We’ve made it to the end of 2015. Another year has set itself into the history books.
We have gone through the archives of the past year in out endeavor to put forth a creative snapshot, our thesis, if you will, of what the year was all about. To that end we have created a compilation of the most important, most memorable and most representative critical pieces of 2015 in the hopes it can give some idea of what the year was all about. Critical Distance is proud to present the 2015 edition of This Year In Videogame Blogging!
Art is a reflection of the culture that surrounds it. The direction that a medium takes is in advance or following behind the direction that culture is presently. To best understand that direction look to the people creating it, experiencing it and living it.
At Boing Boing’s Offworld, which relaunched earlier this year, Gita Jackson said loudly and firmly, “We are not colonists.” The minority voices now being heard did not just appear out of thin air, Jackson reminds us — they were always here, just not always heard. Zoe Quinn, one of those voices, articulated the growing movement of #altgames as the movement where those voices have coalesced as a punk like movement.
In a 6-part video series, Ian Danskin of Innuendo Studios asked those who find themselves in certain harassment groups, “Why are you so angry?” Elsewhere at The Psychology of videogames, Jamie Madigan had Dr. Jeffrey Lin of Riot Games’ Player Behavior Team on his podcast to talk about toxic player behavior.
South African journalist Tauriq Moosa started a long and involved conversation on the nature of videogames’ race problem that centered mainly around The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Luke Maciak, a Slavic person, took to task a frequent counter-argument of Moosa’s piece, that the lack of representation was true to ancient Slavic culture.
Katherine Cross, in her Gamasutra column, asserted that the cultural influence of a work doesn’t supersede criticisms of diversity: “being influenced by something should not mean being shackled to it.” And in response to the response he got on his original quick take of Moosa’s piece, Austin Walker went extensively into the purpose of criticism and the intentions of critics.
At Kotaku, Evan Narcisse gathered together a number of black critics and creators — Austin Walker, Shawn Alexander Allen, Natasha Thomas and Catt Small — to discuss in a letter series “Videogames’ Blackness Problem.” Samantha Blackmon of Not Your Mama’s Gamer followed up on Narcisse’s piece to discuss another “blackness problem” outside of stereotypes and representations.
Several months later, Evan Narcisse came back to the issue in “The Natural.” Sidney Fussell at Offworld also continued the conversation, going into the dehumanizing stereotypes of black bodies games deploy and the real world damage this inflicts.
Juliet Kahn talked with her non-“gamer” sister to get the outsider perspective of what drove her away and continues to drive her away from games. It reminds us that while the climate might be getting better for women, those outside the culture can’t see any of the changes that are happening.
At FemHype, Sheva wrote about how videogames are failing transgender gamers, polling a few thousand of them on what they would like to see from their favorite games. And Rem wrote about the need for better asexual characters in games.
Joe Parlock wrote for Polygon about what videogames get wrong about autism with a few egregious examples of how it is portrayed and one that does it so much better. He also wrote a piece about the limitations of playing games with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a condition that affects his hands and requires him to take breaks every so often.
On the subject of accessibility in games, Javy Gwaltney put together a resource list for those with disabilities. There is a number of essays linked and several groups and foundations as well.
Again for FemHype, Kiva Bay drew a short comic of what is was like to be a poor gamer, homeless even, and still be a part of the community. This piece is complemented by Daniel Starkey’s essay for Offworld, in which he argues that pirating games as a poor youth gave him a future.
At Ontological Geek, Michael Evenden explored coming to games as a complete outsider later in life.
Innuendo Studios explained the beauty of competitive Super Smash Bros. (video) as a series of stories that collectively turn the game into theatre by the community. In that community spirit, Grayson Davis at Videogame Heart explained some of the cultural quirks behind fighting game community slang.
This year also saw Anna Anthropy announce that she hates her game dys4ia. Or rather, she wrote that she hates what it has become, an emblem of “Empathy Games” that allow supposed allies a shortcut without having examined themselves or learned anything.
In “Not Safe For Work (Or Anwhere Else),” Todd Harper talks about the body politics of the gay community on display in Robert Yang’s “dick pic simulator” Cobra Club. (Content Warning: predictably, sexual imagery!)
