March 27th

Abstract image evoking bird silhouette

I’m almost fully recovered after a pleasant GDC, and feeling energised and inspired. This has been a particularly good week in videogame blogging. In part that’s due to the thrilling discussions coming out of an annual event that brings so many smart people into conversation with one another, but by no means is the event dominating discussions, with some thoughtful pieces published on topics such as how games change as we grow up, how the history of folklore affects fictional worldbuilding, and the social structures of online piracy.

From adolescence to adulthood

Although ideas of games “growing up” or “maturing as a medium” have long-since become clichéd, the conversation itself is developing in surprising ways. These pieces are strengthened by intertwining the design of games with the personal development of their players and creators.

  • Unsupported
    Todd Harper examines the successes and failures in queer inclusivity in the localisation of Fire Emblem Fates, with some surprising insights into the adult children of the game’s heterosexual couplings.
  • Why I Adore ‘Manhunt’, the Quintessential Video Game Nasty (Content warning: descriptions of extreme violence)
    Ed Smith considers how his enjoyment of Rockstar’s least affected festival of violence has changed from adolescence to adulthood.
  • Firewatch shows that yes, you can make games for grown-ups (Video, no captions. Content warning: spoilers for Firewatch, Gone Home, and Cibele)
    Heather Alexandra discusses adolescence and adulthood in games storytelling, with a critical eye on the endings of recent narrative-driven indie titles.
  • Developer Profile: Clarissa Darling
    Todd Mitchell highlights the use of zinester game vignettes to illustrate adolescent problems in Clarissa Explains It All

“As Clarissa became a young adult, game development eventually gave way to her fledgling writing career, disappearing for good early in the final season. Though game dev was not always crucial to the plot, its presence in the show served to introduce young viewers to a practice much less common and much less accessible at the time. In addition, Clarissa’s use of design to explore difficult issues and explain her perspective to those around her demonstrated initiative toward aspirations the real-world game industry still grapples with today.”

GDC

In the wake of the big annual networking marathon, this week there were some critical reflections on the discourse and power dynamics of GDC

“Often times when we are hired for private events, we become the “other”.  We don’t know anyone there outside of the other performers.  We are expected to show up and do our best to entertain the crowd.  Sometimes, the people who hire us miss the mark completely and are a terrible judge of their audience and we end up entertaining for people who would rather us not be there.  It happens, and it happens often. “

From the valley to the tower

Two pieces on the spaces of games this week took very different approaches, with Owen Vince bringing architectural history to bear while Grayson Davis considers the performativity of lifestyle as a kind of placemaking.

“Busy work occupies so much of our lives that, as we grow older, we often become skeptical of games that seem to offer nothing but. Stardew Valley is a game about the small tasks of life, of watering plants, going to the store, checking your mail, and opening letters. But there is a difference between arbitrary busy work and the work that make up the projects of our lives. Important work builds on itself, and busywork just passes time.”

The Division

This tough new MMOFPS has people discussing the cruelty of online multiplayer environments at their most brutal (content warning: descriptions of abuse and violence).

“It’s one thing to take a headshot in PVP or lose a match here and there, but it’s something else altogether to have someone watching over your shoulder the entire time you’re playing, arbitrarily stopping your progress and verbally taunting you.”

From torrents to terror

Some familiar moral quandaries were turned on their heads this week, with unexpected approaches to piracy, politics and psychology.

“I can’t on one hand say that cartoon-ish games decrease shadenfreude while saying it’s junk science that violent games decrease empathy. I think the problem is in the equivocating empathy with sensitivity. You can be desensitized to a media portrayal of violence or gruesome imagery but still feel empathy in a real situation.”

Undertale

If you’ve played Undertale, you know that two of its main strengths are its characters and its morality. Two pieces this week considered these issues, reaching very different conclusions (content warning: spoilers for Undertale).

“Despite containing no blood or explicit violence, this weird indie RPG gets closer to the truth of violence than any other game I’ve seen. The reality of violence is that someone who was there isn’t there any more, that the world becomes deader and quieter because you’ve fundamentally broken a part of it that worked before…”

From legend to lore (narrativity)

Some investigations into the narrative traditions that inspired many of the tropes familiar to games provided fascinating insights into how the structure of a game’s systems relate to the narrative structure of folk tales.

“The retelling of stories that is central to oral tradition allows for endless permutations on a theme. And it’s arguable that writing as a technology has pushed us away from plural understanding because while oral history depends on the memory as well as the temperament of the teller, written texts have a single, determined message. Moon Hunters, with its elliptical storytelling and commitment to complicating simple narrative, seeks to undo the “one way of seeing the world,” just as it rejects “one way to play the game.”

Far Cry Primal

Ubisoft’s cave man romp is inspiring some fascinating deep dives into the early history of human society (content warning: spoilers for Far Cry Primal).

  • Far Cry Primal (video: no captions)
    John Harney interviews the linguists behind the constructed languages used in Far Cry Primal, discussing the theory and practice of language construction and reconstruction, and the role of games in public engagement for academia.
  • Feminist Gaming Matters
    Jay Castello critiques the Eurocentric reading of prehistoric humanity that Far Cry Primal relies upon.

“There’s less to be said for the vaguely “Mesolithic” Izila, because their characterisation hinges less on historical cues. (The Mesolithic era is commonly thought to have begun in the Levant – part of the Middle East – which does further the idea of them being “others” to the presumed white player, though.) The implications of the Udam and their clear Neanderthal coding is more troubling. How many conquests have been justified on the idea that the local population are not only dangerous and taboo (the Udam are repeatedly reported to be cannibals), but literally as a lesser species? Rather than subjugating other humans, Europeans justified themselves as coming up against “barbarians” and “savages.” This is the same justification given to the player and their European based characters in their colonialist romp through Far Cry Primal.”


A quick plug before we wrap up: you might be interested in supporting the latest Feminist Frequency project, on ordinary women in history. More details at Seed & Spark.

And that’s all for this week. As always, you can support Critical Distance with financial contributions (Patreon, Paypal) or link recommendations (twitter, email).