim. Sparky Clarkson analyzes two of the game’s major war campaigns and how for all their rich promise they ultimately felt quite shallow. Next, a guest article on Ontological Geek likens Skyrim to “gonzo pornography” in both gaze and procedure, in quite the compelling essay. Here’s a snippet:

Nothing in Skyrim is special. No one in gonzo is loved. Either one satisfies your immediate and specific appetites, but are you enriched by either? Or do you walk away from both feeling like you’ve consumed something that has altogether diminished not only you as an intellectual and moral being, but also reduced a potentially edifying activity to a degrading parody of something good? They satisfy your crudest desires but also mock genuinely enriching media by mimicking their trappings while failing to use them in any meaningful sense.

Robert Yang radiates some designer wisdom in this post-mortem on his celebrated “Level With Me” Portal 2 mod, explicating not just a design philosophy but the themes of each stage. Meanwhile, Jonathan McCalmont contends that the much-maligned review paradigm, as it currently stands, is fundamentally broken, because it’s based upon a model which no longer exists:

Once upon a time, games were finite entities that emerged at the end of a long production line and dropped into the expectant hands of a grateful audience. With this kind of production process in place, it made absolute sense to have people stationed at the end of the line telling people which products were worth buying. However, with more and more games being both played and distributed online, it makes no sense to review games prior to their release, as most games do not reach the marketplace in their final form.

Lastly, reviews may be broken, but we think you’ll find this one full of friendship and magic: Peter Bright’s fantastically comprehensive review of Visual Studio 2010.

That’s all for this week! From all of us here in Ponyville, have yourselves a happy Sunday!

Yes, only 6 months late Critical Distance is proud to bring you episode 9 of the CDC podcast.

This time we decided to focus on an actual game: Braid came out many years ago and sparked critics to write a megaton of criticism. 3 years after its initial release we bring you a panel of people with strong opinions on the game. Some loved it, some with not so kind feelings towards it. Consider this a companion piece to our Critical Compilation on the game.


Eric Swain: The Game Critique

Zach Alexander: Hailing From the Edge

Tevis Thompson: Tevis Thompson

Maggie Greene: The Wayward Historian

Scott Nicols: Gay Gamer


Braid Critical Compliation

Braid Official Walthrough

AV Club’s Jonathan Blow Interview

Podcast: Direct Download

Opening Theme: ‘Close’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Closing Theme: ‘Wishing Never’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

January 15th

January 15th, 2012 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on January 15th)

Out with the old, in with the new. As we settle into 2012, the ludodecahedron keeps on a-turnin’. It’s time for This Week in Videogame Blogging!

First up, a brief announcement: the folks over at Digital Love Child have put out a Call for Articles. Do take a look.

Tom Chatfield sat down with Julian Gough, author of Minecraft’s endgame this week for insight on how to “end an endless game”:

The word “dream” gets used, but it’s really a story about the dream of a game, and the dream of life. It’s dream as metaphor. I love the strangeness that comes when people get so lost in a game that the game becomes the world. Because you do get lost like that. Especially in something like Minecraft, that’s so endless. You’re actually startled to come back into your life at the end of it. So I wanted to play with that moment, where you’re between two worlds, and for a short little period you’re not sure which one is more real.??

This week also featured a host of reaction pieces, the first of which comes from Denis Farr, who reflects on his own “This Gaymer’s Story” and the reception it has garnered. He concludes: “Boys may be boys, but that does not mean boys need be assholes in public.”

Recently, a provocative academic article from Miguel Sicart went live on Espen Aarseth’s online Game Studies journal, arguing against proceduralism. This prompted several thoughtful reaction articles, two of which may be particularly worthy of your attention.

The first comes from Charles Pratt in an article titled “Players Not Included“:

The nature of this inextricable relationship between rules and play in games proves false the claim that a game’s meaning can reside in its rules alone, but also proves that the rules, and what Sicart refers to as ‘instrumental’ play, are of paramount interest to players in games. After all, just as when Bogost talks of games without players and play he is really talking about software, when we talk about games without rules and goals we are really talking about ‘playful activities’. While interesting points may be made in light of either of these subjects, in neither case are we really talking about games.

