It’s late and my tailbone smarts from sitting in this chair so long. I’d like to get to bed before sunrise at least once this December, so let’s cut the fluff and get to the stuff: it’s This Week in Videogame Blogging!
WINTER WRAP-UP, WINTER WRAP-UP
Michael Abbott kicks off what is sure to be a month filled with 2012 retrospectives by suggesting that we’ve arrived at something approaching another watershed year in terms of game design:
This year, the very definition of “game” was thrown into question more often and by more designers than ever before.
If the signature of a vibrant art is artists pushing conventional boundaries, questioning formal assumptions, and producing provocative, wildly divergent work, this was a very good year for the art of games.
Abbott also highlight a selection of games from the year, many of which he feel falls into this category of challenging design conventions.
Awesome Out of 10’s David Chandler is on a similar wavelength, as he looks to the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, and posits that games, too, are at a turning point of being more critical and self-aware.
BUT HOW MANY FEELS PER SECOND DOES IT HAVE?
Over on Medium Difficulty, Dan Solberg muses on the marketing buzzword “authenticity.”
Meanwhile, over on The Guardian, Keith Stuart puts together a worthy reply to last week’s Jonathan Jones piece, and includes interviews with Matt Adams, Richard Lemarchard and Dan Pinchbeck. Here’s a choice bit from the latter:
To be honest, I don’t think [‘are games art?’ is] actually a very interesting question. I don’t think games need to aspire to being art, like art is an inherently more worthwhile form of cultural expression – people were playing games long before they were making art, so it’s certainly not an older one. A more interesting question is, why is it so important to some people that games are NOT art? Why do they feel so threatened by games being art?
John Maeda, whose work is included in MoMA’s permanent collection, speaks up on Wired in defense of the museum’s decision to include games, and in doing so raises, I think, a fairly interesting argument on how to view the selected games:
Videogames are indeed design: They’re sophisticated virtual machines that echo the mechanical systems inside cars. Would anyone question a Ferrari or Model T or even a VW bug being acquired by MoMA?
Like well-designed cars, well-designed videogames are ways of taking your mind to different places. (Of course, I’m not speaking about the literality of playing driving-specific games like Grand Theft Auto).
I would argue that in some cases, games edge past being design to being art as well. […] As a genre, videogames take our minds on journeys, and we can control and experience them much more interactively than passively – especially when they are well designed. So the creators of a game haven’t “ceded the responsibility” of their personal visions; rather, they allow a space for users to construct their own personal experiences, or ask questions as art does.
No, this isn’t “overly serious and reverent praise” of games, it’s just what is.
GOOD TIMES WITH HACKING
Robert Louis McIntyre furnishes us with an engrossing video and how-to guide for reprogramming Pokemon Yellow from within, using a few simple machine tricks.
RISE OF THE ZINESTERS
Following on the heels of Porpentine’s Twine how-to from last week, here’s Jay Weston with a feature on Gamasutra on how to get started with code-free game design using Unity and Playmaker.
Meanwhile at Unwinnable, Nels Anderson offers up a sort-of post-mortem on Mark of the Ninja, which doubles as an eloquent reflection on indie development:
Making games, at least good ones, is an almost total act of faith. Faith in yourself, faith in your team, faith in the audience, faith in your collective ability to transform the barely-playable, wholly uninteresting mess you’re currently looking at into something that will engage people. (I don’t think many folks admit it, but during creation basically all games are really shitty for a really long time. It’s just that the good ones get better.) Frankly, it’s pretty fucking terrifying.
I hope this doesn’t sound dour and anxious, because that’s certainly not how I feel. In some ways, having to rely on faith this way is liberating. Knowing that you can’t be sure means you just have to do your damn best and hope.
GO WEST YOUNG MAN
On Videogame Tourism, Rainer Sigl suggests that the tendency toward exploration in games hearkens back to our ancestral roots as wanderers:
Games’ virtual spaces allow us to roam farther than reality does – especially now, that the tools made to free us from fixed office spaces and the need to be physically present also, paradoxically, take away the necessity to leave our screens. There is, after all, a reduction in our daily lives’ radius; we’re living in the age of the “Great Indoors”.
It shouldn’t surprise us that, in exchange, the virtual spaces around us are growing. Games let us decamp and set forth. And they take us to places that are as outlandish as our wildest fantasies: Great underwater cities, showcasing madness and art deco; twisted death zones exhibiting the ruins of once proud civilizations; megalomaniac architectures between Heaven and Hell.
Games give us places, spaces, whole continents to explore and wander. And all of them are here for us to sate our curiosity, to satisfy that ancient human need to see what’s behind that hill, that mountain, that horizon. Why? For no other reason than the one the world’s highest peak was conquered: “Because it’s there.”
