April 29th

April 29th, 2012 | Posted by Ben Abraham in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on April 29th)

Oh dear look who left the keys to TWIVGB on the kitchen table for me to find. Yes, in her distracted exam-cramming state, Kris left me in charge of TWIVGB once again. I’m sorry.

Look, here’s a little secret I’m going to share with you: sometimes writing about videogames is… how do I put this…. not weird enough. I’m going to try and pick out some of the weirder stuff this week.

For instance: At the architectural/landscape/urbanism blog M.ammoth, Rob Holmes regales us with a short anecdote about a student designing a game as part of an investigation into the ramifications of the Mississippi river diverting it’s course:

One of the student projects proposed a kind of abstracted board game which attempted to codify the interactions between the insurance industry, various economic activities in the Atachafalaya Basin (such as gambling), floods, disaster management systems, public space, and citizens of the flood-prone Basin. This project intrigued me greatly — but it did so less because of its resonance with the recent vogue for “gamification” (where I am inclined to agree, for the most part, with Ian Bogost), and more because it helped me articulate a set of problems related to aggregation, complexity, perversity, and misalignment in the design of landscapes.

It’s only a brief little mention amongst a sea of tranquil information-overload, but it’s interesting. It’s weird.

Sufficiently weird enough for me is also Darshana Jayemanne’s ‘Do It Differently’ essay for Killscreen which argues we should stop playing up the ‘uniqueness’ of videogames interactivity. It’s a powerful and unpopular argument, but I think he’s right.

Look around you. Architecture is an art form—you’d be brave indeed to claim the Sistine Chapel or the Patio de los Leones are not art, and only slightly less brave to call them “linear.” Robert Venturi and Fredric Jameson didn’t have to wait for ludology to be invented so they could wrap their heads around the nonlinear spaces of Las Vegas and the Bonaventure Hotel, respectively. Similar observations could be made for sculpture or improvisational music. In these art forms the distinction between linear and nonlinear is just a nonsense. It does not even arise as a problem in the first place.

Go read his whole argument and then tell me you don’t get a sense that Things Could Be Wholly Other about videogame writing and criticism. Weird indeed.

Not entirely sure if this really hits the high point on my ‘weird’ metric, but it’s an interesting piece and it goes well with Jayemanne’s piece above – at Medium Difficulty Kyle Stegerwald discusses whether writers and critics can actually be bad at games and still be good critics. I don’t think he’s wholly right, but neither is he wholly wrong, primarily because games writing could be so, so many things and Stegerwald seems to have just one particular thing in mind. Still – definitely worth reading and thinking about. For Stegerwald:

…skill in games resembles critical understanding in literature, and nobody sneers at someone who advances a well-reasoned opinion of a piece of literature by calling them a “minmaxer.”

Also at Medium Difficulty this week is neat little discussion by Adil Sherwani on ‘The State of Music Games’ (by which it is meant the Rock Band/Guitar Hero style music game). It’s sort of history, really, and History, as anyone who knows anything about it will tell you, is Really Weird.

Oh yes! And this is a sufficiently strange offering from the always-intriguing David Carlton who paid a visit to France’s Musée d’Orsay and took inspiration from the range of nudes and other paintings, sculptures, etc in the museums collection:

A couple of years ago, I took inspiration from musicals and proposed that narrative video games should present themselves as a sequence of set pieces that are as well-crafted as possible, with just enough connective tissue to let you go from set piece to set piece without being jarring. And my experiences in the Musée d’Orsay gave me a new perspective on that argument: each of those set pieces should have the unity and impact of a painting. There should be a vision, a scene, an interaction at the core of each set piece with the rest unfolding from it.

Brilliant stuff. Go read it, if only for all the brilliant images of paintings the Museum holds.

Also brilliant this week was Cara Ellison’s discussion of Christine Love’s ‘Don’t Take It Personally, Babe’ and ‘Being Single in Public’ for the Unwinnable blog:

Playing Don’t Take It Personally, Babe when you’re single, and have been for a while, is an alienating experience. It’s a wonderful shorthand of the messages that are going on around us every day. Couple culture is everywhere – it’s in every televisual soap or drama, it’s in every advertising campaign.