Mark Nelson shows up in the comments of Pratt’s article, and subsequently lays out his own response to Sicart:

Put differently, at times Sicart sounds like he’s arguing that “proceduralism” has made a philosophical error, in that it erroneously claims game rules encode more meaning than they really do. But his concerns about instrumentalizing the player to convey didactic, moralizing messages seems to rest on the opposite view: that some games really do foreclose any real role for the player in meaning-creation.

Shifting from an academic gear to one perhaps more recognizable, Charlie Hall recounts how his fandom for military shooters got him mistaken for a veteran, prompting some introspection. Keeping the same genre of games but tackling them from a vastly different perspective, schoolteacher Kyle McKinnon draws some connections between his students’ classroom behavior and their taste in violent versus nonviolent games.

I have a hobby horse hidden away somewhere on the damage Joseph Campbell has done to the state of popular storytelling, but until then, we have Kate Cox (voted by us here as one of 2011’s best game bloggers) outlining why to read Dragon Age II as a hero’s journey is to read it incorrectly.

Speaking of RPGs, Rowan Kaiser has been bustling about with his new column on the subject, beginning with an overview of the state of Western RPGs up to the present. And Josh Bycer has a five-part series on RPGs that break the rules.

If you’re up for more multipart features, Shamus Young also has a five-part series for you, this one on Skyrim‘s Thieves Guild plotline. Here’s a taste:

If he’s been stealing from the fault for “years” then how did nobody notice? I assume people have been putting treasure INTO the vault? Didn’t they ever notice that the loot was vanishing? And what’s all this for? Why would the guild pile up riches in some common pot? Is this some kind of hippie communist Thieves Guild, where everyone shares?

Here is the link to the first part, and there are links to each successive part at the head of each article.

One last shout from Skyrim before we move on: why the game’s Radiant Story system breaks the game.

For those who tuned in for our Critical Distance Confab, End of 2011 edition, you may have been intrigued by contributor Eric Swain’s description of Driver: San Francisco. Well, this week he has two articles expounding further on his affection for the game: “It’s All in the Presentation” and “Magical Realism as Game Mechanic in Driver: San Francisco“.

From magical realism to the more material realities of gender performance, we turn to Leigh Alexander’s new Gamasutra exclusive on Harmonix, “on gender, self-expression in Dance Central“.

Tami Baribeau’s latest for The Border House draws a reticle on fat shaming in games, from the perspective of character creation as well as within online communities.

Harris O’Malley is back on Kotaku with a follow-up on his Nerds and Male Privilege article, which caused quite a stir among Kotaku’s readership back in December. In “Deconstructing the Arguments“, O’Malley lays out “the 3 Ds of Arguing” used to suppress feminist criticism: Deflect, Derail, and Dismiss.

Derailing is the most common version of these arguments and serves to change the subject of the conversation, usually by the people in question. Suddenly, instead of discussing geek culture’s implied accepted roles for women, we’re discussing the hierarchy of oppression or why we’re talking about this instead of, say, female circumcision (which is, like, way worse). Or dealing with assertions that, by extension, anyone who agreed with the article wants to ban all “sexy” characters from video games forever.

Speaking of the 3 Ds, those came up a lot recently in a dustup between World of Warcraft machinimator WoWCrendor and anti-sexist critics, following hurtful remarks posted on Twitter. Apple Cider Mage outlines why the remarks were hurtful.

As a companion piece, although it does not address the same incident, our own Katie Williams declares that WoW players are a “walled city” within gaming. For those who do not play MMOs, Williams’s configuration of WoW as a subculture within a subculture might prove useful for thinking about the WoW community, even if her conclusions might prove controversial.

Likewise, perhaps a “walled city” isn’t all bad. Take this inspiring interview with a WoW “guide dog”, who plays the game as an aid to his unsighted fellow guild member.

One release which has generated a lot of talk this past week is Katawa Shoujo, a dating game developed by members of 4chan. Jack McNamee has perhaps one of the most interesting early articles on how the game both objectifies and humanizes its subject matter.

New from Paste this week is an article from Brian Taylor on a “tourist”‘s impressions of the close of Star Wars Galaxies:

To start with a binary, two perspectives on the digital: It is forever, and it’s incredibly difficult to preserve. It’s always present, until it ceases to exist. It never erodes or fades. It’s accessible until it’s corrupted. It’s there until it’s gone. Tatooine, the planet I’m on, is a desert. But in a few hours, this cactus-less land won’t become a dead land. It will disappear completely. Built of ones and zeroes, the digital does not ruin. Maybe that gives the digital an edge in our minds: no pesky physical form to get in the way of our projections of past and present onto it. And maybe it’s why some video games shout their backstories so loudly: to remind you that yes, indeed, there is a past here.

