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Welcome to This Week in Videogame Blogging! It’s almost my birthday! I can’t wait anymore, so let’s see what you all got me.

The first gift is from Chris Person, who brings us The Cosmology of Kyoto, the game Roger Ebert loved. This is notable somehow, although it’s my personal policy to just ignore the man. In any case, the game is lovely (and terrifying) so Person’s also followed up with instructions on how you can play it for yourself. So thoughtful!

More enigmatic is this interesting, inscrutable meditation on our connections with game characters, from Ryan Kuo:

The illusions of non-player characters complicated to the point that we could legitimately say we had “fallen” for Alyx Vance, Garrus Vakarian or a horse. They made the perfect motions and looked us in the eye and said what we wanted to hear. But each year we age, these creatures seem more dead than living. We notice their tenuous walk, as on a high wire; the way they numbly repeat themselves and react only to the right things in the right ways at the right times; their glassy eyes.

This brings up some difficult questions: Why do we care deeply about such a character, if her love for us is predetermined at birth? If one day this person can feel on her own, how are we supposed to trust that person? But shouldn’t we trust that she cares about us?

Characters are a treasure to Patricia Hernandez of Kotaku as well, who writes of why not finishing Mass Effect 3 is her own ideal ending:

I mean, really, that’s why I was there, right? It wasn’t about defeating Saren, or the Illusive Man, or the Reapers, and it’s especially not about saving Earth. Naw. Mass Effect is about the characters and their stories. Like Ike from Fire Emblem says, “I fight for my friends.”

[…]

I thought about the void I felt every time after finishing media that was important to me, how difficult it was to follow up on. I thought about how desperation would keep me reaching blindly to try to follow it up, anyway.

Why should I brave that? No more loss, no crappy ending, no blind, hungry search for something to fill the void. Instead, I crystallized the game and everyone in it at a good moment.

And because Kotaku under Stephen Totilo’s guidance has become the gift that keeps on giving, here’s another for you from Michael Peck, musing on the (though he doesn’t use the term himself) approaching technological/sociopolitical singularity and how it’s keeping games in past paradigms: “Why It’s So Hard to Make a Game Out of the 21st Century“.

And Maggie Greene must really love me, because her new blog post on the ethnocentrism lying behind critiques of playbor is just smashing:

I’m not arguing for an essentialist reading, some Protestant vs. Confucian face off (that’s silly), or saying that the labor-as-play model doesn’t work in a number of contexts (it does) – because really, the territory has yet to be adequately mapped. There has been precious little study of games in pre-20th century East Asia, slightly more regarding digital games in East Asia, and the Western press/blogging community takes a sneering and insulting attitude towards the Asian market (with the necessary exception of Japan, of course). It has always really rubbed me the wrong way – just because you might have no interest in playing XYZ game doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable to discuss it. Turning up our collective noses at Korean or Chinese games (for a quick example) because they’re long, slogging grinds is short sighted at best.

Speaking of taking the long view, you know what a fan I am of delicious vitriolic rants, and Patrick Lindsey’s over at Pixels or Death is exactly what I asked for!

Consider this a worldwide wakeup call.

If we want improvement – honest to god improvement – if we want our videogames back, once and for all, we have to overcome our insanity and reclaim them. We need to stop excusing new franchise entries every single year because “well, I guess they’re still kinda fun.” We must shun the “cinematic” and the “setpiece” and instead demand actual game design again. All gamers, from the couch-sitting high schooler to the journalist playing a review copy from her office, have to snap out of the dementia we’re locked in and start actually loving videogames again. Forcing ourselves to find something to like in each new gritty FPS isn’t being accepting and open-minded, it’s fucking Stockholm Syndrome.

On Gamasutra, Victoria Earl takes us through the design secrets Chrono Trigger uses to feel open. In a similar vein, Play the Past’s Emily Bembeneck walks us through changes in space as storytelling both old and modern:

In folklore studies, Vivian Labrie has shown how oral storytellers recall the tales they tell via the spatial progression within them. It is the movement from location to location that helps them recall the story. Not the logic. Not the time. The space. Storytellers can map out their tales as pictures of spaces (holding characters) in a series connected by arrows. The logic of those connections comes out in the telling, but isn’t necessarily held in the memory. Location is. Even in Homer, we can see how the teller imagines narrative progressing between particular locations. There are temporal markers in the poem as well, of course, but the significance of that time, the change, is visible in the particular spaces themselves at different points in the story.