Maddy Myers, writing for Paste Magazine, expressed her annoyance at what she saw as queerbaiting in the new Tomb Raider reboot and then-unfinished Life is Strange. Later, on The Mary Sue, Myers went on to tackle the “Hot Ryu” Meme and what it teaches about the difference between sexiness and sexual objectification.
Critical Videogame Blogging
Every year the majority of criticism is about the games themselves. They are the reflection and the roadmap of ideas. The works of criticism here both examine and challenge games, new and old.
At Paste prior to his move to Giant Bomb, Austin Walker reviewed Battlefield: Hardline, calling the game a cop-out for its lack of examination of its own chosen subject matter. Anthony McGlynn for The Arcade said much the same, but was additionally perturbed by the game’s uncritical use of rap music and its political context.
Forbes’s Michael Thomsen reviewed Bloodborne based on 200 hours of Twitch and YouTube videos and in a way used Bloodborne to review the culture and community on Twitch and YouTube that sprung up around it and the Souls games. George Weidman aka Super Bunnyhop looks at how Bloodborne transitions from gothic to Lovecraftian horror (video) and how the game exemplifies that particular brand of horror. And at The Ontological Geek, Amsel von Spreckelsen took issue with using terms of domestic abuse to describe a videogame such as Bloodborne.
Batman: Arkham Knight
Austin Walker responded to Batman: Arkham Knight by instead looking at the city of Gotham that has surfaced in the Arkham series. Jorge Albor, at PopMatters, also finds fault with the Gotham in Arkham Knight in that it doesn’t give the player a feel of its city the way Chinatown and True Detective give of the Los Angeles sprawl.
Emily Short has some reflection on Her Story along with her and its relationship with the gothic. The truth she finds in this is “the social mutability of self.” Scott Juster, at PopMatters, looks at how Her Story may look like a computer, but doesn’t act like one. Something he admits probably doesn’t matter in the story’s search of someone’s true nature, but an artistic choice that made him think about what he’s doing nonetheless.
The Beginner’s Guide
Heather Alexandra explores the subtext, the meaning of interpretation, and the discussion of author/audience relationships which run through The Beginner’s Guide (video). At Medium, Amsel von Spreckelsen criticized The Beginner’s Guide as a piece of modernist art as a form it mostly acclimates itself well to.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate
At Remeshed, Simone de Rochefort goes down the list of the things we can learn from Evie Freye’s portrayal in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. It’s not what she likes or does, but that the work portrays it as not lesser to her male counterpart, Jacob. Gita Jackson in her Wardrobe Theory column at Paste, tears into Jacob’s anachronistic jacket for being all kinds of wrong.
Michelle Ehrhardt goes back to the original Assassin’s Creed, which she labels as the only truly revolutionary title in the series. The game takes its titular “creed” and basic plot from the 1938 novel Alamut, a statement against the rise of fascism in Italy, and manages to morph the game into an interrogation of the war on terror.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Eurogamer’s Aoife Wilson responded to Metal Gear director Hideo Kojima’s infamous statement regarding an underdressed character in The Phantom Pain, saying that if players were ashamed, it was not for the reason Kojima might have hoped. George Weidman went in deep into the lore of Metal Gear (video) and explored how well Metal Gear Solid V stacks up as the missing link that bring the whole epic 9 game cycle to a close.
On his blog Normal Rascal, Stephen Beirne lamented the loss of the Codec sequences of previous Metal Gear Solid titles as, to him, they were an expressionistic menu option that delivered a thematically rich safe space that could be played with.
Gaby of Girl From The Machine looked at “Queerness in Metal Gear Solid” series and the problematic ways it presents its queer characters as punchlines or vessels of villainy.
Fallout 4 is an apocalypse outside of context, so says Yussef Cole, as the world of that series is stuck in a kitsch version of the 1950s that ignores, if not erases, the race politics of that era. In doing so, the world of Fallout hasn’t moved passed them, just presents the world in “bland universal terms.”
Laura Dale was hit hard by Life is Strange‘s second episode in which she witnessed a character’s suicide, using it as a launching-off point to discuss where responsibility might lie in confronting players with potentially traumatic scenes. (Content Warning: frank descriptions of suicide.)