From the morbidity of a dying MMO to the macabre, two articles this week attended to the topic of game design from a horror genre vantage point.

First, Steve Gaynor likens the celebrated Junji Ito horror manga, Uzumaki, to the potential for games to play with the fundamental rules of reality:

It’s a way of thinking that many artists possess, and that leads us to follow them into their imagined works: the power of visualization, not to take the world around them for granted, but to picture, “what if things were different?” It connects straight back to how we see the world as children. Before we know how everything around us works, and we settle into static assumptions about our surroundings, the possibilities are endless. It’s the fertile ground in which imagination grows. Could there be a monster in the closet or under the bed? No reason there couldn’t be, so maybe there is! Could aliens come down out of the sky? Could dogs and cats talk to each other when people aren’t around? Could there be ghosts and angels everywhere, that we just can’t see? Could another world exist on the other side of the looking glass, or down the rabbit hole? Before we knew it couldn’t, it could, and we imagined, “what if this IS the way the world works?”

The second arrives from John Brindle of the Brindle brothers, who opens with a look at that Creepy Watson video I’m sure many of you have seen. Proceeding to apply the lessons of the unsettling visuality in the “Creepy Watson” video, Brindle turns to the use of the camera in Amnesia and concludes:

In ordinary circumstances first-person games have an empiricist bias – problems are solved by looking at them. Amnesia, conversely, makes the player complicit in her own fear by forcing her to repeat Daniel’s self-othering, self-inflicted ignorance and voluntarily look away from danger, sacrificing territory to the encroaching realm of the unknown. The negative space beyond border of the screen becomes a thing to be wielded as protection, and a glance a freighted act.

Our last bullet point for this roundup is the recent volley of discussion which emerged when NowGamer announced a contest to “win” an unpaid blog position on their site. John Walker, best known from Rock, Paper, Shotgun, produced three articles in rapid succession regarding unpaid journalism and potentials for exploitation: “12 Tips for the Young Games Journalist“, “To Clarify on Working for Free” and lastly directly addressing the competition in question.

Lauren Wainwright responded to the Walker posts and NowGamer situation, weighing the pros and cons of unpaid writing.

We leave off with the start of a metacritical letter series between Patrick Klepek and Bioware’s Manveer Heir: on the difference between games reviews and game criticism.

That’s all for this sunny Sunday! Join us next week for more from the top tier of videogame blogging, criticism and commentary. Till then, stay salty!

Hello Dearly Devoted Critical-Distance Readers!

So the most attentive amongst you may remember that I teased a ‘new thing’ that would be starting in January here at Critical Distance – well, it’s January and I can now announce that we are officially re-launching ‘The Blogs of the Round Table’.

For those who might not have been around for as long as the rest of us, The Blogs of the Round Table was a great monthly program run by Corvus Elrod. Corvus would provide a theme upon which to write a blog post, everyone else would go off and have a think about it and write something based on the theme for that month. The responses were incredibly varied and diverse, working more as an inspiration and motivation to post than anything else.

One of the best things about The Blogs of the Round Table (or the BoRT) was that we all got to read each others writing, which often inspired our own responses and conversation pieces, encouraging a real sense of being an open and inclusive community full of life and lively discussion. Progressively throughout the month, Corvus would compile all the entries in a big ongoing post that linked to all the posts and kept similar discussions together. It really was a pretty excellent idea, but as Corvus got increasingly busy with other projects (particular the successful ‘Bhaloidam’ storytelling game) the Blogs of the Round Table eventually tapered off.

But no more! It’s back with a vengeance, and it’s our pleasure to be hosting the initiative right here at Critical Distance. Corvus has even done us the honour of providing our first monthly theme.

So what now? Well, if you want to be involved in the Blogs of the Round Table, read Corvus’ outline of the theme below, have a think about what you’d like to say on the topic, then write! Post the final piece on your blog, or a friends blog, heck we’ll even take Google Plus posts, and then let us know about it by emailing or tweeting to us @critdistance making sure to use the #BoRT hashtag. From there, depending on how many pieces people write and what our team of tireless editor’s workload is like, we’ll collect them into a post with links to all the pieces, which we’ll update throughout the month. Easy! The other alternative is to just read, enjoy and comment on the excellent work the fantastic community produces.