As a young man who has spent the vast, vast majority of his life within the kingdom of singledom I know exactly what Ellison is talking about, and it can be a very, very weird place.

Also from Unwinnable this week is Kate Williams piece on Dear Esther, describing it as “a sudden heartbeat in a flatlining relationship”.

G. Christopher Williams writing for PopMatters’ Moving Pixels blog this week thinks Ms Pacman is the Platonic form of games. That’s kind of a strange argument, but that’s kind of the point. More strange please!

Mattie Brice writing for Paste Magazine this week asks ‘Who’s the bad guy?‘ and discusses being a demographic actively excluded from videogame marketing and taste-appeal (which would be a very weird feeling).

Jeffrey Wilson at 2D-X has a cool little anecdote about ‘The Night Castlevania and Wu Tang Clan owned NYC’ and the hunt for a Castlevania sample heard (imagined? Auditory hallucination?!) in a 90s hip-hop track.

And here’s another weird little thing from BLDGBLOG’s Geoff Manaugh who has a little think about some game-applications for MIT’s distributed robotics’ ‘Smart Sand’:

…perhaps in some future game brought to you by BLDGBLOG and Big Robot—you have to battle your way forward through infinite sandstone buildings that rise up, one after the other, like endless violent waves rolling as far as the eye can see, a desert of shapes lurching and unbuilding themselves toward you, forever. You jump through doors, up stairways, over walls, never advancing forward more than a few feet at a time, blinded by clouds of sand crashing on all sides, always another building ready to rise up out of the moving dunes and block you.

At Sneaky Bastards (possibly the best named videogame blog on the internet) James Patton has words about the Maltese Falcon and Games and Society and stuff. The piece describes itself (blogs these days! They do all your work for you!) as “Examining the stealth genre’s depictions of society and culture, as seen through the stark, shadowy lens of The Maltese Falcon.

Vying for the ‘best videogame blog name’ competition is Full Glass, Empty Clip (I’m surprised that I’ve not stumbled upon this site before), where blogger ‘Stavros the Wonder Chicken’ aka Christopher Kovacs talks about ‘Living in First Person’:

Part of growing up isolated and insulated, for me at least, was burning curiosity about Other Places. Ever since I could remember, every new thing I learned about the world out there filled me with ever greater desire to see it for myself.

And here’s a funny new tumblblog ‘Postplay’:

POSTPLAY is a project founded on the fundamental principle that a video game is only as relevant as the contemplations or debates it provokes may be equally worthy of note; that the most significant games are, by definition, those which are capable of stimulating an edifying discussion and different degrees of contemplation. This, however, does not insinuate that a widely discussed title is, by definition, pertinent; quite the contrary, for this same criterion presupposes that the character and corollaries of the dialogue it incites provide an authentic intimation of its veritable merit.

Oh and I very nearly forgot – Michael Abbott at the Brainy Gamer blog, inspired by Taylor Clarke’s essay/profile of Jon Blow in The Atlantic, has started a crowd sourced catalogue of “Smart Games” to counteract the notion that games are only Hollywood dumb. Go check it out, it’s a weird lest (yes!) and it can get weirder if you choose to add stuff to it. Go forth and submit strange and eclectic games!

Hmm, so that’s the week in weird videogame writing, but it could always be weirder, more eclectic, more ambitious. Take that under consideration.

Here, one final parting curio: a mind-blowingly beautiful Vietnamese Café. Think about that and level design. Lets see that in a game.

I hope you enjoyed some of the weirdness. As always, we rely on your submissions to make it through the week. Send them via twitter or email, if you please!

April 22nd

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

Happy Sunday! It’s all highs and lows in This Week in Videogame Blogging, as we once again look to the best of the best in gaming critique and commentary from across the web. Whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist, a realist or absurdist, it’s all here! Let’s get started.

First, a bit of history. BulletMagnet over on Racketboy writes up an illustrative history of shoot-em-ups. Meanwhile, Stephen E. Dinehart sits down with game writing veteran Susan O’Connor as part of his Game Writers in the Trenches series.

