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I’m all out of clever schticks this week, so let’s just get right to it. It’s time for the best and brightest of videogame commentary and criticism, This Week in Videogame Blogging!

We start off by checking in with our friend Sebastian Alvarado, who is onto the second installment of his Gamasutra blog series on nanotechnology in videogames.

Articles on Dear Esther are still trickling in, but Tommy Rousse came out on top this week with a strong critique of the “walk’em up”‘s shortcomings: “While Dear Esther does a superb job of conveying a sense of place on the island, it makes very little effort to create a sense of embodiment.”

Meanwhile, thatgamecompany’s latest PSN release, Journey, has garnered some interesting responses for its singular aesthetic and themes. Jamie Love praises the game’s unique take on multiplayer:

Journey cuts [...] to the raw source of motivation and hope we find in others, to the fact that our existence on its own is not enough to necessitate that we continue for our own sake. Certainly we live for ourselves to project strength and obey the demands of our DNA, but beneath that skin, we always hope for others to connect and share the journey with, strangers that we’ll never really know, but who when you strip external constructions away, are perhaps exactly the same as us.

Over at Moving Pixels, Scott Juster echoes Love’s sentiments, saying the game gave him “a fleeting glimpse at a kinder, more optimistic side of random matchmaking [...] It was a short, but refreshing trip that left me with a pleasant thought: given the right context, gamers (and people in general) aren’t all that bad.”

Bart Simon is more wary, suggesting the game’s design –and the words of its lead designer– reveal a dangerously paternalistic attitude:

If players have a yen to slaughter rather than help each other then it is not because the ludic abstraction makes us a blank slate of stimulus-response (psychologists rankle me more than moralistic game designers I think) but because we have cultural predispositions for what to do with these machines and these virtual worlds that have been building up layer by layer over many years… the goal of design should not be to somehow get underneath, or behind or above these dispositions but to meet them head on… to reflect them perhaps, or to make them an object of conversation and reflection. But to deny them? To only allow them to perform warm fuzzies and group hugs? That’s SoCal New Agism for you… but it’s also a Clockwork Orange.

If you have been steadfastly avoiding game publications these last few weeks, you may have missed the growing torrent of discussion regarding Mass Effect 3‘s controversial endings. The Mary Sue’s Becky Chambers has a fairly spoiler-free primer if you wish to better understand the fan perspective.

And two other talented writers, Valerie Valdes and Kate Cox, offered up their views, placing the game in the context of older media. Valdes begins by discerning between “primary” and “secondary” epics and how Mass Effect 3 fulfills the description of a primary epic in the classical sense. Meanwhile, Cox likens the story to mythology in the broad sense and Christian narratives in particular, suggesting the ending has frustrated players because it cannot be interpreted in the same literal fashion as the rest of the franchise:

[T]hat it is where we find Shepard in the end: on the plane of mythology, removed from the plane of men. And that is also where many players feel they lose Mass Effect, because until the final moment, the plane of men has been the only ground the game knows.

Lastly on the subject of Mass Effect, I don’t know who this pretty lady is, but a few of you wrote in recommending this link as a capstone to the discussion: “In which Squaresoft wrote a Bioware game.

While most of the ludodecahedron spent the week effecting masses and taking journeys, a few more interesting discussion topics sneaked in. Jamin Warren sat down with Jesper Juul on the subject of failure in games. Nightmare Mode’s Johnny Kilhefner took a trip to the Smithsonian Art of Games exhibit. And Radiator’s Robert Yang attended Sleep No More in New York City and wrote at length how the interactive experience relates itself to games.

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen me refer to myself as the Fourth Horsewoman of the Ludodecahedronpocalypse. I’m not sure who the first or third ones are, but the second is Maggie Greene, Kotaku veteran and academic, who responds to Christian Higley and Brendan Keogh‘s noteworthy posts from the week with some much-needed perspective on the subject of “making it” as a game journalist (or in any field). Highly recommended for any apocalypse you are attempting to bring about.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s offerings as much as I have! Remember that recommending your own or another writer’s work here on TWIVGB is only a tweet or an email away. Seriously, your submissions are our sustenance. Feed me, Skinner!