One last thing before we reveal this month’s theme – we’ll be periodically inviting some of our favourite writers, thinkers, and whoever else we enjoy to pick a theme for a month. But for January 2011, the theme Corvus has been kind enough to kick us off with is Being Other:

Games, like most media, have the ability to let us explore what it’s like to be someone other than ourselves. While this experience may only encompass a character’s external circumstances–exploring alien worlds, serving with a military elite, casting spells and swinging broadswords–it’s most powerful when it allow us to identify with a character who is fundamentally different than ourselves–a different gender, sexuality, race, class, or religion. This official re-launch of the Blogs of the Round Table asks you to talk about a game experience that allowed you to experience being other than you are and how that impacted you–for better or for worse. Conversely, discuss why games haven’t provided this experience for you and why.

So get cracking, the flood-gates are now open. There’s no limit to how many posts you can write on the theme in a month, and no min-max word limit – all we ask is that you include a link to the main monthly theme post (link back to this post for this first one) and, of course, that you let us know you’ve written it. The comments on this post are also open for questions.

January 8th

January 8th, 2012 | Posted by David Carlton in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on January 8th)

Welcome to the first This Week in Videogame Blogging of 2012! It’s been a long time since TWIVGB first came on the scene; I confess, I rather miss the tapestry pictures that graced the earliest episodes. This week’s host is David Carlton: I’ve proofread these not infrequently in the past, but apparently the entire regular roster of editors is still hungover from New Year’s parties (So very true – Ed.), so we’re dipping down into the minor leagues this week and having me do some actual writing this time. (To be more accurate, the other editors are probably still recovering from our twin year-end extravaganzas.) Don’t worry, whichever editor is looking this over before hitting publish: I only included one link that points to someplace completely inappropriate in my browser history, three apostrophe confusions, two missed italicizations of game names, and as many uses of “video games” instead of “videogames” as I could work in: not much for you to fix! (Well, that plus most of this first paragraph.) (What is this, I don’t even… – Ed.)

But enough of my TWIVGBabbling, on to our regular business. The week between Christmas and New Year’s was relatively light on blogging, but the Brindles reminded us of what the season is all about: gamification and incentives. As they say:

Since randomised rewards are more compelling for players than certain ones, all the children were hooked, but concerted efforts were made to game the system. The great gerrymander that giving had become was characterised by two perverse incentives – the incentive to buy what you would like to receive, and the incentive to buy what you don’t want others to get.

(Don’t miss the turkey slaughter bit, either.)

Speaking of gamification, the end of the year also brought us the usual onslaught of “best-of-the year” lists; such lists traditionally are light on both criticism and distance, and perhaps the following is no exception, but Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton compiled a list of “All of the Best Video Game Music of 2011” that made me smile more often than any of the rest of the links here. Excellent music to TWIVGB by!

The piece that I’ve seen linked to the most this week is Chris Dahlen’s post at Save the Robot on Dark Souls as a “Great Big Puzzle Box“. Yes, the game is difficult, yes that’s important, but there’s more to the game’s design than that alone might suggest. As he says in a discussion of the game’s open world nature,

Why would the designers give us these options when all but one of them leads to disaster? Because if we make the decision, we own the consequences. When we talk about “open world” games, we think of words like “discovery” and “freedom,” and sometimes we conflate the terms: if we can discover the game on our own, then we must be free. But there’s no freedom in Dark Souls. The designers let us discover and experience the place on our own, while hooking us on an invisible leash to keep us more or less on task. Yet we still feel like we’ve conquered this space, because we put it together ourselves—unlocking our own shortcuts, discovering how the levels connect, and making our mental maps of the entire world.

I joked about lack of distance up above, but of course we’re quite guilty of promoting discussion of the latest games here ourselves; I’ll continue in that grand tradition with a couple of Skyrim posts.  In the first, RAD of The Gwumps claims that “Skyrim is for Communists“, delving into the game’s economic system. ((S)he touches in part on crafting; for a take on crafting in a non-Skyrim context, see “Can I Craft That For You?” by Eric of Critical Missive.) Meanwhile, Amanda Lange of Second Truth returns to a conversation that was kicked off by Deadly Premonition‘s release and continued off and on all year; she concludes her “Thoughts on The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Its Critical Reception, After Playing it 130 Hours” by saying “…one might write ‘This game is pretty messy in every conceivable way. I played over 100 hours. I can’t wait to play it again.'”, and I for one would like more games writing that’s motivated by that feeling.