In a piece that serves so perfectly as a counter to Sigl’s that I’m not entirely sure it’s coincidental, Steven Poole writes on Edge questioning videogames’ fixation on corridors:
The corridor is inherently authoritarian, seeking to corral unbounded biological movement into unnaturally linear paths. Early man did not grow up in corridors but on wide savannah plains, which is posited by some evolutionary anthropologists as the reason why our field of vision is wider than it is tall. To put a human being in a corridor, then, is to create a tension between our sensory equipment, tuned to one environment, and the artificial new surroundings. It is to say to us, with a sneering challenge: ‘Adapt to this!’
The phenomenon in videogames of what I like to call the ‘jungly corridor’, then, may be taken as a sophisticated joke about man’s struggle to negotiate modernity using his woefully inapt primate heritage. What looks like lush, natural rainforest or tropical island vegetation turns out to be a series of corridors no less soul-destroying than your local council offices.
ALSO PLEASE QUESTION MY USE OF ‘MAN’ IN THE PREVIOUS SUBHEADER
[This section carries a general trigger warning for discussion of sexism, racism, bullying and rape.]
Reacting to the hastily-pulled “Hire Hitman” Facebook app in which users could put out “hits” on their friends, Leigh Alexander writes on Gamasutra criticizing a persistent disconnect between game marketers and developers.
Writing for a more general audience on The Mary Sue, Becky Chambers discusses playing the recent Omega DLC for Mass Effect 3 and relates how while gender “shouldn’t matter,” as long as there are representational inequalities, it does.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s John Walker squints disapprovingly at Far Cry 3‘s racist tropes and rape subplot:
Because Far Cry 3, well, it’s a bit racist, isn’t it?
I said, rather flippantly, that the people of this island are the race they are, because it’s the island they’re native to. It is what it is, essentially. And that’s the case – that’s really not the issue here. It had to be set somewhere. The issue is the horribly worn tropes it so lazily kicks around when it gets there. As it is, you have the simple-folk-natives, and the immigrant white men with their mixture of South African and Australian accents. And one black guy. White people ask you to get involved in enormously elaborate machinations, ancient mysteries, and local politics. Locals ask you to help them kill endangered species, find their missing daughters, and point out when their husbands are gay. Essentially, the locals behave as if they’re helpless without you, but when you wield their tattoo-based magical powers then true greatness appears. And it’s here that the problems really kick in.
There’s a term for it. It’s “Noble Savage“. And it also falls under the remit of the “Magical Negro“. The trope is that the non-white character possesses mystical insight, magical abilities, or simply a wisdom derived from such a ‘simple life’, that can enlighten the white man. And it’s pretty icky. The premise relies on the belief that the individual’s race is in some way debilitating, something their noble/mystical abilities are able to ‘overcome’.
The further you get, the more revered your character becomes. The antagonists call you Snow White, a derisory name but one that pretty much points out that you’re the pure white American man in this land of colourful folks. And the locals begin to hear word of not only your helpful ways (which would seem fair – you’re being very helpful) but also your abilities with their customs, your wielding of their powers. You are the outsider who has come in and outdone them, shown them the true majesty of their savage abilities. They can’t fight against the pirates for themselves, but you can save them.
And then there’s the rapey bit. (Oddly, this paragraph is also a spoiler.) General rule: unless your game is about rape, or willing to truly deal with the subject, maybe steer clear of rape. It’s way too big of a subject to nonchalantly include, and it’s pretty abhorrent to use it as a mere plot beat. […] in the end, the reveal of Jason’s victimisation is flippant, and the ludicrous mystic-trippy scene in which you QTE kill Buck is just plain offensive in the context.
Touching off this, Kotaku’s Patricia Hernandez features a good roundup of discussion about the game and what motivates people not to pick up certain games.
On Bitch Magazine, Katherine Cross, aka The Border House’s Quinnae, highlights the real problem of the “it’s just a game” or “it’s the Internet” defense:
That phrase is the machine to which oppressive power dynamics are the ghost. How many times have you heard someone say “It’s the Internet; you shouldn’t take that seriously”? This kind of thinking supports the idea you can do anything you want with no consequences, when in all actuality, virtual actions like sexual harassment, stalking, abuse, prejudice in all of its forms—racism, sexism, transphobia, or all of the above—do have consequences.
The real issue is a lack of accountability, fostered by the idea that what happens online does not have “real world” consequences. Whether people write their hate using a pseudonym or with a real name and picture attached, they’re culturally supported in doing so because “it’s just a game.” But one’s avatar or screen name can be a vehicle of accountability as surely as any other. When you level in an online game and garland yourself with the rewards of dungeon-delving, raiding, or player-vs.-player combat, you develop a personality and reputation that you cannot easily shed. Even if no one ever knows your legal name or face, accountability and responsibility can still accrue to that avatar. Such a person becomes unaccountable not because of anonymity, but because too many gamers throw their hands up and say “This is the Internet, what can you do?” It’s similar to “boys will be boys” in its handwashing of responsibility.