Guess who’s back! Back again. That’s right, Ben is back and in charge of this week’s entry in the neverending story that is This Week In Videogame Blogging. Okay so, here’s the skinny. My  week was eaten up first by jet-lag, then by the GDCflu, and then by a gig and a birthday party, so this week’s entry is, shall we say, ‘TWIVGB lite’.

At the GameChurch blog, Drew Dixon talks about the ‘idealistic world of videogame pacifists’ and ends up discussing those who play games in strange, alternative ways.

Speaking of weird alternative ways to play, Sean Sands at Gamers With Jobs dares to ask the question of players, “Could you be playing it wrong?” and it’s not necessarily such a bad thing to ask.

At the ‘Empty Wallet Gamer’ tumblr, Shawn Trautman ruminates on  ‘The future of DLC’, having never actually bought any himself. His point is tied in with game preservation efforts, and discusses how, having just bought 2004’s number 1 shooter Halo 2 (props to Shawn, Halo 2 is a personal favourite), it made him wonders what will happen when DLC becomes unsupported.

At the consistently excellent Play The Past blog, Rebecca Mir talks ‘Guns, Germs and Horses’, looking at Civilization: Colonisation and “how cultural influence and exchange is (and isn’t) represented in the game.”

Our newest addition to the stable, Johnny Kilhefner wrote this week for Nightmare Mode about something he calls ‘Darwinian Difficulty in Metal Gear Solid 3’. It’s a theory about the relationship between the player and the character, one based on torture and difficulty, and well worth reading.

Also one of our own, Eric Swain at The Game Critique has been writing a ton about Genre this week. The introduction to his series is here, and he really needs to make an index page for them all, or something.

Chris Lepine of The Artful Gamer wrote a little piece this week, provoked by the Independent Games Festival that ran throughout GDC. It’s called ‘The Indie Ethics Problem’:

Fez precipitated a major ethical crisis at the GDC this year, when Phil Fish entered his game for a second time into the same competition purely out of self-interest (Note: I am not singling out Phil Fish – he seems like a decent enough guy, I’m just using this as a recent example). His appearance in Indie Game: The Movie similarly reveals the indie games’ industry’s sad history of shameless self-promotion, endless navel gazing and cult-of-the-celebritization.

Tom Francis (who I had the pleasure and good fortune of meeting at GDC) reproduces his short talk from the Independents Games Summit on ‘How To Explain Your Game To An Asshole’, and there’s good stuff in there for writers, players, critics and anyone who wants to explain games to people:

“This isn’t really about indie versus mainstream, or arthouse versus commercial. It’s just about communicating efficiently enough that everyone who would like your game ends up playing it. I think it’s a shame when that doesn’t happen.”

The penultimate piece, and certainly the most creative this week, is this beautiful pictorial review of Journey by Games.on.net’s Tim Colwill. Indescribable.

And lastly for the week (I did say it was TWIVGB lite!) is from Dan Golding’s incredible Game On blog, which has lately been churning out fascinating and insightful pieces. This week Golding scoured the Australian Parliament Hansard Record to tease out what Aussie politicians think and say about games. But it’s not what you think – it’s actually quite surprising.

And that’s a wrap! I’m off to go and enjoy the rapidly diminishing remains of my weekend as much as I can while trying to avoid the harsh rays of a cruel sun.

Editors note: This is the first Critical Compilation we’ve hosted in a long while, and it comes to us from our newest contributor, John Kilhefner.

It’s been called visually stunning, a revelation in character writing and the greatest movie ever played. Regardless, the real meat of the Uncharted 2: Among Thieves experience isn’t in the game at all, but in the writing surrounding it.