Adding a bit more distance to the mix: as I’m making my preparations for GDC 2012, I remember getting my first glimpse of Neptune’s Pride during GDC 2010. Electron Dance is still writing about the game; Laura Michet first shares her experiences with it, which are a sort of mirror image honest response counterpart to Amanda Lange’s article above and which caused her to give up on the game in short order. And Joel Goodwin acknowledges Laura’s feeling (and, in fact, says that he himself will “never play Neptune’s pride again”), wondering if the strong feelings of those who continue to be absorbed by the game are due to survivorship bias.

And jumping between older and newer games (and, as a bonus, filling in two more squares of your game criticism bingo card!), we have Michael Peterson of Project Ballad’s post “Good Morning, Crono!” relating Chrono Trigger‘s opening with Skyward Sword‘s. As he says:

The problem in every creative industry is that we do what has already worked before, even when that thing no longer fits. For some, that means the very nature of a thing, such as turn-based combat, and for others, it means beloved referents such as the hero waking up in his small town before the adventure has truly begun. The problem is, games grow more complex, more “real,” and have larger ambitions. As they do so, these things stand out more than they ever have. Storytelling, pacing, and flow cannot be afterthoughts.

Andrew Meade’s asking “What if at the end of Uncharted 3, Drake came out?” on Gamasutra led to quite a bit of commentary in my Twitter stream, as well as several followup posts. Jim Sterling wrote an article in Destructoid saying why he thinks that would be a fantastic idea; Andrew Meade expanded upon his initial article into an explanation of the “Nobler Cause” that is at its core, his belief that

We have great power. We can change lives, we can entertain, and we can bring people together. Let’s do it. Let’s work towards a nobler cause – and not just this cause, but any cause. Anywhere where you see someone needing support from society, pursue it.

See also Mattie Brice’s “An Escape of One’s Own” on The Border House, pointing out similar problems, in particular that “games aren’t an escape for everyone looking for one”. And that post also led to a response, this time by Dan Cox of Digital Ephemera, musing on what it mean that, in Dragon Age: Origins, “Desire demons are female“.

It’s slightly older news (it took me a while to get around to listening to it), but Frank Lantz spoke in an MIT Comparative Media Studies podcast about “The Aesthetics of Games“, and it’s well worth an hour and a half of your time. As the introduction says, he “explores what it means to consider games an aesthetic form”; I’m rather tired of the “games as art” arguments by now, but I found Lantz’s approach to the topic rather refreshing. Also, as somebody who has spent rather more time playing go than any other game, I was particularly taken by his positing that

I think it’s also true to say that go is beautiful because we’ve been playing it for hundreds and hundreds of years, that in a way go is just a corner of the universe that somebody carved out and pointed to and said “What about this?”

Also touching on non-digital games (and reminding me of L. B. Jeffries), we have Jenn Frank of Infinite Lives discoursing “On games of chance and ‘cheating’“. She starts with a discussion of what the boundaries are between cheating and fair play, and ends up meditating on Calvinism and determinism. It is clearly cross-blog conversation week, because this inspired a follow-up from J. P. Grant of Infinite Lag on “Fair Play“; I won’t include links to the subsequent posts on the blogs Infinite Logic and Infinite Ludologists, though if it were just a bit more games related and/or safe for work, I would definitely link to Infinite Llama’s quite unique contribution to this dialogue (pentalogue? infinitelogue, I suppose) on cheating. (It turns out that, when you have an infinite number of llamas, they cheat on/with each other in an eye-opening range of geometries.) (I’m not even sure if David’s being serious here or not… – Ed.)

Many thanks to those of you who sent in links: I was quite nervous about this going in, but I ended discarding another dozen articles that I could have easily included. As a reminder, you can contact us via email or Twitter. A happy 2012 to you all!

