October 25th

Abstract image evoking bird silhouette

Hello readers of games criticism! With Kris at Indiecade you may be wondering whether or not we can keep this ship afloat without them. That’s a great question! In response I’d like you to turn your attention away from how late this roundup is and get hyped for another This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Design Notes

Over at Gamasutra, Urbain Bruno explains how he and the rest of Fishing Cactus developed a narrative voice for their game, Epistory. Bruno’s article is brief but it’s a good case of a game deliberately playing with narrative convention:

We wanted to try and do something a bit more subtle and seamless: using a single voice that represents all the narration. We’ve tried to do this by presenting the story as a work-in-progress and showing the writer’s edits.

Also on Gamasutra, Pierre-Alaxandre Garneu interviews prolific analogue and digital game designer Richard Garfield.

Writing for The New Republic, Kevin Nguyen argues to grant famed Metal Gear Solid auteur Hideo Kojima the dubious honor of being the Jonathan Franzen of videogames. For Nguyen,

The seams are pretty obvious because Kojima is stitching together so many disparate elements; the word “overstuffed” comes to mind. (Not coincidentally, it’s a word that showed up repeatedly in reviews of [Franzen’s] Purity.)

Oh Girls Just Wanna Have [a greater presence in the fiction they engage with]

Fusion’s Latoya Peterson begins her series “Girl Gamers” by exploring the conditions a person has to meet to earn the label.

Teddie at the always-excellent Fem Hype expresses frustration with the limited gender options in most character creation systems. For Teddie, establishing their hero’s gender outside the constraints of a binary is necessary to feeling welcome in the experience:

But the fact that some games have trans-friendly character creation goes a long way. I don’t need sweeping plotlines about my [original character]’s gender—I’m happy with just some basic representation. A game that doesn’t assume my character fits neatly into the gender binary, a character creation screen that gives me the option not to buy into that. If I want to conform to the gender binary, let it be on my own terms.

I suspect that Alex Layne of the equally-excellent Not Your Mama’s Gamer would agree, based on her own call for more complicated and comprehensive representation of human experiences in games:

One of the reasons I started this blog along with Sam [Blackmon] was because I was sick of not being considered a consumer in the eyes of the people who make the games, not being considered a real gamer by the community, and not seeing the types of games I like (ones with strong female protagonists that aren’t sexualized) being given enough shelf space.

Turning to analogue play, Jess Joho at Kill Screen pens a brief report of toy company Mattel, maker of Barbie and their new ad campaign boasting girls can “do anything.” As Joho concludes,

More than just empowering young girls, though, the commercial tells of the importance of uninhibited play for all children. By demonstrating just how powerful a simple role-playing game can be, Mattel is not only saying that girls matter, but also that play matters…

Forms of Narrative

On her blog, TransGamer Thoughts, Heather Alexandra pokes fun at the structures of games stories while offering her own spin on how games communicate values and stories.

Paste Magazine all-star, Gita Jackson, considers the formal storytelling of Crusader Kings, describing its verisimilitude as unique in gaming’s current landscape:

Other games go so far out of their way to indicate that you’re winning that they become boring. It stops being fun to win when I know I’m close. Sometimes you just need one bite of a candy bar before you throw it away. Crusader Kings doesn’t tell you anything, doesn’t even really ask anything of you. Like the real world it is replicating, it just kicks you out the door.

As a guest on Haywire Magazine, Melody Meows investigates the blurry divide between human and machine in SOMA. A particularly glittery gem in an article filled with glittering gems:

The machine ends when there is no clear objective left to achieve. The human, as we have seen, begins with the excess: the reality of being left behind when the objective has been achieved and disappears. It’s the reality of being alive when there is nothing left to do, a reality in which the body remains in its irreducible, useless materiality.

Oh Mark, You and Your JRPGs

In a different light, Leeroy Lewin of Vextro Forever muses on the violent ideologies at the heart of JRPGs and wonders if there is an alternative mode of thinking about their systems. Here’s a long passage that I think captures a lot of what Lewin’s argues:

Role-playing games are a poison, but they are intoxicating. In a role-playing game, I’m quantifiably right. Everything hostile is determined evil. It is a moral imperative, and an ethical binary, to kill. These creatures are called monsters, it’s authored and determined for me what the interpretation of a monster is. A jrpg is so often intimately political and yet clearly destructive to nuanced politics of the interpersonal. And so I’ll tell myself, these monsters are abstractions, they’re trials, they measure a personal struggle. I’ll tell myself, if it was so willed to be, maybe the divinely right can exist. Divinity is captured, it’s real, in the fiber of a jrpg. Divinity is a tool of oppression, it always has been, and I’m not sure it can even be tentatively reclaimed.

A related thought comes from Vincent Kinian at Gaming Exhibition, who works out his own mixed feelings in a retrospective of one of his favourite JRPGs, Phantasy Star II, which he concludes stating, “It’s not enough to simply point out that there’s a problem. We have to remember what led us to the problem in the first place, something Phantasy Star II achieves beautifully.”