In “Naughty Dog’s Lemarchand Defines Uncharted‘s Heritage,” Leigh Alexander examined Naughty Dog’s desire to “capture and reinvent the spirit of the pulp action genre;” the same well from which Indiana Jones sprang. What they ended up with was a game with a story we’ve all seen in one shape or another: Treasure hunter searches for mythical treasure through a revolving door of double-crosses and ancient landscapes. No biggie. In fact, the story of Among Thieves is neither remarkable nor does it try to be. Alexander’s piece sheds light on Among Thieves writer Amy Henning’s prep work involving classic pulp fiction stories and established conventions such as “running, jumping, bare-fisted brawls and chases.”

As Michael “Brainy Gamer” Abbott sees it in “Long Live the Author“, Uncharted 2 “isn’t a question of core design, but a question of quality,” insisting that making a game relying on “’30s serial action adventure movie tropes” must be done with “plenty of style, panache and Hollywood production values to carry you over all the obvious pitfalls.” Additionally, the characters have to feature naturally smart dialogue, gameplay directly connected to the story and, above all, enjoyable play mechanics. “If this all sounds terribly formulaic, that’s because it is,” said Abbott.

Formula can be the paint-by-numbers template that makes your project look wholly derivative, or it can be the sturdy container that holds something special. You’d be hard pressed to identify a single genuinely original aspect of Micheal Curtiz’s Casablanca. Dozens of movies have told similar stories with similar characters. What elevates Casablanca is the way each of its elements: cinematography, music, performances, screenplay — so clearly surpasses the pedestrian work of other similar films.

Dean Takahashi at Venture Beat also spoke with Richard Lemarchand about the research undertaken for Among Thieves, where Lemarchand looked to classic heroes like Robert Louis Stevenson, Robinson Crusoe, Doc Savage and Tintin for inspiration. In some ways it’s this classic sense of heroics that makes Nathan Drake instantly appealing. But, “Dude Raider he is not,” says Ian Miles Cheong in his piece for Hellmode, “Ancient Temples to Ice Caves: Discovering Uncharted“. “Unlike Lara Croft, Nathan Drake is a multidimensional character — one full of personality,” Cheong says. Drake is questionably moral, undeniably heroic and absolutely relatable. Love him or hate him, we can all agree that Nate and his adventures if nothing else. “More than just a simple treasure hunter,” says Cheong, “Drake was apparently gifted with the skills of an assassin (albeit a slightly clumsy one) who could have given Batman a run for his money; he didn’t have to resort to stupid tricks or a tool-belt full of toys. When his fists weren’t enough to do the talking, a gun could open diplomatic channels.”

Between the classic adventure elements, everyman quality of Nathan Drake and cinematically executed gameplay, Among Thieves Uncharted 2 positioned itself as the definitive bargaining chip for PS3 owners, one that didn’t begin with “Metal Gear” or end with “Solid.” Metacritic named Among Thieves the most critically acclaimed game of 2009 with a score of 96 out of 100; IGN gave it game of the year and a near perfect score of 9.5; and most every publication you could think of drooled over its blockbuster production values. But beneath the surface there were more interesting opinions bubbling, with some critics unafraid to toss the critical fat on in the fire.

The Little Things

It’s “The Little Things” that intrigue Michael Abbott: from the subtle changes in “Nate’s Theme” from first to second game, nods to classic serial adventure tropes, naturalistic facial expressions, witty banter and character chemistry. Similarly, in Alex Raymond’s review for Game Critics, she cites the attention to detail as key to propelling the game to “masterpiece” status. Trains creak before crashing down and stones and bridges wobble and then crumble, all serving to move the game forward at a “breathless pace.”