This Year In Video Game Blogging 2011

January 2nd, 2012 | Posted by Eric Swain in Spotlight: - (Comments Off on This Year In Video Game Blogging 2011)

Welcome to 2012! Here at Critical Distance, your regularly scheduled This Week In Video Game Blogging is taking a break to make way for our year-end retrospective. The editorial crew has been hard at work culling through the year’s 937 links plus reader suggestions to bring you the best written, the most memorable, most important and most representative writings of 2011. Without further adieu, Critical Distance is proud to bring you This Year In Video Game Blogging.

Critical Video Game Blogging

Like last year, most of the focus of this year’s writing was on the games themselves from this year and years past. The pieces ranged from looking at the title as a whole, just an aspect or connecting it to grander trends and themes within gamin as a while.

First off is Kirk Hamilton and Leigh Alexander’s 10-part Paste letter series on the classic Final Fantasy VII from the perspective of a newcomer and the nostalgia gamer. Later in the year when Kirk moved to Kotaku so did the second letter series in four parts, this time on the original Deus Ex with Leigh and Kirk’s newbie and old guard roles reversed.

Also writing on Deus Ex was our own Katie Williams, looking at the game through the lens of our possible future and how in the end it made her fear for it.

On the modern incarnation of the series, Kieron Gillen (who has since left Rock, Paper, Shotgun) observed that Deus Ex: Human Revolution is about DRM.

Joel Goodwin, aka the Harbor Master, from Electron Dance wrote about don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story calling it a look into The Glass Society.

Meanwhile, Jonathan McCalmont at Futurismic also examined Christine Love’s don’t take it personally and its perspective of a future where privacy has become an archaic concept.

Tevis Thompson wrote on Portal 2 and the varied concepts on point of view the game engenders in the player.

Kirk Hamilton reviewed the game for Paste, expressing his feelings and understanding of the game the only way he could: using dominoes as visual aids.

On the other hand Micheal “Brainy Gamer” Abbott opined that the cracks are showing just a bit with Portal 2‘s story and game mechanics integration in comparison to the first because it takes a little too much time to get to its point.

At MaximumPC, Nathan Grayson explored Bastion‘s multitextuality and how it succeeds where other games fail by presenting its differing meanings that exist in the game.

Scott Juster on his Experience Points column on the PopMatters’ Moving Pixels blog looked at how Catherine affected him personally by having the game’s main message hit a little close to home.

Speaking of close to home, editor-in-chief of Nightmare Mode, Patricia Hernandez, opened up to write about how she played Catherine as someone who related more than most to the protagonist’s situation.

Film Critic Hulk shifted gears to video games by turning the Hulk’s eye on Batman: Arkham City and its propensity for the word ‘bitch.’ Hulk also wrote a follow up to a number of the criticisms the piece received.

Kirk Hamilton popped up again to review L.A. Noire for Kill Screen and the strange position the game put him in with regards to his perception of the game’s reality.

Tom Bissell, meanwhile, attempted to isolate what L.A. Noire means for gaming in “Press X for Beer Bottle.”

At The Border House, Mattie Brice did a reading of mages in the Dragon Age franchise through the lens of The Fantasy Cyborg, the good, the bad and the mixed.

Our own Kris Ligman also paid tribute to Dragon Age II, specifically its characters Isabela and Aveline and how they bring the game the game into a whole new light in “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsless Rogue.”

Switching from one end of the RPG spectrum to the other, we have Tom Bissell taking on Skyrim and the world it presents.

Katie Williams, however, focused her analysis on the character creator and how she had to restart several times before she had a character she found acceptable in the fiction.

Eurogamer had a piece by Rich Stanton looking at the two releases of Skyrim and Dark Souls and how each in turn tells its stories.

Meanwhile, Brendan Keogh chronicled his journey through Dark Souls how it treats both grinding and its concept of time.

At Nightmare Mode, Eric Swain responded to posts that took umbrage to his criticisms of Limbo and its empty atmosphere by declaring “The Text Says No: Why You Can’t Interpret Limbo Anyway You Want.” Also writing at Nightmare Mode, Swain looked at Heavenly Sword as an example of ludonarrative resonance.

Coming off an episode on propaganda games, the Extra Credits crew set their eyes on Call of Juarez: The Cartel as a damning example of a game using its system dynamics and presentation to propagate lies and misinformation.

Robert Rath on the Escapist also took umbrage with the game in light of the very real tragedy going on in Mexico and how the game can consequently be viewed as dangerous.