Austin Walker looked at how Darkest Dungeon deals with mental health. He noted that it while it isn’t faultless, it’s still beyond many other games in depicting mental illness, and above all it executes well on a deep seated anxiety, that “we live in a world that is willing to ruin people for a little net gain.”
Writing for Paste, Maddy Myers wondered if disaster games should be fun. Elsewhere, the Extra Credits crew castigated Hatred (video) for not being about rage or violence, as it advertised, but about pure and simple sadism.
At Videogame Heart, Grayson Davis reminded reviewers that “Super Mario Maker is not a toolset to make Mario levels any more than Pictionary is a game about creating fine art.” And Chris Franklin’s Errant Signal take on Sunset (video) showed us a game concerned with the intersection of art and state power, while noting the intersection of market forces that caused would end up making Sunset the last game from two-person studio Tale of Tales.
In the last installment of her S.EXE column for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Cara Ellison looked at the main relationship between Maureen and Ben in Full Throttle, praising it as one of the most romantic she has come across in a game.
Anita Sarkeesian praised The Scythian (video) from Sword & Sworcery EP in Feminist Frequency’s new series examining positive depictions of women in games.
Several critics explored older games as they looked forward to the future. Kill Screen’s Chris Priestman studied the original Lara Croft and how she became an expression of Riot-Grrrl feminism of the 1990s. Noah Caldwell-Gervais examined all 11 PC Call of Duty titles (video) and how the series has evolved over the last 12 years. And Nate Ewert-Krocker performed a close reading of Final Fantasy Tactics and how its main character comes to recognize their privilege.
Brendan Vance’s longform critique of “The Ghosts of Bioshock” covered the real history of Wounded Knee, Manifest Destiny, and the Boxer Rebellion, versus how their shadows are felt through Bioshock Infinite‘s compromised vision. Samantha Blackmon and Alisha Karabinus came together to in a video for Not Your Mama’s Gamer about the art and animation style of Cuphead and its invocation of blackface tropes, however unintentional.
Over at Memory Insufficient, John Brindle looked at the nature of consent in a community of roleplayers in World of Warcraft who dictate property rights. Elsewhere, Adarel explored the politics of City: Skylines with regards to its education system and how pumping money into it fixes all of a city’s problems.
In the last few months, Videogame Tourism ran an 8-part series “Demystifying MOBAs” by Eron Rauch, examining in close detail the game design of several of the big games in the genre: League of Legends, DOTA2, and Heroes of the Storm.
Kate Cox examined the music of Dragon Age: Inquisition and how the subtleties of repeated themes and alterations of pieces can highlight both aspects of the world’s culture and otherwise hidden story beats. Bruno Dias reviewed Emily is Away for ZEAL, focusing on some often-overlooked story elements and how they uncritically reproduce an abuser’s playbook.
First Person Scholar brought us Mark Johnson’s analysis of bullet hell game Warning Forever and how its design inverts many aspects of the genre and plays purposefully with others. Finally, Kill Screen’s Will Partin did much more than simply review Prison Architect, instead tackling its large-scale failure to either model or critique the U.S. prison system and its human rights abuses.
Games are an artistic form, but they are also a business. Likewise, there are many facets to games writing, from analysis of specific games to coverage and analysis of the people who make them.
And that industry isn’t without its problems. Kotaku’s Jason Schreier collected a number of layoff horror stories in “The Pizza Party Where Everyone Got Fired.” Writing for The Guardian, Ian G. Williams looked at what has changed in the 11 years since EA Spouse. Turns out: not much.
Alex Wawro explored at the effect that creating gross, violent games have on developers and how seeing such material day in, day out can mess with their heads. (Content Warning: graphic gore.)
‘Big indies’ may bring more money to more Kickstarter projects than before, but in a piece for Polygon Katie Chironis explained the hidden cost of the new strand of “indies” using the service as a proof of interest to show to investors.
Gita Jackson joined other critics in lamenting the loss of P.T., which was pulled from the Playstation Network Store earlier this year following the cancellation of Silent Hills. And while losing P.T. was terrible, Felipe Pepe took the Gamasutra community to task for its selective attention span, calling the interest in this specific title a self-servicing crusade for a high profile game while ignoring an industry-wide problem.