In “The Minimalism of Uncharted 2,” however, Mitch Krpata attributes the notes that aren’t played as the reason for Among Thieves‘ success. The intuitive analog stick to run control scheme, the lack of a crouch button and the subtle auto-assist when climbing are a few of the small things Krpata feels helped rather than hindered the game. Naughty Dog’s ability to leave out exceptional but unnecessary components is a rare quality in all art forms, let alone video games. He likens this to an imagined developer who makes an awesome water effect and decides to “put water freaking everywhere.” Uncharted 2 is different. It doesn’t milk its golden moments dry, but practices minimalism over obnoxiousness.

Chris Breault fails to find Krpata’s minimalism, speculating in “Don’t Call Uncharted 2 a Film” that “maybe Uncharted is aimed at Alzheimer’s patients.” Blowing up trucks? Yawn. Falling off cliffs? “It’s the Uncharted handshake.” When it comes to the little things like planning, choreography and stunt work that give action films their blockbuster quality, “Uncharted 2 has all the charm of an assembly line.” Tristan Kalogeropoulos’s “Beyond Cinematic,” however, congratulates the marriage of cutscene and gameplay as “a cohesive mix of passive and active storytelling.” The in-game characters agree with the cutscene characters without the “dissonance” often observed from cutscene to game.

What’s In a Character?

Alex Raymond writes that “characterization is one of the areas where Among Thieves is head and shoulders above nearly every other major game out there.” “If everything comes together just right, Nathan Drake could very well be heading into the upper echelons of videogame character fame,” says Sinan ‘shoinan’ Kubba in “Drake, The Icon.” He makes an interesting point of Nate’s “everyman” quality, pointing out traditional video game icons such as Link, Solid Snake and Lara Croft, each of whom standout by their silhouette alone. Nathan Drake doesn’t standout at all. He’s just some guy. Several notable games journos had polarized takes on the character of Nathan Drake. In his article “Extra Punctuation: Uncharted 2,” Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw sheds light on Drake’s motivations of greed, his depravity and the “no prisoners” attitude he showed his enemies by comparing him to the ideal Indiana Jones. In his 300 Word Review, Charles J. Pratt points out that “There’s a reason that Indiana Jones uses a whip: it is very hard to feel for the plucky, underdog hero if he spends most of his time mowing people down with an automatic weapon.” Nate’s film counterpart, Indiana Jones, relinquishes vital bits of character through sequences showing him flustered at a particularly striking student’s advances, condescending to authority and fumbling over writing on the chalkboard in front of his class.

Meanwhile, Snake Link Sonic finds Drake’s adventure more National Treasure than Indiana Jones, going so far as to say relating Among Thieves to Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones is “just the game becoming self-victimizing.” Breault thinks Nate merely spends “a lot of time commenting on women’s asses as they go up ladders.”. Banter during the adventure and action segments allows the player to get to know the characters and portrays a sense of camaraderie (or rivalry) as appropriate. And Kalogeropoulos feels that “spending time” with the characters reveals a great deal of their past relationships and personalities. Cheong believes that while Drake is “in it for the loot,” his appeal is that of a regular guy rather than a Superman.

Scott Juster’s take on Drake in the first Uncharted still holds true for the second. In “Nathan Drake in: The Curse of Ludonarrative Dissonance!” Juster contends the gameplay–Drake who slaughters hundreds throughout the game–is at odds with the cutscene–Drake, an “everyman” hero.

In “The Fallacy of Choice” Justin Keverne puts “everyman” Drake under the microscope: “A real ‘everyman’ would have fallen to his death within the first few minutes,” he sayd, commenting on the audience’s longing for a relatable hero but a hero nonetheless. It’s precisely this paradox that make Nathan Drake the character he is, and the game makes no bones about it.