Film Crit Hulk came back to games at Badass Digest to look at the evolution of the Modern Warfare series, declaring it “batshit.”

At The Boston Phoenix, Maddy Myers looked at the warrior women of Gears of War 3 and surreptitiously at the concept of woman in the Gears universe as a while.

We revisit Tom Bissell for his commentary on Dead Island in “Video Games Killed the Video Game Star” a look at the game’s problem with numbers.

Newcomer Lee Kelly at Ambient Challenge wrote “Learning Russian” in an effort to explain his emotional investment and reaction to Metro 2033.

For the last few months Joel Haddock has been busy with his 13 part (so far) series “Revisiting The Wasteland” on the original post-apocalyptic RPG, Wasteland, on his blog Spectacle Rock.

Other newcomers, The Brindle Brothers, posted on Red Dead Redemption and how Rockstar shot itself in the foot by not paying as much attention to detail to their combat mechanics as they did the with Western setting they put the player in.

Another huge series, this one could classify itself as a book on one man’s roleplay in the slow real time strategy game Neptune’s Pride and his inexorable descent into paranoid mess.

The BBC surprised a few of us when Paul Mason posted a provocative piece on Hearts of Iron III and how he re-fought World War II only to lose as he tried to improve the outcome.

New York Times writer Jonah Weiner gave us an expose on the creator of Dwarf Fortress, the game itself and the dedicated community of games that sprung up around its dense systems.

Kill Screen ran a contender for the greatest review of all time with J. Nicholas Geist’s interactive review of Infinity Blade using the form to further explain the play experience of the iOS gem.

Jorge Albor wrote about the ethical conundrums of the iOS game Tiny Tower and how after 30 floors he wanted nothing more than to unmake what he had wrought.

J.P. Grant of Infinite Lag also looked at Tiny Tower through the theory of Frederick W. Taylor on scientific management and how the player is driven to maximize efficiency.

Leigh Alexander spotlighted her friend Ian Bogost and his two games that represent the diametrically opposite roads gaming can take and how of the two his more despised effort, Cow Clicker, rose to infamy.

Tim Rogers on the rebooted Insert Credit wrote “Who Killed Videogames: A Ghost Story” about the Sims Social.

And finally, what better way to cap off our look at 2011 than to pay tribute to one of its more infamous releases? For this we turn to Jamin Warren’s review of Duke Nukem Forever and what it meant for Kill Screen’s review score policy.

Design Blogging

While many pieces focused on specific games others looked to design itself. Some went in depth into a single aspect of games, while others focused on overarching concepts.

In the realm of theoretical games two stood out as something we really wished existed. First was Matthew Breit’s conceptualizing if Groundhog Day was a game, its reception and its possible history as it became a part of gaming culture.

The other was Nightmare Mode’s Eric Lockaby fake review of Deliverance for the 3DS that tricked many of us into thinking it existed and many more of us disappointed that it didn’t.

And then there was Gregory Weir at Ludus Novus with his wonderfully hilarious satire piece asking “Why So Few Violent Games?

Kirk Battle aka. L.B. Jeffries returned this year after a long hiatus and gifted us with his three-part examination on MMOs and the future they are going to confront should they create their own internal judiciary.

Talking of big projects, Troy Goodfellow of Flash of Steel completed his long running National Character project he started last year looking at how strategy games represent various countries. In episode 130 of his blog’s podcast Three Moves Ahead he discusses the project and the issues inherent with such an undertaking.

Looking at the representation of war in mainstream first-person shooters, Robert Yang on his Radiator blog declared that the modern FPS’s picture of war is wrong and there lies a danger in what it conditions us into thinking.

Robert Sample took us through the procedural logic of crime in video games.

Elsewhere, Martin at Oh No! Video Games! examined “The Fascist Politics of the Infinite Respawn.”

Meanwhile, Chris DeLeon at Newsgames does an in depth analysis of an interactive anti-smoking campaign modeled on Breakout meant to procedurally represent the effects of smoking on people’s lungs and the changes needed to get it right.

Ian Bogost took a number of swings at game design this year. First on Gamasutra about certain arguments calling video games up till now an aberration and what they meant by it, to which Frank Lantz responded in the comments. Bogost then took his now infamous first salvos at gamification in the process of which coining the term “exploitationware” and calling it bullshit.