Next up, the always-engaging Matthew Weise at Outside Your Heaven traces the decline in anti-Americanism in the Metal Gear franchise, a trend he sees beginning with the departure of one of its key writers and an uptick in the series’s fascination with its own mythology: “Questions like ‘who are The Patriots?’ and ‘was Big Boss good or evil?’ are really only interesting if they aren’t answered.”

Drawing upon more contemporary history, Julian Benson traces some connections between the serious game Sweatshop, the financial MMO EVE Online, and the 2008 financial crisis. Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s John Walker, on the other hand, rips straight from the headlines– and spits on them, critiquing the shoddy journalism that has gone into connecting Norwegian bomber Anders Breivik with videogames.

Responding to the now-infamous Atlantic profile on Braid developer Jonathan Blow, Cameron Kunzelman takes aim at the myth of the game (or film) auteur:

Let me be clear: the actual political economy of film did not change [following the classic Hollywood studio system]. Films were still vetted by execs, funded by studios, and ran by unions. What really occurred during the shift toward the auteur was that the public had a name and face to attach to a movie. Directors were names attached to bodies. That was just an illusion, though. No matter how much I liked Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the lesson that I got from the book was that power will never rest in the hands of a creator who will not play the studio game–every famous director is a puppet. That’s the reason Coppola decided to open up a vineyard.

Another iconoclast, Richard Dillio, has some strong words for the Mass Effect 3 ending fiasco, an article which really comes into its own in the final third:

If you were a big cheese over at EA, you be laughing at the sheer genius of the current situation: your studio made a game with a crappy ending, but still sold millions of units. The ending was so crappy, and people were so pissed, that they demanded a new ending, which you can charge them for. No matter what, you’re making shitloads of cash. You’d be the fucking Mr. Burns of video games. In what other industry do people willingly pay a creative team more money to redo something they should’ve gotten right in the first place? I can’t think of a single one.

Speaking of downer endings you wouldn’t think to patch, Scott Juster has been reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and he muses on the book’s connections to other, non-Mass Effect down notes. Attending instead to the journalistic question of gaming toward endings, Kill Screen staff writer Michael Thomsen and founder Jamin Warren debate the need to reach an ending at all.

Patricia Hernandez’s latest piece for Kotaku is an interesting indictment of games as making us aspire to a middle-class, homogenous lifestyle: “Skyrim promised me the oft-peddled and largely untrue myth of being able to pull myself up by my bootstraps, and while it delivered on that promise, what I found myself doing was often depressingly meaningless and rote.”

Rob Zacny directs a similar challenge, not to developers, but players of strategy games, suggesting that quicksaving is harming the genre by making these tidy wins easy.

Not all articles about the intersection of players and design are so somber this week, however. On Nightmare Mode, Alois Wittwer takes us on a cute jaunt through the confusing tiers of agency in Hot Shots Golf. And darting back into late March for a second, we have Tom Chick hating Journey in his typically witty way.

On the subject of Journey, Rachel Helps draws upon her own religious upbringing to unearth connections with the game as religious ritual. And while we’re on the subject of religious themes in games, John Brindle has a new post up historicizing L’Abbaye des Morts, proving once again how dangerously hard it is to put a Brindle article down.

On the academic front, Andrew K Przybylski and his team have published their interesting study on using games to act out “the ideal self” in the Journal for Psychological Science.

Jason Tocci has a new feature up on Gamasutra regarding the five forms of game appeal. Lastly, Luke Maciak looks forward to Notch’s next gaming venture as a call back to an inspirational golden age for hackers and programmers.

Join us next week as we deliver some more hot-and-cold top picks from the ludodecahedron! Want to keep Critical Distance from getting lukewarm? Send in your links via Twitter or email today!

April 15th

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

Achoo! It’s too cold for my liking over here. Let’s warm up by the fire with a nice fresh supply of game criticism, theory and commentary. It’s This Week in Videogame Blogging!