Borut Pfeifer’s “The Spatially Driven Story” concludes that the flow of the game’s locations is symbolic of Drake’s internal struggles–rather than making Drake simply a character that “is,” the developers Naughty Dog made his internal conflict visible through external motivators. Pfeifer points out that “the purpose the other characters serve isn’t to bring you to a specific location, it’s to change Drake’s motivation for going somewhere.” He doesn’t just do things because the game needs him to; he does them because he is manipulated into doing so, whether for the right or wrong reasons. “Story elements that at first glance seem like they are there to superficially highlight exotic locales serve a deeper purpose to communicate internal character motivation.” Regardless of his internal and external conflicts, the classic hero in Nate always comes out of a predicament unaffected, whether it’s his ex and current fling facing execution right in front of his eyes or a mythical beast stalking him. These events don’t show the emotional weight we saw, say, Snake take on when Meryl was picked apart by Sniper Wolf in Metal Gear Solid. Though Uncharted is precisely the kind of game that calls for this kind of impenetrability, Croshaw “want[s] to see more of Nathan Drake than a wisecracking bubble that grunts a lot.”

Uncommon Women

Perhaps it’s this same sentiment applied to the Lara Crofts of gaming that prompted Naughty Dog to approach the female leads in a less cliché way than other games. Raymond highlights the characters of Elena and Chloe as two examples of remarkable writing of independent female characters who don’t stoop to stereotypes so present in game portrayals of women. Brinstar, writing for the Border House, examines the “interesting, believable, three-dimensional personalities” of Elena and Chloe. Rather than plot devices designed to push the player forward, they have their own motivations which intermingle and entice/intrigue/mystify a curious Drake. On the other hand, Snake Link Sonic acknowledges the strong female characterization but felt that “the game would have functioned just fine without [Chloe].” G. Christopher Williams’s “Sorry, But Our Princess Wants To Be in Another Castle” likens Chloe to the more provocative side which Elena lacks, using sex to play the game from Nate to Flynn as her assets allow — an effective way to piss off the player with an emotional connection to Drake. At first seeing her as a princess in need of rescue, Williams found surprisingly found Chloe “is one ‘princess’ that has no interest in being saved.”

Playing a Movie: The Cinematic Action Genre

Practically every critic has gushed over the game’s visual production values. “You’ll spend much of your time playing Uncharted 2 with mouth agape, staring slack jawed at the glorious vistas spread out before you,” said Susan Arendt in her review for The Escapist Magazine. Former Editor-in-Chief of Kotaku Brian Crecente commented that “More than most games Uncharted 2 looks like a movie.” In “How We Talk About Games: Graphics,” Grayson Davis reveals how in-the-rut our collective descriptive vehicle is when it comes to discussing visuals. Picking apart the Among Thieves reviews from IGN, 1UP, Giant Bomb and Eurogamer, Davis concludes that graphic writing still “sound[s] like they’re writing for the back of the box.”

Snake Link Sonic wrote his piece without even playing the game, but instead by watching a complete YouTube play through. In “Values and Characteristics of the Cinematic Action Genre” Michael Clarkson attempts to define the values found in such interactive films or as he puts it, “Cinematic Action” games. Cinematic action characteristics include filmic realism, seamlessness, a developer-controlled narrative and emotional engagement. “Uncharted represents not a new kind of game unto itself but an exemplary actualization of certain values in game design,” game design that the HD generation is capable of producing effectively and possibly on-par with motion pictures. According to Jorge Albor, the Hitchcockian use of set pieces inch it along the gap between game and film.

“If a game features a well defined protagonist then the notion of including the option to behave in a way that goes against the nature of that protagonist is foolish,” says Keverne. “The very appeal of such a character is that they are already defined, often as a heroic character. Why introduce the seconding guessing and evaluating that comes from the inclusion of choice?”

Like the characterization, the gameplay also polarizes people who either feel immersed or disengaged by it. Snake Link Sonic perceives the comparison to Tomb Raider as an unfair one representative of the lack of games of its kind, and that Among Thieves more closely resembles Prince of Persia in terms of its linearity. Williams, meanwhile, finds the dissonance from Tomb Raider jarring, particularly the laid-on thick gunplay in favor of exploration. This same gunplay Pratt finds “unimaginative” and lacking the strategy of other third-person shooters like Gears of War: “It’s the mix of the movie and the game that makes Uncharted a little unsettling.” On a similar note, Brad Galloway’s Game Critics review penalized Among Thieves for being “a jack-of-all-trades and master of none.” While Galloway concedes that the production values are top-notch and if the player is in the mood for a pot-boiler it alone would suffice, he feels the all too often gunfights, lack of direction and simplistic puzzles bring the game down.