Critic-turned-professor Maggie Greene lamented the loss not of a game, but of the body of writing generated around games. For example, remember Spore and how groundbreaking and culture-shattering it was? Chris Suellentrop remembered, or at least, he remembered the hype and how much it resembles that currently passed around for the upcoming title No Man’s Sky.
Chris Bateman revisited the once-truism of the forty hour game and how it has changed from a situation of game-as-product to an exercise of retention. Elsewhere, Owen Grieve of Midnight Resistance mused on a post-post-gamer era and how the industry has changed with the march of time.
New Republic’s Kevin Nguyen argued compellingly that “Hideo Kojima is the Jonathan Franzen of videogames.” And with Tale of Tales closing down, Elise Wehle wrote a letter to developers in the form of a history lesson on the avant garde and how posterity tends to redeem it.
This year also saw the departure of Nintendo president and industry giant Satoru Iwata. Gamasutra’s Christian Nutt reflects on Iwata, the lessons he learned over his long career, and how they shaped the decisions he made for Nintendo.
Some criticism is about a game as a whole and other times it’s about a single element abstracted out. Some times that abstraction isn’t tied down to an example, but to an understanding of game design itself. Both critics and developers can lend a unique perspective to design.
Shortly after The Beginner’s Guide‘s release, Brendan Keogh theorized about two ways of thinking about making a game: design in which the player is at its center, versus making a fine-tuned machine where the player is the least reliable part of it.
Heather Alexandra looked at the QTEs and how they are developed in the game that coined them, Shenmue.
“Why are we so afraid to walk?” asked Miguel Penabella at Kill Screen, as he tried to define and understand the genre — or rather the movement — of the “first person walker.” It’s a term that he admits is imprecise, yet still better than the proposed alternatives.
In her essay “Against Flow” Lana Polansky jump-starts a conversation about the “flow” convention of “traditional design,” claiming it numbs subjectivity and side-steps politics in art. Cameron Kunzelman pushed Polansky’s “ideological container” concept further by exploring flow’s origin as a vague term slowly stripped of that vagueness, turning instead into a conservative moniker. Heather Alexandra continued the train of thought left by the previous two and proposed a more interesting, sublime state of engagement with games.
Gita Jackson brought up the 60fps debate and why videogame producers should not invoke cinema too casually, as though film weren’t itself beset by multiple framerate standards. Katherine Cross, writing for Gamasutra, argued videogames should forget all comparison to cinema and instead look to opera as their closest cousin.
Lana Polansky also tackled Clint Hocking’s famously misappropriated term “ludonarrative dissonance,” by formalizing and explaining a much simpler and clearer model: coherence and incoherence.
Speaking of Bioshock, Salavatore Pane criticized its “Tyranny of Fun,” an attitude of game design he says always impacts how we try to make or appreciate works outside the box. Elsewhere, on the subject of games like Dark Souls, Austin C. Howe explained the concept of “Republican Dad Mechanics” (audio), their current use in videogames and their limiting and off-putting structure.
While Austin Walker and Ian Williams’s letter series for Paste is formally about Funk of Titans, it’s really about the use and purpose of “blaxploitation” content in games, and why context matters. Developer Robert Yang, inspired by his struggles with the U.S. government to be recognized, looks to how to turn that inspiration to how to construct bodies in his games.
And Claris Cyarron for The Arcade Review looks to the paintings of Mark Rothko and how videogames can evoke the same emotions in their constructed spaces.
Beyond the internet article, there is a longer form of criticism taking the form of books and magazines. Over the past few years these enterprises have grown and such publications continue to be a presence.
Boss Fight Books published most of its second season of books this year. Notable among them were: Ashly and Anthony Burch’s look at Metal Gear Solid, in which they both celebrate and take the game to task in ways it hasn’t matured; and Nick Suttner’s book on Shadow of the Colossus, which explores both the game’s influences and the game as the influencer in turn.
2015 also saw the release of several essay collections, including Shooter, a roundup of essays on various genre entries and edited by Reid McCarter and Patrick Lindsey, as well as The State of Play, edited by Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson. And while it will not hit the public until early 2016, Cara Ellison recently went on a press tour for the paperback edition of her popular Embed with Games series.