PRESS A FOR MEANINGFUL INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIP
On Nightmare Mode, Kim Moss points out the ways relationships are modeled in games are not just flat, they can be downright sociopathic:
In any Bioware game, kindness is a currency. You make regular payments to earn affection points. You pay by listening to someone talk about their problems and giving them cheap gifts. Put in enough coins and sex falls out.
After that, the relationship is over. Sex was your end goal, the reason for everything you did. There was no reason to stick around after you got it. That was what you were paying for.
It doesn’t matter if you find Morrigan’s Ayn Rand inspired morality to be utterly repulsive. Just sit there, nod your head, and she’ll fall for you. It doesn’t matter that your Shepard is a paragon of virtue and integrity. If you play at being anything but when Jack’s paying attention, she’ll love you someday. In these games, telling women what they want to hear and listening to their problems is all it takes to get laid.
Of course, that’s not how the real world works. A Nice Guy will tell you this is unfair; that they paid for a service they did not receive. A human being knows better.
John Brindle appeared as a guest on Helen Lewis’s column on New Statesman this week writing about how textual games, especially interactive fiction, disrupt the “glamor” of war. In it, Brindle covers the work of several IF writers; he’s also posted a valuable coda on his own blog containing a more extended interview with one of these writers (and a name who’s been getting quite a bit of well-deserved traction of late), Porpentine.
Bit Creature contributor Alexandra Geraets writes in her own blog in an effort to hone in on what it is exactly that games do to their players:
Spec Ops didn’t do anything to me. It’s a game. I’ve never believed that video games make people violent, nor do I think that shooters ‘train’ people to kill.
It made me pay attention a little more, yes, and it gave Jace and me plenty of late-night conversation, where we realized that we were both seeing a commentary on the nature of military-themed games, shooters, and on the nature of good and evil, especially on how good men can move from sense and reason to madness and destruction simply because they believe they are in the right. If you believe you’re right, you can convince yourself of anything.
Captain Walker is one of my favorite video game characters. I don’t like him, but he’s found a special place in my gamer’s heart of characters whom I’ll never forget.
Games as a whole have shaped me as a writer – certainly my fiction feels different than it did when I was in college, just starting out as a gamer – and when I see games exploring real world themes – war, history, action and inaction – I pay closer attention.
Has any one game ever done anything to me?
GENTLEMEN, PLEASE! NO LITERARY THEORY IN THE WAR ROOM!
Geraets’s fellow Bit Creaturer Drew Dixon draws a spiritual conclusion from the illusion of choice in The Walking Dead.
On Unwinnable, Jill Scharr gets elbows-deep into the narrative structure of Final Fantasy X.
Over on Ontological Geek, Hannah DuVoix explores the existentialism of Fallout.
On Gameranx, Brendan Keogh has been plumbing the depths of Binary Domain for a while, but his recent discovery that he can use the voice recognition system to disrupt combat is fascinating.
Nightmare Mode’s Matthew Schanuel discusses locating gaming’s negative space, particularly within Dark Souls.
And at Bomb the Stacks, musician Daniel Korn takes a vinyl lens to Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP in order to get at the heart of its magic.
Meanwhile at Spin, Alex Eaton cuts together a sick video history of game samples in rap.
On Youtube, Shaun Inman presents us with a seriously interesting, seriously close look at the camera behaviors in Super Mario World. Don’t be put off by Inman’s voice work–as the video continues, you’ll get a clear impression of just how much he knows his stuff.
The singular Jesper Juul satisfies this week’s statporn quota with these incredible graphs charting the rise and decline of both platforms and genres over the decades.
Writing for Unwinnable, Jordan Mammo takes us on a peek inside South Korea’s tireless affection for StarCraft.
On Digital Spirit Guide, Katherine Owen shares an autobiographical tale of using games to cope with a chronic injury.
BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE
Helen Lewis’s recent New Statesman piece asking “Why Are We Still So Bad at Talking About Video Games?” sparked a flurry of response pieces, well, pointing readers to where all the good games criticism is. To that end she’s graciously handed over the reins of her column to these writers.
The tireless Brendan Keogh an excellent roundup of go-to sites for good criticism (we’re proud to say, including this one) and a lot of this year’s stand-out articles.
Following up, Liz Ryerson presents a critical reader including many from blogs off the beaten path.
For those who missed it, Alan Williamson has (mostly) settled into his new place and thus has gotten around to posting November’s Blogs of the Round Table Round-up. BoRT will return in January.
As always, we depend heavily on readers’ contributions to point us toward the latest and greatest games blogging from around the web. If you have a piece that you’d like to see on This Week in Videogame Blogging, please be sure to send it in to us via @-replies on Twitter or our email submissions form.
That’s all for this week! Till next round-up, stay frosty or toasty as your hemisphere dictates, and keep an eye out for our annual This Year in Videogame Criticism call for submissions post coming later in the month!