“Nearly anyone playing Uncharted 2 wasn’t in it for the shooting,” says Gameranx writer Matthew Stewart in his article “Uncharted Series: The Gameplay Gets in the Way of the Story.” Instead of the gameplay serving the story, Stewart feels it did the opposite: “The obstacles in the game can be like someone who knocks the book I’m engrossed with out of my hands.” He illustrates his point with comparisons to games such as Ninja Gaiden, Quake 3 and World of Warcraft in which the story is created by the player rather than pre-determined by the developer. Crecente talks about the narrative pushing the ludic qualities of Among Thieves the way a good book makes you rush to the next page.

Daniel Bullard-Bates calls Uncharted 2 the “best movie-based video game of all time.” Breault, however, challenges these highly regarded movie qualities: “as much as Uncharted 2 imitates the movie aesthetic, it remains a game; if you judge it on the same terms you would a film’s narrative, it comes up short.” Hammering the point, Breault compares two similar chase sequences in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Among Thieves. In the former, he notes how the editing breaks up the action by alternating perspectives among all parties involved, giving the cannon fodder a touch of humanity and allowing for some hilarious gags. Among Thieves‘ chase sequence, however, simply sees Drake trading gunfire with depersonalized moving targets, blowing up trucks until the entire scene becomes an exercise in redundancy.

Abbott’s “On Pace” article uses his stage director experience as a lens through which to gauge the pacing of Uncharted 2. “Pacing in games is an intricate balancing act,” says Abbott; “And Uncharted 2 manages it better than any narrative game I can think of.” Abbott notes a “dynamic control” of pacing not seen in theater or film by allowing the character the freedom to slow down the pace or engage the game at full-throttle.

“…Uncharted 2 is a successful game because it doesn’t try to box outside its weight,” Abbott writes. “It’s a ripping adventure that makes good on its wisely limited ambitions….[Among Thieves] functions beautifully as both story and storyteller. It’s quite possible to see this distinguishing feature of games as no less compelling than their ability to immerse us in an emergent play-driven narrative.” And isn’t that why we play videogames in the first place?

In 2012, the greatest game developers and journalists in recent memory assembled in San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference. Meanwhile, those unfortunate few who did not attend explored the web, discovering the remains of an ancient spacefaring civilization known only as the ludodecahedron. In the decades that followed, these mysterious artifacts revealed startling new discourses on games and gaming culture.

They called it the greatest discovery in human history. The civilizations of the galaxy call it…

This Week in Videogame Blogging

That’s right. While our own Ben Abraham was having his elbows rubbed at GDC, yours truly has been at home chained to a day job–and a certain game about effecting masses. Let’s get right to it.

Dan Cox leads the way this week with an interesting podcast featuring two of the Critical Distance team, Eric Swain and David Carlton, as well as several other stars in a conversation on the nature of play.

As for the past week’s biggest AAA release, Mass Effect 3, we’re already seeing a host of interesting commentary, but this analysis of the ideological dissonance of the game’s single- and multiplayer takes top billing. From author Taekwan Kim:

[The singleplayer campaign is] a case where mechanics, player assets, and narrative all work in concert to deliver a concentrated and tightly knit message of the need to cooperate, or at the very least, overlook personal and petty issues for the sake of the greater good.

This message comes apart in the multiplayer, mainly as a result of the way it measures player performance. Immediately, the fact that it measures performance at all with respect to other players makes its goals clear: it’s about competition. And in this case, it’s not only performance competition, but also competition for limited resources, which tends to cause selfish play—exactly the kind of experience that is the direct opposite of the authorial message of the singleplayer game.