Special mention should also be made of Zoe Quinn’s upcoming memoir Crash Override, which was recently optioned for a movie adaptation as well.
Lastly, prominent scholar, author and former Blogger of the Year recipient Brendan Keogh has finished his PhD thesis on intersections between games and bodies and has released it into the wild.
From Our Contributors
As has been the case from our site’s inception, Critical Distance prides itself on drawing its contributors from the community, writers as enmeshed in the ongoing discourse as those we cover. We’d like to take a moment to highlight some of their work from this year from outside of C-D.
First up, our senior curator and editor-in-chief Kris Ligman delivered a talk at Queerness in Games Con earlier this year, on why “Sex is like Dark Souls” — in that it may not be for everybody and is not the be-all, end-all of human experience.
Our This Month in Let’s Plays curator and Blogs of the Round Table co-chair Lindsey Joyce looked at Kentucky Road Zero for Haywire Magazine and saw the player’s role not so much that of an actor, but as the director “Pulling The Strings” of the experience due to the necessary “thinking from a higher level order of story.” And fellow co-chair of Blogs of the Round Table Mark Filipowich wrote about several videogame cities and the novel Thirteen Cents.
One of our weekend contributors, Riley MacLeod, looked at the different type of masculinity exemplified by stealth game protagonists and how it feels more relatable to him. Fellow weekend contributor Zolani Stewart continues his establishment of Sonic Studies with an essay on the Dreamcast’s Sonic Adventure so comprehensive it was broken into three parts.
And finally, per our usual tradition, our senior curator has chosen one piece written by the moderator of our Critical Distance Confab podcast and these end-of-the-year features, Eric Swain: his analysis of The Charnel House Trilogy as a form of theater, written for PopMatters.
Two members of our team also retired earlier this year: Lana Polansky and Cameron Kunzelman. These changes occurred before work on this list began, so we’ve included them elsewhere in this roundup. We’re thankful for all your contributions to the site, Lana and Cameron!
Blogger of the Year
And now to announce our Blogger of the Year, I cede the floor to Senior Curator Kris Ligman:
It has become customary in these end-of-the-year retrospectives to highlight the contributions of a particular writer, or writers, who helped define the year’s critical discourse.
In the past, the honor of “best blogger” has gone to a newcomer or standout writer who went from standing near the periphery of our reading of games writing to take center stage in an ongoing, ever-evolving critical discussion. Each year, these breakout talents have helped to raise the discourse to new heights. Previous years’ winners include Brendan Keogh (2012), Liz Ryerson and Samantha Allen (2013), and Austin Walker (2014).
This year, we are proud to name Gita Jackson as our Blogger of the Year.
Gita Jackson touched off 2015 by delivering one of its most seminal pieces, a manifesto for the recently-relaunched Offworld. Her column on games and fashion for Paste Magazine is not only refreshingly unique in a discourse often obsessed with graphics and gameplay, Jackson also approaches her readers — and her listeners on the Match 3 podcast — with a characteristic insight and charm that leave the rest of us feeling like we’re slacking off in our own critiques.
We congratulate Gita on her many contributions to 2015’s discourse on games and we hope you will join us in celebrating and supporting her future work!
And Auld Lang Syne
In looking back upon this past year, we saw both critics and designers look to the past, ruminating on the paths we took and in some cases wondered about those that we did not take, or took and then abandoned.
But most of all, this year was a massive collective effort to recognize there was not a single path walked to the present. Many histories — of developers, of players, of critics — intersect in creating ‘now.’ And knowing that, we can move forward with a plan and an understanding of the large, complicated, tangled mess of a collective history behind us, rather than a single straight line. That is 2015. That is what I think this retrospective illustrates.
I thank all my colleagues at Critical Distance for putting in their time and expertise, not just into this feature, but into the site as a whole. I thank my editors, both here and elsewhere. And I thank you, our readers. See you all next year.
Critical Distance is proud to be funded completely by its readership. If you are willing and able, please consider signing up to our Patreon for a small monthly donation, or through our PayPal for a one-time donation, to help continue all the work we do here.
To everyone, we wish you a happy, forward-looking New Year!