At BrainyGamer, Micheal Abbott declared that games aren’t clocks and that they demand evaluation on far more than their mechanics.

Alan of Spit Screen wondered how we fell into such a despicable state of ‘journalism’ where the “vapid rubbish” of a game studio announcing they are going to “announce an announcement” is at all noteworthy.

In November, Eric Schwarz of Critical Missive wrote that size isn’t the only thing that matters in an analysis of the differences of open-world games and sandbox games.

Anticipating the subsequent FFVII series, Tom Bissell and Simon Ferrari wrote their own letter series on video game criticism. Read the trading of wits between the author of Extra Lives and the co-author of Newsgames: Journalism at Play.

Dan Cook of Lost Garden had his own things to say on the state of video game criticism in “A Blunt Critique of Game Criticism.” It has been altered and edited many times since it was first published, but it still worth a look.

Simon Ferrari, previously highlighted passing notes with Tom Bissell, delivered a new textbook standard (literally) with how to write a book about video games.

Speaking of books, Richard Clark dug into one of 2011’s more talked-about releases, Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, and highlighted several of its problems by stating “(Virtual) Reality is (Just As) Broken.”

Culture Blogging

There is more to gaming than just the games. The art form is only as good as the culture that surrounds them and if this year was a sample we aren’t in that great a place. Art is by people and effects people. To understand the games you have to look at the people surrounding them as well.

I don’t know how to approach this. I hate it will all my heart for what this debacle did to good people. There is no easy way to introduce it and yet it cannot, should not be ignored, lest it happen in our community again. Trigger Warnings for Rape, Slut Shaming, Death Threats and all the other bile that goes along with it. The Dickwolves Timeline.

In response to the Free Play Panel, which has come to be known as That Panel, Ben Abraham wrote a feature piece on Gamasutra on Game Criticism, Women Critics and Challenging Sexism.

Laura Parker and Tracey Lien wrote their own letter series in response to the panel and how they as women critics get ignored.

Leigh Alexander stated that she was tired of being a woman in games and wants to know when she can just be a person in games. That is, a person who plays and writes about games without having to be solely identified by her adjective.

Alex Raymond of the Border House responded to a piece on Edge that called for women ot change their attitudes and be more open about their identity by stating that isn’t always possible or advisable. She goes on that men have to change too and that male allies are a necessary part to things getting better.

Drawing attention to how members of the industry perpetuate these same attitudes denying personal responsibility, Nicole Leffel wrote a memorable piece which struck a nerve with its Kotaku readership: “Passing the Buck in a Culture of Dismissal“.

And Tracey Lien of Zero Lights Seeds reminded us that “It’s not just one joke, it’s all the jokes.

If Kirk Hamilton is the one great blogger of the year, Kate Cox is the other. In her three part series The Gamer’s Gaze she turns the media theory of the male gaze as a concept to how it applies to video games. Additionally, she wrote her Beyond the Girl Gamer series in 8 parts (so far) on “the role of women and girls as players, characters and participants in games and gamer culture.”

Extra Credits expanded their representation videos to look at “True Female Characters” and how biological differences and cultural differences aren’t the same thing and that great characters are formed from the later. They also tackled “Race in Games” by looking not at well done non-white characters, but how a game can use racial interactions as a concept to inform and deepen the game’s world and characters.

Kris Ligman went to E3 and chronicled her trip as an expose of the show’s increasing irrelevance.

Patrick Holleman of The Game Design Forum went to a different event and chronicled his weekend in “Scenes from a Game Jam” that took place in Philadelphia.

And finally we end somewhere quite close to where we began, back with Kirk Hamilton and his overview of Suparna Galaxy, the community driven satire project of the same name. A mass collaboration involving Kirk, Leigh Alexander, Sarah Elmaleh, Denis Farr and many others, it certainly shows what we can all do when too much bored talent gets together over social media.

This has been an exhausting year overall. Despite that, or maybe because of it, we have had a great year of game writing both expansive and deep. Even beyond the numerous links we present to you here, there were many more that we each personally championed for, to say nothing of all the wonderful links from TWIVGBs past. But even though some links had to be cut, in the end we are all happy with the results. This is our best effort to capture the zeitgeist of the year’s writing.

Next Sunday we are back to work with all the new posts coming our way. Don’t forget to submit any suggestions via email or via twitter @critdistance and also have a Happy New Year.