So why is this important? What does it matter if space tells story? For one, I think it is important to realize that our minds may value space more importantly than they do time. For designing games, this means particular spaces and the progression of those spaces will be able to carry meaning without text and without temporal markers. Change itself, whether change in one location or the change that comes from progressing to one location from another, is enough to tell story.

Following in Bembeneck’s wake, Robert Hunter offers up another look at Journey and how its physics and interactions bring us the impression of “water in the desert.” Very evocative.

And speaking of evocations, much has been made of Steven Boone’s recent piece criticizing E3 darling The Last of Us– so much so that he’s back now with a followup further extrapolating on his arguments. It’s a unique perspective to be sure, and you know how I love one-of-a-kind things:

The norm in 2012 is for shots to arrive on the screen with a silent crash, a new configuration of motion, light and perspective thrust on the audience, producing what film editing guru Edward Dmytryk called a “mental hiccup,” or speed bump. Each of these disruptions, flowing not from dramatic necessity but from a fear of losing the attention of a superficially engaged viewer, is an act of sensory violence. And, like actual violence, it can imprint the victim. The past decade of having our eyes dragged across millions of violent ruptures in even the gentlest narrative situations has encoded us with this expectation.

So now big commercial films run at ever-higher speeds over thousands of speed bumps, catering to an audience the creators seem to think of as frantic shoppers. The time it takes to watch the chemistry blossom between two actors in a two-shot, or for a powerful realization to light up a face in close-up, is a luxury they don’t believe they, or we, can afford.

The most violent, flashy video game does minimal violence to our sense of temporal and spatial continuity; it’s a built-in property (virtue, really) of the medium. The user is the protagonist and so must remain properly oriented to his environment as much as possible. In this sense, Mortal Kombat is far less “violent” than Bridesmaids.

Ever wonder what Quintin Smith’s up to these days? He’s over at Eurogamer, paying loving tribute to memorable start screens. Meanwhile, Kotaku Man of Sound Kirk Hamilton profiles barking– no, not the dog and seal kind, but the incidental dialogue filling gaming’s city streets and cover-based corridors.

And I know Earnest Cavalli knows it’s my birthday, because even he went above and beyond the call of duty this week, peeling back the narrative layers of Max Payne 3 to get at its historical and racial subtext. Meanwhile, Patrick Garratt paints a portrait of Tomb Raider as ‘business as usual’ in an industry tailored entirely for one kind of consumer.

(The next section bears trigger warnings for discussion of rape, misogyny, homophobia and child abuse.)

And while every article which appears in these roundups is truly a gift, my thanks especially have to go out to those writers who go places others can’t or won’t, often in venues which are openly hostile to any kind of provocative statement. So it’s an honor this week to showcase this powerful, candid personal account of a rape survivor and his confrontation with online gaming rape culture, featured on The Escapist earlier this week. The Border House and GayGamer’s Denis Farr, writing in his own blog, offers up a necessary coda.

(End trigger warning section.)

Lastly, as LGBT Pride Month just wrapped up here in the United States, I’d be remiss in not featuring the following from Kill Screen’s Yannick LeJacq, on the very significant social shifts underlying representation of sexuality in games, and the political doubletalk which accompanies it:

In the bifurcated sexual epistemology of 21st century Western culture—a world of gays and straights, men and women, closets and streets—Commander Shepard had to come out, an action that necessarily implies that he was hiding it before.

[…] It reflects a larger trend in queer activism today that tries to harness libertarian and neoliberal economic and political values to craft a new defense of sexual freedom ensconced in the rhetoric of personal choice. […] And it’s a political strategy echoed by BioWare itself, a sentiment Mac Walters reflected when I spoke to him—the effort to give every Mass Effect player the fullest sense that their Shepard truly is theirs. It’s a clever way to beat “traditional” conservatives at their own game. […] As Zeschuk said to Kotaku when explaining the choice: “If there’s a political bent to it, it’s very Libertarian.”

My point here isn’t to point out the silly rhetorical similarities between videogames and contemporary politics, or even to make some grandiose statement that perhaps videogames as the consummate medium of the 21st century have unwittingly enshrined some neoliberal mindset by demanding everyone obsess over “choice” in the first place. Really, it’s just to note that the concept of “choice” is a much easier thing to advocate for—in games as in real life—than something genuinely queer.”

A downer of a note to end on? Mayhaps. But it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.

My thanks to all the writers featured here for such lovely presents! Yes, these were definitely too good to leave unopened one second longer.

Join us next week, where for my unbirthday I’ll be opening the other gifts people sent in… I’m not sure how I’d rank grandma’s hand-knitted socks on a 7-10 scale, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out by next week. That is, unless you all send in something better. So keep those tweeted and emailed recommendations coming!

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