The man I usurped to get this gig, Ben Abraham, is back again this week with a compelling video essay in which he questions our fondness for the term immersion. This follows on a theme in recent weeks in respect to Jenova Chen’s master thesis, and is also echoed in Tony Ventrice’s feature on Gamasutra on flow in mobile media.

Also hailing from Gamasutra, Ara Shirinian investigates how we might use psychology to design intuitive graphical user interfaces. And Jorge Albor takes the subject to the dark side in ruminating on the use of psychology to develop alienating structures and creatures:

[T]he same visceral reaction that we have to Giger’s work or the synthetic/organic husks of Mass Effect 3 mirrors a reaction that future generations are intended to have when they meet the WIPP’s warning markers. There is horror found in artificial yet unreadable architecture.

Responding to John Walker’s essay on the perceived runniness, shall we say, of games’ subject matter, Joseph Hilgard contends that we’re looking in the wrong places for gaming subject matter we can sink our teeth into:

If we want our games to provide us with real nourishment, I would argue that the last thing we need is last year’s shooter wrapped in some awkward story about love and loss, or yet another indie platformer about the inevitability of mortality. We don’t need superficially serious themes. We need new and interesting games which provide novel and challenging forms of play.

Ed Smith also voices misgivings in a critique of last year’s Catherine, where systems fail the nuance about relationships it aspires to. Meanwhile, Kyle Chayka says we can find the art in games from a more unconventional place– perhaps in reading Cooking Mama as performance art?

There’s a satisfaction in the rhythmic nature of the different tasks that have to be performed, and there’s always the goal of pleasing Mama and besting your previous score. But there’s also the abstract satisfaction of having created something, or the simulation of something, that someone else is going to consume. Like Tiravanija’s curry, the gyoza or omelets that we make in Cooking Mama aren’t composed for ourselves; they’re created for the mystery person on the other side of the theoretical table, whomever we choose to fill that space with.

Also daring to be unconventional, Jim Ralph proposes that Skyrim is in fact a place we inhabit:

Despite the impossibility of encountering another human being in Skyrim, its players all occupy the same imagined terrain through their shared experience. In this way, Skyrim does have that population of 10 million Dragonborn. Sure, we’ll never come face to face in our different Skyrims, but I’ll probably never come face to face with 99.9% of the rest of England’s population either. That doesn’t stop England being a nation. Our experience of any community is built from a mix of individual isolation and the impression of interpersonal links. In this way, Skyrim is a nation in its own right.

From Skyrim to Tanelorn, Patrick Holleman profiles the rich community space of a Minecraft roleplaying server named for the work of fantasy novelist Michael Moorcock. Meanwhile, Krystian Majewski compares the worlds and gameplay of Suikoden and Mass Effect and discovers some interesting parallels.

Speaking of Mass Effect— you know we couldn’t go one week without touching upon the ending controversy. In fulfilling that cosmically-ordained quota, Paul Tassi sits down with the people of the Retake Mass Effect campaign, presumably so that you don’t have to. It really is a very authentic look at a dissenting section of the Mass Effect fanbase, whatever you might think of the whole issue.

Meanwhile, as we’re on the subject of big pictures, Chris Kohler digs a little deeper into some of the underlying logic of the much-maligned Consumerist reader poll which named Electronic Arts the worst company in America. While not fully satisfying a rationale, it does paint a picture of a Consumerist readership interested in far more than unsatisfactory endings and LGBT characters.

Much of the Ludodecahedron swarmed PAX East last week. Robert Yang demonstrates that his impressions of the convention roughly match up with mine of E3, then ups the ante significantly: “How the worst part of the game industry uses PAX East to teabag your entire face with its cancerous scrotum.” And that’s just the title.

More soberingly, the beautiful Mattie Brice is back at The Border House this week with a heartfelt essay on cis- and heteronormative pressures which inform not just her self-presentation as a game journalist, but her everyday life. In it, she also discusses the Vox hiring controversy and persisting obstacles to diversity hiring in the industry. A must-read.

With that, this week’s roundup comes to a close. I have to go bundle up and take some more cough medicine. Join us next week, and be sure to tweet and email us your favorites!