Two authors took an especially fine-toothed comb to game aesthetics this week. The first article arrives from the endearing Eric Lockaby, who responds to Phil Fish’s GDC remarks with the declaration that the culturally-inscribed aesthetics of games across markets are more important than we realize. Quoth Lockaby:

Western gaming culture’s complete dismissal of another culture’s artistic structure on the grounds that JRPGs are, generally, crap fails to recognize that our culture is otherwise slipping into a loving death-embrace with the cognitively simpler mode of expression–pure, animal-like signification–over the inherent complexity of abstraction.

Meanwhile, Martyn Zachary is at it about The Binding of Isaac again, but he’s moreover interested in dismantling the idea of games as ideologically constant:

That a meaning should exist within the game not as a coherent, harmonic givens, but a function to be performed, construed, and even analysed, can be a puzzling, even angering proposition.

[...]

Ultimately, however, reacting negatively to the actual question of meaning is to me a sign of immaturity and wilful ignorance. In choosing explicitly not to entertain the potential emergent meaning(s) of video games, the commentators – players, journalists, developers, critics and researchers alike – are nipping a constructive discussion in the bud.

With that we switch gears to perhaps the most recognized face among narratologists, Janet Murray, who last October delivered a talk at Georgia Tech about her landmark Hamlet on the Holodeck and developments in “interactive storytelling” since its publication. The video from the talk is now available to view here.

Another, albeit newer, recognized voice in the gaming discourse, Bob Chipman aka MovieBob, is back this week with a new video on sexism in nerd culture. In the interests of accessibility, Alex R at The Border House has provided a full transcript along with the video.

Amanda Lange responds to Commander Shepard Mare Sheppard’s GDC talk on Women in Games initiatives, presenting her misgivings about a game industry “meritocracy”:

[Sheppard] believes that the game industry should be a society where each person is promoted according to her (or his) skill levels, and the best person is always chosen for any given job, whomever that person might be. The problem here:

Who decides what is the best?

And more critically:

Who decides what skills it is most valued to be best at?

We close this short-but-sweet roundup with an Ebert chaser, and why Owen Good thinks we should just collectively agree to ignore the man for good. Sound enough advice, but why are we still writing articles about him, then? Paging Eric Swain…

Have a safe trip home, all you GDCers, and a restful week full of shooting aliens, if you can manage. Remember that all tweeted and emailed links go toward the allied war effort against the Reapers! Reporting for Westerlund News, I’m Khalisah Bint Sinan al-Jilani.

Please not the face. Anywhere but the face.

Twas the night before GDC, and all through the net, not a blogger was stirring, not even Patrick Klepek…

(Well, not really.)

Welcome, welcome to This Week in Videogame Blogging! As things are beginning to kick off in San Francisco, your friendly neighborhood curator is starting the conference early with some sunny, spring-worthy critique and commentary, worthy only of the best!

So without further ado, let’s hit the net running. Nightmare Mode has just introduced a new video series which manages to combine all of your favorite things: pretentious literary references, game design, a sharp wit and Eric Lockaby’s Escher maze of a mind. Welcome to the Art Game Thunderdome!

Shifting from the labyrinthine world of the art game scene which only exists in Lockaby’s imagination to the industrial world of mainstream gaming, we move to Stephen Altamirano, who muses on world records in the field of sports and electronic games, and in a broader sense, living games versus static code in an era of networked gaming and frequent developer patches.

Elsewhere, Damien McFerran offers up a retrospective on SEGA in its heyday. And Ken at Next Gen Narration digs deep into the ramifications of skipping combat:

To me, this is a part of the evolution of games. We are stretching out, and learning new ways of expressing a story and ourselves in this medium. Answers will not come without injurious forays into frontiers that either do not work, or fail to communicate. More choices always strikes me as something positive, especially in a medium that has so much more potential than any other art form.

