January 24th

I could say this on a lot of Sundays but I’m going to say it on this one: I’m flabbergasted by the quality of writing featured in This Week in Videogame Blogging! Let’s dispense with the pleasantries and hop right to it!

Reality, History and Violence

[Content Warning: violence, sexual assault, genocide] In a piece for The Guardian, Anna Moore discusses online grooming and Murder Games, a documentary about Breck Bednar, a London boy who was murdered after a man developed a relationship with him through an online game.

Erik Twice argues that This War of Mine is an opportunistic simplification of the real Sarajevo conflict:

All those elements; the scavenging, the threat of an unideological enemy, calling your house “our shelter”, the moral conundrums, the restriction of only being able to go out at certain times during the day,…they are not the elements of a game about war. Rather, they are the elements of a game about zombies and once one removes the shallow coat of paint that covers it, it’s impossible not to notice that its setup is identical to that of Dead of Winter or all those “zombie crafting survival” games that spawned in the wake of Don’t Starve.

[end Content Warning].

More broadly, Not Your Mama’s Gamer’s Bianca Batti responds to E. McNeill’s argument that game choices, like history, are effective because they are rooted in truth. Batti agrees that choices in a game resemble history but she complicates the idea that either can be reduced to a universality. Games, like history, are difficult to link to something pure and detached from human relations:

What does it even mean to argue that history is rooted in truth? Whose histories get to be true? Whose histories get to be told? Whose truths are we talking about anyway? And I have some similar questions and concerns when it comes to games—what does it mean to say that a player’s choices are real or true? Can our gameplay choices be unrealistic? Can they be realistic? What makes a choice true? Can choices be false? Whose choices get to be true? Whose choices become false? And who gets to decide?

Less historical but certainly as pertinent to reality, Ed Smith interviews Ryan and Amy Green for Playboy, the couple behind the autobiographic That Dragon, Cancer about their son, Joel:

A Christian family who during their son’s illness turned frequently to God, the Greens do not shy away from discussing religion. Both in conversation and in their game, they recall periods when their faith has been tested, miracles they have witnessed and the times prayers have gone unanswered.

Current Mood: Doom

Rich Stanton covers John Romero’s newest level for Doom, “Tech Gone Bad” 22 years after the game’s original release:

Stanton’s piece details everything from Doom’s legacy, the personalities of the original Id Software team and the personal flourishes that have kept the game relevant, “Tech Gone Bad shows Romero’s still got it and, even more impressively, Doom’s still got it.”

Making Play

Justin Keverne writes a short and sweet gem on his blog about the systems of supplying resources in Super Metroid:

These pipe creatures are organic resupply points, where time can be sacrificed for a complete replenishment of resources. This dynamic is never explained, the act of discovery is a sign that you have developed an understanding of the underlying systems. You are rewarding for showing this understanding of how the game systems functions in a way that is in context and non-patronising.

Gamasutra’s blogs editor, Christian Nutt, reflects on one of his favourite games of 2015, the frequently overlooked Legend of Legacy, whose critics Nutt neatly counters with the following:

Many people who have limited time and love the JRPG genre tend to save what time they do have for the big games, but my philosophy is increasingly becoming: Fuck that. You need to dig deep and figure out which titles you’re genuinely going to enjoy.

Walk Around My Good Intentions

Jason McIntosh shares his feelings about Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and offers a reading of its ending on his blog, Game Shelf.

None of it should have existed. On the aesthetic level alone, it seemed too beautiful and fragile to exist within the medium of video games. I hate how hokey that sounds, and I dislike how it sounds like I call the entire game a masterwork for the ages, because I’m not sure I would.

Plot details abound in the article’s second half but even if that sort of thing is important to you it’s still a strong piece and McIntosh gives plenty of warning for the spoiler-averse.

Returning to another acclaimed game-as-atmospheric-story, Simon Rankin has written an excellent deep reading of Terry Greenbriar, the father in Gone Home whose story is reputed as one of the game’s darkest but is actually one of considerable hope [Content Warning: discussions of child abuse, substance abuse and divorce]:

Terry’s struggles are cast in a new light, and it’s heartbreaking, but Gone Home doesn’t dwell on the abuse itself, so neither will I. What could have manifested as a sad statement on the powerlessness of abuse victims instead becomes a story of Terry’s transition from victim to survivor.

What Show Tells Us

PopMatters’s Moving Pixels editor, G. Christopher Williams,  investigates the connection between feminine heroism and costuming in light of the recent team-up of fashion designer Louis Vuitton and Final Fantasy XIII dev Square-Enix to dress up FFXIII’s heroine, Lightning, in the designer’s newest fashion line.