Links, I mean, not cough medicines. Although those would be appreciated as well.

April 8th

April 9th, 2012 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on April 8th)

The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. Welcome to another fantastic week of gaming commentary, criticism and insights! It’s This Week in Videogame Blogging!

We kick things off with an essay from Shay Pierce, the lone Omgpop employee holdout who made news this week by refusing to join his company’s merger with social game giant Zynga:

When an entity exists in an ecosystem, and acts within that ecosystem in a way that is short-sighted, behaving in a way that is actively destructive to the healthy functioning of that ecosystem and the other entities in it (including, in the long term, themselves) — yes, I believe that that is evil. And I believe that Zynga does exactly that.

Also blogging against the grain, Harold Goldberg takes the Smithsonian game art exhibit to task for groupsourcing its selections by popular vote. And Joel Goodwin parodies the lack of nuance games exhibit in trying to model complex human behavior, like parenthood.

Meanwhile, Evan Narcisse digs deep into why representation and gamer culture matter to him personally in “Why I’m Worried About My Daughter’s Video Game Future“:

It’s not enough to just make a protagonist—or worse, a sidekick—black. Why? Because of the Hunger. The Hunger is the angry growling in the pit of a black nerd’s soul that asks constantly, “where are we in the big picture?” It manifests differently for everybody. Nevertheless, I don’t want to pass on The Hunger to my daughter. I want the video games of the future to make her feel welcome.

Two articles took an unusual approach to design criticism this week. First we have Tom Francis in his tribute to Proteus,

a first-person exploration game in which the components of the music you hear depend on what you’re standing near to. And the time of day, and what’s going on in the rest of the music, and probably some other factors.

Meanwhile, Zach Alexander wonders if we can consider saving and saved games a part of the gameplay.

Our good frenemy Eric Lockaby is at it with his latest installment of “How You Got Videogames Wrong,” in which he explicates how the fundamentals of design (old media and new) go much deeper than we’re used to discussing them.

As the discussion on Mass Effect 3 plows onward, we’re still seeing some noteworthy and original response articles popping up. Top marks this week go to Patricia Hernandez, who writes in Gameranx about the racial problematic of the krogan.

[G]ames like Mass Effect indulge in a power fantasy related to control and influence. […] To indulge on the power fantasy where we have utter control over other people’s lives is to assume whiteness, typically male whiteness.

As Mass Effect conversations start to cool, however, discussions on Journey are still heating up. Simon Parkin kicks things off with a stellar interview with Journey auteur Jenova Chen. Meanwhile, referring to Chen’s MFA thesis on “flow,” Michael Abbott investigates whether Journey faithfully represents its underlying concepts.

Ian Bogost also refers to Chen’s thesis in his thoughtful analysis of the young developer’s oeuvre, lending a structuralist perspective only he can:

In videogames, it’s far less common to see a creator’s work evolve in this way. In part, this is because game makers tend to have less longevity than other sorts of artists. In part, it’s because games are more highly industrialized even than film, and aesthetic headway is often curtailed by commercial necessity. And in part, it’s because games are so tightly coupled to consumer electronics that technical progress outstrips aesthetic progress in the public imagination. […] Thatgamecompany’s work thus offers us an unusual window into the creative evolution of a game maker, one in which the transition from green students to venerable artists took place before our very eyes over a short half-decade on a single and very public videogame platform.

Lastly, Jason Killingsworth has a theory on the source of Journey‘s aesthetic power: the jumping.

Our real-world bodies are dense with fat, sinew and muscle. Gravity pins us down no less gingerly than André the Giant once flattened his poor opponents to the wrestling mat. When we step inside an avatar, however, the game doesn’t just hand us a new suit of clothes, it hands us a new sense of physical weight, which the game’s developer has licence to assign. Journey‘s pilgrim is covered in cloth robes, but its hard to imagine there being any flesh beneath that tunic. She’s too light. The only weight she carries appears to be that of the fabric in which her spirit is wrapped. To play Journey is to feel like a soul freed of its corporeal baggage.