On the subject of choices, Kaitlin Tremblay writes in the first edition of Medium Difficulty on choosing characters to transcend gender norms:

For me, monsters represent a part of my feminism that shouts for there to be another option – one separate from the expected roles that are presented again and again in popular culture. Monsters become integral to my feminism in their disruption of normal social codes.

At Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Alex Layne delineates the three levels of feminist research in games. And over on The Border House, Mattie Brice pays tribute to Final Fantasy XIII‘s Vanille, calling her an underrated character:

Vanille’s role as the narrator, along with the aesthetic that came with being from Pulse, reminds me of the social function as storytellers women in some Native American (and I’m sure other) cultures, serving as their tribes’ memory and history.

On a thematically resonant note, Trevor Owens and Rebecca Mir write on how player mods to Sid Meier’s Colonization are able to challenge the European colonial perspective of the game, by allowing players to play as the Natives.

It’s been a good week for the Brindle family, as their blogging family continues to grow. Bunbury Brindle offers us an essay on the place where Pacman and Metal Gear Solid intersect, while sister Jimmy provides a… certainly unique (and not safe for work) take on the Are Games Art? debate.

For more on philosophy and art, we turn to Martyn Zachary, who takes a fine-toothed comb to the themes of “the grotesque” and “body horror” in Binding of Isaac: “We should ask not, ‘How is McMillen’s game influenced by Catholic grotesque?’ but rather, ‘How can religion be so grotesque’?

On the subject of empathy, Gus Mastrapa has been watching Luck and thinking about how the show’s subject reminds him of the relationship between player and avatar:

When I saw one of Luck‘s jockeys push a horse to its limits I was reminded of the way we play games, constantly pushing our virtual puppets to fight, win and frequently die. Recently, I experienced a moment in a videogame where I felt like a jockey, whipping the flanks of my horse. [...] I suddenly felt bad for pushing so hard, for wanting to progress so badly that I paid no concern to the little life that was in my hands.

On Gamasutra, Rowan Kaiser writes about how Mass Effect defies some of the classical conventions of the RPG. And Leigh Alexander asks us to look back on the underrated spiritual successor of Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross.

Perhaps most evocatively this week, Simon Parkin, who has a history of writing tear-jerker essays on JRPGs, presents us with a depressing, yet thoughtful interview and reflection on Hironobu Sakaguchi, which cannot simply be summed up in an easy pullquote. Highly recommended.

Speaking of unusual interviews, Joel Goodwin put in a tech support request for a game he recently acquired and ended up with a 50-minute interview with Sheldon Pacotti, lead writer for Deus Ex. Wha–?! How does that just HAPPEN to someone? Damn you, Goodwin!

You may have heard a bit about what Jenn Frank has dubbed the IGF “scene drama.” (And in the event that you haven’t, there is your link.) Kill Screen’s Filipe Salgado went one further and interviewed a number of Pirate Kart participants to hear their perspectives, straight from the source.

But the article of the week unquestionably goes to W, the pseudonymous Iraq veteran whose grim account of their combat experience shook up the ludodecahedron when it appeared in Medium Difficulty’s premiere issue this week. In it, W describes how inadequately games represent the realities of combat, and in particular the character of the servicepeople games so often idealize.

This is a serious issue that needs to be addressed in videogames. How would you feel if you accidentally killed an innocent child in a game? If the words “MISSION FAILED” appeared, but then disappeared after a few seconds, leaving you to continue as normal with no repercussions. Any normal person would feel guilty, but that’s my point. Combat troops are not normal people.

On the contrary, the word W repeatedly invokes to describe their fellows in arms is “sociopaths.”

Unfortunately, we’ve reached the end of this week’s offerings of the best and boldest of game criticism, commentary and analysis. But hang tight! We’ll be back next Sunday shoring up the best from GDC, as well as the rest of your greatest submissions! Remember to send us your recs via Twitter or email, and party safe, all you cool kids!