The most recent issue (66 for those keeping track) of Unwinnable features four essays of videogame criticism. It was a challenge picking a favorite but to keep with the heading, I’ll offer this paragraph from Rob Haines’s look back at The World Ends With You:

Empathy isn’t just an unintended side-effect of the Reapers’ Game, but a prerequisite for the emotional maturity Neku must attain before he – and his newfound friends – can bring the Game to its necessary conclusion. The Game acts as both a literal and symbolic purgatory through which he must pass to enter adulthood, but as the Game begins to unravel around him, he discovers its true purpose: to judge whether humankind deserves its continued existence. If the kid who wanted nothing to do with other people is now unable to prove their inherent worth to the godlike figures passing judgment, there may be no adulthood for him to return to.

Back in My Day

Two articles take on similar perspectives on nostalgia-driven design trends, especially in independent circles. FemHype’s June approves of yesteryear’s games and contemporary attempts to recapture their lost magic:

I’d be lying if I said nostalgia wasn’t a huge part of the allure for me. However, I think the retro gaming resurgence is due to much more than a collective yearning for the sanctuary of our simple childhoods. When I look at the unabashed joy of retro gamers, I think it’s due to stressing gaming as gaming first and foremost with no strings attached, and very little gimmicks.

Gaming Symmetry’s Alice Kojiro, while skeptical of retreading old ground for its own sake, lauds the imaginative potential early console games:

It’s not that the Bit Wars didn’t expand upon games and make them better, but because graphics were so much better, there were far fewer unknowns. It was those unknowns that made gaming back in the 8-bit era seem so magical.

The Low Bar

Jed Pressgrove appears in Paste to discuss the silliness of most bloody videogames in comparison with a few examples that treat bloodletting with an appropriate gravitas:

Depending on context, the sight of blood can activate different parts of the human condition or imagination. On the one hand, blood can bring us to real grips with our mortality. On the other, it can be feed a bloodlust or, more condescendingly, meet the lowest common denominator in emotional and visceral manipulation

Expressing a different but equally relevant frustration, Rob Fearon has had enough romanticizing the unpaid labor that goes into making videogames and would like us to start calling it what it is:

If staff are having to take loans out to survive the winter, not management sorting funding out to pay the staff (and a Kickstarter totes doesn’t count), this is broken and wrong. I’m sorry, there’s no two ways about this, it’s broken and wrong. I don’t get much further on it, yeah? Broken. Wrong.

Articles I Wanted to Add But Couldn’t Otherwise Fit Under a Common Theme

Jeffrey Matluf on Eurogamer offers compelling praise for the romance subplots of Life is Strange, particularly the one involving the socially incompetent Warren.

We’re so used to being Warren – strategizing what somebody wants to hear so that you can “win” a relationship – that we’re seldom put in the other position of trying to minimize tension in an inherently tense situation.

Our very own Riley MacLeod contributes to The Ontological Geek’s series on mental health in gaming with this article on Bioshock Infinite and traumatic feedback loops (Content warning: PTSD). MacLeod summarizes the struggle both the protagonist and villain suffer as a self-perpetuating cycle:

Neither Comstock nor Booker are good men. They’ve done terrible things, and they deal with their pasts by continuing to do terrible things, to other people and to themselves. For both of them, trauma and their responses become a feedback loop that gets harder and harder to break out of with each go around. Comstock’s dunk in the river and Booker’s seemingly straightforward mission are both the same, the lie we reach for in any struggle.

Zack Fair has 24 interconnected theses about The Beginner’s Guide that also doubles as a pretty good summary of what other writers have said about the game so far.

Cool People Doing Cool Things

The man behind Normally Rascal, Stephen Beirne, is putting together a list of critical games writing that explores race and ethnicity from a non-North American perspective. Check it out and consider helping Mr. Beirne fill this gap in our discourse.

Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson have collected an all-star list of writers for a book of collected essays, The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture.

If your interests skew more to the social sciences, Rachel Kowert and Thorsten Quandt have also edited a book of videogame essays called The Video Game Debate: Unravelling the Physical, Social, and Psychological Effects of Video Games.

Anyone looking for some extra-curricular reading is encouraged to take a look so long as they don’t re-open the videogame/video game debate.

Show Notes

Well, that’s about it for me. It’s still Sunday here but in the event that the world has continued to spin, let’s all just keep quiet the next time Kris is around and no one will be the wiser.

If you’re looking for more reading than be sure to take a look at our compilation of articles exploring Samus Aran curated by the lovely and intelligent Grayson Davis.

If you’re already through with that than be sure to pass along video recommendations to Lindsey Joyce for this month’s Critical Let’s Plays roundup using the hashtag #LetsPlayCD either on her twitter account or, if you’re feeling official, the official Critical Distance account.

If you’re gunning to get your own games criticism out there then take a look at this month’s Blogs of the Round Table where we welcome any piece on the subject of ‘Leadership.’

Alternatively, maybe you’re looking to pitch elsewhere on this worldwide web. Well you’re in luck because Critical Distance also has a growing resource page filled with online publications eagerly awaiting your pitches.

Wow. I’ll be honest with you readers. This week was a heck of a busy one, for us at Critical Distance and for the writers of games criticism all over. Between new features and commissioned compilations this has been a busy house!

If you like what we do around here and you want to be a part of our growth, any support you can offer to our Patreon or Recurrency would help us out immensely. If you aren’t able to commit to monthly support, we now also accept one-time donations through Paypal.

I would like to thank you all for reading and my cat for sitting in front of my monitor for only half of this writing process.