Is it any wonder critics have hailed Journey as a religious experience? Jenova Chen and his colleagues at Thatgamecompany aim for transcendence and they do so by taking the word at face value. To transcend is simply to rise up, which is exactly what happens in Journey every time you press the X button.

But not every essay of the week was devoted to the aesthetic high points of the medium. Writing for KillScreen, Emily Flynn-Jones pays tribute to the unironic love of kusoge, or “shit games”, which are games so functionally broken they have developed a cult fan following:

Kusoge doesn’t seem to be about bad taste or irony, but the experience of playing a truly terrible game. What I mean is that kusoge can be awesome—yes, in the “rad,” “cool,” and “amazing” sense, but also in the other. A really bad game can evoke genuine awe, a sense of “fearful wonderment,” as it is defined. Awe is a pleasing combination of terror, dread, and astonishment; bad games are capable of provoking this feeling in a way that a so-called good game cannot match.

This fascination with badness is certainly at the center of a lot of internet memes, something which our own Ben Abraham observes this week as well when he profiles MLG fragvid parodies, whose over-the-top, “trashy” designs lampoon the hypermasculine, stoner “thug” culture of Major League Gaming. I am probably not explaining this well, so you had best go take a look for yourself.

But Ben isn’t the only one to indulge in a bit of weirdness this week, as evidenced by John Brindle’s newest post on Metal Gear Solid 3 as analogous Pac Man in a more literal sense, in which eating is a form of revenge:

Imagine a game where the player character was a cannibal serial killer, escaped from a remote Appalachian penitentiary into a mountainous wilderness. The introductory areas see him happen upon a clutch of hippy campers and prey on them, horror movie style. But the game proper begins when he finds a survivalist compound. Right-wing nuts with hunting rifles patrol the woods, self-sufficient, smug and secure. Then and there, our Nietzschean hero decides that by whatever method – by trap, by snare, by spike pit, by strangling – he is going to kill and eat every single one of them. Not because he needs to, not because he is hungry, but because he is a terrible person and he wants to.

I’m not quite sure at what point I started down this Brindle-shaped rabbit hole, but it does sound like something for next year’s Molyjam.

Are we done? Whew, we’re done. Is it me, or was this week a bit more depraved than usual? I’m going to assume it’s a response to PAX East going on, because I hate to contemplate the alternative.

See you all next week! As usual, we depend on your tweeted and emailed recommendations to make each TWIVGB the best it can possibly be, so keep them coming!

April 1st

April 1st, 2012 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on April 1st)

Today we look at the oeuvre of one of game blogging’s greatest. He’s a feather in Kotaku’s snappy stetson, a man of nuance, complexity, and charisma. When he posts, the blogging world stops, and not just because his publishing block is at four in the morning. It’s This Week in Brian Ashcraft!

Taking to the streets in the harsh, yet surprisingly squishy world of investigative journalism, Ashcraft tackles the home-made buttocks of gaming mousepads and their impact on Japan’s post-Fukushima re-narrativization.

Addressing his feminist readership, Ashcraft asks us to reimagine Japanese RPG villains as women and the complex sexual politics which would result from such a nuanced recapitulation.

Even the biggest blogging trends of the West did not escape Ashcraft’s eye, lending his own commentary on the Mass Effect 3 narrative and some of the costume DLC we might look forward to. Still, Ashcraft made time for some thoughtful insights into review practices as well.

Far from focusing solely on critical practice and fan culture, however, Ashcraft also treats us to an insider’s look of the industrial side to games, with a high-brow art critique of three-dimensional mammarification in Senran Kagura. But, as we might remember when referring back to one of Ashcraft’s landmark contributions to game journalism last year, aesthetic trends can be a hard thing to predict. Moreover, as Ashcraft warns in a separate and more recent article, is the world really ready for semen count gamification?

This and more we are left to ponder as we follow the blog posts of this enigmatic and even mystifying Capote of our time. Brian Ashcraft is proof that the outside world is not prepared for the awesomeosity of game criticism. Shine on, Bashcraft. Shine on.

Join us next week, as we count down our ten favorite hard-hitting GameInformer previews!