That which makes a woman “superior or iconic,” like, say, a Marilyn Monroe, is how she appears to others or how she has constructed herself to appear to others, something that can be comfortably achieved in a video game (like…character creation systems of many video games) or in virtual spaces in which we create avatars for ourselves.

Emily Short shares mixed feelings about Read Only Memories, praising its thematic and aesthetic novelty but finding some of the writing lacking on a concrete level.

Also on Gamasutra’s blogs, CJ Payne offers an in-depth look at how Dragon Age: Origins demonstrates several principles of social psychology through its companions.

First, Dragon Age: Origins does an impressive job of making use of the availability heuristic. As the companions are almost always with the player, especially when venturing out into the world, they act as the player’s moral compass, her checks and balances in a way. This affects the game in two ways: decisions made while adventuring (both primary story and side-quests), and companion availability.

View From the Top

Gita Jackson—who is, I’m proud to remind you, Critical Distance’s blogger of the year for 2015—pens a piece for Kotaku on Dwarf Fortress, escapism and life as a millennial under neoliberal austerity.

The point, really, is to build something that lasts. In Dwarf Fortress, “something that lasts,” is often a trial by very literal fire. Even if it doesn’t last very long, you have a real legacy to point at. “Look,” you can say, “I did something.”

I don’t mind saying that not many writers can connect these dots with the skill and humanity that Jackson does.

Wired hosts an article by Jake Muncy about the recent influx of metafictional “games about games”:

Some metafictional games certainly can come off as self-important while still having a lot to offer. The best strive to expand their boundaries and give players genuinely thought-provoking questions.

Sausage Recipes

Zack Gage proposes some changes to IGF’s categorizing scheme to more appropriately celebrate more games in their own context rather than awarding the same few games for the same metric multiple times.

Those interested in games in a less digital and more Jenga-esque form, I suggest you take a look at this interview with Leslie Scott (video), the inventor of Jenga, who shares where she got the game’s name, how she came up with the idea and the global popularity of the world’s least feasible drinking-game.

Re-Strategize

George Weidman of Super Bunnyhop fame covers the current legal climate in Japan around gambling (video) that has, in a roundabout way, prompted the development of a new entry in the King of Fighters series (albeit without the gorgeous pixel art it was once known for).

Gregory Avery-Weir, keeper of the blog Ludus Novus, entertains questions of how strategy optimizes or limits the depth of a game’s systems.

In the book Rules of Play, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman use the term “degenerate strategy” to refer to a dominant strategy which results in the player focusing on one narrow approach to play, making miss out on the full complexity of the game. If one unit type in a strategy game is universally the best choice to use, with no need for another type of unit, that presents a degenerate strategy. The most effective way to play the game is to use that unit at the exclusion of others. And that’s a boring way to play.

Avery-Weir uses X-COM: Enemy Unknown as a lens for his discussion but it’s easy to see a broader application of his article.

Signal Boosting

German speaking games academics take note that the University of Kassel is seeking a professor of games studies in their Department of Visual Communication.

For those on the reading side of games, Unwinnable has shaken up their structure a bit for 2016 and includes a litany of new segments as well as a return of their fabled “theme” pieces. I’ll refer you to their store page where I encourage you to pick up their new issue if for no other reason than Melissa Graf’s gorgeous artwork.

Not convinced? Well there’s over a hundred pages to this issue filled to the brim with the finest quality media criticism that we love so much here at Critical Distance.

Given the impossible task of finding a suitable excerpt from the newest issue I’ve chosen this one from Carli Velocci’s piece on the dialectic between art and the tools that make it:

How intertwined are art and technology? It all seems to go back at least to the invention of photography in the 19th century and even further back to innovation surrounding the printing press. The final product of a creation is heavily influenced by the innovations of the time period and crafts a certain look or feel that can only be achieved with the supplies and tools at hand.

Every End is a New Beginning

It’s no easy task trying to sufficiently round up so much games criticism, so we implore you to bring any you come across to our attention either by email or on Twitter.

And if you’re looking for more games crit, give a listen to our latest podcast wherein Eric Swain interviews game developer and Extra Credits writer James Portnow.

If you’re looking to contribute to one of our monthly features you still have just over a week to submit a piece to our Blogs of the Round Table focusing on the theme of ‘Progress’ or a video to our monthly compilation of critical let’s plays.

Critical Distance is made both by and for the community so if you’d like the projects that we offer take a look at our Patreon page or consider a one-time donation via PayPal.

Finally, it’s my great pleasure to welcome Zoya Street as our new senior curator. I’m sure I speak for everyone else when I say that I look forward to working with you from here onward.